A few weeks ago I was called upon to preach at my father-in-law’s funeral. It was particularly difficult because his death was not expected in any way. He died in a farming accident. As I prepared to preach, I was struck once again by the somewhat paradoxical realities of grief and hope that live together in so many hearts when saints die. I wrestled through the familiar passage in 1 Thessalonians 4 in which Paul writes to instruct and encourage his readers about those who die in the Lord. Paul writes, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thess 4:13–14).
We are all well aware that with death comes grief; however, while death does bring grief, death does not end hope. This is the paradox we face in times of grieving sorrow. Paul doesn’t want those to whom he is writing, with whom we are now included, to be uninformed about death and those who have died. He doesn’t want us to think that death is just the end for a person. He wants us to know there is a reason for hope, even in the face of such a hard providence. However, notice that Paul is not telling them not to grieve. Paul knows that death brings grief.
Death brings grief for several reasons. Death brings grief because it reminds us of our own mortality. When we see someone whom we know come to the end of their life, we’re reminded this is our end as well. The preacher in Ecclesiastes writes,
“It is better to go to the house of mourning
than to go to the house of feasting,
for this is the end of all mankind,
and the living will lay it to heart” (Eccl 7:2).
In addition to that, death brings grief because it brings love to an end. It’s not that we don’t still love the person who has died or that we cease to be aware of the love they had for us, but that mutual love can no longer be expressed. It can’t be given or received, and this is excruciatingly painful. It is more than love lost, it is love unexpressed that serves as a constant reminder of the loss.
Death also brings grief because it’s not how it is supposed to be. We try, at times, to comfort ourselves by saying things like, “Death is just part of life,” or “Death is natural.” However, we know better. Even if we don’t have some grand theological answer for it, we sense this is not how it’s supposed to be.
When things go the way they are supposed to, this kind of grieving pain is not part of the experience. When we sow a field and the spring rains come and the crops grow and the harvest is bountiful, there is no grief. When the herd calves and all the babies and mommas are healthy and strong there is no grief. But when the spring rains are followed by a summer drought and the crops are burned up there is grief because that’s not how it’s supposed to be. Or when a tired momma cow can’t defend her baby from the prowling coyotes because it was born unexpectedly in the middle of the night out from under the watchful eye of the cowboy, there is grief because that is not the way it is supposed to be. We experience grief when things aren’t the way they are supposed to be. But this begs a question. If death is not the way things are supposed to be, then why is it the way things are?
If we go back to the story of creation we find Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and God declaring it all very good. There were two trees of significance, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God had given the tree of life to Adam and Eve that they might eat of its fruit. It was for life that God had created Adam and Eve. Therefore, God warned Adam and Eve saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen 2:16-17). We know where the story goes from there.
Adam and Eve weren’t created for death, but they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and death came into the world. Paul writes of the tragic results of this act in Romans 5, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned“ (Rom 5:12). This means that we are born dead in sin, and we go on sinning because it is our nature to sin just as much as it's a pig’s nature to wallow in the mud.
Death is not the way it is supposed to be, but it is a reality we have to face because you and I and all of creation have been plunged into the corruption of sin. However, while death shouts and screams at us and constantly rears its foul head and taunts us because it knows there is nothing we can do about it, death does not get the final word. Christ does. This is why we can say death brings grief, but it does not end hope.
Paul wants us to know even though we grieve in the face of death, our grief is not because all hope has been lost. If death is a reminder of our mortality, an end of love, a declaration that things are not the way they are supposed to be, how can we possibly say that hope is not lost? On what grounds can we grieve with hope?
Paul continues his thought in 1 Thessalonians stating, “For since we believe that Jesus died” (1 Thess 4:14). The wages of sin is death. However, the Bible clearly teaches that Jesus was without sin. Why then did he die? The Apostle Peter answered that question this way, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit,” (1 Peter 3:18). Christ died to bring us to God. Jesus hung on the cross in our place to pay the penalty of death that we deserved for our sin, to satisfy God’s justice. “For our sake [God] made him to be sin, who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).
The death Christ died was the death people deserved. The wrath he bore was the wrath for our sin. The righteousness that is credited to our account is his. This is why our justification, our being fully pardoned and counted righteous in Christ is entirely of grace. Christ came for sinners like you and me, and he died to reconcile us to God.
But that is not all that Paul said. He added, “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again….” Death did not speak the final word about Christ. He rose again. To be sure, death spoke a word, but it wasn’t the final word. Paul ends his long statement about the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 with these words:
“‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’
‘O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?’”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 15:54-57).
With the resurrection of Christ came the death of death. Sure, it will still thrash about, and like a snake that has been beheaded, it can still, for a moment, strike and deliver another blow. Yet, when it does strike again, it is not gaining the final victory, for that has been secured by Christ. Death may speak, and its voice may sound authoritative and decisive. Nonetheless, it is a mere whimper from the grave, because Christ has risen in victory over sin and death. Death will not speak the final word about you if you are united to Christ by faith. Christ will, and the word he will speak about all who look to him in faith is a word of forgiveness for sin and victory over death.
So Paul continues, “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thess 4:14). With the debt for our sin paid and death conquered, neither sin nor death will speak the final word about any who are found in Jesus Christ. Christ will come again for his people. We will be taken up in glory, and as Paul goes on to say, “The dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thess 4:16). Or, as Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). This promise is why we can grieve with hope.