By Collin Ross
Early in my ministry, I had the privilege of walking alongside a friend as they dealt with the passing of their mother. In the final moments of her life, as the whole family gathered around her bed, each of us experienced the sorrow of death and loss. And yet, improbably, as we shared prayers, memories, and the Lord’s Supper, the predominant emotion filling that cramped room was hope.
The deathbed has long been understood as a place where the veil between heaven and earth is incredibly thin. It’s where the hope that is ours through Christ’s resurrection moves from the theological to the personal. When the human heart truly receives the promises contained in the gospel, not even death can diminish that hope.
This is what Paul aims to communicate to the Christians in Thessalonica as they grieve the death of their friends. He is responding to a specific question that has arisen out of the Thessalonians’ grief: will those who have died miss out on the blessings of Christ’s return?
At the heart of this question is the thing that makes death unbearable. The primary pain of death is the separation it causes. One of the first places the grieving mind goes is to the future celebrations that our loved ones will miss. They won’t be there for the weddings, graduations, or birthdays. The single greatest celebration that the Thessalonians awaited was the day when Jesus would return to restore the fullness of God’s justice to the ends of the earth; but now, they wondered whether there’d be empty chairs at that party.
Simply put, Paul’s answer is a resounding, “No!” Believers who have died will be raised to life in order that they, too, can participate with the living in the celebration of Christ’s return. Christians have an abiding hope even in the face of death, because the “Great Separator” has been defeated by the death and resurrection of Jesus!
Paul paints an incredible picture of Christ’s return, drawn from prominent scenes in the Old Testament. Recalling the great descent of Yahweh to Mount Sinai to meet with Israel (Exodus 19:16–19) and the glorious ascent of Yahweh to Zion’s throne (Psalm 47:5), so too will Jesus come down to His people and take up the throne of creation. And greeting Christ at His arrival will be His people, the living and the resurrected, together once again. As Paul says, “Then we who are still alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (1Thessalonians 4:17).
It is right and appropriate to grieve the death of our loved ones. Jesus grieved, as did Paul. But in the midst of grief, we have an abiding hope. There is a great reunion on the horizon, and our joy will overflow as our separation from Christ and one another will be ended forever. Let us grieve, but let us also hope.