Studies on 1 Thessalonians 4:13
Paul here begins to address a question which I think all of us need to address ourselves. He begins to address the topic of hope. And it’s important to me to note this. See, as we read this letter, and all of Scripture, it’s so easy to dig deeper and deeper and discover all of these hidden theological doctrines, some of which even the humble apostle may blush at, since we may find things contained within that he didn’t even put there. But, as we do that, we tend to lose sight of a very important element, the humanity involved. See, Jesus didn’t tell us that “by your doctrine, they will know that you are My disciples,” but rather, “by your love.” And, that’s an important point to mention because of one of the current trends in our culture. Whenever I discuss theology, there’s an old adage that I like to quote. “Can’t see the forest for the trees.” Well, so often in our studies of Scripture, we skip the forest, bypass the trees, ignore the branches and go straight to the leaves; theological magnifying glass, protractor, and calculator in hand, devising formulas and equations that can discover the “X” where “X” is the answer to all of the hidden mysteries of God. We pridefully elevate our intellect to the level that we have determined to be equal with the divine and immediately determine that with the increase of knowledge comes spiritual maturity. And the deeper we dig, the more mature we feel we have become. We so often forget Paul’s admonishment that “knowledge puffs up” (1 Corinthians 8:1) or Jesus’ very lesson that “unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3). Remember that Jesus revealed Himself to the shepherds, not to the theologians or the priests or the Scribes, but rather to those who would accept with wonder, as little children, the miracle that He was. Silouan the Athonite teaches us that “no matter how much we study, it is not possible to know God unless we live according to His commandments, for God is not known by science, but by the Holy Spirit. Many philosophers and learned men came to the belief that God exists, but they did not know Him. It is one thing to know that God exists, and another to know God.”
See, when we read this letter to the Church in Thessalonica, it’s easy for us to forget that it is a real letter written to real people. It is a letter that was written to a body of believers who were under relentless persecution. And Paul here turns his sights to the despondency that would soon follow. We have to remember how tight knit of a community that the Church was (and still is called to be). This wasn’t just the people that you went and visited with for an hour a week in a building, these disciples were family. In Acts, we read that “all who believed had all things in common and sold their possessions and goods and divided them among all, as anyone had need. So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, they ate their food with gladness…praising God and having favor with all the people.” (Acts 2:44-47). Now, bearing that in mind, don’t think of these persecutions as afflicting those whom you see an hour a week, whose names you may know if they’ve been in the same congregation for a year or so. Think in terms of those you hold dear; your best friends, your families. Remember, a lot of these people lost their families because of their faith, so the Church became their family. The man next to them became their brother, the elder woman became their mother, the children became their children. So, imagine your best man being executed for his religious beliefs. Imagine your daughter being stoned to death before your eyes for refusing to renounce the name of Jesus. Think about sitting to break bread with the rest of your family and gazing around at the empty chairs at the table, where you can still see the smiles on the faces of those who are no longer there to enjoy those meals with you. This is what Paul is addressing here. How easy it is to think those thoughts and to drift into despondency, into sorrow.
And, what does he say in response to that? “Are you so without understanding that you are enchained to this sadness as those who have no hope?” Notice, even his wording in the verse is carefully planned. He refers to those who have “fallen asleep” rather than “passed away” or “died.” It is because for those of us in Christ, death itself has no power, it holds no fear, no dominion over us. That is the very hope of the resurrection. The very hope of our faith. But, when we afflict ourselves with that sorrow, we are no longer acting as those who truly believe that, but rather as those who do not believe. If we truly believe in what we claim, then a loved one falling asleep in the Lord would not be the cause for lamentation, but rather for celebration.
See, when we are overcome with grief for someone, it is for one of three reasons. Either it is prideful selfishness, we mourn for the loss of their contribution in our lives; it is guilt, there are things that we wished we had said or done but never managed to find the “right time” to say or do them; or it is unbelief, we claim these beliefs, and may even intellectually ascent to the knowledge of them, but we’ve never taken the time to make them “real” to us. And more often than not, it’s the latter of the three that is the cause of it. When we read Scripture, we’ve taken this textbook approach, with all of these problem solving riddles contained therein, and the people in it become our examples. We lose the sense of humanity when we read about the lives of the saints in the Holy Scriptures, and because of that, we lose the very reverence that is required to make it real. I’ve been in services where the Scriptures are treated as holy and sacred, and then I’ve been in services where it felt more like “okay, open your God book, take out your pens, and let’s get to work.” We need to approach the Scripture for what it really and truly is, it is the very words of our God given to us to learn and know about Him. When we read Scripture, do we think of it that way? When we try to squeeze our daily reading plan into our lunch break, are we truly showing the reverence that we would if we, like Isaiah, were so blessed as to stand before Him and He speak to us? Or do we think of it as just another book to read?
See, I just can’t help but feel that until we are able to return to this idea of, the Bible isn’t just a book, there’s shouldn’t be a “top Bibles of 2017” list. Until we can get away from that idea and remember what the Bible truly is, then nothing in it is going to be “real” to us. And until we can do that, then we aren’t going o be able to fully believe all of it on the level that we are called to. We’ll sit around and argue different hypotheses about what angle what author was writing from and what metaphor equals what spiritual lesson, but we’re never going to be able to fully apply it to our lives. We can mentally imagine what it would look like, but we’ll never be able to fully allow ourselves to live it. When someone falls asleep in the Lord, it’s easy to say that we would react a certain way, but to actually do it is something that can only happen when we accept that the words of Scripture are fully true.
Too often in our lives, we elevate our loved ones to the level of being our security in this life. We feel safe and comfortable with them, rather than in God alone. And ultimately, when those people are taken from us, we end up rejecting God or cursing Him. We can’t understand why “God would allow something so horrible to happen,” as though death were the worst thing that could happen to us. When we look into the Scriptures, we see in Job the response that the Lord cherishes. Having just heard the news that his children had fallen asleep, we read of him that “he fell to the ground and worshiped, saying…’the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. As it seemed good to the Lord, so also it came to pass. Blessed be the name of the Lord.'” (Job 1:20-21). The Lord was pleased with Job’s reaction, because rather than cursing the Lord for taking away the gift of children that the Lord had given him, Job thanked the Lord for the time that he had with them.
When I think about our faith in these times, I think of the gospel. In the gospel, we read of a man who was told that his daughter had died. And we read that “when Jesus heard it, He said, ‘Do not be afraid, only believe and she will be made well…now all wept and mourned for her, but He said, ‘do not weep, she is not dead, but sleeping.” (Luke 8:50,52). We must also remember this when those whom we hold dear fall asleep in the Lord, that death has no dominion over we who are in Christ, and those who have departed have not “died,” but are merely sleeping. They are sleeping and in the arms of our beloved Lord, comforted beyond anything that we could ever imagine. See, in the resurrection lies our very hope, our very faith. We must, as Paul tells the Thessalonians, not react to these things as do those who do not believe, unless we ourselves do not truly believe.
Our hearts will lead us astray if we allow them to. They will lead us into despondency, into sorrow, into depression, into the depths of human depravity if we allow it. When the world tells us to “follow our hearts,” it is because that is the world’s response to anything, which therefore makes it not ours. That is why the apostle warns us to “bring every thought captive into the obedience of Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5). Because, unless we are living according to the commandments of Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, then we are living according to the flesh and the laws of sin. Yes, our hope does lie in the leaves of Scripture, and the branches, the trees and the forests. In fact, all of creation declares the glory of our Beloved Lord, and we must learn to accept all of it and take all of it in. We can never be so busy gleaning from the branches that we neglect the whole of the forest. We must study Scripture to find all of the doctrines that it contains, but we must never become so lost in those leaves that we forget the forest, the overall message. So many of the lessons that we need to learn from Scripture are hidden from us in plain sight, and, in our own foolish wisdom, we become so knowledgeable that we become ignorant. We look so deeply that we become blind.
And ultimately, we must test ourselves. In prayer and meditation, looking into Scripture and unto the Church, and we must find; do we truly believe? Do we truly believe in everything that the Scriptures teach us? The answer to that question will alter our faith, our reactions to circumstances, our behaviors towards others, our very lives. If we believe that hell is real, and that it is as it is described in Scripture, then why would we not do everything to get people to turn away from it? If we truly believe that the Lord will provide, then why do we cling to so many material things? If we know that the resurrection is true, then why are we so quick to mourn those who are no longer amongst us in this life? If we truly believe that God loves us, then why are we so quick to deny and fight against His commandments? Is our faith real, do our beliefs rule our lives? Or do we just mentally acknowledge those beliefs and go about our day?
May the grace of the Lord be with you, my beloved family.