COMMENTARY ON FIRST THESSALONIANS
" 4:13 But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus." NKJV (1 Thess 4:13-14)
It is important that believers have their feet on solid ground concerning the normalities of life: for example, suffering, temptation, and death. If we are confused in these areas, life can become unbearable, and will nearly always move us to speak and act foolishly. We now enter into a brief section of this book that deals with an enormous body of truth-the return of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Spirit's intention is not to provide a thorough analysis of Christ's return. Rather, He will touch upon one aspect of it-an area in which the Thessalonians lacked understanding. It is the manner of the Spirit to approach truth in this way. While it is important for believers to have a good grasp of doctrine, it is especially vital that they be able to see human experience through true doctrine. God spoke of "My doctrine" (Deut 32:2), and Jesus did as well (John 7:16). That Divine doctrine is like a pane of glass through which both God and Christ are perceived. We are also to look at the world, ourselves, and our circumstances through the pane of God and Christ's doctrine. This doctrine is associated with the Scriptures, which have been inspired by God and are thus "profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Tim 3:16-17). Our text provides a most excellent example of both "doctrine" and "instruction in righteousness." It further deals with an area of life that is common to all believers.
I WOULD NOT HAVE YOU TO BE IGNORANT
" 4:13a But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren . . . " The world says "ignorance is bliss," but it is lethal in spiritual life. It is true, there are secret things that belong to God, concerning which we are kept in the dark. But the things that have been revealed must be approached as necessities-things to be known and understood. Scripture states it this way, "The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law" NKJV (Deut 29:29). Those sitting at the feet of Jesus are particularly blessed in this regard. Jesus once said to His disciples, "Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God" (Mark 4:11). The things that have been revealed by God, and the gift of knowing the mystery of Divine purpose and rule, are the areas in which ignorance is out of order. Unless the individual is a little child, or has been deprived of the powers of reason, such things are to be known.
Ignorance involves a lack of both knowledge and understanding. Either the facts are not known, or their significance has eluded the individual. Both conditions can exist at the same time, and the latter can be found even when the facts are known. It is further possible to be ignorant from the human point of view, yet wise in the eyes of the Lord (Acts 4:13). Our text speaks of being uninformed of, and unfamiliar with, things pertaining to life and godliness. This kind of ignorance is not necessary, and always handicaps those having it.
When the Jews were "ignorant of God's righteousness," they did not seek it. Rather, they sought to establish their own (Rom 10:3). The Spirit does not want us to be "ignorant of the mystery . . . that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in" (Rom 11:25). The example of the Israelites, who were delivered from bondage, yet did not enter into the promised land, is something about which we are not to be ignorant (1 Cor 10:1-7). In the midst of their spiritual juvenility, and even carnality, Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be ignorant" (1 Cor 12:1). We are further told that Satan can gain the advantage over us if we are "ignorant of his devices" (2 Cor 2:11). Peter pleads with us, "But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day" (2 Pet 3:8).
There is a thread of reasoning found in the Apostolic writings that reveals a discontent with ignorance in God's people. It was always seen as a detriment, threatening their well being. Ignorance is one of the things that contributed to our lostness outside of the Son. A certain futility resulted from this lack of knowledge and understanding, even estranging us from God. As it is written, "the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart" NKJV (Eph 4:18). The rapid spread and dominance of sin is traced to foolish hearts being "darkened," or deprived of understanding (Rom 1:21-22). The very way that Satan captures and rules over people is by blinding their minds, so the glorious light of the Gospel cannot shine on them (2 Cor 4:4).
Now that Christ has put away the sin of the world in His death, and been exalted to the right hand of God, ignorance is no longer tolerable. Too much has been revealed, and the issues are too critical for believers to remain in a state of ignorance. Perhaps the words spoken to the Athenians would be in order in many churches of our land: "Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead" (Acts 17:30-31).
In my judgment, the dominance of spiritual ignorance within the professed body of Christ is a most serious situation. Even among religious leaders, an astounding level of ignorance prevails-a fundamental lack of understanding concerning the nature and content of the Gospel of Christ. Fervent prayers must be raised for the church, that God would give her "the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him" (Eph 1:17). There is a crying need to "be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding" (Col 1:9). Solemnly we are admonished, "do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is" (Eph 5:17). Among other things, that means God has put understanding within our reach through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
Any person who preaches or teaches in the name of Jesus is to have an intense interest in the understanding of the people. While pressure is often put upon spiritual leaders to know the people, their real commission is to bring the people to know God, and to have an understanding of His truth. While that does not exclude personal acquaintance with the people, it does place such knowledge in a strictly secondary position. Eternal advantages are realized when our understanding of the purpose of God is brought to maturity.
" 13b . . . concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope." The point now addressed is not the cornerstone of the Gospel. Rather, this is an area where the Thessalonians lacked understanding. That lack of understanding was the direct result of a deficient view of the Gospel of Christ. With the Thessalonians, that deficiency was largely due to their spiritual infancy. Yet, because of the debilitating effects of this kind of ignorance, the Spirit leads the Apostle to clarify the issue.
FALLEN SLEEP. This is faith's view of death, and pertains to the body. When Lazarus "died," Jesus said, "Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up" NKJV (John 11:11). Unacquainted with the kingdom manner, the disciples reasoned, "Lord, if he sleeps he will get well." However, the Spirit informs us, "Jesus spoke of his death." When the time came for Moses to die, the Lord said to him, "Behold, thou shalt sleep with thy fathers" (Deut 31:16). Believing he was near death, Job reasoned, "for now shall I sleep in the dust" (Job 7:21). Daniel spoke of those who "sleep in the dust of the earth" (Dan 12:2). When Stephen was stoned to death, the Spirit says, "And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep" (Acts 7:60). Paul refers to David's death as when he "fell asleep" (Acts 13:36). Some of a group of five hundred brethren who saw the resurrected Lord simultaneously were said to have "fallen asleep" when Paul wrote to the Corinthians (1 Cor 15:6).
There is a complete generation that will not experience death in the ordinary manner. It is the generation that "are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord" (1 Thess 4:15). Of that number it is said, "We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed" (1 Cor 15:51).
SOUL SLEEPING. Some have taken these texts and constructed a "soul sleeping" theology. They teach there is no consciousness after death until the resurrection of the dead. This teaching is more prominent than one might think. It is buttressed with references taken largely from the Old Covenant Scriptures. "For in death there is no remembrance, of thee: in the grave who shall give thee thanks?" (Psa 6:5). "The dead praise not the LORD, neither any that go down into silence" (Psa 115:17). "For the grave cannot praise thee, death can not celebrate thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth" (Isa 38:18). "There is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest" (Eccl 9:10).
These, and other such, texts are not intended to define death. They rather discourage the notion that men can waste their lives in hopes of recovering themselves after they die. Jesus would put it this way: "I must work the works of Him that sent Me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work" (John 9:4). The idea is that we have a work to do while we are in the body, and are to apply ourselves to that work while we have any breath.
REFERS TO THE BODY. The sleeping in question does not refer to man's unseen part, but to his body. That is the part that is put into the grave, or into the earth. We know the human spirit is neither in the grave nor unconscious. Jesus spoke of a rich man, Lazarus, and Abraham - all alive and sensitive after they died (Lk 16:19-31). Moses, who had died, was seen on the mount of transfiguration talking with Jesus (Matt 17:3). John was given to see "the souls of them that were slain for the word of God." They cried out with a loud voice, were answered, given provision, and told to rest (Rev 6:9-11).
Death remained largely a mystery until Jesus came. Some few saints like David and Job had hope in death, but that was not the norm. Only after Jesus was raised from the dead was the veil lifted that shrouded the experience of death. Thus it is written that Jesus "abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel" (2 Tim 1:10).
ANTICIPATING RESURRECTION. The body is said to "sleep" because it will be raised from the dead. Its inactivity is only temporal. Even Job, in spiritually primitive times, sensed this. "So man lieth down, and riseth not: till the heavens be no more, they shall not awake, nor be raised out of their sleep" (Job 14:12). Just as surely as Lazarus' body "slept" until Jesus raised him, so the bodies of those who have died will sleep until they are raised.
THAT YOU SORROW NOT. Death-particularly that of the people of God-is attended by sorrow. Israel wept for thirty days when Moses died (Deut 34:8). Devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and "made great lamentation over him" (Acts 8:2). Those in Christ, however, do not sorrow "as others which have no hope" in death. Our separation is temporary. Those who only hope "in this life" sorrow in a special way - a way that has no sun of righteousness. Paul is now writing to move the saints away form the world's view of death. He will provide some insights that will cause us to see death more clearly.
WALKING PROPERLY AND LACKING NOTHING
" 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus." How frequently believing the Gospel is the real issue! Here is a matter some may imagine is unrelated to the good news and salvation. The Gospel, however, affirms the resurrection of Jesus, and our own as well. As it is written, "And God hath both raised up the Lord, and will also raise up us by his own power" (1 Cor 6:14). "Knowing that he which raised up the Lord Jesus shall raise up us also by Jesus, and shall present us with you" (2 Cor 4:14). It is tragic that contemporary believers hear very little about the resurrection!
IF WE BELIEVE. Here are the pivotal realities faith grasps: Jesus died and rose again. This is not something we do once for all, but is the continual activity of faith. Thus believers are told, "That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation" (Rom 10:9-10). The belief of the Gospel of Christ is not a simplistic matter. As we will find, there are many implications in the Gospel, one of which is our own resurrection. Believing that Jesus was raised from the dead has a direct bearing on our view of death.
The Thessalonians had believed the Gospel, turning from idols to "serve the living and true God; and to wait for His Son from heaven" (1 Thess 1:9). Earnestly longing for Christ's return, they had surmised that those who had died would not participate in that grand event. Apparently, they felt only those who were "alive and remain" would see the Lord return and be gathered to Him. Thus, when some of their number died, they lamented not only because they were no longer among them, but because they thought they were going to miss out on the coming of the Lord. Their hearty embrace of the truth of Christ's return clashes sharply with the lethargic church of our day, who speaks and knows little of His return.
The promise attached to this verse relates to the joyous participation of the whole church in the return of Christ. It does not speak of a secret rapture, as some teach, as though only believers will be aware of His return. That is even more foolish than the notion that those who had died would themselves miss the consummation of the ages.
GOD WILL BRING THEM WITH JESUS. Notice, the text does not say Jesus will bring those who have departed with Him, but that "GOD" will bring them. God is the One who will send Jesus back, unveiling Him in all of His glory before an assembled universe. It is the Father's work to "show" His glorified Son publicly. As it is written, "Which in His times He shall show, who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords" (1 Tim 6:15). It is in this sense that the Father "will send Jesus," (Acts 3:20), who will take us unto Himself, that where He is, there we may be also (John 14:3).
There is a twofold sense in which God "will bring" with Jesus those believers who have died. Our focus is upon those who are in Christ Jesus: "fallen asleep in Jesus." Being "absent from the body," they are "present with the Lord" (2 Cor 5:8). The precise nature of that presence is not known. It is vastly superior to the fellowship they had with Jesus while yet in the body, but inferior to what they will enjoy in "the ages to come."
God will bring back their spirits with Jesus, just as surely as He brought back Moses and Elijah to talk with Jesus when He was transfigured. His return will be accompanied by the glory of the Father (Matt 16:27), all of His own glory (Matt 25:31), the glory of the holy angels (Lk 9:26), the vast multitude of the angels themselves (Matt 25:31), and the "spirits of just men made perfect" (Heb 12:23). Presently, these spirits are alive, for God is "not the God of the dead, but of the living" (Matt 22:32). The world of the ungodly will face the very people they opposed and maligned when God brings them back with Jesus!
God will raise their bodies from the dead. While the saved are in this world, they are not, in a sense, whole persons. They have a regenerated spirit and an unregenerate body. Those who have died are with the Lord, yet do not yet inhabit their resurrection bodies. But the hour is coming when the spirits of the redeemed will join with their redeemed bodies in glorious public identity with the Lord Jesus. The voice of the Son of man will shout all bodies out of the graves, and those with Jesus will come forth "unto the resurrection of life" (John 5:28-29). What a rich consolation to ponder this grand event!
For now, those who have died are themselves "with the Lord" while their bodies are decaying. However, because they embraced the Gospel of Christ, they died, or "fell asleep," in Jesus. I can think of no more noble ambition than to die in Christ. It is no wonder a voice from heaven told John, "Write: 'Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on'" (Rev 14:13).