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 Thessalonians 4:13-14
Sooner or later, you will face grief as a loved one leaves this life. The question is not whether you will grieve; the question is how.
Some of the Thessalonians were confused about the return of Jesus Christ and the resurrection of the dead. Their lack of understanding was causing distress. How were they supposed to think about fellow Christians who had died before Jesus returned? Where were these Christians now, and what would become of them?
Paul begins by reminding believers of the distinction between God’s people and the rest of mankind, “who have no hope.” We were once like everyone else; we should “remember that [we] were at that time separated from Christ … having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). Now, though, we have been redeemed and transformed. We have been brought from hopelessness to hope. This change ought to be a great encouragement to us. It is this living personal faith that distinguishes us from the “others.”
Additionally, in referring to “those who are asleep,” Paul emphasizes the temporary nature of death for the believer; it is not a permanent condition. Yet while the metaphor of sleep helps us to grapple with what will happen to our bodies in the moment of death, it does not explain the totality of what happens to the soul. It is not intended to convey the idea that the soul is unconscious in the interim period between death and resurrection. Jesus plainly taught that after death there would be an instantaneous awareness of happiness or pain (see, for instance, Luke 16:22-24). It is clear in Scripture that death brings the believer immediately into a closer, richer, fuller experience of Jesus (23:42-43; Philippians 1:21-24).
This focus on death’s temporary nature informs our understanding of Christian grief. For the grieving unbeliever, death brings only the dreary wail of despair and a deep emptiness that no amount of wishful thinking or resorting to cliché can fill. For the believer, there is genuine, tearful sorrow, but it should always be accompanied by an exalting psalm of hope, for when the Lord returns, He will “bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” A Christian’s funeral is not a time to say goodbye forever but to say, “See you again.” The absence of your loved one is temporary; the reunion will be permanent.
When life’s most puzzling questions tempt us to despair, we can find comfort in knowing that God’s word is sufficient for all things, including our understanding of death. Take these verses to heart and imprint them on your memory, for the day will come when you need to cling to them. And make this your prayer: “Lord Jesus, help me to become a student of the Book, to no longer live with confusion or uneasiness but to be filled with Your knowledge as one who resides in Your company, that I might live and grieve with hope.”