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Online Text Sermon - Comfort in Bereavements, 1 Thessalonians ch.4 vv.13-18

PreacherRev. Maurice Roberts, Inverness
Sermon TitleComfort in Bereavements
Text1 Thessalonians ch.4 vv.13-18
Sermon ID299

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"But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words" (1 Thessalonians 4, 13-18).

The first thing to be said is that these words form a clear section. They are a very wonderful portion of the Word of God. If you would like a title for the section as a whole I would offer you this: "the Christian's comfort in bereavement". However, that itself needs to be explained. The bereavement I am talking about is when we lose a Christian friend or relation. This section deals with the subject of how we are to cope with bereavement when we lose a Christian relation or a Christian friend by death. There is nothing said here directly about losing a non-Christian friend, or a non-Christian relation. So the comfort we have is a comfort when we are bereaved of those who have loved and served the Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

The apostle then brings us face-to-face with this all-important subject of death, how to cope with it and now we are to think of it. You will know that sadly there are not many people in our modern society who are thinking about death. We wish there were more people who would remember death. The mentality of most people in society concerning death is that they don't want to know, they don't want to think; their philosophy is that of the ostrich: when you speak of it they try to bury their heads in the sand and pretend it won't come to them. There is nothing surer, surely; nothing is more certain than that every one of us one day will die. Before that indeed, we are going to lose friends and relations. Some of those will be believers - Christians. That brings us straight in to our subject. This is a lovely passage of Scripture. It is full of comfort and full of teaching.

What is meant by death, what is death and how are we to face it? According to the Bible there are three forms of death. There is what we call spiritual death; secondly, eternal death and thirdly, temporal death. When we speak of spiritual death we refer to the condition in which all mankind is born: we are born evil - without the love of God in our hearts. That condition remains until a person is converted to faith in Jesus Christ. Our conversion is the end of our spiritual death and it occurs as soon as we put our trust in Christ.

The second form of death - eternal death - is the tragic state of those who die physically without Christ. This is dealt with in the next chapter but I am not dealing with it directly now. When the non-Christian enters into physical death he is in the state in which he suffers eternal punishment. That is a terrible thing for you to have to hear and a terrible thing for me to have to say, however, it is the way the Bible explains what happens to the non-Christian - he will suffer eternal punishment.

Our subject today is the happier subject of the temporal death of believers. Temporal death is what in ordinary speech we call death. What happens in temporal death is the soul leaves the body. The soul is an invisible thing that dwells in the body. We have two constituent parts to us: the soul which we have as our most important part and the body. The body is a sort of tent or house or tabernacle in which the soul lives as long as we are in this life. Jesus refers to these two parts to man in various places, one of which is this: "Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more they can do. But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him," (meaning God) "which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell" (Luke 12, 4-5). So there you have another evidence of this same truth. We are to look at ourselves as having two parts - a soul and a body. The more important by far is the soul. So at physical death a Christian enters the new experience in which his soul leaves his body. Jesus himself gives an example of this. When He was on the cross, we are told, He gave up His soul to God; He breathed out His soul to God - deliberately in His case. We can't do this because we have no power over the soul as He did, but deliberately when He had finished His work He gave up His soul to God. His human soul then went into heaven and His human body remained on the cross and was taken down and buried.

The Bible refers to the death of a Christian as a 'sleep': "But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him" (text). I have to explain to you what is meant by the use of this word 'sleep' in reference to the death and the dead state of a Christian. It does not mean that a Christian in his soul enters into a condition in which he is unconscious. No, the soul of a believer is conscious after death; it thinks and feels and remembers but it is in glory with God. The idea of 'sleep' is that it is nothing to be afraid of; it is nothing to worry about. The death of a non-Christian is something to be afraid of and the death of a non-Christian is something which causes us deep concern. The death of a believer is something which is gentle and kindly and which is like a sleep - it is an illustration. The soul enters into another place - the soul of a believer is at rest. The soul of a believer in death is with the Lord Jesus Christ in glory and so the Bible says, "Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them" (Revelation 14, 13). The things they have done for God follow them to the Judgement day.

I have to point out to you that we do not need to be anxious about the death of Christians. We do not need to be unduly upset for them. I remember once being in the home of non-Christian family in the south of Scotland. The head of the family - the husband and father - had died. The elders and I were there for family worship that night. I will never forget that one of the daughters in that family screamed when she saw the elders and me coming in because she realised the finality of death: she would never see her father again. The penny dropped, as we say - the finality, the seriousness, the hopelessness, the agony. The matter came home so forcibly and poignantly to her that she screamed and was almost inconsolable with hysterics. What Paul says is that when we who are Christians see our loved ones who are Christians die, we do not need to enter into that state of hysterics. Listen to Paul's words: "I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope" (text). There is no need to panic at the death therefore of a Christian. There is no need for you to break your heart when your husband who was a Christian, or your wife who was a Christian, or daughter or son who are Christians, or your parents who are Christians, or Christian friends - enter into death. Because, says Paul, something has happened which is of no cause for anxiety.

What does happen to a Christian at death? I have already said what causes death is a separation of the soul from the body. The body without a spirit is dead says the Bible. So what constitutes the difference between being alive and being dead is this. When we are alive the soul is still in its own home, in its body. But sooner or later God will call the soul away from the body; in the case of a Christian, God will call the soul to heaven. As soon as that happens, the body stops moving, the heart stops beating, the brain stops working. All the parts of the body suddenly freeze and go cold and the body turns back again to clay. The person looks different in death. You can recognise the face but it is different - like a piece of Plasticine; it has that pale look of death about it, that is because the soul is gone.

You might ask me, "How long does it take the soul to leave the body and get to heaven?" It takes some hours to get from here to America and yet heaven is far, far, far further away than America is. You can't get to America in much less than six hours so how long does it take the soul when it leaves the body to get to heaven. I can tell you because the Bible tells us it takes this long (snapping fingers). As soon as the soul leaves the body it is in heaven - instantaneously: "To be absent from the body," says the Bible, "and to be present with the Lord" (2 Corinthians 5, 8). It takes a split second, the twinkling of an eye. The angels have a wonderful ministry to perform at that time. They are the ones who carry the soul into the glory of God - it is their commission from God. You see this with Lazarus in Luke 16. There we are told that Lazarus died and the angels came. They were already fluttering about him where he died. The angels were gathered round waiting. As soon as his soul left his body they accompanied his soul into glory because he was a believer, he was a godly man. He had a terrible life here below - he had neither money nor health nor friends nor kindness nor comfort. He had a miserable life but all that was forgotten in a moment as soon as the angels came and escorted his soul to be in the presence of God.

That state we call the intermediate state; it is the state of the soul in between death and the end of the world. We are coming in a moment to talk about the end of the world and what happens then because the apostle talks about it in this very passage a little bit later. We have to talk about the end of the world because that concludes the logic of the thought. Before we come to that let me say to you that as soon as a soul dies and enters into heaven it is called the intermediate state. It is called that because it is the state of a soul in between life in this world and life after the return of Christ in the full glory of heaven. I have to point out that when the soul of a believer dies and enters into glory and heaven and paradise, it is a condition that is not the same as the full glory of heaven as it will be at the end of the world when our blessed Lord returns to gather us out of it. It's a sort of glory stage but not the full glory which will be reserved for the coming back of our Saviour from heaven at the end of time.

What about the believer then in the intermediate stage. What happens to him there? For everything that happens to the believer in the state of death is good and wonderful - far better than anything he has ever had here. For one thing, as soon as his soul leaves the body the soul becomes perfect in holiness. The best Christian in the world is not perfect and we are all too aware of that about ourselves. We have that awful thing that we call 'indwelling sin'. Even the very best of Christians have this - either short-tempered or given to gossip or trying to be prickly or over-sensitive or something, we have all got something, every one of us. We hate ourselves for it but I can tell you that as soon as the soul of a Christian leaves the body, the soul has no more infirmities, no more weaknesses and no more sin: the soul is perfect in holiness. And there it immediately goes in to the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. There they see Him for the first time - what a thought! I sometimes ask myself what my first words will be to Him. I have no idea what I will be able to say to Him. It is worth thinking about that: what are you going to say to Him when you see Him? So the believer's soul comes into the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ and they will see Him, talk to Him and be full of love for Him. He will be full of love for the souls of his people and He will gather them together. These are the ones He loves so much that He was not ashamed to die for them and to shed His blood for them. He delights to see the souls of His people coming safe home to glory.

Another thing we say is that all those who have died in Christ will be together - they are all there together: Abraham, Isaac, David, Moses, the apostle Paul, John Calvin, Martin Luther and many others, some of whom we have known. It will be a wonderful time. However, although the soul will be perfect, it will not be complete because part of us is still not yet in glory and that part of us is the body. The soul has now left the body and gone to be with the Lord - which is far better than this life - but the body is not yet in heaven. The body which God gave us is going to be in heaven in the end. So what happens to it is this: the body is taken and it is put in to the earth. The Bible's way of dealing with our dead bodies is to bury them, we shouldn't burn them. Cremation is not something we ought to do to our bodies - it is far too stern, far too severe. Our bodies are precious. They don't belong to us anyway, in the fuller sense. They do in some sense but not in the higher sense; our bodies belong to Jesus. He died for our bodies. He died that the whole Christian should be in heaven - the soul and the body. We have no business to burn our own bodies or the bodies of Christians because they belong to Christ. In a sense you may say it doesn't matter if you burn them as it won't make any difference to the way in which they will get to heaven in the end but out of respect for the way the Bible gives us knowledge of these things, when our loved ones die we should bury them in the ground. This is what happens in the Bible to Christian people when they die. Take the example, for instance, of Stephen. Devout men we are told came and made great lamentations over Stephen and then they buried him. This reminds us, although we are not to sorrow as others without hope, we do sorrow, and when people die we must have an appropriate seriousness.

I never forget once attending a funeral in a church. It was not a Free Church of Scotland but a different denomination. A Christian person had died. There wasn't any spirit of mourning at all. The whole service was taken up by saying what a good woman she was and all the good things she had done. There wasn't a tear in anyone's eye as far as I could see: nobody was sorrowing, nobody was weeping. That was wrong. Of course we are to sorrow; of course we are to weep; of course we are to mourn. Devout men made great lamentation over Stephen. There is a good example we have in Scripture. It means that we don't sorrow like those who have no hope, that's the point. We don't sorrow like those that are in despair. We don't wail and howl like those without hope.

In the Resurrection day then, both the soul and the body will come together again. It is a wonderful mystery but it is exactly the teaching of Scripture that when you put a Christian's body into the grave, you know what happens: eventually the worms will eat it and it will return to dust again. If you were to open the box one hundred years later you would only see the bones. The soft heart and the hair would just have disintegrated. After a thousand years you still see some of the bones but they wouldn't be anything but dust. All that dust is precious to Christ. Every atom of a Christian's body is precious to Christ and he knows where it is, even though we don't. If you open a coffin a thousand years later and a Christian was buried inside you would see the skeleton perhaps but nothing else. But Christ knows where every part of the body is; it all belongs to Him. He has paid the price for the salvation of the whole body as well as the soul. In the end of the world, He'll reform the body. Don't ask me how - it's all miracle, all power, all divine, all supernatural, all the glorious working of God. He will reconstitute the body, and the soul which has been for these many years in heaven will immediately come back into that same body - not a different body but the same one, now reconstituted. That body will come forth from the grave; all the bodies of Christians will come forth from the grave. I will say a little more about that just in a moment. That is what Paul here is teaching.

Let me stress my friends, as soon as the Christian's soul leaves the body and leaves this life, it is at peace - no more worry, hard work, fear, sickness or temptation. The soul has now become victorious with Christ. We have entered in to His victory. We are beyond death, beyond sin, beyond the devil who can't touch us any more. No more wicked thoughts - nothing to worry or try us. That is why we are told in the Bible "to depart is far better".

A Christian's life is getting better at every point. A Christian's life in this world is good. After death a Christian's life in glory is better, and after the Resurrection day, best of all. A Christian's life is a wonderful thing even here. There are all the cares, worries, burdens, fears and temptations but better after death and better still after the resurrection. The Christian is going from one degree of glory to another, improving all the time; O happy Christian. The happiest people in the world are Christians. The happiest people on earth are those who know Christ and love Him. It doesn't matter about outward things - these things will pass away. Whether you have a big house or a little house, a big car or a small car or no car, whether on foot or on bicycle, if we are lame and can't walk very much, it doesn't matter really for the Christian; we are only here for a short time. A few more weeks, months or years at the most and we will be out of this world into the glory.

I must move on quickly to talk about the end of the world because the apostle Paul now begins to speak of it. "For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first" (text).

Let's think of it like this: when the Christian dies he falls asleep in Jesus. The question is, "When is he going to wake up?" It is like putting a child in bed. When seven o'clock comes you put the child into bed; you pray with the child and remind him of God. You tell the child to give his heart to Jesus and He will look after you. You sing a lullaby, or better still, part of a Psalm to soothe the child and then tell him to go to sleep. He then may sleep till six or seven in the morning. But when that time comes the brain of the child tells him its time to get up and wake. He begins to make noises and then calls out, "Mother, where are you?" That is when the child wakes up from sleep but when does the Christian wake up from sleep? The answer is - when the trumpet sounds! The trumpet of God at the end of the world will wake all the Lord's children. It is God's alarm clock. The command will come forth from the lips of Christ: He will command that all the bodies of the dead should come forth, as He did with Lazarus. On this occasion He will command all the dead to come forth, especially His own people. My concern this morning, however, is not with the unbelievers you understand; I am just talking about half the picture: the Lord's people. Then we are told that the archangel - probably Gabriel but we are not sure - will give a tremendous blast on the trumpet of God. The trumpet of God will sound and the dead in Christ will rise and all will be changed. So that is what is being talked about here. Those who are asleep in Jesus He will bring with Him. The alarm clock will sound at the end of their sleep and all God's dear children who have been asleep in their beds as it were, because the grave is like a bed to the Christian, they will wake up and they will all shake off their sleep and come forth from their beds and rise again. Dear Mr. MacDonald and Mr. Madison who were ministers of this congregation, will come forth. My beloved friend Mr. Innes McRae and all our Christian family and friends who have died in Christ, they will all come forth in their resurrection bodies.

I don't know if you know about this but one of the greatest Christians that Scotland ever had was called Samuel Rutherford, a Covenanter in the seventeenth century and a very great man whose letters are world famous. He was full of God, full of faith, full of love and full of service. He died and was buried in St. Andrews - near the cathedral ruins. Years later another dear man called Thomas Halliburton loved Rutherford so much he said he wanted them to bury his dust and bones beside Rutherford's bones so that when the trumpet sounded at the end of the world he wanted Rutherford to be the first person he would see as they go up to meet the Lord in the air. That is a lovely thought and that is how we should think.

How do we know that we are going to wake up? How do we know that all this is true? Where is the scientific proof we could say, that all this is going to happen and is not simply made up by creatures. The apostle Paul gives us the scientific proof: "For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him" (text). We are talking about something which has already been proved: Jesus died and rose again - two thousand years ago He came back and He is the proof that all of what I said is true. He is called the first fruits of those who are asleep; He is the great leader from the dead; He is the first born from the dead. Jesus has come back and all the whole harvest of his people will rise because He rose. Let me give you some of His own words. He said to His people, "Because I live, ye shall live also" (John 14, 19). What a word; O what a promise to live and die on! "I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death" (Revelation 1, 18), and He will set his people free. Or again, these marvellous words, "I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die" (John 11, 25-26). See the hope and assurance of the Christian; we know that because He came back from the dead we are safe in Him.

When the trumpet sounds at the end of the world, obviously there are going to be two classes of Christians. There are going to be dead Christians whose bodies are in the grave and whose souls are in heaven and there are living Christians who have not yet died - the Bible tells us that. You see this referred to here: "For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep" (text). "Prevent" - that is an old fashioned use of this word; we don't use it in that sense any more. "Prevent" in this sense means to 'go ahead of', like one car going ahead of another. This is the point that Paul is making: he tells us not to be afraid in case you're thinking that when the Lord Jesus comes down at the end of the world and the trumpet sounds, don't be afraid for the dead that are left behind. He says that the living Christians will have to wait until all the dead ones are taken up first to meet the Lord in the air. There is going to be an order about this and the dead in Christ will be the first ones to rise and meet the Lord. There is something very lovely about that. The living Christians who will never die might be thought to have an advantage over the dead ones. In order to make sure that the dead ones are respected and honoured and given their proper place, when the trumpet sounds and all the dead are coming out of their graves, all the living Christians will have to wait until all the dead are gathered first in a great wave to meet the Lord in the air. Then the living ones will go in the second wave to meet the Lord in the air; they have never died. What happens when the trumpet sounds is that all living Christians are suddenly changed and they receive their resurrection bodies without ever tasting death. So there are two waves: the dead in Christ go first and all the living go next to meet the Lord in the air. Look at this for a conclusion: "so shall we ever be with the Lord" (text). O friends, what a gospel! What a hope! Always and for ever more with the Lord! What a wonderful thought and prospect and hope.

There are many other things that might be said but I will leave it there - apart from saying one thing to finish. If you are not a Christian today, let me say to you dear friend, don't miss the boat. Become a Christian; become a believer; trust in Jesus. Because if you are not a Christian when the trumpet sounds, you will never get up there - you will never be in heaven. You will be left behind and terrible things will be done to you by God who will punish you for ever. I don't want to go in to that just now. But it is like this. I was once on a boat crossing from Stornoway to Ullapool. I was on the boat waiting for it leave the harbour. I noticed a number of men come running along the pier. They were hurrying to get up the gangplank and on to the boat. However, the gangplank was being pulled in and they shouted, "Let us in!" The men in the boat shouted back, "You're too late." It didn't matter how much they shouted and raged; they had to put their cases down and wait for the next boat. The trouble is that there is only one ferry and that is the ferry that will take you to glory when Jesus Christ returns. Dear friends, make sure you are fit and ready for the journey.

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