The main question Paul seeks to answer in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is this: how are we to handle the death of loved ones who are Christians? The Thessalonian Christians must have been instructed by Paul, when he was present with them, about the Second Coming of Christ and the final resurrection. However, since Paul left Thessalonica, apparently some of the believers there had died. Thus, the questions arose in the minds of their Christian friends left behind: "What becomes of believers who die before Christ returns? Will they share in the Second Coming and the resurrection, or will they miss out somehow?" Paul responded to the questions of these young believers, and his answer is helpful to us in understanding, not only how to handle the death of loved ones who are Christians, but also in understanding the Second Coming and the future resurrection.
First off, Paul says, "But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died..." Paul wants us to understand what happens to believers who die and what will happen with them at the Second Coming. He does not want us to be ignorant.
Paul uses a key phrase, in the Greek, for Christians who have died. Literally he calls them "those who fall asleep". Sleep was a common euphemism for death among the early Christians. But this does not mean that believers are somehow unconscious after death. In 2 Corinthians 5:6-8 we read,
Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.At death then, the soul is separated from the body and the soul of the believer goes to be with the Lord. The soul does not sleep until the time of Jesus' return. No, the souls of believers are consciously in the presence of the Lord. Remember what Jesus said to the thief on the cross who put his faith in him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:43)
The story is told of a young Christian named Kenneth who was near death. Realizing the seriousness of his condition, the boy asked, "Mom, does it hurt to die?"
With tears in her eyes and praying for the right answer, this wise mother responded: "Kenny, when you were a very little boy, you often went to sleep on our bed. But in the morning you always found yourself in your own room. That's because before your Daddy and I went to bed, he would come and take you in his strong arms and carry you to your room where you belonged. Death is a lot like that for those who know Jesus. You go to 'sleep' here, and Jesus who loves you and died for you comes and takes you to your home in heaven. I believe that when you get there, you will find heaven is a beautiful place, and Jesus will have a special room prepared for you there."
The Lord does not want us to be ignorant about our Christian loved ones who have died. They are with the Lord in heaven enjoying God's presence.
Tomorrow we will look at a second thing that Paul has to teach us in this passage....