Christians Grieve Too!
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Christians Grieve Too!

1 Thessalonians 4:13  (ID: 1808)

Facing confusion in the Thessalonian church about the nature of death and the certainty of Christ’s return, the apostle Paul counseled the young believers to hold fast to their hope even while grieving. Alistair Begg teaches that while Christians do grieve, we do so with hope. The Christian’s trust in the return of Jesus testifies to the watching world of the hope that we have.

Series Containing This Sermon

My Times Are in Your Hands

A Study in God’s Faithfulness in Affliction Selected Scriptures Series ID: 22301

A Study in 1 Thessalonians, Volume 2

How to Live until Christ Returns 1 Thessalonians 4:1–18, 1 Thessalonians 5:1–11 Series ID: 15202

Sermon Transcript: Print

Can I invite you to turn with me again to 1 Thessalonians 4? And as you have your Bibles on your lap, we turn to the Lord of the Word before we turn now to the Word of the Lord.

Dear heavenly Father, we thank you for your faithfulness that is expressed in so many different ways, not least of all in giving to us and preserving for us your Word, the Bible. And we do pray that we might increasingly become students of your Word, that we might hide it in our hearts that we might not sin against you,[1] that it might correct us, train us, grow us, feed us, lead us. Accomplish the purposes that you have ordained for this study in your Word tonight, in our lives and in our church. To the glory of your name we ask it. Amen.

First Thessalonians, and the fourth chapter, and the section which begins at verse 13. As we’ve noted in going through these studies, Paul was responding to a number of questions which had come to him from the believers in Thessalonica. And as we’ve gone through these chapters, we’ve seen how he has been addressing specific issues that they themselves have raised—not exclusively that, but certainly that has been going on. For example, in verse 9 he talks about brotherly love. Earlier on he’s talked about the whole relationship of moral purity and so on.

And now he comes to a matter which was clearly troubling these Thessalonian believers, insofar as some of them had obviously got the notion that all who believed were going to be present—alive—at the return of Jesus Christ. And now they were faced with the fact that a number of their friends and loved ones and acquaintances who themselves had believed had actually died. And, of course, the Parousia—the return of Jesus Christ—had not taken place. And so, in addressing their concerns, they obviously point them to their teacher, Paul, and they ask him to address this matter of the nature of death, and expressly the issue of the return of Jesus Christ. And in the verses which begin here in verse 13 and throughout a little more of 1 Thessalonians and certainly into 2 Thessalonians, Paul provides us with rich and important instruction concerning the return of Jesus Christ. And we look forward to dealing with that in turn.

However, this evening, as I mentioned this morning, we’re not going to go any further than the thirteenth verse and deal with this issue of bereavement in the life of a Christian. If you wanted a title for this evening, I might simply call it “Christians Grieve Too.” Christians also grieve. And to try and guide us through the verse, we will look first of all at the word distinction, and then instruction, and then application.

A Vital Distinction

Notice with me, first of all, the distinction which this verse contains. There actually are a number, but I want to point one out in particular: the distinction which exists between those whom he addresses, referring to them in a generic sense—male and female—as “brothers” or “brethren,” and those to whom he refers at the end of the verse as “the rest of men.” So there is a clear distinction between the “brothers” and “the rest of men.”

Now, in tracking through this in our studies, we’ve noticed that “brothers” is a designation that could equally be translated “Christians” or “family,” because it is indicative of their sonship in the family of God. It is expressive of the transformation that has been brought about as a result of God’s work within their lives. Back in 1:9, in addressing them in the early part of the letter, he says that the report is going around of the church at Thessalonica, “They themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.” And those believers in Thessalonica were in no doubt as to this amazing transformation which had been brought about as a result of God’s grace within their lives. They had been rescued. They had been redeemed. They had been transformed. They had been changed. They had been brought from hopelessness to hope. They had been brought from a road that leads to destruction onto a narrow road that leads to life.[2]

And if you follow through, in 1:4 he refers to God’s initiative in this act of redemption: “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you.” And the way in which they knew that was because the gospel had come and brought about this change within their lives. In 2:10 he says, “You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed.” And in 3:8: “For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord.” Three statements which correlate to the experience of genuine Christian faith: chosen by God, personal belief, standing firm in the Lord. It is as a result of God’s initiative and grace that we have been granted the ability to believe, and having believed and moved on, as we find ourselves stabilized by truth, we can be described as those “standing firm in the Lord.”

Now, this distinction, then, ought to be a great encouragement to them. And indeed, it ought to be a great encouragement to the believer tonight, as well as a challenge to those who are agnostic and unbelieving in the matters of faith. Because it is this living, personal faith, designated in this statement of “brothers,” which distinguishes them from “the rest of men.”

Paul puts it very clearly in the Ephesian letter, and in chapter 2 of Ephesians, where he describes the preconverted experience in Ephesians 2:3: “All of us,” he says, “also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. [And] like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.” So, we were once “the rest.” We were not simply like them; we were them. And then, in Ephesians 2:12, he makes this great statement concerning the change brought about by the grace of God: “Remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel … foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.”

Now, this is a designation of what it means to be without Christ. And if you have come this evening and you are not trusting in Christ as your Savior and as your Lord, if you have not come to him in repentance and in faith, then the issue is not simply that you are an irreligious person, for you may be very religious. The issue is not that you are a person without interest in the things of God, because you may have a deepening and quickening interest in the things of God. But it is not of marginal significance, the circumstance in which the unbeliever finds themself. Here it is: “separate[d] from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel … foreigners to the covenants of the promise,” and “without hope and without God in the world.” And we remain in that condition unless we find ourselves, as with the Ephesians—Ephesians 2:13: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.” We were once without hope and without God in the world, and we have now been brought near, changed, and made to anticipate the return of Jesus Christ.

In the matter of Christian living, ignorance is never bliss.

One further reference in which Paul makes the same thing clear is, as we’ve seen, in the book of Titus. And in Titus chapter 3 he describes the experience which is expressive of this same distinction: “At one time,” he says, “we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.” And then here’s the change:

But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.[3]

So the distinction is not a superficial distinction. It is a foundational distinction. It is a vital distinction. It is the distinction between brothers and sisters in Christ and the rest of men. It is the distinction between faith and unbelief, between life and death, hope and hopelessness, rock and sand, broad and narrow, light and darkness. And there is no middle territory. We are either brethren in Christ or we are like “the rest of men”: “without hope and without God in the world.”

Now, loved ones, if that does not stir within you some kind of evangelistic quickening of your heart, some kind of stimulation, motivation in my own spirit, to the issue of what we’re facing amongst our non-Christian neighbors and friends, then we are in some kind of severe spiritual malady.

A Twofold Instruction

The distinction, then, which the verse provides. Secondly, the instruction which this verse conveys. He conveys instruction essentially regarding two areas. First of all, to deal with their ignorance on the subject of death: “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep.”

In the matter of Christian living, ignorance is never bliss. Indeed, Paul frequently addresses the matter of ignorance, and he does so to point out how dangerous ignorance really is. And I’ll just give you three references to this effect. First Corinthians 10:1: “For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers,” and he goes on to address of the problem of ignorance. Chapter 11 of 1 Corinthians, in verse 3: “I do not want you to be ignorant of these matters.”[4] Romans 11:25: “I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited.”

Many problems in Christian living can be traced to ignorance. And so he is concerned that they won’t live in ignorance, because ignorance will breed confusion, and confusion will breed disruption and all manner of chaos. And so if there are those amongst the Thessalonians who, like the Corinthians, were beginning to suggest that perhaps the resurrection had somehow a spiritual element to it and that we were not anticipating the bodily return of Jesus Christ—that our loved ones who had died were somehow in some quasi-conscious state, lost in some time warp somewhere—Paul says, “That kind of ignorance will be very disconcerting to you.”

And conversely, knowledge is, by Paul, described with frequency as a key to blessing. For example, in Colossians chapter 1; I think we referred to it this morning: “And we pray this,” he says in Colossians 1:10, “in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, [and] growing in the knowledge of God.”

And I say to you again, that’s why we study the Bible in this way. I can’t tell you what a relief it is to me to be gone for a couple of Sundays and not to have to come back and think, “Goodness gracious, what am I supposed to say to these people?” I don’t know how a person does that Sunday by Sunday and week after week, trying to come up with a topic to address. I commend those who are able to and do with great effectiveness; it’s no judgment on them. But for me, it is a great liberation to know that I gotta get back to 1 Corinthians 16:13, and I’ve gotta get back to 1 Thessalonians 4:13. And if you’re tracking with me, you expect me to be there. And why? So that your knowledge may increase. So that we will not live in ignorance. So that when the issues of life face us, and when the pressures and difficulties buffet us, and when the questions of death overwhelm us, we’ll be able to say, “Oh yes, I remember. That’s in 1 Thessalonians 4:13.”

I hope you have some kind of little notebook, some kind of little process of storing things away, some way to build up your own little compendium of discovery, so that one day, when you gather your children and grandchildren around you and they’ll say, “Tell me some of the things you’ve learned over the years, Grandpa,” you’ll be able to turn to that companion book to your Bible, or you’ll be able to turn to the leafs that you’ve inserted in your Bible, and you’ll be able to go to the day when you made that point of progress and made that great discovery.

Now, will you notice carefully that he refers to “those who fall asleep” and not to those who are asleep: “I don’t want you to be ignorant about those who are,” actually, “falling asleep.” It’s the present participle. He is not referring to those who are asleep. And his use of the present participle, I think, is very important, indicating the way in which death has been transformed for the Christian. A number of people asked me after our studies in 1 Corinthians 15 concerning this issue of, “Well, if we’re sleeping, how are we sleeping? And I thought we were actually with Jesus, and how can we be with Jesus if we’re really asleep? And do we sleep for very long, or when does that stop and start?” And I understand those questions; it’s because they buffet me as well. And I’ve found this to be very helpful.

The picture of sleep regarding death is a common picture. It’s common in all sorts of places completely outside the scope of the Bible. It is also a common picture in the Old Testament as we read of the saints of God, who are described as having entered into rest from their labors.[5] When you come into the New Testament, you find a similar use of this notion of sleep, but the primary emphasis, I think, in pointing to the issue of sleep is to identify the temporary nature of death for the believer—that it is not a permanent condition; that it is a momentary experience. It is, if you like, forty winks, if we might put it in that way. The kind of element that comes across clearly when the sisters come to Jesus concerning Lazarus, his friend and their brother, and they press him in relationship to these things, and John records it in 11:11 of his gospel, the words of Jesus: “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I[’m] going … to wake him up.” “This is only a temporary issue,” he says.

John Stott, commenting on this: “It is, then, because a human corpse lies in the grave still, as it were resting, and awaiting resurrection, that it is appropriate to call death ‘sleep’ and [to call] a graveyard a ‘cemetery.’”[6] The word cemetery—which I didn’t know till this week—actually comes from the Greek koimeterion, which means “a sleeping place.” Hence the notion that is conveyed in our cemeteries. But the picture of sleep, even used in that way and pressed to its fullest as a picture, is not intended to convey in the New Testament the idea that the condition of the soul in the interim period between death and resurrection is one of unconsciousness. Very important to understand that! The picture of the soul between the moment of goodbye and hello is not a picture of unconsciousness—that sleep helps us to grapple with what is happening to this body, but it does not explain the totality of the experience of the soul immediately following the parting of body and soul in the moment of death.

Now, we can’t delve deeply into this, but let me turn you just to a couple of portions.

Luke 16:19 and following, in the story of the rich man and Lazarus. I don’t want to delve into this, except for you to see that in the telling of this story, Jesus clearly taught that after death there would be an immediate awareness of bliss or pain. Jesus was not teaching some soul-sleep existence before ever that was encountered, but was teaching—and it’s important in the use of parables that we don’t press everything to illogical conclusions—but certainly it is clear from this that he is making it obvious to his readers that when you die, you’re going to know whether it’s good or whether it’s bad. You’re going to know whether it’s heaven or whether it’s hell. You’re going to know whether you’re with Jesus or whether you are absent from Jesus.

Luke chapter 23—and you can study these passages for your homework and at your leisure. Luke 23:43—you know where I’m going—the man on the cross addresses Jesus and says, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And “Jesus answered him, ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.’”[7] “My kingdom’s coming real soon, and you’re going to be with me, there, immediately.”

For the unbeliever, in death there is only the dreary wail of despair that is covered up with small talk and finery—far too much plastic and fake flowers, and a deep emptiness. For the believer, there is the exalting, tear-stained psalm of hope.

You find the same thing in the expression of Paul in relationship to death in Philippians and chapter 1, where he says, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” And then he says, “I don’t really know whether I can choose staying alive or dying and going to heaven because I’m torn between the two. I desire to depart,” notice, “and be with Christ, which is far better, but it is more necessary for you that I remain in this body.”[8] It is clear that Paul could not regard death as something better—“far better”—or a gain unless he understood it, as I believe he clearly did, to bring him immediately into a closer, richer, fuller experience of Jesus than he had ever known on earth. He’s in a dungeon, and he says, “I don’t know whether I should go off to heaven and be immediately with Jesus or whether I should stay here in order that I can be immediately of help to you.” There is no thought in his statements of him going into some soul-sleep oblivion, some quasi consciousness whereby he will hang around until it is time for him to waken up.

Now, we could say more concerning that, but that probably is enough for just now.

He wants to address, then, the ignorance of these people in relationship to this matter of falling asleep. He also wants to provide them with instruction concerning the issue of grief. He says, “I don’t want you to be ignorant about those who are falling asleep—those who are dying—and I don’t want you to be grieving like the rest of men who have no hope.” In other words, he says, “I want to provide you with the instruction necessary to dispel any tendencies to sub-Christian mourning.” Notice the phrase “sub-Christian mourning.” Paul is not here suggesting that the believer is to be free from grief altogether, but rather that he is to be free from the grief which marks the pagan in the face of death. For the unbeliever, in death there is only the dreary wail of despair that is covered up with small talk and finery—far too much plastic and fake flowers, and a deep emptiness. For the believer, there is the exalting, tear-stained psalm of hope. There is genuine grief, but it is not the grief of unbelief. It is the grief attached to the nature of loss.

Three Applications

So then, there is a distinction which the verse contains between those who are in Christ and those who are the rest. There is instruction which the verse is pointing us to regarding the matter of ignorance over the nature of death itself and concerning the issue of grief for the believer. And so, thirdly and finally, there is an application which this verse commands, calls us to.

First of all, it demands that we face the question, each of us, regarding the issue of belief and unbelief. “Am I,” you may say to yourself, “as I sit in this building this evening, am I in Christ? Have I responded to the kindness and love of my Savior? Have I been brought from death to life, from darkness to light, from the broad road to the narrow road, from the sinking, shifting sand of my own ingenuity to the rock-solid basis of Christ and his atoning work?” That is a question which you as an individual must answer, as must I. It is not a question that may be answered by your parents who sit around you nor by your spouse who sits next to you. It is not a question which finds an answer in our religious interest nor finds a solution in our concern for the things of God. We are either dead in our trespasses and in our sins and in our unbelief, or we have been brought from that death unto life. We have believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, and like the Philippian jailer,[9] we have been saved. Where do you stand tonight in relationship to the distinction between faith and unbelief?

Secondly, that we need to apply the distinction as it relates to ignorance and knowledge. It may be that as a result of our being together in this day that God has spoken into our lives concerning the rather fatuous way in which we have been dealing with the Scriptures. We have not been daily reading them; we have, even in reading them, perhaps not been studying them; and we felt the kindly prompting of the Spirit of God to say, “How long do you plan living as a relatively ignorant Christian?” And, again, our response must be, “Lord Jesus, help me to become a student of the Book, to become one who resides in your company. Help me to know the passion of Paul as he expresses it in Philippians 3: that I might know him and the power of his resurrection, that I may enter into the passion of his sufferings,[10] that I might know him personally and progressively and intimately.” There is a distinction in this verse between those who wander as kind of clueless Christians, always hoping that somebody else will have the answer, and those who are committed to a study of the Book.

Where are you? Where am I, in relationship to that? There are many things in life that I, quite frankly, pay no attention to at all. Because I know that I am surrounded by people who are paying attention to it, and I trust them implicitly. And so, I don’t need to know what it is, because I can turn here and say, “What was that?” And they’ll tell me. “And what are we doing next?” And they’ll tell me. It is wonderful. But in the issue of the Bible, that will not do. I need to know for myself.

Now, thirdly and finally, in applying it, what about this matter of realistic grief as opposed to abject hopelessness? What is grief? We use the word grief with frequency. Charlie Brown has popularized it in “good grief!” And there is a sense in which grief is good. I thought of entitling this this evening “Good Grief.” I thought it was more clever than it was helpful, and so I let it go. Jay Adams says this is grief: it is “a life-shaking sorrow over loss. Grief tears life to shreds; it shakes one from top to bottom. It pulls [a person] loose; he comes apart at the seams. Grief is truly nothing less than a life-shattering loss.”[11]

Now, in that designation it is clear that grief is not only related to death. We may experience something very close to that in the breakup of a personal relationship. We may experience grief in relationship to the parting with loved ones, even on a human plane. We may experience that in the loss of a job. And it is important for us to be able to define it and to understand what’s going on.

The idea of bereavement is another helpful word, because bereavement emerges from the verb to reave. And it is an uncommon word—it was common in earlier English—but to reave simply means to ravish, or to forcibly deprive, or to take captive by force. And that is exactly what happens in the experience of bereavement. Because in being bereaved in the loss of loved ones, we are broken up, we are ravished, we are invaded. And it is an intensely personal experience.

Now, the fact that our loved ones are with the Lord, which is what Paul is pointing to here as he’s going to go on in verse 14 and following—the fact that our loved ones are with the Lord lightens but does not remove the experience of loss and loneliness. The fact that our loved ones are with the Lord mitigates our experience, but it does not dispel the hard-to-face reality: that in this experience of loss, great joys are now irretrievably gone. And we’re not being particularly Christian to deny that. Indeed, we’re actually being sub-Christian to deny it. The idea that to walk around saying “I don’t miss my loved one” or “I really am compensated for in all these ways” has more to do with piousity than it has to do with biblical reality, I believe.

Paul, in chapter 1 of Philippians, has got such a view of death that he says he’s not sure whether he fancies dying or staying. That’s his view, his personal view of death. “Oh, so,” you would say to yourself, “then presumably when any of Paul’s friends would die, he would be able to handle that in a snap. It would be a breeze to him. It really wouldn’t faze him very much. After all, he has such a solid awareness of what death means for the Christian.” Absolutely not. And you can see this in chapter 2 in relationship to his buddy Epaphroditus.

Philippians 2:25. This gives us a real insight into the apostle’s heart concerning death. He says, “I think it[’s] necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker … fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs.” You’re beginning to get a picture of the intimacy that he feels with Epaphroditus. He says, “For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill.” He says, “[You’re right] he was ill … [he] almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me”—notice the phrase—“to spare me sorrow upon sorrow.”[12] The thought of losing Epaphroditus broke his heart! Sure, he understood about heaven! “Yeah, if I depart and be with Christ, that’s far better. If I stay, I can do your work. But if Epaphroditus goes, I will be overwhelmed by sorrow.”

Now, we don’t want to take this to an extreme and start celebrating Requiem Masses on a twenty-four-hour basis and have faces as long as a dreadful-looking donkey. But it is realistic to recognize that in the experience of loss there is genuine grief and realistic sorrow.

Jesus, at the grave of Lazarus, wept. John 11:35: he wept at the grave of his friend. You read the commentaries on this as to why Jesus wept. Goodness gracious! Two words, and commentary that would fill the back of a donkey, and all kinds of ideas as to why Jesus wept. You know, when we plumb it to the depth of it, the fact of the matter is he wept because he was sad at the loss of Lazarus. The mystery in that encounter is not that he raised Lazarus from the dead. That was easy for Jesus. The mystery in that is that he so identified with our humanity that he shed genuine tears at the loss of his friend. And when Isaiah, six hundred years before Christ, pictures him coming over the horizon of history, he says of him, “[And he is] a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.”[13]

And although the Bible introduces us to the reality of Christ’s victory over death and the grave, it doesn’t call us, loved ones, to some kind of glossy, heartless triumphalism. And I am personally unaware of how it is that dear folks, in the loss of dear ones to them, are able to tell me, within moments of it all happening, that it’s really not a problem at all. That, I’ve got to tell you, is spiritual geography into which I have never entered. I’m not denying the reality of their experience. I’m simply saying I haven’t entered into that kind of spiritual geography. I haven’t been on that latitude and longitude. Loss, for me, has been grief. And the experience of bereavement is such that every tearful memory actually wants to be replaced by another tearful memory. And every sharp pang of loss is succeeded by greater.

We face our death with triumphant assurance, but not without a pang for all that we enjoy in this life and which will then be lost forever.

Did you drive down 43 towards the building this evening? Did you see the sign on the right-hand side? Somebody had put up a big sign; it was so attractive it stirred my heart: “Happy seventieth birthday, Mom.” Didn’t that make you say, “Hey, that’s nice”? I’m a hundred yards past that; I said, “Seventieth birthday?” I said, “Let me think: forty-six, my mom was when she died. It’s twenty-three years since she died. That makes her sixty-nine. Man, I’d like to be able to put up one of those signs.” Twenty-three years later. You wanna tell me that because you have some great experience of faith that the pangs of human sorrow mean nothing to you? Be careful. You may be in a more dangerous predicament than you even understand.

Sue and I had lovely friends in Scotland, Mark and Margaret Beaumont. He was a student with me in London for three years. He had previously graduated from the University of Glasgow. He was a bright fellow, capable in many ways. And he, along with his wife and children, went off to serve in Morocco. And in 1982 I received this letter from him, written generically because of the nature of the event:

Dear friends,

As most of you are aware, Margaret gave birth to our little son Benjamin at 4:45 a.m. on the 25th of March. Just after the successful delivery of a lovely, healthy boy, Margaret began to hemorrhage profusely. I was involved in a race for blood to save her life. Being O-rhesus negative, there was but little at the blood bank. The British consul general not only notified potential donors but came to give his own blood at the clinic. By 9:00 the surgeon assured me that the bleeding was coming under control and that it would be possible for me to see Margaret at noon.

Just after 11:00, I was awakened. Having helped Margaret to deliver Benjamin all morning, I hadn’t slept. I was awakened to be told by the doctor, “C’est fini.” I looked up, and he repeated himself to make sure I understood. Later I found out that though there had been plenty of blood donated, it had not coagulated, and Margaret steadily weakened until she faded away.

So the children had to be told. Alone in the living room with the three of them, I started to tell them the great news of their baby brother. Kirsten said, “Daddy, why are you sad?” As I cried, I tried to talk, but as I got the word “died” out, a howl, like that of a wolfpack, went up from all three.

With the girls safely stowed away with friends, we proceeded to the British section of the cemetery, where Canon Green gave us the deeply moving burial service from the Anglican prayer book. He came to the section “Forasmuch…” that goes to “in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life.” I looked at Canon Green and thought of the funerals I had taken. I had so much wanted to give the mourners a hope for the future in the promises of Jesus. Now he was doing the same. And I was being filled with the power of that new creation. God had given me bereavement to unveil the power of the gospel in a dynamic way.

Alec Motyer, who this week is giving the Bible readings in 1 Thessalonians at the Keswick Convention in England—how we would all benefit from being there; what an experience that would be!—he writes, “Tears are proper for believers—indeed they should be all the more copious, for Christians are more sensitively aware of every emotion, whether of joy or [of] sorrow, than those who have known nothing of the softening and enlivening grace of God.”[14]

And tonight we face our own death with triumphant assurance. But don’t tell me you face it without a pang for all that we enjoy in this life and which will then be lost to us forever.

Three weeks ago, Sue and I followed Ron and Tina, who had previously been at this site, it so happened, within days of one another. And we went to the grave of James Miller down in Holmes County. And as we stood there and thought of James, I recalled this letter, which I pulled from my files just this evening. And I read it in relationship to what I’ve just said: we face our death with triumphant assurance, but not without a pang for all that we enjoy in this life and which will then be lost forever.

This was written on the eighteenth of June in ’93 to his wife:

My dearest Lynn,

Only God’s love through Jesus Christ to man exceeds—by infinity, of course—the love held between a woman and a man. And yet in my marriage to you I feel I’ve experienced at least a sign of that highest love from you. You were instrumental in bringing me to faith. You were always there as we grew together.

Know now, dearest Lynn, that as my keeping in the hands of God seems about to take me to eternity in his good will, your keeping in the hands of God on this shore can be no less firm. Know that I will always love you, dear Lynn—that all the hosts of heaven, of whom I shall be one, will always be looking to comfort you and protect you.

Read the Word, dearest Lynn. Let it speak to you. We shall one day be gathered together around his throne.

“[I] do not want you,” says Paul, “to be ignorant [concerning] those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.”

Let us pray together:

Our God and our Father, we thank you for the clarity of your Word, and we pray that all and anything that is introducing notes of confusion to our mind may be lost sight of in the centrality of the truth which is here emphasized. I pray, Lord, for those who tonight halt between two opinions, who vacillate between faith and unbelief, who remain without God and without hope in the world, whose hearts are stirred and yet who remain defiant before your grace. Soften their hearts. Draw them to you, I humbly pray.

For those of us who are living in ignorance, which is harming us, and who desire to resolve, with your enabling, to make progress now in the things of God, grant that this day, this particular Sunday, may be a genuine step forward in our Christian pilgrimage.

And then, Lord, in the matter of grief, teach us what it means to grieve, and yet not like the rest of men, who have no hope.

We do pray that the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts this day may be found acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.[15] Amen.

[1] See Psalm 119:11.

[2] See Matthew 7:13–14.

[3] Titus 3:3–7 (NIV 1984).

[4] 1 Corinthians 11:3 (paraphrased).

[5] See, for instance, Hebrews 4:10.

[6] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Thessalonians: The Gospel and the End of Time, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1991), 96.

[7] Luke 23:42–43 (NIV 1984).

[8] Philippians 1:21–24 (paraphrased).

[9] See Acts 16:25–40.

[10] See Philippians 3:10.

[11] Jay E. Adams, Shepherding God’s Flock: A Handbook on Pastoral Ministry, Counseling, and Leadership (1974; repr., Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975), 136.

[12] Philippians 2:25–27 (NIV 1984).

[13] Isaiah 53:3 (KJV).

[14] J. A. Motyer, The Message of Philippians: Jesus Our Joy, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1984), 90.

[15] See Psalm 19:14.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.