Our Grief Is Wrapped in Hope

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Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 14For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18Therefore encourage one another with these words.
(1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 NIV)

Key Observation: Future bodily resurrection transforms grief from despair to hope.

Many people are crippled by grief. It’s that sick feeling deep in the gut when someone we love is taken from us and there’s nothing we can do about it. It isn’t fair. We have no control. We just hurt. Death feels so final. Paul understands that and he acknowledges the deep reality of grief as he writes this passage. He contrasts those who grieve without hope to those who grieve in hope. Either way, people grieve. The question is whether we grieve well. And many do not. You see, the pain of grief is so great that people often feel they can’t handle it. So they suppress it; they push their grief away. But it doesn’t go away, it just goes into hiding. And it always comes out, often when we least expect it.

Paul is giving the Thessalonians (and us) permission to grieve. Sometimes that’s all we need. We need to know it’s okay to acknowledge the pain we feel in the face of death. We need to be honest about how hurt we are. But we also need to remember that the grave does not have the last word. Jesus does. He’s the one who has defeated death. He’s the one whose body can never die again. And he’s the one who will raise the dead when he returns to reign visibly over this world. That transforms grief and fills it with hope. And it should encourage us, because it means our pain is not ultimate. It’s temporary. Resurrection is coming.

I always encourage people who are grieving to find healthy ways to acknowledge the reality of their sorrow and to focus on hope. Perhaps you need to do just that. It can be as simple as taking a few minutes to pray and tell God how bad your pain is and to thank him for the hope for resurrection that we have through Jesus. You could plan a gathering with family on the anniversary of a loved one’s passing. Take time together to articulate your shared pain. Just be sure you also take time to give glory to the God who raised Jesus from the dead—the God who will raise all of us from the dead. If you engage in these kinds of practices, you’ll be doing just what Paul instructed the Thessalonians to do: “encourage one another with these words.”

Before we conclude today’s lesson, allow me to speak directly to pastors who may read this book. Let me encourage you to always be sure your funeral sermons are focused on the hope for resurrection. I’ve been to far too many funerals where resurrection received little or no attention. They focus instead on the soul’s escape to a disembodied heaven. The trouble is that dying and going to heaven reinforces the fact that the body is still dead. The grave remains the victor. Death has not yet been defeated. Christian hope is not hope for a disembodied afterlife; it’s hope for physical resurrection. And the funeral sermon is a key moment for pastors to articulate our hope for resurrection. Every funeral in which I’ve preached a robust theology of resurrection has been met with gratitude from those who heard. I’m confident the same will be the case for you. Whatever you do, preach resurrection hope.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Take a moment to think about someone whose death you grieve. Are you grieving that person’s death in a healthy way or in an unhealthy way? What are some concrete steps you can take to move toward healthy grief?
  2. Think about the last funeral you attended. Did the preacher talk about resurrection? If so, how did that affect you? If not, how might the funeral have been different had the preacher spoken of resurrection?

Did you enjoy this entry? Discover our OneBook: Daily-Weekly Bible studies, of which this entry is a part. The Letters to the Thessalonians by Matt O’Reilly leads readers through some of our earliest existing writings in the New Testament. As such, they offer a unique glimpse into some of the most pressing issues as the gospel began to spread across the ancient world. In this eight-week study, you’ll be introduced to Paul’s inspired work. Discover how the gospel of Jesus will give you the strength you need as you eagerly await his promised return to make our world right again. Get your videos and book from our store here.

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Matt O’Reilly (PhD) is Lead Pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, Alabama, and a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians. He is the author of Paul and the Resurrected Body: Social Identity and Ethical Practice and The Letters to the Thessalonians. Connect at mattoreilly.net or follow @mporeilly.

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