Our Hope in Grief
March 1, 2009 - Some of the last words Jesus spoke to His disciples were about the promise of His return. Many months before, He had told them that He would be seized, rejected and killed (Mark 8:31).
By Ross Rhoads
Naturally, they were afraid of the events that would unfold. In the week before He was betrayed, tried and crucified, Jesus instructed His disciples to abide in Him, keep His commandments, and to pray and love one another. He assured them, “You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy” (John 16:20, NIV).
A Sure Hope
Jesus was to die, and in spite of this, His undeniable word was that He would come again. He did not say, “You will come to me,” or “I will send for you,” as if by an angel. He said, “I will come myself” (Cf. John 14:3). His promise was meant to relieve His followers’ anxiety. In His Father’s house—heaven—Jesus would prepare a place for His own. “Since I am going away, I will come again and receive you to myself, for where I am you will be also” (Cf. John 14:1-3).
No promise is reliable if it is not absolutely sure or if there is any question that it will come to pass. We can be sure that all those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior are with Christ in death, with Christ in His return and with Christ forever (1 Thessalonians 4: 13-17).
This confidence is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Jesus’ words cannot be denied or reversed. His divinity is marked by the fact that He never did or said anything that was a contradiction. Jesus as the Son of God cannot lie (Titus 1:2) or deny what He said (2 Timothy 2:13). Jesus’ word is immutable and cannot change (Hebrews 6:17).
At His ascension, the angels repeated the promise of His return as further assurance of His words. As Jesus was speaking to the disciples, He was “taken up” and they heard these words: “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11, NIV).
His return, like His ascension, will be visual, physical and recognizable. As He ascended, so shall He descend. And it is the promise of His return, and the hope of heaven, that comforts us when those we love pass away.
Facing Death Until His Return
Death is always a separation, a departure from those who are living and from physical life. It is inevitable and breeds fear. Not knowing the time that death will come increases our uncertainty. The ensuing sorrow and grief breaks our hearts and shakes our souls.
The departure of our loved ones in Christ can only be softened by Jesus’ presence and by God’s Word. The Lord promises to be with us, and Psalm 23:4 confirms it: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (NIV).
The Apostle Paul writes to the young church in Thessalonica about Jesus’ return in further detail. The new believers remembered Paul’s teachings about Jesus’ return during Paul’s visit with them, but they still did not seem to make the connection between physical death and Christ’s return.
At some point, they must have asked about those who die before Christ’s return. So Paul writes, “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. 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” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14, NIV). It is never too soon or too late to teach the truth of the Lord’s coming.
The hope of the believer is in the Lord’s return. This glorious truth of Jesus’ personal and imminent return is called “the blessed hope” in Titus 2:13: “Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ” (KJV). This text identifies the Lord Jesus as God. Hope in the English language typically expresses wishful thinking or a guess about what could happen in the best of circumstances.
The sense of the word in the Bible, however, means “confident expectation.” We have more than a wish or a guess to comfort us in the face of death—we have Christ’s promise that He will come again for us.
The Great Awakening
The Bible describes death as “sleeping.” Jesus used this expression at the death of Lazarus. “Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep” (John 11:11, KJV). Jesus spoke of Lazarus’ death but the disciples thought He was saying that Lazarus was taking a rest in sleep.
Paul alluded to this in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-16. “According to the Lord’s own word,” he wrote, “we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven” (NIV).
The Greek word used here for coming isparousia, which can be translated literally as His “presence.” Christ Himself will come for His own—the resurrected dead and the still-living will be gathered together to meet the Lord in the air (1 Thessalonians 4:17).
The returning Christ will come with a shout. The word is “to command with a personal voice” as at the grave Jesus said, “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43, NIV). Paul says the coming Lord will command all believers who have died to come out of their graves. Jesus is the “first fruits of those who die” (1 Corinthians 15:20, 23), and the resurrection of believers is the visible witness to His resurrection.
Simultaneously, all living believers throughout the world will be lifted from the earth—not for judgment (John 5:24) —but to be gathered together to be with the Lord.
This evacuation is very specific. He comes not as an invader or a thief, but as the Lord, to rescue His own. They are caught up, taken out by force. It is a lifting out or pulling up, in keeping with the way that Elijah and Enoch were taken out from the world to be with the Lord. Noah was rescued, too, lifted by the ark from the floods of global judgment.
Jesus pointed to the conditions in the days of Noah as a sign of His coming again. Today, we see many of these symptoms in our world—violence, corruption, indifference, perversion and a refusal to receive the truth. And as surely as God rescued His own in the days of Noah, we know that Jesus is returning for those who have trusted in Him—whether they are still alive on that day or have “fallen asleep.”
Are you confident that He will return? How are you living in light of His coming?