I've been a pastor for ten years. We have a young church and have only had to deal with the death of members on a few occasions. The times I have ministered to grieving families have left indelible impressions on me. I am continuing to learn how to comfort families and individuals in such times. Times of bereavement cause me to think deeply, not just about the person who died or the people grieving, but about my own mortality and the fact of this fleeting life we live. I am drawn to this Scriptural reality- a clear and accurate knowledge of sound doctrine is what helps moderate our grief when confronted with death.
When Paul writes to the Thessalonians it is clear there was some ignorance about what happens to fellow believers when they die- something that happened with relative frequency for Christians in the First Century. Paul brings comfort the best way it can be brought- through sound doctrine- in particular, the resurrection of Christ and our eventual resurrection. Words of encouragement are important. A hug in a time of need goes along way. Offering our presence to those who are hurting is a noble and effective thing. But nothing will comfort a saint more in hard times than sound doctrine. Paul, in a few short but power-packed verses, gives foundational doctrinal truths in order to help Christians who have lost loved ones moderate their grief. The first doctrinal truth has to do with our knowledge of Jesus Christ and His resurrection, the second has to do with the final resurrection of all Christians.
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words. -1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Notice Paul’s wording- “we do not want you to be uninformed (ignorant)..that you may not grieve as others do...”. In his letters to the Corinthians he was more sharp and confrontational. In Corinth there were those who were propagating serious theological error relating to Christ’s resurrection. In His first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes:
Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. -1 Corinthians 15:12-14
To Corinth he was writing to correct those who were teaching error. To Thessalonica, he was writing to correct ignorance. His tone in 1 Thessalonians, while maintaining a high doctrinal level, is pastoral and bent on comforting the saints by giving sound doctrine. Paul knows that correct doctrine will give genuine comfort to his hurting brothers and sisters.
Scripture constantly links our creed and our personal stability in life. In other words, you must have correct theology for you to experience the stability and understanding life will require. Yes, certain events in life will still rock us, bring us to our knees, confuse, frustrate, and confound us, but they will not destroy us. Our knowledge of Christ and His faithfulness will uphold us. Paul does not want ignorance to get in the way of the peace the Thessalonians could be experiencing. Apparently, because some did not understand the nature of our future resurrection they where unjustly mourning the loss of Christian brothers or sisters.
Grieving is no where condemned by God, in fact throughout Scripture we witness believers doing just that. However, our grieving, if we understand the fate of those who are covered by the blood of Christ, should be moderate. We weep for the family of one who has left this world and for ourselves as we will miss that brother or sister in this life, but we weep with a resolute confidence in God's promises. For as sure as Jesus rose from the dead, so also will all those who are united to Christ by faith. For the Christian there is no such thing as total death. Notice the rest of verse 13 and Paul’s wording-
But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. -1 Thessalonians 4:13
Paul is very careful here to not use the word “die”. Instead Paul describes the departed Christians as “fallen asleep”. We use the term “die” when we describe a person ceasing physical biological function. Technically and biblically, there is no real sense of total death. For the believer our souls have been made alive by Christ and never die. Our physical body dies and disintegrates, but our soul lives ultimately to be reunited to our restored physical bodies. Matthew Henry comments on Paul’s usage of “sleep” instead of “die”-
For the Christian, death does not annihilate them. It is but a sleep to them. It is their rest, and undisturbed rest. They have retired out of this troublesome world, to rest from all their labors and sorrows, and they sleep in Jesus. Being still in union with him, they sleep in his arms and are under his special care and protection. Their souls are in his presence, and their dust is under his care and power; so that they are not lost, nor are they losers, but great gainers by death, and their removal out of this world is into a better.
So, once again I am impressed with how much sound doctrine helps to moderate our grief in times of bereavement. The best comfort I can be to my congregation doesn't happen after someone dies, it occurs beforehand by teaching them sound doctrine.