A Commentary by John Stott
1 Thessalonians 4:13. a). A negative introduction.
Before the apostle responds to their enquiries with positive instruction about the Lord’s return, he makes two preliminary and negative points. First, he writes, *we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep* (13a), that is, ‘who sleep in death’ (REB). The description of death as sleep we will consider in a moment. Meanwhile, we note Paul’s antipathy to ignorance. Expressions like ‘I want you to know’ and ‘I do not want you to be ignorant’ occur a number of times in his letters. Sometimes he is referring to his personal circumstances (E.g. Rom.1:13; 2 Cor.1:8; Phil.1:12; Col.2:1); he realizes that the deepening of fellowship and trust between himself and his readers depends on their having accurate information about him. At other times, he says he wants them to understand about the mystery of Israel (Rom. 11:25), the solemnity of God’s judgment (1 Cor.10:1), the relations between the sexes (1 Cor.11:3), and spiritual gifts (1 Cor.12:1). He traces many problems of Christian faith and life to ignorance, and regards knowledge as the key to many blessings.
Secondly, *we do not want you…to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope* (13b). We observe that Paul does not forbid us to grieve altogether. Mourning is natural, even for a while emotionally necessary. It would be very unnatural indeed inhuman, not to mourn when we lose somebody near and dear to us. To be sure, it is appropriate at Christian funerals joyfully to celebrate Christ’s decisive victory over death, but we do so only through tears of personal sorrow. If Jesus wept at the graveside of his beloved friend Lazarus, his disciples are surely at liberty to do the same. What Paul prohibits is not grief but hopeless grief, not all mourning but mourning *like the rest of men, who have no hope*, that is, like the pagans of his day (for he does not take the Jews into consideration here).
But was the ancient world absolutely devoid of hope in relation to death and the hereafter? No. Ernest Best correctly writes: ‘It is wrong to say that the rest of men had no hope whatsoever.’ The fact is that a few Greek philosophers speculated about the immortality of the soul, and there was a vague popular concept of the dead as ‘shades’ enduring a flimsy existence in a dismal Hades. But such notions could not possibly be graced with the Christian word ‘hope’ (*elpis*), which means ‘a joyful and confident expectation of eternal life through Jesus Christ’ (GT). On the contrary, there was in antiquity, in the face of death, neither joy nor triumph nor celebration, nor any defiant challenge like ‘O death, where is your victory?’ (1 Cor.15:55). Instead, there was a ‘general hopelessness’. F.F.Bruce quotes Theocritus as writing ‘hopes are for the living; the dead are without hope’. And Bishop Lightfoot eloquently presented Christian and pagan attitudes in a sharp antithesis:
The contrast between the gloomy despair of the heathen and
the triumphant hope of the Christian mourner is nowhere
more forcibly brought out than by their monumental
inscriptions. The contrast of the tombs, for instance, in
the Appian Way, above and below ground, has often been dwelt
upon. On the one hand, there is the dreary wail of despair,
the effect of which is only heightened by the pomp of
outward splendour from which it issues. On the other,
the exulting psalm of hope, shining the more brightly in
all ill-written, ill-spelt records amidst the darkness of
subterranean caverns (i.e. Roman catacombs).
This, then was Paul’s introduction to his answer to the Thessalonians’ question. He wanted them neither *to be ignorant* about the Christian dead, nor to *grieve* over them in hopelessness. Indeed, he saw that these two things were closely related. Sub-Christian mourning was due to ignorance; only knowledge could inspire true Christian hope.
Why, however, does the apostle refer to death as ‘sleep’? In three successive verses he describes people who have ‘died’ as having ‘fallen asleep’ (13, 14, 15). Is he implying that the dead enter a state of unconsciousness? We begin our response by pointing out that sleep has been a regular euphemism for death in many cultures. Bicknell was probably right to explain that ‘the metaphor is suggested by the stillness of the body’. A second thought, that death is a rest after labour, seems to have been conveyed by the Old Testament statement that certain patriarchs and king’s ‘slept with their fathers’. (Cf. also Rev.14:13). But in Christian contexts a third idea is introduced, namely that death is only temporary. As sleep is followed by an awakening, so death will be followed by resurrection. Already in Daniel 12:2 we read that ‘Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.’ Similarly, Jesus seems to have had resurrection in mind when he said: ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up’. (Jn.11:11; cf.Mk. 5:39; 1 Cor.15:20).
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 a graveyard a ‘cemetery’ (*koimeterion*, a sleeping place). Cemeteries are dormitories of the dead. But these metaphorical (indeed theological) allusions to a dead body are not intended to teach that the condition of the soul during the interim period between death and resurrection will be one of unconsciousness. Calvin, whose first Christian book entitled *psychopannychia* or ‘Soul-sleep’ (1534) was an attack on this notion, wrote in his commentary on verse 13: ‘The reference…is not to the soul but to the body, for the dead body rests in the tomb as on a bed, until God raises the person up.’ Certainly Jesus’ own references to what happens after death suggest a conscious awareness of the bliss or pain (Lk.16:19ff.; 23:43). And Paul, in contrasting this world and the next, wrote that for him life meant ‘Christ’ and death meant ‘gain’. He could hardly regard death as ‘gain’, however, still less as ‘better by far’, unless he believed that it would bring him a closer, richer, fuller experience of Christ than he was already enjoying on earth (Phil.1:21-23; cf.2 Cor.5:8).
What, then, is the Christian hope, in contrast to pagan hopelessness, for those who have died in Christ, which does not eliminate mourning altogether, but which comforts and fortifies us in the midst of grief?
Tomorrow: 1 Thessalonians 4:14-15. b) A fundamental creed.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.