1 Thessalonians • First Things First
1 Thessalonians 4:13–14 (ESV)
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.
This is an astonishing statement. How could the Thessalonians not know about the afterlife? About the resurrection? Why is the topic in such a subordinate place that Paul merely gently corrects the church’s lack of understanding it? To many, though, “getting to Heaven” is the foremost concern. It is made to be religion's impetus. To Paul, however, the Gospel has an entirely different focus.
If you joined a gathering one Sunday and learned that the congregation did not know what happens to believers when they die, you might doubt that they were Christians. However, the Thessalonians are portrayed as one of the healthiest of the apostolic churches. Here is some of Paul’s shining praise for them:
We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction… And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.
Paul testifies that they are in Christ indeed. Not only that, he affirms their health on three important fronts: they believe the Gospel, they have received the Holy Spirit in power, and they have been tested by persecution. All that without understanding the hope of the second coming for those who die in faith.
What then is the focus of the Gospel to Paul?
Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more.
For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.
Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.
It is Christ, the walk, the life, and sanctification! Christ crucified means transforming lives and bringing the Kingdom into our experience. Think on Jesus’s analogies for the Kingdom: a farmer sows a seed, a baker leavens bread, a master hires laborers, a fisher casts a net. They are about Kingdom workers bearing fruit. They are not about escaping the world.
Notice how Paul regards his life in light of his foreseeable death.
For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.
We understand that to depart is better. But do we understand that to live is Christ?