In about 50 A.D., about 16 years after the Pharisee Saul was knocked off his horse and became the Blessed Apostle Paul, Paul found himself in Corinth. He stopped there for a year and a half during what we call his Second Journey, on which he evangelized Syria and Cilicia, Derbe and Lystra, Phrygia and Galatia, Neapolis in Macedonia, and then passing through Amphipolis and Appolonia, he landed in Thessalonica, where he taught for 3 weeks. After teaching some in Berea, Paul traveled southward into Achaia (now southern Greece), to Athens, possibly for the winter of 51-52 AD, and then to that great city of Corinth.
It was sometime in 52 AD that Timothy found Paul in Corinth and gave him a report on how the Church in Thessalonica was doing. The report was that the Church was strong, but that they had been persecuted and so were in need of some encouragement, as well as some teaching on some touchy subjects.
One of their biggest issues in Thessalonica, it seems, remains one of our biggest issues today: “But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” The Thessalonians were concerned for the dead, and were certainly concerned for themselves as to what happens on the other side of the grave.
So how did Paul meet that concern? With hope. Hope. Don’t be like those without hope. “Hope in the face of death was not part of most paganism in the Roman Empire. Here’s the inscription on an ancient Roman grave: “I was not, I became. I am not, I care not.”1 “Another Roman grave, it’s on the tombstone reads, “Live for the present hour since there is nothing else.” And yet another gravestone expresses some of the religious superstition that some Romans had, reads, “I lift up my hands against the gods who took me away at the age of twenty though I had done no harm.””2
Flying in the face of such hopelessness is the hope that Paul wrote about, the hope found in Christ. “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”
That doesn’t mean, though, that grief is somehow not natural or even beneficial. “Jesus wept at Lazarus’ tomb because of death’s abnormality even though he knew that he would raise him a few moments later. Paul wept with the Ephesian elders because he knew wouldn’t see them again in this life, even though he was confident he would not be permanently separated from them.”3
But again, this is grief couched in hope; not the “I hope I get the turkey leg at Thanksgiving” kind of hope, but the “confident expectation” kind of hope.
But Paul doesn’t leave it there, he makes one of his boldest statements in this passage: “For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord (and so Paul claims here to be speaking something received, not postulated), that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep.”
Wow. The dead will be first, not last; those we no longer see will get to greet Jesus at His second coming before the living get to. Paul doesn’t explain this at all, really, but I have a theory. My theory is this: the dead will come first because the dead have a special place in the heart of Jesus, and that’s because one time Jesus was – wait for it – dead, but is now alive, the firstborn from the dead, and so even as Jesus is alive, He grabs hold of those faithful dead to bring them to Himself, to waste no time in making them like Him. It will be only after them that the living are gathered up; Paul tells the Thessalonians to “comfort one another with these words.”
This, then, is the hope of Christian: that even as we struggle with the pains of death, with the grief and the loss and the uncertainty, the Thessalonians are evidence that we are not the first in that struggle; that no less than the Apostle Paul cared to address that struggle, and what he told us was this: that the Lord Jesus is coming back to us, and that no one, living or dead, is without the hope of meeting Him when He arrives. Comforting words, indeed.
1Scott Hoezee, This Week.