1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 13We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you do not grieve in the same way as the others, who have no hope. 14Indeed, if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, then in the same way we also believe that God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus.
15In fact, we tell you this by the word of the Lord: We who are alive and left until the coming of the Lord will certainly not go on ahead of those who have fallen asleep. 16For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a loud command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them, to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord. 18Therefore, encourage one another with these words.
To all those loved by God, called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 1:2)
A small band has left the church and are now gathered at the cemetery. They are gathered together to lay to rest the body of their dear brother in Christ.
They understand what this place is. It is a quiet place. It is a solemn place. It is the place where so many of their Christian brothers and sisters have been buried. The grandfather who died in his sleep. The mother who lost her battle with breast cancer. The teenager whose car careened into the ditch in an ice storm. The premature infant who died in her mother’s arms.
This is a place of grief. A place of heartache. A place of mourning.
This small band of Christians understands very well what this place is. This cemetery is the site where God’s curse for eating the forbidden fruit comes to fruition. This is literally the location where the bodies God once molded out of the earth turn back to dust again.
The graves are hungry. They are no respecter of persons. They swallow up the young and old, the rich and poor, the strong and weak. They do not care about skin color or race.
Graves hold the casualties of mankind’s war with God. Whether the people died of illness or injury or old age, they are paying the price for the wages of sin (Romans 6:23). The cemetery brings the realization that humanity has brought death into the world with the sin inherited from its first parents. Death is God’s righteous punishment upon the evil of humanity. Dying is not a sweet, natural part of the great circle of life … no matter what Mufasa and Rafiki may try peddling in “The Lion King.” Death is the terrible rending of the soul from the body. Death exists in God’s once immortal human race as punishment for evil and rebellion. It is not nice nor natural.
The cemetery is death’s trophy case. It is part of the devil’s wall of fame. Each grave marks another one of his conquests. For Satan, each gravestone is a trophy mocking heaven. He laughs at God that he got to the children first. Satan and his two cohorts – sin and death – got to every person in that cemetery. They got to some sooner; they got to others later; but eventually they got to all of them.
There is silence in the cemetery – except for the raucous laughter of the devil.
At one time or another each one of those mourners – each one of us – is going to be at the cemetery. We will either be upright above ground or horizontal under the ground. But we will all be in the cemetery.
This band of saints who have gathered at this cemetery on this day are special. There are tears, but the tears of sorrow are intermingled with tears of joy. They grieve, but not like the rest of people, who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
They have not come to the cemetery to “visit” a loved one or remember them or “speak” to them, as so many without faith in Christ do. These Christians gathered together at the cemetery knowing that their Christian loved ones – their grandparents, siblings, friends, children, and church members – are not there. They are in heaven.
They can’t “visit’ their loved ones at the cemetery. The shell of their body may be in the ground, but their soul is with Jesus. They don’t need to remember their friends by going to the gravesite. They can remember them any time they want and thank God for the gift of them during their walk through this valley of death together. And they certainly can’t speak to them. Their Christian loved ones are busy listening to the voice of Jesus, hearing the praise of the angels, and accompanying the song of the saints. Their sainted loved ones have no interest whatsoever in what is going on here on earth. Those who are gathered on this day at the cemetery know that the time to visit with their Christian loved ones will be when they are gathered together in heaven. That’s the time to visit with them and speak with them – for all eternity.
This small band of Christians know what the cemetery is. It is just a resting place for the bodies of those who have fallen asleep in their Lord. They learned a little bit from their pastor. They learned that the word “cemetery” does not mean “place of the dead.” “Cemetery” comes from the Greek κοιμητήριον meaning “place of the sleeping.” Still today, Jews call their funerals בית עלמין meaning “house of eternity.” St. Paul writes about those who have “fallen asleep in Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 4:14). King David is described as “resting with his ancestors” (1 Kings 2:10).
For Christians, the cemetery is nothing more than a long Sabbath. It is a place of rest. It is a long day of sleep until Christ awakens the believers’ body to join with their souls in glory everlasting.
Jesus promises that these graves are merely temporary beds, in which their bodies rest in peace, sleeping until the day of their very own Easter.
St. Paul writes of the resurrection from the cemetery: “We believe that Jesus died and rose again, then in the same way we also believe that God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 4:15). Notice how St. Paul testifies to the fact that Jesus “died” while believers in Jesus “fall asleep” in Him. Jesus paid the ultimate price. He felt the scourge tearing apart His unblemished back. He experienced the thorns crowning His perfect brow. He allowed the nails to rip through His divine flesh. He permitted the mockery to belittle the Holy One of God. He drank deeply from the cup of God’s wrath upon mankind’s sin. He endured the hellish agony of separation from His heavenly Father.
There on the cross, Jesus died. He was judged. Sentenced. Condemned.
His corpse was laid in the garden tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. Jesus rested over the Sabbath in the cemetery.
But after the Sabbath was over, Jesus arose victoriously from the grave! The cemetery was no longer a place of quiet or fear or misery. It was now a place of angels, of women rejoicing, of Jesus removing fears and replacing them with comfort.
The small band of women who had come to the cemetery that Easter morning were there to mourn and grieve like the rest of the world. But no longer! Now this cemetery had become a place of victory, of life, of resurrection!
The tombstone covering Jesus’ grave had been rolled away. Death’s greatest Victim now brought forth His greatest victory. Jesus had crushed the Ancient Serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15). He had removed the sting of sin (1 Corinthians 15:55). He had defeated death at its own game. Because Jesus died, He turned death into nothing but a sleep for those who follow Him in death.
That small band of Christians in the cemetery believe in Jesus’ resurrection from the grave. And so they have not come to the cemetery on this day to mourn. Rather they come with the confidence to hear the words of resurrection comfort from their pastor. They hear Job confessing: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth” (Job 19:25). They hear Jesus promising: “Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19). They listen to the elder addressing grieving saints, “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:17).
This cemetery may be a quiet place. It may be a solemn place. But it is not a somber place – not for these Christians. This small band of believers have come not to mourn. They have come to crash death’s party. They will not remain silent. They have come to break forth in jubilant song with their favorite Easter hymn:
“This joyful Eastertide
Away with sin and sorrow!
My love, the Crucified,
Has sprung to live this morrow.
Had Christ who once was slain,
Not burst his three-day prison,
Our faith had been in vain;
But now is Christ arisen, arisen, arisen;
But now is Christ arisen” (CW: 160).
This small band of Christ’s saints have gathered on enemy turf. They are not afraid to break the cemetery’s silence with defiant shouts of “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” All around them the tombstones shout, “Dead!” but the saints cry out, “Alive!”
This group of Christians know that they are but strangers here, heaven is their home (CW: 417). There is a higher throne than all this world has known (CWS: 727). They will all be gathered soon to Jerusalem the Golden, with milk and honey blest (CWS: 728).
This faith is a confidence not of this world. It is a confidence from their God who entered our world, was crucified on a hill, buried in the ground, and on the third day came out alive! He left death dead. The grave was abandoned. The time of resting was over. Now it was the time of the resurrection. This confidence allows Christians all over to speak out, sing out, ring out this resurrection truth, despite every earthly evidence to the contrary.
The cemetery will be the most visible place of death’s defeat. Jesus will come down from heaven. This time He won’t be coming humbly like He did before. He won’t be hidden away in a tiny village, laid in a manger and wrapped in swaddling clothes. This time all eyes will see Him, even those who pierced Him (Revelation 1:7). He will be seated on His throne (Revelation 20:11). He will be wrapped in glory and majesty.
The same voice that Jesus used to call Lazarus out of his grave, and to wake up Jairus’ daughter, and resurrect the widow of Nain’s son, will be used to command the dead to rise from their graves. The voice of the archangel Michael and the trumpet call of the angels will usher in this great and glorious mass resurrection.
Death will die when Jesus returns. Death no longer has the final word.
The graves that had been so hungry in swallowing the dead will now be forced to vomit them up. The tombstones that had been Satan’s trophies will be smashed, split open, and overturned. Jesus smashes open the devil’s trophy case. He has taken His trophies back!
The Sabbath rest in the cemetery is over!
We are that small band of Christians who will gather numerous times at the cemetery. But understand what a cemetery is. It is only a house of rest, a temporary place for the sleeping bodies. Soon, the Lord of life will return to call forth the dead to awake from their slumber and enjoy an eternity of life in His home. We, and the rest of our believing saints – both dead and alive – are waiting for the day of the awakening. We will hear the alarm clock of the celestial trumpet rouse the sleeping from their Sabbath in the cemetery to the great resurrection. And so we will be with the Lord forever.
Therefore encourage one another with these words (1 Thessalonians 4:18). Amen.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with all the saints. Amen. (Revelation 22:21)