St. Paul, as we have seen in 2 Corinthians, is a firm believer in dealing head on with the hardships of life. In fact, Paul is the one who, having suffered more than most others, can say that he takes pleasure in his infirmities. He has a doctrine that accepts suffering as a suffering with His Lord Jesus Christ and a suffering that is ultimately transformed into glory and joy – even in this life.
So Paul isn’t one to shrink from trials and tribulations. It is in the very midst of such difficulties that Paul is most encouraging to the churches to whom he writes. His encouragement is an earthly encouragement, meaning that he finds great encouragement from the Holy Spirit in this life, even at the moment of greatest suffering. He knows that this momentary and light suffering is producing an eternal weight of glory whose mass is felt even in this life.
But in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Paul offers a different, but related, kind of hope, and that is the hope of the resurrection.
I honestly don’t believe this passage is about a Rapture, which will take Christians out of the Great Tribulation. Even if it were, that hope wouldn’t do any good to any Christian of the past 2000 years who has had to live through all of the trials, tribulations, and persecutions that have been a normal part of Christian life ever since St. Paul wrote these words. St. Paul certainly didn’t seem to believe that he would be delivered any time soon from all that he suffered (one only has to think back to 2 Corinthians to see this.)
Paul’s main point is not that there will be a single Great Tribulation out of which faithful Christians will be raptured, 2000 years or more after he is writing of the Christian hope to the 1st century church at Thessalonica. Again, if that were the hope, then Christians of the past 2000 years would have been sadly disappointed, and what Paul was saying wouldn’t really have applied to the Thessalonians to whom he is writing.
No, Paul’s hope is in a more certain theology, and it is the theology that is at the very center of his teaching and of all genuinely Christian doctrine: the Resurrection.
His point is that we should not, ultimately, sorrow over Christians who have died, because we have absolute confidence that they will rise again. The Resurrection is a central doctrine, of course, because it teaches us that Jesus Christ defeated His enemies and ours: Satan, sin, and death. It teaches us and gives us hope that God is stronger than His enemies and that God will make things right again.
But the doctrine of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ doesn’t do us any good if it is not in some way intimately related to us. Therefore, Paul says in verse 14: “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.” This is our hope: that just as Jesus was resurrected from the dead by the power of God, so will those who are in Him.We may have friendly disputes about exactly how things will happen on the Day of Judgment, because there is so much that we don’t know. But there is one thing we must all be certain of, and that is that since Jesus Christ rose from the dead, so will those who are united to Him by baptism and by faith.
Paul’s immediate concern is that the Thessalonians, who have been grieving for those they love who have died and are uncertain about what will happen to them, will be comforted by the fact of the resurrection of the saints. Because of the absolute certainty of the resurrection to eternal life of those who love the Lord, Paul says that the Thessalonians should comfort one another with these words (verse 18.)
There is no greater pain than death, and there is no greater comfort than the promise of the resurrection to eternal life. This is St. Paul’s main point, and it is just as comforting to us 2000 years later as it was to the Thessalonians of Paul’s day.
But I find that there is another comfort we may find in the hope of the resurrection, and that is in our daily trials and tribulations. Though personally I find great comfort and joy in Paul’s encouragements to accept our suffering as a participation in the suffering of Christ, and all of the benefits that come from enduring suffering patiently with Him, I know that there must be more. I know that God did not create our lives to be full of suffering, and I know that this suffering will one day pass. I know that whatever my pain or grief today – whether physical suffering, mental anguish, enmity or conflict with another person, rejection, depression, persecution, financial trouble, worry over children, insecurity, loneliness, brokenness, failure, or grief – that one day all of this will completely and eternally pass away. These bitter, seemingly relentless sources of pain will all be gone for me one day.
Since Jesus Christ has risen from the dead, and since I will be raised with Him one day, I know with certainty that I and every faithful Christian will one day be delivered from every form of suffering. For one day, we will meet again with the Lord and will always be with Him forevermore.
Prayer: Father, I thank You for Your almighty hand which raised from the dead Your Son Jesus Christ. I thank You that You have not left us without hope but have assured us of our resurrection by Your Resurrection of Your only Son. Give me hope and comfort today, as I receive with faith again Your promise of eternal life with You in heaven.
Resolution and Point for Meditation: I resolve today to acknowledge all the suffering and grief I have today and to be comforted by the fact of the Resurrection, both the Lord’s and mine. I will spend at least a few minutes reflecting on my pain and then reflecting on the joys of the Resurrection. For each separate pain that I remember, I will allow the Lord to triumph over it by His Resurrection and the life He offers me today.
© 2013 Fr. Charles Erlandson