Asleep in Christ, at Home with the Lord

Hello brothers and sisters!

As many of you know, we are currently working our way through the book of 1 Thessalonians on Sunday mornings, and this past week I preached on Paul’s stunning teaching concerning the Second Coming of Christ in 4:13-5:11. One of the things we considered in 4:13-17 is how Jesus, by his Cross and Resurrection, has transformed death into sleep for his followers and that at his Second Coming “the dead in Christ will rise” (4:16). This word encourages us and teaches us “not to grieve as others do who have no hope” (4:13).

And yet, Paul’s language of “sleep” raises other questions. For instance, are the saints who have “fallen asleep” in a state of unconsciousness until the final resurrection? What about the thief on the cross, to whom Jesus said, “today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:43)? For better or worse, I did not go into this in my sermon. But I have since had several of you ask me about this, so I figure it might be helpful to (briefly!) offer a bit more biblical clarity in response to these important questions.

While so much remains a mystery this side of heaven, the Bible repeatedly affirms two things:

First, Scripture teaches that all who die in the Lord are “asleep in Christ”, awaiting the final resurrection of the body. This is what Paul is speaking into in 1 Thessalonians 4. He also uses this same language about sleep and the final resurrection of the body in 1 Corinthians 15:16-23:
For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.  Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.  If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.  But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.  For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.  But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.
The idea here is the same as what we thought about on Sunday. Christians do not believe that the body is lost forever, but that, like Christ, our bodies are seeds that at death are sown into the ground, waiting to be raised, or “awoken” at the return of Christ. Jesus’ own Resurrection is our great example (the “first fruits”, or the “first to wake up”) of what will one day happen to all our bodies. This bodily resurrection is central to Christian hope, and we await it with eager anticipation.

Second, Scripture teaches that all who who die in Jesus go to be “with the Lord.” While Paul is clear that all the saints await the final resurrection of the body, he is also clear that those who have died enjoy precious spiritual fellowship with Jesus in between death and resurrection. This is where the thief on the cross comes in. It is also why we do not believe in “soul sleep”, which is the idea that at death we go completely unconscious or spiritually dormant (this is taught by Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists).

Consider Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:6-8: "So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” Paul understood that though death would mean a temporary separation from the body (being “away from the body”), it would mean being “at home” with the Lord. He reaffirms this in Philippians 1:21-23: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain… I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” 

On top of this, the Bible teaches that the departed saints join “the great cloud of witnesses” and “the assembly of the firstborn” in heaven (Hebrews 12:1,23). This is what we thought about on All Saints’ Sunday in the doctrine of the Communion of Saints. The faithful departed go from the Church Militant to the Church Triumphant. We get glimpses in Revelation of the departed saints who are, even now, worshipping with all the host of heaven and pleading before the throne God (Revelation 4:4, 10, 11; 5:8-10; 13; 6:9-11; 7:9-12). As we discussed, we join with them in worship every Sunday, and we await with them the same bodily resurrection and final judgment, crying out from both sides of earth and heaven: “how long, O Lord?” 

To conclude,
in Christian theology, and more practically, as we stand over our loved ones’ graves, the Bible teaches us to cling to these two comforting realities at the same time. On the one hand, those who die in Christ go to be “at home with the Lord.” They are enrolled in the assembly of the Church Triumphant and get to wash their robes white in the blood of the Lamb, resting from their earthly labors in God’s presence. Yet, on the other hand, we do not believe in a dis-embodied eternity. Rather, we believe our bodies will rest in sleep after death, just as Christ rested in death on Holy Saturday. And thus we groan with all Creation in eager anticipation for that Day when the trumpet will sound, the perishable seeds of our bodies will be raised imperishable, the children of God will be revealed with the New Heavens and the New Earth, “and we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:17).

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