“I Know of a Sleep in Jesus’ Name”

 (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 – Saints Triumphant – November 15, 2020)

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 – 13But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. 14For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. 15For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. 16For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. 18Therefore comfort one another with these words.

Dear Redeemed in the name of Jesus Christ:

When a person dies, it is common to describe them as having fallen asleep. At a funeral, loved ones may comment on how the dearly departed looks so peaceful, almost like one sleeping. Especially if a person has dealt with many health problems and pains in their last days, it may be a comforting thought that now, at last, our loved one is at rest. For many, this image of death as a sleep provides some measure of comfort and closure. For while we miss our loved one, maybe now we too can find peace and move forward in life.

Our text speaks of the death of a believer in Christ as a kind of sleep. But it is not merely a euphemism, a nice sounding way to describe death in terms of a natural activity of life, even a peaceful one. It does not speak of death merely as a way to help us move on. Rather, it speaks of our hope beyond the grave for all who have died in Christ. It reminds us that, just as surely as Jesus died and rose again having won our salvation and eternal life; so also shall we who believe in Him. Though our bodies sleep in the dust of death, yet we shall rise with Him.

Let us as our theme the words of our hymn: “I Know of a Sleep in Jesus’ Name.” Even in death we may speak this way, for 1) The body is laid to rest in hope of the Resurrection; and as surely as Jesus lives, 2) The body will be awakened in triumph at the Last Day.

1) The body is laid to rest in hope of the Resurrection

The Thessalonians believers, to whom Paul wrote this epistle, were concerned about the fate of loved ones in Christ who had died. They had a misunderstanding that all believers should still be living when Jesus came again at the Last Day. They feared that if their loved ones in Christ had died before His second coming, they would somehow miss out on the resurrection.

So Paul reassures them that a believer’s body is laid to rest in hope of the resurrection. He writes in verses 13-14: “But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.”

When Paul spoke of others who sorrow without hope, he meant unbelievers around them. The ancient Greeks and Romans also spoke of their dead as having “fallen asleep”; but for them it was merely a euphemism. For them, there was no hope of a resurrection, no hope of the body rising again. Inscriptions on tombs and references in literature show that first century pagans viewed death with horror, as the end of everything. The Thessalonians believers, who were new to the faith, were tempted to listen to wrong ideas about death, and to sorrow like others.

Today too, there are many wrong ideas about death circulating around us, even among those who describe it as a kind of sleep. For many, death is simply the end of all things – the body is laid to rest in the grave, and that is it; there is no soul to live on, no afterlife. Others who believe in an afterlife may imagine a kind of soul sleep, in which the deceased is unconscious and unaware; maybe their spirit is waiting in limbo somewhere, or wandering in search of a resting place. Others think that the soul is reincarnated into a new body. And still others teach that a soul goes to purgatory to receive temporal punishments before ever entering heaven.

Scripture teaches differently. Hebrews 9:27 says: It is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment.” In Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus, he describes the believer’s soul at the moment of death being carried by the angels directly to the joys of heaven; but the unbeliever’s soul at the moment of death finds himself in the torments of hell (Luke 16:22-24).

For many, death is a sorrowful last goodbye, an uncertain entrance into the afterlife, or a fearful anticipation of judgment. How many, though they may describe death euphemistically as a peaceful sleep, nonetheless face death with sorrow and hopelessness?

Like the Thessalonians, are we sometimes tempted to sorrow as others who have no hope? Truly, the death of a loved one is a sorrowful time; committing their remains the dust is one of the hardest things we do. Our text is not saying it is wrong to feel sad when a loved one is taken from us. But it is saying that we need not sorrow as those without hope, not when we have a Savior who has come to conquer death and give us the hope of everlasting life.

Consider how Jesus Himself acted at the grave of a loved one. When He was brought to the tomb of his dear friend Lazarus, Scripture tells us: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). Jesus sorrowed because He knew death was not the way it should be. Death was the result of the temptation of Satan and the fall of mankind into sin. Hebrews 2:14-15 tells us: Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” And as almighty God in our flesh, standing at the grave of His dear friend, Jesus cried with a loud voice: “Lazarus come forth!” (John 11:43). And he who had been dead four days walked out of the grave.

When the Lord of Life came into the world, He did not deal with death in terms of euphemism. He did not sugarcoat it as something natural, peaceful, or even desirable. He came to conquer it as an enemy, to save us from it as a devastating consequence of our sinful condition. Romans 6:23 says: The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In that verse, the death that results from sin is set in contrast to the eternal life. The death that comes as a judgment for sin would include not only physical death, but eternal death and separation from the life of God. By contrast, eternal life is a gift of God in Christ Jesus. God sent His Son into our flesh to save us from the wages of sin by taking those wages on Himself. Jesus went to the cross bearing all our sin, to face judgment and punishment for us. God poured out all His wrath against our sin on His Son. When Jesus had paid the full price to redeem us from sin, death, and hell, He committed His spirit into His Father’s hands. His body was laid to rest in the tomb.

But that was not the end. God raised His Son from the dead. In this, we have the proof that Jesus has done everything to win our forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life with God. Jesus says in John 11:25-26 “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.”

So for a believer, the death of the body is in reality a kind of sleep. It is not merely a euphemism; for the body is laid to rest in hope of the resurrection. In many ways, it may appear as one who is sleeping, unaware of their surroundings. Yet the soul of the believer is alive and well. It is not in a soul sleep; it is not a soul waiting in limbo, or wandering about seeking a place to rest; it is not a soul in purgatory, awaiting entrance to heaven. But it is a blessed soul, alive in Christ and home in heaven. As Jesus said even to the repentant criminal on the cross next to Him, who believed in Him: “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). This is why we can sing so confidently in the face of death, in the words of our hymn:

I know of asleep in Jesus’ name, A rest from all toil and sorrow;

Earth folds in her arms my weary frame And shelters it till the morrow.

My soul is at home with God in heav’n; Her sorrows are past and over.

Recently our dear brother in Christ, __________, fell asleep believing in His living Savior. We thank God for having called him to saving faith. By the work of the Holy Spirit, he trusted the blood of Christ to cleanse him of all sin, and the righteousness of Christ to clothe him in holiness before God. We thank God for having preserved __________in the true faith; and that He has faithfully fulfilled all His promises and brought him to his heavenly home. This Saturday there will be a private graveside service, where we will express our living hope in Christ, as we say:

Forasmuch as it has pleased Almighty God in His wise providence to take out of this world the soul of our departed brother in the faith, we therefore commit his body to the ground: Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in the hope of the resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able to subdue all things to Himself. May God the Father, Who has created this body; May God the Son, Who by His blood has redeemed this body together with the soul; May God the Holy Spirit, Who by Baptism has sanctified this body to be His Temple, – keep these remains unto the day of the resurrection of all flesh. Amen.[1]

2) The body will be awakened in triumph at the Last Day

This side of heaven, we experience sorrow when a loved one in Christ has died. Yet we do not sorrow without hope. We lay their body to rest in hope of the resurrection. Our text assures us that our loved ones who have fallen asleep in Christ will not miss out on the joys of that day. For the body that is laid to rest in the grave will be awakened in triumph at the last day.

The apostle Paul writes in verses 15-16: “For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.”

This will happen on the Last Day, when Jesus comes again. “He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (Matthew 24:30-31). The Savior will bring together all believers through the ages, both those who died and those who are still living at His coming.

Just as He rose from the grave with a glorified body, He will give us a glorified body. 1 Corinthians 15:51-52, 54-57 says: “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed – in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed… then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’  ‘O Death, where is your sting?  O Hades, where is your victory?’  The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

We have seen our loved ones lying still, bodies overtaken by weakness and death. But we can look beyond that now. Our loved ones in Christ will be raised from the grave, as surely as Jesus Himself rose. They will not be left behind in the great resurrection. They will not miss out on the blessings of that day.

Nor will we, as Paul concludes in verses 17-18: “Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.” What comfort it gives us, as we look forward to seeing our loved ones in Christ raised with a glorious body. We too will be raised in own glorified bodies. In heaven, all trials and tribulations will be past; there will be no separation ever again. Together we will enter eternal life in the joy of saints triumphant!

Therefore even as we face death, we may confidently sing: “I know of a sleep in Jesus’ name.” We are not afraid to put our head on a pillow at night and go to sleep. Sleep is welcome as it brings rest; and we lie down in the hope of waking up refreshed in the morning. Like one sleeping, the body is laid in the earth; and it rests peacefully and securely in Christ, even as our soul lives on with Him in glory. And on the day of resurrection, at His voice, our body will be raised as one awaking to the refreshment of the new day, in the everlasting joys of heaven. So we sing:

I know of a morning, bright and fair When tidings of joy shall wake us,
When songs from on high shall fill the air And God to His glory take us,
When Jesus shall bid us rise from sleep – How joyous that hour of waking!

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. Amen.

[1] Handbook of Ministerial Acts, Evangelical Lutheran Synod, p. 40-41