1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

An Everlasting Promise

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

An Everlasting Promise

Dr. Philip W. McLarty

The crisis of the early church in the first century was what theologians call “the delay of parousia.” To put it briefly, Jesus had said,

“In my Father’s house are many homes.
If it weren’t so, I would have told you.
I am going to prepare a place for you.
If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again,
and will receive you to myself;
that where I am, you may be there also.”
” (John 14:2-3)

The early Christians hung on these words and looked for the Second Coming to happen any day.

And because they thought Jesus might appear at any moment, they saw no need to make longterm commitments. Why scrimp and save if you’re only going to leave it behind?

Paul even urged the Corinthians not to enter into business transactions or to marry in order that they might devote their full attention to preparing themselves for the day of the Lord. He said,

“…The time is short, that from now on,
both those who have wives may be as though they had none;
and those who weep, as though they didn’t weep;
and those who rejoice, as though they didn’t rejoice;
and those who buy, as though they didn’t possess;
and those who use the world, as not using it to the fullest.
For the mode of this world passes away.
This I say for your own profit; not that I may ensnare you,
but for that which is appropriate,
and that you may attend to the Lord without distraction.”
(1 Corinthians 7:29-31, 35)

That worked for a while. But the Lord didn’t come as they had expected. In the meantime, faithful Christians were dying, and this created a crisis: What about them? And that’s what prompted Paul to write,

“…We who are alive, who are left to the coming of the Lord,
will in no way precede those who have fallen asleep.
For the Lord … will descend from heaven
…The dead in Christ will rise first,
then we who are alive … So we will be with the Lord forever.”
(1 Thessalonians 4:15-17)

It’s an everlasting promise: One day we shall be reunited with our loved ones in the glory of God’s eternal kingdom. The Carter family said it best when they sang this old song back in the 30s. You can sing along me, if you like:

“Will the circle be unbroken?
By and by Lord, by and by,
There’s a better home a-waitin’
In the sky Lord, in the sky.”

Our lot in life is simple: We long to love and be loved. And whether it’s a son or daughter, a brother or sister, a father or mother, a husband or wife, a co-worker or best friend, when we come into a genuine loving relationship with another person we want to hold on to it and make it last forever.

And it’s this very gift of loving relationships that sets the stage for the inevitable grief and loss we experience when those who are nearest and dearest to our hearts are taken from us.

It seems so cruel: “The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away.” Yet, through the eyes of faith we see a bigger picture, one in which life does not simply start and stop willy-nilly without any overall purpose; but one in which all life is interrelated and interconnected and joined together as part of a great continuum that stretches to infinity.

Yes, our experience is temporal. In this dimension of life everything that lives will one day die, including us and those we love. It’s only a matter of time. And if this were all there was to it, our lives would be pretty dismal. As Paul put it, “If we have only hoped in Christ in this life, we are of all men most pitiable.” (1 Cor. 15:19)

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The Good News is that Jesus died for the forgiveness of our sins and was raised from the dead that we might receive the gift of eternal life. Through faith in Jesus Christ we have the promise of another dimension of life beyond this world that’s complete and perfect and timeless. John envisioned it this way:

“I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth have passed away, and the sea is no more. I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband. I heard a loud voice out of heaven saying, ‘Behold, God’s dwelling is with people, and he will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away from them every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; neither will there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain, any more. The first things have passed away.'”

He who sits on the throne said, “‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ He said, ‘Write, for these words of God are faithful and true.’ He said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give freely to him who is thirsty from the spring of the water of life. He who overcomes, I will give him these things. I will be his God, and he will be my son.'” (Revelation 21:1-7)

But, until that day when God calls us home and we take our place among the saints on high, we grieve, as friends and loved ones are taken from us.

No one ever said it would easy. And it’s not. I don’t know of a greater experience of pain or loss than losing a loved one. What makes it bearable is that we’re not alone. God is with us. Jesus told his disciples,

“If you love me, keep my commandments. I will pray to the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, that he may be with you forever,— the Spirit of truth, whom the world can’t receive; for it doesn’t see him, neither knows him. You know him, for he lives with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans. I will come to you. Yet a little while, and the world will see me no more; but you will see me. Because I live, you will live also.” (John 14:15-19)

Through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit and the support of the community of faith that surrounds us, we find strength and courage to go on when those closest to us are taken away.

No one knew this better than Horatio Spafford. Horatio Spafford was born on October 20, 1828 in North Troy, New York. After graduating from law school, he moved to Chicago, where he started a small legal practice, got married and soon had a son and four daughters.

His practice took off, and he took his earnings and invested heavily in real estate on the shore of Lake Michigan. He had it all, or so it would seem – health, wealth and happiness.

Then the bottom dropped out. In 1870, his son died. A year later the great Chicago Fire took most of his property. Spafford was a devout Presbyterian and, in the wake of his loss, he looked to God and kept the faith.

He became friends with the great evangelist, Dwight L. Moody. In 1873, Moody invited him to come to Great Britain, where he was leading a revival. Spafford bought tickets for the whole family. They were to set sail in mid-November. But just before the date of their departure, problems came up at the office, and Spafford was forced to stay home. He sent his wife and daughters on ahead of him and promised to follow in a few days.

On November 22 their ship collided with another vessel and sank in twelve minutes. Several days later, now safely on shore in Wales, Mrs. Spafford wired her husband. The cable consisted of two words, “Saved alone.” Their four daughters were lost at sea.

Spafford took the first ship sailing to England to join his wife. As he approached the spot where the two ships had collided, he stood on the foredeck and gazed down into the deep, dark waters of the Atlantic Ocean. He wept and prayed and grieved over his children, and, as he did, the words of a hymn poured into his heart. He rushed down to his cabin and wrote these words:

“When peace like a river attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot Thou hast taught me to say,
‘It is well, it is well with my soul.’
And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend –
Even so, it is well with my soul.”

In 1873, Philip Bliss wrote the music to the hymn we sing today. He entitled the hymn tune, “Villa Du Havre,” which was the name of the ship on which the Spafford family had sailed. To this day, the hymn stands as a testimony to this everlasting promise: “We will be with the Lord forever.”

May that promise give you comfort, strength and hope and so, enable you to live on in faith – even in the face of grief and loss – evermore praising God, from whom all blessings flow.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Copyright 2005, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.