Great Texts of the Bible
Asleep in Jesus
But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning them that fall asleep; that ye sorrow not, even as the rest, which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also that are fallen asleep in Jesus will God bring with him.—1 Thessalonians 4:13-14.
St. Paul, in the early part of his ministry, with all the Christian disciples, was looking for the speedy return of Jesus. And the question was raised, “If it be so, if Jesus is coming to establish His Church, and we shall be with Him in His glory, then what of our brethren who have passed out of the world before us?” This was the absorbing question. Mothers had lost their children, brothers had lost their brothers. One by one these had passed out of their sight. And those who remained said, “What is to become of those who are taken away from us out of this visible world before Christ comes back here?” St. Paul’s answer was that they who remained and were alive should not “prevent” (go before) those who had passed away. Jesus would bring with Him those who had already died. He would go through the regions of the dead and bring back the souls that had once belonged to this world, and establish their lives. Thus those who had died and those whom Christ should find at His coming would be united and would dwell for ever with God.
The Epistles of St. Paul to the Thessalonians are the epistles of immortality. They have vibrated with rich assurance in multitudes of sorrowing Christian hearts, as men have stood on the borders of life and wondered what is to be their destiny in that state of being towards which their thoughts are so constantly pressing. The idea of immortality has given rise to the greatest emotions which it is possible for men to feel. It has caused the highest hopes and the most terrible fears. The immortal soul has anticipated its own immortality, and refused to believe in any specious argument that tells it life will end here. Pictures of that future life come floating down into this present life. Men have lived in that other world years before they went there. Men have kept company with the souls there in closer association than with those who were beside them all the time. Multitudes who have doubted the immortality of the soul in their days of ease have, in days of distress and strain, by the bedside of dear friends, believed with a deep human belief that nothing could shake. The heart of man finds its only satisfaction in the expectation of another life. The reaching after immortality has been the heart’s deepest underlying root in all the ages of mankind. This world is not enough. We put out our hand, and it falls on one little part of the great scenery; we listen, and hear but one note out of the great chorus. The Thessalonians believed in the other life because they found nothing in this life to satisfy them. We, too, lay hold on the great hope in order to forget how cruel, disappointing, and bewildering this life is which we are living here. And when that impulse rises in our hearts, and we look back amidst our cries and struggles and see the same impulse flickering or else blazing in lives gone before, we become stronger by the sight of their faith.1 [Note: Phillips Brooks, The Spiritual Man, 25.]
Sorrow for the Dead
1. There are two very different kinds of sorrow. There is, first, the sorrow which St. Paul here describes as the sorrow of “the rest which have no hope,” and elsewhere as “the sorrow of the world” that “worketh death.” We may hear it in the wail of paganism over the departed. It views life as a vast disorder, a chaos where all is blank, haphazard, meaningless, without a voice to comfort or a mind to explain. Its characteristic attitude is a surrender to the inevitable which treads with tight lips on to a silent grave. The first mark of this sorrow is that it is ignorant; and, as a natural result, its second mark is that it is hopeless, it cannot look forward. This is “the sorrow of the rest,” “the sorrow of the world.”
“If we believe that Jesus died and rose from the dead.” How much hinges on this! What step behind the Veil can we take without this? Is it annihilation, or is it metempsychosis, or is it absorption into the Divine Nature, if there be one? Ask all the ages, and you have just a dead silence of six thousand years. You may fancy a ghostly laugh at your perplexity, but it is all fancy. There is nothing so distinct as laughter. It is all blank and world-wide silence. There is a little dust before your eyes, and that is all you know of the matter.1 [Note: Letters of James Smetham, 171.]
2. In strong contrast, over against this sorrow of ignorance and despair, stands the sorrow that understands. It does not deny itself and affect an exaltation of spirit which it cannot feel. It is chastened and humble, accepting the strokes of affliction in patience, because it knows that they must be allowed by Almighty Love. It is a sorrow which develops sympathy, and sanctifies the affections, and breathes strength and nobility into character. It prepares the sufferer to minister comfort to others. It does not become cynical, but all the more tender for its grief, and more kindly in its judgment of others. Its first mark is that it believes and knows; and its second—and this is the result of its knowledge—that it is strong and joyful as it surveys the prospect of “the glory that shall be revealed.” This is the “godly sorrow,” the sorrow which is not as that of “the rest, which have no hope.”
In the catacombs of Rome, that wonderful city of the dead, where several millions have been laid to rest, there is no sign of mourning; everything—picture, epitaph, emblem—is bright and joyous. Although an almost countless number of these early followers of Christ were buried in the periods of bitter persecution, no hint of vengeance on their oppressors is engraved or painted; all breathes gentleness, forgiveness, immortal life. With calm, unwavering confidence these early Christians recorded in a few bright words their assurance that the soul of the departed brother or sister had been admitted to the happy lot reserved for the just who leave this world in peace, their certainty that the soul was united with the saints, their faith that it was with God, and in the enjoyment of good things. Intensely they realized that all the faithful, whether in the body or out of the body, were still living members of one great family, knit together in closest bonds of a love stronger than death. They believed with an intense faith in the communion of saints. And for the departed they knew of no break in existence, no long dreamless sleep, no time, long or short, of waiting for blessedness. The teaching of our Redeemer was remembered well: “To-day,” He said to the dying thief hanging by His side, “to-day shalt thou be with me in paradise!” This was the steady, unwavering faith of the Christians whose bodies rest in the vast cemetery which lies all round old Rome.1 [Note: H. D. M. Spence-Jones.]
The New Aspect of Death
1. There is nothing more marvellous in the history of Christianity than the change which it wrought in men’s views of death. The change is one stamped into the very life of humanity, however it may be explained. Whereas men had previously thought of death as only a great darkness, or a dreamless and perpetual sleep, they began to think of it as a change from darkness to light, and as a sleep with a glorious awakening. The brightness and joy were no longer here. This was not the true life from which men should shrink to part. All was brighter in the future; the higher life was above. Death was not only welcome, but joyfully welcome. To die was gain. It was “to depart, and be with Christ; which is far better.” This was not merely the experience of an enthusiastic Apostle; it became the overwhelming experience of hundreds and thousands. Death was swallowed up in victory. “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” was the triumphant echo from Jerusalem to Rome, and from Antioch to Alexandria, in thousands of hearts, that had but lately known no hope and shared no enthusiasm—not even the enthusiasm of a common country or common citizenship.
2. What is the explanation of all this? What was it that sent such a thrill of hopeful anticipation through a world dying of philosophic despair and moral perplexity and indifference? Was it any higher speculation? any intellectual discovery? any eclectic accident or amalgam of Jewish inspiration with Hellenic thought? Men had everywhere—in Greece and Rome, in Alexandria and Jerusalem—been trying such modes of reviving a dead world, of reawakening spiritual hopefulness; but without success. No mere opinion or combination of opinions wrought this great change. Men did not learn anything more of the future than they had formerly known; no philosopher had discovered its possibilities or unveiled its secrets. But there had gone forth from a few simple men, and from one of more learning and power than the others, the faithful saying that “Christ is risen indeed.” “Now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept.” And it was this suddenly inspired faith that raised the world from its insensibility and corruption, and kindled it with a new hope—and the joy of a life not meted by mortal bounds, but “incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away.”
3. It was on the strength of this assurance that St. Paul sought to comfort the Thessalonians. They had been—from what causes are not said—in anxiety as to the fate of their departed friends. They seem to have doubted whether these friends would share with them in the resurrection of the dead and the joy of the second coming of the Lord. The Apostle assured them that they had no need to be in trouble. The departed were safe with God, and the same great faith in the death and resurrection of Christ that sustained themselves was the ground of confidence for all.
Jesus Christ, who knew the universe, whose eye penetrated the unseen, who could not be mistaken, who knew the meaning of every word He spoke and of everything He did, died—died, committing His person and spirit into the hands of a Personal God, that God being His Father. Here is comfort; I feel it, I praise God for it; I see light amidst darkness; simplicity amidst confusion, a path passing through the mysteries of the unseen and going straight up to the throne of God; midnight and great depths are as a wall on either side, but the path itself is beautiful and safe, for Jesus, the very truth and life, goes before as my forerunner. Give me grace only to have this mind which was in Jesus—to be able amidst the agonies of death to see God as my Father, and to know nothing more than this, that I can commit myself into His hands, then, O Death, where is thy sting?—O Grave, where is thy victory?1 [Note: Norman Macleod, Love the Fulfilling of the Law, 219.]
I agree entirely with what you have said of Death in your last letter; but at the same time I know well that the first touch of his hand is cold, and that he comes to us, as the rest of God’s angels do, in disguise. But we are enabled to see his face fully at last, and it is that of a seraph. So it is with all. Disease, poverty, death, sorrow, all come to us with unbenign countenances; but from one after another the mask falls off, and we behold faces which retain the glory and the calm of having looked in the face of God. I know that it will please you if I copy here a little poem which I wrote in April, 1841, and of which I was reminded by what you said of Death in your last letter. It is crude in as far as its artistic merits are considered, but there is a glimpse of good in it.
Sin hath told lies of thee, fair angel Death,
Hath hung a dark veil o’er thy seraph face,
And scared us babes with tales of how, beneath,
Were features like her own. But I, through grace
Of the dear God by whom I live and move,
Have seen that gloomy shroud asunder rent,
And in thine eyes, lustrous with sweet intent,
Have read that thou none other wast but Love.
Thou art the beauteous keeper of that gate
Which leadeth to the soul’s desired home,
And I would live as one who seems to wait
Until thine eyes shall say, “My brother, come!”
And then haste forward with such gladsome pace
As one who sees a welcoming, sweet face;
For thou dost give us what the soul loves best—
In the eternal soul a dwelling-place,
And thy still grave is the unpilfered nest
Of Truth, Love, Peace, and Duty’s perfect rest.1 [Note: Letters of James Russell Lowell, i. 87.]
The Victory over Death
“This is the victory that overcometh the world,” says St. John, “even our faith.” And this is the victory, says St. Paul, that overcometh death. “If we believe,” he says. A weight of fact lies behind that “if.” St. Paul writes it in no doubtful mood, as indeed his Greek construction indicates. It is the “if” not of conjecture but of logic, as when we say that such and such results are certain if two straight lines cannot enclose a space. He brings the Thessalonians, anxious about their buried dear ones, back to a certainty of hope by appealing to this certainty of accomplished fact. They knew that Jesus had died and risen. Well then, granting that “if so,” with equal fulness of knowledge were they to say, “Even so them also that are fallen asleep in Jesus will God bring with him.” Was it a certainty to them that He had risen? Yes; and why? Because, on the one hand, adequate testimony attended the assertion, the testimony not only of the words of many witnesses, but of the moral miracle which those witnesses themselves were; they were transfigured men compared with what they had been before Jesus rose. On the other hand, the Thessalonians had themselves made proof of the transforming power of Him who was presented to them as risen again; they were themselves transfigured men, knowing God, loving God, at peace with Him now, and looking with indescribable assurance of hope for His glory hereafter.
1. It is plainly suggested in the text that in the fact that Jesus died there is a special consolation for those who sorrow for the dead. If Jesus had tasted of all that life brings to us except its close; if through the powers of His Divine nature He had in some way asserted and won for us eternal life apart from death, should we not feel that the darkest tract of human experience was untouched by His sympathy, even if it were transformed by His power? But now, is it not written, “Jesus died”? He is no stranger to the terrors of that mysterious land which one day we all must know. Death is not “the undiscovered country” to Him, for He has explored it for us that we should know no dread. He has stepped into the fast-running waters of that cold river which severs time and eternity, and lo! “a way for the ransomed to pass over” has marked the passage of His pierced feet. Christ died, and therefore Christianity is at home with grief for the dead; and the first condition of an ample comfort is satisfied in the assurance that there is nothing He does not know concerning death.
2. From the fact that “Jesus died,” the Apostle passes on to the triumphant sequel: “and rose again.” Here is the second fact which will illuminate sorrow and rob death of its sting. “We believe that Jesus rose again.” Think what Christ would have been to us, if our faith had been shut up to a bare knowledge that He died. If there had been no stone rolled away on the third morning would not His sepulchre in Joseph’s garden have been, in no small measure, the sepulchre of comfort too? Christian faith, which suns itself in the assurance that “now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept,” knows that it will lose all its brightness, its very vital breath even, if the certainty of that resurrection is broken, and the light and the warmth of that revelation are taken away. In the light of Christ’s resurrection alone does death assume or retain for us any higher meaning than for the ancient world. It is the light of the higher life in Christ which alone glorifies it. And unless this light has shone into our hearts, who can tell whence hope can reach us? We may be resigned or peaceful. We may accept the inevitable with a calm front. We may be even glad to be done with the struggle of existence, and leave our name to be forgotten and our work to be done by others. But in such a mood of mind there is no cheerfulness, no spring of hope. With such a thought St. Paul could comfort neither himself nor the Thessalonians. For himself, indeed, he felt that he would be intensely miserable if he had only such a thought. “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.” Hope in death can spring only from the principle of personal immortality; and this principle has no root save in Christ.
If we quit the living Christ, we quit all hold of the higher life. “If Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.” Heaven becomes a dumb picture; and death—euphemize it as we may—merely blank annihilation. We may say of our dear ones, as we lay them in the dust, that they have fallen asleep; but the gentle words have no true meaning. The sleep is without an awakening. The higher and hopeful side of the image is cut away. The night becomes a perpetual slumber, on which no morning shall ever arise. It is only in the light of the resurrection of Christ that the phrase represents a reality, and the idea of death is transfigured into a nobler life. Let us believe that behind the veil of physical change there is a spiritual Power from which we have come—one who is the Resurrection and the Life—in whom, if we believe, we shall never die,—and we may wait our change, not only with resignation, but with hope, and carry our personal affections and aspirations forward to another and a better state of being, in which they may be satisfied and made perfect.1 [Note: Principal Tulloch, Some Facts of Religion and of Life, 138.]
What do the words “bring with him” signify? Say, if you will, they are too high for us, we cannot attain to them,—and you speak truly. But do not cast them aside because they are too high for you. The sun which shows you all that is at your feet is always too high for you to ascend to it, too bright for you to gaze upon it. These words may be full of illumination to us, in some of our dreariest and darkest hours, though they must be fulfilled to us, before the mists which rise from below to obscure them to us can be entirely scattered.2 [Note: F. D. Maurice, Christmas Day, 405.]
The Name for Death
1. It is to Jesus primarily that the New Testament writers owe their use of sleep as the gracious emblem of death. The word was twice upon our Lord’s lips; once when over the twelve-year-old maid, from whom life had barely ebbed away, He said, “She is not dead, but sleepeth”; and once when in reference to the man Lazarus, from whom life had removed further, He said, “Our friend sleepeth, but I go that I may awake him out of sleep.” But Jesus was not the originator of the expression. We find it in the Old Testament, where the prophet Daniel, speaking of the end of the days and the bodily resurrection, designates those who share in it as “them that sleep in the dust of the earth.” And the Old Testament was not the sole origin of the phrase. For it is too natural, too much in accordance with the visibilities of death, not to have suggested itself to many hearts, and to have been shrined in many languages. Many an inscription of Greek and Roman date speaks of death under this figure; but almost always it is with the added, deepened note of despair, that it is a sleep which knows no waking, but lasts through eternal night.
2. The expression in the text “them also that are fallen asleep in Jesus,” suggests a very tender and wonderful thought of closeness and union between our Lord and the living dead, so close that He is, as it were, the atmosphere in which they move, or the house in which they dwell. But, tender and wonderful as the thought is, it is not exactly the Apostle’s idea here. For, accurately rendered, the words run, “them which sleep through Jesus.” They “sleep through Him.” It is by reason of Christ and His work, and by reason of that alone, that death’s darkness is made beautiful, and death’s grimness is softened down to this. What we call death is a complex thing—a bodily phenomenon plus conscience, the sense of sin, the certainty of retribution in the dim beyond. The mere physical fact of death is a trifle. Look at it as you see it in the animals; look at it as you see it in men when they actually come to it. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred it is painless and easy, and men sink into slumber. Strange, is it not, that so small a reality should have power to cast over human life so immense and obscuring a shadow! Why is it? Because, as St. Paul says, “the sting of death is sin,” and if you can take the sting out of it then there is very little to fear, and it comes down to be an insignificant and transient element in our experience. Now, the death of Jesus Christ takes away the nimbus of apprehension and dread arising from conscience and sin, and the forecast of retribution. Jesus Christ has abolished death, leaving the mere shell, but taking all the substance out of it. It has become a different thing to men, because in that death of His He has exhausted the bitterness, and has made it possible that we should pass into the shadow, and not fear either conscience or sin or judgment.
We may tell the story of the Christian’s burial no longer in that brief hollow phrase which to the ancients seemed the tenderest allusion that could be made to the deceased, “Non est,” he is not; but in words like those of Bunyan’s, so fragrant of heart’s-ease and immortelle,—“The pilgrim they laid in a chamber whose window opened towards the sunrising; the name of that chamber was Peace, where he slept till the break of day.”1 [Note: A. J. Gordon, In Christ, 189.]
Notice with what a profound meaning the Apostle, in this very verse, uses the bare, naked word “died” in reference to Christ, and the softened one “sleep” in reference to us. “If we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep.” Ah! yes! He died indeed, bearing all that terror with which men’s consciences have invested death. He died indeed, bearing on Himself the sins of the world. He died that no man henceforward need ever die in that same fashion. His death makes our death sleep, and His Resurrection makes our sleep calmly certain of a waking. It is profoundly significant that throughout the whole of the New Testament the plain, naked word “death” is usually applied, not to the physical fact which we ordinarily designate by the name, but to the grim thing of which that physical fact is only the emblem and the parable, viz. the true death which lies in the separation of the soul from God; whilst predominately the New Testament usage calls the physical fact by some other gentler form of expression.1 [Note: Alexander Maclaren.]
The Great Consummation
1. The one great assurance of the New Testament in regard to the eternal world—an assurance that ought to be satisfactory and sufficient—is that those who have gone before are with God. Let that cheer us. Let us restrain our wondering and curiosity, or be willing that they should not be satisfied, so long as we know with certainty that every soul passing out of this mortal life into the immortal is with the great, true, loving, unforgetting Father. Such souls are in the hands of a mercy that never fails, in the hands of a power that can provide for all the wants of that unknown life. Is there not, in this teaching which St. Paul sent back by Timothy to the Thessalonians, a kind of answer to one of the deepest questions which we ask? We have here the assurance that there shall be no separation of those who have passed before from those who are left behind. God will gather together all souls, and they shall be together through all eternity.
Is it not true that the fact that our beloved are with the Lord is assuredly meant to develop a new gravitation of the soul towards “that world”? On earth if a dear friend leaves us for the other hemisphere, for a place perhaps of which we never heard before, there rises for us a new interest there, a new attraction. We busy ourselves to find out all we can about the locality and the life, and we supplement information with imagination for very love. “Where the treasure is, there is the heart also.” We live where our affections are. Even so, will not thought and aspiration be even unconsciously magnetized towards the Home which now holds our holy ones? Shall we not through them be drawn anew towards the Lord with whom they now converse face to face.1 [Note: H. C. G. Moule, Concerning Them Which are Asleep, 18.]
2. There are inevitably some perplexities which result from the finiteness of our nature, and the impossibility of comprehending the infinite. We have looked in imagination into the other world, and seen it thronged and crowded with the millions in all the ages sweeping into it, and we have said, “How shall we find the few scattered souls that we have known on earth?” The doubt comes of finiteness. Those few souls are for us essentially the souls of the everlasting life. Next to the Saviour and the Father and the Holy Spirit, the souls through whose ministry our soul has been helped are to us the dwellers in the heavenly world. We shall go to them there as each soul goes to its own degree and place in the life of the New Jerusalem. We come back to the truthfulness of our first impulse, and know that we are to be not only for ever with the Lord, but for ever with all those we love. The question, “Shall we know each other there?” presses upon the souls of believers in all ages. The Thessalonians longed, as we long, for the everlasting company of those near and dear. And St. Paul’s assurance was that God would bring them who had gone before, and fasten their lives to the lives of those whom Christ should find here at His coming. They who had gone before should come, with all the life opened to them in their immortality, and there should be no separation. We cannot think of ourselves apart from those whom we most intimately love. But that which has laid hold on the spirit is part of the spirit. We know it by the way in which we live continually a part of the life of those who have passed to the eternal world. We are not separated from them now. We live in memory of what we know they once were, and in thought of what they are now in the eternal world. We shall not merely be with those with whom we have had spiritual communion here; we shall be with them as we have never been with them here. The bodily differences will be taken away, the prisons will be broken open, our souls will meet in close union as they have never met here on earth.
If we think much of those whom we have loved on earth, and who have passed out of sight, we try to follow them, to be imitators of those who now “inherit the promises.” They are above us, but not too much above us. They are still branches of the same vine, members of the same Body. The branches of the tree are equally near to each other, whether the moonlight shine on all or only on one branch. The hand in the shadow and the hand in the light are not more near to each other, than we are to them. If one hand is in the light and one hand in the shadow, they are not really more separated than when both were in the light or both in the shadow. The union remains, the union with Christ, and with each other.1 [Note: G. H. Wilkinson, The Communion of Saints, 25.]
To our child as she approached eternity, there was given (I cannot use a weaker word than given) a conviction—I may venture to call it an intuition, so calm and balanced was the certainty—that in that new life “with the Lord” she would still be near to us and “know about us.” Of course we do not treat her expectations as a revelation. But when we put them into context with the intimations of the written Word, we find in them a gentle light in which to read those intimations more clearly. That “cloud of witnesses” who are seen in the glass of Scripture (Hebrews 12:1), watching their successors as they run the earthly course, are assuredly permitted to be cognizant of us and of our path. And the same great Epistle informs us, on our side, in the same chapter (Hebrews 12:23), that we, in Christ, “have come,” not only (wonderful fact) “to an innumerable company of angels,” but also “to the spirits of the just made perfect.” “In vain our fancy strives to paint” the conditions of contact and cognizance. But it is enough to have even the most reserved intimation from the Divine Book that a contact there is. And the subordinate evidence of experience is not wanting. Instances may be few, but instances there are, as trustworthy as sound evidence can make them, of leave given to mourning Christians to know, mysteriously but directly, that their beloved have indeed been near them in full and conscious love.2 [Note: H. C. G. Moule, Concerning Them Which are Asleep, 14.]
Not mine the sad and freezing dreams
Of souls that, with their earthly mould,
Cast off the loves and joys of old.…
No! I have Friends in Spirit-land,
Not shadows in a shadowy band,
Not others but themselves are they.
And still I think of them the same
As when the Master’s summons came;
Their change, the holy morn-light breaking
Upon the dream-worn sleeper, waking—
A change from twilight into day.1 [Note: J. G. Whittier.]
Asleep in Jesus
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