This hope does two things for the believer. First, it gives the Christian a quiet, calming confidence and peace that tempers the raw emotions of the day, and second, it gives the Christian the freedom to grieve, to weep, to mourn. You weep because you love the one who died, the separation of death is a tragedy, a tragedy that even Jesus felt. But your weeping is not hopeless, it is not wild and despairing; you weep as one who knows that the separation is only temporary: you will see them again. “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep.” Your confidence isn’t without basis; it isn’t some ‘pie in the sky’ dream or a pious wish that ‘good people go to heaven.’ No, the hope sustains you as you grieve is founded on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because Jesus died and rose again, because His grave is empty, we have confidence that the grave of our loved one will be empty one day, that our grave will empty. Those who believe in the One who conquered death will themselves conquer death; those who belong to the One who died in their place know that death has no permanent hold on them. Because Jesus died, because Jesus rose, we can say with confidence that those who died in Jesus are simply sleeping.
Three times in our text Paul says that those who have died in Christ are asleep. Jesus said this to the crowd, and the world laughed at Him. ‘They’re not sleeping, they’re dead!’ the world cries with anger and sorrow. But this word, ‘asleep,’ is the core of our hope. One who is asleep will awake; one who is asleep is waiting for the dawn, for the sun to rise. Sleep is not a permanent condition, and for the believer, death is not permanent either. Their bodies sleep in the ground, waiting to be awakened, but their souls are with Jesus. We should not make this word ‘asleep’ say more than it is meant to say, as if the saints are in limbo, and not with Jesus, as if they are unaware of heavenly bliss. Know this, dear friends, while their bodies sleep in the grave, still on this earth, the dead in Christ enjoy the fellowship of Jesus, their souls are with Him, right now. But even they are waiting, for they were created body and soul. Even though they are in the presence of the Lord, they still cry out, “How long?” Their salvation is still not yet complete, they still haven’t received their full inheritance, they are waiting for the trumpet to sound.
“For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God.” If the dead in Christ are asleep, that means they will awake; if the dead in Christ are asleep, that means they are waiting for the dawn. That is why the trumpet sounds, that is why the archangel shouts, not simply to alert the living, but to wake the dead. This is the great alarm clock of the Last Day, to awake all the sleeping. The dead haven’t missed out on anything, whether it is Abel, the first man to die, or the man who dies a second before the trumpet sounds: all will hear the sound, and all will awake.
There is no difference between the dead and the living on the Last Day. The dead will rise first, only because the living don’t need to rise; but all will be transformed. All will hear the cry of command, all will be changed. This mortal body will put on immortality; this lowly body will put on glory. This is true for every believer that has ever died, and every believer who is alive on that Day. There will be one generation that will not taste death, but know this, dear friends: all believers in Christ have conquered death, all believers live even though they die. On that Day, the living, those whose bodies are still awake, will join the dead, those whose bodies were asleep, and together we will be with Jesus. “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.”
This is what all the saints are waiting for, those of us who are still alive, and those who have died and are with Jesus: resurrection. As Christ is raised, never to die again, so we will be raised, never to taste of sin or corruption ever again. And what will happen to our bodies will happen to this creation: it will be renewed and restored, cleansed from sin and corruption. Our existence for eternity will not be floating on the clouds, disembodied spirits wandering through a dreamland, but a real, physical existence, more real than anything we have experienced before, because there is no sin to corrupt it. It will be like turning a television from black and white to color, or waking up from a dream; not that this world isn’t real, but the world to come will be more, it will be better, it will be perfect.
For whatever else the new creation will be, Paul’s declaration will remain true: “We will always be with the Lord.” In the new heavens and the new earth, we will see Jesus face to face, in our bodies, just as Christ is Himself still true man. He will never shed His body, and neither will we, but will have fellowship with our God as He always intended. That is the result of the Last Day, and it is crystal clear: “We will always be with the Lord.” So much ink has been spilled, and so many pages wasted, speculating about the Last Day. Especially this text has been mined to figure out clues on how that Day will go. But Paul writes it not to give us a guidebook to the Last Day; instead he writes to encourage us about the results of the Last Day: the dead will be raised, they will join those who are alive, and “we will always be with the Lord.” The Lutheran Church’s confession of the Last Day is just as simple, proclaimed in the Small Catechism: “On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ.” One sentence, simple and clear, on a topic that others spend thousands of pages making muddy and complex. The dead are raised, and eternal life is given to believers, you and me. That’s it. That’s all.
“Therefore encourage one another with these words.” The Last Day is not a day to fear; for those who cling to Christ in the faith created by the Holy Spirit, the Last Day is a day to look forward to, to anticipate, to rejoice in. Encourage one another with the sure and certain confidence that the dead in Christ are sleeping; they will awake, and they are even now with Jesus in His glory, awaiting with the Church on earth the Day that is coming, the Day of victory, the Day of resurrection. Encourage one another with the simple confession of the Last Day, telling each other the truth: on that Day Jesus will fully deliver to you and me all that He won with His death and resurrection. As He rose, so you too will rise, and as He lives, so you too will live, for He died bearing your sin and He rose leaving it behind Him in the grave. “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” Amen.