Pastor David B. Curtis

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Those Who Are Asleep

(1 Thess. 4:13)

Delivered 08/07/22

We are continuing our study of 1 Thessalonians this morning. And today we come to verse 13 of chapter 4. From 4:13 through 5:11, the context is about the Second Coming. Paul has already talked about it at the end of chapter 1, 2, and 3, but now he deals with it again at the end of chapter 4. It's safe to say that eschatology is a major subject in this letter. Let's look at our text.

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 1 Thessalonians 4:13 ESV

"But we do not want you to be uninformed"—the word "uninformed" here is from the Greek word agnoeo which means "to be ignorant or unaware of, to be without understanding." This is a common phrase in Paul's writings (cf. Romans 1:13; 11:25; 1 Corinthians 10:1; 12:1; 2 Corinthians 1:8). Usually it introduced an important statement, similar to Yeshua's use of "Amen, amen."

What was it that he didn't want them to be uninformed about? "About those who are asleep." Then he says, "that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope."  "That" here is hina, a conjunction introducing the purpose, aim, or goal. Paul wanted to remove both their ignorance and their grief, but the solution to their grief lay in removing their ignorance. Knowing the Word is fundamental to all spiritual stability. Spiritual stability is related to the attitudes that you have; it's not related to your circumstances. In other words, it's related to how you think, especially how you think about God. Show me a stable person in the midst of conflict, and I'll show you someone who knows God. For example, in Acts 16, we are told that Paul has been beaten and put in the inner prison in stocks for preaching the gospel. Notice his response.

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, Acts 16:25 ESV

Can you in the slightest way relate to that? They are not rejoicing in their circumstances but in their God who controls all circumstances. If you know God, really know Him, it will always be easy for you to rejoice in Him. Biblical ignorance destroys stability. This is why Christians need to read their Bibles. We need to read them over and over again.

Paul calls them "brothers"—this is a technical term for believers. He tells them that he doesn't want them to be uninformed "about those who are asleep."

Paul often uses this preposition "about" to introduce his answers to the Corinthian Church's questions. That seems to be what he is doing here. In chapter 3, verse 1, Paul mentions how he couldn't endure any longer not knowing about them. In verse 2 he says that Timothy was sent, and then in verse 6, he states that Timothy had come back. And when Timothy came back, he brought to Paul good news of their faith and love. Well, it seems Timothy also brought back some questions that the Thessalonians had. One of those questions concerned the believers who had already died? What would happen to them at the Parousia?

Since Paul had left Thessalonica, some of the members had died. Their loved ones were grieving. They thought, "Oh, no. They died before Yeshua came and, thus, they're going to miss the glorious kingdom of God."

So, their question is about, "those who are asleep"—the word "asleep" here is koimaō which is used in the Scripture for both sleep and death. Sleep is used here as a metaphor or a figure of speech. A figure of speech directly compares one thing to another thing that we are familiar with. Sleep portrays what death means for a believer. As the sleeper does not cease to exist while his body sleeps, so the dead person continues to exist. The grave is like a bed. The Bible never describes the death of the unbeliever as sleep.

Sleeping is a euphemism for death in ancient pagan writings and in the Scriptures. Jewish literature of the time could use "sleep" with the double sense of physical death and ongoing existence.

The word cemetery comes from the word used here, koimao, and it means a place of sleep. Early Christians began to call their burial places "cemeteries," which means, "dormitories" or "sleeping places." Sleep as a metaphor for death implies that death is only temporary. You wake up from sleep. Yeshua used this term just prior to His raising of Lazarus from the dead.

After saying these things, he said to them, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him."  John 11:11 ESV

Lazarus was dead, he had been for four days, and Yeshua viewed his resurrection as waking him up.

Paul was careful not to use the word sleep with reference to the death of Christ.

For since we believe that Yeshua died and rose again, even so, through Yeshua, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 1 Thessalonians 4:14 ESV

The only time the concept of sleep is used of our Lord's death is in the words, "the first fruits of those who are asleep." The difference between Yeshua's experience and that of believers is that he endured death, actual separation from God for the sins of the elect. Because of his death, Christian death has been transformed into sleep.

Theologians and Scholars when talking about the death of a believer as sleep will add that it is only the body that sleeps, the spirit they say goes immediately into the presence of the Lord. They will use passages like Luke 16 to prover a conscience existence of the dead. They will use verses like the following:

Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 2 Corinthians 5:8 ESV

These are attempts to prove that only the body sleeps, while the soul/spirit goes to be with the Lord.

Doesn't this mean that if Paul were to die, his spirit would be with Christ? I don't think so because until the second coming, men didn't go into God's presence. What we see here may be a prolepsis. A prolepsis is the representation or assumption of a future act or development as if presently existing or accomplished. Or Paul may be talking about the body of Moses in the sense that to be away from the Old Covenant body of Moses is to be with the Lord.

The predominant view of the church today is that when a person dies, his body goes to the grave and sleeps while their soul/spirit goes to heaven, into God's presence, to await the resurrection of the body.

The problem with this view is that according to the Bible, no one goes to heaven prior to the second coming of Christ. Since the predominant view is that the coming of Christ is still future to us, that would mean that nobody is in heaven.

Look at what Yeshua said.

who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. Mark 10:30 ESV

I want you to notice the last phrase in this verse: "And in the age to come, eternal life."

What does Yeshua mean when He says they will receive "eternal life" in the age to come? Commenting on "and in the age to come eternal life," Swete says it is "The age which is to follow the Parousia." Is he saying that no one has eternal life until the Second Coming of Christ? Sounds like it.

To understand what Yeshua is saying, we need to understand that throughout the New Testament we see two ages in contrast: "This age," and the "age to come." The understanding of these two ages and when they changed is fundamental to interpreting the Bible and understanding when eternal life is received.

The New Testament writers lived in the age that they called "this age." To the New Testament writers, "the age to come" was future, but it was very near because "this age," the age they lived in, was about to end.

"This age" came to an end with the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. The New Testament writers lived in what the Bible calls "this age." "This age" of the Bible is the age of the Old Covenant that was about to pass away in the first century. It should be clear to you that "this age" is not the Christian age in which we live. In the first century, the age of the Old Covenant was fading away and would end completely when the Temple was destroyed in AD 70.

If eternal life was a condition of the "age to come," do the New Testament saints who lived in "this age" not yet have eternal life? Or we could ask the question this way: When did believers receive eternal life? To answer that question, we first need to understand that prior to Yeshua's messianic work, man did not go to Heaven. When men died, they went to a holding place of the dead and waited for the atoning work of Christ and the resurrection from the dead. In the Tanakh, the Hebrew word for where they were prior to the resurrection is Sheol. In the New Testament, the Greek word is Hades.

If Yeshua has not yet returned in his Second Coming, as the majority of the church teaches, then no one has eternal life. If the dead have not yet been resurrected, which happens at the Second Coming, then no one is yet in heaven. But where do most Christians believe that they go at death? Heaven! Have you ever been to a Christian funeral?

Heaven was not opened until the Second Coming because salvation was not complete until the return of Christ:

So, Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. Hebrews 9:28 ESV

This is the only place in the New Testament where the return of Christ is called a Second Coming. His appearing is said to be "for salvation."

Peter states that their salvation was not yet complete.

who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 1 Peter 1:5 ESV

When was salvation ready to be revealed? In the last time—which would happen at the return of Christ. If Christ has not returned, salvation is incomplete, and no one has yet gone to heaven. Salvation is tied to eschatology in that the Second Coming brought the fullness of salvation.

So, prior to Christ's Parousia, all who died were said to sleep. This brings us to the concept of Sheol. To the Hebrew mind Sheol was simply the state or abode of the dead.

The big debate between Jeff and me is the nature of Sheol.

According to The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE), Brown, Driver and Briggs Hebrew Lexicon, Hastings Bible Dictionary, Sheol is the place of departed spirits. Inasmuch as Sheol is often located as "down" in the Tanakh, the Hebrew cosmology is said to include a subterranean gloomy place like the Babylonian netherworld or Greek Hades.

The Tanakh uses many metaphors and similes to describe Sheol, but the bottom line is that it is death. So, I see Sheol used to speak not of a subterranean place or realm where the spirits of the dead are hanging out, but of death and the grave. When someone is in Sheol, he is dead, he is sleeping. But the hope of Israel was resurrection, that Yahweh would raise them from death. The Bible teaches that all who were in Sheol would be resurrected at the Second Coming of Christ.

And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Daniel 12:2 ESV

So, at the Second Coming all the dead are raised. The righteous go into the presence of Yahweh and the wicked are cast into the lake of fire.

The term Sheol is used 65 times in the Tanakh. I have looked up every one of them and none of them conflict with the idea of grave in my understanding. Let's look at some of them while keeping in mind the idea of death as sleep.

Sheol is used four times in Genesis. Jacob, mourning for his son, is said to be in danger of going down to Sheol. Genesis 44:31, has "death" in parallel with "going down to Sheol." The translation "grave" instead of Sheol as in the KJV is suitable and widely acknowledged as correct.

But if the LORD creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the LORD." Numbers 16:30 ESV

Korah and his company "went down alive into Sheol."

And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the people who belonged to Korah and all their goods. So, they and all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol, and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly. Numbers 16:32-33 ESV

But not only did Korah and his people go to Sheol. Their houses and goods went also. Korah and his people and all their goods did not go to a subterranean place of departed spirits! The obvious meaning is that he and his goods were all buried alive in the earth. Korah was simply buried alive. He went to Sheol, the grave, alive. His body and Spirit when to Sheol alive.

So, contrary to The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE), Brown, Driver and Briggs Hebrew Lexicon, Hastings Bible Dictionary, which says that Sheol is the place of departed spirits, here we see people going bodily into Sheol.

The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. 1 Samuel 2:6 ESV

In the context, Hannah is exalting Yahweh's power and goodness. The poetic parallel is "Yahweh kills and brings to life." "Raises up" has nothing to do with shades or with resurrection. It merely means preserving from death.

The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of destruction assailed me; the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me. Psalms 18:4-5 ESV

David is talking about death and the grave. He speaks of them as the king of terrors, as we would say. But no abode of departed spirits is in view. Is David's spirit being bound by cords? In 1 Kings 2:6 and 7, the aged David advises Solomon to bring down Joab and Shimei to Sheol (i.e., to kill them). To bring them down to the grave is all that is implied.

If I hope for Sheol as my house, if I make my bed in darkness, if I say to the pit, ‘You are my father,' and to the worm, ‘My mother,' or ‘My sister,' where then is my hope? Who will see my hope? Will it go down to the bars of Sheol? Shall we descend together into the dust?" Job 17:13-16 ESV

Job is talking about death and the grave.

Oh, that you would hide me in Sheol, that you would conceal me until your wrath be past, that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me!  Job 14:13 ESV

This is equivalent to wishing for death.

If a man dies, shall he live again? All the days of my service I would wait, till my renewal should come. Job 14:14 ESV

The word "renewal" here is chălı̂yphâh. What is interesting here is what verse 7 says.

"For there is hope for a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease. Job 14:7 ESV

The word "sprout" here is châlaph which is derived from the same root as is "renewal" in verse 14.  Job is expressing his faith that God has reserved a "sprouting again," a resurrection for man.

For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption. Psalms 16:10 ESV

The word "soul" here is nephesh which means breath or life.

he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. Acts 2:31 ESV

We could translate Psalm 16:10: "For you will not abandon me to the grave, or let your holy one see corruption." The verse teaches a resurrection of the body from the grave and clearly applies to Christ as the New Testament indicates. This is talking about Christ's body not seeing corruption.

Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol. Proverbs 23:13-14 ESV

This can simply mean to preserve a child from an untimely death.

Your pomp is brought down to Sheol, the sound of your harps; maggots are laid as a bed beneath you, and worms are your covers. Isaiah 14:11 ESV

This says the king of Babylon is brought down to Sheol, a place of worms and maggots. That sounds like a grave, doesn't it?

I shall ransom them from the power of Sheol; I shall redeem them from Death. O Death, where are your plagues? O Sheol, where is your sting? Compassion is hidden from my eyes. Hosea 13:14 ESV

The parallel to Sheol is "death." The passage is most naturally taken to refer to the grave. And this is how it is clearly used in I Corinthians 15:55.

"O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?"  1 Corinthians 15:55 ESV

This passage loses its point if Sheol is taken as the place of departed spirits.

Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going. Ecclesiastes 9:10 ESV

If this means "the grave," it is true. The body is still in death. But if this means "the abode of departed conscience spirits," it is not true.

Scholars today teach that before the Second Coming the bodies of the dead go to the grave and sleep while their soul/spirts go to heaven where they are conscience and wait on the resurrection. But this is not what the Bible teaches. The Bible teaches that there is no praise to God and no remembrance in Sheol.

For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?  Psalms 6:5 ESV
Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the departed rise up to praise you? Selah Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon? Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness? Psalms 88:10-12 ESV
The dead do not praise the LORD, nor do any who go down into silence. Psalms 115:17 ESV

If the dead are conscience, why are they not praising God? The Scriptures teach that man and animal all go to the same place—the grave.

Man in his pomp will not remain; he is like the beasts that perish. Psalms 49:12 ESV
Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol; death shall be their shepherd, and the upright shall rule over them in the morning. Their form shall be consumed in Sheol, with no place to dwell. Psalms 49:14 ESV
Man in his pomp yet without understanding is like the beasts that perish. Psalms 49:20 ESV

Notice what Yeshua teaches about the dead.

"Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. John 5:25 ESV

Those who were dead hear Yeshua's voice and they come to life. Are those in Sheol considered to be dead or alive? Here we have dead people coming alive.

Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.  John 5:28-29 ESV

Where are these dead ones? They are not said to be in Sheol but in the tombs. At the resurrection they come out of the tombs, the grave. "All who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out"this is synonymous with the dead coming alive. This voice of the Son of God is the life-giving voice of God. This is one of the themes of the Fourth Gospel—Yeshua brings life to the dead.

So, in my understanding, at this time, Sheol was not a cavern below the earth's crust; it was a grave dug into the ground. All go to Sheol without moral distinctions because the grave is the common end of all life. There is no clear case of punishment in Sheol because this is not applicable to the grave. Yes, I am aware of Luke 16, but I do not think it is talking about the afterlife but rather about the destruction of Jerusalem. The Rich man says, "for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment." (Luke 16:29) "But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.'" What did the Tanakh have to say about Hell or the afterlife? Nothing. But it had plenty to say about Jerusalem's destruction.

I think that the fact that death is called sleep for believers is significant. Sleep portrays what death means for a believer. As the sleeper does not cease to exist while his body sleeps, so the dead person continues to exist. The grave is like a bed.

C. F. Hogg writes, "The object of the metaphor is to suggest that as the sleeper does not cease to exist while his body sleeps, so the dead person continues to exist despite his absence from the region in which those who remain can communicate with him, and that, as sleep is known to be temporary, so the death of the body will be found to be. Sleep has its waking, death will have its resurrection."  [C. F. Hogg and W. E. Vine, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Thessalonians, p. 128]

Now, all we have been saying about Sheol changed at the Second Coming. Resurrection is not about bringing physical bodies out of the graves; it is about restoring man to the presence of God.

To be taken out of Sheol and brought into the presence of the Lord is what the Bible calls "resurrection." The word "resurrection" is from the Greek word anastasis, which means "a standing up." Resurrection is: "to be taken out of Sheol and to be standing in God's presence."

According to the Bible, when was the resurrection to take place? The Scriptures testify that the time of the resurrection was to be at the end of the Old-Covenant age. We know this to have happened in A.D. 70 with the destruction of the Jewish Temple.  

So, the resurrection of the dead took place in A.D. 70 when our Lord took the righteous dead out of Sheol and moved them into the presence of God. They were no longer separated from God (dead); they were now in His presence (alive).

What about us? Will we be resurrected? Since the resurrection is past, what happens to believers when they die? Their physical body goes back to the dust from which it came.

All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. Ecclesiastes 3:20 ESV

And their spirit goes to the realm of Heaven. Believers are already alive in Christ.

We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Romans 6:4-7 ESV

Believers have already been raised from the dead. Coming into the New Covenant by faith is resurrection from the dead. You can't get into the kingdom of God or the New Covenant if you have not been resurrected from the dead. This is what 1 Corinthians 15 teaches.

The resurrection was a one-time event in which the Old Covenant saints were brought out of Sheol and finally overcame death to be with the Lord. We believers today have put on immortality and will go to Heaven when we die physically. As believers, we live in the presence of God, and in physical death, we simply drop the flesh and dwell only in the spiritual realm.

Believers no longer sleep at death. We are alive in Christ now and at the death of the physical body, we will move into the spiritual realm with a spiritual body where we will forever be with the Lord.

Let's see if we can finish this verse. Paul concludes the verse by saying, "That you may not grieve as others do who have no hope"as we said earlier, "that" here is hina. It is used as a conjunction introducing the purpose, aim, or goal. Paul wanted to remove their ignorance so as to relieve their grief. The verb "grieve" is a present passive subjunctive of lupeō which means "to distress; reflexively or passively to be sad: - cause grief, grieve, be in heaviness."  

Grieving is natural even for Christians when the death of a loved one occurs (Jn 11: 35; Phil 2: 27), but it must be mingled with hope within the Christian community. We sorrow for what's been taken from us. We won't be able to call them on the phone anymore. We won't be able to go to see them. So, we grieve. But not like "others."

The "others" here refers to the lost, those who don't know Christ. The pagan world was at a loss for comfort at death. Socrates said, "Oh, that there were some divine word upon which we could more securely and less perilously sail, upon a stronger vessel."  Ancient writings are full of this pessimism regarding death:

  • "Of a man once dead there is no resurrection." (Aeschylus)
  • "Hopes are among the living, the dead are without hope." (Theocritus)
  • "Suns may set and rise again but we, when once our brief light goes down, must sleep an endless night." (Catullus)

Thessalonica was a city without hope. Thessalonica was a city that was known for its materialism. Thessalonica in that sense was a modern city. It was a city in which on the gravestones of individuals who had died there were epitaphs such as "after death no reviving, after grave no meeting." It was a place, predominantly a heathen place, in which there was no hope of anything after this life.

But things were different for believers. Death is not the end for us; it's just a temporary goodbye. So, Paul writes to encourage them that their dead loved ones will not miss the Second Coming. They will rise to meet their Lord. Believers have hope in death.

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