Advent 2020: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

During the season of Advent, I am translating from Greek to English the weekday epistle readings out of the Daily Lectionary of the Book of Common Prayer.

Saturday, 5 December 2020 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

The Text

13. Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to not know about the ones who have fallen asleep, that you might not grieve as everyone else who has no hope. 

14. For we believe that Jesus died and rose, that God, through Jesus, will then lead out with him those who sleep.

15. We say this to you as a word from the Lord, those of us left living at the coming of the Lord will not arrive before those who are sleeping.

16. The Lord himself will command the archangel sound the trumpet of God, then he will come from heaven. The dead in Messiah will rise first.

17. Then, those of us remaining alive will be seized and carried off together with them in the clouds, meeting up with the Lord in the air, and we will be with him always.

18. You must comfort one another with these words. 


Saturday’s reading is not long, but boy does it pack a powerful punch.

I usually read these verses at gravesides for funerals. They don’t have the same ring in the chapel or the worship center as they do right beside the grave. For our faith teaches us that the dearly beloved we are laying to rest, if they have faith, will come up out of this very grave and meet Jesus in the air before those living do.

Verse 14 is an interesting grammatical pretzel for me. In the GNT there is an “if” in the text that should read something like “If we believe that Jesus died and rose” but then the “if” doesn’t fit the rest of the sentence unless something is supplied — like “If we believe that Jesus died and rose, then when we are asleep God will lead us out (of the grave) through Jesus.” That kind of construction is the only way I know to make the ‘if’ feature work, but I want you to know there is an ‘if’ there. Paul means this kind of redemption over death is contingent upon our personal beliefs. What we believe matters. If.

This is the essence of the comfort, and it is only for us if we believe and if the dead believed. We need to be careful to not preach or talk as if dead people who didn’t believe have this same assurance. They do not.

Paul seems to see an order that goes like this: The Lord commands the archangel to play the trumpet, Jesus comes from heaven, then the dead rise up. After that, and lastly, the believing community alive are caught up with Jesus in the air as he is en route to the earth to bring all things to an end.

Death is a fascinating subject, but I have always interpreted these lines to mean that for me, as a believer, when I die, the next moment after my death is the coming up into heaven with Jesus in the clouds rather than entry straight away into heaven.

That’s my take, anyway.

Questions For Application

  1. Believers are not devoid of grief, but our grief is different. How so?
  2. Do you believe Jesus died and rose again and is coming again? (I do)
  3. Which do you believe — that we who believe go straight to heaven when we die or that we awake in the clouds as Jesus is coming back? Why?
  4. These are advent verses precisely because Jesus came the first time and promised to come again. How can you incorporate the promises of a second advent into your celebration of the first?


I read verses 7-8 of Romans 14 every time I officiate a funeral.  They are good words for a funeral.  However, Romans 14 is not about the dead, it is about the living, and how we, as servants of the Lord live by faith.  In that way, Chapter 14 is textually linked to the beginning of Romans (1:17).

Translation Notes

I changed the noun “arguments” in verse 1 into the verbal infinitive “to argue” for the sake of sounding better.  Without that change, it sounds psychologically unstable.
In verse 10, I chose “sibling” instead of the literal “brother” because of the way Paul is using the idea. I could have gone with “brother or sister” but I decided that there was already a gender neutral word that meant that. Notice In verse 15 I use both constructions to bring tension to the foreground for the reader.
There is a textual variant in verse 12. The prepositional phrase “to God” at the end of the verse is not in the earliest manuscripts. As I read it, it seemed to me like it didn’t belong, and was clearly a later addition.
Beginning with verse 13 we are introduced to two words that can both be translated as ‘stumbling block.’ These synonyms are used by Paul to describe the responsibility of the ‘strong’ to the ‘weak’ Christ-follower. I chose to clarify it with the words spiritual and moral, but that is a rather subjective choice, so be advised.

Theological Notes

Romans 14 answers the question asked by Cain at the beginning, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  The answer is yes.  We each have the sacred responsibility for making certain our actions do not cause spiritual crisis or destructive doubt for other people.  To be certain, discipleship and education are intended as the backdrop of this chapter because one of the goals of a faith community is to make everyone strong, not to permanently tolerate a weakened state of faith.  Nevertheless, the instruction is clear:  Do not let personal choices or habits destroy other people.

The last verse of the chapter puts things into a stark black and white frame.  Everything we do–raising our families, eating dinner, watching television, reading a book, or choosing which church to attend is either an act of faith (belief that God is in control and we are his servants) or it is an act of sin.  It is an act of sin when what we do serves to satisfy our lust, greed, anger, materialism, pride, and any other of the host of vices that compete with trusting faith.  Whatever is not of faith is sin.

Chapter Fourteen
1. But welcome the one who is weak in the faith, choosing not to argue.
2. One believes everything is okay to eat, but the other who is weak eats vegetables.
3. The one eating must not despise the one not eating, and the one not eating must not judge the one eating, for God himself welcomed him.
4. Who are you, judging another’s servant? To his own lord he stands or falls, but he will be made to stand for the Lord is able to stand him up.
5. Some judge some days different than other days, but others judge every day the same. Let each person make up his or her own mind about it.
6. The one who considers some days different, considers it for the Lord, and the one eating gives thanks to God, eating to the Lord, while the one not eating gives thanks and abstains unto God.
7. For none of us lives for himself and none of us dies to himself.
8. Indeed, if we live, we live to the Lord. If we should die, we die to the Lord. Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.
9. It is for this that Messiah died and came to life, so that he might establish rule over the dead and living.
10. But why do you judge your sibling? Why do you despise your sibling? Everyone will come and stand before the judgement seat of God.
11. For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, that every knee will bow to me and every tongue will confess to God.”
12. Each of us, then, will give an account about himself.
13. Do not judge one another any longer, therefore, but judge it more important to not put a moral obstacle or a spiritual barrier in front of a sibling.
14. I know and I have been persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is automatically unclean, except when someone thinks it to be unclean.
15. For if by food your sibling grieves, you no longer walk in love. Do not destroy with food this brother or sister for whom Messiah died.
16. Do not let good be blasphemed by you.
17. For the kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.
18. Serving the Messiah this way is pleasing to God and accepted by people.
19. Now, therefore, let us pursue the things of peace and the things that help one another.
20. Do not undo the work of the Kingdom of God on account of food. For while everything is clean, it is evil to eat something that is a moral obstacle for another person.
21. It is good not to eat meat, drink wine, or anything else if it is a spiritual barrier for your sibling.
22. Your faith is your own business, what you have is before God. Blessed is the one not judging himself in what he approves,
23. but the one beginning to doubt while he eats will stand condemned, because it is not from faith. Everything not of faith is sin.


56d4f1560a0d02b701262bf44350c352Someone very special in our family died this week.  As we drove home from the funeral, with the rain beating down on us on I-10, I pondered some of the aspects of the grieving process while Mrs. Greenbean and the sprout slept.

Emily Dickinson famously wrote a short poem whose first line is,

After great pain, a formal feeling comes

In my years of ministry I have found this to be undeniably true.  It is precisely because we do not know what to say or do that ritual, formality, and tradition become necessary helpers.  This is why I am an ardent believer in the funeral service as a relevant and vital part of the grieving process.  I know that the popular trend is to downplay the service and minimize all the fuss, but I don’t think that is particularly healthy. I noticed driving home how in the time after the funeral the elements of the service, the words of the minister, the actions at the cemetery, and even the placement of the grave were natural points of conversation and shared experience that the entire family was able to lean on.  It provided context for what we were all feeling.  I never noticed this connection, fully, until I read the excellent book by Thomas Long titled Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral.  It is a theological, historical, and sociological gem.

Accompany them with singing
Put this in your library

I thought about other things too as I drove, like how grief bubbles to the surface in different ways for different people.  For some people, it is a nervous anxiety in which they cannot get comfortable.  Others cry openly and loudly.  Still others hold it all in, like a suppressed volcano. I am a split-personality griever.  When the news first comes, I want to be left alone, reflect, and cry in solitude.  This usually lasts only an hour or two.  After that, I find that I grieve by telling funny stories about those we miss, laughing at his or her quirky, unique characteristics, and enjoying hearing other people share their stories.  As a pastor I always thought one of my primary functions during a funeral was to give others permission to laugh and enjoy, in that weird kind of way, the moment.  That is what our departed love ones would want.  For evidence of this in my own plans, click here to read an old post about how I plan to put “FUN” in fun-eral. I think we need both the forma feeling of the service as well as the informal laughter.  One helps frame the hurt and pain of the situation, while the other allows for the release of tension and the celebration of life. One more thought passed between my ears while I avoided hydroplaning out on the freeway.  Death is our constant companion throughout life.  We grow up knowing that somewhere, out on the horizon, we will close our eyes for the last time, take our final breath, and the last neuron will fire.  Everybody dies.  What matters is not the circumstances of our death, but the investments we make during our life.  By investments I don’t mean monetary decisions.  I mean investments in people.  I think about those who invest in their children, in the next generation, those who invest in liberty by defending our nation, those who invest in the environment by protecting it, those who invest in love by opening their heart, and so many other kinds of human-investments.  Those are the things that matter. images from and


The last few posts have been a little too wordy.  This one will be swift and to the point.

Sunday I talked about weddings and referred to the troubling fact that in the three years of seminary, at supposedly one of the premier seminaries in the world, I was never taught how to do a wedding.  Never.  I have wracked my brain since Sunday and tried to come up with all I was ever taught about weddings and it boils down to a couple of photocopied pages that spell out the importance of premarital counseling (without ever telling you what you should say in that counseling) and the injunction that every pastor has the right to determine whom they marry.

That’s it.  Everything else we were told, “you’ll figure it out.”  Here is a partial list of the things I was never taught in seminary but I have found to be vital in the pastoral ministry.

1.  How to conduct a business meeting.  I was given a copy of Robert’s Rules and told to not pay much attention to it.  I was, however, taught how to do a church budget in various detail.  I was just never told how to pass it!

2.  Lord’s Supper/Communion.  Nothing.  Ever.  Not once.  The theology of it we discussed at length.  How to do it, never.

3.  Baptism.  You would think that the preacher boys would all get in a baptistery tank of a local church and spend an afternoon practicing on each other.  Nooooooooo.  As I said Sunday, I almost killed the first person I ever baptized in church.

4.  Funerals.  Just like with weddings, we were never told how to lead or conduct one.  We were, however, told all about the grief cycle, depression, and the importance of the church’s long term ministry to those who suffer loss but as for the nuts-n-bolts of a funeral service, dealing with the funeral home, cemeteries, honor guards, Masonic lodge, florists etc… there was absolutely zilch.

5.  How to run a meeting.  As a pastor I run a lot of meetings:  Staff, deacons, teaching elders, ministry teams and so forth but I was never taught how to run one.

6.  One more–hospital visits.  I was told to do them, and I was told they were important but never was I instructed on how to actually do one.  I say this seriously, because hospitals are cramped, smelly, and odd environments that require some level expertise to navigate.  It would have been nice to have maybe, a fake hospital room in the seminary building somewhere with an actor or another student playing the roll of patient to go visit.


Some things just can’t be learned by reading a book.

Do not get me wrong.  I learned a great deal in seminary about the Lord, Scripture, the languages, doctrine, ethics and so much more but there were huge holes.  As I said earlier, it has been a long time since I was in seminary (mid 90’s) and I hope  much has changed for the better.  I doubt it though, because the trend is toward distance learning and online courses which do not help with practical aspects of the work.  I wonder if one of the reasons why church has been in such crisis for the past 3 decades or so might not be in some part related to the lack of practical education at the seminary level.  I wonder.