"God will bring with Jesus, those who have fallen asleep IN HIM." 1 Thes. 4:14
Bereaved parents! here is another glimpse which Faith, while seated in the valley, takes of "the land that is very far off," but which at times, too, is brought so very near! We may first state the special occasion of the words at the head of this meditation.
As the great Apostle was now at Corinth, living with Aquila and Priscilla, his beloved son Timothy had brought him from Thessalonica encouraging tidings of the Church he had there founded.
But in that good report there were mingled also tidings of death—among these, doubtless, young as well as old. The bereaved were, moreover, undergoing needless sorrow because the deceased had been removed before the coming of Christ. The Thessalonians, in common with other of the infant Churches, entertained unfounded expectations regarding the imminence of the Second Advent. They imagined it so near at hand that they would live to behold it; and when they saw the beloved members of their families or fellow-Christians taken away, they mourned specially at their being deprived of sharing in the joy of welcoming a returning Lord. This Epistle, from which our motto-verse is taken, was written (among other reasons) to comfort and console the sorrow-stricken. It is interesting and remarkable that the first letter of Paul is thus a letter to the bereaved! It is an "afflicted man's companion." The Spirit of the Lord, by inspiration, was upon him. The Lord anointed him "to heal the broken-hearted."
And what says he to these drooping, saddened spirits? He tells them not to despond, but to rejoice. "Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him." 1 Thes. 4:13-14
There is no more expressive symbol of higher and diviner verities than the sleep of the body and the subsequent waking in the morning. It is beautiful to see the surging waves of daily life rocking themselves to rest—to note, say, in some vast city, when night has drawn its curtains around, light after light put out in the windows, the street lamps paying solitary homage to the stars as they look down from their lofty mansions. What a hush pervades the recent 'stunning tide of human care and crime!' Why? Because sleep is locking up ten thousand eyes of those who are dreaming away care and sorrow, fatigue and toil. But anon, as the gates of morning open, and when from the silent monitors of fleeting time the hour summoning to labor strikes, in a moment the ring of countless hammers breaks the trance of night. All is again astir. Sleep has refreshed the workman's wearied body; sleep has put new pith and sinew in that brawny arm. The whole world has arisen like a giant refreshed, and sleep has been the elixir that has soothed its wounds and healed its pains.
We need not wonder, then, that this priceless boon to the weary, has been taken by God Himself to describe the quiet rest of His own people in the grave. David, the man after God's own heart, after he had served his day and generation, "fell asleep." Stephen, when struck down by his murderers, "fell asleep." In the beautiful words on the frontispiece of this volume—which we have there specially associated with the death of the young—"So gives He His beloved sleep!"
But what means Paul by this sleep? Is it the sleep of the soul? Is it that the spirit, at the moment of dissolution, falls into a state of torpor or insensibility, in which it remains until startled at last by the trumpet of God? No! Let us recur to the analogy of earthly sleep. We know that when the body is in a state of profound repose, when the eye is closed in seeming unconsciousness on the pillow, it is only apparently so. The mind is in a constant state of activity; all its powers are vigorous as ever. Memory is there, bringing up old and treasured scenes. Imagination is there, combining these in strange, fantastic medley. Gorgeous visions come and go—magnificent combinations, in comparison with which waking realities are dull, prosaic, and commonplace. So it is with the soul at death. While the body "sleeps" in its grassy bed, the spirit is expatiating in regions of activity and life. It departs "to be with Christ, which is far better."
The words of the verse we are now pondering may bear the beautiful rendering we have before alluded to (see Wycliffe, Cranmer, and Rheims Version), "Those also who are laid asleep by Jesus!"—a rendering which, among others, suggests two comforting thoughts—two most gracious whispers from these voices of heavenly consolation.
(1.) That the hour of our death is appointed by Jesus.We are laid asleep by Him. Just as the mother knows the best hour to lay her little one in its couch or cradle—undresses it, composes it to rest, sings its lullaby—and the cherub face, lately all smiles, is now locked in quiet repose; so Christ comes to all His children, of whatever age, at His own selected season, and says, "Your hour of rest has arrived. I am to take off the garments of mortality. Come! I will robe you in the vestments of the tomb." He smooths the narrow bed, composes the pillow, and sings His own lullaby of love, "Fear not, my child, for I am with you; sleep on now and take your rest!" Be comforted with this blessed truth, that the hour of death cannot come a moment sooner than Jesus appoints. He knows the best time to bid you and yours the long "good-night." Interesting it is (and a Bible truth too) to think of troops of angels hovering over the death-pillow, and watching with guardian care the sleeping dust of the "Early Grave." But more comforting still, surely, is it to think of the Lord of angels closing the eyes and hushing to slumber—Christ Himself leading to the tomb—the robing-room of immortality—"unclothing," that His people may be "clothed upon," and that "mortality may be swallowed up of life."
(2.)A second suggested thought is, that the body belongs to Christ. The soul, indeed, is more specially His. It wings its arrowy flight up to the spirit world. Angels carry it into Abraham's bosom, and from that hour it is "forever with the Lord." But what of the material framework? What of the marble tenement? Is it left to crumble in dishonor and corruption? Now that the jewel is gone, is the casket to be disowned? Now that the vestal fire is quenched, is the temple left to moulder in oblivion? No, it is the body to which Paul in these words refers. It is the body that is "laid asleep by Jesus." Every particle of that dust of the sepulcher was purchased by His blood. The Apostle elsewhere speaks of "body as well as spirit which are His" (1 Cor. 6:20).
You who have cherished young treasures in the tomb, come and seat yourselves under this shadow of comfort. Rejoice in the assurance that these earthly tabernacles are in His custody. The loving hand of Divine parental love was the last to close their eyes; and, in the prospect of waking on an eternal morrow, you can go to their graves, and think of them as having migrated to the Better Land, away forever from the harsh jarrings and discords and tumults of this.
(3) Once more,connect this "blessed hope" with that which imparts to it alike its blessedness and its certainty—the Resurrection of Christ. That glorious Resurrection is the pledge and earnest of your own, and that of your beloved dead.
The pledges of the outer material creation are welcome and joyful. We hail with grateful spirit the first budding of early spring in grove and field, because in these we see the promise and pledge that soon nature will be arrayed in her full robes of resurrection beauty. With what feelings ought we to stand by the sepulcher of our Lord, and see the buried Conqueror rising triumphant over the last enemy! Do we not behold in Him the harbinger of an immortal springtime, or rather a glorious harvest, when the mounds of the earth and the caves of the ocean shall surrender what they have held for ages in sacred custody—"Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision"—when "this corruptible shall put on incorruption, and this mortal immortality." "Christ the first fruits, afterward those who are Christ's at His coming!"
Mourners, think of this! In one sad sense, indeed, you have buried your dead out of your sight. "The house of their earthly tabernacle" is a "darksome ruin." Dust is resolved into its kindred dust. The constituent elements of the dismantled framework are incorporated with new forms of matter. We do not wish to strew the dismal path with flowers. Death, from the earthly view of it, is not irradiated by one gleam of sunshine. The slow and gradual wasting and decay, the wearisome days, the long night-vigils, the mind participating not infrequently with the wreck of the body, memory often a blank, the fondest look and the fondest name eliciting no response! Then the close of all—the knocking at the mysterious gates of a mysterious future—the empty chamber, where "echo slumbers"—the noiseless footfall, the mute crowd of mourners, the grave, the return to the silent dwelling, and the vacant seat. O Death, truly here is your sting—O Grave, truly here is your victory!
But the day is coming when all these memories of woe shall vanish, like the darkness before the morning sun—when the spoil of plundering ages shall in a marvelous way be all restored—when, as in the Prophet's Valley of Vision, bone shall come to bone, and sinew to sinew. The old loving smiles of earth will be seen again in the newly-glorified body—the drooping withered flower reviving, beauteous and fragrant with the bloom of perennial summer. "Why are you weeping?" was the question of the Risen Conqueror, as He gazed on a tearful eye at the Resurrection morn. The Christian's grave need be watered by no tears—for Jesus, who "died for our sins, rose again for our justification." "Now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first fruits of those who sleep." He has converted the tomb into the vestibule of heaven. How different from the mournful legends to be seen and read at this hour on heathen Columbaria, as "to the final farewell" and "the eternal sleep!" How different from the inscriptions disclosed in the latest Assyrian excavations in the mounds of Kalakh; of which we are told—"In this temple were performed the mournings and lamentations for the yearly dying Tammuz, the 'Son of Life,' whom Istar went annually to recover from the House of Death, the Palace of 'The Land of no return!'"
The Christian traveler searches in vain, amid the ashes of Jerusalem's desolation, for any material tomb of his Divine Lord. But if the tomb be lost in the wreck of ages, the glorious, invisible inscription still remains—"Fear not—I am He who lives and was dead; and behold I am alive for evermore, and have the keys of the grave and of death;" and "because I live, you shall live also!"