A Biblical Reflection on a Massacre

Photo by Samuel Schneider on Unsplash

I’ve been trying to find words but I don’t really know what to say. A part of me has felt frozen since I first saw the reports coming out of Sutherland Springs, Texas. I don’t know how to respond to a massacre like this.

So rather than stumble over my own words, I’ve decided to share some reflections on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, one of the more important passages God has given to his people for help during times of mourning.

After all, the Holy Spirit is our Comforter and he speaks through the words of Scripture. So perhaps this will be an encouragement to some.

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who are asleep…

Paul’s letters were always written to real people with real questions and real pain. And the most fundamental questions haven’t changed.

Didn’t Jesus say he was going to come back? Wasn’t he going to set everything right? Hasn’t he defeated death? If so, then why are we mourning like this? These brothers and sisters and little ones, they loved Jesus didn’t they? So why were they allowed to die such horrific and violent deaths? Where is the justice and mercy in a child gunned down during worship? Where were you, God, when your people were being murdered?

These questions are not new. Yes, the circumstances are unique. But perhaps it’s becoming more common. This is the third church shooting in three years and the second in three months. Gunmen have also attacked the houses of worship of other faiths as well. For some, the notion of a “sacred space” is a quaint thing of the past.

The Thesselonians were asking hard questions about death, specifically the death of brothers and sisters in Christ. There was confusion and grief, much like today. Graciously, the Spirit provides this passage as a balm for our deepest wounds.

…that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.

I can’t stress the following point enough:

Paul is not placing a prohibition on mourning.

In Christian circles, we often run away from mourning and adopt a joy-veneer. I don’t mean the joy that surpasses all understanding, but a false smile that pretends things are OK because Jesus will return and all will be made new. It’s true that Jesus is coming back. Praise God, it’s true. But things are not OK.

Doctrine is not designed to mask our natural hatred of suffering and death. It is not meant to blunt our feelings or create a stoic facade for us to hide behind. It is meant to shape our emotions and direct our response to evil—like what we witnessed yesterday—toward Christ.

Paul is not trying to stop people from mourning but wants to inform the character of their grief. He reminds us that we mourn differently than non-Christians because of the hope we have in Jesus Christ. But we still mourn. We still grieve. We are still outraged by this evil.

Because, brothers and sisters, to deny ourselves grief is to lie to ourselves and the world. It is to say, “Everything’s fine, this is all normal.” But everything is not fine. And this is not normal.

As the Preacher told us, “There is a time to mourn” (Ecclesiastes 3:4). This is one of those times.

For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.

Paul brings the Thessalonians back to the Gospel. It’s the only thing he has yet, in God’s providence, it is exactly what we need.

As we consider our brothers and sisters in Texas, we should not forget that Jesus also suffered and died. They were not alone in their suffering because their Savior purchased them with blood.

We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our heartache, for he was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. He knew heartbreak. And he knew suffering. He even knew what it was to be murdered. He connected himself to the most terrible of human experiences for our sake so that we would never feel alone even in the darkest moments.

And then he rose. He rose and every one of our brothers and sisters who died in that church yesterday morning will also rise. It is the great promise that all Christians cling to, especially in times of mourning. We will see these brothers and sisters in the New Heavens and New Earth. We will worship with them for eternity. Pain will be no more. Death will be abolished. The evil of yesterday morning will be a faint memory as we bask together in the glory of God. We will be filled with joy unspeakable.

Because Jesus died first. And then he rose.

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. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 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.

It is an interesting detail: we rise at the command of Jesus Christ. He will issue a command and the dead in Christ will rise.

That’s because our victory over death isn’t found in our own righteousness or strength, but in the victory of Christ that he won with his righteousness. Even our resurrection is an obedience.

Here’s why that is comforting:

The evil of a madman cannot cancel out the power of Jesus Christ. He may have caused much suffering. He may have done a great evil. But the greatest evil cannot stop our resurrection because it is guaranteed by the command of Christ.

No Christian will be forgotten. None will be left behind. All of us will be rescued from death either through resurrection and ascension. This is our hope and it shapes the way we mourn.

Therefore encourage one another with these words.

Perhaps these words will encourage you. They encourage me. But, as Calvin says in his commentary on the passage, “…the Apostle would not have each one to seek for himself assuagement of grief, but also to administer it to others.”

I have nothing profound to say. In fact, you’re better off forgetting this blog post and turning to the passage itself. Read the whole letter. Be encouraged by the words found within.

Because this is what we do in times of mourning. We don’t ignore the pain or hide from it. We allow ourselves to mourn, to feel it. And then we allow the Holy Spirit to comfort us with the words of Scripture.

We don’t mourn like those who have no hope. We are a people of hope and that hope is gifted to us by Jesus Christ. So even today, especially today, encourage one another.

The Church stared darkness in the face yesterday. And in our pain we can begin to think the darkness has won.

But it hasn’t. Though it may not always seem true, we have victory. Because Jesus died and rose again. Even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.

Marcos Ortega

Marcos Ortega (MDiv, Westminster Theological Seminary) is an Assistant Pastor at Goodwill Church (Evangelical Presbyterian Church) and lives in the Hudson River Valley in New York with his wife and two daughters.

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