In my previous post on the grave reliefs depicting the agony of separation between the deceased and surviving family (here), I shared how many people in the Greco-Roman world grieved over the prospect of never seeing their loved ones ever again. In contrast to their grief and pain, Apostle Paul puts forth the hope of every Christian believer: 

  • 13 But we do not want for you to be ignorant, brothers and sisters, concerning those who are sleeping (περὶ τῶν κοιμωμένων), so that you will not grieve as the rest (of the world) do, who have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Christ died and was raised, and in the same way, God, through Jesus, will also bring with him (σὺν αὐτῷ) the ones who have fallen asleep (τοὺς κοιμηθέντας)…. 17 Then we who remain living will be snatched up together with them (ἅμα σὺν αὐτοῖς) in the clouds for a meeting with the Lord in the air (1 Thess 4:13-14, 17)

There are many exegetical points to unpack in this short set of verses, but let me focus on just two related themes. The first is the metaphor which Paul uses for the believers who have died: i.e., they are sleeping (κοιμωμένων). For Paul, Easter Sunday means that Jesus conquered death’s grip on our world. In the same way that God raised Jesus from the dead, Paul encourages the Thessalonian church that God will raise believers who have died to new life. Death is not final separation, but a temporary or interim state like sleep. God will raise Christ followers on the day of the resurrection. With a command-cry (ἐν κελεύσματι; v. 14), God will give this word to the dead: “Rise!” Or in the words of Eph. 5:14: “Wake up, O Sleeper! Rise from the dead and Christ will epiphany before you!” Christ will return to awaken those who have fallen asleep by the power of his word. 
   The Christian hope has always been that life, really living, does not end at the grave. Death is just a momentary interruption like a person taking a long nap. God will raise us up with a command of his word, and we will not only be united with Christ forever (σὺν αὐτῷ) but we will be united with each other (ἅμα σὺν αὐτοῖς). The resurrection is a reunion of Christian believers where we meet again with those whom we have left behind and those who have moved on ahead of us. It gives us hope that beyond the grave, believers in Christ have an eternity to catch up with one another in the life to come.
6th century AD Inscription
ΚΟΙΜΗΤΗΡΙΟΝ… ΑΙΓΙΑΡΙΟΥ (highlighted in blue)
 “The sleeping place… of a goatherder”
Photo by Max Lee ©  2014 Corinth Museum
In the above inscription, one of a few dozen that can be found in the Museum at Corinth, Greece, we have an example of a Christian grave marker. But instead of the word “tomb” or “memorial” (μνημεῖον), the term ΚΟΙΜΗΤΗΡΙΟΝ (κοιμητήριον) or “sleeping room” is used. By the 4-6th century AD, Christian believers wrote on their tombstones that the grave is but a sleep room, a temporary resting place, for those who have died in Christ and have the hope we will not only be reunited with Christ but with loved ones who have also believed.
   Eventually, the idiom of “sleeping place” (κοιμητήριον) will make it into the Byzantine Greek lexicon under the alternative spelling (κυμητήριον) and mean “burial place” or “tomb” as the following inscription shows: 
6th century AD inscription with the Byzantine spelling
ΚΥΜΗΤΗΡΙΟΝ (derived from κοιμητήριον) which means “burial place”

Photo by Max Lee ©  2014 Corinth Museum
   This past weekend, three generations of my family met together in Chicago: the grandparents, my younger brother, myself and our spouses, and my teenage sons and middle school nieces. As we get older, life can leave us with many regrets. But as Christian believers, we all have the hope that not only will the Lord make all that is wrong and crooked right at the resurrection, but we can all celebrate what God has done together and spend eternity catching up on time missed with one another and those we love. Maranatha!

Postscript 08/09/14: Exegetical Exercise: 1) Read the above post. 2) Go to the Bible dictionaries/encyclopedias in the reference section of the university library and learn more about the resurrection of the dead and how this doctrine is different from Greco-Roman ideas about the immortality of the soul. 3) Interpret 1 Thess. 4:13-18 drawing insight from your background study. In other words: how does understanding that the resurrection means more than resuscitation but an different state of bodily existence help you understand Paul’s message of hope in 1 Thess. 4:13-18? What happens to the soul in the interim period between the (physical) death (of the body) and the resurrection of believers at Christ’s return? 4) Be sure to consult at least one academic commentary on your biblical text from the reference section. 

Minor Correction 08/16/14: I’m going to add a clarifying point. With the Christian grave inscriptions above (ca. 6-7th centuries AD), probably the semantic shift from the definition of κοιμητήριον as “sleeping room” to the meaning “burial place” had already taken place. You actually see both words κοιμητήριον (Koine spelling) and κυμητήριον (Byzantine spelling) used on a number of inscriptions from this time period (good examples are found at the Museum in Corinth, Greece). I’m not exactly sure when the semantic shift took place but we know that by Byzantine times, κοιμητήριον had come to mean “burial place” and its Koine definition of “sleeping place,” along with its use by Christians on grave markers, was earlier. This note does not change any of the points I make above but simply clarifies the time stamp when the definition of “burial place” for κοιμητήριον enters into the Byzantine lexicon. MJL