1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
“Encouraging Words about the End”
History has an end. The Greek word the New Testament uses for it is “Telos”. There will be a last day, this is very clear in Holy Scripture. The universe will not go on, at least not like this, forever. There is a day, somewhere in the future, that God has planned, in which Christ will come again to earth, and bring all things to fulfillment. It is now, in November, near the end of the church calendar year, that we Christians especially think about the end time, and the Last Day.
Like many people today, the ancient Christians in the city of Thessalonica had questions and worries about that day. They had some misconceptions too. So St. Paul writes to them, to clear up the picture, to explain why that day is a good day for us Christians – to give them hope. “Encourage each other with these words” he says. And so Christians have encouraged each other with those words throughout the ages, and so today shall we.
Perhaps it's worth reviewing some basic teachings about the end. One thing we can be certain of, is we are living in the end times. These are the last days. So many of the signs of the end are all around us, ever more all the time. Natural disasters like the Hurricanes that plagued us this year. Violence like the church shooting this past week.
So much of the book of Revelation depicts the calamities and troubles that are not only to come, but that we experience in various ways all the time. Christians are persecuted. We are as lambs led to the slaughter. Nations rage, kingdoms fall. Wars and rumors of wars, as Jesus tells it. Paul uses the analogy of a woman in childbirth – that the creation itself is groaning in labor pains – but that is all moving toward a telos – an endpoint, a conclusion.
Then there is the last day. It will come suddenly, when we least expect it. Passages like our Gospel reading from Matthew encourage us to be watchful as we look for it to arrive at any time. Jesus says he will come “like a thief in the night”, that is, suddenly, and not when you think he might. How many date-setters have already gotten it wrong? Well so far, all of them. No one knows the day or the hour.
Many passages, like our Old Testament reading from Amos, paint the day of the Lord as something great and terrible – a fearful day in which God's judgment is poured out. But Amos was speaking to people who had forsaken God for pagan worship. There was an earthly judgment to come in the form of the Assyrian empire. But Amos also spoke of the final judgment it foreshadowed. Surely for the unbeliever, the judgment day will be fearful and terrible.
But for the believer, it's quite the opposite. 1 Thessalonians tells us that it will be a good day – a great day – that should give us hope. So put aside your fears, and hear what God promises about Christ's appearing – and what it will mean for us, his people.
“we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep”
The Thessalonians full well expected Christ to return within their earthly lifetime. And they became concerned when faithful Christians began to die – wondering if there would be a difference between the living and the dead – that somehow their dead loved ones would miss out on the glory of Christ's return. This became a source of grief for them. But Paul says not to grieve like others who have no hope. Christ gives them hope.
In Corinthians, Paul explains, “we will not all sleep”, that is, not every Christian will die before that day. Some will live to see it. But those of us that do will be in the same boat as those of us who have already died. The dead will be raised. And we will all be changed, glorified, and we will all meet Christ together.
The dead will rise. Here's an important promise that gets short shrift these days. We're so accustomed of thinking that we Christians die and go to heaven (and yes, we do), that we forget the final fulfillment of God's plan is that we would rise from the dead. Just like Jesus, whose physical, earthly, human body rose from the dead – so too will our bodies be brought back to life – to live forever with God. Those who die in the faith – while their body “sleeps”, their soul is surely with the Lord and at peace. But at the resurrection soul and body reunite to live in eternal glory.
We will be changed – made “incorruptible”, Paul says. Glorified. We will be like Christ, in his glorified body. We don't know exactly what that means – it hasn't been fully revealed yet. But it sounds good, doesn't it? A physical body that is free of the corruption of sin? No more aches and pains. No more disease or handicap. A body free forever from the effects of the sin which has corrupted us. A body and soul as God intended them to be – perfect and holy.
Together, we will rise not only from death but into the air to meet him. Reminds me of the way Christ ascended into the clouds, after his resurrection, in his own glorified body.
And the promises continue. For there, we will meet Christ and each other, and we will be always with the Lord. What a blessing it will be to see with our own eyes, in our own flesh, what we have known by faith already. As we said last week, being in the presence of the Lord is what makes heaven so heavenly, and we will enjoy it forever, body and soul, with our Lord.
What about all the fire and brimstone? What about the judgment day? What about the locusts and horsemen? What about the lake of fire and answering for all your sins? What about the picture Amos paints of a great and terrible day?
Well Jesus faced that day himself, already. On that dark Friday in Jerusalem, when he hung on a cross for our sins. The sun blotted out. The earth shook. Even some of the graves of holy people opened up and they came forth. These signs show us a connection between Good Friday and the signs of the judgment day.
And Jesus endured the wrath of God's judgment so that our last day would be a day of peace. He took the punishment so we would stand before God free of guilt. He died for us to live – not just spiritually, but also physically – just as he rose, firstborn of the dead triumphant over the grave.
And because of that day of sacrifice, and that day of resurrection, we have a resurrection of our own – a promise yet unpaid but not forgotten. A day of final victory. This is why his resurrection is such a lynch-pin for our faith. Because only in his resurrection do we have the promise of resurrection. Only in him do we escape the judgment of eternal death, and receive the judgment to eternal life.
That doesn't mean that no earthly suffering will come to us. That doesn't mean that the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh stop working overtime to make us doubt and tempt us and make us as miserable as possible. They can't win the war, but they'll kick and scream trying to win as many battles as they can. Persecutions are sure to come. Many will hate us for Christ's sake. Jesus doesn't sugar-coat these truths either. We're still in the flesh, here, and so those battles rage.
But he who makes wars to cease, who breaks the bow and shatters the spear – he's our mighty fortress and champion in the fight. And we can hear, in his word, the distant triumph song. He will come again, and soon.
So watch and be ready for his coming. Hear his word, frequently and faithfully. Remember your baptism, where he first raised you from death to new spiritual life. And receive his body and blood – often – for the forgiveness that sustains us each day, keeping us strong and vibrant in a faith that is always ready for its fulfillment.
Live your life in the faith that he has given you, trusting in his mercy and grace. And die your death in a peace that knows the promise of victory, and rest in peace, for the trumpet will sound, the archangel will shout, and Christ will return for his people. And we will be with him forever. This is our hope. This is his promise. These are the encouraging words, that point us to the blessed end. In Jesus Christ. Amen.