1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Pentecost 23
Focus: As we enter advent, we not only remember Christ’s birth, but we look forward to His return. While we wait it is easy to get caught up in the world and lose sight of His return, or to get caught up in a false understanding of His return. Instead, we should be caught up in Christ and stand firm in His word so that we will be ready for His return.
Function: That the hearers are not caught up in the world or a false understanding, but are caught up in Christ.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
It doesn’t take much to figure out it’s that time of the year again. Just walk into Walmart and the shelves are stocked with Christmas merchandise. Commercials are asking if you’ve started your shopping yet. Catalogues arrive by the dozens in the mail. The next gotta-have gadgets and gizmos are being released. Lights are being strung on houses and trees. Parties are being planned and travel arrangements made. All that’s keeping the Christmas season at bay is Thanksgiving Day, but we know soon as it has passed the flood gates will open wide. Excitement buzzes all around, and there truly is much to be excited about. In just two short weeks the church itself will be preparing for the advent of our King.
During advent, we join in the expectant hope of the Old Testament prophets as they wait for God’s salvation. Yet what they waited for in darkness, we see in marvelous light. They anticipated things to come, we remember things that are here. While they did not know what God’s salvation would look like, we know that Christ was born in human flesh to ransom the world from our sin. On the cross, He broke our bonds to sin and death and when He rose He established His Kingdom here on earth. However, during advent we do not only remember Christ’s advent, but we look forward to His second advent, His second coming. On that day He will finish what He had started and the fullness of His kingdom will be realized.
But until that time are caught in is tension between the inauguration of Christ’s Kingdom and its consummation, that is, when all things will be made new. While we live under Christ in His kingdom now, most days it doesn’t feel like it. We live in a world corrupted by sin. Although Satan, our accuser, has been conquered and cast out of heaven, he still walks freely on earth, prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. He afflicts us and oppresses us. He does everything he can to tempt us to sin against Christ our Savior and our Father in heaven, and though we are no longer condemned by our sin, its effects still way heavily upon us. Even our own sinful flesh betrays us. We all experience the hurt, pain, and sorrow caused by sin, and in the end, we will all eventually die. So we eagerly wait for Christ’s return when this cycle of death and destruction will finally end once and for all.
Yet while we wait, it is easy to get distracted. Often Christians make one of two mistakes. Either they lose sight of Christ’s return and they get caught up in worldly things, or they worry about Christ’s return and get caught up false theology. Paul addresses both of these concerns in his letter to the Thessalonians. Paul begins chapter four with an encouragement to lead a godly life. Though the Thessalonians accepted the Gospel in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction, Paul feared for their sake because his ministry there was cut short. Opposition to the Word of God was strong and caused Paul to flee, leaving behind this infant congregation who, while he was there, was growing in the Word each and every day, and whose faith was an encouragement to all the world. Paul feared, however, that the opposition and cultural influences would grow too strong for the congregation and would choke out their faith. So Paul sent this letter urging them to withstand the sexually immoral and idolatrous culture and walk in a way that pleases God all the more, for God has called us to a life of holiness. Paul writes, “Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you…But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.” Paul instructed them to remain holy for this is the work that God has given them to do, and to remain watchful for Christ’s return, for it would come like a thief in the night.
Paul’s words apply to us too. Today we see many churches caving in to persecution and cultural pressure. We see them compromising the Word of God, tolerating sin as if it is not sin at all. We see churches bending to the will of political agendas. We see individual Christians, even ourselves, easing our stance on things like abortion, homosexuality, cohabitation, even going as far as to say that there is salvation apart from Christ. But all of this is clearly against God’s Word and will for our lives. We should not get caught up in the world but stand strong in the testimony of our faith and be mindful of that day when the Lord returns, for Paul warns both the Thessalonians and us that God will take vengeance upon those who do not heed His Word.
Now concerning that day Paul also did not want the Thessalonians to misunderstand and be caught up in false theology about Christ’s return. Paul tells them, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” You see, the Thessalonians were afraid that all those who had died in the faith while waiting on the Lord’s return would miss out on the promise, that is that the dead would stay dead and not receive everlasting life and blessedness in the presence of the Father and of Christ. They did not fully understand the promise that the Gospel offered and believed that Christ’s kingdom would simply be an earthly kingdom that extended forever.
We too see misunderstandings of Christ’s return in our day. One of the best and most obvious examples of this is the belief in a rapture. Some believe, even based off our text to the Thessalonians, that one day Christ will come back, resurrect the faithful, and secretly rapture His Church, that is snatch them out of this world and take them away with Him to heaven, leaving the unfaithful here on earth to endure seven years of tribulation. This is the stuff of the Left Behind books and movies. They falsely assert that after the tribulation Christ will visibly return for the whole world to see and He will separate those who repented from those who did not. Not only is this theology not supported in Scripture, it ultimately goes against what is clearly witnessed to in Scripture and we must not get caught up in it.
The clear witness of Scripture states, as confessed in the creeds, that there is ONE return of Christ and ONE resurrection of the dead. When Christ returns, as Paul says, He will bring with Him the souls of all of those who have died in the faith. When God created us, He created us as a unified body and soul. God never intended for death to be part of creation, but allowed death to enter when Adam and Eve sinned. He took pity on Adam and Eve in their fallen state. He did not desire His creation to live apart from Him forever. So He removed them from the garden and barred them from eating of the truth of life, for if they had eaten it they would have lived in the fallen state, apart from God, forever. So God let death enter into creation so that our sinful flesh may pass away and our soul to be brought to be with Him in heaven.
Heaven, however, was not meant to be our permanent estate. God had made creation and it was good, it was very good. Sin entered through the weakness of our flesh and the temptation of the devil. When Christ returns, not only will He conquer Satan and bind Him forever, but He will bring with Him all the souls of those who have died in the faith. At His command He will raise their bodies of dust, transforming them into new bodies in which there is no weakness of sin, and for those still alive at Christ’s return, their flesh will also be transformed into bodies of glory and we will all be caught up together with Christ. And He will descend and make all things new for the full realization of His eternal kingdom here on earth.
This is the comfort that Paul is sharing with the Thessalonians and the words that he tells them to share for mutual encouragement. He does not want them to be ignorant, but to know that all those who have died in the faith, all those who have died while waiting upon the Lord are not excluded from everlasting life, but Christ will bring their souls with Him and they will be resurrected and will be inheritors of Christ’s everlasting kingdom along with all the faithful.
That means, dear brothers and sisters, that death cannot hold you down, but Christ has defeated death for your sake. When we live, we are in Christ, and when we die, we are in Christ. So whether we live or we die, we are Christ’s. He is our God and our Savior, and He knows each of us by name, so we will not be forgotten whether in life or in death. One day He will return, and this pronouncement will resonate through all creation as it is made new and we are given new, glorious bodies to dwell with God the Father and the Lamb who was slain forever and ever.
So as we wait don’t get caught up in the world and lose sight of Christ’s return, and don’t get caught up in a false understanding of His return, but be caught up in Christ and firm in His word, knowing that our salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Thereby we will be ready for His return. For Christ has died! Christ has risen! Christ will come again!
May the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.