The Twenty Fifth Sunday after Trinity| November 18, 2018| 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Ignorance is bliss. So they say. You’d rather not know that a comet will strike Sidney this afternoon at four o’clock. If you remain blissfully ignorant of it you can enjoy your Sunday dinner. You’d rather not know the mean things that mean people say about you behind your back. You want to assume that everyone likes you and says nothing but kind things about you when you’re not around. There is a certain charm in remaining ignorant of bad things. When St Paul describes love in 1 Corinthians 13, he writes that love believes all things. It is trusting. It is not suspicious. It doesn’t want to know about people’s sins, faults, and weaknesses. In this way love covers a multitude of sins.
But there is an ignorance that is not bliss. It is the ignorance of Christian doctrine. So called Bible believing Christians in America know very little Christian teaching. According to a recent study, among those call themselves Evangelical Christians, 85% believe that the Bible is 100% accurate in all that it teaches, and 78% believe that “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God.” They believe in the Bible. They just don’t believe what it says. They claim to be Evangelical, but they don’t believe that Jesus is “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.”
This ignorance is not bliss. It is hopelessness. St. Paul writes,
I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope.
Those who are ignorant of Christian doctrine have no hope. When their loved ones die, they want the preacher to eulogize them in his funeral sermon, hoping against hope that they were good enough to make it to heaven. If a professional religious guy says they were, well, that might provide a little bit of comfort.
But not much. And not for long. Certainly, not enough to provide any hope. People find themselves caught up in the emotional desire for a better life somewhere when they face the death of a loved one. Their eyes see the dead body and their hearts require something more, so they believe. In what? In whatever brings them solace.
But it’s not real. Their sorrow is without hope because they have no word from God. They have no promise from God that their departed loved one enjoys eternal life, is at peace with God and full of joy. They have no word from God. They are ignorant. Being ignorant, they have no hope. Having no hope, their sorrow can neither strengthen them nor can it ennoble them. It can only leave them weary, lost, and bitter. Doctrinal ignorance is not bliss. It is confusion, hopelessness and despair. St. Paul writes as an apostle of Jesus Christ. He teaches the church of all ages what God says about death and resurrection. He does so to comfort those who sorrow.
You need to know where does a Christian goes when he dies and what is going to happen when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. Being ignorant will only bring you pain. St. Paul writes about Christians who have fallen asleep. He calls the death of a Christian sleep. He’s not teaching soul-sleep. Some theologians have suggested that when a Christian dies, his soul falls into a deep sleep, and he is unaware of anything at all until the day of the resurrection. At death a Christian is instantaneously placed at the resurrection of the body and the end of time. According to this scenario, a Christian doesn’t experience anything after death until he rises from the dead. In this way, we don’t have to answer the question: What happens to the Christian from the time he dies until the time he rises from the dead? The answer is: Nothing.
The problem with this theory is that the Bible does not teach it. Men made it up. The Bible does not teach soul-sleep. Jesus said to the dying criminal who confessed him as King, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” St. Paul wrote in Philippians 1:23 that he desired to depart and be with Christ with is far better than life in this world. In Revelation 14:13 we read that Christians who die in the Lord are blessed. They rest from their labors, but their souls don’t sleep. They are conscious. They experience the perfect joy of perfect fellowship with God.
When the Bible calls death a sleep it is talking about the body sleeping in the grave. At the end of the world, God will raise up our dead bodies so that they are glorified. It won’t take any time. It will be done instantaneously. St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:51-52,
Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed— in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
When Jesus comes to raise up all the dead and to bring his church to heaven, Christians who died in the faith and whose bodies are resting in the ground will be raised from the dead to join the Christians who are living. They will meet Jesus together. None will be left behind. We don’t worry about the eternal destiny of those who have died in the Christian faith. The Christian dies in hope of the resurrection to eternal life.
How do we know? How do we know that all who die confessing Christ will rise to eternal life in glorified bodies on the last day and those still alive will be glorified with them and meet Christ together to enjoy eternal life in heaven with him and all the saints? We know because we know Christ.
Those who don’t know Christ know nothing. Some dismiss out of hand the very idea of Judgment Day, heaven and hell, and life beyond the grave. They deny the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. The idea of damnation is repulsive to them. The idea of salvation is incomprehensible.
Others have a spiritual sense, believing in something above what we can touch, taste, smell, hear, and see. But they don’t acknowledge their own sin, so they don’t understand death and they see no need for a Savior from sin. It is said of the famous transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau, that at his deathbed he was asked if he had made peace with God. He replied, “I didn’t know that we had ever quarreled.”
And there are those who believe in heaven and hell, but do not know where they will spend eternity. Islam teaches that there is a heaven and a hell. It also teaches that no one can know whether he will go to heaven or hell. Their god won’t make promises to which his children can bind him. In fact, he has no children – only slaves. He leaves them in the dark. This is why young men who are promised Paradise if they die fighting the infidel will sacrifice their lives for the honor of the devil-god of the false prophet, Muhammad. Their self-sacrifice is the only assurance of eternal life they can find.
And, of course, there are people who identify as Christians, but pay little attention to the teaching of God’s word, assuming that divine doctrine isn’t that important. When death strikes, they are caught flatfooted. They reach out for whatever prop is near at hand. Sentiment, rather than God’s clear teaching, becomes their refuge. But sentimentality and hope are entirely different things.
How can we know that when we die our souls will be taken into Paradise and on the last day we will be raised from the dead, our dying bodies will become bodies that cannot die, our bodies will be glorified, and these sinful bodies will be purged from sin forever? How can we know?
We know that we will be raised from the dead, judged to be righteous, given immortal and glorified bodies, and brought to heaven when we know the One who will do this. When you know him, you know he will do what he has promised to do. We know him in his holy obedience. We know him in his bitter suffering and death. We know him as he lived and died for us. To know Jesus is to trust in him, in what he has done for you, and in what he promises you. Your sins earned you death. That’s why you will die. You deserve it. But Christ died your death. He bore its curse. From the time he was born of the Virgin Mary, until he died on the cross, he was living the life God required you to live. He did the work God required you to do. He worked your way to heaven.
When he died, he bore the curse of death, which the law demands of all sinners. Listen to how St. Paul describes this in Galatians 3,
For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.” But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for “the just shall live by faith.” Yet the law is not of faith, but “the man who does them shall live by them.” Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”), that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
The law condemns us to hell because we have disobeyed. God told us to love him more than anything else. We loved our things, our reputations, our friends, our family, and our own lives more than we loved him. God told us to love our neighbors as ourselves, but we despised our father and mother, hated our brother in our heart, polluted ourselves by sinful lusts, disdained our neighbor’s property while protecting our own, listened to and repeated gossip that hurt our neighbor’s good name. We wanted what God forbade. Death is what we deserve.
But look at who will come to judge us! He promised to raise us up from the dead! He died for us and took away the curse of our sin. By his obedience we are made righteous. We are baptized by his authority. We eat and drink his body and blood, given and shed for us for the forgiveness of sins. He is coming to take us home to heaven. The angel will shout. The trumpet will sound. We will meet our Redeemer face to face. We will be reunited with all Christians who have gone before us. This is the doctrine God teaches us today. Knowing this delivers us from the hopelessness of ignorance and comforts us when facing the sorrow that death brings. Amen.