Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
There once was a young man who rode the elevated railway to work regularly. One day, he noticed that in one place where the train moved slowly, he could see into a room where an elderly woman was apparently convalescing. For several weeks he saw her recovering there, so one day he put in the effort to learn the woman’s name and sent her a get-well card, signing it, “Just a young man who rides the train.” A week later as he rode the train home through the dusk he noted that the bed was empty and a sign, illuminated by a table lamp, was hanging on the window. It read, “Bless you.”
There are all times when we need to be encouraged. Maybe some here this morning could use a bit of encouragement. Well, the Apostle Paul has some words meant to encourage us, and this is the kind of encouragement that will give us a lasting confidence, and an enduring hope. In our epistle lesson Paul puts to rest all of the fears and concerns that Christians have about death. Christians of all ages and Christians of all times have turned to these verses again and again.
Why Encouragement is Needed
When the Apostle Paul first proclaimed the Gospel in the city of Thessalonica, it looks like he gave the new Christians with the impression that the return of Jesus to bring in the Kingdom of God was in the very near future. And then a problem arose: some of the these new Christians died. This left them with a perplexing question. What would happen to those who had died? Would they be left out from this new creation? The Thessalonians were also concerned for those who were still alive: what if they died before Jesus came again? Would they also be left out? What hope do we have to offer right here and now?
We know it’s hard enough for us Christians to say goodbye to the people we deeply love on earth. So could you imagine these Thessalonian Christians who thought their loved ones who died, who were also Christians, would miss out on Christ’s glorious return – not being with angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven? Well, Paul gives them detailed information so that they don’t grieve like the pagan world or those who live without Christ, living without the hope of the resurrection and everlasting life.
What is the encouragement that we need to hear today? In some respects it may not be so different from the encouragement that the Thessalonians needed to hear: two thousand years later, we continue struggle with the loss of loved ones. We still want God to assure us that He has not forgotten us, that we will not be left out, that we will not be separated forever from those who have already died.
Encouragement is Based On Christ’s Death and Resurrection
Our encouragement is based on our connection to Christ’s death and resurrection. Paul explains in verse 14, “We believe that Jesus died and rose again; so too will God bring those who died as Christians to be with Jesus.” These are the primary facts of Christianity. They are inseparably connected. The resurrection is the competition, the crown, of the Christ’s atoning death upon the Cross. If he was handed over for our offences, he was raised again for our justification. Deny either or both and we “are still in our sins.”
Before God can raise us to life in a new creation, Christ had to die and rise again. Without his bodily resurrection on Easter morning there is no hope. If Jesus did not rise again, then dust, ash, and torment would be our future, and death would be the final outcome for us. Yet, in the Scriptures we have the eyewitness accounts that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead on the third day and appeared bodily to his Disciples. Luke wrote, “God raised him to life on the third day, and allowed him to be clearly seen, not by the whole people, but by witnesses whom God had chosen in advance—by us, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead” (Acts 10:40-41) and “he showed himself after his death and gave ample proof that he was alive: he was seen by them over a period of forty days and spoke to them about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3).
“Jesus died and rose again!” That’s not just information about the past. It shows us what will happen to those who trust in Jesus. They too, if they die ‘in him’, that is, by being united to him, will also rise again. Paul’s encouragement is to remind us that believing in Jesus also includes believing that because of his death and resurrection, the dead are not lost, nor will they be left out. You will be bodily raised from the dead, because Jesus was bodily raised. Your tomb will be empty, because Jesus’ tomb is empty to this day. Our resurrection from the dead is absolutely true because Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, and we are united to him by faith. When Christ died, we died. Christ was raised, so we will also be raised from the dead. Our hope is focused on Christ’s death and resurrection. We believe that Jesus died and rose again. The resurrection of Christ is the downpayment, the teaser-trailer, of our resurrection. He was seen by many, by Mary Magdalene, by the other holy women, by the apostles, by more than five hundred at once. “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”
Encouragement is Focused On Christ’s Presence
Yet, the comfort that Jesus reveals, brings, and gives doesn’t stop here but continues. Our encouragement is focused upon the very coming, or to be more precise, presence of Christ. Paul is foretelling the future, and this future is sure and certain, as sure as if they were already in the past. Life with Christ in eternity is a “beautiful eternal summer,” that cannot be compared with the winter of death and pain and sin.
Notice that Paul even describes an order of events when Jesus returns. Those “who are still alive when the Lord comes will have no advantage over those who have died; when the command is given, when the archangel’s voice is heard, when God’s trumpet sounds, then the Lord himself will descend from heaven; first the Christian dead will rise, then [those] who are still alive shall join them, caught up in clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Thus we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thess 4:15–17).
“Always be with the Lord,” do those words encourage you? We who believe in Jesus’ death and resurrection will always be with our Lord! Just think of that dear brothers and sisters. When our resurrected Lord returns, when he comes once again it will be such a joyous event. As one Hymn puts it:
“Lord, let at last Thine angels come,LSB 708:3
To Abram’s bosom bear me home,
That I may die unfearing;
And in its narrow chamber keep
My body safe in peaceful sleep
Until Thy reappearing.
And then from death awaken me,
That these mine eyes with joy may see,
O Son of God, Thy glorious face,
My Savior and my fount of grace.
Lord Jesus Christ, my prayer attend, my prayer attend,
And I will praise Thee without end.”
Dear brothers and sisters, you can be confident in God’s future purposes for you, and for those Christians who have died. In this life there will be suffering, trial and grief, of course; but there is always hope. There will come a day when God will right all wrongs, when all grief will turn to joy. Jesus will take centre stage on that day — the day which will end with the unveiling of God’s new world. Then, those who have already died, and those who are still alive, will both alike be given renewed bodies to serve God joyfully in his new creation.
So, do you know someone who needs some encouragement? Could it be your spouse, children, family members, or friends? Could it be your neighbour, co-worker, or even a total stranger? Then again, Lord brought you here today for a reason, didn’t he? Therefore thanks be to God, that by his grace we can know, confess, and tell others the outcome for those who sleep in death, but live in Jesus: We will always be with the Lord! Those are words of encouragement, words of confidence, hope, and joy. Those are words of eternal life, because Jesus died and now He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. On the Last Day He will raise you and all the dead, and give eternal life to you and all believers in Christ. This is most certainly true!
May that peace of God which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,. Amen