25th Sunday after Trinity November 17, 2002
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
1 Corinthians 15:50-58
604, 609, 587, 611(5-7)
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.
Dear friends in Christ:
The saying is: “Ignorance is bliss.” At times this is very true. When we poured the slab for the garage and driveway I was glad to be ignorant about using a certain tool to work in the cement because that appeared to be a very strenuous job. Most of us who were there were all too happy to claim ignorance in that case. I’m also glad to be ignorant of most of the gossip that floats around town. I really don’t want to hear lies and rumors about other people. There are other circumstances, I’m sure, in which it would be a positive thing to be ignorant.
But ignorance is not bliss, especially when it comes to spiritual matters. Many times we’re in the dark about something on earth, but in the long run it really doesn’t matter. We’ll adjust. However, when it comes to spiritual matters we want to know as much as we can. If we don’t know all the facts about Christ’s resurrection and His second coming, we’re going to have unnecessary sorrow. As with any type of ignorance, spiritual ignorance is remedied with knowledge; and the sorrow caused by ignorance is negated with comfort that comes from a knowledge of the Scriptures. IGNORANCE IS NOT ALWAYS BLISS I. Ignorance concerning Christ’s resurrection and return causes unnecessary sorrow. II. This ignorance is remedied when we comfort one another with knowledge from the Scriptures.
The group of Christians in Thessalonica to whom Paul was writing, lived in an area that was largely Gentile. Not many of them had any knowledge of the true God before Paul brought the Gospel into their area. When Paul did come there on one of his mission journeys, he was only able to stay for about three weeks. Needless to say, there was not sufficient time for them to come up with all questions they might have, or for him to be able to answer everything. This, coupled with the fact that many of them had grown up with heathen influences and were surrounded by them, led these new Christians to have some doubts and questions concerning Christianity.
One area in which they needed further instruction was concerning the events that would take place on the Last Day. There was some confusion and worry over whether or not those who had already died in the faith would somehow be left behind on Judgment Day. The apostle Paul addresses these concerns in the verses that we have before us. He says, “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.” [v.13]
We know that there is going to be grief and sorrow when a loved one dies. This is true even for the Christian. We miss that person because a part of our life is missing. Perhaps there are other nagging questions that are bothering us. Is that person going to remain in the ground forever? How will God be able to bring that person back to life after he has been in the grave for so many years? Those without hope in Christ will have these questions, but they won’t be able to find any answers. Not knowing of God’s promises to Christians, an unbeliever can truly be overwhelmed by grief at a funeral. For an unbeliever there is no true comfort concerning his relative or friend. Quite frankly, I don’t know how an unbeliever could deal with death at all since he has no real hope.
Yet, thanks be to God that we have the wonderful knowledge of Jesus, and are not without hope! “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.” [v.14]
If it is true that Jesus died for us and rose again—and indeed we know that to be true—then we know that God will resurrect those who sleep in Jesus. On Judgment Day those believers who are alive and those who are “asleep in Jesus” will be taken to heaven. No one with faith in Christ, or who died in the faith will be left behind. It’s just not possible.
We’re given an outline of the events of the Last Day for which the Christian is so eagerly awaiting: “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.” [vv. 16-17]
It will be a glorious day, and a day of triumph for believers from all different eras. A moment should be taken here to dispel the false belief of what is called the “rapture,” for I believe the idea is taken partly from this verse. The teaching of the rapture is that all of a sudden believers will vanish into thin air, be taken off the earth, and then at some point after that they will rule with Christ on this earth for 1,000 until the final Judgment Day. It is clear from these verses that this is talking about Judgment Day of which no man knows the day or the hour. What Paul here describes is the end. There is no more. The trumpet will sound, Christ will descend, the dead will be raised, the believers will be caught up to meet Jesus, and then the final Judgment. In that final judgment, (as we read in the Gospel Lesson), the believers and unbelievers will be separated and the Lord Jesus will take all the believers to heaven with Him, while condemning the unbelievers to hell.
It is sad that there are those who are ignorant of these events altogether and do not even consider that Jesus is returning. Ignorance will be no excuse on Judgment Day. If a person does not know Jesus Christ as the Savior from sin then that person’s future is clearly outlined, for as the Scriptures tell us there is no excuse (cf. Romans 1:20).
You can see then that there is a sense of urgency to get the message of Jesus out to people. We certainly do not want to see a person go through this life without hope, but even more so, we would not want a person to have eternal sorrow away from Christ. Overwhelming sorrow is not necessary in this life nor for eternity, because Jesus is hope. He is the answer, for He has rescued us from sin and its curse.
We are instructed by our Lord through the apostle to take the steps necessary to remedy the ignorance a person might have about the future. Most, if not all, have had more than the three weeks of instruction that the Thessalonians had; but in times of grief and in times of trial we need reminders of just what God has said to us. The last verse of our text instructs us, “Therefore comfort one another with these words.” [v.18]
There are times that words escape us when we try to bring comfort to each other. At a funeral we might not know what to say to somebody who has experienced a loss. We might say, “I’m sorry,” and a person might derive some comfort from that statement; but what are some other things we might tell them?
We could remind them of Jesus’ words, “Because I live you will live also” (John 14:19). We can remind them of Jesus’ promises to return and raise the one who has died giving him a glorified body for all of eternity in the presence of the Lord. We could even use the phrase “asleep in Jesus” because for a Christian death is really just like sleep—a sleep from which we awaken to everlasting life free from the curse and pain of sin.
Paul summarizes our hope and comfort when he writes, “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus” [v. 14] What appears to be the end is really the beginning for the Christian. Jesus has created this blessed hope for the future by dying to remove our sin and rising again to conquer the grave.
Grief will indeed afflict the Christian, there’s no need to fool ourselves about that. Even with our knowledge of the Lord we can’t deny the fact that we’ve experienced a loss. Grief over our loss may tinge our lives for many years, but we are still not without hope. Grief and sadness need not consume us, and God has given us one another to bring comfort to each other when we need it the most.
Nor dare we forget the words that we use to comfort others, without applying them to ourselves as well. A question that has probably plagued us all at one time or another is, “How do I know for sure that I’m going to heaven? Where will I stand on the Last Day?” The Devil loves to try to insert some doubt into our hearts and use his tools to try to undermine our faith, but a few questions and God’s answers will bring us some comfort concerning our own souls.
Question: Was Christ’s sacrifice on the cross good enough to pay for sin? Answer: Yes it was, for as the holy Son of God His shed blood was enough to take away the sin of the world. No sin has been committed that wasn’t paid for by Jesus. Think of Paul who once persecuted Christians, David who committed adultery and murder, and the thief on the cross who was dying because of his sins. These also were sinners, but they entered heaven because Christ washed away their sin. Your sins are paid for by Christ as well.
Another question: Will my life be good enough to deserve heaven? Answer: Absolutely not! Our works are as good as filthy rags. We could never do enough good to make up for the evil we have done in God’s sight. On our own we’re doomed! But that’s the wrong question if you’re looking for comfort. A question/answer for comfort focuses on Jesus. The proper question: Was Jesus’ life good enough to please God? Answer: Certainly it was! Jesus is true God and led a holy life. Since He did this in our place we rely on His works, not ours.
Question: How are we declared not guilty, by faith or works? Answer: “A man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” (Romans 3:28). Your righteousness comes through your connection to Christ not through anything you have done, therefore, it is foolproof.
My friends, use these words to comfort yourselves and one another. Look in the past to Christ’s resurrection and to the future for His return. Comfort yourselves with knowledge, not the knowledge of man’s philosophies, but with the knowledge of our Savior Jesus Christ and what He has done for us. Ignorance can be bliss if it gets you out of pouring concrete, but ignorance is harmful and dangerous when it comes to the Last Day. Find wisdom about the events of the Last Day and the blessings that a Christian will receive at that time. There’s only one place to find such wisdom, and that is in the Word of our Lord who gives us comfort here in time, and hereafter in eternity. Amen.
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.