End Times November 26, 2017
1 Corinthians 15:54-58
763 (TLH alt. 352), 612, 609, 800 (TLH alt. 605:4-5)
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
PRAYER OF THE DAY (Collect): O God, so rule and govern our hearts and minds by Your Holy Spirit that we may always look forward to the end of this present evil age and the day of Your just Judgment. Keep us steadfast in true and living faith and present us at last holy and blameless before You; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
You have said, ‘It is useless to serve God; what profit is it that we have kept His ordinance, and that we have walked as mourners Before the Lord of hosts? So now we call the proud blessed, for those who do wickedness are raised up; they even tempt God and go free.’” Then those who feared the Lord spoke to one another, and the Lord listened and heard them; so a book of remembrance was written before Him for those who fear the Lord and who meditate on His name. “They shall be Mine,” says the Lord of hosts, “On the day that I make them My jewels. And I will spare them as a man spares his own son who serves him.” Then you shall again discern between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve Him.
What’s the difference between a believer and an unbeliever? We say, “That’s easy! Faith is the difference!” While that’s true, many unbelievers have faith of some kind. While their faith is in false gods, it is a kind of faith. Our faith is in the true God, the Triune God of the Bible.
Besides, can you show me faith? You can’t see it because it is in the heart and only God can read hearts. Still, James, the brother of our Lord Jesus does tell us, “Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” (James 2:18) You can see the outward effects of faith, because faith in Jesus Christ moves believers to good works, or what we call, “fruits of faith.”
Still, this is not a surefire way to distinguish between believers and unbelievers. The children of Israel complained in our text that they did good works while the wicked did whatever they wanted. But it is a fact that a lot of unbelievers do more “good” works than many believers do. Outwardly, they appear to be very righteous. Unbelievers even point this out and suggest that believers are hypocrites because Christians claim to do good works, even though they prove themselves every day to be sinful.
Of course, good works merit nothing before God. Rather, the sinner is justified, that is, declared not guilty of sin, through faith in Christ Jesus our Savior from sin. But we see outwardly that, in terms of good works, believers and unbelievers appear to be very similar.
We might also try to tell the difference by looking at what each one has in this world. Perhaps God gives more earthly goods to the believer than to the unbeliever. But that’s not necessarily true either. Jesus says, “…your Father in heaven…makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:45)
The chief complaint contained in our text is that believers suffer so much as they repent of their sins and try to remain faithful to God and His Word, while the unbelievers go around ignoring that Word, doing whatever they feel like doing, and they get all the benefits of this world. In the opinion of those who were complaining, the worst of it is that God doesn’t seem to care! Going by what they saw in the world they determined that, “It is useless to serve God; what profit is it that we have kept His ordinance, and that we have walked as mourners Before the Lord of hosts?”
We may feel the same way sometimes. We see the people of the world lie and cheat and steal, basically doing whatever they need to do to get ahead. It seems like they have the advantage in this world since we’re “limited” by God’s Word, which restrains our sinful flesh. Sometimes we may even feel that it doesn’t do us a whole lot of good to be called children of God. If God is our Father, why don’t we have more things in this world?
For instance, look at the church bodies the CLC left—The Missouri Synod has well over two million members, with over a billion dollars donated in 1999. The Wisconsin Synod has a few hundred thousand members. How does that compare to the CLC? We have only around six thousand members. Look at the money and the resources these other church bodies have! Now, I’m not saying that these are unbelieving churches. However, they do teach things that are contrary to God’s Word. Still, we look at their vast resources and we think, “Maybe we should have kept our mouths shut about church fellowship and AAL and all the rest of it!”
Maybe “those who feared the LORD” in our text also spoke to one another of these things. No doubt they could say with the psalmist, “I was envious of the boastful when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” (Psalm 73:3) But if they did think this, no doubt they remembered how the psalmist concludes his writing, saying, “When I thought how to understand this, it was too painful for me—until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I understood their end…Oh how they are brought to desolation as in a moment! They are utterly consumed with terrors.” (Psalm 73:16,19) These believers reminded one another that “we walk by faith, not by sight.” (2 Corinthians 5:7)
You see, the differences between believers and unbelievers are not necessarily visible to the eye, but the differences are eternal.
The LORD knows our doubts and our questions. He knows that His people are sinful and often weak. So it is that He gives us His Word, as we read in our text, “Then those who feared the Lord spoke to one another, and the Lord listened and heard them; so a book of remembrance was written before Him for those who fear the Lord and who meditate on His name.” Holy Scripture, “…is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17) We can’t always see where we’re going, so He gives us His Word as, “…a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Psalm 119:105)
So it is that we don’t look to the world, or how we feel about the world, to keep and strengthen us in our faith. We don’t keep ourselves in God’s service by strength of will. If it were up to our sinful flesh, we would long ago have gone back to a life of unbelief and stayed there. It is God Himself who preserves us as His children, and He does so with His Word. And in His Word He explains to us the difference between believers and unbelievers.
First of all, He assures us in our text that He has written our names in his Book, where they will not be forgotten. This is a Book that Scripture refers to as, “the Book of Life.” (Revelation 20:15) From eternity He has written your name in that book, for the psalmist says to God, “Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them…” (Psalm 139:16) It is in His Word that He says, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name; You are mine!” (Isaiah 43:1)
Can the unbeliever make that claim? Can He claim that his name is written in the Book of Life? No, absolutely not. God says, “The face of the LORD is against those who do evil; to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.” (Psalm 34:16)
We have already considered that both believers and unbelievers are sinful. In fact, both are worthy of God’s condemnation because of their sinfulness. Of believers and unbelievers, God says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) Yet God calls believers, “the children of God.” (1 John 3:2)
The LORD says that on the Last Day, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” (2 Corinthians 5:10) This would be a terrifying thing on account of our sinfulness; it would be terrifying were it not that Christ Jesus had paid for all of our sins on the cross. Now, in the case of believers, God says, “‘They shall be Mine,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘On the day that I make them My jewels. And I will spare them as a man spares his own son who serves him.’”
We are God’s children, adopted as such through the sacrifice of His own Son, as it is written, “God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!’ Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.” (Galatians 4:4-7) God sacrificed His own Son Jesus so that He might adopt sinners as His own children.
God even wants to adopt unbelievers. After all, Scripture says, “…we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others.” (Ephesians 2:3) We too were once unbelievers, dead in sin. But through the work of God the Holy Spirit we are now the children of God, with a place reserved in heaven for each of us.
Can the unbeliever make that claim? So long as they reject the Gospel and remain in the darkness of unbelief they cannot. They remain children of wrath so long as they are without Christ Jesus.
Right now, in this world, there appears to be little difference between believers and unbelievers. Unbelievers even seem to have the advantage here. But all is not as it appears. While believers and unbelievers both have earthly treasures, only believers have treasure laid up for them in heaven.
It is at the Last Day that we will be revealed as God’s children for all to see, as we read in our text, “Then you shall again discern between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve Him.” It is on that Day that Christ says, “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats.” (Matthew 25:31f)
Christ will look in the Book of Life and, not finding the names of the unbelievers there, He will say to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!” (Matthew 7:23) And again, “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matthew 25:41) “And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:46)
To the unbeliever, we say this as a warning to them. Scripture says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15)
To the believer, this is spoken for encouragement in the faith. Don’t envy the unbelievers. If they seem to have more earthly treasures than believers, it is by God’s grace, for this world is all that they have. Luther encourages us to, “…take pity on [the] plight of [the unbeliever], and pray for him to be rescued from it and to reform.” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 21, p. 125) The unbeliever has nothing to look forward to. Would you give up Christ in favor of that? Would you give up eternal life for a few years of sinful pleasure?
Though we may suffer briefly in this world, we cling to Christ so that at the Last Day we shall hear these blessed words from the mouth of our Savior, saying, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” (Matthew 25:34)
Until that Day we rejoice and give thanks for the blessings God has given us in this world and in the next. We walk in this world by faith, not by sight, knowing that some day we shall see our Savior with our own eyes, as the holy writer encourages us, saying, “Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” (1 John 3:2) Amen.
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