1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
One of the hardest things about being a Christian, I think, is to believe that in spite of everything you are still winning. Not that this life is a contest, but when you consider all the daily reminders of failure--your health is deteriorating, your marriage isn’t exactly what you thought it would be on your wedding day, the constant decline of morality in society, the decline of Christian churches, the loss of loved ones, the fact that by this age you should have more saved up for retirement, but you don’t. Are there any reminders that as Christians we are winning?
I assure you this is not going to be a pessimistic sermon. There is enough pessimism already in the news regarding the future. No, in spite of what I just said regarding the constant reminder of failure in life, this is going to be a very encouraging sermon. Paul says at the end of our verses for today, “Therefore, encourage each other with these words” (v. 18). And that is what I intend to do. It is what we all need to be doing, especially in these latter days before the return of Jesus.
Because the answer to that question, “Are there any reminders that as Christians we are winning?”, the answer is: “It depends on where you are looking?” If you are looking for evidence of triumph outside of Jesus Christ, you will only find failure. Because eventually everything breaks, ends, or dies. But in Jesus Christ, whatever breaks will be fixed, whatever ends will start again, and whatever dies will live. But only in Jesus Christ.
Today we celebrate Saints Triumphant Sunday. Who are the saints? The saints are the believers who are in Christ. They are not a special group of believers who are more holy or closer to God than all other believers. No, the word “saint” means holy, free of sin. And everyone who believes in Jesus Christ as their Savior is forgiven of their sins. Some of those believers are in heaven right now where they are free of sin. There is no sin in heaven. There is no death in heaven. There is no pain or failure in heaven. They are the saints triumphant. Other believers, like you and me, are still on this earth. And we still have sin. And we suffer the consequences of it daily.
So, how can you and I be called saints? Because the Bible does that. Paul addresses his letter to the Philippians, for example, with these words, “To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons” (1:1). Well, is he only writing to a select group of special Christians? No. He is speaking to ordinary members of the church. How are they holy? Because their sins have been washed in the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7:14). And so they are “declared” holy by Jesus himself. Every day you and I wake up, we are once again declared holy. Lamentations 3:22,23 reminds us, “His mercies are new every morning.” Yes, we sin every day, but every day our sins are washed anew in the blood of the Lamb. Jesus died once for all.
So, right now as we speak, you are declared by God to be a saint. You are forgiven. And when you are in heaven you will be a saint, that is, you will be holy because you will finally be without sin. You will be triumphant.
Do you feel triumphant right now? Well, again, it depends on where you are looking.
The Thessalonian believers had their eyes fixed on heaven. They believed that Jesus their Savior was coming again. And yet, when they thought of dying before Jesus’ second coming, they weren’t so sure. “How can we be triumphant with Jesus if we die before he comes? Won’t we miss out?” It’s one thing to be alive when Jesus comes and takes us to heaven, but the fact of the matter is, 99% of believers will have died before he comes. What about you?
Paul encourages the Thessalonians by explaining to them how death works for the believer. He says, “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep [die], or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep [died] in him” (vv. 13,14).
This is the Christian faith. It is very simple. We do not need to complicate it. “We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” (v. 14).
Notice the words “in him”. That is a reference to our baptism. We were baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). So we carry his name. We have been brought into his family. Galatians 3:27 says, “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” That is, Christ covers your sins so that they can’t be seen by God. Colossians says, you have been “buried with [Christ] in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (2:12).
So, you have been washed. You are clean. And your status has been changed. You are no longer outside of Christ and guilty for your sins, but you are now “in Christ” and therefore forgiven of your sins.
Well, if you are “in Christ” now, and if you die “in Christ” later, Paul is saying, “then even though Jesus hasn’t come back yet, you nevertheless will rise from the dead to be with him when he does come.” Listen to what Paul says:
“According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever” (vv. 15-17).
Triumphant! With Jesus! In heaven! Risen from the dead! All of that is true of those who are “in Him.” So, are you winning?
Well, the apostle Paul, who speaks for Jesus, says, “Yes. Yes, you are.” Which is why he also says, “we do not want you … to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope” (v. 13). Paul isn’t saying we don’t grieve as Christains. Of course, we grieve. There are things that sadden us every single day. But we don’t grieve like the rest of men who have no hope.
Can you imagine living your life without the assurance of heaven? Can you imagine waking up each morning to constant reminders that your life is not the way you want it to be? What happens when you put your hope in something and it doesn’t turn out the way you had hoped for? What happens when the person you hoped would make you happy disappoints you? This is why humans grieve. Believers and unbelievers alike.
So, the difference is not that believers (Christians) don’t grieve. We’re not superhuman. We are not unaffected by the sin of this world. The sin is all around us. The sin is inside of us. Much of the time we grieve because we ourselves are the cause of the sin. The difference, however, is that the Christian has hope. The hope of forgiveness. The hope that things will get better. The hope that one day (soon) I will be victorious in the kingdom of heaven because Jesus, my King is victorious!
You see? Jesus already won! Jesus already rose from the dead! And I am in him. Through faith Christ and the believer are inseparable. And so, as we grieve, we grieve knowing that the tears will soon pass away. That even now Jesus wipes away the tears from our eyes. He reminds us, “I won! I know it doesn’t seem that way when you look around you. But when you look at me in the Scriptures, it is undeniably true: I won! And so have you.”
It is imperative that you and I remember that, for right now we are the church in waiting. The believers in heaven who have already died no longer have to wait. I think of my father. He struggled so much as a Christian on this earth. He’s not struggling any more. I’m still struggling, but then I think of him. He’s not. That’s encouragement!
So let me finish.
When we are encouraged, we are motivated to keep on struggling. When we are discouraged, that’s when we are tempted to give up.
You see, the Parable of the Ten Virgins represents the Christian church on earth. It is a church in waiting--waiting for the bridegroom, Jesus, to appear. When you wait a long time, you get discouraged. You get discouraged because when you wait a long time, you think of all the other times that you waited, and things didn’t turn out the way you had hoped. And so the temptation is to say, “What’s the use?” “Why keep waiting?”
Because this time is different. Jesus is God. “He is not a man that he should lie, nor a son of man that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and then not fulfill?” (Numbers 23:19). No, he is Christ. He is Christ, the Lord. Your Lord! And he is coming for you! Even though he tarries, his promise is that nevertheless he will come. Do you believe it? Are you excited for it?
Then keep waiting, and keep watching. Keep your lamps full of oil. That is, keep your hearts full of hope and faith. Trim the wicks of your lamps. That is, keep the excess of this world to a minimum. You can’t take it with you. But Jesus can and will take you! Lift up your hearts, church of God! All eyes on heaven!
“For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up with him in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words.”