1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Homily for The 24th Sunday after Pentecost
Our sermon text this morning is the lectionary reading from St. Paul’s first
epistle to the church in Thessalonica.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “For
the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of
an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will
rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in
the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.
Therefore encourage one another with these words.” Dear brothers and sisters in our
Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, what we hear in these prominent words from St. Paul is
a description of the end of this present world – the end of earth as we know it really
and then what comes thereafter. And yet, the apostle explicitly tells us at the close of
our reading to “encourage one another with these words.” That’s the thing, friends:
the end is not something to fear, but something to look forward to. It is not something
to fret over, but something to anticipate with immense joy. It is something which itself
encourages. Our Lord will return in judgement, yes. But for those of faith, for us,
that’s good news. We are reckoned righteous for His sake. And as we heard last week,
when our Lord, the holy Lamb, does return, He will wipe away our tears and end our
pain and He will make all things new. For us that is perfection. That’s what we want.
That is what we desire – it is our deepest longing as sinner-saints to be wholly rescued
from this bitter vale of tears. But yes, to be sure, for the unbeliever though, the end of
the present world is perhaps a terror – and a terrible thing to contemplate. News of it
is received by the faithless with a tremendous deal of trepidation.
Yet it shouldn’t be that way. Instead, this news should be regarded by them
foremost as a welcomed warning. And that’s exactly what St. Paul intends here. His
words are an encouragement to us and a warning of sorts to those still lost. His is a
message of hope and of good tidings for us faithful, but it is moreover, in a less direct
way, still a message of hope and salvation through God’s freely-given-grace for all
outside these walls as well, should they only believe. And that means it is imperative
that we share this message with all who remain lost. That is our duty as Christians. It
is absolutely incumbent upon us. The unbelieving world needs the saving Christian
faith, it is their only hope, and it is our responsibility to speak it to them, and
regularly. So that’s what must be said up front. You already know it to be true – but I
am obliged to remind you often as your pastor. Because the truth is, we Christians
have gotten kind of lazy and awfully apathetic in this department over the past half
century or so.
But anyhow, let’s back up for a moment, shall we? There’s something else to
be said here for us. This current world will come to an end. True enough. It will be
destroyed, in fact. There will be a conflagration, as Sts. Peter and Paul both assure us.
Jesus will return as Judge. He said so Himself. This is certain; the Bible
straightforwardly tells us so. All the pieces of the puzzle fit together and make sense.
But what exactly will the end look like though? That is the question on the minds of
many people. And one can understand why. Maybe it’s on all our minds as of late. So
let’s begin to answer this pressing question by starting here, as usual, with a single
word: ἁρπαγησόμεθα (harpogay-sow-metha) – from the Greek verb ἁρπάζω –
meaning to seize, to snatch up, or to carry off. That’s the word Paul uses when
referring to what will happen to those still living when the Lord comes back. They
will be seized and caught up in the heavens to be united with God forever.
Now the Latin Vulgate, the primary edition and rendering of Holy Scripture from its
original languages that held sway for many, many centuries, translates this Greek
word as rapiemur (rah-pih-aye-mur), from rapio in the Latin, meaning to snatch away
or to grab, or to capture or catch – hence: “they will be caught up,” right? That’s what
Paul writes. But okay, pastor, what’s your point though? Why bring in more Greek
this Sunday and now even Latin? Well, here’s my point, friends: etymologically-
speaking, this little word in the Bible is where we English speakers get a very serious
and well-known theological term: rapture – again, from the Latin rapio.
So will there be a rapture? Yes, of course, St. Paul says so. Those still living
will be caught up with Christ and the saints in the clouds on the Last Day. They will
be raptured, so to speak. However, much of what people in America today think about
when they hear the word “rapture” is actually kind of inaccurate and confused. The
Left Behind series of books, for instance, have you ever heard of it before? I’m sure
you have. But here’s what you need to know about it: the theological thinking in that
series is, to be blunt, and honestly, to be charitable, it is downright unbiblical. The
author’s incredibly speculative understanding of the rapture has no real foundation in
God’s Word and its historical interpretation. Having said that though, this view is
also incredibly popular these days. Many evangelicals are convinced, for example, of
an initial rapture, followed by a literal seven-year tribulation, with a-specific-and-
singular-yet-so-far-undetermined-and-rather-frightening Antichrist figure, and a one-
thousand year or millennial reign of Christ prior to the Final Judgment. Yet as far as
God has revealed it to us in His holy and inspired Word, none of this speculation is
really true or certain or at least proven or even provable. And the church in her
profound wisdom for eighteen hundred years understood that fact perfectly well. She
was not blind to symbolic and figurative readings of books like St. John’s Revelation.
And neither are we.
Unfortunately though, a few short centuries ago a handful of Protestants began rather
blindly to teach something new and positively uncertain concerning the end times.
And regrettably, many people today have been led astray by these false teachings –
which is what they are, by the way: false teachings.
This matters for us this Sunday for two important reasons: firstly, because
that’s the reading for today – 1 Thessalonians 4 – arguably one of the primary
scriptural reference passages for those who teach incorrectly about the end times; and
secondly, because of what is going on in the world right now, especially in the Middle
East. This discussion is perhaps particularly pertinent in light of what has gone on
with, say, Iran in the last week or so, right? The World War 3 worries are making the
rounds once again. And to be candid with you, we do very much live in a dangerous
time. There is global concern, and rightly so. But according to some Christians in this
country who hold to a minority view called dispensational premillennialism—don’t
worry, we will get into that dense terminology in Bible Study this morning, so make
sure not to miss it!—but anyhow, some well-intentioned among the faithful who
believe this peculiar teaching argue that the modern state of Israel plays a significant
role in the one-thousand-year or millennial reign spoken of in Revelation chapter
twenty. So for these Christians—who while vocal are relatively few—Christ’s Second
Coming as Final Judge is in a way predicated on, it is based, contingent, and
dependent on a national restoration of the political state of Israel. Which is why
Christian Zionism is so prevalent among so many evangelicals and conservative
Christians. But here’s the thing; as far as we know, that understanding of the end
times is simply not scripturally substantiated in the least or even sensible. Which is to
say, it is really quite unbiblical as well.
For us traditional Christians, for us Lutherans, for our theology and for our
eschatology, from the Greek word ἔσχατον, meaning “the last thing,” with
eschatology being the study of the last things, so in other words, for our understanding
of the Second Coming and the Final Judgment, the very last things of all—modern
nations and geopolitical matters are ultimately irrelevant. And besides, as Scripture
plainly states, the holy church of Christ is the new and now only Israel in God’s eyes.
God’s chosen people are the Christian church. That’s been the reality since Jesus
Christ’s tomb was found empty two thousand years ago. The church, the body of
believers, we are God’s chosen. Those baptized into the name of the Father, the Son,
and the Holy Ghost are God’s chosen. Not modern Israelis or religious Jews or
Muslim Palestinians or Iranians or anyone else on earth, but we Christians
everywhere. Period. We as the baptized are the chosen. A Christian baptism is how
God now chooses His people, after all.
Furthermore, when our Lord does return, it will be all at once. It will not be two
separate events, with an initial rapture of the faithful, as spoken of in our reading this
morning, and then thereafter a Second Coming in judgment later on, with a tribulation
of sorts in between. Despite what some misled believers think, there will not be two
separate events at all, but one return, one Second Coming, all at once at the very end.
It is the Second Coming after all, not the third or the second and a half coming. And
when Jesus does come at the end of the age, once and for all, He will then judge all
people, without exception – which means that all who have rejected Him explicitly
will then be rejected by Him explicitly. That is what the Holy Bible teaches. And that
is what the church has believed for thousands of years. And we have got to be bold in
our proclamation of this pure doctrine of the faith, even when it is unwelcome and
evidently out of season and maybe even unpopular among those who share our
There will be a rapture, yes. But it won’t be like what you generally hear about in so
much modern theological conversation in this part of the world. It will be, according
to the Bible, an immediate thing, not a drawn-out ordeal. And the success or failure of
the modern state of Israel, or any nation, for that matter, including our own, will play
no determining role whatsoever in whether or when or how Jesus returns as judge in
His glory. That’s up to Him. Not us. It has nothing to do with our thoughts, opinions,
So in light of all that, in light of the Lutheran and historical Christian teaching
on this consequential issue, here’s my pastoral advice to you today – my sincerest
words of encouragement: don’t listen to all that noise out there. Don’t pay heed to the
fearmongers and false teachers and the end-timers who spread lies or at least loose
and lazy interpretations about the Last Day. The end will come, but nobody knows
when. Not a single solitary soul. There will be signs, for sure, but no man or woman
this side of glory will ever know the exact when. And nobody really knows what
exactly it will look like either. That is not given for us to know. And that’s okay. But
anyone who tries to convince you otherwise, who thinks they’ve got it all figured out,
is purely pulling the wool over your eyes. And honestly, they are disobeying God as
well by attempting to shape dogma and doctrine out of sheer speculation.
But here’s the most important takeaway: don’t worry so much about the end.
Don’t be like them. Don’t be consumed with what God in His infinite wisdom has
chosen not to reveal to you. Don’t brood or panic or lose any sleep over this world’s
end. We are here right now, this day, and someday the end will come – but no one on
earth knows when or how. Maybe it’ll be soon. Maybe it won’t. And you know what,
we are truly in the end times already, we have been in the end times for two millennia,
but we don’t know when the end times will finally end.
We don’t know and we can’t know. So in the meantime, how about just share the
Gospel, save whomever you can. Focus on that. And don’t spend another moment of
your brief life concerned about the specifics of the end of the world. God doesn’t want
you too. Neither do I. And your worry makes no difference anyhow. Because
obviously, worrying does not do anything at all to prepare you or anyone else for the
consummation of the age. You know that and I know that. So again, tune out all that
noise and just relax.
But how on earth can you be so calm, pastor? How can you recommend such a
light-hearted perspective? The world’s gonna end in a fiery destruction. Doesn’t that
bother you? No, dear faithful, it does not. Because it is God’s will and His will is
always good and because everyone saved in Christ is eternally secure in Him, and
when the day does come, we will all then be ushered into the new creation and the
new heavens. The end is not scary. It is sublime. And I cannot wait for it, frankly. I
am not worried or worked up one bit. Days are dark right now, I get it. I have eyes to
see and ears to hear. And yeah, look at how awful things around us seem. The world is
indeed in turmoil. I wouldn’t deny that. And don’t get me wrong, I do very much fear
for those who are still lost to this pagan world. But my worry and fear, none of that
stuff helps them in the least. All I can do is share the Gospel with them, day by day.
And if you are concerned for them, too, then do that also. Share the Word with your
unbelieving loved ones whenever you have the opportunity. But don’t bother them
with nonsense about when the world is going to end or precisely how. That is utterly
useless to them. Instead, give them the full sweetness of the Gospel, give them the
news of that forgiveness won through Christ’s beautiful bloodshed. Give them the
news that when God incarnate returns, He will bring life wherever there is death. That
is what persuades and that is what saves. Therefore, give them that – which is all they
really need at the end of the day anyways. Law and Gospel – and in that order.
And what about us though? What do we have to do in order to prepare for the
end? Well, again, stop worrying yourself. Chill out. Relax. All you need to do is keep
coming to church. Keep believing. Keep praying. Keep reading your Bible. Keep
hearing the Word preached out loud in this here place. Keep receiving the holy
sacraments of Absolution and the Lord’s Supper. Keep loving your family. Keep
making families, as a matter of fact. Great big families. Be fruitful and multiply – the
more the merrier, the more souls to save. And keep educating and catechizing your
dear children, so that they might be sanctified, too. Keep serving and growing your
church. Keep helping your neighbor.
And you know what else you really need to do? You need to enjoy your life
every now and again. As much as you can. Keep enjoying this gift of God’s green
earth and your precious life. That’s right, enjoy your life. Drink and be merry. The
wise king Solomon got it so right in the Book of Ecclesiastes, chapter eight: “I
commend enjoyment,” he writes, “because a man has nothing better under the sun
than to eat, drink, and be merry.” Enjoy this life without shame. Suck the marrow out
of it as Henry David Thoreau once poetically suggested. Seize the day even. Live your
life to the fullest. Obey God, of course – that goes without saying. And that is how
you live your life to the fullest. But also, remember all the commandments – the
fullness thereof. Keep all the usual biblical commandments, naturally. Yet recall, too,
that God further commands us to rejoice, to be glad, to savor this life and His gracious
gift of creation and providence. The Son of God straight up told us time and again not
to worry, not to be anxious. So obey Him. For the love of God—and I mean that quite
literally—listen to your Lord and trust Him. Live your life without dread and angst.
Love your life deeply and intently.
That’s how you prepare for Christ’s Second Coming. By respecting Him enough in
appreciating your eternal salvation and your earthly life now, both of which are
treasures from the Heavenly Father, which are safeguarded through His Son and
worked in us and sustained by His Spirit.
According to a famous tale—an often-told although perhaps apocryphal,
unverified tale—a friend once asked Martin Luther what he would do if he knew that
the world was going to end tomorrow. A question familiar to us all. And you know
what Dr. Luther supposedly said? He said in response to that grave question that he
would plant a little apple tree. That’s how he would spend his final day on this earth.
Planting a tree. Being about his business by being a good steward of what God gave
him, by not worrying, and by tending to what he loved: the earth and his neighbor.
Whatever is going on in the world right now, however devastating it may appear, and
terrifying at times, it is in God’s hands. All you can do is pray that His will be done.
Our speculations do not factor into the Last Day. And neither does any paranoia our
part. The Final Judgement is not something to be paranoid and petrified about. It is
good news. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: heaven is not the final destination,
friends. It is not the end goal. Heaven is wonderful and blissful and perfect and it is an
altogether incomparable and celestial waiting room – but note well that that is what it
is: a place where we await the Last Day. The real goal, the true end, is the new
creation, the new heavens, the New Jerusalem, all that which comes after the Final
Judgment at the end of time and after the conflagration, that fiery destruction of this
current world. Our salvation is concentrated on eternity. We’re headed forward
forever. And really, our eternity with Christ and with all the saints together begins on
the Last Day, when we will each be resurrected in body and soul. And that’s
something to look forward to with great expectation. It is not bad news but the very
So my closing advice to you is this: turn off the news. In fact, just the turn off
the television entirely, won’t you? And go read the Bible. Go outside. Go plant a tree.
Read your Bible outside – and out loud. Kiss your children. Come to church week
after week. And enjoy whatever time you have left on this planet. That’s how you
prepare for the rapture. That’s how you make yourself ready for the Last Day. By
being a good Christan on this given day – which means, in part, by rejoicing
Are you baptized, beloved? Are you here in church at this very moment? Are
you repentant of your sins? Do you desire forgiveness and the Lord’s Supper? Do you
love your neighbor? If so, then you have nothing in the world to worry about. You are
saved eternally. Take heart and rejoice in that. The only thing that really matters in the
end is already a settled matter for you now. It was decided on the cross long ago. So
you are well on your way to being fully prepared for your Lord’s glorious return. We
pray He comes quickly, of course, because the end is but a triumphant new beginning.
So come quickly, Lord Jesus. Yet in the meantime, while we are waiting here below,
don’t be anxious, brothers and sisters. That is a waste of time. Instead, spend your
time well – by sharing the Gospel and enjoying the life God has granted you. That’s
the work you have before you. And I hope you’ll take that work seriously by living
light-heartedly – which is, after all, how a good, faithful Christian ought to live:
without pretension and paranoia, without self-righteousness and self-certainty, without
the heavy burden of useless worry, and with a healthy, robust lust for life. In the holy
name of Jesus. Amen.