The following is adapted from a sermon I wrote from 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18 for my Preaching II class. In a recent meeting, my professor helpfully pointed out to me—and I agree with him—that my skills lie more in writing than in public speaking, and he encouraged me to give exegetical blogging a try. So instead of a twenty-minute video of me trying to seem confident behind a pulpit, I present an abridged version of my manuscript. If you’re interested in reading the full sermon text, it’s available here. And if you just really want to hear the sermon preached, there is a video of me preaching it available here.
No theologian throughout history has reached a broader audience than Charles Schulz. Schulz was the author of Peanuts, arguably the greatest comic strip of all time. And between the panels of Snoopy’s great adventures and Charlie Brown’s failed attempts to kick that ever-elusive football, he inserted some theological musings that were quite insightful. On April 13, 1965, Schulz published this strip portraying a conversation between Lucy and her brother Linus:
Charles Schulz understood the assuring power of sound theology, and so did the apostle Paul. Much of his life, ministry, and writing were dedicated to it, and that included his first letter to the Thessalonians (the oldest preserved Christian writing, by the way). The letter is chock full of deep theological reflections on various issues. And this is understandable given the circumstances surrounding the writing of the letter. Paul had recently founded the church at Thessalonica but had almost immediately been forced to flee the city, and despite his best efforts, he was unable to return to his beloved young church start.
And so he did the next best thing: He got out a pen, wrote a letter to the church, and sent his right-hand man Timothy to deliver the letter and to check on them. And in 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18, Paul had this to say to the new believers at Thessalonica:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Based on what we read in the text and what we know from the historical context, it seems that that the Thessalonian church was facing three main problems. The most salient issue was that members of the community were dying, some possibly as a result of persecution. The Thessalonians also seemed confused about the return of Christ, knowing that Paul had taught them it would come soon and wondering why it hadn’t happened yet. And finally, the church was facing the problem of resocialization, learning to live out their newly-found Christian faith in a culture that was radically different from—and even hostile to—Christianity. This problem was made even more difficult by the fact that they had lost their spiritual mentor, Paul, so quickly after coming to the faith.
And so all of this confusion, about theological issues, the loss of members within their community, and trying to live out their newfound faith in a pagan context, had a drastic result: The Thessalonian Christians lost their hope.
Does any of this sound familiar? Because it should. We have a lot in common with those Thessalonians. We face loss in our own lives and communities; death is a reality in all times and places. We certainly don’t know what to think of the return of Christ, if we even bother to think about it at all. And we live in a secular culture that is constantly in conflict with the faith that we’re seeking to live out.
Like the Thessalonians, we face the temptation to lose our hope in the face of the reality around us. But Paul wrote to the church to renew their hope, and his letter persists until today in order to offer us hope as well. In this passage, Paul highlights three main sources of hope that Christians at all times and in all places can claim.
source one: the return of Christ
The first source of hope is one that Paul’s original audience was all too aware of and that we all too often ignore, but one that is far too often misunderstood in either case. That is the return of Christ. It is clear from this text and from the New Testament witness as a whole that the return of Jesus is a basic tenant of the Christian faith.
This belief in Jesus’ return is rooted in the words of Jesus himself. In John 14.3, Jesus tells his disciples, “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” And Christians have claimed that promise ever since. From 1 Thessalonians, the earliest extant Christian writing, to Revelation, the last book in our canon, we see the return of Christ come up again and again. Different texts use different metaphors, of course, and they all ultimately fall short of the reality. But regardless of which metaphor one might prefer, we can say without a shadow of a doubt that the return of Christ is coming.
And how could this not give us hope? Jesus, the God who chose to take on the form of a man and live among us, the God who died an innocent death and then overcame death by rising back up from it, the God who ascended into heaven and now sits at the right hand of the Father, is coming back to earth one day, and he’s coming back for us. When he returns, he will make all things new and set everything right. Nothing we will experience in this life, no matter how disappointing or hurtful, can overshadow the fact that we are awaiting the greatest homecoming of all time, and that is something worth hoping in.
For two thousand years, followers of Jesus have been saying that Jesus is coming soon. And of course, this has required us to sort of redefine what we mean when we say “soon.” By “soon,” we don’t mean that Jesus is definitely coming within the next year. We don’t mean that we can pinpoint on a calendar when exactly he’s coming. We don’t even necessarily mean that he’s coming within our lifetimes. What we mean is that Jesus could come at any moment, and this fact has a deep impact on our lives. And so we live with Jesus’ return as a reality in our lives even though we know it hasn’t quite happened yet.
And isn’t that what hope is, really? It’s choosing to live into the reality of something that hasn’t happened yet because one believes that it will. Theologians call this living in a place of “already and not yet.” It’s choosing to believe that your loved one will be healed even before the doctor confirms that the treatment has had its effect. It’s choosing to believe that you’ll be able to make ends meet while the bills are piling up and the paychecks just aren’t coming. It’s choosing to believe that things can and will one day be better than they are now, not because of anything that we do, but because God is working in and through history, and one day, he is going to break into history in a new way and make everything right. That’s the hope that the return of Christ offers us, and we can each live into that hope today.
source two: the resurrection of the saints
But Paul didn’t stop there. He had more hope to offer the Thessalonians, and his letter has more hope to offer us today. You see, the Thessalonians were really worried about the fact that some of their church members had passed away after becoming Christians. These deaths shook the church to its core. The Thessalonians were waiting for Jesus to return, and they had been taught that he was coming soon. This led them to fear that their fellow believers who had passed away would somehow miss out on Jesus’ return because they had already died.
And so Paul offered them a second source of hope: the resurrection of the saints. The Bible teaches us that every person who puts their faith in Christ will one day be bodily resurrected in order to meet with him. And Paul especially was adamant that those he taught understand that their resurrection was coming because he knew how important it was for living the Christian life, especially when it comes to maintaining Christian hope.
If we want to know what our resurrection will be like, we need only look to Jesus. He’s our example and precursor. 1 Corinthians 15 goes so far as to call him “the first fruits of those who have died.” And in the final chapters of the book of John, we get some really interesting details about what Jesus’ resurrection body was like. It’s clearly different from his pre-resurrection body in some ways, as we can gather from the fact that Mary Magdalene, one of his most devoted followers, doesn’t recognize him at first. But there’s also some continuity between Jesus’ bodies because he shows Thomas his pierced hands and side. And we know that Jesus’ body was physical because John portrays him eating food. All of this indicates that we aren’t trying to escape these physical bodies that we’re in; we’re simply waiting for God to transform them.
Now these are just tidbits of insight, and they’re really not the primary concern of John or Paul. And they shouldn’t be our main concern, either. Ultimately, we can’t know how it’s all going to work. We can simply let the mysteries of God be mysteries. And we can just trust in the fact that the resurrection is promised, and that one day, God will fulfill his promise of bringing back to life every person who has followed him and then died.
This had to be reassuring to the Thessalonians, who no longer had to worry about their loved ones missing out on Christ’s return, and it should be reassuring to us as well. We don’t have to fret about our loved ones who have gone on before us. God’s got them taken care of. And we don’t have to worry about what happens to our bodies either, whether they’re threatened by disease or some external power or just the natural wear and tear that comes with time. The resurrection makes all of these things ultimately irrelevant, and it gives us hope for the new life that we’ll experience after the resurrection.
source three: our eternal end
And that brings us to the final source of hope we see in this passage: our eternal end. It’s pretty great that Jesus is going to come back and resurrect all of his followers into new life, but it’s even better to know that he won’t be done with us even then. Jesus won’t return and resurrect his followers for no reason. There’s a purpose behind it. Jesus is coming back and bringing his followers back to life so that we can share in eternal life with him.
I’ve found that Christians like to spend a lot of time thinking about what heaven will be like. The Bible offers us some metaphors, some attempts by our feeble human minds to describe this amazing place that’s so far beyond our comprehension. We like to talk about the streets of gold, the pearly gates, and the layers of precious stones. We like to think about the rows and rows of mansions that we’re promised. I once had a conversation with a friend who mused about what the food would be like. They claimed that it would taste just as good as it does here, but it wouldn’t have any calories.
To be honest, I don’t know what our eternal home is going to be like. I don’t think we have any way of knowing the details. And really, I don’t think they’re all that important. Because I know who’s going to be there, and to me, that’s what matters.
I know that Jesus is going to be there. I’ll get an opportunity to meet the one who gave his life for me, the one died and rose again, the one who saved me from my the eternal punishment I so deserve. I’ll get to sit with him and thank him for all that he’s done for me, not just for salvation, but for my calling, for my family, for this amazing life that he’s given me. I’ll have time to list it all.
And the Father and the Holy Spirit, too. They’ll be there. Maybe I’ll get a chance to get them together with Jesus and we can finally hash out this whole trinity thing. But then again, once I get into their presence, I doubt those sorts of questions will really matter to me all that much.
And Paul. He’ll be there. And all the other great minds of the Christian faith, like Augustine, Luther, Brunner, and Lewis. And Charles Schulz. I’d love to get a few minutes to chat with him about some things.
And my great-grandmother. She’ll be there. She passed away last month at the age of 93 after living an incredible life. She lived long enough to meet her great-great-grandchildren. Well, some of them, at least. My sister had a baby last week, and my great-grandmother didn’t live quite long enough to meet little Trenton. It’s a shame. But I know that one day, I’ll have the honor of introducing Trenton to his great-great-grandmother, and he’ll get to hear all of the stories that I got to hear from her growing up, and we’ll all get to share in that together.
Yeah, I know who’ll be there.
And I think that’s our greatest source of hope. As followers of Jesus, we get to spend eternity in the most amazing company that there ever was or ever will be. We’ll get to spend eternity with our savior. That would be enough, but there’s more. We’ll get to spend eternity with our brothers and sisters in Christ. And we’ll get to spend eternity with our loved ones who have gone on before us. What more could those Thessalonians have wanted to hear from Paul? What more could we possibly ask for?
I don’t know a lot of things. I don’t know what this life has in store for me or for you. I don’t know when Jesus is coming back or how exactly the resurrection is going to work. But I know that he’s coming back. I know that he’ll resurrect his followers when he does. And I know what my eternal end is. And that gives me hope. I pray that today, you’ll allow it to give you hope as well, and that together, we’ll follow Paul’s command to the Thessalonians at the end of our passage: Let us encourage one another with these words. Amen.