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“Encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
If you’ve watched any amount of religious programming on TV, you know that the majority of what many televangelists preach about is Judgment Day and the signs of the end times. They are forever exploring, interpreting, and guessing about what some of the more obscure prophecies about the future might mean, as they study the books of Daniel and Revelation and apply them to the headlines of the day, overlooking what Scripture says about “times and dates.”
God has not chosen to reveal the time when Christ will come nor the reason that He planned it for when He did. Anyone who says he knows the time contradicts Jesus’ clear words: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36). Thereby he also reveals himself as a false prophet (Matthew 24:23).
If they would just listen to St. Paul in our text, those prophesy preachers would have to give it up. Perhaps they would preach about something more important, like Christ and Him crucified for our sins. Perhaps they would preach of our risen Savior who brings us eternal life. Perhaps they would preach of our ascended Lord who intercedes on our behalf, and who will one day return to judge the living and the dead. Sin and grace and Christ is what Christian preachers need to preach a whole lot more than trying to peer into a future known only by God.
When is the end of the world going to come? When is Jesus coming back? “Stop asking,” is St. Paul’s basic answer. The important thing for us to know about Jesus’ return is that He will return, and it will be sudden and unexpected, “like a thief in the night.” It’s ironic, but the by-product of so much seeking into the future is that it inevitably leads some people to say, “It can’t be now.” They come to believe in their own interpretation of the signs and convince themselves of “peace and safety.” And while they’re thinking they are safe, “sudden destruction will come on them… and they will not escape.”
Like a trap snaps shut on a mouse, the end will come upon these people. And just as a woman who is in labor pains can’t escape those pains by changing her mind about being pregnant, so they will have no chance to turn back. The Lord’s appearance will be announced in a flash and a twinkling of an eye by the voice of the archangel and a trumpet’s blast. Once this begins there can be no preparations by unbelievers to escape their ruin in God’s judgment. It will be too late.
But Christians need not obsess about Jesus’ return. St. Paul writes: “But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness” (1 Thessalonians 5:4-5). The people who say, “Peace and safety,” are the ones in “darkness.” They really don’t know what is going on. They have a false sense of security and peace. They ignore the fact that their sins make them enemies of God. They don’t realize that their unforgiven sin must bring God’s judgment upon them.
But the Thessalonians are not in the dark about Jesus’ return, because they are “children of the light,” “children of the day.” They have learned the Gospel and are so active in spreading it that they surely are not people who know nothing or care little about the Lord’s coming. It is unthinkable that the Last Day will find them unprepared like those who live in the darkness of ignorance and unbelief.
What will that mean for those who believe? Well, St. Paul says: “So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober” (1 Thessalonians 5:6). We are different from those unbelievers who are asleep, those who are self-absorbed and self-deluded, thinking that they won’t ever have to answer God. They are not ready to meet their Creator, any more than you are ready for school or work if you’ve slept through your alarm clock and wake up an hour late. Let’s be awake and be in control of our appetites and attitudes and actions. That’s the way to be children of the day who are ready for Jesus to appear at any moment.
Paul moves on to use a different picture, that of a drunk. Sometimes people try to drink their problems away. The alcohol dulls their senses, and for a time they become totally unconcerned about those problems. Of course, that only works for the short-term and then the problems get worse. The alcohol that masked the problems initially, starts to feed the problems, and then ends up magnifying them.
In the spiritual realm there are people who have some inkling of the consequences of the Lord’s coming. They know they have a spiritual problem. But their solution is to dull their consciences with some homemade religious moonshine or with the wine of the world’s pleasures. This does not solve the problem. It only allows them to forget about it for a while. And when they finally wake up, they’ll realize that their problems are much worse than a nasty hangover.
Paul urges us to “be alert and self-controlled.” Rather than being unaware like one who is asleep, Christ wants us to be on the watch for His return in glory. Instead of being unconcerned like one who is drunk, Christ wants His followers to await His coming in full possession of their senses. The believer knows all that the Last Day means for him, and he knows it will be a great day for him. So, he is eager and always alert and ready.
But how can we be always alert and self-controlled? Satan is constantly attacking our faith with all his might, trying to make us even more sluggish, trying to get us to take our eye off the goal. We are spiritually weak and tired. We are worn out and battered and bruised and discouraged. It seems so easy for Satan to draw our minds completely away from Christ’s return! We spend our time concentrating on the journey more than on the journey’s goal. Life’s problems and pleasures, trials and treasures, sorrows and joys consume our interests.
How, then, can we keep from falling into the spiritual sleep or drunkenness? We can be alert and self-controlled by putting on our God-given armor. “Since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (1 Thessalonians 5:8).
Roman soldiers of Paul’s day were well protected from the enemy’s arrows, spears, and swords only if they put on armor. The breastplate and helmet protected the most vital areas—the heart and the mind. God has provided His believers with similar protection for our hearts and minds. God gives us faith, love, and hope as our armor against the spiritual weapons that Satan and his cohorts hurl at us.
Faith is the confidence that God will do whatever He promises. Love is faith in action, living each day as an expression of thanks to God for all He has done for us. The hope of salvation is what sustains our faith and love and encourages us to grow. Without the certain hope that we will be raised from death to live eternally in glory, our faith would be meaningless (1 Corinthians 15:17-19).
How does this God-given armor help us to remain watchful for our Lord’s coming? It surrounds us with the Lord’s strength, so we can take our “stand against the devil’s schemes” (Ephesians 6:11). It clothes us with the Lord Jesus Christ so that we “do not think about how to gratify the desires” of our sinful nature (Romans 13:14). It enables us to “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:5). It shields us with God’s power from despairing amid “all kinds of trials” (1 Peter 1:6). This God-given armor supplies us with all the spiritual strength we need. When we stand in the power of God, not our own, we won’t fall into the spiritual sleep of the world.
Paul adds: “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with Him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (1 Thessalonians 5:9-11).
God did not “destine us for wrath.” It was not His will or plan that sinful men should be sent to hell and there suffer eternally the punishment of His wrath. No, God wants to rescue us from the terrible consequences of our sins. And God wants us to receive this salvation as a gift of His mercy.
All this He accomplished “through our Lord Jesus Christ.” He paid the penalty we deserved for our sins when He died for us. His precious lifeblood was the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. Jesus did this, Paul says, both for believers and unbelievers—those who are “alert” and those who are “asleep” in regard to Christ’s return. What a waste it would be if we were found asleep, unprepared for the Lord’s coming. Then we would lose all that Christ has won for us. Therefore let us put on the spiritual armor that God had given us.
A war rages for the soul of each man, woman, and child. Satan would love to lure the “children of light” and “day” away from God. His attacks are relentless. He uses persecution to weaken our defenses. And he causes dissension and discouragement among the members of the congregation. This is why we must “encourage one another and build one another up.”
What are some practical ways that Christians can do that? First of all, we can make sure that Satan no longer uses us to discourage one another. How often do we criticize one of our fellow Christians rather than praying for them? How often do we tear one another down, rather than build them up? How often do we bring discouragement rather than encouragement to our fellow Christians, especially those we’ve entrusted with leadership positions in our congregation?
Encouragement comes in many ways—through notes or letters, through e-mails, private conversations, and sometimes through something as simple as a reassuring touch or pat on the back. But the only truly effective form of encouragement to stand against the devil’s schemes is to share the Word of God of with one another, corporately and privately.
Surely as members of a Christian congregation, we treasure the family of fellow believers with which God has blessed us. What a gift it is to gather for worship and to encourage one another in our faith! Together we confess our sins and receive Christ’s absolution. We study the message of Christ our Savior together. Together we sing the words of the liturgy and hymns. We pray for one another. We join in the fellowship of Christ’s very body and blood.
What a comfort this is as we go through difficult times! What a blessing to know that our brothers and sisters in Christ are with us through the trials and troubles of life! And what a comfort it is in time of bereavement to have this spiritual family! Our fellow redeemed remind us of the hope that is ours even as we lay into a grave the body of a loved one who has fallen asleep in Christ!
“Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). We have such a glorious comfort to share. We share the hope of our Lord’s coming. We need to remind one another of this hope, lest we fall asleep and be caught unprepared! We need to remind one another of Christ’s work of salvation on our behalf. We need to encourage one another to gather frequently to receive Christ’s means of grace. For in this Word and Sacrament we continue to hear this Good News: You are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.