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I invite you to open your Bible or service folders to our second reading, Revelation 20:4-6, as we are comforted by John’s vision regarding those who have died trusting in Jesus.
Today we are celebrating All Saints Day, a day when we stop and think about those members of our family and our friends who have died trusting in Jesus. At their funerals we were reminded that we don’t have to mourn like those who have no hope. We don’t view death the way an atheist or an evolutionist does. Although death comes to all people sooner or later, because of Adam and Eve’s fall into sin, we know that death is not the end. God has given every human an eternal soul. Our loved one’s body is dead, but they continue to live and reign with Jesus.
Guided by the Holy Spirit, John was giving comfort to those who might have been struggling with the way their loved ones died. They lived in a time when the persecution of Christians was severe. Like those Christians on the beach in Libya a few years ago, like the Apostle Paul, their loved ones had been beheaded by the enemies of the Faith. Their only crime had been that they confessed that they believed in Jesus.
You know how Satan and our sinful nature works. When someone dies in their sleep at a ripe old age, we are sad. But we also aren’t bothered so much by their death, it seems natural. But we might be tempted to think that they were such good people that they earned a peaceful, painless death. If, however, someone dies a painful death, or at a young age, we are bothered. We tend to think that they were cheated out of a full life, or that maybe they had done something to deserve their pain. Satan tries to rob us of our comfort. And so those who had friends or relatives or church leaders who had been executed might be tempted to wonder why it had happened to them, had they been unfaithful? They might be tempted to wonder if Christianity was worth it if being a Christian meant you might have to suffer an early or painful death.
If they were worried about the faithfulness of those who had been executed John comforts them. The reason they were executed was because of their testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God. They did not die because they had been unfaithful, just the opposite. They died because they were faithful. They refused to be quiet about Jesus and their faith in him. They refused to do anything that would compromise what God said in his word. They were faithful witnesses to the truth, just as Jesus had been before his enemies. And, they had not worshipped the beast and his image, and they did not receive his mark on their forehead and on their hand. As evidence of their faith, like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, they had refused to worship an idol, even if that refusal would cost them their lives. They refused the mark of the beast, whatever that was we don’t know, but the picture in the word indicates that it was something that marked you as belonging to the beast, devoted to the government as the one who would provide and care for you and was your master. If they were worried that these loved ones had not been rescued by God because they had been unfaithful, they didn’t have to worry. John saw them, their souls. They were sitting on thrones as Jesus has promised his disciples would. Their bodies were dead, but their souls were living and reigning with Jesus as they read these words.
That’s why we don’t mourn those who die confessing their faith in Jesus as if we had no hope. We don’t know the reasons for the timing or the circumstances of their death. God does not reveal that to us. But as Jesus told Martha at the tomb of Lazarus, whoever believes in me will live, even though they die, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Believers have life, eternal life, right now. Jesus says, whoever believes in me has (present tense) eternal life. And when their body dies, they continue to live and reign with Christ. That’s our comfort. That’s our sure and certain hope because it’s based on the testimony of Jesus and the word of God.
Now comes what has become a difficult passage for many, but it really shouldn’t be. John says that those who die trusting in Jesus lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years. (the rest of the dead did not live until the thousand years came to an end.) Part of the problem is that those who believe that Jesus will come and reign on earth for a thousand years translate to fit their pre-conceived ideas. They say that those who die trusting in Jesus came to life, and that the rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were over. They see the passage as saying that Jesus reigns on earth. But look closely. No where does it say that Jesus is reigning on earth. It says that those who have died have gone to reign with Jesus, that would be in heaven. The thousand years is not describing a physical reign of Jesus on earth, he himself said that his kingdom is not of this world. It’s describing the reign of Jesus in heaven until the last day comes. The thousand years represents the whole New Testament Era, the time between Jesus first and second coming. When he comes again on the last day, not a thousand years before the last day, all the physically dead will rise, and all believers will live and reign with him, body and soul, forever.
This helps us understand what the first resurrection is. John says, blessed and holy is the one who has a share in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them. As Jesus said in the words recorded for us in John’s gospel, Amen I tell you, a time is coming and has now come (as Jesus was speaking) when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. That’s the first resurrection. It’s what happens with those who are dead in trespasses and sins hear the good news that Jesus is their savior and are born again. Through baptism we are united with Christ in his resurrection so that already now, we live a new life. We are made alive with Christ. Hearing the good news of the gospel and being brought to faith in Jesus is the first resurrection. The second death, the fiery lake of burning Sulphur, Hell itself, has no power over those who trust in Jesus for there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Even the gates of hell itself will not prevail against those who trust in Jesus.
Who are the rest of the dead? They are the ones who are not a part of the first resurrection. They are the unbelievers who have rejected Jesus as their savior. They don’t have life. They remain dead in their trespasses and sins and God’s condemnation remains on them. When the thousand years are over and the last day comes, they still don’t live. Their bodies will be raised, but the second death does have power over them and they join Satan in the lake of burning Sulphur. What they have is never called life. They remained dead in their trespasses and sins their whole lives and, in the resurrection, they experience eternal death, eternal separation from what is truly life, being with Jesus.
What a comfort it is to know that those who gave testimony by their words and actions that Jesus was their savior are not dead and gone. They are living and reigning with Christ right now. But that might also cause us to wonder about ourselves. We might wonder about our faithfulness. Would we be willing to be executed rather than deny our faith? Or would we try to fudge and say, “well, I’ll bow down, I’ll say I’m not a believer, but in my heart, I’ll still trust in Jesus and God knows my heart.” Would we make our own lives on this earth our idol, more important than God and his word? It’s hard to say that we would be faithful in that situation when we know we have not been faithful in much less threatening situations. We don’t want to be like Peter and brag how we would be faithful when others aren’t.
Certainly we identify with the man who said to Jesus, Lord, I believe, help me overcome my unbelief. By God’s grace, we see that Jesus was always faithful even when facing death on the cross. His faithfulness is credited to our account. And as we confess our faithlessness, our doubts and fears, we see Jesus on the cross and we hear him say it is finished. We are assured that our every sin has been paid for in full by Jesus. We can look forward to living and reigning with Christ for all eternity, not because we have been faithful, but because he was faithful in our place and his perfect righteousness has been credited to our account. By God’s grace we have a share in the first resurrection, a new life created in us by the power of God’s word connected to the water of baptism.
Today, as we think about our loved ones who have died giving testimony by their words and actions that they believed in Jesus as their savior, we don’t mourn as those who have no hope. According to God’s promise they are not dead and gone, they live. Their souls are living and reigning with Christ right now. And we look forward to joining them, either on the day of our death, or on the Last Day when all who are in their graves will come out, and those who trusted in Jesus will live and reign with him, body and soul, forever.