“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
Nearly all of the believers in the early Church were certain that Christ would return soon, almost surely within their lifetimes. There was a fervor of expectation regarding Christ’s imminent return. Time, however, went on and the return was delayed, and this delay began to pose some significant theological questions for many believers—chiefly the question of what happens to believers who die before Christ returns? As His return appeared to be further away, many more believers would die before He came back for His Church, and there were many who worried—and even taught—that these dead believers would miss out on His return. Such was the case for those in the Church in Thessalonica.
Paul heard about the controversy in Thessalonica at the church he helped establish, and, as Paul did, he wrote them a letter to help them understand the truth. In this letter of gentle correction and reassurance, Paul gives some of the most detailed teaching on the end of time found in the New Testament outside of Revelation. Paul comforts and reassures the Thessalonian believers that their dead loved ones would be called up by Christ in the resurrection at the time and that no believer—dead or alive—would miss it.
As Paul concluded his letter, he reinforced his point—that all believers will be present for the resurrection when Christ comes—by reminding the Thessalonians that God destined us for salvation so that “whether we are awake or asleep (dead) we might live with him (Jesus).” Paul went on to exhort the Thessalonians to encourage and build one another up, “just as you are doing.”
This last line, this bit of encouragement, might seem a bit out of place given everything that had been discussed up to this point; however, this is exactly the right place for this advice. Paul is here addressing the question “what do we do now?” and his answer is simple: keep worshipping God, and keep building up one another.
We often ignore this fact, but when a body of believers comes together in worship, that time is just as much about strengthening and growing that corporate body as it is worshipping God. It is in the practice of coming together and worshipping together that we learn to build one another up and learn to carry one another’s burdens. Communal corporate worship is for giving glory to God and edifying—strengthening—the body, and sadly, so many Christians today decide to forgo that Christian fellowship and community. Many today believe that they can worship more “freely” and more “truly” unencumbered by a church family. Others feel that until they find a church that does things the “right” way–their way–they will go it alone. Both these attitudes are sad and wrong, and at their most basic point, entirely contradictory to what Christ teaches us.
Christ does not want monks, ascetics, or hermits to go and live gloriously and nobly alone in His name. Nor does Christ desire that His Church be a random assortment of detached and separated individual body parts. He wants His Church to be one body, together in one baptism, confessing one faith in one Savior. He wants His people to be together, to worship together, and to fellowship together.
There are no perfect churches, just as there are no perfect Christians, and this is exactly why we need one another. We need communion and fellowship and accountability with fellow brothers and sisters. We need people to weep with us when we weep, to rejoice with us when we rejoice, and to call us out when we are not living worthy of the calling placed upon us. It is only by dealing with people that you learn how to develop and use patience and love and understanding. It is only when you worship together with your church family that you feel the edification it brings. To attempt a Christian life any other way is to a disservice to the calling of being a Christ follower.
You can’t go it alone. Find a body of believers to join, and plug in. Then do as Paul said, encourage and build one another up, until the Lord comes.
Artwork: “Automat,” Edward Hopper, 1927.