“Up or Down?”
Text: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17
When I was a little boy and went to my grandmother’s house, there was nothing to play with in the house except a box in the corner of her dining room with some empty spools, some string and maybe a Prince Albert can. So when the cousins got together and the weather was bad, we had to play inside. One of the games we played was on stairs such as these. The game was called “Rock School”. While I can’t remember all the rules, I do remember that the goal was to get to the top of the stairs and graduate. We would start by sitting on the bottom riser of the stairs and then an older person would offer their two hands and we would have to guess which hand was holding the little rock. If we guessed correctly, we got promoted. As we all know, life consists of many choices. Some of these are inconsequential while others are monumental. Many times at the hospital I have to decide whether I’ll take the stairs or the elevator. And sometimes, after I push the button, the doors will open and someone inside will ask, “Are you going up or down?” This morning, I want us to ask ourselves this question, “Up or down?” I mean in relation to where we’re going to spend eternity! While all of us may intellectually admit that there are only two possibilities for eternity, we may live as if there were more. So please open your Bibles and let’s look at a few passages together. Folks, when we’re thinking about where we’ll spend eternity and how to get there, let’s not accept anything we don’t find written plainly in this book.
You’ll remember that Paul 1st visited and preached the gospel in Thessalonica on his 2nd missionary journey as recorded in Acts 17:1-9. Paul was able to establish the church in this city but probably was there for only about three months. Some of the Jews stirred up trouble and the brethren sent Paul and Silas away to Berea where they again went into the synagogue of the Jews. These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so (Acts 17:11). It is believed that Paul wrote this first letter to the church at Thessalonica from Corinth about six months after he left this city which makes it one of the earliest NT books written. Since Paul was unable to remain very long with this new congregation, there were a few things that they evidently had misunderstood. One of these was that they perhaps thought that the 2nd coming of Christ was going to be while they were alive. However, some of their loved ones were now asleep in their graves and the Thessalonians were concerned as to their destiny. This is what Paul was explaining in our scripture reading this morning so that they would not be ignorant or uninformed. The people who might be alive when Jesus returns will not take precedence over those who have died – v.15. The dead in Christ will rise first – then those Christians who are alive will join them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. This is what happens to those who are going up – going up to that new Jerusalem where there will be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying and no more pain (Rev. 21:4). But there’s an opposite destination for those who have failed to make the proper arrangements for eternity like the rich man in Luke 16. You may recall that when the rich man died, he found himself in torments in Hades – the interim realm of the dead. V. 26 reveals a great theological truth that when death occurs one’s eternal destination is fixed and there is no movement across the gulf and between the two realms of the saved and lost after death. I want to describe the type of place where the lost will dwell eternally or those who choose to go down. In the story of the rich man and Lazarus, torments were described as a place of flames and heat. In the parables, it is described as outer darkness & a place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 22:13). Jesus says that hell is a fire that shall never be quenched (Mk. 9:43). Jesus said that this everlasting fire is prepared for the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:41). It is called the lake of fire and represents a 2nd death for those whose names are not found written in the Book of Life (Rev. 20:14-15). Eight verses later we read these words: “But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” But preacher, are you sure about this? Let’s go back to the early days of Jesus’ ministry as He was proclaiming the entrance requirements into the kingdom of heaven during the Sermon on the Mount. Let’s notice a very familiar passage – Matt. 7:13-14 – “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” There are two paths to take in life and they end up in opposite locations. But we’re all going to eventually end up in the same place before arriving at our eternal destination. Notice these next two passages. First is Heb. 9:27 where we read: And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment. Next, 2 Cor. 5:10 – For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. Jesus gives a vivid description of this judgment scene in Matt. 25 just days before His cruel death on the cross. I’m not going to read the entire passage but just selected verses to help us understand there are just two eternal destinations. Let’s begin in v.31: “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Jesus goes on to describe the righteous as those who were compassionate and helped others in life. Now let’s drop down to verse 41: “Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” After explaining how those on the left had not helped others in life, Jesus concluded by saying, “And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Turn, if you will, to Jn. 5:28-29 & let’s read the Lord’s words together: “Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth – those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.” Again, there are two opposite eternal homes depending on how one has lived. So far, we have seen that there are two choices in life for how we are going to live – one of those results in an eternal home in heaven and the other ends in eternal punishment in the lake of fire. To put it simply, at the end of this life, we are all going to be judged and then receive the appropriate reward which, in the simplest of terms, is either up or down. This dichotomy between good and evil is expressed many times in scripture. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said in Matt. 6:24 – “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon (or earthly riches).” The wise man gave this advice in Prov. 23:4 – “Do not overwork to be rich!” The temptation of the world is to do just the opposite but those riches will disappear. There are no u-hauls behind the hearse. Let’s look at one more example of this dichotomy of choices – this time in Rom. 6:16-18 – Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. The critical question for us is: How did they obey doctrine to be set free from sin? The answer is clearly set forth earlier in this same chapter. Let’s read vs. 3-6: Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. Now you can listen to man’s plan for getting rid of sin or you can listen to God’s – it’s your choice. Just remember where that choice will lead you! This is the same thing Peter told the crowd on the Day of Pentecost to get rid of their sins – Acts 2:38 – “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” I want us to turn now to 2 Pet. 3:9-10 just to reinforce the sense of urgency for being right with God right now – The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up. Friends, the Lord’s return will come without prior warning despite what the millennialists preach. Jesus Himself stated in Matt. 24:36 that no one, not even the angels of heaven, knows when that day is coming except our Father. Secondly, not a single one of us in this auditorium knows if we’ll be alive 30 minutes from now. That’s why we must always be ready to stand before our Lord in the judgment. So, since we do not know what the future holds, are we on our way up or down?
By God’s grace, Jesus died on the cross for our sins. It is up to us to respond in obedient faith to His death. That involves repentance, confessing the sweet name of Christ as the Son of God and being immersed to wash our sins away (Acts 22:16). I want us to read one more passage & then make application. In Mk. 16:15-16, we hear these words from Jesus to His disciples before He ascended back to heaven after His death & resurrection: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” That’s very plain but folks want to argue with the Lord about it. Do you remember a verse we read from Rev. 21 a little earlier – verse 8? “But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” My friends, you do not want to be an unbeliever or unbaptized on the day of judgment. On the other hand, you do not want to be unfaithful. “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Rev. 2:10) This morning, are you going up or down? If you’re headed in the wrong direction, you can change course as we stand & sing.