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Sermons of Dr. Martin Luther for Trinity 25
Gospel Sermon (1525)
(Note from the Lenker edition: This sermon is found in all editions of the Church Postil and in two pamphlet prints, both issued at Wittenberg in 1525, under the title: “A sermon on the Jewish kingdom and the end of the world, Matthew 24, preached on the last Sunday after Pentecost, Martin Luther, Wittenberg.” At the end: “Printed at Wittenberg by Hans Lufft, 1525.” This sermon is also printed along with the sermon on the Gospel for the 10th Sunday after Trinity, on the Destruction of Jerusalem, which appeared in three editions during 1525. Erl. 14, 368; W. 11, 2493; St. L. 11, 1868; and Standard English Luther, 13 vol 315 p.)
Text: Matthew 24:15-28
When therefore, ye see the abomination of desolation, which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (let him that readeth understand), then let them that are in Judaea flee unto the mountains: let him that is on the housetop not go down to take out the things that are in his house: and let him that is in the field not return back to take his cloak. But woe unto them that are with child and to them that give suck in those days! And pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on a sabbath: for then shall be great tribulation, such as hath not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, nor ever shall be. And except those days had been shortened, no flesh would have been saved: but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened. Then if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is the Christ, or, Here; believe it not. For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders; so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. Behold, I have told you beforehand. If therefore they shall say unto you, Behold, he is in the wilderness; go not forth: Behold, he is in the inner chambers; believe it not.
For as the lightning cometh forth from the east, and is seen even unto the west; so shall be the coming of the Son of man.
Wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together.
1. In this chapter there is a description of the end of two kingdoms; of the kingdom of the Jews, and also of the kingdom of the world. But the two Evangelists, Matthew and Mark, unite the two and do not follow the order as Luke did, for they have nothing more in view than to relate and give the words of Christ, and are not concerned about what was said either before or after. But Luke takes special pains to write clearly and in the true order, and relates this discourse twice; first briefly in the 19th chapter, where he speaks of the destruction of the Jews at Jerusalem; afterwards in the 21st chapter he speaks of both, one following the other.
2. Notice therefore that Matthew unites the two and at the same time conceives the end, both of the Jewish nation and of the world. He therefore cooks both into one soup. But if you want to understand it, you must separate and put each by itself, that which really treats of the Jews, and that which relates to the whole world. This we wish to do now.
3. Notice, first, how Christ prophecies in this chapter concerning the final destruction of the Jewish nation, which the Jews did not at all believe, even though they had been dearly told through great signs and words, the promises of God which he made to the fathers, like unto which had happened to no other people upon the earth. For this reason they strongly insisted and depended upon it, thought it will continue forever, as they think even at the present time; that their kingdom is not destroyed but has only disbanded a little and shall be re-established. They cannot get it out of their minds that they are not completely ruined.
4. For this reason God announced besides his miracles with clear and plain prophesies that their kingdom shall have an end and that God had abolished the external reign of the law, meats, offerings, etc., and would establish another which shall endure forever, as the angel announced to the virgin concerning Christ, as recorded in Luke 1:33. “And he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.”
5. Among the various passages which treat of the end of Judaism there is especially one that is introduced by Christ, namely: the prophet Daniel, 9:25f, speaks of the terrible abomination, standing where he ought not, when he says concerning the Jewish nation, “Know therefore and discern, that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto the anointed one the Prince, shall be seven weeks, and three-score and two weeks,” that makes together seventy weeks or years, “And after the three-score and two weeks, shall the anointed one be cut off, and shall have nothing: and the people of the Prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary; and the end thereof shall be with a flood, and even unto the end shall be war; desolations are determined. And he shall make a firm covenant with many for one week: and in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease; and upon the wing of abominations shall come one that maketh desolate; and even unto the full end, and that determined, shall wrath be poured out upon the desolate.”
6. The Prophet Daniel desired to know the definite time when this should come to pass, but he could not learn it, and although the angel pointed out a definite time, it was nevertheless too dark for the prophet to understand, hence he said before: But at last, at the last time, you shall see everything, that is, your prophecy, that is to be revealed to you, shall transpire at the end of time. For when Christ sent out the Gospel through the ministry of himself and of the Apostles, it lasted three or three and a half years, that it almost amounts to the calculation of Daniel, namely the 490 years. Hence he also says, Christ shall take a half a week, in which the daily offerings shall cease; that is, the priesthood and reign of the Jews shall have an end; which all took place in the three and a half years in which Christ preached, and was almost completed in four years after Christ, in which the Gospel prospered the most, especially in Palestine through the Apostles (that when they opened their mouth, the Holy Ghost fell as it were, from heaven, as we see in the Acts of the Apostles), so that a whole week, or seven years, established the covenant, as Daniel says; that is, the Gospel was preached to the Jews, of which we spoke before. Now, when the time came that a new message or sermon began, there must also begin a new kingdom, that is, where Christ rules spiritually in our hearts through the Word and faith.
If this is now to continue, then the other must be set aside and has no more authority and must cease. This is the part of the prophecy of the phophets, which Christ is explaining.
7. The other treats of the abomination of desolation. Here Christ now says, When ye shall see this one standing in the temple, then take heed (he wants to say) for that is a sure sign from Daniel’s prophecy that his kingdom is now at an end; and do not let yourselves be deceived because the Jews and weak Christians think that it shall never be destroyed.
8. But the abomination of which Daniel writes is that the Emperor Cajus, as history tells, had put his image in the temple at Jerusalem as an idol, for the people to worship, after everything there had been destroyed. For the Scriptures call idolatry really an abomination, because God abhors and abominates it, inasmuch as he is the enemy of no sin so much as of this.
The others he does truly punish, but he does not cast the people away if they repent, as he says in Psalm 89:31-34: “If they break my statutes, and keep not my commandments; then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes. But my loving kindness will I not utterly take from him, nor suffer my faithfulness to fail. My covenant will I not break, nor alter the thing that is gone out of my lips.” But this sin, called idolatry, which is really unbelief and denial of God, which he cannot at all endure, condemns man completely. For where this remains in the heart of man, so that he teaches and believes correctly, indicates that our works are nothing, and that we shall be acceptable to God and serve him aright alone through faith, then there will be a truly godly character; there light and truth abide. Although along side of faith there runs a sense of the weakness of the flesh. It is not an abomination before God, but only a daily sin that God will punish unto repentance; yet he keeps the people, spares them and forgives them, when the people turn to him and learn to acknowledge his goodness. On the other hand, where this faith and doctrine do not exist, everything is lost; for it is impossible for man not to establish for himself a false worship and choose his own opinion and work, and worship it, so that he really denies God and his Word, and God is entirely turned aside; so that his grace cannot operate. Such abomination is generally the most beautiful and the greatest holiness in the eyes of the world, which outwardly appears in beautiful works and customs; but inwardly is full of filthiness, as we can see at the present day in our orders and church services where they are at their best. However there are again some Christians who are not like these in their works and ways; but are truly holy before God.
9. Now Christ says, when the abomination, that is, this idol, shall stand in the temple, the kingdom shall finally be made desolate and destroyed, so that it can never be rebuilt again, as Luke expresses it clearly in these words, Luke 21:20f: “But when ye see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that our desolation is at hand. Then let them that are in Judea flee unto the mountains; and let them that are in the midst of her depart out; and let not them that are in the country enter therein. For these are days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled.”
And further, “Woe unto them that are with child and to them that give suck in those days! And pray ye that your flight may be not in the winter, neither on a Sabbath: for then shall be great tribulation, such as had not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, nor ever shall be.”
10. All this pertains still to the Jewish nation. For if this should come upon us at the end of the world, then would we, according to the text, have to be in the land of Judea, because he really points to that country. It is also true, when he says that no greater calamity has been or can be upon the earth than was at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem; as we see in history, how unmercifully they were slaughtered and even killed one another, cast themselves into the fire, and permitted themselves to kill one another. Yea, the famine was so great that they ate the strings of cross-bows and even their own children. It was so shameful and abominable that like pity and distress shall never be heard again.
11. But they themselves wanted it, hence God permitted them to be thus blighted and destroyed. He would gladly have had mercy upon them and preserved them, but they brought themselves to such distress with their stiff-neckedness, that they killed and consumed one another; that as they began it, all such murder and bloodshed had to increase. Thus the death of Christ and of all the prophets is most abominably avenged on them, and that without ceasing, they raged against the Word of God, and persecuted and drove away the Apostles, as St. Paul says in Thessalonians 2:15-16, that the wrath of God finally came upon them.
12. When such fearful wrath and abominable plagues are at hand, says Christ, then flee wherever ye are able to flee; for these words, “Then flee unto the mountains, he that is in Judea, and he that is upon the housetop,” etc.; then; “He who is in the field,” etc., are all written or spoken symbolically, as if to say, hasten quickly away; the sooner the better, and let no one find or overtake you. This also came to pass. After the Jews had been sufficiently warned by many signs, that they should submit themselves to the Romans, and they would not; then the disciples and apostles fled away and followed this saying of Christ, they left everything behind that was in Judea and never returned to take anything.
13. “And pray ye,” he says further, “that your flight be not in the winter, neither on a Sabbath;” that is, see to it that you flee at the right time, that you be not overtaken. For he did not want to perform a miracle and keep them safely in the midst of the enemy, although he could have done so; for he had determined that everything that was there should be completely destroyed together; therefore all as one mass were only fit for destruction.
If there were indeed a great multitude at Jerusalem according to the record, a million and a hundred thousand men were melted together, as many as were in the city. Therefore Jesus admonishes the disciples that they should not postpone their flight to the Sabbath, when they did not dare to journey; nor to the winter, when it would be cold; but that they should depart, the sooner the better; that if they hesitate, an inconvenient time to flee would come.
14. Thus far Jesus speaks concerning the Jews. Now I have said before that Matthew and Mark unite these two ends together. Therefore it is difficult to discriminate, and yet we must discriminate between the two. Therefore notice that what had been said up to the present, all referred to the Jews; but now he weaves both together, breaks off abruptly, does not concern himself about the order in which the passages were spoken by Christ, and how they are connected with and follow one another; but leaves it to the Evangelist Luke, yet he wants to say that it shall be thus at the last day, and says: “And except those days had been shortened, no flesh would have been saved; but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened.”
15. This refers to both parts and the meaning is, that the distress shall not endure long, for the sake of the godly; for the war against the Jews did not last quite two years, when peace was declared. But since all this has reference also to the end of the world, we wish to apply these passages concerning the Jews also to ourselves, so that we do justice to the Evangelist.
16. That a war shall come again as came upon the Jews, I do not expect, because the text says: There shall be such tribulation as shall never be again, as we also read and see; but another punishment shall come upon us; as that was a temporal war, so at the end of the world will a spiritual war come over the ungodly, who will be in the same condition as the Jews.
Thus they will agree with one another: as that calamity came upon Jerusalem according to God’s ordering and everything was ground to powder; so abominable, and even worse, shall it be before the last day, when he shall Come and make an end of the whole world.
17. For when Christ ascended into heaven, he established his kingdom not only in Judea, but extended it into all the world by means of the Gospel, which is being preached and heard everywhere. But we are doing just like the Jews, we deny and persecute the Word of God, kill the Christians who confess and preach this Gospel, as at the first the Romans, and afterwards to the present day, the Pope, bishops, princes, monks and priests do. This has now been done, for more than five hundred years, and no one was allowed to preach the Word of God, unless they repeated from the pulpit the text of the Gospel for a mere show, and afterwards brought out of it or put into it the mere doctrines of men. If anyone opposed it, they rose against him with fire and sword and suppressed it. And it avails nothing, how they are warned and frightened by words and signs; they still stand in their pride, storm and rage against it as lunatics, so that God will ever have sufficient reason to destroy them finally and eternally at the last day.
18. Therefore this passage in Daniel concerning the abomination applies also to us. For we also have indeed a real abomination or desolation sitting in a holy place, namely: in Christendom and in the consciences of men, where God alone should sit and reign, of which Daniel speaks in very clear words in the 8th and 9th chapters. For this is the real pure doctrine, if we preach that we are redeemed by Christ from sin, death, satan and all misfortune, and are planted in the kingdom of God through the Word and faith and thereby are made free from all law, and that no man, whoever he be, can enter into the kingdom of God through the works of the law nor be made free from sin. Where this is preached and believed, there Christ reigns spiritually in the heart without a medium; there is the Holy Spirit with all the treasures and fullness of the riches of God.
19. But what is the Pope doing? He is sitting not in the natural temple or God’s house, but in the spiritual, in the new and living temple of which Paul says: “If any man destroyeth the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are,” Corinthians 3:16-17. In all times many devils and heretics have tried to sit here, and all who are preaching against the true doctrine: If you want to be saved, then simply join this or that society and order, and do this or that work. They draw away the people from faith to works, although they are using the words, Christ is the Lord, but in truth deny him, for they do not say a single word that he forgives sins alone through grace, and redeems from death and hell, but they say: Through this order, through these works, we must do penance for sin, and atone for it in order to obtain grace, which is as much as to say: Christ did not accomplish it, he is not the Savior; his suffering and death cannot help, for if your works can accomplish it, then Christ cannot accomplish it only through his blood and death, or the other must be in vain. If you insist upon your works, then you drive out Christ; you deny and put to shame his precious blood and him with it; then he cannot reign in your heart through his Word, work and spirit, but my work is my idol whom I let sit in my heart and reign.
20. Thus you see whether the Pope is not the greatest arch-abomination of all abominations, to whom Christ and Daniel refer; and the true Antichrist, of whom it is written that he sitteth in the temple of God, among the people, where Christ is named and where his kingdom, spirit, baptism, Word and faith should be: because he interferes with the office and kingdom of Christ by his fanaticism of the spiritual rites of Christ, wants to rule over the consciences and govern with his propositions and works. And he can in truth be called an “abomination of desolation,” who is only destroying and laying waste everything, for as has been said: Christ and my works cannot abide together; if the one stands, the other must go down and be destroyed; wherefore the Pope has made desolate the kingdom of Christ, as far as his diocese reaches, and all who join him have denied Christ.
21. St. Paul prophesied all this, when in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4, he calls him: “The man of sin and the son of perdition, he that opposeth and exalteth himself against all that is called God or that is worshipped; so that he sitteth in the temple of God, setting himself forth as God.” But that the Papists want to turn this passage from themselves and say: Christ and Paul are speaking of the temple of Jerusalem, that Antichrist shall sit and rule there, amounts to nothing. For Christ says here, that Jerusalem together with the temple shall have an end, and after its destruction it shall never be rebuilt. Therefore since Paul is pointing to the time after the Jewish kingdom, and the destruction of the material temple, it cannot be understood otherwise than of the new spiritual temple, which as he says himself, we are. There, Paul says, the Pope shall sit and be honored, not above God, but above everything that is called God, for the name of God does indeed remain the highest honor, therefore he cannot exalt himself above the true God, but above that which is called God and is worshipped; that is, he is exalted against his preaching and honor, higher than the true God, as is apparent in that so many princes and the world are clinging to him and regard his command higher and greater than the command of God.
If any man eats meat contrary to his command or goes out of the impure calling of the priest, monk, or nun, into married life, as God has commanded, or according to the institution of Christ takes the sacrament in both forms; that is the greatest sin. They regarded it much less than stealing, adultery and all open vice against the command of God, and no one is even allowed to punish them for it. Yea, that they themselves defame the Word of God, persecute and kill the Christians, they esteem as the highest service of God, as it is also the highest service they can do for their god, the Pope. Is not this exalting and honoring Anti-christ against God, so that if anyone speaks or does anything against this, if he gets into their hands, he must immediately die? I think now that enough has been pictured forth and explained concerning this abomination.
22. Now it is high time for him to run and flee, who is able to flee; let everything he has behind and depart; the sooner the better; not with his feet but with his heart, in such a way that he will be rid of the abomination and enter the kingdom of Christ through faith. But to do this reason and a keen insight are needed rightly to discern the abomination. It cannot be seen in any way better than when we compare it to Christ who teaches, as stated above, that we are reconciled to God, and are saved through his blood. But the Pope ascribes this power to our works. Thus you ever see that to be saved through works and not to be saved through works (to believe on Christ as our justification before God) are contrary to each other. If you then want to remain with Christ, you must flee from the Pope and let him go.
23. This is now the abomination of desolation that has reigned until our time; but is now revealed through the grace of God, but will never be destroyed by emporer or worldly power. It must all be higher than that material destruction, since that was such a great tribulation, that there never can be a greater physically. Therefore did God reserve the destruction of this abomination for himself, as Paul says in Thessalonians 2:8: “Whom the Lord Jesus shall slay with the breath of his mouth, and bring to nought by the manifestation of his coming.” Although they themselves fear evil from worldly power and insurrection, yet this shall not be so well with them. For they are not worthy of such mild punishment, and God will not grant unto them that they be destroyed through man, but will do it himself without means, through his Word.
Inasmuch as it has now made a beginning and the kingdom is destroyed even to the extent that it avails nothing, nor can take captive the conscience of those who know the Gospel. However hostile the Pope rages against the Gospel; he must nevertheless fall at the feet of princes and seek help from them. Hence his power is weakened and broken by means of the Gospel; but his final destruction is reserved unto the last day. Therefore it must continue in part until Christ at his coming shall destroy and grind to powder all together from heaven.
24. But as at that time among the Jews, the days were shortened, as Christ said, so must now also the days be shortened for the elect’s sake; for we see that the government of the Pope has had opposition and has declined during the last hundred years, without, at the Council of Constance where Huss was burned at the stake, having frightened everybody that he was held as God; but the truth came finally to light, so that now it is very much despised and can endure but a little longer; hence we notice, as I said before, that our text refers not only to the Jews but also to our abomination, the Pope’s kingdom. Now Christ says further: “Then if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is the Christ, or, Here; believe it not.”
25. From this passage we should indeed know and understand how to conquer the Pope and his rebel horde, who abolish the kingdom of Christ, and bind the Christian life to external and visible things, as they also publicly declare: Where the Pope is, there is the Christian church. They want to lead us to the point that we should find, feel and touch it in person or state, or in a manner that is wholly external. Thus they do in all their cloisters and institutions. Therefore they say: If you enter this calling, eat, clothe yourself, pray and fast so and so, then you will atone for your sins and be saved. Heretofore Christ pictured this beautifully to us, and pointed to all these cloisters, callings and works, by which they wish to help the soul, and warns us to be careful of them, and not to permit ourselves to be drawn from the foundation upon which we stand; that we cannot become Christians through any such thing; but are redeemed from all evil alone through his blood and are planted into his kingdom, if we believe. He thus takes from our eyes all temporal and external things, casts to the ground with one word all doctrines that do not proclaim faith in its purity, and all life that is not regulated according to the right doctrine of faith. In short, he adds: “If anyone says, here or there is Christ,” believe it not, which means:
Beware of everything that leads you to works, for it surely deceives and separates you from me. “For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders; so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.”
26. These are admirable, earnest and fearful words, that these preachers of works must force this truth into the people with such a show and emphasis that even the saints who stand in faith cannot protect themselves against it, but are led astray thereby, as has been the case. For the dear fathers, Augustine, I think Jerome also, likewise St. Bernard, Gregory, Francis, Dominicus and many others, although they were godly men, have all erred here, as I have often remarked in other places. For this error, that the Christian life was bound to external things, was early introduced and they with others were swept into it, and it went so far that they were led into it by their outward conduct, as we see in the books of St. Bernard, how poorly he writes when he answered anyone on the questions of their monastic life; but when he writes freely out of his own soul, he preaches so elegantly that it is a pleasure for him, as Augustine, Jerome, Cyprian, the great and noble martyr, and many others experienced. But when any question was laid before them concerning the law and external regulations, whether we should understand it so, or so, then they immediately stumbled and fell, so that little was needed to mislead them. Still the followers of the Pope use this as the greatest argument against us. They say, should so many holy people and teachers have erred, and should God have forsaken the world so completely? They do not see that this becomes to them a stumbling-block to cause their fall.
27. What shall we now answer them? The passage lies clearly before us.
This we must believe and let it stand; we cannot get away from it, even though the holy angels in heaven were against it, for should not Christ be holier and his Word amount to more than their word? For he never at any time says: Lord of the many or of the great multitude, but of the small number, of the elect, that they should stumble, so that they would almost be led astray, and he warns us that we should not cling to this, when we see that they cling to external things. Had they then not erred, Christ could not have been right when he proclaimed it. Now if all the saints should come and bid me believe in the Pope, I would not do it, but say: Even though you are of the elect, Christ nevertheless has said that there should be abominable and dangerous times: that you also must err. Therefore we must cling alone to the Scriptures and to the Word of God, which say he is not here nor there. Where he is, there I shall be. He will not be there where my work or calling is. Now whoever teaches me otherwise deceives me; therefore I still insist that nothing avails that they propose, as for example:
The holy fathers and teachers thought so, lived so, hence we also must think and live in like manner; but this avails: Christ taught and thought so, therefore we must also think the same, for he is authority, above all the saints. “Behold, I have told you beforehand. If therefore they shall say unto you, Behold, he is in the wilderness; go not forth: Behold, he is in the inner chambers; believe it not.”
28. At the time of the holy fathers, Anthony and others, shortly after the Apostles, the fallacy already arose, of which Christ is speaking here, although Anthony strove against it, that everybody was running to the wilderness by the thousands, and it gained such favor that later Jerome and Augustine almost worshipped custom, and did not know how sufficiently to praise it. Now when we look at it in the right light, this text powerfully opposes that movement, and there were also among them many heretics and many condemned persons, and although there were godly people among them who escaped the deception, nevertheless the example was dangerous and cannot be commended. Also St. Francis was a holy man, but his example and the order he established we are not to follow. But this no one, not even the saints, has recognized; so deeply and with such great display has it taken root. The Christian life is not confined to the wilderness, but moves freely in public society as Christ and the Apostles lived, that we come before and among the world, preach and admonish openly, to bring the people to Christ; but the people who run to the wilderness, do not want to remain in the world where they must suffer so much. They choose for themselves their own strict life, want thereby to be better Christians than others, as also the cloisters do, which are designated by Christ as the “chambers.” Christ closes now and says: “For as the lightning cometh forth from the east, and is seen even unto the west; so shall be the coming of the Son of man.”
29. By this Christ wishes to say: Only do not believe them, when they want to bind Christ to this or that, and try to lead you from faith to works. I warn you not to fall from the pure faith, for you know not it what hour I will come. When anyone neglects his looking for me, then I will come as suddenly as the lightning flashes from heaven. When anyone clings not to him by faith, he is lost. Therefore see to it, that that day does not come upon you unawares. Remain steadfast in the faith, so that if you be indolent and sleep, satan may not tare you from .your faith. But these words here follow each other in disorder. For as I said, Matthew gives these passages all in a heap and not in order. Therefore it does not agree exactly with the words which follow here: “Wheresoever the carcass is, there will the eagles be gathered together.”
30. That is, you need not ask where the place is, where Christ shall come. I am where I wish to be, hence we will meet each other, as we say: “Wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together.”
For as the eagle does not paint for himself the place to which it will fly, but wherever the carcase is, there they will be gathered together; thus mine own will also find me. Where I am, there shall my elect also be. This is the text concerning the end of the Jews and of the world: to which Matthew now unites the passages concerning the signs of the last day, all which Luke separates clearly. This will belong to another occasion and is elsewhere fully discussed.
Note. Some on the last Sunday of the year preach on the Gospel of John 6, where Christ feeds the multitudes with five loaves and two fishes, which is explained in the Winter Postil during Lent. — God be praised forever.
Epistle Sermon (date unknown)
Text: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning them that fall asleep; that ye sorrow not, even as the rest, who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also that are fallen asleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we that are alive, that are left unto the coming of the Lord, shall in no wise precede them that are fallen asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven, with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first; then we that are alive, that are left, shall together with them be caught up in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words.
Paul writes these words to comfort Christians who were troubled about what would take place at the resurrection of the dead. Shall all rise together? Shall those living on the earth at the last day meet Christ before others? These and like thoughts worried them. Here Paul answers them by saying that Christ would take all his believers to himself at the same time, etc. This epistle text you will find richly expounded in “The Explanation of Certain Epistles,” which appeared on special occasions. [The Miscellaneous Sermons of the Year 1532.]
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Second Sermon at the Funeral of the Elector, Duke John of Saxony, I Thess. 4:13–18, August 22, 1532
Since we are still in the week of mourning and have begun to comfort ourselves with God’s Word from St. Paul’s Epistle, we shall now speak somewhat further about it for further comfort and expound the chosen text fully.
In the first part of this Epistle of St. Paul we have heard how he admonishes and comforts the Christians, telling them that they should not act so dreadfully by weeping and wailing over the deceased, but rather show that there is a difference between those who have no hope, that is, the unbelievers and pagans, and us, who believe in Christ and have far different minds, hearts, and thoughts from theirs. For a Christian should be a new creature or a newly created work of God, who in all things speaks and thinks and judges differently from the way the world speaks or judges. And because he is a new man, everything here in this life should and must become new through faith, as it will become new in the life to come through manifest revelation itself. Now the world cannot do anything else but think of death according to its ancient custom and nature, that it is the most abominable and horrible thing on earth, the end of life and all joy, just as it also follows that ancient delusion in looking upon all other misery and misfortune as something which is evil and intolerable, from which it should flee, and when it happens, it is terrified and is ready to give up in despair.
But a Christian, on the contrary, as a new man, should be so constituted that he can have far different, even completely opposite thoughts and, as St. Paul says in Rom. 5 [:3], can even boast and glory and rejoice when things go wrong, and his heart should seize only upon such thoughts as that he possesses great wealth when he is poor, that he is a mighty prince and lord when he lies in prison and superlatively strong when he is weak and sick, and that he is floating in honors when he is being covered with shame and ignominy. He should know that he only becomes a new, living man when he dies here and now; in short, he must gain a completely new heart and mind and thereby make all things on earth new, and thus begin here a prelude to the life to come, when all things will become as new, manifestly and visibly, as he now imagines and conceives them by faith according to his new nature.
And all this, not in us, but in Christ, as St. Paul here shows us; for he alone accomplished the deed of having all things new already in this manifest and visible life and, as St. Paul says in Rom. 6 [:9], will never die again and death has no power or dominion over him, but rather everything that it was able to do, even physically, was stripped away, so that it was no longer able to bind, or imprison or torment him with hunger, thirst, and wounds. In short, death lost all its venom, cords, spear, sword, and whatever evil it possesses to Christ. In this Man we too should allow ourselves to think even now that all things have become new and accustom ourselves to the strong thoughts of faith, keeping ever before our eyes the beloved image of the dead and risen Christ and carrying it with us against the old nature, which still assails and confronts us and tries to frighten us with misery, distress, misfortune, poverty, death, and whatever else there may be.
You see why the Apostle uses these particular words: you should be different from the other people, who have no hope, simply because you believe that Christ rose from the dead and that through him death has been conquered. It is as if he were saying: In this way you have become people who are altogether different from what you were as you came from your father and mother and earthly being. Since you have been baptized in His name, as well as into His nature and kingdom, death and resurrection, you must remember that your whole attitude toward those things of which the world is terrified should be different, and that you should have eyes, ears, senses, and thoughts which are different from those you had before from Adam, when you were frightened and sorrowful, as those who had no hope. But now you no longer act this way, but think and speak just the opposite, confident that, because he has overcome death, he will also snatch us from death and bring us with him. For he rose again in order that he take us with him out of death into life and eternal glory [cf. Eph. 2:6].
This, after all, is what had to be done by the dear patriarchs, who had not yet seen the work and image of Christ’s rising from the dead which has been presented to us, but saw it only in faith and from afar, as through dark blue clouds, whereas for us the clear, bright sun is shining. Nevertheless, they had to depend on Christ, who was still far away, and also soar up to the comforting thought that through his resurrection they too would rise up from death and live with him. That is why they sang such comforting songs: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Ps. 116 [:15]).9 Again in Ps. 72 [:14]: “Precious is their blood in his sight.” And again in Ps. 9 [:12]: “He who avenges blood is mindful of them.”
So they go on speaking, those devout hearts, and from such words they must have spun many a strong sermon—though they were doubtless briefly expressed and written only as a theme or conclusion of their sermons—for they have provided mighty and rich consolation, with which one can lift up a man’s heart, because they argue so powerfully. [This is their argument:] Dear friend, you may well think otherwise and to your eyes it looks as if the death of the saints is pure defeat and destruction and it appears as if they now were utterly forgotten and silenced, as if they had no God to befriend them, because he did not befriend them while they were living and allowed them to perish so miserably as those who are torn and devoured and burned and pulverized. So no rational mind can say anything else but that their death was a pitiful, miserable, shameful thing. But before God, say the dear patriarchs, you must take it as sure truth that when a saint (which means every Christian) dies, then there is offered to him excellent, costly, precious sacrifice, the loveliest and sweetest odor of incense and the best and highest worship [Gottesdienst] that can ever be given to him.
For he does not care so much for the living saints as the dead. Indeed, while they are living he allows them to go their way, so weak and miserable and tormenting themselves with sin, the world, the devil, and death, as if he did not even see it and would not help them. But no sooner are they out of the sight of men and have become a foul, stinking carcass, which nobody can abide, or powder and dust, so that nobody knows where they are, cut off and forgotten by all the world as those who have nothing more to hope for, then, and precisely then, do they begin to become a precious thing in the sight of God. Then they not only begin really to live but also become a precious treasure which God himself holds dear and precious and glories in beyond all else. And the more they are forgotten in the eyes of the world the more he honors and glorifies them.
You have a beautiful example of this in the first two brothers in Gen. 4 [:8–16]. When the rascal Cain had secretly murdered and buried his brother he walked away and wiped his mouth as if he had done nothing wrong,10 thinking that nobody would know and it would remain secret, since Abel had nobody to take his part, etc. And when God asked him, “Were is Abel your brother?” he acted so holy and pure that he even boasted that he was not responsible for him and said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” But then came “he who avenges blood” [Ps. 9:12],11 who requires and avenges the blood of his saints [cf. Ezek. 3:18–20; Rev. 6:10; 19:2], and said, “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground” [Gen. 4:10]. Who tells God to speak so? He cannot forget it, now that he is dead and gone, but must call out from heaven and cry over this blood which troubles him so greatly that he can neither bear it nor keep silent, even though he could have averted it and prevented Cain’s now being alone without a brother or heir, but punishes him so severely that he must be cast out by his parents and even the earth is cursed on his account. That means that he really cares for this blood which was now corrupted. He did not show such care and concern while Abel was living, except that he was pleased with his sacrifice. But now that he is gone and lying under the ground, he forthwith becomes alive and speaks in heaven, so that God himself speaks for him and makes such an outcry in all the world that both he and his murderer must stand eternally as an example in the Scriptures which will never be extinguished.
You see, this is how the dear patriarchs looked upon such an example and drew from it their sayings that the dead saints most certainly live in the sight of God and will rise again more glorious than before. For he does not concern himself in this way with any living beasts or cattle and whatever has no hope, nor with the tyrants and the godless, who die in the devil’s name. But he is concerned with his poor saints, who perish so miserably and shamefully, and consider their deaths more precious than their whole lives. For their lives cannot be without sin, even though they too are subject to forgiveness and to Christ; but it is as nothing compared to a man’s leaving this life and dying to sin and the world; for then God opens both his eyes and all the angels must be there to wait upon him, below and above and round about him, if it so be that he is clothed with the baptism of Christ and with faith and God’s Word that he may be counted among those who are called God’s saints.
For surely you know, thank God, who God’s saints are; that the Scriptures do not mean the saints in heaven above, as the pope creates saints, whom one should invoke, whose days one should observe with fasting, and whom one should choose as mediators. Nor does it mean those who have sanctified themselves, like the Carthusians, the barefooted friars, and other monks or [pilgrims]12 and such like devils who want to make themselves holy through their works. It means rather those whom God has sanctified, without any of their works or co-operation whatsoever, by reason of the fact that they are baptized in Christ’s name, sprinkled and washed clean with his blood, and endowed and adorned with his dear Word and gifts of the Holy Spirit. All of which we have not engendered and cannot engender, but must receive from him by pure grace. But he who does not have this and seeks some other holiness is a stench and abomination to the Lord, because he denies that this bath of the blood of the innocent Lamb does not make one holy and clean.
Now those who are such baptized Christians, who love his Word, hold fast to it, and die in the same, no matter whether they are hanged, broken on the wheel, burned, drowned, or perish of pestilence, fever, or the like, simply include them in Christ’s death and resurrection and without a moment’s hesitation speak this text over them: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” [Ps. 116:15]; for he deems it [i.e., their dying] an excellent and beautiful treasure, the most precious jewel on earth. Whether the devil strangle you in your bed or the hangman on the gallows, it is settled that such a death is a holy death and so highly esteemed by him that he will not leave it unavenged, but will hale the devil who kills you before the judgment and torture him with eternal punishment, strike off the head of sin, bury death in hell, and avenge everything that has caused his saint to die.
And because he so greatly cares for them, he certainly will not allow them to remain in death, perishing and decaying in the earth, but will raise them again, so that their death shall not be a death, but a completely new life with Christ in everlasting light and glory, as we confidently and without all doubt hope in the case of our beloved head [the deceased Elector John]. Though we have lost him according to the body and the old nature, he is not lost and not forgotten before God in Christ, who has received him and brought him to rest, so that now he is safe from the devil and all enemies, and will bring him and all the saints with him on the last day before our eyes and the eyes of the whole world.
Behold, this is what St. Paul is trying to do with this text, with which he bids his Thessalonians to comfort one another, and with which we also ought to comfort ourselves as they did and thank God when we see him taking away a person in the knowledge of his Word, even though it is true that as far as the outward man is concerned it is not altogether without grief and sorrow. For not yet do we have holiness entire, but only in our hearts by faith. We still do not lay hold of it in our outward being; we are still stuck in the muck and mire of our old Adam, who still befouls himself and hawks and snuffles. We must let him have his clinging muck, infirmities, and sins until he is completely buried; then there will be an end to all grief and suffering.
Nevertheless, beyond and above this grief there should be the faith that Christ died and rose again for the sake of his Christians and that their death is a noble, precious treasure, in order that we may learn to distinguish between the world’s eyes and God’s eyes, between reason, according to which the old man remains in the grave, and faith, by which we are new, heavenly men and receive totally new hearts and thoughts about death and all misfortune. And we must on no account judge as the world sees it, but as it appears before God in the new being, which we do not see but only hear spoken of in the Word. We should lay hold of this example, which the Scriptures provide, that he was so greatly and earnestly concerned about the dead Abel, and realize that it was written for us and set before us as a fine mirror, yea, as a sun, for all who die, as he died, in God’s Word, and that as he looked upon him after his death so he will most certainly look upon all who live and die in faith in him.
This, then, was St. Paul’s conclusion: If you have believed and understood that Christ died and rose again, then there can be no doubt that he will also raise up with him those who have fallen asleep, if they have remained in him and therefore have died in him and through him and, indeed, also for his sake. For if we are baptized and believe in Christ, we shall certainly not die for our sake but for Christ’s sake, as he too did not die for his own sake, for there was no death in him. But the devil kills the Christians and destroys them with all manner of torments, and this he does solely because they believe and are Christians. For he cannot abide anybody on earth who believes in Christ, though he also gives the others their due. But to these he is especially hostile and he means to destroy them, the sooner the better. He slinks about day and night and will not rest until he kills and exterminates them. And to accomplish this he employs all kinds of plagues, war, sword, fire, water, pestilence, syphilis, apoplexy, dysentery, etc., which, as the Scripture says, are all his weapons, his arrows, armor, and equipment, by which he accomplishes nothing less than to kill the Christians. For he is the master and author of death, who first introduced death, says the Epistle to the Hebrews [Heb. 2:14], and the chief hangman to destroy the believers. And he also honestly pursues his craft throughout the whole world and kills us all in the end, as he also killed Christ, so that every Christian owes his death to him.
But Christ, on the other hand, is a lord and prince13 of life beyond all the power of the devil. Therefore he leads out his own and brings them with him to heaven, because they are in him, and they live and die and lie in his bosom and arms, not in the grave or in the power of the devil, except in the old being. Just as Christ also, though he lay in the grave, yet in a moment he was both dead and alive and rose again like a lightning flash from heaven. So he will raise us too in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye, out of the grave, the dust, the water, and we shall stand in full view, utterly pure and clean as the bright sun. This is what St. Paul certainly wants us to conclude and believe (though it is incredible and ridiculous to reason) as a sure consequence of the fact that Christ died and rose again. Then he goes on and proceeds to explain how this will happen, saying:
“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, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep” [I Thess. 4:15].
With these words he provides a preface, the more to strengthen their faith. For he is concerned, the dear Apostle, lest this message be considered too slightly and not be taken as the Word of God, this message which speaks of such glorious, incomprehensible things. For God himself had not let it ring forth from heaven with glorious splendor by thousands of angels, in which case we should all have had to fall on our knees and accept it and believe it with trembling, but rather committed it to an insignificant, poor man like Paul, who was a poor, plain person. He himself says that the Corinthians were saying of him that he preached and wrote as if he were a god and yet was such a small, insignificant person with a thin, dried-up body, which was the reason why the false apostles proudly despised and belittled him [II Cor. 10:7–12].
So he says: I know very well that I am speaking of things so high that the world and reason is offended. Therefore I beg and admonish you not to look upon us, nor to accept as our word what we are saying, but rather to forget our person and listen to it as the word of the divine Majesty spoken from heaven. For it is a great hindrance to faith to stare at the masks and persons with one’s eyes, as flesh and reason does, so that one cannot see and esteem the Word as greatly as it should be. This also happens with baptism, where one sees nothing but the finger of the man who is baptizing and the water which he pours over the child, a mere creature, and hears nothing but the poor voice from the lips of the baptizer, so that for us men it seems all too insignificant.
Therefore, see to it, he is saying, that you pay no heed to how insignificant the person or creature may be, but rather be assured that the word which I speak is God’s Word, which he himself is speaking. But if it is God’s Word, then it must be mightier than heaven and earth and all angels and the devil besides. For what is all power in heaven and earth compared with what God says? If, then, you believe that what I preach to you is God’s Word, then you will easily believe what is says. That’s the only effort that’s necessary, positively to believe that it is God’s Word; after that there is no trouble. For with one word he created heaven and earth and all that is in them when everywhere there was still nothing and every year creates new fruits and what lovely summer brings. So it is here; though you see that everything dies away and less remains of man than summer in coldest winter, when neither foliage nor grass remains and no leaf or fruit is to be found upon a tree, here there is even less life, since what the person has been becomes altogether powder and dust, burned to powder by fire or wasted in water or eaten by birds and animals and worms in the ground. And yet, as surely as God’s Word is true, you must firmly believe that he will bring us forth again as a whole transformed body, just as he now does every year as a symbol, bringing back from dead winter a beautiful, green summer, and as he made everything out of nothing. Therefore, by all means remember to accept it, not as man’s word, but as God’s Word.
This is what will happen, he says: “We who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep” [I Thess. 4:17]. This is a paraphrase, spoken in a roundabout way, but, briefly, what it says is that we shall all go thither together at the same time, both those who have died previously and those who have lived until Christ’s coming and that thus all will soar up together in an instant and see one another again. It says, therefore, that we who may still be living will not see the Lord Christ any sooner than those who have died, even though we shall be drawn upward with open eyes and still be living in the body, whereas the others have long since decayed and, to our minds, become nothing, and even though it would seem that we, who are still living, would be the first and would see the Lord much sooner than the dead. But he would have it that the dead would all rise with us in the same moment and have eyes as pure and fine as ours to see as well as we do. (Reason calls this ridiculous, but he tells me that he is speaking the Word of God:)
He therefore will do the same with Christians that he did with Christ, whom he raised up from the locked and sealed grave in the twinkling of an eye, so that in the selfsame moment he was in it and out of it. So in the last moment he will bring together both us who are still living in our five senses, and all who are decomposed, pulverized, and scattered throughout the world, and we and they together will be caught up to heaven, soaring in the clouds (as he says later), lighter than the birds [cf. I Cor. 15:39] and more beautiful than the sun [cf. I Cor. 15:41], and the heavens will be so full of light and splendor that all the light and splendor of the sun and all the stars will be as nothing compared with it, and we shall see neither sun nor stars for the light and splendor of Christ and his angels and saints. Now I know that this sounds as false as a sweet idea and human dream, but I have declared that it is God’s Word. He who will not believe this cannot believe us either. It’s one and the same thing.
Then he goes on to tell how the Lord Christ will come, by what means he will perform it, and what power he will employ to accomplish it.
“For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words” [I Thess. 4:16–18].
This is the meaning we have just explained, namely, that everything will happen at once, that we are not to think that we who are living will arrive and see Christ sooner, but will be caught up together with him, all in one moment, that we shall be changed and they be made alive again out of the grave and the dust in the selfsame moment, and, wherever we may be found, fly straightway into the air, most beautifully clothed. And this he, the Lord, will do. He will no longer send an apostle or preacher or John the Baptist, but will come down in his own person as a Lord in his majesty, with a great shout of command and the voice and trumpet of the arch-angel.
These words are purely allegorical. He was trying to paint a pieture, as we must use pictures with children and simple people, and use words which we are accustomed to use in describing a grand, magnificent march of an army, when a lord takes the field in great triumph with his lifeguards, banners, trumpets, and canisters, so that everyone hears that he is coming. So Christ too will go forth with a shout of command and cause a trumpet to sound which is called the trumpet of God. This will be done by the archangel with his innumerable host of angels, who will be his vanguard or forerunners and set up such a tumult that heaven and earth will be burned in an instant and lie in a heap, transformed, and the dead will be brought together from everywhere. That will be quite a different trumpet and it will sound quite different from our trumpets and canisters on earth. But it will be his own voice and language, perhaps Hebrew, but even if it is not a particular language, it will be a voice which will wake all the dead.
I like to think that it will be a voice which says: Rise up, ye dead! as Christ called the dead Lazarus from the grave, “Lazarus, come out,” (John 11 [:48]) and as he said to the girl and the young man in Matt. 9 [:25] and Luke 7 [:14], “I say to you, arise,” accomplishing it with one word, as he spoke to the blind and the lepers: Receive your sight, be clean, etc. Here Paul calls this a cry of command or the voice of the archangel, that is to say, the voice of the archangel will shout so that it will be heard with our ears. And yet it is called a trumpet of God, that is, a trumpet by which God will wake up the dead through his divine power, just as he said in John 5 [:28–29], “The hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life,” etc. Here he means, not the voice which Christ himself will utter, but the voice of the archangel and the trumpet, which is God’s voice or trumpet. Just as here on earth the preacher’s voice which proclaims God’s Word is not called man’s word but God’s Word, so here the voice is the voice of the archangel and yet the voice of the Lord Christ, as being spoken by his command and power.
You see, he portrayed how it will happen in such grand terms in order that we should be confident and bold and not be so frightened over those who die, especially those who die in faith in and through Christ, and that we should hope that Christ himself may come and take them, and us with them. That we should hope that the archangel will come first with his trumpets and thousands of angels (like the angel in Luke 2 [:13] who appeared to the shepherds at Christ’s birth with the multitude of the heavenly host) and strike up the cry of command, with Christ suddenly striding forth, and afterwards, when we have been raised and caught up into heaven, sing everlastingly: Gloria in excelsis Deo, “Glory to God in the highest” [Luke 2:14].
This, concludes St. Paul, we should most certainly expect, and comfort one another with these words. And he describes it so confidently, as if it had already happened. He prophesies of future things still not experienced as if they were history, in order that he may make us as certain as he is, that we may not be frightened of death and disdain all plague, pestilence, and disease, and keep our eyes fixed upon that beautiful picture of what is to come, when out of this present winter in which everything is dead and buried he will make a beautiful, eternal summer and bring forth the flesh, which lies buried and decayed, far more beautiful and glorious than it ever was before, as St. Paul says in I Cor. 15 [:43], “It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.” For dishonor and weakness means that miserable, shameful form of man, than which there is no more shameful, insufferable carcass on earth, which is a great dishonor and shame to this noble creature. But this does not matter, for it will be raised again in honor and in a glorious form, just as a seed which is cast into the ground must decay and become nothing, but when summer comes it comes forth again with beautiful blades and ears of corn.
So we too should hope and shall hope that the merciful God has thus taken our beloved, deceased elector and will raise him up again with Christ, because, after all, we know that he was baptized into Christ, and that he so confessed the gospel and remained steadfast in the Christian confession and died in the same, that I have no doubt that when the trumpet of the archangel is sounded he will joyfully rise in an instant from this crypt and, with us and all Christians, go to meet Christ, shining more brightly than the sun and all the stars. To this end help us, God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.