“Who We Are and What We Will Be” (1 John 3:1-3)
Today as we observe All Saints’ Day, we look back and remember with thanksgiving the saints who have gone before us, who now rest from their labors and are with the Lord. We look around us, and even though we cannot see them, we know that we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses to the faith, all of us united in the one great communion of saints, the whole church on earth and in heaven. And we look ahead, we look forward with hopefulness to the day when our Lord Jesus Christ returns and raises our bodies and restores his creation to a glory that we cannot even imagine.
And so there is this “now but not yet” aspect to our readings on this day–and really, throughout the month of November, as we come toward the close of the church year. In November our thoughts turn to the last things, to the end times, to this earth as we know it coming to a close and Christ coming again to bring in the everlasting age to come. And in the midst of this, our forward look gives us hope–and calls us to holiness–even now.
This “now and not yet” dual emphasis is perfectly encapsulated in one of our readings for today, the Epistle from 1 John 3. Listen, for example, to this verse: “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared.” And so our theme this morning: “Who We Are and What We Will Be.”
In fact, let’s hear that whole reading once more. It’s short, only three verses: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” This is our text.
Who we are and what we will be. Let’s start with who we are. Who are we? If we hold the mirror of God’s law up to our faces, we must confess that we are but poor miserable sinners, who have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and what we have left undone. It’s not a pretty picture, this look in the mirror. I see where I have failed, time and time again, even when I should know better. God’s commandments I have not kept. In fact, I have actively broken them, and I know it. My sinful soiled face stares back at me, and I feel my guilt under the law. Perhaps you do, too.
That’s who we are under the law. Lost and condemned persons, damned and doomed to an eternity apart from God, under his righteous wrath. Such a vision should fill us with terror. The dark skies of November and the coming judgment would close in on us and stomp out any hope.
But that is not all of who we are. There is another word God has for us, a greater word, a word that does fill us with hope. St. John puts it like this: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.”
Children of God, that’s who we are! Not only are we called it, we are it! God’s own children, you and me and all of the saints in Christ, all of us who have come to trust in God’s only Son, our Savior. Children of God–sons and daughters, all members of God’s forever family, the church. That is our status and our privilege even now in this age. What hope this fills us with! Children of God–that is our identity and our character even now. This calls us to holiness of living, to reflect the character of our heavenly Father and to be conformed to the image of his Son, Jesus Christ. God’s word calls us children of God, and so we are.
See what kind of love has made us so! Yes, see what kind of love the Father has given to us. What kind of love is this? It is a love so amazing, so profound, that God would give his one and only Son for the life of the world. The Father sent his Son into this world to be our brother and be our Savior. Christ Jesus fulfilled the law in our stead, in our place, doing everything the law requires. A perfect life of love, always doing the will of the Father. Christ Jesus then willingly, amazingly, suffered the punishment the law requires for sinners, even though he had not broken the law in one iota. He did this in your place, in your stead, when he suffered and died on the cross. Righteousness fulfilled, and transferred to your account. His righteousness is credited to you, purely by God’s grace. This is God’s grace and forgiveness and absolution in action, in the atoning death of Christ. And in Christ’s resurrection, we see the result: sin paid for, death broken and destroyed, eternal life victorious and proclaimed to all the world.
The forgiveness-and-life proclamation has gone out to all the nations, and from all the nations there have been those who have heard the message and believed. These are the saints of God, the believers in Christ, the church universal. Their number includes those multitudes who have gone before us, the famous saints, like St. Peter and St. Paul and St. John and St. Matthew. St. Mary Magdalene and St. Mary, the mother of our Lord. As well as all the not-so-famous saints, the unsung saints, whose names are known to God, if not to all. That sainted grandmother or grandfather, whose faithful life and example influenced you for the church. The sainted pastor who baptized you and catechized you. A Sunday School teacher.
And that number of the saints of God includes, now, even people like you and me, all of us who by God’s grace trust in Christ our Savior. Yes, see what kind of love the Father has given to us! For the Holy Spirit has called us by the gospel and enlightened us with his gifts. We have been gifted with a living faith in Christ, a faith and a life we were born into in Holy Baptism. In the font the love of God was poured out on us, God’s name was placed on us, and we were made children of God. In the cleansing waters of Holy Baptism, we have washed our robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
Dear friends, beloved, just see what kind of love the Father has given us! It is a love that forgives our sins and gives us faith and bestows on us life everlasting, life that conquers the grave, by virtue of us being joined to Christ’s resurrection. No greater love is there than this!
Children of God–that is who we are now. And what we will be? That has not yet appeared. Because Christ has not yet appeared–as he will, all glorious, on the day when he returns. “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”
This is the church’s great hope, each Christian’s great hope, namely, the return of Christ. This is what we are looking forward to, with great joy and anticipation. The coming return of Christ puts a song in our heart and a spring in our step. “Lift up your heads, for your redemption draweth nigh.”
“When he appears, we shall be like him,” our text says. How so? In what way? In two ways, I would like us to consider. We shall be like him in a resurrected, glorious body. And we shall be like him in a heart and soul unencumbered by sin, a heart full of holiness.
We shall be like him in his glorious body. Philippians 3 says, “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body.” Did you catch that? Christ will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body. Whether our body lies in the dust of the grave on the day when Christ returns, or, if Christ comes back sooner rather than later, whether we will still be alive and walking around on that day–in either case, our dead or dying body will be transformed, and we will be like him in this respect, i.e., we will no longer be subject to death or disease or all the aches and pains of this life. Can you imagine? My bum shoulder, my aching knees, my lousy eyesight and my allergy-afflicted ears–all fixed and made whole, forever. You too, whatever the maladies that ail you. Good as new, and even better. That is what awaits us when Christ appears on the last day–which will be just the first day of endless bliss and joy.
“When he appears, we shall be like him.” And then the second way we shall be like him is in purity and holiness. This is going to be as great as, or an even greater makeover than the whole glorified body thing. For our soul will be no longer stained with sin. Can you imagine that? Only right desires, and we will rejoice in that. We will be at home in a restored creation where righteousness will be at home. A great big fellowship of redeemed saints of God, from all times and all places. All joined in love and joy and worship around the throne of God and of the Lamb. A choir like you have never heard. Friends, if this doesn’t get your motor running, I don’t know what will!
So this is our great hope that we have to look forward to. But this hope does not leave us with our heads in the clouds, drifting along in a dreamy, silly stupor. No, this hope calls us to holiness of living right now, in the here and now of this life, where we still struggle and where there are people all around us who are struggling, too. Listen to our text again: “When he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” You see, the hope that Christ gives at the same time calls us to holiness of living in this life. For as the children of God, we share in his character. We reflect and radiate the image of Christ to a world that desperately needs to know Christ. Our words and our actions have a purpose in the here and now. This transforms our daily living. End-time hope gives us real-time purpose. Love is the watchword of the day. How will this play out in your life this week?
Who we are and what we will be. We are children of God right now. In the age to come, we shall be like Christ in his resurrection and his righteousness. And this hope fills us with joy, it gives us power and purpose for living–this hope calls us to holiness, as God’s saints, as his holy people, as the children of God. And so we are.