The Coming Jesus

1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11

14 February 1999

Greyfriars Church


Most jokes are based on a misunderstanding of some sort, aren't they? Here's one:

A vicar moved to a new church and was greeting people at the end when a small boy comes up to offer him something. To his surprise the boy gave him 20p. Not wanting to hurt the boy's feelings the vicar said thankyou very much and took the money. Happened for a few weeks... Eventually the vicar thought This can't go on, so he asked the boy why he kept bringing him money. Well, sir, said the boy. I was just trying to help: my dad says that you're the poorest preacher that we've ever had!

The boy had clearly misunderstood his father. Similarly, the Thessalonians in our passage also seem to have misunderstood something, although in their case it was far from being a joke.

Paul says to them, Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.ref Let's be clear: Paul is talking here about members of the church who had died, which seems to have come as a bit of a shock to the Thessalonians, causing them to "grieve like the rest of men who have no hope" .

It seems that when Paul had promised eternal life in Christ to the Thessalonian Christians they had understandably taken that to mean that none of them would die a natural death: Jesus would be coming back so soon. So, when some of them started pegging out in the short time since Paul's visit they were bewildered and grief-stricken. A death is devastating at the best of times; how much more devastating when it seems to contradict the very heart of the faith that you have just given your life to. You can imagine their questions after thay had got over the initial shock of the shattering news: what will happen to those who have died? How can this talk of eternal life be true? What about us? will we die as well?

Perhaps we are not in quite the same situation as the Thessalonian Christians, but it is true that an extremely traumatic event in our lives, like a death or a serious illness, can make us question our faith as well. How can God let this happen? Is it really true?

Part of Paul's answer to the Thessalonians is to put them right; to teach them some correct doctrine. He says, Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorantref. Paul shows us how correcting the misunderstanding can transform despair to hope, grief to joy.

Our passage this evening falls neatly into two parts: vv13-18 of chapter 4 and vv1-11 of chapter 5. You may find it helpful to have the passage open in front of you as I speak if you can find a nearby Bible.

I've titled the first section "Paul encourages the Thessalonians to renew their hope" , and the second section "Paul encourages the Thessalonians to ready their hearts" . Renewing their hope, and readying their hearts.

Renewing their hope

The first thing that Paul reminds the Thessalonians is that there is a precedent for this situation, and a very significant one. Verse 14: We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in himref. The resurrection of Jesus is the foundation stone of Christian belief.

Jesus himself had died a real physical death, just as the Thessalonian brothers had, but for Jesus his three days of death were just a temporary state before he entered his glory with his Father. And so for us: we might lie in the ground for a while, but we will be resurrected with Christ into his glory.

Paul again and again emphasises the temporariness of death by referring to it as "falling asleep" in verses 13, 14 and 15. This is no timid euphemism, but a bold affirmation that for the Christian death has just the same power as a good night's sleep.

The poet, John Donne, understood all this very well. He wrote a poem on this theme, of which I'll read you the first four and the last two lines:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

So, Paul tells the Thessalonian Christians what they should have known already: that for them, as for Jesus, death is just a temporary state before they are raised again with him.

In the next few verses he unpacks the details a little more, John Stott summarizes these verses with four R's: Return, resurrection, rapture and reunion.

Verse 15 speaks of the "coming of the Lord" , the return of Jesus. Christians believe that Jesus will return one day to wrap up the world, to finish with evil in a final act of judgement. We don't know when—I'll be talking about that later—but we do know that we won't miss it when it happens. Jesus himself talked of it like this, All nations will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great gloryref. He's coming to finish off the world. We're going to know about it when it happens.

Paul puts it like this in verse 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise firstref. Which brings us on to resurrection: the dead in Christ will rise first. So the Thessalonian's fears are groundless; those who have died in the faith if anything have an advantage over those who are left. They will meet the Lord before us.

After resurrection comes another technical word, rapture. Verse 17, After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the airref. I think this is probably figurative language. The precise details of the end are nowhere entirely clear in scripture; as yet we see the future dimly. But that shouldn't distract us from the general theme summarized here as return, resurrection, rapture and finally reunion.

Verse 17 says that we will again meet up with those Christians who have died, before all meeting together with our Lord. This is what the Thessalonians had been worried about, and Paul teaches them that their fears are groundless. We will again meet with our loved ones who have died in Christ, and we will meet up with Him, to be with Him forever.

As the book of Revelation puts it,

Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.ref

This is reunion, with God and with the people of God, the final goal of our faith.

So, at last, Paul exhorts them in verse 18 to encourage one another with these wordsref. He encourages them to renew their hope. This how to overcome their grief: indeed, it is the rest of men, who have no hope, who should be grieving. We should encourage one another in the face of the death of those whom we love, not with awkward and empty words, but with genuine hope for the future.

I would just like to clarify at this point the difference between grieving and mourning. Mourning is, of course, a completely right and proper response to the death of someone we love. Death is offensive and painful; it shocks us more than anything else can possibly shock us, especially an untimely death. Indeed, we are told to mourn with those who mournref. It would be wrong to fake a smile, to put a brave face on it. We all need time to remember and time to let go when faced with the death of a friend or a family member. After a while the mourning will pass as we trust in the hope that Christ has given to us.

However, for a Christian, hopeless grief, despair even, is inappropriate. It comes from an inadequate understanding of the hope that that we have, which is why we should encourage each other, as Paul tells us, to renew our hope.

I don't know how I might one day face the death of someone I love very much, like my wife Penny. But I trust that if the time should come, in the midst of the mourning, some of you will dare to encourage me with these words: "renew your hope, renew your hope" .

For those who are mourning tonight, be encouraged by these words: renew your hope.

Over-realized Eschatology

So, to recap, the Thessalonians had misunderstood the hope that they had as Christians, which had led to much grief. They had taken the future promise of eternal life and tried to apply it too early, to bring it forward from the future and apply it immediately. So they were shocked and surprised when some of their number died.

Now, I'm not a theologian, but I do know a theological word or two. For example, "over-realized eschatology". This is what the Thessalonians had got wrong. Eschatology is knowledge of the future, in particular what happens after Jesus has returned. To over-realize it is to make it too real in the present times, to bring forward a promise for the future and to try to apply it now. It's a bit like opening your birthday presents too early.

We sometimes do this too, and it can undermine our faith as well. For example, some people assert that God should heal everyone who is sick today. When he doesn't, it is put down to their lack of faith.

Or as another example, we wonder why we are still dogged by sin, although we have given our lives to Jesus. We fight the sin, but failing again and again we begin to doubt whether God has really saved us.

These are examples of over-realized eschatology. Yes, God will heal, but maybe not until after Jesus has returned. Yes, we shall be free from sin, but maybe not until after Jesus has returned.

The parallel with resurrection is exact: we don't expect God to go around raising the dead today. Sure, he sometimes does: Lazarus and Jairus' daughter spring to mind, but it's not his normal way of doing things.

Likewise, God heals today, but it may not be his plan for us; true healing will come when Jesus returns. If our faith begins to fail us when we see people, perhaps ourselves, go unhealed, then we have over-realised our eschatology. We have forgotten that the best is yet to come.

Similarly, God helps us with our sin today, but if our faith fails because he does not seem to be helping us with a particular problem, then again we may have over-realised our eschatology. We have forgotten that true freedom is yet to come.

This is a partial answer to the problem of suffering. God will sort it out, but maybe not yet. We need a "future focus". Remember the Revelation quote? God will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed awayref.

I like to think of us as being in the spiritual equivalent of Calais ferryport.

The point is that as Christians we are on a journey with a glorious end. Like going on a holiday in the South of France: we're looking forward to eating croissant and pain-au-chocolat for breakfast, with Roquefort and Burgundy for lunch. We can't wait to be lying in the baking sun, with panoramic views of fields full of sunflowers. Beautiful little french villages. Fantastique!

So we've set out on the journey and we arrive in France. With great excitement we drive off the ferry and look around. But where are all the little villages? Where are the boulangeries? Where are the sunflowers? All you can see for miles is concrete and containers and lorries and cranes, and it's pretty grim. If this is all there is to France then we might as well go home now. I know what it's like, because I once spent 17 hours at Calais ferryport trying to hitch a lift, but that's another story!

The point is that the best is yet to come. As Christians we are at the beginning of the journey. We're in the kingdom, yes, but we're only at the ferryport.

We need that future perspective, to renew our hope, because life here in the spiritual ferryport can be a bit grim. Death and pain and suffering and sin still afflict us. As Paul puts it elsewhere If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all menref. And again, he says that for me to live is Christ, to die is gain.ref He was future focused; he knew that the best is yet to come.

So, as he says, we must encourage one another with these words. The best is yet to come. Renew your hope.

Readying their hearts

In the second half of our passage, chapter 5 verses 1-11, Paul goes on to exhort the Thessalonians to ready their hearts for Jesus' return.

He writes,

Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, "Peace and safety," destruction will come on them suddenly, as labour pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escaperef.

As time wore on it was easy for the Thessalonians to grow complacent about the return of Jesus. How much more tempted to complacency are we, over 1900 years later!

The complacent are saying "Peace and safety!" , don't worry about it, it'll be ages yet. But Paul knows better. Jesus himself had said he would return like a thief, so you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect himref.

Of course we don't know when the thief is coming, that's why we always lock our cars, and we always lock our houses: constantly ready.

In another picture Paul says that Jesus' return will be as sudden as a woman going into labour. We are expecting it, but not knowing the exact timing makes life pretty exciting! I don't know much about going into labour, but I do know at least one baby who was unintentionally born in the bath at home, and another born in a hospital car park. I gather it can be pretty sudden when it happens, which is why expecting parents will be constantly ready: the route to the hospital planned; the suitcase packed; the mobile phone always handy.

Paul contrasts the two types, the unready and the ready, in verses 4 to 8.

The unready are those who are in darkness. They haven't received spiritual light, the light of Christ. They are spiritually sleepy and spiritually drunk, by which Paul means they are not alert, not aware of what's going on around them. They are out of touch with reality.

On the other hand the Christians have been enlightened; we are not in darkness. In the day time it is appropriate to be awake and sober. So, we should be spiritually awake and sober. As Paul puts it in verse 6 alert and self-controlledref. We are to be like soldiers in armour, as he says in verse 8, But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmetref. Note how faith and love, the everpresent companions to hope, form part of our uniform. Of course, no soldier would dare to be asleep or drunk on duty.

What does it mean to be "alert and self-controlled" in the face of Jesus' impending return? Well, I think it means that we should make sure that our spiritual house is in order.

Let me draw a parallel with the year 2000 computer problem. I'm sure you will all have come across this, it rarely seems to be out of the newspapers. But just in case you haven't, it is possible that many computers will not be able to cope with the year change at the beginning of next year because they store the year with just two digits. That is, 99 for 1999, or 00 for 2000. This is widely predicted to lead to worldwide chaos.

Here's what Tony Blair had to say on the subject last year,

"The millennium bug is one of the most serious problems facing not only British business but the global economy today. The impact cannot be underestimated." British Prime Minister Tony Blair, USA TODAY, April 13, 1998

Or an American Senator,

"I would like to warn that we have cause for fear. For the failure to address the millennium bug could be catastrophic." Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Oct. 7, 1998

And the Sunday Times,

"This is not a prediction, it is a certainty—there will be serious disruption in the world's financial services industry... It's going to be ugly." The Sunday Times, London

I'll give you just two small illustrations of how it might affect us. It has been predicted recently that traffic lights will fail across the nation, not knowing what day it is, causing widespread traffic chaos, that is if anyone's car will start. But one of the most fascinating predictions concerns the discharge of sewage at sea. Apparently this is often done off beaches at high tide. But the automatic systems responsible for doing this may get the tide tables wrong next year and so discharge the raw sewage straight onto the beach.

Anyway, the point is that people are preparing for the event. Companies are preparing by trying to fix their systems. Literally billions and billions of pounds are being spent on the problem. British Telecom alone has spent something like 400 million pounds, and some companies even more. One huge job involves just checking their systems, auditing them to see if they will work or not when the millenium comes. Some of you here might be doing that very work.

As a world we are investing vast resources in preparing ourselves for the year 2000. How much are we investing in preparing for the rather more significant return of our Lord? Or have we fallen asleep on that score?

I don't think that Jesus will return on January 1st in the year 2000, but he might. Or he might come next week. Or he might come in the year 3000. But we must be ready.

As I said, the big companies have all done a millenium audit. What would turn up if God did an apocalypse audit on us? Would he find us apocalypse compliant? What unconfessed and unforgiven sin would he find in our lives? What grudges and unforgiveness would he find us harbouring towards others? What stolen, or "borrowed", goods would he find in our possession, that we ought to return? Which of our friends, and our family, do we need to share our faith with?

Incidentally, the evangelist J. John, who visited here a few months ago, was in the news yesterday. It seems that whilst preaching on "Thou shalt not steal" he had suggested that people send him any items that they felt unable to return to their rightful owners, and that he would see they got to the right place. Apparently he has been inundated with overdue library books. Don't send them to me, you can do your own dirty work!

That was somewhat frivolous, but it reminds us that these things need sorting out. The matters I mentioned need urgent attention, else we are in danger of running out of time. How dreadful it would be to turn up in heaven and to have regrets about our unfinished business. How dreadful not to be reunited with our friend, but instead to be separated forever from him or her. We need to make sure that we are alert and ready.

But we must take care here to remember that our salvation is not in danger. Paul is very clear on what grounds we enter in to it in verse 9 and 10. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with himref. If we trust in Christ we will be with him, but it would be terrible to have regrets, wouldn't it?

So, finally, Paul tells us again to encourage one another and build each other up, in these matters. Encouragement as far as Paul is concerned is making sure that we have a clear knowledge of what the future has in store for us, a glorious future with our God, the end of the journey. And to build one another up is to make sure that we are spiritually challenging one another to be ready, ready for for Jesus' return.

I hope I have done this tonight; now it's your turn.