May 2, 2004
Christ Will Come!
I Thessalonians 4:13-5:11
How far into the future do you plan? Do you know what you will be doing tomorrow? Have you made plans for events that will take place next month? This summer? Some organizations make five year plans. Do we ever make plans for eternity?
As Christians, we have made such plans because the gospel has implications that extend into all eternity. When the gospel is told, the message is not only “God has forgiven your sins” but also “and given you eternal life.” But how many of us live our lives with the steady awareness of that eternal life? Although we don’t always live with an awareness of the end, we have a lot of questions about it. We want to know, “When will Christ come?” “What will His coming be like?” “What hope does His coming give to people who die?” “What will happen in eternity?”
The people in the church in Thessalonica had heard the promises of the return of Christ and of the hope of eternal life, but they had questions and they needed to be taught more. So in I Thessalonians 4:13-5:11, Paul teaches them some more. There are primarily two questions answered in this passage, but others are also examined. He deals in 4:13-18 with the question, “What about death?” and in 5:1-11 with the question, “When will He come?”
We also know these promises, but in the distractions that life brings they are often obscured. What hope, encouragement and challenges can we find in these verses? Let us read the text.
If you read the story about how the gospel came to Thessalonica in Acts 17, you will discover that Paul came to Thessalonica and went to the synagogue and “reasoned with them from the Scriptures” about Jesus. Some Jews and a large number of Greeks were persuaded, but other Jews became jealous and Paul was forced to leave. Paul had just begun to disciple the new believers in Thessalonica when he was suddenly torn from them without having been able to finish the work of teaching them everything Jesus had commanded. He had told them the promise of Christ’s return and they greatly rejoiced at the hope of eternal life. They believed the promises and were sure that soon Christ would come back to take them to their eternal home. But then something disturbing happened, some among them died. They became quite disturbed and began to wonder, “what has happened to the promises?” If people are dying, where is the resurrection? Where is the power of God? Are his promises still true? We can imagine that it must have been quite disconcerting and must have shaken their faith deeply.
Timothy had gone back to Thessalonica after Paul left and had reported back to Paul about this and other concerns and Paul replied to their concerns. He says, “we do not want you to be ignorant.” They simply did not know how the promises of God worked and did not understand how death fit into these promises but Paul would teach them.
We come at the question a little differently. We understand. We have perceived that death is not the end. We have heard that Christ will receive those who have died knowing Him. Understanding is not our problem. Our problem is trust. Our problem is, “do we really believe these promises.” When someone dies, we ask ourselves, “do I believe that what God has promised about eternal life will really happen.” When death threatens us, we have to make a decision about whether we are able to put ourselves into the hand of God and walk over the threshold to eternal life. We wonder, “Are these promises really true?”
There is an interesting thing that happens in these verses which helps us affirm the reality of these promises.
The word which is used to refer to death almost throughout this passage is the word “sleep.” For example, in verses 13, 14 & 15, Paul speaks about those who have “fallen asleep.”
Sleep as a way of speaking about death is not uncommon. Even among pagans this term was used. In Homer’s Iliad there is a quote that says, “So there he fell, and slept a sleep of bronze...” The word cemetery comes from the Greek word for “sleep.”
However, in this passage, there is one significant exception to this way of speaking. One of the main times the word “died” is used in this passage is in reference to Christ. When Paul refers to Christ, he does not say he “fell asleep,” he says Christ “died.” This is significant because it helps us understand that the death of Jesus was a significant death. It tells us that Jesus actually experienced separation from God and, as the sinless one, took the guilt of sin entirely upon himself and was punished for that sin and rose in victory over death.
From that point on, it is entirely appropriate to speak about those who have died as having fallen asleep. It isn’t just a way of speaking about death any more, because those who die in Christ will wake up again, this time to eternal life. The answer to the question “what about those who have died” is that Jesus has opened the way to eternal life even for those who die.
Because of this promise, we also learn that we do not need to grieve like those who do not have hope. Does that mean, as some seem to imply, that a funeral should be a celebration and we should not be sad at a funeral? Of course not. Paul does not say that “we do not grieve.” He says that “we do not grieve as those who have no hope.” There is a very great difference in these statements. When someone close to us dies, we grieve, we sorrow greatly. We understand that we will not see them again for a very long time. But, we do not grieve as those who have no hope. We know that, since they know the Lord, they are OK. We know that since we know the Lord, we will see them again. I have sometimes wondered about the parting greeting we sometimes use, “see you” or “farewell ‘till we meet again.’” If we say this to a person who is a believer, even though we may never see them on this earth, yet we will see them again. That is the hope that is ours, the reason why we do not need to grieve as those who have no hope.
But how will it happen? The text says that there will be - “a loud command,” “the voice of the archangel,” “the trumpet call of God.” There will be enough noise to literally wake the dead. Paul’s word of comfort to these believers is that those who have died will not miss it. God will wake them from their sleep.
Then, when those who are asleep have been caught up to meet the Lord in the air, those who are still alive at that time, will also join those who have died. So the knowledge is affirmed to the Thessalonians and the assurance is given to us. Death does not separate us from God. When the time comes for Christ to return, both those who have died and those who are alive will be caught up to meet the Lord.
Furthermore, the text gives us the marvellous promise that when that event takes place we will spend all of eternity with the Lord. Look at verse 17 - “we will be with the Lord forever.” What a marvellous hope this is! Of all the things that heaven will mean - being reunited with loved ones, golden streets, a mansion - surely the best is that we will be with the Lord forever. The longing for intimacy with the creator will be completely fulfilled.
But they had another question. They also wanted to know, “when will Christ come?” Their first idea had been that Jesus would return very soon, probably within a few weeks, perhaps years, but certainly within their life time. Now that some had died, they began to wonder. “How soon will he come?” Behind that question, is a question that we also often wonder about - “Will he come?” Paul goes on to answer that question.
In 1988, I received a booklet with the title “88 reasons why the rapture could be in 1988.” This book ignores I Thessalonians 5:1 This verse and other Scriptures clearly indicate that we do not know the time of Christ’s return. We are told that suddenly that day will be here.
Have you ever begun a day thinking, “today could be the day Jesus will return.” I have heard some people declare such a hope when they were facing difficult circumstances and I have heard people wish it wasn’t so when they were looking forward to some special event. When I go to sleep, I don’t usually think, “I may not wake up in this bed in the morning.” When I wake up in the morning, I don’t usually think, “I may not go to bed here tonight.” Realistically, we can and should realize that today could be the day when Jesus will return.
What will it mean when he comes? The words of verse 4, “you…are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you,” do not mean, as some think, that we can know the day. We have already learned that we do not know the day. The reason for this statement is that we, who are in the light, will not be surprised by the day because we have been expecting it all along.
We once had a neighbour who was very jumpy. If she was out in her garden and we walked across the road to greet her, we always made lots of noise. If we didn’t, and we got close before she noticed us, she would jump in surprise and clutch at her heart when we approached - as if to say, “I wasn’t expecting you.” That is how it will be for those who are in darkness. For those in the light, however, it will be more like the time when I came home and couldn’t find Carla. I knew she was home, but I didn’t know where she was until I came around a corner just as she came around the corner from the other side and I was surprised, but it was more like, “Oh, there you are.” Jesus will come and then we who are in the light will say in our hearts, “Oh, there you are.”
When that day comes, we will rejoice at the completion of what we have put our hope in, what we have longed for and worked towards all our life. What will heaven be like? Some suggest it will fulfill our desire for intimacy, beauty and adventure.
Jesus promises in John 14:2, “I go to prepare a place for you.” By saying that, he is reminding us of the hope that in heaven, we will be included, we will be loved and we will belong.
Revelation 4 gives us an the amazing picture of heaven. We read, “…before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian…before the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.” “The beauty cannot be captured, only alluded to by the most beautiful things on earth.” If we enjoy the beauty of earth, how much better will be the beauty of heaven.
Furthermore, heaven will be anything but boring. The parable of the talents in Matthew 25 suggests that we will do something meaningful that suits us and gives us joy.
For those in the light, this great hope is ours. It will not be a day of wrath, but a day of salvation. Through Jesus, as he reinforces once again in verse 9, we will experience the wonder and glory of the fulfillment of our salvation hope.
But there is another aspect which is also included. In verses 5-10, there is not only a promise of hope, but also a strong moral overtone.
Because we belong to the day, because we are living with the constant expectation of the day when we will say, “Oh, there you are,” we must live in constant readiness.
There are quite a number of passages which speak about the return of Christ in the Bible. Most of them end with the exhortation to live daily and fully in the understanding of that expectation. One year when Carla and I were both in choir and our children were still too young to be in choir, some friends of ours brought their similarly aged children to our place and both couples went to choir. When we got back to our house we discovered water dripping everywhere in the basement and six children desperately trying to remove the evidence. A little squirt of water had turned into a huge water fight. Since we had come back a little earlier than they expected, they were not ready for us. Are we living every day ready for Him to come back?
How can we be ready? Paul answers that question by pointing to the familiar three characteristics - faith, love and hope. Being ready for the coming of Christ means living in a steady faith that is confident in all the truth of the gospel. It is living in love in the church, with outsiders and in the family. It means holding on to the hope of Christ’s return even when things look dark. Trials often throw us for a loop, but through faith we can have hope and look beyond those trials to what is yet to come.
Sometimes we are afraid of talk about the end times. Some of the novels that have been written and some of the books that are out there present the truths about the end times with a great tone of fear. Fear is not the intent of this passage. Twice we are told that this information is for our encouragement. In fact, we are encouraged to use these truths to comfort and console one another. Notice that this is the conclusion and stated intention of each section of this passage: 4:18; 5:11.
So be encouraged and live in readiness. Encourage one another with the promise of Christ’s return.