After 14 years of studying the Bible, William Miller became convinced that Christ would return in 1843. When Miller announced April 3 as the day some disciples went to mountaintops, hoping for a head start to heaven. Others were in graveyards, planning to ascend in reunion with their departed loved ones. Philadelphia society ladies clustered together outside town to avoid entering God's kingdom amid the common folk—I think they missed the point, don’t you? When April 4 dawned as usual the Millerites were disillusioned. But they took heart. Their leader had predicted a range of dates for Christ's return. They still had until March 21, 1844. The devout continued to make ready, but again they were disappointed. A third date—October 22, 1844—was set, but it also passed.
Even in our own time, people have become more interested in the 2nd Coming. One of the best-selling books of the past couple of decades was Left Behind (and the series that followed). These books revolve around Christ’s 2nd Coming. Stores could not keep these books on the shelves. People couldn’t get enough of it! Our world is not short on interest and it is not short on theories, but what does scripture have to say about God’s return?
This morning I want us to spend some time in I Thessalonians.
Did you know that I Thessalonians is probably the oldest letter in the NT? It was written to the people of Thessalonica. Thessalonica was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia. It was a Greek city, and Paul is writing to a primarily Greek audience. Paul treats a Gentile-Christian church differently than a Jewish-Christian church. These people did not have a Jewish background; the Jewish laws, culture, and customs were meaningless to them. The Jewish Christians struggled with letting go of the law. The Gentile Christians struggled with letting go of paganism, worshipping idols, sexual immorality of various kinds and going to pagan temples. They had to abandon the culture in which they were raised. Paul is writing this letter after getting a report about them from Timothy. Paul had spent a great deal of time with them in the past and seems to have had a good relationship with them. After leaving, he sent Timothy back to work with the young church. Before writing this letter, Paul had heard a report from Timothy about his friends in Thessalonica. Paul does not rebuke the Thessalonians, so we can assume the church was doing well. But, Paul uses the body of the letter to address two issues.
First, Paul encourages the Thessalonians to have less reliance on the world for their living. He says, “Do like I did when I was among you.” “I didn’t take money from you. I worked to support myself. That way I was not dependent on anyone.”
Secondly, Paul encourages the Thessalonians to live in a way pleasing to God because Jesus could return at any moment. The issue of the 2nd Coming is central for the Thessalonian church. Try to place yourself in their context. You were born outside of the church, with friends and family who were not Christian, people who had no concept of YHWH God or Jesus, His Son. You and they had no time for God. One day a guy named Paul came to town talking about Jesus, one single Creator God, who came to earth as a man, and who will return SOON! This had a huge impact your life. You decided to follow this new God. But your best friend didn’t! Immediately, you and the other new Christians began looking for Jesus. Paul said he was coming back soon. Paul expected it to happen any day—during his lifetime. You spent your days looking in the sky. But it didn’t happen! You waited days, weeks; you waited months and even years. That best friend never missed a chance to give you a hard time. “Hey, where’s your Jesus? I thought He was gonna float down to get you!” Before long, you began to doubt the validity of this whole thing yourself. And worse yet, some people of your new congregation were dying. Time was passing away! What’s going to happen to them? Did they miss out? Everyone began to get worried! Not only for their loved ones who have died, But for themselves! What if you died before He comes back? Will you miss out?
Just as you are struggling with this, you receive this letter from Paul…
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 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, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.This letter is meant to calm their fears, to offer hope to a young group of Christians, to answer their questions about Jesus’ 2nd coming. So, what does he tell them? First of all, the people who have died will be with Jesus. Their loved ones who have passed away will not be left out. When Jesus returns, the dead will rise first. Then he gives them a kind of order of events. Jesus will come down from heaven. With a loud command and the voice of the archangel, with the trumpet call of God, the people who are already dead will rise first. And after that, the people who are alive will rise up to meet them all in the air. Jesus, the dead that have already been raised, and the living, and they will live with the Lord forever.
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. &Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing. (I Thessalonians 4:13–5:11, NRSV)
The last words of this chapter are so important. Paul says these words are meant for encouraging one another. This is the reason for this whole discussion! “Be encouraged, because we will all be with Jesus in the end.” The living and the ones who have already died
What did mean for them that Jesus would return? What does it mean for us?
About a month after my father passed away, I received an anxious phone call from my mom. I was living in Nashville at the time, and I was on my way to school that morning. I answered the phone, and my mom was sobbing. My father had been dead about one month, and she was calling me on the morning of their anniversary. When she finally was able to articulate a sentence, this came out: "Where do you think your dad is today? What happens to us when we die?" This was the moment where "book theology" meets practical life. May I be brutally honest? I don't really know. I don't know exactly what happens to us when we die. I don't know if we are immediately met by God. I don't know if we wait until the final day of judgment to meet God. The fact is, we are not told too much about the end of the world in the Bible. And, to be even more honest, I don't believe Paul knew either. That is what chapter five is all about. He writes that Jesus will come "like a thief in the night." Paul didn't know when or exactly how it would happen. He simply told the Thessalonians, "Be ready!" As best I could, that is exactly what I told my mom that morning. I said, "I don't know how the end really works. But I do know that for those who love God, the end is a really good thing! So, mom, look forward to the reunion, and live a good life to please God in the mean time."
Paul said to them (and us), “Live your life in order to please God!” What often gets lost in our discussions about the “End Times” is Paul’s advice of what to do in the mean time! Brothers and sisters don’t forget that the gospel event demands that we live a new life. A life dedicated to God out of gratitude. We are children of light, not darkness! And we must live like it!
During his 1960 presidential campaign John F. Kennedy often closed his speeches with the story of Colonel Davenport. He was the Speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives. One day in 1789, the sky of Hartford darkened ominously. Some of the representatives glanced out the windows. They feared the end was at hand. Quelling a clamor for immediate adjournment Davenport rose and said…
The Day of Judgment is either approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. If it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. Therefore, I wish that candles be brought.Rather than fearing what is to come we are to be faithful all the way up until Christ returns. Instead of fearing the dark, we’re to be lights as we watch and wait. Last week, we talked about a God who loved us so much He created an expansive universe that is so big our brains can hardly imagine it and He created even the smallest details of our body and our this creation for us to enjoy! This week, we see one more piece of evidence of just how deep and wide is God’s love for us! What is the appropriate response to a God who loves us so much that He will return one day to take us home? The appropriate response is to love Him in return. The appropriate response is to love His creation in return. The appropriate response is to live a life worthy of our calling.