Model hope - 1 Thessalonians 4:13 - 5:11
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Have you been to Princes Quay or Meadowhall or the White Rose centre recently? If you have you might agree that the shopping centre of the early 21st century is a palace of pleasure!
There's the palm trees, the lighting, the splendid fountains. They all contribute to enhance the experience of shopping. The point of buying something is not really related any more to the usefulness of what is bought, instead the pleasure of the purchasing experience itself is paramount.
Mike Starkey the observer of contemporary consumerism has pointed out the similarity of many Shopping Malls to places of worship - except the emphasis in these glass & domed cathedrals, is not on a world to come, it is on creating a present fantasy experience in this world.
The shopping centre is something of a postmodern icon we seem to live in a world which is increasingly rejecting the idea of meaning & history. All that is left is what has been called the "perpetual present"; a preoccupation with what is experienced now. The result? People live without much sense of the past & virtually no hope in the future. The irony is this makes life now significantly impoverished & people don't know how to deal with life because they have nothing to look forward to.
This eve as we reach chs 4& 5 of 1Thess (p1188) we discover that for the Christian, things are very different we do have something to look forward to, we are a people of great hope. And this hope affects 2 things in particular - how we view death especially the death of Christian loved ones who go before us, & how we are to live now in the time we have on this earth.
1. Be Confident in the face of death 4:13-18
A) The basis of Christian hope.
Being amongst the earliest believers the Thess's faced a new problem - Christians were dying! If Jesus was going to come back & take his people with him to heaven, what about those who die before he comes? Will they be at a disadvantage? Will they miss out? Will they even be lost?
Paul speaks to them tenderly; "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."
Bertrand Russell one of the best known philosophers of the 20th C wrote these words when only 30; "no heroism, no intensity of thought & feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; ..all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the brightness of human genius are destined to extinction..."
Let me tell you as someone who regularly takes funerals, the desperation & despair amongst some who "have no hope" is very painful.
Of course we grieve when a loved one dies - Paul doesn't say don't grieve -
grief is natural & emotionally necessary for a while & indeed Jesus wept at his
But Christians should not have hopeless, desperate grief like those who have no expectation of life beyond the grave. Christian hope is hopeful grief, hopeful in the sadness, hopeful that this life is not all there is.
In our passage Christians who have died are said to be "asleep". What a stunning reversal of the world's ideas death for the believer in Jesus is not final. It's only temporary. When we go to sleep at night we expect to wake up in the morning, similarly death will be followed, by resurrection -It's not the
end. But is death only temporary for the believer?
Notice those 2 little words in v14 Jesus died & rose & so we believe God will bring dead Christians with Jesus when he returns.
Our hope is based on what happened to Jesus. What happened to Jesus will in some way happen to his followers. Jesus died & rose & so when he comes he will raise believers who've died & will bring them with him. Jesus is the pattern & guarantee for us, that those who've died before his coming will be with him forever.
It is perhaps no accident that though Christian's are described as "asleep", Christ is said to have "died" Jesus experienced the full horrors of death physically & spiritually & thus transformed death for believers. It is transformed into a temporary state which will end with new life with Christ for ever. Agustus Toplady (Rock Of Ages) put it quaintly but powerfully "Believers should not have a slavish dread of death. Where is the baby that is afraid to go to sleep in its mother's arms'?"
The work of Jesus is the basis for hope, Paul also shows us
B) The pattern of how this hope will be fulfilled;
3 R's of Christian hope;
i) The return.
Jesus is coming back. V16 "For the Lord himself will come down from heaven" The word for this coming official term which means both a revelation form God & the coming of a King.
The one coming will be king Jesus himself not simply some prophet or messenger. And it will happen, this is a real historical event, no mere mythology.
And when this event in history happens there will be a universal, authoritative, proclamation from God announcing the end & a summons to the dead to rise. v16, "with a loud command, with the voice of the Archangel & with the trumpet call of God". When Jesus comes again, in striking contrast to his 1st coming in quiet obscurity, everybody will know. His return will leave no one in doubt that he is Lord.
ii) The Resurrection v16b,
We were told earlier (v14) that the dead in Christ will come with Jesus, now we're told how. "& the dead in Christ will rise 1st". Like Christ who died & rose again, & so those who have died with him now rise with him as he returns.
There is often some debate as to what happens to Christians immediately after they die. It would appear from the Bible that when a Christian dies there is a temporary end to life with a body, At the risk of over simplification, there is a separation of body & soul & our soul goes to be with God.
This disembodied condition (or "intermediate state") is only temporary though, because when Jesus returns our bodies will be raised & our souls reunited with our transformed body. Paul tells us in 1Cor15 that this body will be like our earthly body but, different, recreated, recreated so it, doesn't matter what it's been through in this world like being cremated,
One of the implications of this is that it is unnecessary & even misleading to pray for those who've died believers are in a state of perfect happiness with God & God's judgement on unbelievers has already been decided by God based on their response to him. We should give thanks for the dead then, & pray for relatives, but there's no need to pray for the departed themselves.
iii)The Reunion v17
What about Christians alive at the 2nd coming? They haven't been the focus so far, but we're now told they will be "snatched up" JBP or "seized". Suddenly, (though we're not told how) Christians will be united with
Christ "to meet the Lord in the air" & they will be re united with those who
have died, We will all , v17, be "together with them"
It is not clear whether we're to take this spatial language literally "in the
clouds" "in the air" - Jesus' teaching eg in Lk 17:23 suggests his coming will be personal yet universal, transcending space "like the lightening which flashes & lights up the sky from one end to the other. In the Bible Clouds, usually symbolise the immediate presence of God (cf transfiguration) & the
"air" is seen as the dwelling of devil (cf Eph2;2). So this language reminds us
God is coming & Jesus has total victory over evil. So this could be symbolic or
also literal, but we mustn't lose the fact that this is an historical event
that will happen. Just as God intervened in history through his son's
1st coming, he will do the same at his return, reuniting believers with each
This shows a remarkable solidarity that Christians know with Jesus & with each other. There is a relationship that death cannot destroy. This is what the traditional creed means by the "communion of saints". All God's people in heaven & on earth belong to the Lord Jesus & are in fellowship with each other, though not contact & communication, until the return of Jesus. Believing this makes such a difference . Listen to the words of the 18th C writer Thomas Scott after the death of his daughter.
"Truly I grieved for her, I felt grief more than ever before, grief that springs from being bereaved of one much beloved & my heart bleedsevery remembrance of her. But I do not grieve as one without hope; hope of meeting her in glory & spending a joyful eternity togetherV17
So we will be "with the Lord forever" This is so reassuring & exciting we can look forward to that great reunion with our Christian family & friends & indeed other Christians we never knew on earth. What a day that will be! What a hope in the face of death!
We can be confident in the face of death we should also;.
2. Be Different in the light of hope 5:1-11
i) Wrong Reponses v1-3
Apparently in the 260 chapters of the New Testament, there are 318 references to the return of Christan amazing 1 out of every 30 verses. God's word is clear Jesus will return, those seeking to be faithful to Jesus will therefore believe it will happen.
But there are wrong responses to this truth. One of them is alluded to by Paul here. That is 5;1 focusing on "times and dates" . Some have made a business out of predicting the timing of the 2nd coming. Famously JWs have made several failed attempts but even otherwise faithful Christians have fallen for this mistake too.
We just don't know indeed we should be suspicious about anyone who claims they do, after all Jesus himself said " No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the father" Mk13;32. The Thess it seems knew this yet Paul reminds them what they really must hold onto about Jesus return. v2 "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 escape"
It will be unexpected & it God's judgement that Jesus will bring will be unavoidable.
A burglar does his housebreaking when all is quiet & calm & people are sleeping in their beds so Jesus will come suddenly when people don't expect him.
Just as leaders & influencers assure people that everything's fine, things are under control & you've never had it so good ignoring God & his warnings suddenly God will hold people to account as Jesus comes as Judge. And that judgement will be unavoidable.
I remember waiting for the births of our 2 daughters. We knew they were coming we'd had 9 months to get ready but when labour kicked in it was unavoidable those babies were going to arrive they couldn't be stopped.
That's the image here the return of Jesus will be sudden & when he comes God's judgement will be unavoidable.
God will not allow people to rebel against him forever he will hold everyone to account before his bar of Justice. For those who have not taken advantage of the rescue available through Jesus & his death on the cross there will be a terrible result v3 an inescapable "destruction".
There is a serious warning to heed perhaps you're here tonight & you haven't come to terms with this. Without Jesus there will be "destruction". As Paul puts it in his 2nd letter to the Thessalonians (1:8,9) those who do not know God, who do not obey the gospel of Jesus will be "punished with everlasting destruction & shut out from the presence of the Lord". Rebelling against the perfect God who has made us is a heinous crime worthy of the most severe sanction.
Destruction is coming, destruction from which at the 2nd coming there "will be no escape". But, now, before Jesus returns there is an escape available if we turn to Jesus, recognise our rebellion & ask that what he did as he bore in himself the punishment for rebellion on the cross would be credited to our account & we can be spared. If we have this hope we won't be taken by surprise. And if we have this hope we will live differently;
ii) Right response 5:4-11
Destruction awaits those who have not found refuge in Jesus but for those who have life will be very different. V4 "But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. 5 You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. V7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night."
Christians know what is gong to happen, we have been brought into God's light because of the work of Jesus. We don't belong to the dark godless age any more where people behave in ways appropriate to the darkness undercover bad behaviour which can't be seen, losing control & getting stuck in a sleepy stupor deaf to God's reality & unprepared for his judgement. We belong to the age of God's loving rule where his ways are recognised & followed, we belong to the Kingdom of light & goodness.
One night at a dinner a man fascinated his companions by telling of his experiences in a little town he used to live near. The town was to be flooded, as part of a large lake for which a dam was being built. In the months before it was to be flooded, all improvements and repairs in the whole town were stopped. What was the use of painting a house if it were to be covered with water in six months? Why repair anything when the whole village was to be wiped out? So, week by week, the whole town became more and more bedraggled, more gone to seed, more woeful. Then the man added by way of explanation:
"Where there is no hope in the future, there is no power in the present."
As Christians we have God's revelation in his word we know what is ahead, we do have hope in the future we will be positively affected by it.
V6 "So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled v8 "since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled"
As people of the light, people of the day, rather than losing control like those of the dark, those who get drunk, those who try & escape reality through drugs or alcohol, or other diversionary activities, believers should be alert & self controlled. The daytime is the time for purposeful living - living for a goal. And the ultimate goal on the horizon is the return of the Lord Jesus. We should be living for what ultimately matters, in the middle of a world that, as one writer put it 'is ultimately concerned with things that are not ultimate.'
And what's more we must be equipped for the battle of Christian living while we wait. V8 "Putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet." Trusting God, loving others, holding onto this great hope of the full benefits of what Jesus has done when he returns, these truths can protect us like a breastplate, like a helmet they can ward of the knocks we receive in this difficult world.
Christians aren't trapped in the perpetual present bound by investing all our energies in to making our god what we experience now. We have a great hope, a hope rooted in the return of Jesus.
But given the kind of language Bible employs & the seriousness of the judgement that will come one day at the 2nd coming possible to be fearful rather than hopeful.
I remember shortly after becoming a Christian being taken by a zealous Christian friend to see a film which was based (I now realise) on a questionable & minority understanding of the events surrounding the 2nd coming. The effect for me as a new Christian was great anxiety. I didn't really know how to react.
Thankfully my early influences as a Christian had modelled for me the importance of the Bible so I sought to see what it said about the subject. It was these verses in 1Thess 5 that helped me get my thinking straight; V9"For God did not appoint us (those trusting in Jesus) to suffer wrath, but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. 10He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him."
If we're in him, there is no need to fear Jesus' return on the contrary there are great grounds to rejoice, for we shall receive the fullness of the salvation won for us by Jesus & we shall be, in an unhindered way, "together with him". What a hope that is. What a difference it makes to our lives now. So let's "encourage one another with these words."
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