The Second Coming

This morning we come to the second in our series of studies in Paul's second letter to Thessalonians. We are going to look at chapter 1 verses 5-12. These verses are so relevant for today. They deal with four vital subjects. And this morning I want us to think of them under the overall heading of Four things that are hard to believe. They were undoubtedly hard to believe when Paul was writing about them. They are hard to believe today. What are they? First, is the fact that CHRISTIANS ARE CALLED TO SUFFER. Look at verse 5:

All this is evidence that God's judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering.

Many people say: "I can't believe in God because he allows suffering. If there were a God, he wouldn't allow all those refugees in Kosovo, or Jill Dando to be murdered, or bombs in London, or innocent civilians to be killed in Serbia." There are no easy answers. But Paul knew about suffering personally. Even at the time of writing this letter from Corinth, Acts 18.12 says:

the Jews made a united attack on Paul.

Paul says that for these Thessalonians suffering is on behalf of the kingdom of God; verse 5, "the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering." This is so important. The bible teaches that Christians are "called" to suffer. The Thessalonians, Paul had written earlier, were "destined" for trials (1 Thess 3.3). You say, "I find that hard to believe." Well, let me remind you of Paul's fundamental teaching for new Christians. Paul and Barnabas at the end of their first missionary journey, we are told in Acts 14.22, went around the new churches,

strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. "We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God," they said.

I learnt that lesson years ago when I was working with the CMS in the Sudan. It was at the beginning of the troubles that have tragically been going on ever since - in the 1960's. The Christians in the South were being murdered; schools and hospitals were shut; and there was enforced Islamicization. Christians were being called to suffer. But they knew also that Christ was bigger than their sufferings. The small cathedral at Juba, on one occasion, was being dedicated during a lull in the fighting. As the clergy procession entered, spontaneously the great congregation began to sing the chorus,

"Kept by the power of God, Kept by the power God, Come what may, day by day, Kept by the power of God."

And then they sang,

"Yesterday to day for ever, Jesus is the same; all may change but Jesus never, Glory to his name."

They knew that "we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God." And if that is one of the first lessons you learn as a Christian, you don't find suffering easy, but you are not "unsettled" spiritually when it comes along. But you say, "why must there be suffering for the kingdom of God?" Well, on the one hand there is persecution. Anyone here this morning being "persecuted"? That is to say, because you are a Christian, because you witness to Christ and seek to honour him and tell others about him and keep his standards, you are being attacked in one way or another. It may not be violent but it can still be very nasty. Then there are "trials" - these may not be directly due to anti-Christian pressure. But it is pressure that seems to come on God's people, even more than on others. Do you know about that? There can be one thing after another. And God allows these things "for our good" - that is what Hebrews 12.10 says. You say, "how on earth can suffering be for our good?" Well, sometimes suffering comes because you have done wrong and God is trying to teach you lessons. Often, however, it is for no fault of your own but God makes you more like Christ through the things you suffer. And it leads you to rely more on him. I heard a man who had been very ill say that his illness had made him a more understanding and sympathetic person. It seems to be true that suffering either makes people bitter, or better. The bible teaches that God wants suffering to make us better - or more like Christ. In verse 5 here Paul suggests that suffering somehow is involved in you being "counted worthy of the kingdom of God." It is as though God is making you more fit for his kingdom now - on this earth. And you should praise him for that. But it is hard for some to believe that Christians are called to suffer. Let's now move on to the second, thing that is hard to believe - THE FACT THAT CHRIST WILL COME AGAIN. Look at verse 7b. Paul says:

This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels;

and verse 10:

on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marvelled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.

Do you find it hard to believe in the "second coming" of Jesus? We say Sunday by Sunday in the creed: "He will come again [in glory] to judge the living and the dead." Paul was encouraging these Christians in their sufferings with the great hope of Christ's return. Many people today have "no hope". An atheist believed that death was the end. When his wife died recently he tried to live as though she had not existed. People are frightened of death. They were in Paul's day. And they are today. So when that BA flight from San Francisco gave out the false alarm recently that it was crashing many were frightened and some became ill. But Paul knew the future is secure with Christ. Christ is going to return. This will be the start of a new cosmic order. This is the great Christian hope. There will be "a new heaven and a new earth". There will be a reconstructed universe. The bible says,

the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God (Rom 8.21).

Jesus himself said:

If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am (John 14.3).

He spoke of a personal return. Whatever else it may or may not be, there will be a relationship established between Christ and all true believers; and salvation will be completed. Do you find that hard to believe? Some find it hard because it is unimaginable. But the unimaginable is not the unbelievable. It was unimaginable in the Second World war to have "smart" bombs. Tragically these are being dropped every day in the Balkans 50 years later. Some find it hard to believe because the doctrine has been degraded by cranks and fanatics who predict when and how Christ will return. But Jesus says emphatically:

No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father (Mark 13.32).

Some find it hard to believe because people fail to realise that Paul is using imagery or picture language. "Blazing fire," verse 7, is a symbol in the bible both for God's presence and his judgment. It doesn't have to refer to a nuclear holocaust! Some find it hard to believe because they are so caught up in this life. Jesus warned of this. Matt 24.37-39:

As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. {38} For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; {39} and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.

Christ comes for everyone, in one sense, on the day of their death. But you can be so caught up with this life that you are not prepared for death or Christ's return, whichever is sooner. Are you prepared and ready? Jesus says, Matt 24.44:

you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.

And you are ready when you accept Christ as Saviour and Lord, when you admit you have been living life your way and not his, when you admit you've put yourself in the place of God and so you've been going in the wrong direction. Christ, on the Cross, died to bear your guilt and punishment in your place. So you repent; turn around and start to live God's way in the power of the Holy Spirit; and you receive his Holy Spirit to live a new life. Who needs to do that this morning? For many the second coming of Christ is hard to believe. But it was the great hope of the early Christians. It is written about as much as anything in the New Testament. There are over 300 references to it. On average that is one for every 13 verses. The third thing that is hard to believe is the REALITY OF JUDGMENT. Look at verses 6, 7a, 8 and 9:

God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you {7} and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well ... {8} He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. {9} They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power.

Many people find the reality of judgment, of the possibility of hell as well as heaven, so hard to believe. It is Jesus, though, who we read in the bible taught most about hell. We ignore him, literally, to our peril. Why does the modern world find hell so difficult to believe in? For one thing, since the 18th century there has been a belief in the perfectibility of human nature, through education or evolution. This has lead to reduced ideas about God and an ignoring of personal morality. Hell is the logical outcome of God's utter holiness and the demonic nature of human sinfulness. As people lose a sense both of God's holiness and of human sinfulness, obviously hell seems unnecessary and vicious. But the truth of human sinfulness seems to becoming more evident with every switch on of the TV! And God's holiness is in the bible from cover to cover. Then people find hell hard to believe in because again they fail to realise the bible is using imagery. It speaks of fire and darkness, weeping and grinding of teeth, destruction and torment. Fire and darkness are clearly symbolic, as they cannot exist together. But the symbolism is clear. It speaks of total misery and distress - something beyond our imagining. And, thirdly, people find it hard because they fail to realise that God is just. But that is what Paul teaches in verse 6 here. In this period before Christ's return we are told, in Acts 14.16, that God has "let all nations go their own way." That is why there have been appalling things done throughout history and why appalling things are happening in the world today. Perhaps you complain - why doesn't God interfere? He does and he has. He has acted to reveal himself in nature but more significantly through his prophets and supremely in Jesus Christ. And he gives you Christian friends or Christian relatives, or he gives you experiences that force you to think about himself and his son, Jesus Christ. But along with all that he gives you freedom. So it's like a motorway in the fog. I've been on the motorway when it has been thick fog and there have been road works and a reduction of lanes. There have been warning signs both about speed and also about barriers ahead. Yet people have been in those outside lanes doing over 80 mph and in thick fog. It is like that with God. He puts up warning signs. He tells us about the future and about hell, but also about his love and about heaven. But if you go driving past his warnings, it is only your fault when you have a crash. You see, God has a hatred of all the violence and cruelty and evil in the world today. He is not going to sit back and say, "who cares?" Paul says here that the mystery of suffering, at least in part, will be resolved in the future. Justice will be done "to those who trouble you" (verse 6) and "relief to you who are troubled". What sort of a God would it be who ignored the rape of women in Kosovo and, yes, of terrorism in London and, yes, of your sin and mine? But God does not want to be a punishing God. Of course not. That is what the gospel is all about. That is what John's Gospel 3.16 says:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

He does not want anyone to perish. But you have freedom, verse 8 to "know God" in a personal way, and to "obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus." If you believe in Christ you will not perish. But if you refuse to say to God in this life, "your will be done", there will come a day when Christ, the judge, will simply ratify your decision and say, "your will be done". Verse 9 says you will be "shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power." That is described as "everlasting destruction". God is a God of love; the cross proves that. God also respects human freedom; hell proves that. Some find the reality of judgment hard to believe, but it is true. The final thing that is hard to believe is THE NEED FOR PRAYER. Look at verses 11-12:

With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may count you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may fulfil every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith. {12} We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

There is a mystery. God is sovereign. These Thessalonians know that it is only by God's grace that their eyes have been opened to the love of God in Christ. It is all of God. Their confidence of heaven is not because of what they have done, but because of what Christ has done for them. But God's sovereignty is not a denial of human responsibility to pray and act. I don't understand it. But again Jesus clearly taught that prayer is needed and changes things. Do you believe that? The start of salvation is through prayer - the prayer of repentance. Paul wanted his friends at Thessalonica not just to believe but to act. He want all their "good purposes" and "every act prompted by [their] faith" (verse 11) to be fulfilled. He didn't want them to sit down doing nothing. He wanted them to be activists. But he knew that the only way to achieve those goals was by prayer. Yes, they must act. But prayer was the way to release God's power and the way that, as he says in verse 12,

"the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you."

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