The Second Coming

Let me begin with a question. What do you think should mark out Christians as different from those around them? Just take a moment to answer that to yourself. Last week we saw one area where there should be an absolute difference between believers and unbelievers: the area of sexual behaviour (4.1-8). This week's passage tackles another area where there should be an absolute difference between believers and unbelievers: the area of hope. 4.13:

Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep [ie, Christian believers who've died], or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.

In the Bible, to have hope doesn't mean to be a wishful thinker about the future. (For example, 'I hope it'll be dry for Wimbledon' or 'I hope the Angel of the North won't rust'.) To have Christian hope means to have absolute certainty about our future beyond death, based on God's word. What is true of each of us here this morning is this. Either we'll die, or the Lord Jesus will return in our lifetime. And hope is the Bible word for having absolute certainty that, either way, we will then be with him in heaven. And people who trust in Jesus are - at least, should be - marked out from the rest by having hope. Hope encourages them to face death differently to everyone else. And hope encourages them to live life differently to everyone else. Those are our two headings, and it would be helpful to ask ourselves as we go: Do I have this hope in my own life? First, ENCOURAGEMENT WHEN GRIEVING THE DEATH OF A BELIEVER (4.13-18) Another way of putting it would be: how people with hope face death. 4.13:

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.

By 'those who fall asleep', Paul means Christian believers who've died. We are used to the fact that Christian believers die. They've been doing it, now, for 2000 years. But these Thessalonian Christians were thrown by the death of fellow-believers. They were the first generation of Christians. The first generation to respond to the message of salvation from future judgement. The first generation to await the return of Jesus. And while they waited, some of them died. And they were the first to face that test of faith. 'Where, now, are those believers we knew and loved?' And Paul says, 4.13:

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.

Some suggest that he means Christians will not grieve the death of fellow-Christians, full stop. You can decide for yourself, but it seems more likely that he means: when Christians grieve the death of fellow-Christians, (which they do), they will not do so like people who have no hope. So how do the rest of men, who have no hope, grieve? I remember, when I was seven, Dad calling me into our living room. I knew he'd had the day off work. I vaguely knew something was wrong. And he sat me down and started by saying, 'I'm afraid I've got some bad news.' And I can remember to this day the sickening, threatening feeling that my parents had encountered something they couldn't cope with and couldn't help me with. Grandma was dead. And there was nothing else to say. How do the rest of men, who have no hope, grieve? Some of them grieve as people who believe death is the end of existence. And they comfort themselves with this-worldly platitudes. For example, '82 did you say? Well, she had a good innings.' That's what my junior school teacher said to me the day after Grandma's funeral. And I disliked her deeply for saying it. Even a seven year old can see through a platitude. 'It was a mercy, really,' is another this-worldly comfort. 'His sight was nearly gone and he didn't really know people any more.' As if that somehow makes up for the sheer offence of the fact that he is dead. Some grieve as people who believe death is the end. Others grieve as people for whom death is the unknown. And they comfort themselves with wishful thinking. 'Maybe they have gone to a better place. Maybe they are still there, somewhere. Maybe I will see them again.' This-worldly platitudes. Or wishful maybe's. That's how people grieve without hope. That's how people face death without hope. I was talking to a doctor friend the other day - a senior house officer. He said, 'You know, I've seen a lot of people die this year. I haven't seen one of them die well.' Whereas, writing about the Puritan Christians of the 16th and 17th centuries, one non-Christian critic said this: 'We may not think they live well. But undeniably, they die well.' 4.13:

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.

Christian believers face death not with platitudes nor with wishful thinking, but with solid hope. To us, death is neither the end, nor the unknown, but sleep. Paul doesn't say, 'fallen asleep' to duck the reality. This isn't the 20th century way of avoiding the word 'death' by talk of 'passing away' or 'the deceased', or 'losing the fight' (as if anyone ever won it). Paul looks the reality in the face and says: to the Christian believer, death is nothing more than sleep, before waking to the new day of life in heaven. And sleep isn't something we fear. In fact, we may go to bed with aching body and mind and relish the prospect of waking refreshed to a new day. And Paul says: for the Christian believer, death is like that. We take an aching, maybe ailing, body and mind and life to the grave. And we should relish the prospect of waking resurrected to a new heaven and a new earth in a new body. No aches. No pains. No disabilities. No keys. No police. No lawyers. No doctors. No dentists. (No practising ones, I mean.) No preachers, come to that. If you're not a Christian, you may be listening with mounting scepticism. But can I say: that's what we believe. And it's not a psychological crutch we've invented. Our hope rests on real events in real history. 4.14:

We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so [ie, and therefore] we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him [ie, bring to heaven, with Jesus, those who've trusted in him and then died].

We believe that Jesus died. We believe he was God's own sinless Son. And we believe that when he died on the cross he was taking upon himself the punishment our sins deserve, so that we need never face it in the future judgement. And we believe on eye-witness evidence that Jesus rose again and was welcomed back into heaven by God the Father. That's what happened to Jesus. So how do those past events relate to us in the present? How do those past events guarantee that people who trust in Jesus will themselves be raised to life beyond the grave and welcomed into heaven? Well, at the end of 4.14 are two little words Paul uses often to describe someone who trusts in Jesus. Someone who trusts in Jesus is someone 'in him', that is 'in Jesus'. By way of illustration, think of a pregnant woman. The unborn baby is 'in her'. And where she has gone, the unborn baby has gone, because it's 'in her'. So you may have had one of those conversations with your parents, where they were talking about some event and they said, 'You weren't around then. Or at least well, you were, but you weren't born yet.' In their eyes, you've been through certain events, before you were born, before you were conscious of those events, because you were 'in Mum'. If we trust in Jesus, in God's eyes we are 'in him'. And in God's eyes, what has happened to Jesus has happened to us. So in Gods eyes, when Jesus died on the cross under judgement, I - and all my sin - underwent punishment. And in God's eyes, when Jesus rose from the dead into heaven, I was brought out from under condemnation, into the presence of God, welcomed and accepted. In God's eyes, that first Good Friday, the punishment for my sins was paid, and I was brought safely out the other side of judgement into a position of forgiveness and acceptance. I wasn't conscious of that on Good Friday because I wasn't there. But the Christian message has reached me and God has enabled me to see that what happened there was all to do with me. In other words, God has brought me to faith in what he did for me in the past.

We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. (4.14)

When he died, Jesus took the punishment we ought to have faced of being shut out from God. When he rose, he proved that death is only a doorway for the believer and that the door now stands open thanks to his death. And so we believe that God will bring to heaven with Jesus those who have fallen asleep, with their trust in him. That's the basis for our hope. It's not a psychological crutch we've invented. It rests on real events in real history. And it rests on the promise of the Lord Jesus that he will one day return to wrap up history and take all believers - living or sleeping - to be with him. 4.15:

According to the Lord's own word [and you'll find what Jesus said about this in Matthew 24.30-31, for example] we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep [ie, believers who've died]. For the Lord [Jesus] 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 first. 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 air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.

How that will happen boggles my mind. But a God who is capable of creation, in the first place, is capable of new creation, isn't he?

Therefore, encourage each other with these words. (vv15-18)

When grieving the death of a believing loved one, we need encouraging with these words. When facing the reality of our own death, we need encouraging with these words. Not platitudes. Not wishful thinking. But solid hope which rests on the death and resurrection of Jesus. Secondly, ENOURAGEMENT WHEN LIVING FOR CHRIST IN A NON-CHRISTIAN WORLD (5.1-11) Christian hope makes an absolute difference in facing death. It also makes an absolute difference in living life. 5.1:

Now, brothers, about times and dates, we do not need to write to you. [By which he means the time and date of Jesus' second coming.] For you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.

So we know two things. We know Jesus will come again to wrap up history. And we know that we don't know when. Which calls us to be ready for his return all the time. While others will carry on as if nothing was going to happen. 5.3:

While people are saying, 'Peace and safety', destruction will come upon them suddenly, as labour pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.

The people I know who aren't Christians simply don't believe in the return of Jesus, and future judgement . 'Peace and safety' they say. (Or as one student said to me, 'If I wake up beyond death, which I doubt, I'll worry about how to convince him to let me in, then.') The ultimate reality of Jesus' second coming just isn't on their horizon. But Paul says to us, 5.4:

But you, brothers are not in darkness, so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like the others, who are asleep [that is, 'asleep', oblivious to, the realities of Jesus' second coming], but let us be alert and self-controlled. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. 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 helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath [ie the punishment due to our sins] but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that whether we are awake [ie alive when he returns] or asleep [ie, die before he returns], we may live together with him [that is, beyond this life]. (5.4-8)

Two groups of people, again. Those with hope (the Christian believers). And those with no hope. For the third time since 4.1, Paul tells the Christians not to be like the non-Christians (cf 4.5, 4.13). And he uses the illustration of night and day to describe the difference in the way they live. Take night, first of all. What do people tend to do at night (5.7)? Well, says Paul, they sleep (ie spend time oblivious to reality). Or get drunk. Which I take to be Paul's shorthand for escapism and living for the moment. And he's saying that people without hope in life are like people of the night. Oblivious to the ultimate realities of Jesus' return and judgement; busy in escapism, working to live and living for leisure, filling time and killing time while time slowly kills them. With nothing really ultimate on their horizon at all. Contrast that with the day. What do people tend to do in the day (5.6)? Well, says Paul, It's the time for being alert and self-controlled. In other words, it's the time for purposeful living - living for a goal. And the ultimate goal on the horizon is the return of the Lord Jesus. And 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.' So the World Cup ultimately doesn't matter. Seeing the films we're told we ought to see, reading the books we're told we ought to read, ultimately doesn't matter. What degree result we got ultimately doesn't matter. Whether we've even got a degree, or a single GCSE, ultimately doesn't matter. Whether we went through this life single or married, whether we ever had sex, whether we ever had children or grandchildren, are not ultimate issues. Where we lived, how far up the ladder we got and how much we earned on the way are not ultimate issues. Whether we were comfortable or happy or healthy are not ultimate issues. The only issue that's really ultimate is there in 5.8-10. Salvation. Whether we're still under judgement in this life and therefore with no hope when we meet the Lord Jesus as Judge. Or whether we've received forgiveness through his death and are walking by faith with him in this life and due to be with him in the next. Salvation is the only issue that's really ultimate. Everything else is detail. We know the Lord Jesus will come again to wrap up history. And we know that we don't know when. So then, let us not be like the others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled. (5.6) If he was to come soon, what in your life would you want to have sorted out so that you could meet him unashamed, unembarrassed? What compromise? What relationship? What witness to others? What would you wish you'd said or done? What should mark out Christians as different from those around them? Hope. Hope which makes an absolute difference to facing death. And hope which makes an absolute difference to living life. The world around us has no hope. And it shouts very loudly that we should have none either, but rather just live for now.

Therefore (4.18) encourage one another with these words.

Therefore (5.11) encourage one another and build one another up, just as in fact you are doing.

And let's keep trying to talk about this hope to our unbelieving friends. Because it's not just that they have no better hope. They have no hope at all.

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