1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Well, I can tell you one thing. The Second Coming of Jesus Christ was not in the forefront of my mind this past week. My van broke down (again). My wife had two of her teeth extracted. Then there was the election. Then the aftermath of the election. But I had to preach about Christ’s Second Coming on Sunday, so it needed to be on my mind. But it wasn’t!
Was it on yours?
Probably not. Or maybe it was in the latter part of the week depending on who you voted for. But even so, wouldn’t you say that this is a chaotic period of life? It is very hard to concentrate and keep the main things the plain things when experiencing chaos. Today marks the Second Sunday of End Time. You say, “Who cares about that?” Well, to be honest, not a whole lot of people, but the Thessalonians in Paul’s day did. And my prayer is that after today, you will too.
1 Thessalonians was one of Paul’s earliest epistles. He wrote this letter in large part to answer the questions of the Thessalonian believers. One of their primary concerns was the Second Coming of Christ. When would it be? And what happens to those believers who end up dying before he comes?
Paul answers the second of those two questions in chapter four. He says we don’t need to worry that our believing loved ones will miss out on Jesus’ return, and therefore miss out on heaven. No. He says,
the order of things will be that the dead in Christ will rise first, and then those of us who are still alive will be caught up in the clouds together with them, to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:17).
The other question was “When would this happen?” And to that Paul answers, “Concerning the times and dates, brothers, there is no need to write you, for you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (vv. 1,2).
Thieves don’t announce beforehand when they are going to rob a house. Paul says, “In the same way, neither will Jesus announce beforehand the time and date on which he will come.” Rather, it will be sudden! Like a thief in the night. Or like labor pains on a pregnant woman. The point of the comparison is not so much the pain of childbirth, but rather the suddenness and inevitability of such pains.
So, you foolishly say to your wife during labor, “Oh, just relax. If you relax enough, it won’t hurt.” No, don’t say that. It is going to hurt. The pain is inevitable! In the same way, says Paul, Christ will come in judgment to all those who foolishly thought he would never come. That it was all going to be “peace and safety” from here on out because we finally got rid of Christ in our culture. Paul says to the believing Thessalonians, “Don’t give up on your hope that Jesus is coming to judge the wicked of this world.” Noah never gave up hope. Noah believed God when he said he would send a global flood. And even though all the people mocked him and said, “Peace and safety! Peace and security!”, Noah was proved right in the end.
So, Jesus is coming. But we don’t know when.
Now, unlike the Old Testament and Gospel lessons for today, this Epistle text is practical in nature. The other two lessons are more of a description of the Last Judgment. Daniel talks about seeing God on his throne in heaven. He describes God’s holiness as symbolized by the color white and a blazing fire. He describes the scene of the Judgment as a court room at which God is the presiding judge, and the books containing all the damning evidence against the accused are open.
In the Gospel lesson, Jesus describes the Last Judgment as a separation. There will be a separation of the believers from the unbelievers as if a shepherd were separating the sheep from the goats. Jesus describes a public sentencing at which there is ample evidence which proves that the Judge’s verdict is just.
So, one thing we don’t often think about when it comes to Judgment Day is that it will be public in nature. In other words, it won’t be done in secret so as to conjure up suspicions of illegitimacy. No, it will be done in the sight of all, so that all may see the evidence and arrive at the conclusion that God is just.
Let that be an encouragement to you as struggle with the apparent triumph of evil in this world. In fact, I just so happened to be reading Psalm 73 this week. You should read it this afternoon when you go home. There the psalmist Asaph laments to God that it seems that the wicked are the ones who prosper in this world. And his question is why? Why does God allow that? Listen to what he says:
“I even envied the arrogant when I observed the peace of the wicked. For there are no struggles at their death. Their bodies are sturdy. They do not have the trouble common to people. They are not plagued along with the rest of mankind. Therefore pride is their necklace. They wear violence like clothing … The schemes of their hearts step over boundaries. They mock. They speak maliciously. From a high perch they threaten oppression. They set their mouths against the heavens. Their tongues strut around the earth … They say, “how can God know? Does the Most High have knowledge?” See, this is what the wicked are like—secure forever, they increase in strength” (Psalm 73:3-12).
Then Asaph wonders, “Maybe I’ve kept my hands clean in vain. Maybe I’ve kept my heart pure for nothing?” (v. 13). It doesn’t make sense to him.
Until he enters the sanctuary of God. Then he realizes that no matter what happens on earth God is still God. He is still seated on his throne. That the one enthroned in heaven laughs at the kings of the earth who rise up against him (Psalm 8). You see, there will be no mistakes on Judgment Day. All wrongs will receive their due justice. And so, Asaph concludes, “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the rock of my heart and my portion forever” (v. 26).
Now, this might be a good time to bring out one of my favorite axioms, and that is: You are going to meet Jesus. It is not a matter of if, but when. You, and all people, are going to meet Jesus. And you will either meet him as your Savior or as your Judge.
Remember when I said this text is practical in nature. What Paul does here is he instructs the Thessalonian believers how to live their lives in light of Jesus’ Second Coming. As the world goes to pot around them, as the majority of people cry out, “Peace and safety. Nothing is going to happen. God doesn’t see”, Paul says, “You, Christian, remain alert and sober” (v. 6).
Remaining “sober” means to be clear headed and conscientious of the times. Drunk people don’t think straight. They lack good judgment. They are unable to properly assess whether what they are doing is foolish or wise. Until it’s too late, and there is much regret.
Being sober then as a Christian is to remain alert to the fact that Jesus could come any day. And that the reason he is coming is that he is going to end all of this. None of it is permanent. The only thing that lasts into eternity are God’s promises and those who trust in his promises. “Heaven and earth may pass away”, Jesus said, “but my words will never pass away” (Matthew 24:35). The believer knows and believes that Christ is not coming to get him or her, but that he is coming to get him or her. What does that mean? That Christ is coming to take the believer to be with him forever in heaven! Not to punish the believer.
Our unbelieving friends ask, “How can you know that?” We answer, “Because the Bible tells me so.” Jesus was delivered over to death for our sins and rose to life for our justification (Romans 4:25). That is, we are declared “not guilty” on account of Jesus’ payment for our sins.
Well, “not guilty” sounds like a pretty good verdict. Which is why Jesus reminded his disciples in Luke 21:28, “But when these things begin to happen, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is near.” As believers we don’t need to be afraid of the Judgment.
Paul says it this way to the Thessalonians, “You see, God did not appoint us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us, so that whether we are awake [alive] or asleep [physically dead], we may live together with him” (vv. 9, 10). And then he says, “Therefore, encourage one another and build each other up, just as you are also doing” (v. 11).
That is what we want to be doing as a congregation. We want to be encouraging one another and strengthening—Paul says, “building”—each other up during these latter times. Every one of us here today is important to each other, and we need to remain united and together. We need to be involved enough in each other’s lives so that when one of us starts to fall asleep and become groggy, another can shake us to our senses so that we remain alert.
That’s a good thing! You wouldn’t want to miss out on the Second Coming of Jesus, would you? Like the Parable of the Ten Virgins, you wouldn’t want to miss out on the arrival of the bridegroom. So, “let us be sober”, Paul says, “putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet” (v. 8).
Faith. Hope. Love. Those are our defenses against the attacks of Satan. Sometimes he attacks us in our sinful flesh. We get sleepy when it comes to hearing the Word of God. Sometimes he attacks us in the world. We become scared of standing out in a crowd, and so we capitulate in our biblical convictions. Or we jettison them altogether.
But no. We cannot allow that. For we know that our Lord is coming. This is not an 80% certainty. This is not something we hope to be true because the pollsters are telling us that it “seems” that this will happen. Pollsters aren’t infallible. Humans aren’t infallible. God’s word is.
And this is what he says to you. “But you, brothers, are not in the dark so that this day takes you by surprise like a thief, for you are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness” (vv. 4,5).
So, take courage. And take heart. Jesus is coming! He’s coming as your Savior! Now, Lord, keep us mindful of your coming so that we remain faithful to you. Amen.