SCRIPTURE ANNOUNCEMENT & INTRODUCTION
Again the text is 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18…
This morning we looked at the comfort that believers can find in the promise of the Lord’s return, and our being raised up with Christ on that day, together in solidarity with all of God’s people. We talked about the subjective impact of the Lord’s return. Tonight we’re looking more at the objective fact of the Lord’s coming, and some of the details that are presented here, and how that ought to shape the Christian life.
Now, it is customary at this point in some Reformed pulpits to cast a disparaging glance at some of the popular presentations of eschatology within evangelical circles. And it’s true that there is a lot of nonsense out there. But in our determination to avoid the errors, we should be careful not to ignore the role of eschatology in the life of the believer. Listen to this wise counsel from Gerhardus Vos, written in 1930, but sounding very much applicable to the present day:
“We cannot help but recoil from much distorted thought and morbid emotion, which makes present-day eschatologizing propaganda unlovable. But let us be sure not to overlook even the smallest grain of golden piety that may linger in it.”
Vos is right. Sometimes people get way too preoccupied with eschatological speculation, but the impulse in the believer to want to catch a glimpse of the coming day is actually a healthy impulse. We have within us the Holy Spirit, and Paul says in Ephesians chapter 1 that the Holy Spirit is the pledge or the down payment of our inheritance, the guarantee of our sharing in the new heavens and the new earth, so it makes sense that we have a longing to know more about that glorious future.
The NT actually has relatively little to say about the details of the parousia, the coming of the Lord, but this is one of the passages that does pull the curtain back a bit.
Let us hear God’s Word from 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18. We made most of our text comments this morning, so we’ll add just one more this evening.
SCRIPTURE READING & TEXT COMMENTS
- READ vv.13-17
- Probably everyone here has heard of the fictional books in the “Left Behind” series. I have not read any of the Left Behind books, but my understanding is that they are chiefly concerned with what is known as “the rapture.” Here in verse 17 we have the key NT text concerning the rapture. Paul says believers will be caught up, and our word “rapture” comes from the Latin term that was used to translate the Greek for “caught up.” It is a strong term, sometimes in the NT referring to someone that is taken away by force, or to be caught up to a heavenly place (such as Paul’s description of being caught up to the third heaven in 2 Corinthians 12).
I remember as a teenager watching the film “A Thief in the Night,” which was an evangelistic film portraying a pre-tribulation rapture of Christians, and much of the focus was on the fate of the unbelievers who were left behind. But notice here in the text that the focus is not on those who are left behind or excluded. The focus is on those caught up and included, to be reunited with fellow Christians, and to enjoy the presence of Christ forever.
We should also note that all Bible-believing Christians believe in the rapture, but what is unique to some of the popular presentations of the rapture is the idea that it will be secret and invisible; that believers will disappear and everyone left behind will not know where they have gone. That idea of a secret or invisible rapture is difficult to reconcile with the actual statements of this passage, which are very public, loud, and visible, with a cry of command, an archangel’s voice, and a trumpet blast.
- READ v.18
John Stott, The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians
Charles Wanamaker, Commentary on 1 and 2 Thessalonians
F.F. Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians
Leon Morris, 1 and 2 Thessalonians
Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians
N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: Galatians & Thessalonians
PRAYER OF ILLUMINATION
Father, we humble ourselves before your holy Word, asking that you would teach us, reprove us, correct us, and train us in righteousness that we might be equipped for every good work, to the praise and glory of your beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.
Some of you have probably been to a family reunion or a class reunion this summer. A few weeks ago I went to my 20th high school reunion, and it was not surprising that the women who were the social planners in high school were the same ones who planned and organized the event. They came up with the location, and plans for the food, and the scavenger hunt through my old high school building, and the slideshow, and so on. You could have predicted that those ladies would be intimately involved in the reunion, because 20 years ago they were always at the heart of the social activities of our class.
The same dynamic is at work in families. Yesterday we had our annual Scott family reunion down near Chehalis, and my cousin Cheryl is the driving force behind this event. She makes sure it happens. She is the focal point for information and ideas on the location, and sending out the invitations. I would bet that in every family there tends to be one person in the family who plans and organizes such events. They are the connecting point. They make it happen, and everything related to the activity runs through them.
As we saw this morning, the apostle Paul tells us in this passage of a coming family reunion, the reunion of all those who belong to Jesus, both those who have died prior to the coming of the Lord, and those who will be alive on that day. We share an unbreakable solidarity with our fellow Christians, and at the heart of it, the connecting point of this family reunion – is the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the bond that we share.
Paul’s basic approach in this passage, in terms of providing comfort in the face of death, is to direct our attention to the Lord Jesus Christ, who died and rose again. It is “in him,” “through him,” and “with him” that all of the glorious realities presented here take place.
So this evening I want to do something very simple, and that is to urge you and remind you as you head into the coming week to keep your eyes on Jesus, the risen and coming King.
That’s our main point – Keep your eyes on Jesus, the risen and coming King.
Under that main heading, we’ll look at three things.
- The King’s glory
- The King’s authority
- The King’s presence
So first—the King’s glory.
As we mentioned this morning, verse 15 has the second occurrence in the NT of the word “coming” (the first was back in chapter 2, verse 19), a word that became in all Christian literature the characteristic way of referring to the Lord’s return. The Greek word is “parousia” and the basic meaning is “presence” or “arrival.” It was a term that could be used in everyday life; in fact Paul does use it several times in the context of his own visiting of fellow workers in the Gospel, or their coming to him, such as 2 Corinthians 7.6, where he speaks of the coming of Titus.
But it was especially a term used for the arrival of a great person, such as a king or emperor. It was the usual word for a royal visit, which was often an event of great celebrations, rich banquets, speeches in praise of the visiting leader, a visit to the local temple, generous donations, games, sacrifices, the dedication of statues, arches and other buildings constructed, and new coins minted to commemorate the event.
This is how Josephus describes the citizens of Rome going out to meet Vespasian, the new emperor, in AD 66:
“Amidst such feelings of universal goodwill, those of higher rank, impatient of awaiting him, hastened to a great distance from Rome to be the first to greet him. Nor, indeed, could any of the rest endure the delay of meeting, but all poured forth in such crowds – for to all it seems simpler and easier to go than to remain – that the very city then for the first time experienced with satisfaction the paucity of inhabitants; for those who went outnumbered those who remained. But when he was reported to be approaching and those who had gone ahead were telling of the affability of his reception of each party, the whole remaining population, with wives and children, were by now waiting at the road-sides to receive him; and each group as he passed, in their delight at the spectacle and moved by…his appearance, gave vent to all manner of cries, hailing him as “benefactor,” “savior,” and “only worthy emperor of Rome.” The whole city, moreover, was filled, like a temple, with garlands and incense.”
Paul is presenting Jesus in this kind of royal light. Jesus is the King of kings, the Emperor of emperors. He is the true Savior, the true benefactor. Every knee must bow and every tongue must confess that he is the rightful Lord and king of all the world. When the Lord returns, it will be glorious, and public, and visible – everyone will see his full glory on display.
And what specifically does Paul highlight about this king? When the king arrives, what are the striking features of his arrival? This brings us to our second point: the King’s authority.
The emphasis seems to be on the authority of the King. We could probably use other words to sum up the feel and tone here of the King’s arrival – power, glory, authority, splendor – all of those words would fit. The reason I chose “authority” is because the particular emphasis seems to be on his authoritative voice. He speaks, and the dead are raised!
Notice the details that are mentioned. The “loud command” spoken of here is a word used in a variety of contexts. Sometimes was used for the cry made by the ship’s master to his rowers, or by a military officer to his soldiers, or by a hunter to his hounds. When used in a military context it was often a battle cry. Here it is the Lord’s own command calling the believing dead to resurrection life. He simply speaks, and the dead are raised! He has the power to stand in front of Lazarus’ tomb as we read in John 11, and simply speak, “Lazarus, come out!” and the dead man walks out of the tomb. On the day of his coming, he will issue an authoritative, divine command to all the dead in Christ, and they will be raised to life.
Also we see the mention of the “voice of the archangel”, in Jewish tradition there were nine archangels, and they were the principal angels, the highest in rank. Here the archangel, whose name is not given, adds his own voice to the Lord’s. The archangels exist under the King’s authority. They do his bidding. They delight in his will, and they add their jubilant voice to this cry of command.
Then we have the “trumpet call of God.” In the first century, the trumpet was not primarily thought of as a musical instrument, but as a military instrument. In the Roman army nothing happened with sounding the trumpet. In funeral processions the trumpets were sounded, in military exercises, in other cultic, ceremonial events. In the OT, trumpets are mentioned in connection with times of festivity and triumph. In the prophets the trumpet of God would announce the coming of the day of the Lord and the time when God would gather his exiled people and restore them to the Promised Land.
Paul is saying that on the last day, at the command of Jesus the trumpets will sound, and it will signal the ultimate return from exile, the ultimate Exodus, the ultimate act of liberation and restoration, when God’s people are finally and fully liberated from sin and death.
The King speaks, and the dead are raised.
So we have seen the King’s glory, and the King’s authority. This brings us to our final point – the King’s presence.
This is really the thing I want us to take with us into the coming week. It is this: we can take great comfort and great encouragement from this passage, not only in the face of death, but in everyday life, hour by hour, minute by minute. The kingdom of God that will come in fullness on that day has already been inaugurated. The Lord Jesus already reigns; he already sits at the Father’s right hand with all authority and all power.
The only difference is that on that final day, what is true of Jesus the King will be visible to our eyes, whereas right now it is seen only with eyes of faith. But the tremendous glory and splendor and the authoritative voice of the King – all those elements we see Paul grasping to describe here – those things are true of the King, even now! We can take great comfort in knowing that about our King, as we face the trials and the choices and the circumstances of our daily lives.
This takes us back to an interesting point that I mentioned in one of our previous sermons on Thessalonians, a point that Pastor Rayburn drew my attention to is this phrase “before our Lord” (or before our God…), or as the NIV has it, “in the presence of the Lord.” You find this phrase 4X in Thessalonians, 2X in the context of prayer (1.2; 3.9), 2X in the context of the 2nd coming (2.19; 3.13).
In other words, that we are before the Lord, in the very presence of God, when we turn in prayer to our great King – the same exact language is used to describe prayer that is used to describe his glorious coming! Even now, we have access to our great King. We can draw near to him, we can meet him, and we can experience his presence. We can live every day in light of the Lord’s glorious coming.
I recently heard a sermon by John Stott, in which he shared the following story about the early 20th century explorer, Sir Earnest Shackleton.
Shackleton’s most famous expedition was planned to be an attempt to cross Antarctica from the Weddell Sea south of the Atlantic, to the Ross Sea south of the Pacific, by way of the South Pole. It set out from London in August of 1914, and reached the Weddell Sea in January 1915, but as time went on the ice pack closed in on his ship The Endurance, and in November 1915 the ship was crushed by the ice and sank. Shackleton and his crew of 27 camped on the drifting icebergs for 5 months!
But the ice was melting, and they had to take to three lifeboats. A week later they landed on an uninhabited island. Not long after that, Shackleton decided to go for help. He took five other men with him, and they set off in a lifeboat to sail 800 miles to the island of South Georgia. The remaining 22 men were left back on the island under the command of Frank Wild, Shackleton’s second in command.
The 22 men waited for months in some of the most extreme conditions imaginable – month after month they waited, uncertain whether anybody would come for them. They were rescued four months later – in August of 1916, two years after they had embarked on their initial journey. They were hungry, some had frostbite, but they were alive.
Frank Wild had kept hope alive in their hearts – how did he keep their morale up? Every morning he packed up his own things in cheerful anticipation of the promised rescue and return of Shackleton. He would say to them, “Roll up your sleeping bags boys, the boss may come today.”
That’s what Paul would have us to say to one another. He says in verse 18 – “Therefore encourage one another with these words.” You and I say can say to each other – “Brothers and sisters, pack up your things, the boss may come today!” We can encourage one another in the knowledge that the King reigns even now, and that we are to live as faithful and loyal subjects. We want to bring him great delight and joy when he comes on that day.
Live in the presence of Christ and in expectation of him – the Lord may come today! It will be glorious, He will speak with divine authority, raising us to resurrection life, and we will be with him always! Amen.