Sermon for Sunday, March 12th, 2023 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)
Old Testament reading:
[Dan 12:1-4 ESV] 1 “At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. 2 And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. 3 And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. 4 But you, Daniel, shut up the words and seal the book, until the time of the end. Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase.”
New Testament reading:
[1Th 4:13-18 ESV] 13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
[Luk 21:25-29 ESV] 25 “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, 26 people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” 29 And he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees.
I. The Context
Last Sunday our morning sermon from 1st Thessalonians 4 was on the subject of encouragement. This morning that subject continues as Paul brings up our ultimate or greatest encouragement in the Gospel and the return of Jesus Christ on the day of the Lord.
The apparent situation at Thessalonica is that Paul and his colleagues had spent only a short time before persecution caused them to flee. And while they did indeed preach to the people and a church of believers sprung up there, the people had gaps in their knowledge of the faith. In particular, they had one major question: what of those Christians who have died? What is their fate?
In some ways this is an elementary question. We know that the Lord promises eternal life to all who are united to Him in faith. And we look forward to eternity in heaven with the Lord. This is not to say that we do not fear death, for indeed the unknown is frightening to us. But while death troubles us we have hope in the Lord in the resurrection and life everlasting.
But there is a related hope that is noted in our passage today and was certainly on the minds of the church of the Thessalonians. That is, they hoped for the return of Jesus Christ.
The term used for return is “parousia.” This word was sometimes use to describe the coming of a king to a city. When the king would come there would be a great procession. It would be an important event that no one would want to miss out on. So hopeful to see this return of Christ were the Thessalonians that they apparently were thinking: will those who have died not get to see the return of the Lord? Would they miss out on the honor of going out to meet the messiah?
We of course hope also for the return of Christ, what is called his “Second Coming.” In the Nicene Creed we confess with Christians all lands that Jesus “shall come again, with glory, to judge both the living and the dead.”
These hopes (His return, and eternal life) are related, for it is the Christ’s return that brings about the resurrection and the life of the world to come.
The Thessalonians so looked forward to Christ’s return that they worried about those who had passed away. Would THEY not participate in seeing the return of the Lord?
Indeed they would. And so Paul encourages in our text.
15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
That then is our context. The Thessalonians are concerned about those who have died in the Lord, and Paul encourages them that all who believe will TOGETHER be ALWAYS WITH THE LORD.
What a great encouragement indeed. And what a blessed day that will be.
II. The Return of the Lord
This passage is an important one in Christian eschatology. That word “eschatology” comes from the Greek “eschaton” meaning “the end” and “logos” or “ology” meaning “study.” So “eschatology” is the study of the end times.
And I’ve generally refrained from focusing on the end times in my sermons. In some places you’ll see banners outside saying “Prophecy Conference Tonight” and chart’s inside the building detailing with great precision their view of the end of the world.
This tendency is most common among those Christians who hold an end times view called Dispensationalism. To their credit, they are Bible-believing Christians and seek (most of the time) to interpret the Word of God in a very literal fashion.
However, in my view — and this is the view of historic Presbyterianism and historic Christianity — such Dispensationalism errs on many points. I certainly won’t mention all of these points in today’s sermon. However, we should at least note that the Bible tells us that no one knows the day or the hour of Christ’s return, and so the complicated charts often lack that discernment, especially when they suggest a particular day that the end shall come.
I believe we should have much humility in questions of eschatology, especially considering that good honest Christians differ on these matters. Yet, it would be wrong to say there are not particular truths that are clear about the Lord’s coming.
Let’s look at a few of those from the text.
A. The Not-So-Secret Rapture
First, the not-so-secret rapture.
I sometimes say that we Presbyterians don’t believe in the rapture. Well, that isn’t exactly true. We just don’t believe in it as the dispensationalists do.
The Bible nowhere uses the term “rapture.” But our passage is the go-to passage for the subject. Particularly verse 17: “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”
The dispensationalist view is something like this: it is the idea that Christians will be secretly whisked away from the troubles of the world, and the world will continue on for sometime and be a pretty terrible place.
We don’t believe in that view of the rapture.
Most importantly, the passage emphasizes the power display and the great noise of the event.
“The Lord himself will descend from heaven with
a cry of command
with the voice of an archangel
and with the sound of the trumpet of God”
There are different views of what these mean. Some think of these as three separate things, others think of them as a single event. Whatever it is, it is loud. A cry of command is not quiet. A voice of an archangel is not quiet. The sound of the trumpet of God is not quiet. The rapture is not in secret, but out in the open for all to see and for all to hear.
The return of Christ will be unmistakeable.
Every eye shall see it.
Every ear shall hear it.
Every person shall know it.
No one shall be in any doubt.
It is anything but secret.
B. The Events Close in Time
Another difference among Christians is the timing and spacing of these events at the end of the world.
My view, and I believe this to be the historic view, is pretty simple. It hardly needs a chart.
My view is that it all happens pretty quickly.
The Lord returns.
ALL the dead rise.
Then is the judgement.
But those who are in the Jesus Christ will have no condemnation, Christians who are alive will join with the dead in Christ to live forever with the Lord.
And when the Scriptures call this “the Day of the Lord” I’m apt to think it all occurs in one day, not over 7 years or 1000 years of any other scheme.
So the “rapture” is at the very end. It is the “going to heaven” of all Christians, living and dead.
C. An Imminent Return
Also, from our passage we should look at the imminent return.
The early Christians looked for Christ’s return.
Some have questions the Christian faith because Christ has not returned.
But they misunderstand the doctrine of the Bible.
The coming of Christ, as the Thessalonians apparently knew, was IMMINENT.
This did not mean that his return was to be in their lifetime, but it means the he indeed is coming.
Christ’s return is imminent. He is coming. He is preparing.
I know of a minister from N. Ireland who took a call to a church in Michigan. And the church was able to say “We’ve hired a minister, he is coming.” Well, it usually would take some time to pack up and finish whatever is needed to be finished back home. But then also, the pandemic hit, and it delayed the minister for a couple years. But he was still coming. The plan was made and he was working on making it come to fruition. So it is with Christ’s return. He is coming. His coming was imminent from New Testament times and it is imminent now. And we’ll see in next week’s text, that no one know what he’ll actually be here. You order a pizza, and it is coming. But you don’t know the traffic conditions the delivery driver is facing. So Christ is coming, and you don’t know what things he is accomplishing first. 2 Peter 3:9 – The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
III. The Encouragement of Christ’s Return
But ultimately our passage is about the encouragement of Christ’s Return. Paul does not say “dispute with one another regarding the details of Christ’s returns” but he says “encourage one another with these words.”
So we must seek to understand “these words.”
What do they mean?
There are a few things that require some explanation.
First, Paul speaks about “those who are asleep.” He again calls them “those who have fallen asleep.” But the metaphor is clear when he speaks of them as “the dead in Christ.” He says they have “fallen asleep” because in reality they are not done! There is life ahead for them.
Then, almost hidden in our text, overshadowed by all of the explanation of Christ’s return, is the Gospel itself.
When Paul says “encourage one another with these words” no doubt he does not leave out the Gospel.
The Gospel is in verse 14: “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”
There is a hope in return of Christ, but it is predicated on, it is based on the Gospel. Because Jesus died (and took away our sins) and because he rose from the dead (proving his power over death) we look forward to his coming when judgment comes upon his enemies but a gracious pardon is given to us, and when death is no more, and we have life eternal.
That is the Gospel. And implied in that Gospel, and made explicit by Paul is the fact that both the dead in Christ and the living in Christ will be TOGETHER with the Lord.
Therefore, the dead in Christ will not miss out on the great day of Christ’s return. And they will not miss out on life eternal.
With these words we are to be encouraged.
The encouragement we spoke of last week — those daily encouragements of thankfulness to one another — are beneficial to us no doubt. But the greatest encouragement we have is the Gospel message of salvation in Jesus Christ.
In Christ we have a hope of eternal, supported by his own resurrection from the dead.
Because Jesus rose from the dead, so shall we all who are united to him rise again. We have a hope then not for an improved world but for a perfect world.
What other hope is there?
The atheists tell us that there is nothing ahead. They have only despair.
The polytheists of old taught only a sad afterlife, a zombie-like state in Hades.
Roman Catholicism teaches a miserable purgatory.
The Ancient Romans themselves had the “Elysian Fields” and the Norse vikings had “Valhalla” but even if these places were said to be glorious, they always lacked the ultimate glory that is God’s presence.
Only Biblical Christianity teaches a wonderful heaven, and only Biblical Christianity gives us reason for this hope as we have an assured hope.
As Peter says “According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.”
So, in our text, Paul is writing pastorally. He is writing to encourage the Thessalonians. He encourages them with the Christian hope, that it extends to those have who have fallen asleep. The hope extends to those whom we have lost, those in the Lord who have preceded us in death.
Death is our enemy. We are right to cry at a funeral, to mourn the death of others. That grief we share with the world. We have that grief too. But we have something in addition, something the world does not have. We have hope. We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life in the world to come. Death is our enemy. But there is life in Jesus Christ.
As we go to sleep at night and expect to wake up in the morning, so should we in death expect to be alive again.
Paul doesn’t explain everything about eschatology. He says what he needs to say in way of encouragement.
He says “We are going to see Jesus!”
So we are to comfort one another with these words, with these truths. And let us be comforted, finally with this: John 6:47 – He who believes in me has eternal life.