The Church of the Thessalonians (5)
C. E. Hocking, Cardiff
5. COMFORT AND CHALLENGE
All quotations are from the Revised Version
Throughout the Epistles to the Thessalonians the emphasis, doctrinally, is on the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Second Advent is “interwoven with every topic and duty, with all sources of motives of joy and sorrow”. The endurance, freshness and fervent endeavours of this local church were specially stimulated by hope, 1 Thess. 1. 3; 2. 19; 4. 13; 5. 8. It is apparent that future events had been given a prominent place in the apostle’s teaching whilst with them, 5. 1; 2 Thess. 2. 5. Yet despite this there appears to have been some confusion in their minds. Whilst faith, love and hope are linked together in 1 Thess. 1. 2f, Timothy only reported with satisfaction on their faith and love on his return, 3. 6f, and the same subtle omission of hope is to be noted in 2 Thess. 1. 3f. These Epistles therefore supplement his teaching and correct certain errors abroad among them.
One word frequently used by Paul is transliterated parousia, occurring 7 times,1 Thess. 2. 19; 3. 13; 4. 15; 5. 23; 2 Thess. 2. 1, 8, 9 (also used prophetically by Paul in 1 Cor. 15. 23). In all these verses the word is translated “coming” in both the A.V. and the R.V., though the R.V. margin consistently renders it “presence”. The translation “coming” suggests an historic point. The word “parousia” refers to a period of time to which we are introduced at the coming, the opening of which is prominent in 1 Thess. 4. 15; 5. 23; 2 Thess. 2. 1, the course of which is more to the fore in 1 Thess. 2. 20; 3. 13, and the termination of which is emphasised in 2 Thess. 2. 8. This word, therefore, embraces the period commencing at the meeting with the Lord in the air and terminating when the saints return with Christ in glory to the earth at the outshining (epiphania) of His presence, 2 Thess. 2. 8. This is the great day of uncovering (apocalupsis), 2 Thess. 1. 7.
The Rapture and the Revelation
Future events may be broadly classified into two groups. There are those details which belong to the Lord’s coming into the air, key references for which are found in John 14; 1 Corinthians 15 and 1 Thessalonians 4. It is then that the heavenly hopes of the church are to be realised. The dead are to be raised, the living changed and all to be caught up, snatched away, delivered from the coming wrath, 1 Thess. 1. 10; 5. 9. This is the rapture. Then there are those events which belong to the Lord’s coming to the earth, referred to in such passages as 1 Thessalonians 5. 1-3, 2 Thessalonians 1. 7-12 and 2 Peter 3. With this aspect of the coming the prophets are largely taken up. Destruction and wrath are the features of the Day of the Lord, which is to be preceded by very definite signs and will issue in the Deliverer out of Zion rather than our Deliverer out of heaven, cf. Rom. 11. 26 and 1 Thess. 1. 10. The coming to earth is bound up with the fulfilment of the earthly hopes of Israel. This is the revelation.
Both aspects of the coming of Christ are referred to in 2 Thessalonians 2. 1-2, “our gathering together unto him; . . . the day of the Lord”. Notice also that they are clearly distinguished in the section we are considering, 4. 13 to 5. 11. The two “wherefore’s”, 1 Thess. 4. 18; 5. 11, divide the teaching into two main paragraphs:
- Future Events and Comfort, 4. 13-18. Supplies comfort concerning the dead.
- Future Events and Challenge, 5. 1-11. Enjoins watchfulness on the living.
It is clear from 4. 13-18 that new truth was being passed on to the saints. This was “a word of the Lord”, 4. 15. In terms of 1 Corinthians 15 this was a “mystery”, hidden until Paul’s era but now made known to the saints. This was something about which all were unaware until the situation arose in the early church where light was necessary to prevent the people of God sorrowing “as the rest, which have no hope”, 1 Thess. 4. 13. However, when the apostle makes reference to the “times and the seasons” and the destruction coming upon the unsuspecting world he writes “ye have no need that aught be written unto you. For yourselves know perfectly . . .”, 5. 1-2. The rapture of the church is therefore quite different from the prophetic events bound up with the day of the Lord. Subsequent to the rapture of the church and that undefined period when the saints’ labours are reviewed and rewarded, the Lord will return in glory with His glorified saints.
1. Comfort from the Coming, 4. 13-18
Ignorance is a fruitful source of sin and failure; here it resulted in sorrow. What a difference Christ makes however. Gentiles who know not God, 4. 5, and are outside the sphere of privilege into which believers are introduced, 4. 12, have no hope either, 4. 13. We are not as these. “Through Jesus” death has been turned into “sleep”, a term referring to the body only (those whose bodies sleep are themselves, spirit and soul, absent from the body and present with the Lord, 2 Cor. 5. 8. Hence Paul can say elsewhere that “to die is gain”, Phil. 1. 21). Their resurrection is assured in this; the body is only resting for a while. Not only are the dead in Christ to be raised but God is to bring them in glory with Jesus, to enter the kingdom. Here, then, is the opening and reassuring word, vv. 13-14.
The fresh revelation of the Lord through Paul now establishes how this is possible, vv. 15-17. The “departed saints” are in no way disadvantaged; we “shall in no wise precede them”. Such is the joy that this occasion affords our Lord, that “the Lord himself” shall descend. He is coming personally for His own and all that are His will hear the shout of their Commander, by whose supreme authority they will be summoned to His side. That trump will give no uncertain sound, signalling the assembling of all the saints, 1 Cor. 15. 52; cf. Num. 10. 3f. The only archangel referred to as such in Scripture is Michael, who is always taken up with Israel’s cause. May not reference to the archangel here be an indication that “the dead in Christ” is a very large term embracing not only those who have fallen asleep in Jesus but all those men of faith who, like Moses, accounted “the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt”, Heb. 11. 26. Such friends of the Bridegroom, who sought a city whose builder and maker is God, are in the presence of God at the moment, “the spirits of just men made perfect”, Heb. 12. 23. They have not yet received the promise and in fact await the coming of Christ for “apart from us they should not be made perfect”, Heb, 11. 39f. The signal for the assembling of the O.T. saints along with, though distinct from, the saints who form Christ’s Church, could well be the voice of the archangel.
It is at this time that “the dead in Christ shall rise first”. Their corruption is going to put on incorruptibility, and not until then, “in the twinkling of an eye”, are the living to be changed, 1 Cor. 15. 51-53. Then, simultaneously, one and all are to be caught up, that is forcibly and irresistibly snatched away (cf. Acts 8. 39) amid the clouds (cf. Acts 1. 9) to meet the Lord in the air. Then all the saints shall be together and forever with the Lord ! What a wonderful comfort for those whose loved ones have gone on before, 1 Thess. 4. 18, This is peculiarly the hope of the Church and every generation should live on the tip-toe of expectancy. It might be today and if it were to be so, it would be our privilege to be among them “that are alive, that are left”, v. 17. Are we really waiting for His Son from heaven, 1. 10? One indication would be that our united assembly effort would result in the work of God expanding. We should be serving without sorrowing!
2. Challenge from the Coming, 5. 1-11
There are many references to “the day of the Lord” and conditions obtaining in Israel and the world at large when the judgment of God falls. Times, seasons and events which are laden with significance, belong to the Lord’s coming in glory to the earth. This phase of the second advent must, in fact, be preceded by the heading up of conditions in the world. In 2 Thessalonians 2, for instance, we read of the apostasy, a religious rebellion. There must also be the appearing of the man of sin whose blasphemous conduct is referred to. Then to men at large, who have not received the love of the truth, God will send a working of error. These are some of the features of the religious situation. The political situation is sketched in Daniel 2 and 7 and Revelation 13, etc. Here, prophetically, we are taught of the development of a ten-kingdom confederacy dominated by the devil’s master man, the beast. In the Lord’s Olivet discourse we learn something of the social and moral characteristics of the period. It is to be as it was in the days of Noah and the days of Lot. The prophetic scriptures, then, have furnished us with much that belongs to ‘the times and the seasons’ and the coming of Christ as it will affect the world. The length of the interval (times) and the characteristics of the period (seasons) were so clearly appreciated that there was “no need that aught be written” to these saints, 1 Thess. 5. 1. This demonstrates the systematic teaching that had been given to them when Paul and his companions were among them for a few months at the most. It also indicates how important a place future events should have in our thinking and living.
Several features had been stressed concerning this day of the Lord which would suddenly come. It would be quite unexpected by men, taking them by surprise “as a thief in the night”. It would come “as travail upon a woman with child”, that is inevitably. The godless world is fast heading for “sudden destruction” , when the peace, safety and well-being of which they idly boast will be taken from them. It is impossible for them to escape the judgments of God. They will be recompensed with affliction as God renders vengeance in strict accord with justice, 2 Thess. 1. 6, 8. The Judge of all the earth will do right! These are some of the ways in which the coming will affect the earth, 1 Thess. 5. 1-3.
What a contrast is introduced by the emphatic “But ye”, v. 4. The coming is here forcibly applied to the Lord’s people.’ We are not ignorant of the purposes of God. We are not in darkness. Grace has in fact brought us to a new position altogether and we are not of darkness, v. 5; all that are Christ’s without exception are sons of light and sons of the day. It is light and day that are the dominating characteristics of our sonship; cf. v. 8. In the light of such privilege, the logical and practical response is “let us not sleep . . . but let us watch and be sober”. Paul is not referring to the sleep of death (as 4. 13, where however a different word is used). Here sleep is that indifference and insensibility to the will and ways of God which should not mark us. We should be vigilant against all spiritual dangers, mentally alert, not falling into sleep, v. 7; cf. v. 10. At the same time we must be morally alert, free from all excitability and enslavement to evil, sober rather than drunken, fit for duty, v. 7. With faith, love and hope we are adequately equipped for life in this dark world hovering under the judgment of God. These are the characteristics which encourage us to resist the inroads of the spirit of this age. The vitals of our Christian living and acting (namely, the heart out of which are the issues of life, and the affections) are safeguarded by the breastplate of unshakeable dependence upon and confidence in our God, together with practical, sacrificial love for men and specially those of the household of faith. The mind needs to be guarded and enclosed by the helmet which is the hope of salvation. Hope prevents the mind being distraught by the loss of loved ones whilst the hope of salvation leads to rejoicing because it has no part in the woes that are to come upon the world.
This hope of the obtaining of full and final salvation is expanded in verses 9-10; cf. 2 Thess. 2. 14. Not wrath for you, says Paul, but salvation, v. 9; cf. 1. 10. What cause for gratitude! God's appointing in grace keeps us from the terror of that hour when His wrath is to be outpoured upon the earth. But there is more yet. Our Lord Jesus Christ died for us that we should live together with Him, v. 10. He died; we are to live! In the present we are to live unto Him, but the day is coming when we shall live where He is in the fulness of eternal life which is ours through our Lord's death. Note the stress laid on His death. Quite apart from merit or faithfulness, we shall live with Him. As Paul expresses it, “whether we wake” and are vigilant and active in our testimony, “or sleep” as quite insensible and unresponsive or indifferent to our responsibilities as sons of the day, we shall live together with Him. Our salvation and living with Christ eternally is all of grace. Nonetheless, in the light of all this we are to exhort one another and to build each other up. Cold feelings and affections need warming and stirring. Undeveloped character and partial knowledge must be met by constructive ministry among ourselves.
This energetic local church had been cradled in prophecy and we need to recapture the importance of an appreciation of future events. We are Christ’s friends and have instruction as to the Master’s plans, John 15. 13-15. Neither controversy nor the present almost apologetic mention of prophetic things must rob us of the helmet, the hope of salvation. We must stir up and build up in the light of these things. Far from forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, we must provoke one another unto love and good works and so much the more as we see the day approaching, Heb. 10. 25.
Remember and appropriate the force of these radical contrasts: We are light and not darkness; of the day and not of the night. We should be watching and not sleeping because we are appointed to salvation and not to wrath.
To be concluded by “Moral and Spiritual Problems”