THE LORD WILL COME 1 Thessalonians 4–5
“The Lord Himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command . . . and the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thes. 4:16).Christ’s coming is both comfort and challenge.
Eschatology in the Thessalonian letters.
It is clear from reading these letters that during the few short weeks or months Paul was with the Thessalonians, he gave them a rather detailed picture of the end times. These letters speak of Christ’s return for His saints, the appearance of the Antichrist, final judgment, and other aspects of the end time. Yet the exact sequence of events, and how elements of the whole eschatological picture fit together, is a matter of debate by earnest Christians. Perhaps the most important thing to remember as we read these letters is that, as Christ’s “first coming” encompassed a period of more than 30 years, His “second coming” also embraces a period of years. Much of the confusion about the end times comes from assuming that the “Second Coming” is a single event, rather than a series of world-shaking events spread over a period of years. This does not necessarily help in determining how the events mentioned in the Thessalonian letters relate to each other or other Old and New Testament passages. Even so, we can accept each as describing some aspect of future history. What seemed most important to Paul was not to provide a chart, but to provide a challenge. Paul called on the Thessalonians and on us to see what God intends to do, and then to apply that vision of the future to guide current choices and adjust present attitudes. It is the application of prophecy that we need to focus on as we read these letters devotionally.
Pleasing God calls for holiness (4:1–9) and brotherly love (vv. 10–12). Christ’s own will be raised at His imminent return (v. 13–5:3). Till then we are to live expectant, self-controlled lives, encouraging one another (vv. 4–11). Paul closed with various specific instructions (vv. 12–28).
Understanding the Text
“How to live in order to please God” 1 Thes. 4:1. The verb rendered “please” here had a broad meaning in the New Testament era. It spoke of action which not only won approval, but which constituted active and actual service. We are God’s servants as well as His sons. We are to dedicate our lives to serving Him. Paul said that the Thessalonians knew how to live to please/serve God. But he went on to remind them anyway. If we are not constantly reminded of what we know, we are all too prone to forget. So let Paul’s words of exhortation remind us too of the persons we are called to be, and the service we are called to render. “It is God’s will that you should be holy” 1 Thes. 4:3–8. Paul specifically mentioned avoiding sexual immorality. But Paul’s broader concern was for controlling all “passionate lust.” Paul used this phrase not just of sexual appetite but of overpowering desire of any kind. A passion for power, a passion for money, a passion for food, a passion for approval and popularity can have just as destructive an impact on holiness as sexual passion. We are not to be mastered by our desires, but are to let God master us. We must keep a tight reign on any desires whose grip might keep us from serving Him and others. “You yourselves have been taught by God to love each other” 1 Thes. 4:9–10. One of the most powerful motivations for that service which pleases God is Christian love. Note that such love is reciprocal: Christians love “each other.” There is something deadly about an unrequited sacrificial love. The daughter who gives up marriage to care for her invalid mother may do so out of love. But if the mother remains critical, bitter, and demanding, even the purest love is likely to sour. The husband who keeps on loving his unfaithful wife may be admirable. But in time that home is sure to shatter from her sheer selfishness. Any love which is constantly rejected must ultimately fail. This is one reason why God created His church to be family. God gave us brothers and sisters in Christ so we can experience as well as extend love. In the mutuality possible in the body of Christ, our ability to love can grow, and we can find the resources we need to enable us to love others who do not love in return. If you are in a situation where your love is met only with bitterness or rejection, seek Christian friends who will support and love you. Even in the best of situations we need an intimate relationship with other believers where we can give and receive love. If you’re looking for a church, don’t look first at programs and activities. Look to see if the people of the church truly love each other. “Make it your ambition” 1 Thes. 4:11–12. We’re used to parents being ambitious for their children. Usually what Mom and Dad are ambitious for is that the kids get ahead—a bigger job, a higher salary, more status. And often we nod approval when young people show “drive and ambition.” Again what we mean is that they work hard, find a good job, and are on their way “up in the world.” Paul had a different slant on ambition. In essence, Paul said make it your ambition to be as ordinary as possible. Lead a quiet life. Mind your own business. Work hard, earning your own living with your own hands. Be a good, but rather ordinary, citizen. I rather like Paul’s emphasis. Ordinary folks, living good, honest, hardworking, ordinary lives, have a habit of winning the respect of those who know them. For God’s people, winning respect is a much higher goal than getting to the top! “About those who fall asleep” 1 Thes. 4:13–18. One of the most powerful of Paul’s eschatological statements emerged from a very practical concern. Some of the Christians in Thessalonica had died. Friends and family were terribly upset. Would these folks miss out on Jesus’ return? In compelling language, Paul reassured them. When Jesus appears, believers who are “asleep” will be raised from the dead, and then, together with still-living saints, all Christians will soar together into the clouds to meet Jesus, and be with Him forever. Paul then applied this dramatic vision simply: “Encourage one another with these words.” When a loved one dies, we can look ahead, catch a glimpse of Jesus’ triumphant appearance, and rejoice. “About times and dates” 1 Thes. 5:1–3. The early church expected Jesus to return at any moment. They didn’t know when. They just knew that, at a moment the world did not expect Him, Jesus would appear to execute final judgment. What Paul was talking about is the doctrine of “imminence.” All that this means is that Jesus could return at any moment. There are no conditions to be met that would hinder Him from coming today, tonight, or tomorrow. We know that Halley’s comet won’t return until the late 21st century. But Christians through the ages have been aware that Jesus could return at any moment. Wouldn’t it be grand if Jesus should come November 16th? Or even today? (See DEVOTIONAL.) “Hold them in highest regard” 1 Thes. 5:12–13. I suffer from a terrible disease. The Sunday service snoozies. It goes back to my days in seminary, when I worked from 11 P.M. to 7 A.M. seven nights a week and carried a full 19 semester-hour-load of classes. Every day at chapel I’d find a seat near the wall, lean my head against it, and sleep. Now, even when I preach, it’s hard to keep awake as the service proceeds. And when others preach—well, it’s been nearly impossible. Till we came to our present church and the excellent preaching of our pastor, Richard Schmidt, a warm and delightful brother. I suddenly realized that my wife’s elbow hadn’t been buried in my ribs for several months, and that I was actually staying awake most Sundays! I called Richard and told him how much I appreciated his sermons. They were even worth staying awake to hear! He laughed and said “thanks.” And added, he wished the other retired preachers in the congregation had the same attitude. It seems they persistently gave him a hard time. If God has used your minister to speak to you, to bless you, to encourage or strengthen you, why not give him or her a call? Such folk need more than our respect. They need our encouragement. “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire” 1 Thes. 5:19. Older versions say, “Don’t quench the Spirit.” The meaning isn’t mysterious at all. Have you ever had a youngster come to you, full of enthusiasm over an idea or project? And watched his or her face fall when you said no? Well, the Holy Spirit is enthusiastically committed to ideas and projects by which you can serve God and experience great blessing. And every time you say no to His prompting, it’s like throwing a bucket of cold water. The Spirit won’t force you or me to follow His promptings. We can quench His ministry to us by a simple no. But when we do, it is to our great loss.
Sons of Light(1 Thes. 5:1–11)
I remember very well playing down in the basement as my mother washed clothes. I was 4 or 5, so it was well over 50 years ago that I dressed up as Pecos Pete, and rode down the steps to rescue her from rustlers. That was pretend. But I also remember very well my mother telling me she expected Jesus to return in her lifetime. That wasn’t pretend. That was very real to my mom. She was wrong. She died in a car accident in the 1960s. But awareness that Jesus’ return was just around the corner was a cornerstone of my mother’s life. What Mom told me as a child is still very real to me. My wife and I often speak of it, and expect Jesus to return before either of us joins Him through death. We don’t know when He will come. The “times and the seasons” are a mystery. But the reality of Jesus’ return looms large in our thoughts. Paul pictured those who live with that awareness as “sons of the light and sons of the day.” We’re not in the dark about the future—or about how to live our lives here and now. Jesus is coming! And so we exercise self-control, and keep our values in harmony with His. Jesus is coming! And so set faith and love as a guard over our hearts. Jesus is coming! And so our perspective is shaped by the certain hope of His appearance, not to judge us, but to rescue us from the wrath about to fall on our lost world. Jesus is coming! And so we encourage each other, and build each other up, placing a higher premium on persons than on things. As God does. My mother wasn’t wrong to expect Jesus. We’re not wrong either. And as long as His coming is real to us, our choices, and our lives, are sure to be transformed.
Look for Jesus, and brighten the eastern horizon of your life.
“I have felt like working three times as hard since I came to understand that my Lord is coming again.”—D.L. Moody