August 19, 2013 David Balzer

1 Thess 4:13-5:11: Living with the End in Sight

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,funeral
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message, “He Is Dead,”
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

So goes Wynstan Auden’s brilliant poem, Funeral Blues.

It captures perfectly the hopeless, lonely despair of the mourner. Someone he deeply loves has died. And life’s not worth living any more.

For all the bluster and bravado of the atheist or the scientist or the humanistic rationalist, all their ridicule and mockery of the Christian. When it comes to death, they all become very quiet. Subdued. Because death can’t be controlled or beaten or explained away or ignored or paid off or mocked or disproven.

I’ve seen it in the eyes of everyday Aussies as I take the funeral of their grandma or father. There’s a hopeless desperation. A steely look of determination in their eyes. Hanging on every word I say as if to life itself.

They might be quite content ignoring God for most of their life. But for THOSE FEW MOMENTS of the funeral service, they can’t escape its reality. Death is just staring them in the face. And they’ve got no answer.

And they look to US for answers.

Because the reality is, when it comes to death, Christianity HAS ANSWERS.

And that’s what Paul wants to say to the Thessalonian Christians in today’s passage.

The problem:

The background seem to be concerns they’ve got about Jesus’ return. They’d assumed Jesus would come back while they were all still alive. And then he’d take them all to glory.

Which was fine and wonderful.

But then some of them had DIED. And the rest begun to worry that the ones who’d died would miss out. They’d miss the resurrection, and paradise. Or perhaps they worried that their death was a sign God was JUDGING them.

That’s the PROBLEM.

And so Paul had written so they won’t be IGNORANT. To clear things up. Because he doesn’t want them to be LIKE THE REST.

You see it there in v13 of Ch 4?

13 Brothers, we do not want you to be IGNORANT about those who fall asleep, or to GRIEVE like the rest of men, who have NO HOPE.

The rest

You see, that’s the NORMAL position when it comes to death. IGNORANCE. People just don’t KNOW what happens after death. And so there’s hopeless despair. Like the Auden poem.

I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Hopeless grief.

That’s ONE option. The other approach I see in the face of death is despair that’s mixed with WISHFUL THINKING. People say things like;

“God must have needed another angel, so that’s why he took Billy.”

 

Or “Fred will be up there now having a drink with St Peter. He always LOVED a drink!”

There’s no KNOWLEDGE behind statements like that. Just wishful thinking.

Over in Ch 5, Paul describes that sort of wishful thinking to do with the Lord’s return. Ch 5 v3.

3 While PEOPLE ARE SAYING, “PEACE AND SAFETY,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.

It’s burying your head in the sand. And just HOPING that things will be alright.

But there’s no BASIS – no KNOWLEDGE – for that sort of hope. Positive thoughts, on their own, make no difference at all.

In fact, they’re WORSE than impotent. Without trust in something SOLID when it comes to death, all that you can expect is DESTRUCTION. God’s JUSTICE. No escape.

That’s the fate of “THE REST”. (Everyone ELSE. Unbelievers) And Paul doesn’t want the Thessalonians to be ignorant or to grieve hopelessly like THAT. And so he’s going to clear some things up about the Lord’s return. About “THE DAY”.

The day

And his confidence, and his hope and his knowledge about that day is based on the historical facts of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Right there at the start in v14.

14 We believe that JESUS died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring WITH Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.

ONE is the guarantee of the OTHER. It’s BECAUSE Jesus has beaten death, we can have confidence he’ll beat it for US, TOO.

In 1 Cor 15, Paul describes Jesus’ resurrection as FIRST FRUITS. Like the first CHERRIES of the season. They’re rejoiced over and highly sort after. Because they’re JUST THE BEGINNING. They’re the visible sign, the downpayment, that THE WHOLE HARVEST will come AFTER them.

Jesus’ resurrection is the guarantee of OUR resurrection.

And it’s that CONFIDENCE that means we can describe Christians dying as FALLING ASLEEP. There’s nothing to be FEARED in falling asleep. It’s REST, it’s RELIEF, it’s RESTORATIVE, it’s TEMPORARY.

It’s a LOVELY phrase. It’s there on the memorial of Jessie McGowan. “FELL ASLEEP. Forever with the Lord.”

What a COMFORT that is!

And it’s an interesting phrase that describes what God will DO for those who’ve fallen asleep. It’s a bit clunky, but a more LITERAL translation says something like, “God will LEAD (or BRING), with Jesus, those who’ve fallen asleep through him.

We might EXPECT to read that God will RAISE those who sleep. That’s down in v16. But here, God LEADS them. I think what Paul’s describing is that God will lead his faithful saints back from heaven, along with Jesus, to be part of the resurrection.

That’s where they are now. In paradise with Jesus. But on that day, God will bring them all back in a celebration parade to witness Jesus’ victory. With Jesus leading the way.

They won’t miss out! They’ll be part of the parade!

And here’s what they’ll be WITNESSES to. V16.

16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.

The FIRST to receive new resurrection bodies will be those who’ve died. Who’ve been lead back from heaven by God.

And then, SECOND, those saints who are still alive. They’ll receive THEIR new eternal bodies.

Rather than what the Thessalonians were concerned about, their dead loved ones will actually be FIRST in line, come the resurrection.

Over in 1 Cor15, Paul fills out a few MORE details. 1 Cor 15:51

51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed- 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be RAISED imperishable, and we will be CHANGED.

Two different SORTS of transformations. Depending if the Christian is ALIVE or ASLEEP at the Resurrection. RAISED imperishable if the saint has no body. And CHANGED if he still HAS an earthly body.

But what will it be LIKE? Now, at this point, I struggle to know what to say. Even if I KNEW exactly what will happen. Because words are simply inadequate to describe WHAT it will be like.

Paul says it’s a little like when a SEED germinates and becomes A PLANT. There’s a CONNECTION between the old and the new. In ONE sense, they’re the same. But in ANOTHER, they’re COMPLETELY DIFFERENT. 1 Cor 15.42.

42 So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.

ANOTHER way he describes it/ is that it will be like PUTTING ON NEW CLOTHES. 1 Cor 15:53.

53 For the perishable must CLOTHE itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.

A new resurrected, eternal, glorified, incorruptible body. Something LIKE our present body, but also COMPLETELY DIFFERENT.

And then, once we’re all DRESSED for eternity. The fun can REALLY begin. (Flip back over to 1 Thess 4) v17. Those who are still alive will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.

Coming UP. To meet the victory celebration as IT’S coming down to MEET them. ALL believers meeting the LORD. He’s the centre of it all.

And not just meeting JESUS. The saints who are still alive will be there “TOGETHER WITH THEM”. That is, together with the dead in Christ. ALL God’s people, alive or asleep. TOGETHER. With THE LORD. FOREVER.

The application

It’s WONDERFUL news. And what’s the appropriate RESPONSE to that truth? What’s the application? At least if you’re a Christian? V18 “THEREFORE, ENCOURAGE each other with these words.”

You see, knowing what’s going to happen after we die makes a REAL, CONCRETE, MEASURABLE DIFFERENCE in how you face life TODAY.

You’ll approach life DIFFERENTLY because of these truths. People will look at the way you cope with suffering and death and loss and disappointment. And they’ll see something UNUSUAL.

They’ll see HOPE. They’ll see PERSPECTIVE. LONG-SIGHTEDNESS. They’ll see AN UNSHAKEABLE CONFIDENCE in a better future.

Take HOPE in these words. Don’t be IGNORANT. Grieve at your PRESENT loss –sure. Death will ALWAYS be painful. But grieve WITH HOPE. Because now you KNOW.

But Paul doesn’t stop THERE. He moves on from talking about the NATURE of the day of the Lord/ to think about its TIMING. About WHEN.

Perhaps the Thessalonians hadn’t only been worried about brothers who’d DIED, but themselves TOO. Perhaps THEY’D be next to die. And Jesus STILL hadn’t returned. Would THEY miss out? And so they started looking at the calendar.

It seems like they’d begun to ask questions about WHEN Jesus would return. About times and dates. About identifying the signs. Putting together all the pieces of the puzzle to find the ANSWER.

And Paul says (v1), I don’t NEED to write to you about that stuff. Don’t bother trying to solve the puzzle, he says, because you know very well Jesus is going to come back LIKE A THIEF IN THE NIGHT. You CAN’T work out the day or the hour.

But that doesn’t mean you do NOTHING. Jesus isn’t just coming back. He’s coming back SUDDENLY AND UNEXPECTEDLY. And there’s three more personal applications of that truth.

1.Be alert and self-controlled. V4 of Ch 5

2.Be properly dressed. v8.

3.Encourage and build each other up. v11.

The FIRST one almost sounds like a contradiction. Jesus’ return is unexpected, so be prepared. But that’s what Paul says, v4, (the day will come like a thief in the night),

4 But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should SURPRISE you like a thief. 5 You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. 6 So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be ALERT and SELF-CONTROLLED.

You may not know WHEN something is coming. But you can still be PREPARED for it. Like A FIREMAN. They don’t know when a fire might happen, but they’re ALERT and PREPARED.

While they’re on duty, they do all sorts of things. They dry hoses, they wash trucks, they practice drills. They even watch TV, make food, or sleep.

But while they DO all those things, their jackets and hats and boots are hanging ready. The truck is fuelled up and ready to go. The hoses are packed and the extinguishers charged.

They may not know WHEN, But they recognise that a fire will DEFINITELY come SOME time. They recognise the REALITY that a fire will come. And they recognise its IMPORTANCE.

And that’s what it means for us to be prepared and alert FOR JESUS’ RETURN. To recognise its REALITY. And to recognise its IMPORTANCE.

And we SHOW that in a similar way to the firemen. By lining up every aspect of our life to REFLECT the reality and importance of what’s coming.

If Jesus is coming back to take those who belong to him, and to judge those who DON’T, then that means making sure YOU BELONG TO HIM. And then making sure your life REFLECTS that. That each area bears the marks of someone who puts Jesus first.

Paul sums it up. V5. It’s like being sons of the light. Sons of the day. To be a SON of something means you bear its CHARACTERISTICS. The day-time is for being alert and sober. The NIGHT time is when you get drunk and sleep. It’s when you HIDE things. Things you’re ASHAMED of. But there’s no hiding or shame in THE DAY.

And when it comes to the Christian, this is what it will mean SPECIFICALLY (v8). The SECOND application.

8 But SINCE we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled (or sober), putting on FAITH and LOVE as a breastplate, and the HOPE OF SALVATION as a helmet.

Just like a fireman. When you recognise the REALITY AND THE IMPORTANCE of the DAY. You’ll make sure you’re READY. That you’re DRESSED APPROPRIATELY.

The fireman gets dressed in hat, boots, pants, jacket. All part of the uniform to PROTECT him, and help him to DO HIS JOB.

But for the Christian, it’s about being dressed in ARMOUR. The armour of FAITH, LOVE AND HOPE.

But they’re not just ATTITUDES to keep in mind. Feelings that make no practical difference. They’re ARMOUR to PUT ON. Qualities that are ASSETS to be USED. WEAPONS to be WIELDED. STRENGTHS to be EXPLOITED.

Back in Ch 1 v3 Paul mentioned the same three attitudes. He said

3 We continually remember before our God and Father YOUR WORK PRODUCED BY FAITH, YOUR LABOR PROMPTED BY LOVE, and your ENDURANCE INSPIRED BY HOPE in our Lord Jesus Christ.

When you TRUST God – trust his goodness, and trust his promises- you WORK for the things that are IMPORTANT to him. You build those things that will LAST until Jesus’ returns. You strive to make your life conform to what will reflect THAT day, rather than reflecting the things around you – things that WON’T last.

And LOVE can motivate you TOO. “Labour prompted by LOVE” Whether it’s love for God, or love for others. Loving GOD will mean you want to PLEASE him. You don’t want to DISAPPOINT him. You want more and more people to RECOGNISE his WORTH and BEAUTY.

And when you love OTHERS with God’s love, you want THEM to enjoy God the way YOU do. You want them to REJOICE on that day, rather than MOURN. So love will prompt your LABOUR.

And the THIRD piece of armour is HOPE. And hope inspires ENDURANCE. That’s specifically hope in the return of Jesus. The CONFIDENT EXPECTATION that he really IS coming back. You can be SURE of it.

And hope knows that when he DOES, he’ll right all wrongs. Reveal every secret. Punish all wickedness. Restore all brokenness. Comfort every sorrow. Heal every sickness. Re-unite loved ones. Answer every question.

And when we know THAT. Know it FOR SURE. When that truth is tattooed across our hearts. It means we can cope with ALMOST EVERYTHING. We can show endurance when the road is long and straight. We can show patience when people and situations are difficult. We can show long-suffering when the pain is unbearable. We can show stick-ability when everyone else is giving up.

That’s what it will look like for you to live up to your calling. Because God HAS called you to it. ALL of it. To live NOW in expectant hope for THEN. See it there in v9? (Put on faith, love and hope)

9 FOR GOD DID NOT APPOINT US to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.

It’s all part of his plan. YOU’RE part of his plan. A plan with A FINAL GOAL. V10.

10 He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, WE MAY LIVE TOGETHER WITH HIM.

However life turns out. Short life or long. Difficult or easy. Successful and significant or quiet and quickly forgotten. Awake or asleep. Jesus KEEPS all those who are his. And will LIVE TOGETHER with them. Forever. WHAT a PLAN!

And Paul finishes this section with the FINAL application. V11. Just like he’d finished Ch 4.

11 Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

THEREFORE. BECAUSE of everything I’ve just taught you. ENCOURAGE one another. Support and persuade those who are struggling. Take HEART.

But MORE than that. Don’t just keep going as BEFORE. BUILD EACH OTHER UP. GROW, extend, enlarge, renovate, re-energise, strengthen, toughen, improve. Grow down deeper in faith and knowledge, grow out wider in love.

Life for you this week should be DIFFERENT because Jesus is coming back.

8 But SINCE we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. 9 For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. 10 He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

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