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Model hope - 1 Thessalonians 4:13 - 5:11

This is a sermon by Malcolm Peters from the Riverside Church service on 18th March 2007.

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Well its motherís day.  And as weíve been saying in our service so far, itís great to celebrate motherhood.  Itís a great idea to give thanks for all that our mothers have done for us.   But of course, for various reasons, not everybody feels like celebrating Motherís Day.    

I didnít send a Motherís day card this year.  And I havenít done for the last 4 years either.  Because in 2002, my mum died suddenly when she was only 59.    And I know that there are others here this morning who are struggling with health issues, death and bereavement.   Time is a healer of raw emotional pain.  But the questions still remain.  Where is my mum now?  And will I see her again? 

  • Jesus is coming back (4:13-18)

    And thatís precisely the issue that Paulís addressing in todayís passage.  So turn back with me if you would to 1 Thess 4 on p [1004/ 1840];  and look at v13:

    13Brothers, 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.

    Sometimes when someone dies we say theyíve passed away.  And Paulís doing the same when he talks about those whoíve fallen asleep.   Paul had planted the church in Thessalonica about a year ago.  But since then, some of the congregation had died.    And so theyíd sent Paul a list of questions:  whatís happened to our friends and how does it all fit with Jesus coming back?

    And Paulís answer in v13-18 of chapter 4 is this:  Jesus is coming back.  [pp heading]  Jesus is coming back and so in v13:  youíre not to grieve like the rest of men, like non-Christians that is.  Rather, in v18, youíre to encourage each other with these words;  with this truth.  Jesus is coming back.  And I donít want you to be ignorant about it, say Paul;    ignorant about the fact of Jís return or its implications.  Because if we have a wrong view of Jesus's return, we wonít be ready for it.  Wrong belief always leads to wrong behaviour. 

    Before I became a Christian back in 1990, I believed that after death, thatís it.    When youíre dead, itís just like before you were born.  Nothing.  Nothing good, nothing bad;  just nothing.  Maybe thatís what you still think?  But itís not just a modern thing.  The 1C Roman poet Catullus wrote these words in a poem about death:

    ďThe sun can set and rise again;  But once our brief light sets, thereís one unending night to be sleep throughĒ.  In other words, once youíre dead, youíre dead and thatís it;  game over. 

    And if thatís your view, then youíve got no hope beyond the grave.  And any bereavement support is meaningless.    When people send Sympathy Cards to a bereaved friend, what do they say?   Well listen to this extract from a 2C bereavement letter:

    ďI sorrowed and wept over your dear departed Didymas  Ö. but really thereís nothing one can do in the face of such things.  So please comfort each otherĒ. 

    But how can you comfort each other when thereís nothing you can do or say.  For those who believe in nothing after death, there is no hope;  and thereís no real comfort.     Which is why Paul says:

    13Brothers, 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.

    Because as Christians, we do have hope.  Our hope is in the Gospel.  Our hope in the fact that Jesus is coming back.   But unless Jesus comes back beforehand, Christians still die.  And if you live long enough, you will be bereaved at some point in your life.    Notice Paul doesnít say we shouldnít grieve.    Some Christians overreact to this teaching and think that we should all clap your hands, shout for joy and have a perpetual grin on our faces no matter whatís happening in our lives.  No.  Grief is real for the Christian.  Death isn't meant to be.  We were made for eternity and so death isnít right.  Itís a consequence of the sinful mess weíve made of Godís world.   Even Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died.    Yes when a Christian loved one dies we grieve.  It hurts.  Thereís a pain of separation.    But we donít grieve lie the rest of men;  like the pagans;  like the non-Christians around us.  Why?  Because we have a hope beyond the grave. 

    But hang on a  minute you might be thinking. Christians arenít the only ones who have a belief in an afterlife.  And youíre right.  The ancient Egyptians had very elaborate views of the afterlife; Likewise, the Greeks and Romans believed in the immortality of the soul in a place called Hades.  And modern day pagans build roadside shrines when their loved ones die. 

    But whether you believe in Pyramids, Hades or flower shrines, the question is: why?  Or rather, on what basis?   If you do believe in some form of afterlife, whatís your hope based on? Is it just wishfully thinking as Richard Dawkins would argue;  a crutch for the weak?

    Well in v14-17, Paul gives us the reason for hope.  The reason why Christians do not need to grieve like non-Christians. 

    Look with me at v14 which literally says:

    V14:  For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so [or in the same way], God will bring with [or through] Jesus those who have fallen asleep in Him [in Jesus that is]

    In other words, the reason we live in hope of our resurrection beyond the grave is because of Jís resurrection.    Jesus is the prototype.  Jesus is the forerunner.  Jesus died and rose again.  And so weíve got living proof that there is life beyond the grave.  The resurrected Jesus was seen by 100s of witnesses.    Resurrection from the grave is possible because Jesus has been there and done it.       But how does that guarantee our resurrection?   Well look onto the beginning of v15.  And again the NIV misses out the crucial link word Ďforí:

    V15:  ďFor this we declare to you by the Word of the LordĒ   The word of the Lord Jesus that is.   In the Gospels, 3 times Jesus said before his crucifixion that he would be crucified and that after 3 days he would rise again.  And he did.  Because Heís God, His word can be trusted.  More than that:  because Heís God, whatever Jesus says, by definition happens.    And Jesus has said:  that when He comes, the dead in Christ will be raised to new life.  And so they will.

    But how will this happen?  And will those whoíve already died be at a disadvantage when Jesus comes back. 

    Well in v15 Paul say no.  When Jesus comes back, those who are still alive wonít jump the queue on those whoíve already died.    Why?  Well look at v16 again:

    16For 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. 17After 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.

    Paulís picking up on a picture which would have been familiar to the 1C Thessalonians.    When the Roman emperor visited an important City like Thessalonica, the dignitaries of the city would go out to meet him outside the city gates;  and then heíd be escorted back on the final leg of the journey into the city.    And the word for that kind of official emperor meeting is the word Paul uses in v17;    weíre going to Ďmeetí the Lord in the air.    Outside the city gates.  Outside the New Jerusalem.    And together with the Lord Jesus, weíll all continue our journey back to earth;  back to the recreated New Heavens and the new earth, where there will be no more pain, or crying, dieing or decay.  And so there, v17 tells us, we will be with the Lord for ever. 

    And in the face of death and bereavement, how encouraging is that?  Which is why he says in v18:  18Therefore encourage each other with these words.

    So if you are a Christian, then the point is weíre not to grieve like people around us who have no hope; or like people who have a false and flimsy hope based on wishful thinking and roadside shrines.  No we have a hope that is steadfast and certain.  Because itís based on the Word of the Lord.  A Word thatís been proved by Jís own death and resurrection.     And so when a loved ones die in Christ, yes we grieve;  but not inconsolably.  Because we know theyíre with the Lord and one day weíll meet again;  guaranteed.  So letís encourage each other in the face of death with these truths.

  • When is Jesus coming back? (5:1-3)

    So Jesus is coming back.  But when is Jesus coming back [pp slide 2 up].  And thatís the issues in 5:1-3 Ė when is Jesus coming back? 

    Well last week I told you about a 3C bishop who told his congregation that Jesus was coming back sometime that year.  And ever since, people have been making similar predictions about Jís return.  One cult in Sydney predicted that Jesus would come back at 2am on 19th October 1992.   At 2am a cheer went up, the rain poured down, and then nothing.    They started crying.    Why?  Because their hope had evaporated.  What theyíd trusted in turned out to be false.    One particularly tactful journalist went up to them and said;  'Cheer up mate, itís not the end of the world'.

    So next time you come across someone who reckons theyíve cracked the code and worked out when Jís coming back - all you need to do is give them a Bible.   Because in the Gospel, Jís already told us.  Not even Jesus himself knows.  Only the Father.  And if Jesus is God and not even He knows, then as Jesus tells us Acts 1:  itís not for us to know or start speculating about the timing.    And the Thessalonians knew this full well.  As Paul put it 5:1:

     1Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, 2for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.


    And the point is that thieves donít ring up and make an appointment do they? 
    I remember coming back to our house one day and noticing that the back door was wide open.  I ran in and went straight to the study:  Oh no I thought;  Sundayís sermonís on the computer and I havenít printed it out yet.     I hadnít been expecting a burglar,  And thatís the point.  You never do.  They donít tell you when theyíre coming.  Now thankfully we hadnít been burgled, the back door was just open.  You might get burgled or you might not. 

    But although Jesus hasnít told us when, he is definitely coming back;  and thatís the point of the pregnant woman in v3. 

    A couple of weeks ago, Nathan and Debbie came round for dinner.  Debbie was pregnant;  in fact I think she was just overdue.  But there were no signs of movement.  We had dinner, they went home and went to bed. But then an hour later Debbie woke up.  The labour pains had started.  It's coming.  Come on letís go. 

    Like burglars, babies donít make an appointment before the turn up.  But the point about being pregnant is that the baby is definitely coming at some point.  You donít know when, but thereís an inevitability about. 

    And itís the same with Jís return.  We donít know when and we canít find out.  But itís definitely going to happen.    And when it happens, v3 tells us, it will be sudden.  And as we've seen from chapter 4, it will be unmistakable.  No one will miss it.    A pregnant woman needs to have her bag packed and be ready for the babyís arrival.  And we need to be ready for Jís return. 

  • Get ready for Jesus coming back (5:4-11)

    And that brings us to the final point in v4-11.  Get ready for Jesus coming back.  [pp slide]  Get ready for Jesus coming back. 

    And if youíre ready, when it happens, youíre not going to be surprised and shocked like youíd be if you found your house burgled.   You know Jesus is coming;  youíre sons of the day, as v5 puts it.   And these pairs in v5, day & night and light and dark are pictures of Christians and non-Christians.  Itís not that Christians are naturally better than non-Christians.  Thereís nothing whiter than white about me or any other Christian.  The rest of the Bible makes it quiet clear that by nature, weíre all sinners.  By nature, weíve all disobeyed God and rebelled against Him.  Each and every one of us here this morning, by nature, is a God-hater;  and because of that, we deserve the wrath of v9:    Because, as v3 told us, when that Day of the Lord comes, when Jesus comes back, all His enemies will be judged. Justly judged.   And to those who've rebelled against their maker, those whoíve denied Jesus's lordship over their lives, they wonít be raised to eternal life.  No theyíll be taken off to eternal punishment;  to what the Bible calls Hell.   

    But the problem is that, naturally, each one of us deserves that.   God would be totally just if every one of us spent eternity in hell.    But for His people, for those v9 tells us have been appointed or predestined, we will receive not eternal wrath, but salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.  How come?  How can that be just if we're all sinful;  if weíre all rebels justly facing the Lordís wrath.  Well v10 tells us:  Jesus died for His people;  Jesus died for the appointed or elect ones in v9.    Jesus didnít just fall asleep for 3 days.  He died under the judgment of God, bearing the sin of all Godís people for all time.  He went through hell for what:  so that at the end of v10, whether theyíre alive at the time Jesus come back or sleeping in the graveyard, we might live together with Him in that perfect new creation. 

    So if weíre Christians, how are we to live in the light of Jís return?   Well look with me again at v6:

    6So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled. 7For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. 8But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled

    How does the non-Christian pagan world around us cope with death and bereavement?    Well let me tell you about a young man I knew from my days in the City of London.  He was bright, and in the worldís eyes, v successful.  But he lost someone close to him.  How did he cope? Well he went out and got blind drunk every night for weeks on end.  He refused to talk to his wife about it and eventually they got divorced. 

    People who have not hope, or no real hope, try to escape from the reality of death.  They might try to do it through alcohol or other drugs. Or they may try to escape in other ways:    chocolate or binge eating generally;  or perhaps binge spending and consumer credit.  All these things are spiralling out of control in our society.  And why?  Because in their attempt to escape, people cast off self-control.

    Other try to escape reality by descending into a whirl of activity.  Sorry, if havenít got time for death, because Iím too busy with my career, too busy with the children; too busy with my social life, or maybe even too busy at church. 

    And all these things are a form of drunkenness.  Things that cloud our thinking and stop us focusing on the most important.  Considering the issues of life and death;  of eternal life and eternal judgement.  And if thatís you, then you need to repent of your rebellion and foolishness before itís too late.  When you die, or if Jesus comes back before then, itís too late.  Thatís why itís nonsense to pray for the dead.  After death, itís too late. But today is the day of opportunity.  So, if youíre still trying to escape, if youíre still rebelling against the Lord Jesus, then donít delay, repent today.     

    But if youíre a Christian here this morning, then we need to get our maternity bag packed.  We need to be ready for Jís return.  We need to be alert and self-controlled.   It doesnít mean that you canít have glass of wine or a pint of beer.    But it does means that our overall attitude to life will not be escapist.   Weíll be responsible and sensible.  So we wonít be descending in sexual depravity as we looked at last week.     We wonít be giving up out jobs and waiting for Jesus to come back at 2am in the morning.  We wonít be into binges eating drinking or spending.  And we wonít be filling up our lives with so many activities that we have no space to think and pray.

    And so as we draw to a close, let me ask you a question:  are you ready for Jesus to come back?  Or have you slipped into escapism.  Itís v important.  Because as weíve seen: Jesus is coming back.  And so we need to be ready.    But we canít be ready on our own.  V11 picks up on the encouragement at the end of chapter 4.  Therefore encourage each other with these words;  with this teaching;  not just with tea and empty sympathy;  but by building each other up in these truths as we reflect on them together and talk about how they apply to our real lives in the real world.  I knew youíre already doing that, says the Apostle Paul, but I want you to do so more and more.   Letís pray.

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