Meditations in 1 Thessalonians
Part 1: 6. The Lord’s Return
1 Thess 1:9,10 They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead–Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.”
Possibly more than any other letter, this letter of Paul’s abounds with references to the second coming of Jesus Christ. The probable cause for this is the fact of the persecution that this church was enduring. So often in Scripture encouragement to endure in the face of persecution comes in the form of the reminder that one day Jesus is going to return and right all wrongs and bring to account those who have opposed His people – and thus it is here. It comes at the end of every chapter, again and again to encourage them and stir them on.
It starts with our verses above and sets the past against the present and then against the future. The past: “They tell how you turned to God from idols.” That had been their past; they had been idol worshippers as every person is who doesn’t worship God. But they had turned from that “to serve the living and true God.” That was now where they were in the present, serving the God who is alive, the only one who is truly God (as against the lifeless, false idols). And then in their present struggle they overcome as they “wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead–Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.” We have the confidence in his future coming because of the incredible things that happened to Jesus while here – put to death and then raised from the dead by the Father to save us now and in the eternity to come. This is the general biblical approach to help overcome in the face of adversity and persecution.
But then in the next chapter, where Paul first justified his ministry and speaks of them, how they had “received the word of God,” (2:13), “became imitators of God’s churches,” (2:14), and “suffered from your own countrymen,” (2:14) he thinks into the eternal future of how all this will reflect on them, the apostles: “For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy.” (2:19,20) When Jesus returns to hold all accountable for what they have done the ‘crown’ that the apostles will receive, the thing that will reveal them for who they have been, will be this people, this church; they will be the evidence of the apostles’ obedience and faithfulness.
But not only does Paul give thought to Jesus return as a time when he and his fellow apostles will be vindicated, he knows it will be a time when this church, as they allow the Lord to continually “strengthen your hearts” (v.13a) they will be able to stand and so on that last day will therefore be seen to be “blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.” (v.13b) This follows after a chapter of explaining why he couldn’t be with them but finishes with him encouraging them to “make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else,” (v.12) As they let God work in them, so on that last day they will stand true and strong.
For the sake of space we will only briefly mention his wider teaching about what happens to believers when they “fall asleep” (die 4:13). On the last day, “we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him,” (v.14) so “the dead in Christ will rise first.” (v.16) There will be no question about this day “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.” (v.16) As Revelation 19:11-18 shows, this will be a public demonstration of the Lord’s power and might as he comes to bring an accounting. If we are alive at that time there is an encouragement for us as well: “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.” (v.17) That is a summary of Paul’s teaching of what will happen to believers – dead and alive – when Jesus returns.
But he doesn’t leave it there for into the beginning of our chapter 5 he brings further explanation, encouragement and warning as to the WHEN of Jesus return: “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labour pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.” (5:2,3) i.e. it will come suddenly, but even then there will be warning signs. He uses this to encourage them to be alert for those warning signs: “So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled.” (5:6)
Then, finally, as he goes to conclude the letter he blesses them with God’s desire to continue to work in them to present them blameless when Jesus does come: “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.” (5:23,24)
In all of these references Paul speaks of Jesus return as a mean of encouraging the church there in Thessalonica to hang on in against the trials and persecution they were suffering and to continue to let the Lord work in and through them so that they will be found true, faithful and holy when he eventually returns. These are all motivations to stand and prevail. Hallelujah!