Christian Hope: Christ’s Return
1/25/2018 11:47:00 PM
1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:2; Matthew 24:36-51
January 21, 2018
Rev. David Williams
Scripture: 1 Thess 4:13-5:2; Matt 24:36-51
Star Trek! “These are the voyages of the star ship Enterprise….” Many of us here loved watching Star Trek growing up. Some of us still do! People my age were more likely to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation, but even still, many themes were the same in both the original series and its sequels. In each episode, and in the many movies, the valiant crew of the Enterprise would explore new planets, battle enemies, uncover plots and escape danger.
Even people who’ve never watched these shows or movies are familiar with some of elements that have crept into popular culture. One example is the phrase, “Beam me up, Scotty!” This is a reference to using the fictional, futuristic “transporter” technology popular in the Star Trek series. These machines could “magically” move people and objects from one place to another, called “beaming” the people. A common element in many of the shows and movies is that the brave crew members would be on a planet and things would go bad. They would be confronted by hostile aliens, or perhaps wounded, or something was going to blow up. The heroes would call up to the ship “beam me up!” and the transporters would malfunction! There would be a race against time, trying to fix the transporters, that seemed to always crack under pressure. Then, at the last second, the transporter beams would activate, the crew would be beamed to the ship and saved!
In one of the movies, Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy are imprisoned on an ice planet by their enemies, the Klingons. With the help of another prisoner, they make a desperate escape from the prison itself, out onto the frozen surface of the planet. The Klingons catch up to them and reveal that the “helpful prisoner” is actually a double agent, a spy, being used to stage an escape attempt so the Klingon guards can kill them and further an inter-planetary plot to stop a peace agreement from being signed. Just as the guards are about to tell Kirk the rest of their plans, the Enterprise arrives and beams them up! Kirk is livid that he didn’t get to hear the identity of who was behind the plot!
Consider, on the other hand, however, the movies and stories of an older generation. My father’s generation grew up on Westerns. My Dad loved western TV shows and movies. The good guys always wore white hats. The bad guys always wore black hats. John Wayne was one of my Dad’s favourites and he remembers the first time in a movie that John Wayne, a good guy, wore a black hat! What was going on?!?
One theme in many Westerns was that the settlers or townspeople would be in trouble. In the days of these movies, it was usually Indians that had the people surrounded. Many of their men wounded, low on ammunition, huddled inside a ring of circled wagons, or maybe inside a fort, the townspeople would wonder if they could ever be saved? Then, just as things were reaching a crisis, off in the distance there would be the sound of a bugle! Then, the ground would tremble with the thunder of hooves and the cavalry would charge in to save the day! The cavalry would sweep away the enemies, then, having rescued the townspeople, they would provide food and medicine for hungry and wounded. The people would be able to fix up their settlement, or rebuild their homes and stay on the land.
Political ideologies aside about how Whites and First Nations people have historically interacted, this kind of ending to a movie is very different from what we see in Star Trek. It’s very different to be “beamed up” than to have the cavalry come to the rescue. When Kirk and McCoy were beamed up from the ice planet, the prison remained the same. All the other prisoners were left in chains. By contrast, when the cavalry arrived in the Western movies, all the people were rescued, the danger was removed, people got to go back to their homes and build their lives in safety.
Or, if the racial tensions involved in Western movies muddies the waters too much, consider books and movies about WWII. Many of those stories focus on how the Allies liberated Europe from the tyranny of the Nazis. As the Allies, the “cavalry” so to speak, fought their way across Western Europe, they liberated towns, set Prisoners of War free, liberated concentration camps and the like. How very different a victory that is
compared to, say, just helping a few English and American citizens escape through enemy lines and then leaving Hitler in charge of the continent!
Imagine, for a moment, you’re character in one of these stories. How different would your attitude be if you were, say, a crew member in Star Trek versus a settler in a Western or a citizen in Europe whose country has been occupied by Germany? If you’re from Star Trek, and you know you’re going to be beamed out of trouble, what attitude will you have to your surroundings? Will you care about the people on the planet you’re leaving? Will you care if, once you’re gone, anybody does anything to stop the bad guys?
On the other hand, if you’re in a Western, or a WWII movie, how much more will you care that you’re going to be liberated? The tyrants will be removed. Not only will you be saved, but your family, friends and community will be liberated too! If a Star Trek crew member was stuck on a planet for 2 months, they wouldn’t be making any permanent housing, planting a garden, or even making friends. But when you live somewhere, when it’s your home, and you’re going to be liberated, you keep your home in as good shape as possible. You maintain your relationships with your friends. You encourage others to keep up hope. You look forward to your whole town being liberated and transformed.
The nature of your rescue, escape or liberation, dramatically changes what you do in preparation for that rescue! As Christians, we look forward to being finally rescued from sin and death. The nature of that rescue, the form that rescue will take, should dramatically shape what we do as we wait and prepare for that rescue. If Jesus is going to “beam us up” we have different goals than if he is coming to “liberate” us here on earth. So, are we going to be beamed up or liberated? Let’s take a look at some of the texts most frequently referred to as evidence we will be beamed up.
Turn to 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:2. Then turn backwards to Matthew 24:36-51. We will see, as we read them, that there are a number of similar images and themes in these two passages. We are not going to do as thorough an exegesis on Matthew as we normally would, but rather look at the themes in Matthew and how they connect to 1 Thessalonians.
What It Says
First, let’s look at our text from 1 Thessalonians. It is important to remember the original purpose in Paul’s writing. It was not to give us a road map of the future! No! Paul was originally answering a question from the Thessalonians. That question had something to do with, “We thought Jesus would be back by now. What about the Christians who have died? How will they go out and meet Jesus when he returns?” Paul’s answer is that those who have died in Christ will actually be resurrected after Christ appears. Then, they and those who are alive, will be reunited together and also united with Christ. So don’t fret over their future. Don’t grieve their deaths as if we had no hope for the future.
Paul refers to those who have died in Christ as being “asleep” three times. This term is an image to describe the intermediary stage between death and resurrection for God’s people. This vocabulary was used in the OT too. Jews referred to it as “sleep” or “being in paradise.” But more on that a different week!
In verse 15, Paul speaks of the “coming of the Lord.” This word is a technical word, not the usual word for “coming.” This word, “Parousia,” can sometimes mean a usual arrival in the NT, like Paul’s excitement at the arrival of Titus. But mostly it is a special term meaning the arrival of an important person. In secular Greek, it is used for the arrival of a dignitary, or even an emperor. When a city or province was expecting the arrival of the emperor, they used this word “Parousia.” They may also start a new calendar from the date of the emperor’s arrival. Others minted new coins representing a new set of values. If the dignitary was a conquering general, the word Parousia came to refer to a new power entering the region. [William Barclay, New Testament Words, p. 222] So when Paul uses the word for the arrival of Jesus, this is the background he has in mind!
In verse 17, Paul speaks of believer, resurrected and alive, being “caught up” in the air to meet Jesus. The word for “caught up” means to be snatched quickly. This word, in Latin, is where we get the word “rapture.” But the word itself doesn’t have any connection to theology. It is elsewhere used in the NT for wolves snatching people, Philip being carried away in the Spirit after baptising the Ethiopian, and in Jude for being snatched from the fire. Yet, because of certain translations of the Bible, this word has come to mean the departure of Christians during the end times.
The word for “meet” is actually more interesting. This word, that we will “meet” the Lord in the air, is a technical word also having to do with a visiting dignitary! When a king or other important person was visiting a city (like in a Parousia), people and officials from the city would go out and meet that dignitary to escort them into the city! They would go out and meet the important person and travel with them on the last leg of their journey to their destination. In Acts 28, the Christians went out to meet Paul when he came to Rome. In Matthew 25, the parable of the 10 virgins, the 5 wise virgins meet the bridegroom and escort him into the banquet.
So, the image here in 1 Thessalonians, is that of Christians going up in the sky to meet Jesus, in order to escort him back to earth, his final destination! It is NOT an image of Christians going up to meet Jesus in the clouds and Jesus turning around to take everybody up to Heaven. It is on Earth that Christians will be “with Jesus forever.”
Finally, in 5:1-2, Paul tells the Thessalonians that while they can know the certainty of Jesus’ return, they cannot know the timing of his return. Jesus will come like a “thief in the night.” This means his arrival will be unexpected. We cannot know the time.
This connects us to our passage in Matthew, where Jesus says the return of the Son of Man will also be like a “thief in the night” at the end. However, even at the beginning of our passage, there is a connection. The coming of the Son of Man in Matt 24:36 is that same term “Parousia.” Jesus is saying this event will mark a new age, new values and a new power entering the scene.
That day, too, will come as a surprise. Jesus speaks of 2 men in the field and 2 women grinding grain. In each case, 1 will be taken away, the other left behind. This is the rapture right?
Well, let’s take a closer look. Jesus speaks first of the days of Noah. What happened then? In the days of Noah, those who were taken, those who were swept away, were the ones who were judged and condemned! The ones left behind were the ones saved! Similarly, at the end of our passage, the wicked servant is the one who is taken away, or cast out. The faithful servant remains, or is left behind. So, sandwiched between these two examples, can we really be sure the man and woman taken away were saved? Maybe the ones left behind were being saved from judgement? It is a huge mistake to assume, from one’s understanding of 1 Thess 4, that the 2 who are taken away are being “raptured.” It’s not the same word. It’s also not clear in Matthew which ones are being judged and which are being saved.
We must always be careful to let a passage speak for itself. Yes, we need to understand all the pieces of Scripture and how they fit together. Sometimes our understanding of one passage needs to be adjusted in light of other passages. But we should be careful about automatically interpreting one passaged based on an interpretation of another.
What it Means
So what do these passages mean? How are we to understand them? Our 1 Thess passage is where most people get their understanding of “the Rapture.” But is that understanding correct?
First, the arrival of Jesus (the Parousia) is far more important in the New Testament than the rapture of Christians. Parousia is used many times in the NT in reference to the return of Christ. But, while rapture is used several times in the NT, it is never used in a technical or formal sense. This is the only place in which it is connected with the return of Jesus or with resurrected believers! The other uses are more mundane uses, or the case of Philip. Rapture is not a word commonly associated with the resurrection, the return of Jesus or people’s salvation.
Second, the final destination of Jesus and his followers (resurrected and living) is earth, not heaven! The meeting of Jesus in the sky means we are the ones to turn around and change direction, not Jesus! I’ve been talking about this for several weeks now. Jesus is going to come redeem earth, renew it and people, and rule here. Our destination is not heaven for eternity, but a renewed earth for eternity! Jesus is coming back, not to take us out (“beam us up”) but to set things right down here and rule for eternity as king of creation like he should have since Genesis 1.
Third, the most common theme about the coming of Christ is that it is certain, but its timing is unknown. In fact, its timing is unknowable! Both our passages today speak of it like the coming of a “thief in the night.” Elsewhere, even Jesus says he doesn’t know when it will happen, only the Father knows!
So why do so many Christians spend so much time and energy trying to figure out when Jesus will return?
Why do they spend so much time worrying about signs of the times pointing to his immediate return? Because there are many TV personalities and authors trying to connect signs in Revelation with headlines on CNN. There’s a lot of money in this industry because there is a certain pride that comes will feeling like you’re in the know and others aren’t. People want to know when Jesus is returning, so other people will pretend they know in order to tell them. And they make a lot of money and grow in fame for doing it. There’s an excitement in thinking you know something others don’t!
But the interesting thing is that for two thousand years, through all sorts of good times and bad, everybody who looks at the times and tries to see if it means Jesus is coming back soon always decide the current times point to his imminent return! Always! People’s theologies are shaped so that current events point to Jesus coming back soon. No figure in theology has ever said that their theology, combined with current events, points to Jesus not coming back for a long time. The theology is always bent to fit current events in such a way that Jesus will be back soon.
The point of all this is that not knowing means we should always be prepared. How are we prepared? By living for Jesus at all times. If we knew the time of his return, we would live for ourselves until just before he came back then we’d try to live for him for a bit.
Being prepared doesn’t mean special worship services. The people in Noah’s time were living normally. The 2 men and 2 women in Matthew were doing ordinary work when the time came. They were saved or judged while at work, not at worship. So we need to live for Jesus all the time- at church, at home at work and everywhere in between!
It’s an interesting point that so far all the passages I’ve looked at that are about Christ’s return or our resurrection are followed by verses about living holy lives, not giving up living for Jesus. These passages always point to living well, not slacking off in Christian commitment and activity!
If you know you’re going to be surprised, how do you not get caught and find yourself being judged? You live consistently. Both servants in Matthew were surprised by the master’s return. But one had been consistently faithful, taking care of the needs of others. The other, considering how long his master had been gone, got lazy and stopped caring for his fellow servants. Instead, he squandered the resources he had been left in charge of!
Readiness for the return of Christ is not based on calculating his return, or watching for signs. It is based on living a life of readiness, living a life worthy of our calling to be the children of God and co-heirs with Christ! So don’t waste your time listening to people or pastors who are telling you they know when Jesus is coming back. Don’t waste your time with calculations of sings. The only “sign” for the resurrection, the only sign for the new age, is the actual arrival of Jesus. That happens before the resurrection. The signs are not the anti-Christ, the “rapture” of Christians, or 12 other signs or anything else.
Instead of spending time on signs, spend your time living for Jesus, working for God’s glory on earth. What does that look like? Matthew’s Gospel is very practical. It may not be a coincidence that the parable of the servants includes feeding others as part of being responsible in contrast to irresponsibly using the master’s resources for your own pleasure while others go hungry! Think, too, of the Sermon on the Mount. That’s practical living for Jesus in preparation for his return.
So how do we apply this? How do we make use of this? Well, bad exegesis (drawing meaning from the text) leads to bad theology. Bad theology leads to bad living. How are we living in light of the certain return of Christ? Are we living for an eternal existence in another place, called Heaven? Or are we living for an eternal existence here on earth, with Jesus, after he finishes redeeming it?
To put it another way, what shape will our rescue from sin and death take? Honestly, too many Christians are waiting for a “beam me up” rescue. They don’t care what’s happening to the world around them because they don’t plan on being here to see it. They don’t care about the people who would be left behind if they were beamed up either.
The two servants left in charge had duties to perform while their master was away. They had to take care of people and the master’s estate. When we believe we will be beamed out of here to join the master somewhere else, it’s really easy to forget these responsibilities!
But we are not refugees of Heaven stranded on earth, waiting to be beamed up! We are citizens of Heaven, but residents of earth, left in charge of creation, waiting under occupation for our conquering King to return and liberate us and the land. In the meantime, we are still in charge and have responsibilities to one another and to our master’s estate while he is gone.
What are some of the duties our Master, Jesus, left us with while he was gone? Matthew has a couple examples. For instance, the Sermon on the Mount! Or, closer to the end of his Gospel, the parable of the Sheep and Goats. We are to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, visit those in prison and the like.
But instead, there is a huge industry, including books like “Left Behind” and figures like Jack van Impe, who are filling people with bad theology, telling Christians there going somewhere they are not actually going, at least not for long. Does it matter? Yes! There are Christians who literally say we should not care for the environment because God is going to destroy it anyway. Their thinking goes like, “If Armageddon is around the corner, who cares if a company is polluting the ocean?” Or if companies are taking advantage of the poor? Who cares if the West’s lifestyle is oppressing the rest of the world or squandering its resources? [NT Wright, Surprised by Hope, p. 119ff]
And yet, in 1 Cor 15:58b Paul says we should give ourselves fully to the work of the Lord because our labour in the Lord is not in vain! How can that be if we’re checking out of here? We are called to labour for the Lord. It’s not in vain. How is that possible if God is going to junk this place? We’re straightening deck chairs on the Titanic.
If, however, God’s plan is to live with us on a redeemed earth for eternity, then what we do in Jesus’ name, in keeping with his character, through the leading and power of his Spirit will actually be preserved in the Kingdom of God, it will last into eternity! All our actions done in agape love, a divine self-giving love primarily concerned with the well-being of others, will last into eternity!
We’ve been talking about Parousia, the arrival of a dignitary, and going out to meet that dignitary to welcome him into our city. This brings to mind the opening words of Mark’s Gospel, “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way” “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” In the ancient world, when a king or dignitary was coming to visit, he would send out workers ahead of him to make sure the road was in good repair for his journey, preparing the way. These workers would fix the road, get rid of bandits, and tell the people the king was coming. That was John the Baptist’s job for the first coming of Jesus. I think that is our job now with respect to Jesus’ second coming! We are to prepare the way for Jesus’ arrival, straightening things out, getting things ready. Then, when he arrives, we go out to meet him and welcome him into the earth, escorting him the last leg of his journey.
This doesn’t mean we are building the Kingdom of God. It does mean, however, we are building things for the Kingdom of God. We are building things in preparation for the Kingdom of God on earth. [Wright, p. 208] This changes how we think about the Lord’s Prayer too. How does that prayer go? We ask for God’s name to be hallowed, his kingdom to come and his will to be done, all on earth as they are in Heaven. If we are to be beamed out of here, then this prayer will never be answered. God’s kingdom will never come on earth as in heaven. His name will never be hallowed on earth like in Heaven. Yet! If Jesus’ is coming here to reign on earth for eternity, then this prayer will be answered fully.
And while we wait for that day, Jesus has left us here as his agents to begin the work of God’s name being hallowed in earth as in heaven. He has left us here to begin the work of God’s kingdom coming on earth as in heaven and his will being done on earth as in heaven. What does that look like? The rest of the prayer is a clue: it includes daily bread for everybody, forgiveness and deliverance from evil. Christians, in Jesus’ name, through his Spirit, at the Spirit’s leading, are to be God’s willing tools preparing these things in advance of Jesus’ final arrival and completion of these projects.
Jesus gave us a lot to do in his absence, knowing he would bring it to completion upon his return. Jesus isn’t going to “beam us out,” leaving a mess on earth, with some partially completed projects started by his people. No! HE’s coming back to see if we were responsible servants who took care of his estate while he was gone! So, like a settler in a Western, or a European in a WW2 movie, live like a citizen under occupation. You’re in charge, but you’re waiting for liberation. Do what you can in anticipation of that liberation. Prepare as much as you can for the arrival of the liberator. Don’t collude with the occupying power. But instead, live each day for
Jesus in light of his pending arrival and rule here on earth. His return will be a surprise in its timing, but not its certainty. So live like a responsible servant, looking after your fellow servants. Care for the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the poor, visit the imprisoned. Fight injustice, care for God’s estate. Live like Jesus was coming back tonight, or first thing in the morning. We may not be able to build the Kingdom of God, but we can build for the Kingdom of God. Amen.
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