I preached two weeks ago at my church, Bellingham Covenant Church. Normally the audio of every sermon goes up on the church web site, but there were problems recording this one. For those who are interested in what I said, here are my notes:
“He Will Come Again in the Same Way You Have Seen Him Go”
Acts 1:6–11 and 1 Thess 4:13–18
I’ve heard my preaching style described as “professorial.” Pay attention, because there will be a test at the end.
Today is Ascension Sunday, which commemorates the day that Jesus ascended (went up) into heaven after his resurrection. The book of Acts says that Jesus spent 40 days after his resurrection with his disciples. 40 days after Easter was actually last Thursday, but since none of us were here, we can celebrate today. We’re going to celebrate Jesus’ ascension by talking about his return.
1 Thessalonians is Paul’s earliest letter that we have. He wrote it to the believers in Thessalonica, a church he had founded on his second missionary journey. They had apparently asked Paul a question about what happened to those Christians who died before Jesus’ return. They were concerned that those who had died would miss out in some way. Paul is NOT interested in giving a precise timeline about Jesus’ return. That’s sometimes what we want when we come to this passage & others like it, but Paul doesn’t tell us. This passage breaks down into two broad categories.
1. Paul encourages the Thessalonians regarding those who have died:
Verse 13 He doesn’t want them to mourn like those who have no hope.
Paul doesn’t say all mourning is bad. Jesus himself mourned at the grave of Lazarus.
“Those who have no hope” are the pagans, who did not believe in resurrection. Some believed that the dead continued in some kind of existence, but it wasn’t anything to look forward to. A letter from the second century AD, addressed to a couple who had lost a son by a friend of theirs who had suffered a similar bereavement herself, says, “I sorrowed and wept over your dear departed one as I wept over Didymas, … but really, there is nothing one can do in the face of such things. So, please comfort each other.”
Verse 14 the dead in Christ will be raised in the same way Jesus was raised.
The Christian hope is in resurrection. There are two kinds of hope. When I was first getting to know my wife, I hoped we would be able to start dating… Fast forward to when we got engaged. I hoped we would get married, but it was a different kind of hope. It was based on a promise we had made to each other. Christian hope is the latter kind of hope. It is based on Jesus’ promise.
Verse 18 Paul wants them to comfort one another with the words he says.
That is the main point. This text doesn’t tell us all we want to know b/c telling us everything is not the point of the text.
2. Paul sets forth in very broad strokes the way Jesus’ return will happen:
Verse 16 The Lord Jesus will come down from heaven.
Is heaven “up there” somewhere? No, it’s an alternate reality where Jesus lives and reigns now. In the ‘60s, Nikolai Kruschev said about the Soviet Union’s first cosmonaut, “He went into space, and he didn’t see God anywhere.” You wouldn’t expect to. Heaven isn’t a place in the physical universe. When we “go to heaven,” we don’t sit on clouds and play harps. We are just fully present in the place where Jesus reigns. Eventually, Revelation tells us there will be a new heavens and new earth where Jesus’ reign will be open and explicit.
Verse 16 The dead in Christ will rise first.
Are they currently with Jesus or not? It seems they are, in some way. The Bible is clear that those who die in Christ are immediately in Jesus’ presence. Jn 8:51: “whoever keeps my word will not see death.” We don’t know when they get resurrection bodies, or how long this intermediate state is. The Bible is not interested in giving us this information.
Verse 17 The ones still alive will be caught up and meet the Lord in the air.
The word for “meet” is a term (apantesis) used 2 other times in the NT. When a dignitary paid an official visit to a city, they would send out a delegation to meet him. Then they would turn around and escort him into the city:
- Matt 25:6; parable of the ten virgins. They go out to meet the bridegroom and escort him to the banquet.
- Acts 28:15; Paul approaching Rome. Roman Christians come out to meet him and escort him to the city.
Is that what Paul is getting at? He isn’t specific enough. I can only say it’s a possibility.
Verse 17 So we will be with the Lord forever.
The important thing is being with Jesus forever, along with those who have died in him. We don’t know how long this “meeting in the air” will be. Eventually we will all have resurrection bodies (Phil 3:20-1) and live on the new heavens and new earth.
3. What does this mean for us? I have one application:
We have hope in Jesus. Jesus is our only hope. We’re not going to save ourselves, and we’re not going to save the world ourselves. Hope in Jesus works itself out both on a social level and on an individual level.
Social Level: Too often we adopt Viking Christianity: we go around in this big boat, the Church. Sometimes we come ashore, find the nearest village, and raid it, tossing a few people over our shoulders and hurrying back to the boat so their souls can be saved. But acting this way shows a limited view of how God is moving in the world.
Here is a different model: A few years ago there were many commemorations of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and each one proposed a theory about why the wall fell when it did. One article focused on spiritual influences:
“The many anniversary celebrations, documentaries and discussions now underway across Germany seem to focus mostly on how fearless street protesters and astute politicians pulled off the “peaceful revolution” that ended communism. Films and photos of dissidents packed into the Gethsemane Church in East Berlin or Leipzig’s St. Nicholas Church, the leading houses of worship that sheltered them until the Wall opened, are among the trademark images. But those crowded “peace prayer” evenings were only the tip of the iceberg of behind-the-scenes work by pastors and lay people who considered it their Christian duty to promote civil rights and human dignity in a rigid communist society.”
This is hope in Jesus as it is worked out on a social level.
Individual Level: A lot of people are without hope in this world. This is why you see an increase of people who believe in things like reincarnation. People don’t like to believe that death is the end. But reincarnation is ultimately a hopeless teaching. The idea behind it is that if you are good enough in this life, you get to advance to a higher life form in the next life. Well, who is going to guarantee that you’re good enough? Who is going to guarantee that you’re going to pass the test? This is like going to the gym and getting on a treadmill with no guarantee that you are ever going to get off. Jesus is the only true source of hope.
I mentioned that there would be a test at the end; here is the test:
What we need to do to pass this test is live a life that makes us acceptable before God. If we pass the test, we get to be raised from the dead and live forever in the new heaven and new earth. Since God is perfect, he requires that we get a perfect score. The bad news is, we’re not prepared. Some of us didn’t study at all. Others of us studied really hard, but we were studying the entirely wrong subject. The good news is, Jesus took this test for us, and he aced it. If we take his “A” instead of the “F” that we were going to earn on our own, we pass, and we get to live forever with him. That’s our only hope.