Waiting for Jesus
by Jack Wald | November 3rd, 2000

I Thessalonians 4:13 – 5:11

Pope John XXIII was asked what he would say to the Church today if he knew that the Second Coming of Christ was going to happen tomorrow. With a wry smile and a twinkle in his eye, the pope answered, “Look busy!”

A popular bumper sticker in the US read: Jesus is coming again and this time he’s very angry (or words to that effect).

The Second Coming of Jesus.

We enter today into the four-week period of the church calendar called Advent. It is a period in which we anticipate the coming of Christ. We celebrate the good news of the first Advent of Jesus the Messiah, born as a baby in Bethlehem and we look forward to the promised coming, the second Advent of Jesus the Messiah.

The number of sermons you’ve heard on the Second Coming of Jesus depends largely on what church background you have. Some churches talk repeatedly about the return of Jesus, some rarely, if ever, talk about this event.

Whether particular churches preach on this coming event or not, it has a place of great importance in the Bible. There are 1,845 references to it in the Old Testament.

One out of 30 verses in the New Testament refer to the Second Coming of Christ. Twenty-three of the 27 New Testament books refer to this great event. The four missing books include three which are single-chapter letters written to individual persons on a particular subject, and the fourth is Galatians which does imply Christ’s coming again.

There is a lot of debate about this future event. Throughout church history, there are those who have studied the texts in Scripture that refer to this future event and have made predictions about when Jesus will return.

So far, all of them have been wrong. Christopher Columbus who sailed the ocean blue in 1492, predicted the world would end in 1656. The followers of William Miller sold or gave away their possessions to await the return of Christ in 1843. Miller revised his dates after his prediction failed and that date also came and went without the return of Jesus. His followers evolved into the Seventh Day Adventist Church.

Charles Russell studied the Scriptures and concluded Jesus would return in 1874. When this did not happen, the date was changed to 1914. He had a grand solution to all those who set dates and then were proven wrong. He said that Jesus would return in 1914, but not physically, only spiritually. Who could prove him wrong then? His followers became Jehovah’s Witnesses. There have been several crisis since then in the Jehovah’s Witnesses because other dates have been set for the physical return of Jesus that have come and gone.

Setting a definitive date is an easy way to be proved wrong. But there are many others who do not set definitive dates, but talk definitively about the chronology of future events. There is no way of knowing if these people are right or wrong until we come to those events. In the absence of proof, speculation runs amuck.

The Bible talks about a millennium, a period of 1,000 years of peace on earth. Some say this is metaphorical and other literal. There is also talk of a period of tribulation, 7 years of intense suffering. Again, for some this is a literal 7 year period of time, for others, it is a description of the suffering Christians endure throughout history.

And there are the events of the rapture which is referred to in our text today and the Second Coming of Jesus which is also talked about in our text this morning. For some, the rapture and Second Coming will occur at the same moment in time. For others, they will be separated by the seven years of tribulation. For some, the rapture will precede the great tribulation, for others, Christians will suffer through the great tribulation and then be raptured. And for still others, the rapture will come in the middle of the seven years of tribulation.

So people are pre-mill, post-mill and a-mill. They are pre-mill / post-trib and pre-mill / pre-trib. And on and on and on.

As you may have learned about me by now, I do not shy away from controversy. But I will not walk through this mine field this morning. I cannot clear up anyone’s position of millennial/tribulation issues because I have not spent much time studying them. My stock answer, when I am asked if I am pre-millennial or amillennial or pre-trib or post-trib, is to say that I am working first on the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians. (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control). Once I’ve mastered those qualities, I will begin thinking about my millennial view. And for those who know me, there is a lot of work to be done before I get to the millennial issues.

I will not talk about millennial views, but I do want to say something about future predictions.

The success rate of those making future predictions is so dismal, we should be wary of making them ourselves.

People are great at predicting the past, the future is more difficult. My brother-in-law is an actuarial accountant which means he is a whiz with mathematics. He devised a system that accurately predicted who would win an American football game. It was astonishing. His system worked with a high degree of accuracy for the previous five years. So he decided to go to Las Vegas where it is legal to place bets on football games. He went there every two weeks to place a bet on the game that weekend and then before he returned, a bet on the following week’s game. You can guess what happened. His system that predicted the outcome of the games of the last five years failed and he lost a lot of money.

The scholars of Israel studied the Scriptures and knew about the prophecies that predicted the coming of the Messiah. When King Herod heard from the Magi that the king of the Jews had been born, he was disturbed and asked the chief priests and teachers of the law where Christ, the Messiah, was to be born.

“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
6 ”‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’”

They knew what the Scriptures said and quoted Micah 5:2. They knew all the texts in Scripture that referred to the coming of the Messiah. They knew them and studied them and discussed them. They were sure they knew what would happen.

But they were wrong. They expected the Messiah to come as a triumphant king and missed the point that he would come first as a suffering servant.

Now some people would say that over the last 4,000 years, we have become more intelligent and so we can have a better understanding of the meaning of prophecies in Scripture.
But we are not more intelligent than those Jewish scholars. We have more knowledge, but we are not more intelligent. Read Paul’s letter to the Romans and tell me that Paul was less intelligent than we are today. Tell me that Luke was not a good historian. Tell me that the writer of Job was not a good philosopher.

Jewish scholars with all their intelligence and all their spirituality and devotion to God studied the Scriptures and missed the prediction. They looked for the Messiah to come as a triumphant king and missed his coming first as a suffering servant. They had all the texts in front of them and still missed what would happen. They were not wrong about the coming of the Messiah as triumphant king, but they missed what was meant by the Messiah coming as a suffering servant.

I think we would do well to hold our opinions of future events with a strong sense of humility that we might be wrong. We should learn from the mistake of our spiritual ancestors and not make the same mistake today.

We should look forward to the coming of Jesus. It is OK to have an opinion about what we think the chronology of the events surrounding his coming will be. But to have such confidence that we are right on this issue that we separate from each other because of the surety of our belief, that we make membership in a Christian organization or church dependent on having the same millennial view is in my eyes a terrible mistake.

Now, to the text this morning.

The letter to the Thessalonians was written to a fledgling church Paul had started. He had been forced to flee this church after just a short period of time and was concerned about the viability of this brand new church. He sent Timothy to check up on the church and in 50 AD when Timothy returned from his trip to Corinth where Paul was preaching, Paul wrote this letter.

I Thessalonians is a letter of praise and encouragement, but it also addresses a few issues. The Thessalonians had the expectation that Jesus would return within their lifetime and when members of their fellowship began to die, they were concerned. What had happened to them? Had they missed out on the promise of eternal life promised to Christians? They had a Greek view of death in which the soul of a person lives on, but without any hope and were concerned for those in their fellowship who had died as well as for themselves if they would die.

Paul wants to set them straight about the Christian view of death.

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.  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.

What does this mean “fallen asleep in him”? Is this just a way of saying someone died? At least in the US, people don’t like to talk about death so we say someone passed away, went to a better place, and in a less polite way, kicked the bucket. Is fallen asleep just another way of talking about death?

The use of asleep to talk about someone having died is not found in the Old Testament. It is peculiar to the New Testament and is used by Matthew, John, Luke and Paul to talk about someone having died. It seems clear that the use of this phrase originated with Jesus and then was picked up by his followers.

In Matthew, Mark and Luke, there is the story of the rich ruler asking Jesus to come heal his daughter. Jesus is delayed in coming to the house and when he arrives, he finds himself in the midst of a funeral service for the girl.

When Jesus entered the ruler’s house and saw the flute players and the noisy crowd,  24 he said, “Go away. The girl is not dead but asleep.” But they laughed at him.  25 After the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took the girl by the hand, and she got up.

In John 11, Jesus receives news that Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, has died. These were apparently among the closest friends of Jesus and this was hard news for Jesus and his disciples. The discussion that follows reveals the confusion that ensues when using the phrase “fallen asleep” to talk about someone who has died. Jesus told his disciples:

“Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”
12 His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.”  13 Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.
14 So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead,  15 and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

In Acts 7 Luke gives us the account of Stephen who was martyred for his faith.

While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.

Paul in I Corinthians 15 is talking about the gospel he preaches and in talking about the resurrection appearances of Jesus says this:

After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.

And then five times in this morning’s passage in I Thessalonians asleep is used to talk about those who have died.

What is the point? The point is this: How can someone who has put their trust in God through Jesus die? How can someone who has received the gift of eternal life die? They can’t. And Paul wants this message to come loud and clear to the Thessalonians who are worried about what has happened to those in their fellowship who have died. They have suffered physical death but how can you call them dead when they have risen to new life in Jesus? They have not died, they are only asleep.

This is great news! This is encouraging news! Death is no longer our enemy. Death has been defeated. When we leave this world and go to be with Jesus for eternity, as C. S. Lewis says in his Chronicles of Narnia, the prefix is over and now we begin Chapter one of the book of our life.

In the midst of our celebration of this good news, it is appropriate to notice something about verse 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.

While it says that believers have fallen asleep, notice that it says that Jesus died. Jesus died but we fall asleep. Our celebration is possible only because Jesus died the spiritual death meant for us. We celebrate with deep and intense gratitude for Jesus who has made our celebration possible.

[Sing Majesty}
Majesty, worship His majesty.
Unto Jesus be all glory, honor and praise.
Majesty, kingdom authority
Flow from His throne unto His own;
His anthem raise.

So exalt, lift up on high, the name of Jesus.
Magnify, come glorify, Christ Jesus the King.

Majesty, worship His majesty.
Jesus who died, now glorified,
King of all kings.

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What do we do while we are waiting for Jesus to return?

Paul offers two pieces of advice for us about what to do while we wait for Jesus to return.

The first thing I want to point out that Paul tells us to do is simple, he tells us to continue living the Christian life we have been called to.

6 So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep [this is not the asleep that we have just talked about], but let us be alert and self-controlled.  7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night.  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.

This is a familiar call of Paul’s from Ephesians, to put on the full armor of God and from I Corinthians where Paul elevates these three qualities, faith, hope and love.

We wait for Jesus by living each day for God. When St. Francis of Assisi was asked what he would do if he knew Jesus would return tomorrow, his famous reply was, “I’d plant a tree today.”

We wait for Jesus to return by living for him now. There should be no need to do anything extra if we had some warning that Jesus would be coming tomorrow. God desires us to live each day in fellowship with him so that whenever he returns, we will be ready. This is the message of several of the parables of Jesus as well.

Paul tells us to wait for Jesus by living each day for him now and he tells us to encourage each other while we wait.

In 4:18 he tells us: “Therefore encourage each other with these words.” And then again in 5:11, “ Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.”

Hear the words Paul says we are to use to encourage one another.

According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.  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.  18 Therefore encourage each other with these words.

And in 5:9

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.

Christ will return. We will not lay rotting in some grave. We will be with Jesus when he returns. This world is not where we will end. This world is not all there is. When we leave this world, we will begin our greatest adventure, Chapter One of our book.

Why do we need to be encouraged as we wait for Jesus to return?

You come home after a day of work. Cars and buses and trucks have been cutting into your lane on the drive home. When you come in the door, you discover that the pipes are leaking and water is dripping down your walls. You pick up the mail and add new bills to a pile of still unpaid bills. One of your children comes running up to you and complains about what another of your children did to her/him. It’s a cold damp day and the heaters don’t seem to be warming up the rooms in your house. You put on the television and hear about another Palestinian killed by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank of Jerusalem, Muslims and Christians fighting and killing each other in Kenya and Indonesia, a report of the increasing incidence of Aids In the world, and the United States still can’t figure out who won the Presidential election.

And you ask why we need to be encouraged?

We need to be encouraged because at times it seems that this world is all there is and what there is of it does not seem very encouraging. We need to encourage one another so that we can build each other up. We need to be the voice of God reminding each other of who we are and who we serve. We need the dose of reality that Peter provides in his letter:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.  10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

You are more than the overworked, over stressed, overwhelmed person you sometimes feel yourself to be. You are not a prisoner of this world. Christ is coming. He has set you free and one day you will be free indeed.

In this advent season, with all the excitement that surrounds it, why not think about some tangible way in which you can encourage some other Christian in the fellowship of RPF. Pray about this and let God bring someone to your mind. And then do something. Be creative. If you sense someone is discouraged, feeling trapped, do something to encourage them, to remind them that our  life consists of more than this world.

There are four Sundays in Advent. Can you think of four people God would like you to encourage?

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.