Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
" CHRIST SOON RETURNS IN GLORY."
52. Q. What comfort is it to you that Christ
will come to judge the living and the dead?
A. In all my sorrow and persecution I lift up my head and eagerly await as judge from heaven the very same person who before has submitted Himself to the judgment of God for my sake, and has removed all the curse from me. He will cast all His and my enemies into everlasting condemnation, but He will take me and all His chosen ones to Himself into heavenly joy and glory.
 Luke 21:28; Rom. 8:22-25; Phil. 3:20,21; Tit. 2:13, 14.  Matt. 25:31-46; I Thess. 4:16, 17; II Thess. 1:6-10. God the Holy Spirit and our Sanctification
1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11
2 Peter 3:10-13
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
Our Lord Jesus Christ has ascended into heaven. We learned two weeks ago that in heaven He intercedes on our behalf, and so we can pray, yes, must be people of prayer. Last week we learned that in heaven our Savior also rules over the entire world; He is King of kings and Lord of lords. In our turbulent times that reality gives us much comfort.
We said last week too, though, that not everybody in Christ’s kingdom actually admits that Christ is King. The devil doesn’t, nor do his demons. So too the millions of unbelievers on this earth; they paid no heed to the instructions the King of kings has given in His word. I described all these demons and people last week as rebels.
For our part, we live in this world, amongst these rebels. These rebels –devil and world alike- put pressure on us to join the rebels, to sin against our God, to ignore or deny Christ’s kingship. We for our part are weak, even inclined to all evil. The result is the situation as it’s described in our Question & Answer for this afternoon; life includes so much "sorrow and persecution", life is a vale of tears.
In that situation, brothers and sisters, the Lord our God comes to us with His Word of comfort. He tells us that the Christ who once ascended will return. Said Jesus once to His disciples: "They will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory" (Luke 21:27). The angels repeated the thought to the disciples while they gazed into heaven on the day of Jesus’ ascension. Said the angels: "This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven" (Acts 1:11). That promise gives glorious perspectives to the church in her sufferings.
I preach to you the gospel of Jesus’ return using this theme:
CHRIST SOON RETURNS IN GLORY.
1. The manner of the return.
Details concerning what will happen on the day of Christ’s return are laid out for us particularly in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, chap 4.
The people of Thessalonica were once heathens, rebels within Christ’s kingdom who did not acknowledge Christ as king. In His grace, the Lord sent His servant Paul to Thessalonica to preach the gospel of Christ crucified for vilest sinners. Those in the city whom the Father had given to the Son came to faith.
In the time Paul spent in the city, he taught these young believers about the work of Christ on the cross and His resurrection, taught them too that No, they could not visit Jesus anywhere because Jesus has ascended into heaven – there to intercede for us and to rule over all the world. But, he added, the Christ who ascended will return to earth.
The Thessalonian Christians embraced this gospel eagerly, including the reality of Jesus’ return. In fact, they very much expected Jesus’ return any day. They knew that God had created the world, and had themselves not witnessed this mighty display of God’s power. They knew that God had sent His only Son into the world –Christmas- and they had not witnessed this mighty display of God’s grace either. They knew that the Son of God had paid for sin on the cross and then risen from the dead, and had themselves not witnessed this glorious display of God’s mercy. They knew that the Lord had ascended into heaven and ten days later had poured out His Holy Spirit, but this display of heavenly majesty they had not witnessed either. But that last final act of salvation history, the return of the Son of God in glory on the clouds of heaven, they were sure they would see it themselves with their own eyes, and join in the choruses of praise that holy angels and godly men would shout forth to the praise of God Most High.
But: in the midst of that expectation a problem arose in the congregation. The problem was this: a member or two died. That meant, to the mind of the remainder, that these brothers and sisters would not be able to witness the return of Christ in glory. They were a communion of saints together, and they wanted to be together on the day of Christ’s return, together to welcome Him back to His kingdom, this earth. But some in the congregation died, were no longer alive to experience Christ’s return, and that gave questions. How could this be, that believers died before Christ returned?! They’ll miss out on seeing that last great work of salvation history! This question came to Paul’s attention, and he penned an answer in chap 4.
Notice, brothers and sisters, that the Thessalonian saints did not put the date of Christ’s return into the distant future. They expected Jesus’ return in their own lifetime! And Paul, in his inspired answer, did not reprimand the Thessalonians for this conviction, did not tell them that Christ would not return for many years yet (because first this had to happen, and this, and this…). In fact, in his answer Paul makes clear that he himself also fully believed that Jesus could return during his own lifetime. Look, for example, at vs 15. "This we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord…." "We", says Paul, and the point is that Paul includes himself amongst the persons that could still be alive on that day of glory. I’ll say more about this in our second point, the Lord willing.
Some in the congregation of the Thessalonians had died. When Paul writes about these deceased people, though, Paul does not use the word ‘death’; he instead uses the term ‘sleep’. That’s vs 13: "those who have fallen asleep," and vs 14: "those who sleep in Jesus." Why, brothers and sisters, does Paul describe the deceased saints with the term ‘sleep’?
Sleep. We all know that sleep is temporary. We experience it day after day; those who sleep wake up. That’s a reality not true –according to our experience- with the dead. We have never experienced a resurrection; to our experience the day stay dead. But Paul would impress upon the Thessalonians that those congregation members who died will not stay dead, but will arise. To communicate that thought the apostle uses the word ‘sleep’. So the term has within it a comforting promise.
There’s a second element caught in the word ‘sleep’. It’s this: those who sleep wake up soon. I mean: we do not measure sleep in terms of years; we measure sleep in terms of hours. Sleep is by definition a short-term thing. When Paul uses the term ‘sleep’ in relation to the saints who died, he’s not only telling the Thessalonians that they will awaken but is telling them also that these saints will awaken sooner rather than later. In other words, Paul confirms the correctness of their expectation that Christ will return soon.
There’s a third element caught in the word ‘sleep’. More often than not we awaken not when we’re fully rested, but when the alarm clock goes (or we expect it to go). That is: through sound (or the expectation of sound) we wake up. So it is too, says Paul, with those who die in the Lord. Vs 16 speaks about a shout, the voice of an archangel, and the trumpet of God. There’s noise, a call, and those who sleep will respond; "the dead in Christ will rise."
When will they arise? The shout, the trumpet, will sound when "the Lord Himself will descend from heaven" (vs 16). That descent is described in vs 15 with the word ‘coming’ –"the coming of the Lord"- a word unique in its meaning.
Coming. The Greek word is here ‘parousia’. The term was commonly used in Paul’s day to describe the victory parade of the victorious general. After his triumph on the battlefield, the general would return home with his soldiers accompanying him and the captives and booty following along. Such a victory parade traveled the dusty road to town, while trumpeters at the head of the procession announced to people far ahead that the victory parade was approaching. The people of town would respond to the sound of the trumpet by streaming out to greet the general, give him their adulation, and escort him into their town.
Paul uses in vs 15 the word ‘parousia’ in relation to Jesus’ return, and his point is that Christ Jesus is a victorious general, returning to His kingdom in triumph. He has defeated sin and Satan on the cross of Calvary, and now at His time returns in triumph to celebrate His victory with all His people. The trumpet of God sounds, the people in Christ’s kingdom hear of the parousia of their victorious general, and they stream out to meet Him. No, they do not meet Him along the road; they meet Him in the air. But: who meets Him first? Vs 15: "we who are alive and remain until the parousia of the Lord will by no means precede those who sleep." Do you hear it, beloved? There are two groups of people mentioned here, "we who are alive" and "those who sleep". The first group, those who are alive, shall not precede the second group, those who sleep. That is: it is not so that the living shall go out to meet their approaching Hero, while the dead stay behind. No, says Paul in vs 16, when the trumpet sounds the first thing to happen will be that the living rush out to meet their Hero; when the trumpet sounds the first thing to happen will be that the dead will awaken from their sleep, rise from their graves. The second thing to happen, after the dead have awakened, is that the living and those who were dead "shall be caught up together … in clouds to meet the Lord in the air."
Do you see the point, beloved? The saints of Thessalonica feared that their dead would miss out on witnessing and experiencing that last great event of history, would not witness the majestic return of Lord in glory. Paul sets the matter straight. It is true: we did not witness God’s work of creation, did not witness God doing His work of redemption in Jesus Christ, did not witness the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. But the Lord would have us know that all His people –those who are still alive when Christ returns as well as those who have died- all His people will personally witness and experience the return of the ascended Christ to earth. How glorious the perspective: our dead will not miss out either! Eyes that have closed for the sleep of death will open in an instant at the sound of God’s mighty trumpet, and they and we together will be caught up in clouds of God to meet the Lord in the air! Front seat views we’ll together have of that glorious conclusion to world history! Even death –that bitter fruit of our fall into sin- shall not prevent us from partaking in the victory parade of our Savior!
"Therefore comfort one another with these words," the apostle adds. And we are comforted….
2. The timing of the return.
It appears that the Thessalonians had a second problem in relation to the return of Christ. Yes, they expected Christ any time, even before congregation members could die. But there seems to have been some ambiguity about "the times and the seasons" – as chap 5:1 has it. That is, there was some puzzlement as to what indicators (if any) there would be that would herald Christ’s coming. You see, with a parousia the people of a given town were told ahead of time that their general would be coming some time next week. Would it be the same with the Lord’s parousia?
Paul’s answer is plain. "But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you." This matter is so simple. After all, "you yourselves know perfectly well that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night;" Jesus Himself had said so (Mt 24:42). Signs of Jesus’ parousia? No, says Paul, there will be none, no more than a thief announces when he’s going to break into your house. Thieves by definition work in secret, on the sly. We know that, and that’s why why we all locked our houses before we went to church, it’s why we install immobilizers in our cars. We take the sorry reality of thieves seriously.
So too Christ’s return. We shall receive no indication that His parousia is about to happen. Paul does not tell the Thessalonians that between the day Paul wrote this letter and the parousia this must first happen, and this, and this. He instead tells the Thessalonian brethren that "the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night." So: there is as much chance that He comes tonight as sometime next year or in 20 years’ time. And itf that was true, brothers and sisters, for the Thessalonians, how much more is it true for us today. We receive no indication that the parousia is near, indeed, we are not told that between today, November 17, 2002, and the actual return this must first happen, and this, and this. It is true today too that "the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night." As it is possible for a thief to break into your house tonight (and that’s why you lock your doors before you go to bed), so it is possible that the Lord’s parousia occurs tonight. Vs 3: "when they say, ‘Peace and safety!’ then sudden destruction comes upon them…."
I say this with emphasis, congregation. The thought exists in the midst of the churches that Christ’s return will not take place until some tribulation overtakes us; first –it’s said- there must come persecution or a great apostasy or the rise of the Antichrist. The effect of that line of thought is that Christ’s parousia is put into the hazy future, and that is both wrong and dangerous.
To be clear: I do not say that Christ’s return will certainly happen within the next few days, nor do I say that there will be no tribulation or persecution or Antichrist in the time between today and Christ’s return. I do say: the Lord has nowhere told us that such a tribulation or persecution or Antichrist will arise between today and His return, and that is why we may not insist that first the times must get worse before Christ can return. It must not pass us by that the Holy Spirit does not correct the Thessalonians’ expectation of Jesus’ coming during their lifetimes yet. More, the Holy Spirit tells us that Jesus comes totally unannounced, comes while people are saying, "Peace and safety!"
I said a moment ago that the expectation of tribulation and persecution before Jesus’ parousia is both wrong and dangerous. I trust that the ‘wrong’ of this expectation is clear to us, given what Paul writes in our chapter. The ‘dangerous’ part I need still to work out, and that’s our last point:
3. The preparation for the return.
This is the material of vss 4-11. The apostle has made clear that no signal will be given that Christ’s parousia is about to happen; His coming will be sudden, surprising. "But," he adds in vs 4, "you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief," that is, should catch you not prepared. Since the Thessalonians were "not in darkness," were instead "all sons of light and sons of the day" (vs 5), the saints of Thessalonica should "watch and be sober" (vs 6). As sobriety means that we take precautions against the thief, so sobriety means that we take precautions to be ready for Christ’s return. What precautions? In vs 8 Paul explains what he means by being sober. He means that the Thessalonian believers are to "put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation." They need this "faith and love" and this "hope of salvation" because when the victorious General comes back He is going to judge the citizens of His kingdom and cast out all the rebels. What distinguishes the obedient citizen from the rebellious citizen? What will let him survive the judgment? Only his faith in Jesus Christ, and so his love for God and the neighbor. The obedient citizens of Christ’s kingdom long for the parousia of their Lord, their Savior, even expect their Lord to come any day, and so these citizens prepare themselves well, prepare themselves by building up the inner man of faith and godliness.
But think it through, brothers and sisters. What happens when the parousia of the Lord is put into the hazy future? We know it well: a town that’s told that it’s general is coming within the next five years will respond much differently than if it’s told the general will come next week. The news that the general’s parousia is next week will stir the town to action, to preparation, to excitement, whilst the news that the parousia might happen in the next five years will do nothing more than call for a planning committee; the people’s lives will continue as normal. So it is too with the parousia of Jesus Christ. What we confess is Lord’s Day 19 is not material that calls for a sermon from time to time reminding us that Jesus will come some day in the distant future; what we confess in our Lord’s Day requires action, preparation, excitement! Christ comes, and He comes as unannounced as a thief; OK, are you ready? The last remaining act of salvation history will occur at any time now and you will see it with your own eyes; does that thought excite you, determine what you do?
You see: people whose vision is this life, whose vision does not include the impending return of the Lord, devote their money and energy and dreams to earthly pleasures, to the here-and-now - be it sport, be it boats, be it the fineries of a big house, etc. But the Scriptures teach that Christ can come back tonight. And when He comes, what shall become of the sport’s team, of the boat, of the big house? According to the passage we read from 2 Peter 3, brothers and sisters, "both the earth and the things that are on it will be burned up." So: our houses, our wardrobes, our cars will go up in smoke. If that is the reality, beloved, what is the sense if pouring energy and money and dreams into a lavish house and an extravagant wardrobe and a posh car? To put the question stronger: if we knew that Lord would return before next Friday, who of you would get out there yet to buy that nicer car, that extra blouse? I trust you see the point: if Christ’s return is a possibility for the hazy future (for this first has to happen, and this, and this…), sure, we’re going to make the most of the immediate future, and focus our minds on the here-and-now – including padding ourselves with earthly pleasures. But if the matter of Christ’s parousia is a reality for this week, we’ll surely pour our energy and our money and our dreams into getting ready. Then our focus will be on the inner man, on faith and godliness – instead of on the outer man. Preparation: we know that when Christ comes back we will together meet Him in the air, together sit at the marriage feast of the Lamb, and so today already we put the petty squabbles of this life where they belong –in the bin- and today already we put the earthly focus that characterizes the rebels of Christ’s kingdom where they belong too – also in the bin. And we focus on the Lord-who-is-coming, and we pour our energy and money and dreams into preparing ourselves and those around us to meet the victorious Judge.
Here is a challenge, brothers and sisters, older and younger. By virtue of the fact that we live on this earth and daily we see the things of this earth, it’s so understandable that we get caught up in the things of this life – bigger, better, my ego, my reputation, my pride. But the confession that "Christ will come to judge the living and the dead" must drive the people of God to put such earthly things into perspective. "Bodily exercise profits a little," says Paul, "but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come" (1 Tim 4:8). There is a place for sport, and a place for a car and a place for a house and a place for a boat, O yes. But in terms of the big picture –the only outstanding event of history is to happen anytime and we shall witness it ourselves- in terms of the big picture sport and cars and houses pale into insignificance; they "profit [only] a little." "But godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come." We expect Christ any day, and so it’s the godliness we need to build up in ourselves and in each other.
In fact, that’s precisely the apostle’s point in 1 Thessalonians 5:11. "Therefore," he writes, "comfort each other and edify one another, just as you also are doing." "Comfort," says our translation, but the term equally means, "encourage". That’s the apostle’s point: he would have the Thessalonians speak with each other about tshe parousia of Christ. Paul wants the subject to stay alive among them, and so when the saints of Thessalonica speak with each other about their holiday plans and the new chariot they’re hoping to buy and the addition that desire for their villa, they should do it with the return of Christ in mind. Indeed, as they speak with each other about developments in town and the race in the arena, they should keep that parousia in mind. And we well understand: talking about that parousia, keeping that parousia in mind when one develops building plans for another villa will definitely affect those building plans! The reality of the parousia is going to drive the believer to direct his energy and money and dreams to preparing himself and others –inside the church and outside- for the coming of the Lord! It will, for example, direct one’s focus to mission work, instead of to more brick and mortar.
Christ comes again, beloved, comes maybe tonight, maybe Wednesday morning, maybe next month. Ask yourself, ask each other this question: how does this confession determine your priorities, your behavior? Amen.