Hope. Or no Hope?

1 Thessalonians.  The first Christian scripture.  Paul’s letters were written before the Gospels, and the first of Paul’s letters wasn’t  Romans, it was 1 Thessalonians.  Paul had been preaching the good news in the Greek city of Thessalonica.    These Gentiles, non-Jews, were coming to believe in the Jewish Messiah.  That was the announcement, that God was reframing or reforming his own people.  There was going to be a New Jerusalem, a new Israel, a new kingdom, a new redeemed people.  It was no longer going to be defined by Jewish ethnicity, or Jewish circumcision, or Jewish Torah.   But rather, it was being expanded, and was now being defined by faith, baptism, and obedience to Messiah.   Anyone, Jew or Gentile, who believed that Jesus is the Messiah, whom God has raised from the dead and made to be Lord, they would be incorporated.  It doesn’t matter whether they are Jew or Gentiles, male or female, slave or bond, Scythian or free.  They are going to be incorporated into this new body of Messiah, the new israel, the new society of the redeemed.   “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.”  Colossians 3:11 ESV

Paul has been preaching this in Thessalonica and some of these Greeks have believed have been baptized.  They’ve become members of this new community, and are waiting for Jesus to come.  They are waiting for the king to come.  As Paul says to the Philippians, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”   Philippians 3:20-21 ESV.  Our citizenship is in heaven…our citizenship is in heaven, but we are colonizing earth.  From heaven, We are waiting for the king to come, and when he comes he will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.   We are waiting for the king to come.   When he comes, he will transform our bodies to be like his glorious, risen body.   Paul is preaching this to the Thessalonians, to which they say “Sounds great. Can’t wait!”   And they are anticipating the imminent return of Christ.  Whether that week, that month, but certainly that year.

But now a couple of years have gone by, and Jesus has not appeared.  Worse yet, during this time, some in their community have died.  Some of the church people have died.  So some of the Thessalonians are having a crisis.  They want to know what’s going on, what’s going to happen to those who have passed?  What’s going to happen to them?  They thought Jesus was coming and was going to transform them.  But now their friends and loved ones have died, what’s going to happen to them?

So Paul writes to the Thessalonians to comfort them, to instruct them, and teach them more accurately the way of the Christian faith.  “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 ESV.  But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep...notice Paul’s word for those who have died in the Lord is “asleep”.   This is how Paul describes those Christians who have died and are dead.  But he does not want us to be uninformed about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.   

And this is very interesting.   The pagan world had plenty of theories about what happens when someone dies.   They did not believe the dead ceased to exist.   They fully believed they went to a better place, they went somewhere else, on and on.  But they had no hope of resurrection, no hope of coming alive in this body again.  Paul, quite simply, calls that no hope, and says that’s why we grieve so severely.

For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”  Amen.

Paul says that when the Lord comes, those that have already fallen asleep, that have died and been buried, will not be left out, in fact they will be raised first.  Then all of us will go forth to welcome the coming of the Lord, will meet him in the air, and henceforth will always be with the Lord.

But keep in mind, don’t get our thinking wrong, Jesus is not coming to take us away to a better place.  This place is just fine.  He’s coming to reign and to rule and to raise the dead.   He’s coming to finally fully establish his kingdom.

We will go forth to meet him, because that’s the proper thing to do when the king comes.  You don’t just sit in our house watching television when the king comes, you go forth and meet him.  We’ll go forth and meet our king as he comes from the heavens, but he’s not taking us off anywhere.  He’s going to be with us, because he’s coming here.  He’s not coming to whisk us off somewhere else, he’s coming to to reign and to rule and to raise the dead, and that is the hope that we have.   Paul says Therefore encourage one another with these words.

This is our hope.  Paul later will call it the blessed hope.  The Christian hope, the Easter hope, the hope of resurrection.  The hope is that unknown brothers, unknown sisters, mothers, fathers, relatives we have met, relatives we have never met.  Friends and relatives we’ve known well and have buried, that we will meet them again someday.  Hallelujah

Then there’s this mystery.  The mystery that in one sense the whole body of Christ, the whole company of the redeemed, is to each of us unknown brothers and sisters.  We need to get to know one another.  Might take a while, but we have time.

What has happened is death.   The problem is not time, the problem is death.  Death has separated us from one another.  Maybe you’d like to meet the apostle Paul, maybe you’d like to meet Peter, how about meeting Mary, the mother of Jesus?   I mention them because they are famous.   But there are others out there who lived who knows when and who knows where.  But they are my unknown brother, my unknown sister.  But it’s death that has separated us. But Christ has conquered death…

As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” 1 Corinthians 15:57-58 ESV.   But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.  It’s the victory over the grave.  Therefore, because death is defeated and we’re going to have an ongoing life in the resurrection,  Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.   Because it will find continuation in the age to come.  Have that hope.

John Lewis

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Hope. Or no Hope?

  1. Excellent article. I always get a bit worried when I see anything on 1 Thess. Too much bad theology out there about 1800’s made up Rapture theology and all the consequences of this escapist theology. Thank you for tackling this passage and book in a hopeful way that it was written. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s