This morning in our series on The Living and True God from the Nicene Creed we come to The Second Coming of Christ. The Nicene Creed declares:
“He [Jesus Christ] will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”
As almost 2000 verses of the Bible teach, specifically, in some way.
“For [declares Acts 17v31] he [God the Father] has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”
Jesus’ resurrection not only proves that Jesus is God the Son, that he bore our sin on the cross and that through his death and resurrection he has conquered sin, death and the devil and that we can share in that victory through faith in Christ, but also that he is coming again to judge the living and the dead. Both those who are alive when he returns and those who have died. There will be a Day of Judgment. Heaven and hell are real.
Which, along with the resurrection, reminds us that this life is not all there is and that death is not the end. As Jesus himself said, on that final day many (those who have put their faith in Christ) will be raised to life with a new resurrection body, but (and I don’t mention this lightly but this is a serious warning) others will also be raised to face a judgment they can’t possibly bear. (Matthew 25v46) The thought of a day of judgment can seem very distressing, especially if, like me, you fear for loved ones. But, in fact, judgment is a very good thing indeed. For the alternative to judgment is absolutely appalling. In the film Schindler’s List, Oskar Schindler who rescued a number of Jews from the Nazis, sees a mother and her son brutally murdered by the SS guards. What shocks Schindler most is the fact that the murder took place in full view of a three year old girl. Such witnesses were permitted by the Nazis because they believed all witnesses would perish too. The Nazi guards did what they liked because they believed they would never be called to account for their actions. In effect, nothing they did mattered anymore. But the Bible repeatedly assures us that wrongdoing will not be left unaddressed – ultimately there will be justice. Hebrews 9v27:
…a man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment. (Hebrews 9v27)
Do any of us really want to live in a world where nothing matters, where even the most extreme cruelty is met with vacuous silence? Jesus’ resurrection and coming return assure us that justice will eventually be done.
God's judgment is coming. None of us can outpace it by the goodness of our lives. We can only be spared by accepting God's gift to us, the gift of his Son. Then we can live life as forgiven, free people, in a loving and living relationship with him. In heaven we'll be like calves released from the stalls in the beautiful sunshine when they literally gallop out! (Malachi 4v2) So if you’re trusting in Christ be encouraged:
For [1 Thessalonians 5v9-10] God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.
When Paul preached Acts 17v31 to the people of Athens, what was their reaction to this message of God’s judgment and mercy? Well some sneered, others wanted to hear more but some believed. What about you?
Now you may have questions about Jesus’ second coming. Questions such as when? Will it really happen, because it seems to be taking a long time? Well the answer to that question is that to God a thousand years is like a day (2 Peter 3v8). So to God it hasn’t yet been 2 days since Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. And Peter goes on (2 Peter 3v9):
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3v9)
The Thessalonians certainly had questions. It seems that Paul had already taught them that the Lord Jesus was going to reappear in order to take his people home to himself. And that he might come at any time so they must be ready. In response some had unwisely given up their jobs – they were in danger of being so heavenly minded that they were no earthly use, while others were totally unprepared for the experience of bereavement. Members of their families and their church family had died trusting in Christ, but before Jesus’ return. And this was worrying them. How would those who died with faith in Christ fare when Jesus returns for his own? Would they be at a disadvantage? Would they miss the blessing of the second coming? Well we’ll look at the answers from 1 Thessalonians in a moment.
1. Christian Hope
But first let me ask you a question. What should mark Christians out from non believers? Yes our behaviour should be different (v1-8 of 1 Thessalonians 4 and v4-8 of 1 Thessalonians 5 make that very clear – we should live holy lives in the power of the Spirit and wearing the armour of God, and purposeful lives, being salt and light in such a time as this in response to what Christ has done for us and in the light of his return) and we’ll come back to that. But what should we have, what should we be full of, what should characterise us as Christians in the light of Jesus’ death, resurrection and promised return, even when we are facing death or the bereavement of someone who has died in Christ? Well the answer is in v13 of 1 Thessalonians 4 and it is hope, which is my first heading: Christian hope.
Christians are to be characterised by hope! As distinct from the non believers who have none (v13). One of the people I miss from this fellowship is Neville Stuart who sadly died suddenly last year and who is now safe with Jesus. Neville was characterised by hope in the Lord. In fact he always used to say I can’t understand miserable Christians. To him there could be no such thing. Now he didn’t say that because he’d never experienced any difficulty or sadness but rather because if we belong to the Lord Jesus we are people of hope. Now hope in the Bible doesn't mean wishful thinking. It doesn’t mean to hope that Newcastle United might win the Premiership! Nor does it mean to hope that there might be a heaven. No, to have Christian hope means to have absolute certainty about our future beyond death, based on God's word. You see what is true of each of us, of every single one of us, here this morning is this. Either we'll die, or the Lord Jesus will return in our lifetime. The question is, whichever will be the case for you, will you be ready to meet him? Do you have that hope that comes through faith in Jesus Christ? You see Christian hope is having absolute certainty that, either way, if we’re trusting in Jesus Christ as our Saviour and Lord we will then be with him in heaven. Christ has died. Christ is risen. And Christ will come again. He will come again to take those who belong to him to heaven. So people who trust in Jesus are – or at least should be – marked out from the rest by having hope. The Apostle Peter in his second letter encourages Christians to look forward to the second coming. Hope encourages them to face death differently to everyone else. And hope encourages them to live life differently to everyone else. So secondly:
2. Encourage each other with these words
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. 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. 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. 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. 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. Therefore encourage each other with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4v13-18)
Some thought that people who fall asleep (believers who die) before the second coming would remain in their graves and not take part in the event. No. We are not to grieve like the rest of men who have no hope for those who ‘fall asleep’ or die in Christ before Jesus returns. For Jesus died and rose again. It follows that the God who raised Jesus will bring with him the people for whom he died, and who died believing in him. In fact they will rise first (v16). This is according to the Lord Jesus’ own word (v15). Jesus will come down from heaven with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and those who have already died in Christ will rise first. After that those believers who are alive when Jesus returns will be caught up together with them to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.
How that will all happen rather boggles the mind. But surely a God who is capable of creation, in the first place, is capable of new creation? Therefore, encourage each other with these words. When grieving the death of a believing loved one, we need encouraging with these words. Notice that Paul doesn’t say we shouldn’t grieve the death of a Christian but that we shouldn’t grieve like the rest of men. Losing a loved one is never easy and it’s important to grieve. Do you remember how Jesus reacted to the news of his friend Lazarus’ death? He wept. But of course he had hope. He knew what was going to happen next. When my believing grand mother was dying of cancer she used to ask me – what will it be like? She needed encouraging with this hope. When facing the reality of our own death, we need encouraging with these words. Not platitudes. Not wishful thinking. But solid hope which rests on the death and resurrection of Jesus. A solid hope which many of you are going to be studying further in Home Groups this week as you start a new series in 1 Peter. Chapter 1 v3-5 say this:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Peter 1v3-5)
So if you are in a Home Group make sure you’re there this week. If you’re not yet in a Home Group you can join one today. Thirdly and finally:
3. Encourage one another and build each other up
We’re not just to encourage one another, although clearly that’s very important as Paul stresses it twice, we’re also to build one another up with the truth of God’s Word about the second coming so that we’re not deceived by false teachers and so that we live in the light of it. For we will all appear before the judgment seat of Christ on that final day and have to give an account to him (2 Corinthians 5v10).
There’s so much said in the world today that’s false about the second coming, especially about the timing. Last year Harold Camping from California claimed that the world would end on May 21st 2011. Then when it didn’t he revised his prediction to October 21st 2011. When that date proved to be wrong he decided to resign, thankfully. But he was right about one thing – Jesus is coming again. So what does Scripture say about when? V1-3:
Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labour pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. (1 Thessalonians 5v1-3)
The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. Believers should know that says Paul. Scripture is very clear about that. No genuine believer should be taken in by the likes of Harold Camping. We don’t know when Jesus will return in glory as Judge. In fact the Bible clearly teaches that only the Father knows. Jesus says in Matthew 24v36:
“No-one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Matthew 24v36)
However, from what Paul says here and from what Jesus says in Luke 17 the second coming, when it happens, will be unmistakable to all, sudden and for non believers, unexpected. Luke 17v24:
“For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other.” (Luke 17v24)
To show how sudden, and (tragically for many people) unexpected, his return will be Jesus refers to the Old Testament accounts of Noah and Lot in Luke 17. His second coming will burst in upon people's daily lives as did the flood and the destruction of Sodom. Jesus says (Luke 17v26-30):
“Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also it will be in the days of the Son of Man. People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all. It was the same in the days of Lot. People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulphur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all. It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed.” (Luke 17v26-30)
As Paul puts it in 1 Thessalonians 5v3:
While people are saying, “Peace and safety”, destruction will come on them suddenly, as labour pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. (1 Thessalonians 5v3)
Notice that the world will not be fully converted when Jesus returns.
So we know Jesus will come again to wrap up history. And we know that we don't know when. Which calls us to be ready for his return all the time. While others will carry on as if nothing is going to happen. V4-11:
But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. 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. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. (1 Thessalonians 5v4-11)
So again there are those with hope (the Christian believers). And those with no hope. Again Paul urges the Christians not to be like the non-believers. And he uses the illustration of night and day to describe the difference in the way they live. Take night, first of all. What do people tend to do at night? Well, says Paul, they sleep (i.e. spend time oblivious to reality) or get drunk. People without hope in life are like people of the night. Oblivious to the ultimate realities of Jesus' return and judgement; busy in escapism, working to live and living for leisure, filling time and killing time while time slowly kills them. With nothing really ultimate on their horizon at all. Contrast that with the day. What do people tend to do in the day? Well, says Paul, It's the time for being alert and self-controlled. In other words, it's the time for purposeful living – living for a goal. And the ultimate goal on the horizon is the return of the Lord Jesus. And we should be living for what ultimately matters, in a world that, as one writer put it 'is ultimately concerned with things that are not ultimate.'
So let us encourage one another and build each other up.