Last season the Ferrari F1 team we're confused. They thought they had designed a great car but on the track performance was poor. It didn't seem to make any sense. However, what made sense didn't really matter because the stopwatch proved that the car was, in reality, slow. So they examined the car tried to work out what the problem was. In the end they realised that problem wasn't with how the car had been put together but with the wind tunnel that they has used to design it with, the whole basis on which the care had been built was false. So the wind tunnel had to go. They packed everything up and moved all their equipment from Italy to Germany where they used another teams wind tunnel. It was only then after they made this fundamental shift that they could start to understand the reality of what was going on. It was a painful and costly decision but one which enabled them to start making real progress.
In tonights passage Paul suggests to the Thessalonians an even more radical and fundamental recalibration. Paul says thats Jesus' death and resurrection is so powerful that it is capable of transforming the way handle both life and death.
1. Jesus' resurrection transforms our grief [v13-18]
Paul writes to the Thessalonians who are struggling with what has happened to their brothers and sisters who have fallen asleep, died in v13:
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.
'we do not want you to be ignorant' - Paul uses this language several times when speaking about important matters. For example we came across it recently, in the mornings, in 1 Corinthians 12.1:
1 Now about spiritual gifts (or the spirituals), brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant.
The Thessalonians are confused about something important, namely: What happens to Christians when they die? That's what Paul means when he says 'those who fall asleep' those who have died. We need a solid answer to that question. Not least because of the pain that death causes, the raw emotions that it stirs up, the grief that death creates. Paul though, says that the Thessalonians should not face death, they should not grieve, like 'the rest of men' who grieve without hope. Paul says that being a Christian should transform the way that we think about death and the way that we grieve.
Now that is a huge thing to claim, that we should be able to think differently to the rest of the world about death, the one thing that no matter who we are, we have in common. Paul puts Christians in their own category saying it is only they who can face death with real hope. What could possibly achieve this, what could make us joyful certain about, and hopeful in, death itself? Paul's answer comes in v14ff:
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.
Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ WILL come again. Jesus' death and resurrection guarantees the futures of those who are in him, even beyond death. Paul goes on...
15 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 for ever.
This will happen. Jesus is coming back as judge and king and there will be a bodily resurrection of all those who have previously died. Or as the prophet Daniel put it several hundred years previously: 2 Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake. How can we know these things are true? There are two reasons here:
It is according to 'the Lord's own word' Jesus has said this will happen, he is the trustworthy authority on this subject. Ref Mt 24.42-44
Jesus has died and risen again, he has shown us what will happen. He is the worked example.
On the basis of Christ's death and resurrection Paul speaks confidently of what will happen to Christians after they die. They will not perish when Jesus returns they will be at no disadvantage to those who are still alive at that point for they will rise first and then all of us who are 'in Christ' will go (v17) to be with the Lord Jesus forever.
The word Paul uses for hope in v13 is 'elpis'. It has been defined as: 'a joyful and confident expectation of eternal life through Jesus Christ'. Logical expectations grounded in the historical reality of Jesus' death and resurrection not wishful thinking. Evidence based hope that's what Paul says we should have.
Not just hoping that you've got some money in the bank going to a cash machine, bringing up your balance and therefore knowing that you have some.
In Jesus' death and resurrection we see the real, historical, physical evidence that allows us to think differently about death. Death that has been defeated. Death is still our enemy but is an enemy in retreat. So Paul says in v18:
18 Therefore encourage each other with these words.
Knowing that Jesus will return and knowing what will happen to Christians when they die is invaluable knowledge. It is transformative knowledge. But 'knowing' is difficult, knowing isn't just receiving or understanding information it is ingesting it, believing it, allowing that knowledge to mould and shape you, to AFFECT you. We need others to help us do that, so Paul instructs the Thessalonians to encourage each other with these words. Paul knows that there will be times in our lives when it will be difficult for us to KNOW these things so he makes it a corporate project; encourage EACH OTHER with these words.
So our task is to do the same; to encourage one another with the reality of Jesus' death and resurrection and therefore with the reality of Jesus' return. How can we do that?
1 Use the means already at our disposal. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11.26 that when we celebrate communion, when we 'eat this bread and drink this cup' then we 'proclaim his death until he comes'. Communion is a means of God's grace, it is Christ's gift to his church to help us do exactly what Paul is urging the Thessalonians to do here; to encourage one another by proclaiming Christ's death (and resurrection) until he comes. When we celebrate communion together, let's celebrate in our hearts. There is a right solemness to communion as we remember Jesus' death in our place but should also be filled with joy because as well as looking back to Jesus' death we are looking forward, LOOKING FORWARD to his return when as Paul says here we will go to be with him forever.
In addition at nearly every service at HTG we recite one of the creeds all of which make mention of Jesus' death, resurrection and return. The Apostles Creed which we said earlier says of Jesus:
He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
What are we doing when we say those words? Are we just mindlessly repeating them, simply going through the motions, stretching our legs before the sermon? Or are we declaring to one another the eternal realities on which our very lives are staked. Let's make the most of these things.
2 Secondly we need to teach one another about the reality of heaven. Paul is about to (in 5.14) urge the Thessalonians to 'warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone etc'. He isn't saying have a sermon series on idleness, or seven principles of biblical confidence - beneficial though those things may be. No, he's telling the Thessalonians to teach and encourage one another about these things, just as here he tells them to encourage one another with the reality of Jesus death, resurrection and return.
Now perhaps we should have a sermon series on heaven, or on the second coming (we've actually had a good few sermons on the reality of Jesus, death, resurrection and return - see Easter/Apostles' Creed and God's word, preached is powerful. But we need to help those words sink in by teaching one another. That can be after the service, over a coffee, in home groups or women's fellowship. I used to know a guy who when he said goodbye to a Christian said 'I'll see you here, there or in the air' - which was kinda of lame and kinda awesome at the same time because they are the legitimate possibilities for the next time we will see Christians again. Don't forget the smaller things; an encouraging text or letter or card that points us to these truths.
Encourage one another with the reality of Jesus' resurrection so that we can face death and grief with real, expectant hope in Jesus. That's point one. Point two is simply the other side of the coin. Jesus' death and resurrection transforms the way we grieve and it transforms the way we live now...
2. Jesus death transforms our lives [1 - 11]
Paul begins chapter five by refusing to write to the Thessalonians about the timing of Jesus' return. Look at v1:
1 Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, 2 for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.
The first reason Paul doesn't want to talk about times and dates is that Paul doesn't know, Matthew 24.36 says: 36"But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son,but only the Father. The angels, don't know, even Jesus doesn't know so Paul definitely doesn't know.
Rather, as Paul reminds the Thessalonians in v2; Jesus' return will come like that of a thief in the night - unexpectedly. A thief does not telegraph his intentions beforehand he comes when you are not on the lookout, in the darkness, when you are asleep. If you're a celebrity he comes when your twitter feed says that you are out. That's the first image Paul uses to describe Jesus' return.
The second image - that of a woman going into labour helps us understand the second reason why Paul doesn't concentrate on times and dates. When Jesus will come again is the wrong question. Are you ready for Jesus to come again? That is the question all of us should be asking.
3While people are saying, "Peace and safety", destruction will come on them suddenly, as labour pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. 4 But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief.
Jesus' return will be unexpected and it will be inescapable. There's a nuance to this illustration, the exact timing of when a women goes into labour is an unknown (as those of us who have experienced such things in the middle of the church weekend away know) it shouldn't be entirely unexpected. You should know it's going to happen, it's certain, even if the precise timings are not. Paul says that when Jesus return comes it will be sudden and inescapable just like the labour pains of a women.
For some, who are not ready, this will be a terrifying day when justice is exercised and they find themselves on the wrong side of it. The Thessalonians however, know Jesus is coming. They are not v4 in darkness so they should not be taken by surprise. They should be prepared, just as pregnant women is prepared to give birth. So even if you are on the church weekend away 69 miles away from the hospital that you're due to give birth in, the overnight bag is packed, the nursery is decorated, the isofix travel system with washable liner, sunshade and cupholder (pram) is bought.
The Thessalonians should be prepared. They should be prepared, not because they have some special knowledge of exactly when Jesus will return, but because of WHO they are in light of Jesus' death and resurrection. Look at v5:
5 You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness
Christians have had an identity change, they no longer belong to the night, to darkness through Jesus they belong to the light, to the day. Christians have been brought out of ignorance, of hopelessness, of death and transferred into truth, hope and life.
So 1 Peter 2.9,10 says:
9 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.
And Colossians 1.13:
13 For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
Therefore or as v6 begins: 'So then'...
6 So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, 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.
Paul says because you are now children of the light, because you 'belong to the day' says v8, because you know that Jesus will return to judge the earth so live accordingly. Be awake, alert...
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.
Paul sandwiches his call to the Thessalonians to live differently, to live alert, self-controlled lives characterised by faith, hope and love in between two clauses which remind the Thessalonians of their changed identities. They are all sons of light v5 because v9 God has not appointed them to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through Jesus who v10 died for us.
We might think of Jesus' return as being a bit like an avalanche, a sudden, terrifying event that may happen at any time which we would want to do anything to avoid when it comes. That image is partially correct, just like labour pains, God's judgement will be sudden and inescapable. However, the problem with thinking of Jesus' return as being like an avalanche is that people like to be in places where avalanches happen. Avalanches often occur in stunningly beautiful places, places which people are prepared to risk the chance of a avalanche to be there. Sometimes, we can be tempted to live as if God's judgement was an avalanche, really the ideal situation would be that we take a risk, live as comfortably as possible in this life until at the last minute we duck under the protection of our Jesus who is simply our ticket to heaven.
This is fatal thinking, as anyone who has experienced an avalanche will tell you, taking risks with them is a very foolish thing to do. But even more tellingly standing under God's judgement, willingly, is nothing like skiing or climbing in a beautiful, avalanche - prone range of mountains its like living in a sewer. Paul tells the Thessalonians - we no longer have any part with this way of living, it is false, it is hopeless, it leads to death. Your identity has changed now, you are children of the day, stop going back to live in the sewer.
The question for us is has our identity changed? Are we living as children of the light? Has a fundamental shift a la Ferrari wind tunnel happened to us? Paul urges the Thessalonians to to live differently, to live alert, self-controlled lives characterised by faith, hope and love the type of lives he thanked God that they were living in the first ten verses of the letter. I'm going to give us a couple of minutes to reflect, maybe to read over v1-11 or those first ten verses of chapter one again and to ask ourselves:
In light of Christ's return?
Do we look like children of the light?
If not to repent in the knowledge of v9, 10
Father thank you that you did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. We praise you that he died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. Please help us to remember these magnificent truth and because of them encourage one another and build each other up, as we wait for your Son, Jesus, whom you raised from the dead to return and to take us home. Amen.