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In our Scripture today Jesus teaches us about his second coming. It’s the most Jesus talks about his return, apart from the Olivet discourse, which in Luke’s gospel is found in chapter 21. So, there’s a lot of information here. (Some of this material is also found in Matthew’s version of the Olivet discourse in  Matthew 24).

I want us to go through this today, so that we can learn more about Jesus’ return, and also so that we can be challenged and encouraged to be prepared for it.

Looking for Jesus’ coming – vs. 22-25

As we work our way through the first few verses, notice that there is a “looking” or “seeing” theme throughout. First of all, the disciples will look for Jesus to return. v. 22 – “And he said to the disciples, ‘The days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it.’”

The reason they will “desire to see” Jesus come back, is that things will get hard for them. They will be persecuted for following Jesus. Life will be hard. And they look to Jesus’ return because he will give them relief. This will be the time when evildoers are judged and followers of Jesus will be blessed with peace and life eternal in his presence.

And yet, Jesus says, they will look but he won’t come. Jesus indicates here that his coming could take some time. As Christians, we will go through many difficulties, without relief from Jesus’ return.

Next he tells us that false prophets will say, “Look, here he is!” v. 23 – “And they will say to you, ‘Look, there!’ or ‘Look, here!’ Do not go out or follow them.”

Given the hard times the disciples will go through and their longing for Jesus to return, there will be the temptation to fall for false claims of his return. The false prophets will point to where they think Jesus has returned, or who he might be. But Jesus warns them, and us, ahead of time not to allow our desperation to lead us astray so that we follow after them.

He then tells them that his coming will not be some secret affair that only a few know of so that someone could even say, ‘Hey, come look, he’s over here!’ Jesus will be seen by all when he comes. v. 24 – “For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day.” Jesus’ coming will be a worldwide public event. It will be like lightning that shoots across the sky. It will be impossible to miss.

v. 25 – “But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.’” This section ends with a reminder that Jesus has to suffer before he comes to his day of glory. This echoes v. 22, where his followers will go through hardship before we find vindication.

This brings us to the next section –

The three-fold pattern of Jesus’ coming – vs. 26-30

Here, Jesus begins to make some comparisons between his coming – and Noah’s flood on the one hand, and the destruction of Sodom on the other.

First, the days of Noah. vs. 26-27 – “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.”

The people in the days of Noah were unprepared. They were going about their normal lives, eating and drinking, unaware of any danger. But then “Noah entered the ark,” and afterwards judgment fell upon them all. Notice the three parts: 1. normal life; 2. the departure of Noah; and then 3. the destruction of the rest.

And then we have the days of Lot. vs. 28-30 – “Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot – they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all – so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed.”

The citizens of Sodom were going about their normal routines unaware of the danger of the coming judgment. But when Lot left Sodom, the judgment came and killed all of them. Again, the same three-fold pattern emerges: 1. normal life; 2. the departure of Lot; and then 3. the destruction of the rest.

Jesus says twice in these verses, “As it was . . . so will it be. His point is that the sequence of Noah, Lot and the Son of Man is the same. So we learn from this that when Jesus returns:

1. People will be going about their normal life unaware of what is about to happen; clueless and unprepared.

2. The righteous will be removed, just as Noah and Lot were.

3. And then the judgment will come and destroy all the rest.

The remaining teaching in this passage focuses in on step #2, the removal of the righteous. And first of all Jesus calls us to –

Be prepared to leave! – vs. 31-33

vs. 31-32 – “On that day, let the one who is on the housetop, with his goods in the house, not come down to take them away, and likewise let the one who is in the field not turn back. Remember Lot’s wife.” These verses draw further on the story of Lot in Genesis 19. Jesus is saying that when the righteous are taken it will be like when Lot came out of Sodom.

God sent angels to rescue Lot, but he was reluctant to leave his house. The angels practically had to drag him and his family out of the city. In the same way v. 31 pictures someone who is attached to their possessions when the angels come for them on the day of resurrection. They are thinking about scooping up the belongings in their house. They can’t leave their earthly life behind, just as Lot was hesitant to leave his life in Sodom.

Also, when they were outside of the city the angels told Lot and his family they were not to look back. And when Lot’s wife did look back, she was judged by being turned into a pillar of salt. So v. 32 pictures someone who is attached to their earthly life when the angels come for them on the day of resurrection. They are thinking about looking back from the field, because the want to preserve their earthly life. Jesus tells them not to look back. Rather they are to remember Lots’ wife, who longingly looked back to her life in Sodom and was judged. (The example of Sodom, a wealthy city, fits well the theme here of undue care for possessions and one’s earthly life).

If before, in v. 23 Jesus said, “do not go out or follow them,” that is the false prophets, here we are to drop everything and go to Jesus when the angels come for us. (For references to angels as the gatherers on the day of resurrection: Matthew 24:31; 13:39).

In v. 33 Jesus says, “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.” This is a warning. Don’t be attached to your earthly life! That is, to your family, friends, job, possessions, status and earthly plans.

  • If you cling to your earthly life on the day of gathering, seeking to preserve it, you will lose it, just like Lot’s wife.
  • But, if you let go of it all, your possessions, your projects and your earthly dreams; that is, if you lose your life – then you will keep your life; life in the kingdom of God forever.

And the way to prepare is to already now die to your earthly life by putting God first and sacrificing whatever God wants you to sacrifice now. Then you will be ready, and not hesitant on the day of resurrection, when the angels come for you.

This brings us to the final section, which give a bit more detail about –

What will happen when the righteous are taken – vs. 34-37

vs. 34-35 – “I tell you, in that night there will be two in one bed. One will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding (meal) together. One will be taken and the other left.”

When Jesus talks about being “taken” he is, again, speaking of the exit of the righteous, or stage two of his coming; the resurrection. When he talks about being “left” he is talking about being left to be judged.

Notice the separation that will take place between, no doubt, family members, friends and coworkers. One is taken to be saved, the other is left to be judged.

v. 37 – “And they said to him, ‘Where, Lord?’ He said to them, ‘Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.’” The disciples are asking the question, ‘Where the righteous will be taken?’ Jesus gives a cryptic and somewhat gruesome answer.

What he is saying is that just like vultures are up in the sky over what is dead on the earth, so by means of the resurrection, the righteous will be up in the sky over those destroyed in the judgment. (See as well 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17. Also notice that this saying in Matthew 24:28 comes right after the reference to Jesus being in the sky, v. 27).

This is in accord with Isaiah 66:24 which says of the righteous on the final day, “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me.” We will be in the sky, looking upon the results of the judgment.

  • This matches what happened at the time of the flood. Noah was lifted up above those who drowned in the waters below.
  • This also matches what happened when God destroyed Sodom, for Genesis 19:28 says, Abraham “looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah and toward all the land of the valley, and he looked and, behold, the smoke of the land went up like the smoke of a furnace.”

Now, there’s a lot in this passage, but let’s end with –

Five key points

1. When times are hard as we wait for Jesus, we need to be careful of false teachers who promise us relief by telling us that Jesus has, in fact, already returned.

2. We have to remember that when Jesus comes everyone will know, not just a few. It  is a can’t miss occurrence.

3. There is a three-fold pattern connected to Jesus’ coming: Things will be normal and people will be unaware. The righteous will be removed, then the rest will be judged.

4. Judgment is real! We don’t like to talk about this, but it is clearly here. It is patterned on what happened in the flood and the destruction of Sodom. As Jesus said of these, God’s judgment “destroyed them all.” And so it will be on the final day. It will be truly horrible! It will be a time of reckoning for rebellion and evil. This is not something you want to be a part of.

5. We need to be prepared by choosing now to die to our earthly lives, and live completely for God.

I end with the simple question – Are you ready??

Christians are you dead to your earthly life? Are you  ready to drop everything and go to Jesus when he returns? Or are you busy pursuing your earthly life and enjoying it – looking for more wealth, possessions, a bigger house and clinging to these?

If you aren’t yet a Christian, are you willing to receive the salvation that Jesus brings so that you can be a part of the great gathering of the righteous on the final day?

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The message today is very simple. God is a God of life and a God of blessing. And even though we so often fail and sin and mess things up so that there seems to be no hope, in grace, God offers us a new beginning.

Let’s start off with –

Some examples of new beginnings

– that God has given in the Scriptures.

1. Think of Adam and Eve. God made them and blessed them, and everything was “very good” (Genesis 1:31). But they sinned and rebelled against God and were judged and exiled from the garden.

But God in his mercy offered them a new beginning. For through their son Seth came a new start. As Genesis 4:26 says, “at that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord.”

Things seemed truly hopeless, but . . . (say it all together) “God made a new beginning.”

2. Think of the time of Noah. Genesis 6:5 says, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” (NRSV)

But God offered a new beginning through Noah and his family. They survived the judgment of the flood on callous evildoers. And God told Noah and his family, repeating the original commission to Adam and Eve, “be fruitful and multiply on the earth” (Genesis 8:17). Humanity began again.

Things seemed truly hopeless, but . . . “God made a new beginning.”

3. And then there was Abraham. The nations of the earth had forgotten God and were going their own way, worshiping different idols and false gods.

But God revealed himself to Abraham and his family. And God began a plan and made promises to use Abraham and his family to make himself known to the nations.

Things seemed truly hopeless, but . . . “God made a new beginning.”

4. And then there was Moses. Abraham’s lineage was in slavery in Egypt, captive in their suffering and not fulfilling their role.

So God raised up Moses to deliver them and to put into action the plan and promises he gave to Abraham. Moses led them to the promised land as a new nation, Israel.

Things seemed truly hopeless, but . . . “God made a new beginning.”

5. Remember the judges. Israel was unfaithful to God, worshiping idols and false gods and to fulfilling God’s plan. And they were enslaved to the rulers of the people around them.

But God raised up judges like Gideon and Samuel to call them to faithfulness. And he used them to deliver Israel from their oppression.

At many points during these years, things seemed truly hopeless, but . . . “God made a new beginning.”

6. Remember King David. Israel wanted a king like the nations around them, even though this was not of God. And when God gave them their first king Saul, he turned out to be a disaster.

But then God raised up his servant David. And he led the people toward faithfulness to God. And he delivered them from their enemies.

Things seemed truly hopeless, but . . . “God made a new beginning.”

7. Finally, remember when Israel returned from exile. After many years of rebellion and sin, and not listening to the prophets, they were judged and carried away to Babylon for 70 years of exile.

But God acted to bring them back to their land to begin anew. He did this in accord with the promise in Jeremiah 29:11 – “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” And God did give them a new start.

Things seemed truly hopeless, but . . . “God made a new beginning.”

And then we come to –

The new beginning

And this requires us to look at the big picture. God doesn’t just want to give new beginnings within history. God is really leading all things toward a a cosmic new beginning. God created the world, but the world has fallen under the powers of Sin, Satan and Death. But now, God is bringing forth a new creation. As he said in Isaiah 65:17-18, “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create”

And God is doing this through his Son, Jesus, whom he sent for this very purpose.

All of the new beginnings we have looked at so far prepared the way for Jesus , who is a descendant of Seth, Noah, Abraham, David and the people of Israel. And Jesus is the fulfillment of all the promises given to Adam and Eve, Abraham, Moses, David and the prophets.

Jesus became a human but he knew no sin. And so the powers of Sin, Satan and Death had not right to him. Yet, even though he was innocent, he was put to death on the cross. And because of this:

  • The powers of Sin, Satan and Death have been put down.
  • And Jesus has been raised up from the dead, vindicated and seated at the right hand of God with all authority over heaven and earth.

And he now gives us the blessings of salvation – the forgiveness of our sins and new life through the Spirit of God living within us. What I am saying is that in Jesus, the new creation has begun. And when he returns in glory he will raise us from the dead and the new creation will be completed.

Things seemed truly hopeless for the first creation, but . . . “God made a new beginning”; a new creation in Jesus Christ.

And so in light of all this, I ask you this morning –

Do you need a new beginning?

This God of new beginnings, who works throughout history to give new starts and who has brought forth a new creation through the resurrection of Jesus – this same God can give you a new beginning!

Have you failed God and others? Is your life a mess? Do you think that things are so bad – your situation, your sin, your guilt and shame – that it’s beyond hope?

Well, 2 Corinthians 5:17 tells us – “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” Right now this Easter day he can give you a new start., Your sin and guilt and shame can be wiped away and you can be a part of the new creation that God has begun in Jesus.

And when Jesus returns you will be raised to an unending life of righteousness, peace and joy in the presence of God. As Revelation 21:3-5 says, “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’ And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’”

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Series: Clothe yourselves with humility

Remember with me – humility means “lowliness.” It comes from a word that means the earth, so the idea is that you are low to the ground. It means lowering yourself before others. Not raising yourself up above others.

We also talked about four components of humility:

1. You don’t seek honor and praise for yourself. You don’t need to lift yourself above others – brandishing titles, boasting or trying to get noticed. Rather you lower yourself to give honor to others and lift them up.

2. You put yourself on the same level or lower than others. You don’t need to lift yourself up above others always to be in charge or in control. Rather you lower yourself so that you can follow and submit to others.

3. You don’t seek to be served, lifting yourself above others. Rather you lower yourself to serve and bless others.

4. You don’t insist on what is best or easiest for you, lifting yourself above others. Rather you lower yourself to sacrifice for the needs of others.

The title today is, Humility. It’s worth it! This is important to emphasize because who wants to be on the bottom and not the top? Who wants to be last and not first? Who wants to go without recognition or give up power? Who wants to serve and sacrifice for others – instead of others serving and sacrificing for us?

Humility is a hard sell. It goes against everything the world tells us about getting ahead and being on top. And it goes against everything our flesh tells us, that we are more important than others, and that our needs and comforts should come first.

And so that’s why I want to encourage you today to know that humility is worth it. It really is.

It’s worth it, first of all, because –

God blesses the humble in their humility

For instance, God shows favor to the humble. James 4:6 say, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (Proverbs 3:34; 1 Peter 5:5). I know I want God to give me favor.

God pays attention to the humblePsalm 138:6 says, “For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly, but the haughty he knows from afar.” I know that I want God to hear me and have regard for me.

God reveals himself to the humble. Psalm 25:9 says, “He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.” I know that I want to know God’s way and what is right.

God is close to the humble. Isaiah 57:15 says, “For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place,  and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit . . .’” I know that I want God’s presence in my life.

And God strengthens the humble. Isaiah 57:15 goes on to say that God dwells with the humble “to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” I know that I need God’s strength in my life.

Now, this is not an exhaustive list of the blessings of humility. But it makes the point – it’s worth it! Because God will be with you, God will help you and God will bless you.

But, even more important than this is the fact that –

God will one day exalt the humble

Jesus talks about this in Luke 18:14, as well as in many other places. This verse says, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Three observations: 1) the phrase used twice “will be” is a divine passive. That is, it is a deferential way of talking about God. What Jesus is saying is that God will bring down the proud. And also, God will lift up the humble.

2) The key point here is that if you raise yourself above others – by boasting, by trying to be on top, by trying to be served and sacrificed for, you will be humbled by God. But (and you need to get this) if you give this all up and are humble, God will give these things to you. God himself will act to raise you up – to give you honor, to give you status, to put you in charge and to give you comforts and joy.

Notice that there is a “V” shape of the Christian life.

v shape1We focus on lowering ourselves to where we are sacrificially serving others. And then God acts to raise us up in his good time and way.

3) There is a reference to the resurrection of the righteous in this verse. The word “exalted” can also be translated “raised up,” as in raised up on the final day.

Now, God can raise us up in this life too to give us honor. 1 Peter 5:6 says, “humble yourselves, therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that at the proper time he may exalt you.” There is a time and place even in this life that God does this.

But the real exaltation will come on the final day, at the time of the great reversal when God humbles the arrogant and powerful and raises up the lowly in the resurrection to life eternal.

And let me end by saying that this will happen by looking at the example Jesus. As we saw before in Philippians 2:5-8 Jesus humbled himself step by step making himself lower and lower.

1. He did not seek honor – 6 – “though he was in the form of God, (he) did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” He set aside his rightful glory at the right hand of God.

2. He came down to our level – 7 – he “made himself nothing.” He became a mere human being like the rest of us.

3. He came to serve us – 7 – “taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” He lowered himself below us to lift us up.

4. He gave up his life for us – 8 – “and being found in human form, he humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross.” He sacrificed everything for us.

But then the great reversal came for him, his resurrection from the dead. Philippians 2:9-11 talks about this. It says, “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Notice again the “V” shape of this. He lowered himself. And then God raised him up. And what I am saying is that if we follow in our Lord’s footsteps – we too will be exalted on that final day.

When we give up the meager things of this world, the honor and status it gives, God will give us honor and status in the world to come, when it really counts.

  • If you just look at it according to a worldly perspective – it isn’t worth it.
  • If you just look at it from the perspective of the flesh – it isn’t worth it.

But from the perspective of the kingdom of God it is so worth it, because this world is passing away and our lives are like a mist that comes and goes in a day, but the kingdom is eternal.

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Easter so clearly proclaims the Christian message – Jesus is raised from the dead and he has provided for us a great hope of resurrection life in the world to come. And this is a time when we gather and sing and celebrate this great truth.

But the question I am asking this morning – Do you really believe in the resurrection? – has to do with whether this belief in our minds makes itself evident in our actions.

Let’s turn to-

1 Corinthians 15

In this passage Paul argues against some Christians who were saying that there is no resurrection.

  • In vs. 1-5 Paul reminds the Corinthians that the gospel he preached and that they believed is based on the resurrection – the resurrection of Jesus.
  • In vs. 12-20 Paul states that if there is no resurrection this means that Christ is not raised, and so our faith is in vain. It also means that we are still in our sins, and so there is no salvation.
  • And then in vs. 30-32 he makes the argument that I want us to look at. Let’s read these verses:

vs. 30-32 – “And why are we putting ourselves in danger every hour? I die every day! That is as certain, brothers and sisters, as my boasting of you—a boast that I make in Christ Jesus our Lord. If with merely human hopes I fought with wild animals at Ephesus, what would I have gained by it? If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.'” (NRSV)

I want to turn this passage around and make Paul’s point in reverse. Paul’ point is that if the dead are not raised, why would Christians be willing to give up their lives in this world? He references his own experience as he talks about being in constant danger and fighting with wild beasts in Ephesus. If this life is all there is they should all be out living it up, enjoying this life, because it’s all anyone has.

So he argues from their current behavior back to a belief that sustains that behavior. He’s saying, it’s our belief in the resurrection that allows us to give up our lives in this world – because there is another, better world to come.

My point moves from a belief in the resurrection to the kind of life that such a belief should produce in our actions and choices. Since we believe that there is a resurrection, we are free to give up our lives in this world. This life is not all there is and what is to come is better. So we don’t need to cling to our lives in this world.

Our belief in the resurrection and new life in the world to come gives us a whole new outlook on this life, which should reorient our everyday decisions. I call this a resurrection perspective. We are not to live for this life, but for the next.

This resurrection perspective is truly liberating

It sets us free to serve God in bold new ways. For instance, 1. We can give up pursuing our own dreams in this world. We can give up our own ambitions; all the things that we seek to find meaning and worth in life.

Maybe your dream is about having a family and enjoying life with them all your days. Or maybe it’s being with your friends and living life with them. Maybe it’s gaining more and more wealth, or making a name for yourself or finding “fulfillment” in life – making of yourself all that you can.

We can give this all up and follow God wherever that may take us. We can let God’s will for us be our dream, our ambition, our meaning – making everything else secondary or even setting them aside to do God’s will.

Paul says in Philippians 3:8 in the context of the resurrection, “I have suffered the loss of all things.” He gave up everything for Jesus.

Paul was not bound by fear of the loss of his own dreams and ambitions connected to this life, because this world is passing away and another is coming that is better than our best earthly dreams.

Belief in the resurrection set him free so that he could pursue God’s call on his life wherever that took him.

Another example of the liberating power of belief in the resurrection is that 2. We can give up being comfortable, secure, and settled in this world. We can give up having all that we want, just like we want it; living life like we always have, where we want to live.

Rather we can endure hard times and suffering in this world in obedience to God’s will. Paul in 2 Corinthians 11:23-27 talks about his many “imprisonments . . . countless beatings, and (how he was) often near death.” He says, “Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.”

He was not bound by the fear of loss of earthly comfort, security and settledness, because his true comfort and security is waiting for him in the world to come. As he says in 2 Corinthians 4:17, “this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.”

Belief in the resurrection set him free to obey God radically, even if it means that suffering for doing Gods’ call, will be a part of this.

3. We can literally give up our lives in this world. We can obey God even when others threaten to take away our lives for doing it.

In 2 Timothy 4:6 he says, “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come.” And indeed he was killed for his faith.

He was not bound by the fear of death. Because he has a life in the world to come he doesn’t’ need not cling to his earthly life.

Belief in the resurrection set him free to obey God boldly, even if that means dying for Jesus.

Now, Paul said that “he dies daily” in v. 30. What he means is that he is prepared to lose all these things each day – earthly dreams, comforts and his own life. And he can do this because there is a resurrection.

What about you?

Do you really believe in the resurrection? Does it show up in your everyday life choices?

When others look at your life, do they see you living like this world is all there is? Do they see you chasing after the good things of this life, wanting more and more, and guarding against the loss of what you already have? In other words, living like everyone else?

Or do they see you living for the world to come? Do they see that you are free to serve God boldly and sacrificially, making life decisions based on your faith in the God who raises the dead, and doing things you would never do unless there was a resurrection?

We can all say what we want this morning, as we sing and talk about the resurrection. But if it doesn’t affect how we live, it’s meaningless.

This is the challenge I leave with you – let’s live our lives like we really
do believe in the resurrection.

William Higgins

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Series: Paul to the Thessalonians

We have been looking at 1 Thessalonians for a number of weeks and we are now in the final part of chapter 4, where Paul is going through a list of topics that need to be addressed. First was sex, or how we are to control our own bodies in holiness and honor. Next was mutual love, or how we should give generously to the needs of others, and how we ought not take advantage of such generosity to become idle busybodies.

Today the focus in on the resurrection of the righteous when Jesus returns. The second coming of Jesus is a big theme in 1 Thessalonians, mentioned in six different places. It also dominates 2 Thessalonians.

 But there was some confusion among the Thessalonians on the question –

What about the dead in Christ?

“13Now concerning those who are asleep, we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters.” Since Paul left, someone had died, or as he says here, fell “asleep. [Paul uses this metaphor for death  three times in these verses – vs. 13, 14, 15. This was a common euphemism for talking about death in Judaism and the Greek and Roman world. It also came to be connected with those who are waiting to be awakened at the resurrection – Daniel 12:2. See also Mark 5:39. He also speaks of “the dead in Christ” in v. 16.] But having a Christian die was distressing to the Thessalonians, because they’re not sure what that means for the person. 

As we will see in a moment, Paul has taught them the basics of the Olivet discourse from Jesus about his second coming and the resurrection (Matthew 24-25). And it’s true that here and elsewhere Jesus focuses on those living at the time of his coming. He doesn’t explicitly address the issue of the righteous dead (at least not in the first three gospels). So the question arose among them – ‘Will the dead in Christ take part in all that happens when Jesus returns?’

And apparently some thought not. And this led them to be full of grief for the one who had died. So Paul wants to teach them on this “ . . . that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” It’s true that in the Greek and Roman world there was very little hope for anything after death, except eternal sleep in the gloomy underworld. As one of them said, “Hopes are for the living, but the ones who die are without hope” (Theocritus). But as Christians we have hope.

So this is a place where Paul needs to supply what is lacking in their understanding (1 Thessalonians 3:10), given that he had to leave them so quickly. So he shares –

The story on those who have died

First, he appeals to the example of Jesus. “14For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” Paul is saying, Jesus died too – but he rose again. And in the same way, because of the salvation that Jesus gives (“through Jesus”), God will bring with Jesus at his coming the dead in Christ, so that they can follow his pattern of first dying and then being raised.

So the dead in Christ are not left out. They will come with Jesus in order to be resurrected to new life. [When Paul says, “God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” are those “with him” already resurrected or do they come with him to be resurrected? Two things point to the latter: 1) The resurrection happens after Jesus descends from heaven – v. 16. But these are “with him” at his coming; at his descent. The idea, almost certainly, is that they come with Jesus from heaven, from their interim state, from being with him in heaven – Philippians 1:22; 2 Corinthians 5:8. 2) God does not “bring with” Jesus those who are already raised, but those who are identified as “asleep,” that is, those not yet resurrected.]

But this teaching is not just based on the example of Jesus’ death and resurrection, it is also supported by a word from the Lord“15For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord . . .” What’s this all about? As I said, there’s no saying of Jesus that explicitly addresses the dead in Christ. 

Rather, I believe that Paul is referring here to Zechariah 14:5 which is a part of a “word of the Lord” oracle (Zechariah 12:1). This says, “And the LORD my God will come and all the holy ones with him” (LXX).

  • The name, “LORD” or “Yahweh” is most often taken as a reference to Jesus, when Paul reads the Old Testament. So this speaks to Jesus’ coming.
  • The phrase “the holy ones” most often refers to the angels who are a part of “the assembly of the holy ones” in heaven (Psalm 89:5). But even in the Old Testament “holy ones” can also refer to the people of God. [In the LXX see Psalm 33(34):9 and Daniel 7:18, 21.] And Paul uses this particular phrase (the plural ῾οι ῾αγιοι as a substantive) to refer exclusively to believers or saints in his letters [38 times by my count with one instance of the singular – Philippians 4:21.] And he speaks of the dead in Christ as being “with Jesus” in several places (Philippians 1:26; 2 Corinthians 5:8), so this puts them in this assembly. They are a part of the “all” of his holy ones. [See also Hebrews 12:22-24, Revelation 4-5, 6:9-11.]
  • Finally, the dead in Christ, will come “with him.” They will come along with the rest of the host of heaven at his return. [Didache 16:7 quotes Zechariah 14:5 and clearly refers it to the resurrection of the dead in Christ.]

Notice the similarity of this to v. 14, “God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” His reasoning is, if  “all” the holy ones come with him, then the dead in Christ will come with him too.

[Paul clearly alludes to Zechariah 14:5 (LXX) already in 1 Thessalonians 3:13 – “at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones,” in the prayer that sets up this teaching section. (This can be seen in the Greek. Both use κυριος and both have similar phrase about the “holy ones” – Zechariah – πάντες οἱ ἅγιοι μετ’ αὐτοῦ; Paul – μετὰ πάντων τῶν ἁγίων αὐτοῦ – see Gordon Fee). Notice that it is cited in the context of praying that the Thessalonians will become holy.] [Although there is no word of Jesus that makes this precise point, which is the reason for confusion in the first place, given that Paul takes Yahweh as a reference to Jesus, it turns out that this is in a sense a word of Jesus.]

Paul goes on – “. . . that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.” Paul also concludes from this word of the Lord that since the dead in Christ descend with Jesus from heaven, even before the resurrection happens, they have a certain precedence over the living, who are still on earth at this point. They are first, because they are already with Jesus. [Those “who remain” might well mean those that are not already a part of the assembly of the holy ones with Jesus.]

So, not only do they take part in what happens when Jesus returns, they have a certain chronological priority.

Next, Paul gives the sequence of events that will happen when Christ returns and the righteous are raised. “16For 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. 17Then 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.”

Notice how this sequence is really just a summary of the Olivet discourse of Jesus from Matthew 24:30-31, which Paul had taught them when he was with them. [The connections with the Olivet discourse continue in 5:1-11, where Paul says that they know these things – 5:1-2.] 

1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 Matthew 24:30-31
1. Jesus will descend from heaven 1. “The Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven”
2. A cry of command, the voice of an archangel 2. “And he will send out his angels”
3. The trumpet of God 3. “With a loud trumpet call”
The dead in Christ will rise first Zechariah 14:5
4. We who are alive will be caught up (resurrected) 4. The angels will “gather his elect from the four winds” (a common metaphor for resurrection)

But since Jesus doesn’t address the dead in Christ in the sequence, which caused the confusion for them, Paul adds in Zechariah 14:5. A word of the Lord that supplements and clarifies the teaching of the Olivet discourse on the place of the dead in Christ (in blue).

Paul also makes clear that this is a royal event. Several aspects of his description of it in vs. 15-17 point this out. For instance having an angel herald his coming and the blowing of a trumpet. Also, the word used here for “coming” makes this point. It means presence, coming or arrival. But it could also be used of the coming of a ruler or emperor on an official visit. Finally, the word “meet” has to do with an official delegation that goes out to welcome, and then escort a dignitary back into the city (Acts 28:15-16; Matthew 25:6). This will be the role of the living when Jesus comes. So the dead in Christ will be raised first, and the living will function as the welcoming committee.

The Thessalonians had welcomed Roman emperors to their city before, so they would know what Paul is talking about here. Except that here they will be welcoming the emperor of all creation to earth.

Paul’s message is – be encouraged! “18Therefore encourage one another with these words.” He has taught them that:

  • the dead will be a part of the events of the second coming
  • they will even have a certain priority in the order of resurrection
  • we will be “together with them” in the resurrection – v. 17
  • we will all be with the Lord forever – v. 17

And he has done so, “that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” – v. 13.

[Why is there no discussion of a reunion with loved ones in the interim state? Most likely because of the contrast that controls this passage between the living and the dead. The living, as living ones, can only be reunited through the resurrection. If they die they can presumably be reunited in this way, but then they are no longer the living. Paul does not speak of a reunion in the interim state, perhaps because the real hope of the Christian is the resurrection. And also this isn’t the specific question being addressed. Rather it is, ‘Will the dead in Christ take part in the events of the second coming?’]

Finally, a few words on –

Hope and grief

Paul is not saying don’t grieve when a fellow Christian dies.

  • Jesus grieved for Lazarus, even though he knew he would be a part of the resurrection and even though he knew that he was about to raise him back to life  – John 11.
  • And in Philippians 2:27Paul spoke of the sorrow he would have had if his coworker, Epaphroditus had died, “sorrow upon sorrow.”
  • And we are told in Acts 8:2 that when Stephen was killed fellow believers “made great lamentation over him.”

It is perfectly fine and natural to grieve. Paul is simply saying don’t grieve like those who have no hope. The Christian who has died will be raised again to new life when Jesus returns. This tempers our grief and is a testimony to our strong belief in the salvation that Jesus brings. That we if we are dead when Jesus returns, we will awake. And if we are alive we will be caught up. And this should encourage us indeed.

May God make us to be a people of hope in a hopeless world. May we be a light to the world of a faith that even death cannot defeat. Amen.

William Higgins 

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The theme of hope is a core distinctive of Christianity, based, as our faith is, on a resurrected Jesus, who lives forevermore. Peter speaks of the “living hope” that Christians have in 1 Peter 1:3. And Paul prays that his readers will be enlightened so that, as he says, “you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, (and) what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” – Ephesians 1:18.

And it is this “glorious inheritance” that I want to talk about this morning. What is our hope as Christians? What are “the riches of his glorious inheritance?” I am focusing on this because I fear some Christians aren’t getting the full scope of what God has for us. I say this because some believe that going to heaven when you die, is what it’s all about.

But I ask – Is going to heaven when you die the extent of our hope? This past year I visited a church and I heard just this belief expressed. Someone had died in the church and one person shared, in so many words, that the one who died now had all that God has for him.

Let me begin by saying, yes –

When we die, we go to be with Jesus

Anyone who dies in the Lord, goes to be with the Lord at death.

We’ve talked a lot about Sheol in the last few months – the place of the dead. Scripture doesn’t say a lot about what happens to the righteous dead with the death and resurrection of Jesus. But the best way to put together what is said, is to say that those in paradise (the good part of Sheol) have now moved to heaven to be in the presence of Jesus.

And this is a great blessing and something to look forward to. And this is a great comfort as we think of our loved ones who have died in the Lord, and even as we contemplate our own future. We go to a better place.

Paul says, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. . .. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”- Philippians 1:21-22. He also says, “We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord . . . and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” – 2 Corinthians 5:6-7. Dying and going to be with Jesus is far better than this earthly life so full of sin and suffering.

And then in the story of Stephen, when he is being stoned to death. He says, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” – Acts 7:59. He knew that when he died, he would be with Jesus. His spirit would go to be in the presence of Jesus.

But our hope is more than this. That’s the message today. Our hope is actually so much more than this! And we don’t want to sell short the amazing hope and inheritance that God has given us in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Our hope is more in three specific ways: First of all, our hope is not just something that happens right when we die.

Our hope looks to the end when Jesus returns to completely save us

In other words there is an issue of  timing here. The fullness of our salvation awaits the coming of Jesus at the end of all things. This is when we will receive all that God has for us.

To think that our hope only has to do with when we die, is to mistake the end of one short sentence as the conclusion of a grand, complex and long story – made up of many, many volumes. We are talking about all of history here, billions of stories being woven together into the story of Jesus and coming to the end that God has chosen when Jesus returns.

In the bigger picture our time with Jesus in heaven is a place of waiting for this final goal, the return of Jesus and all that God has for us. It is like a grand waiting room. A good one, for sure, but a waiting room nevertheless. And just like any waiting room, it is easy to get impatient.

This is exactly what we see in Revelation 6:9-11. The souls in heaven who died for their faith, “cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long . . .? Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer . . ..” They are told to be patient.

Our hope is much more than something that happens right when we die. Those in heaven with Jesus, along with us, await the full blessings when Jesus returns.

Second, our hope is not just something that has to do with our spirit.

Our hope includes the redemption of our bodies

Here the issue is the scope of our salvation. Salvation involves every part of us – spirit, soul and body. Our destiny is not to be disembodied spirits in heaven, which is what we are after we die and go to be with Jesus.

Being in the presence of Jesus is far better than life on earth with suffering and sin. But still better is the resurrection. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:3-4, in the resurrection we will no longer be “naked” or “unclothed” – that is, a spirit without a body in heaven with Jesus. In the resurrection we will be clothed with our new resurrected bodies.

Christianity is not like some traditions, where the goal is to escape creation or our bodies. Creation is good, though fallen. And the solution is not abandoning it to be in a purely spiritual realm. The solution is the renewal of creation.

So it is in the resurrection, not simply being in the presence of Jesus in heaven, that we will find our completion; our full salvation.

We see that this is true in Jesus’ resurrection. He was not a spirit or a ghost. He was an embodied person. In Luke 24:39 the resurrected Jesus said to his disciples, “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” He had a real body, even though it was supernatural, disappearing and appearing at times, waking through walls and so forth. It was supernatural, but it was a body nonetheless.

And this is also our hope. Philippians 3:20-21 says, “from (heaven) 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.”

Our hope is much more than something that happens to our spirit. Every part of us will be saved when Jesus returns. 

Third, our hope is not something that has to do with just me going to heaven.

Our hope includes the fulfillment of all of God’s purposes

The issue here is the excessive individualism. Salvation includes all of creation, not just me making it to heaven. 2 Peter 3:13 says, “according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” This is when, as Paul says in Romans 8:21, “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” Then there will be a new creation.

Salvation also includes God gathering together a new community, not just me being in heaven. Jesus sais in Luke 13:29, “And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God.” There will be a new community.

Salvation includes the establishment of God’s kingdom over all the earth, not just me in heaven. Just as Jesus taught us to pray in Matthew 6:10, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” so it will be when Jesus returns. The innocent will be lifted up and the wicked will be put down. Justice will be done. All wrongs will be righted, and all suffering will be rewarded. And righteousness will prevail.

Our hope is much more than me being in heaven with Jesus, it is the fulfillment of God’s grand plan, formulated from before the beginning of time, brought to completion through Jesus, when he returns. God’s people living in a perfect creation, in righteousness, peace and joy (Romans 14:17).

 

Because Jesus defeated death, rose from the grave, ascended to God’s right hand and reigns over all we have a great and amazing hope!

But do you have this hope? It is one thing to learn it in your head, but do you have it in your heart? Receive the new resurrection life that Jesus gives. As Jesus said, “ask and you will receive.” Ask for and receive God’s free gift of new life in Jesus. 

William Higgins

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The phrase at the end of  v. 18 – “I awake and am still with you” has often been interpreted as a reference to the resurrection in Jewish and Christian tradition. The imagery of awakening is a common one for the resurrection. This is the interpretation of the LXX (Septuagint). [See N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, p. 150.]. And it is the interpretation of the Aramaic Targums – “if I should count them in this world, they would be more than sand; I shall awake in the world to come, and I shall still be with you.”

It is, however, not fashionable to read v. 18 in this way today. In fact, the word is often repointed to mean, “come to an end,” that is, the writer comes to the end of trying to count God’s thoughts and is still with God. Or the sense is given that the writer has fallen asleep, thinking about the sum of God’s thoughts, and he awakens to find himself still in God’s presence.

Often the reason given for a non-resurrection reading is that there is no context in the Psalm that leads to this. Let’s look at this. The place of the dead is referenced several times prior to v. 18. The writer speaks of Sheol in v. 8, and takes the position that “you (God) are there.” This is a more positive view of Sheol. Whereas in other places it seems that God is absent from Sheol, here God’s presence would be with the writer if he dies (“make my bed in Sheol”) [Or is he is simply making a visit to Sheol? In either case God is with him.].

vs. 11-12 is also, most likely, referring to Sheol with the phrase “the darkness.” Again there is a more positive view of Sheol. The darkness is not dark to God. The writer can be seen and known by God is Sheol.

Then in v. 15 we have another reference to Sheol in the phrase “the depths of the earth.” Here the writer makes a poetic connection between the womb and Sheol (they are in parallel with each other). Both are places of darkness. But perhaps there is more. If the womb is the place of waiting while being formed for life on earth, perhaps the comparison turns on seeing Sheol as the place of waiting for resurrection life. Sheol is then like a womb – from which will come those who are resurrected.

This then leads into the writer’s marveling over the sum of God’s thoughts/intentions – God’s forming of him in the womb, God’s forming of the days for him while in the womb. And at the end of this we have v. 18. All of God’s thoughts would include God’s purpose to raise him from the dead, so that he is still with God, beyond Sheol.

Also, if v. 18 is a reference to resurrection, it fits contextually with v. 19. The prayer for God to act against the wicked would have an eschatological force. “God bring forth the final day of judgment – the resurrection of the  righteous and the judgment of the wicked.”

Finally, this emphasis would fit well with v. 24, translated as “the way everlasting.”

William Higgins

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