- Jude 1:3-16;
- 2 Thessalonians 1:3-12
My dear fellow-believers,
We planned a visit to our folk in South Africa. We thought we should give them a big surprise and not tell them beforehand; we would just knock on their door and announce ourselves. A dear Australian friend gave us better advice. Although we don’t consider ourselves special people, our parents considered us to be, and an unannounced arrival might just be too much for them. Our friend suggested that announcing our intention well before we leave here will give them the joy of looking forward in expectation, but their joy will be doubled when we will see face to face in reality. That seemed to be a good idea.
There could be complications. Let’s say circumstance here delayed our travel? What if the flight was delayed during a stop-over? These complications would create problems for those who were waiting in expectation. Knowing my mom, she would not rest until she dusted her house all over again. The cooking for the first day would have to be adjusted. Their travel plans to the airport would have to be altered. But let’s look at another scenario: let’s say we decide to visit others only and skip them altogether and only tell them about it after we returned home.
When the apostle and his helpers, Silas and Timothy, visited the church in Thessalonica they not only told them of the birth, life and cross of Jesus Christ; they also told them of his resurrection and his return. In fact, the instruction would be to be ready for the return of Christ. Paul wrote to the Philippians,
Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is at hand. (Philippians 4:4–5, NKJV)
Of course, all of this put the Thessalonians in action. They flew out of the blocks will all energy and dedication. We heard about their faith, love and hope last week. Their growth in the Lord and service to one another grew exponentially to the point that it became exemplary to all other churches—us included!
Some think that Paul stressed the return of our Lord as if he also expected it to be during his own lifetime. But false teachers appeared on the scene preaching that Christ had already returned. How would that affect their living for Christ! They put everything on the line in the active expectation that his return is near, but then they heard that they missed the rapture! More than that, they were experiencing hard times, they went through persecution and afflictions for Christ—all for what purpose?
This is one of the reasons Paul writes this letter to them: He stresses a few very important points:
- The Lord Jesus will certainly come again in glory
- Their suffering in the meantime is for their own good
- Those who hear the Gospel and obey it will be saved
- Those who do not believe God and obey the Gospel of Christ will be punished and judged
- They are not alone in their struggle: others are praying for them
We might not cover all these things today, but we need to keep this framework in mind.
The Lord Jesus will certainly come again in glory
While they were working with all energy and dedication towards the coming of Christ, the false prophets wanted to discourage them with the teaching that our Lord has already come. That would take the winds out of their sails. Paul and his helpers wrote to encourage them and get them going hard towards the end goal: the return of Christ—an event which is still in the future.
Friends, it this the sure hope of Christ’s return that keeps us going. The devil knows how to distract us from this hope. He can do this by making us so content with what we might achieve in earthly happiness that we lose sight of our eternal glory in Christ. He keeps us occupied with insignificant and negligible pursuits to the point that we have no energy to be busy with things of eternal value. Even worse, he tries to convince us that Christ’s return will pass, or even has passed us by. We invest in this world, and eternity fades on the horizon. This cripples our efforts in the Gospel. Prosperity theology, with the slogan that the best is there—here and now—for those who truly believe, will have to answer before God’s throne of its unbiblical message.
How do we know Christ has not yet come? The Bible is clear about it. Let’s examine a few texts. John speaks of the coming of Jesus Christ:
Behold, He is coming with clouds, and every eye will see Him, even they who pierced Him. And all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of Him. Even so, Amen. (Revelation 1:7, NKJV)
Christ also said:
For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. (Matthew 24:27, NKJV)
Lightning one sees, even if you don’t look at it. What then about a lightning bolt that strikes through all of the universe! The return of our Lord is not something which happens unbeknownst to some.
For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. (1 Thessalonians 4:16, NKJV)
Opened graves of Christians all over the world on the same day is surely something people will talk about. It is not something which will pass by unnoticed.
Paul writes about the return of Christ and the resurrection:
Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. (1 Corinthians 15:51–52, NKJV)
Here the Apostle connects the return of Christ—the trumpet call event—with the rising of the dead and the instant change of those who are alive at the time into incorruptible bodies.
Our reading from 2 Thessalonians 1:7 puts the same truth in other words:
… when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire (2 Thessalonians 1:7, NKJV)
Jesus made reference to this in Matthew 13:
The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, (Matthew 13:41, NKJV)
The function of the angles will be twofold: “first, to gather the weeds, binding them in bundles to be burned,” and also “to gather the wheat into my (the Lord’s) barn.” (William Hendriksen).
Reference to the flaming fire throughout the Bible speaks of God’s holiness and righteousness demonstrated in judgment.
My friends in Christ, the return of Christ will be a public, visible and spectacular event—literally a world-changing occurrence. It will be cosmic and unprecedented, without parallel, glorious and both terrific and terrifying. The Negro spiritual sings:
My Lord, what a morning! My Lord, what a morning! Oh, my Lord, what a morning when the stars begin to fall. Oh, you will hear the trumpet sound to wake the nations underground, Looking to my Lord's right hand when the stars begin to fall
Has the Lord come yet? No! Will He come? Yes! When? We don’t know but come, He will.
My dear friend, we should live like people with this sure hope. What we do, say and think should be shaped by this expectation. When we plan, we plan with this certainty in mind. When we pray, we pray with the living anticipation. When we labour, we labour with the sure preparation of Christ’s coming. When we send out missionaries into dark places, we do so because our labour in the Lord is not open-ended, it will find its fulfilment in the return of Christ. When we plan ahead we do so because Jesus is coming again. We cannot rest idle for that day. We need to be like the good steward who is found busy when his master comes. This is what the Thessalonians did: they ploughed their energy into the advancement of the Gospel: they grew in the faith and service; they grew in the knowledge and obedience; they grew in their hope.
Don’t let anyone take your eye off this marvellous reality: Christ has not come, but He is surely coming again.
The suffering we might endure in the meantime is for our benefit
When we talk about suffering, we should not think of personal suffering in the first and last instance. We need to have an eye on the whole body of believers, the church of Jesus Christ.
… all your persecutions and afflictions that you are enduring is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering— (2 Thessalonians 1:4–5)
This verse is not so easy to get our heads around. Is it possible to read verses 5 and 6 in two distinct parts and then translate it as follows? “Your are enduring afflictions and afflictions, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God. But God is righteous in his judgment and will pay back trouble to those who trouble you.” Such a translation is possible and even true in what it says, but it would grammatically violate the original text.
What is true about the life of a Christian is that we live in a world who hates Christ and therefore we will be hated as well. This has been the old-old experience of the children of God through the centuries. To his newly-called disciples Jesus said:
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:11–12, ESV)
Jesus addressed the Pharisees:
God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be required of this generation. (Luke 11:49–51, ESV)
Jesus warns his disciples:
Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. (Matthew 24:9, ESV)
Paul writes to the Thessalonians: “As a result, you will be counted worthy of the Kingdom of God.”
Paul writes to Timothy:
…my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, (2 Timothy 3:11–12, ESV)
…if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. (1 Peter 2:20–21, ESV)
He also proclaims:
Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. (1 Peter 4:1–2, ESV)
To endure persecution and painful affliction in perseverance and faith may seem like a hardship, often like a needless hardship for the believers. But viewed in its true light, it is an indication of the righteous judgment of God. The ungodly are like chaff which the wind drives away, they cannot stand in the judgment now or ever (Ps. 1:4, 5); but perseverance and faith which are tried by persecution and affliction have weight in God’s judgment. But we have to clearly understand this truth: our suffering for the sake of Christ does not add to our salvation in Christ; we do not become more Christian as we suffer. What happens is that we become more like Him who suffered in our place to make us children of God.
So, my dear friend in Christ, pray that God will make you steadfast in persecution. Pray that He will refine you when persecution and affliction comes. There is no glory to the Name of God and our Lord Jesus Christ if we buckle and cave in when difficult times knock on our door. The way we trust him who saved us by his sufferings will be a clear sign that God counts us worthy of the kingdom of God.
We will try to conclude our study of this section next time with these truths:
- Those who do not believe God and obey the Gospel of Christ will be punished and judged
- We are not alone in their struggle: others are praying for us
May our Lord bless us to his glory. Amen.
Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 28 July 2019