Day 347: 2 Thessalonians 1-3; More on the Second Coming of Christ

People the claim that they know when the second coming of Christ is, or when the day of the rapture is going to happen, or even when the final judgment will begin often seem crazy to us.  Those folks like Harold Camping, and others that have sought to lead people astray by teachings these false doctrines are often the source of ridicule, mockery, and criticism from both inside and outside the church.  We may think that they are the first, today the world has survived over 150 documented predictions (thank you wikipedia) of the end of the world, ranging from hundreds of years before Christ to as recently as December 31 of last year.  If that comforts you, then just know that we only have about 20 or so more documented apocalyptic events to get through, the closest of which is supposed to happen on February 22 of next year, the farthest out being about 10 to the 100th power years away when the “heat death” of the universe takes place.  Clearly these predictors have not read or taken seriously the words of Jesus in Matthew 24, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.

You may think this inconsequential to the reading for today, but sadly it was to address confusion such as this that Paul writes this second letter to the Thessalonian church.  There was, apparently, a great deal of confusing surrounding the final judgment and it seems as though there might have been another letter than came to the church in Paul’s name claiming that the final judgment had already begun.  People quit their jobs, sold all they had, and just waited for Christ to return.  Sound familiar?  This is what the followers of Harold Camping did in the days and weeks before his predicted dates of Jesus’ return.  Sadly, and I do mean that in some ways, it did not happen.  As I have said many times before though, the Bible is the given revelation of God’s self by God Himself to His people and the world.  There is no hidden code that is contained within its pages.  It is the Gospel of God’s mercy and grace that is seen in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and that is testified to by the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of God’s people.

2 Thessalonians is one of the books from which we get a great deal of pre-Revelation, post-Gospel understanding of the events of the second coming of Christ as well as other elements that will be part of this process including “the man of lawlessness.”  This person is commonly known as the “anti-Christ,” a figure who appears towards the end of time in opposition to Jesus Christ and the Church.  This figure, perhaps a single person or maybe a political or corporate entity, will exalt himself over God and all other gods, and will even proclaim himself to be God.

Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.  Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.  Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things?  And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time.  For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way.  And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming.  The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.  Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, 12 in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.

A great deal of the end of time theology has been popularized in the Left Behind Series, an outcropping of pre-millennial dispensationalism.  This is a line of belief about the second coming of Christ that is drawn largely from a small amount of single verses that are woven together as proof texts to shallowly support a “doctrine.”  This line of belief claims a great deal of literal understandings of the final days of the earth, even drawing on the prophets as predictors of the future (which was not their primary function), and then drawing out a timeline from their reading of Scripture.  This includes a the popularized notion of a rapture, which comes from an interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4:17, which has basically no Scriptural support (or other Scriptural support) whatsoever.

Indeed, Jesus talks about a great number of people who will come in His name (recorded in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21), and that these people will be those who try to lead the believers in Christ astray.  I think, when we take these whole passages, as well as some of the other discussions that are had on the second coming of Christ, what we see is that all of creation is moving towards this time, and has been since the fall.  God is always at work for the restoration of all things, and there are forces of evil at work in this world that are dramatically opposed to this work.  Many have indeed come as “men of lawlessness,” and some have even claimed to be divine.  Many of the Roman leaders were like this, at times the leaders of the Roman Catholic church have walked this line, and there have been many leaders (the most prominent of which was Adolf Hitler) who have sought to rule the world and have even co-opted the church and the Gospel to support their cause.  Paul’s warning, as well as Jesus’ words tell us that we need to open our eyes to the greater happenings of things in the world.  This isn’t an encouragement to look for conspiracies and plots, nor is it encouragement to look at all the natural disasters as signaling the end of the world, and neither is it encouragement to say that “wars and rumors of wars” are signals of the immediate coming of Christ.  All of these things have been happening since the fall of humanity.

So what should our response be?  Paul says stand firm in the face of it, holding to the hope that we have in Christ Jesus in the midst of uncertainty.

But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.  To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.  So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.

He also says that we need to not be idle.  The notion of selling all you have, quitting your job, and just sitting around and waiting for the coming of Christ is entirely antithetical to Biblical teaching.

Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.  For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you.  It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate.  For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.  For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies.  Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.”



Day 345: 1 Thessalonians 1-3; Paul's First Letter

Chronologically speaking, the book of 1 Thessalonians is the first letter that Paul wrote to a church in the New Testament.  The Church at Thessalonica, now known as modern day Thessaloniki in Greece was one of the cities that Paul visited on his second missionary journey (reference Acts 17).  Some would say that this is one of the first churches that Paul set up as well.  It wasn’t as rosy as it sounds though as apparently Paul was driven out of the city because of intense persecution by Jews who opposed the teaching of Christ.

Before we continue into the content of our reading, I think it is interesting to note here some of what we read in Acts 17 about the Thessalonian church.  Luke, the writer of Acts, mentions “not a few leading women.”  Now, it is generally understood that Paul wrote this letter from Corinth, another church that Paul started whose letters we have recently read as well.  This understanding of the leadership of women seems to show very clearly that women in leadership within the church is a very acceptable thing.  We cannot dismiss these writings while holding up others such as Paul’s writing to the Corinthian church where he says that women “should be silent in worship” in chapter 14.  It is important that we keep in mind both context and content as we read.  The Thessalonian church benefited and prospered while having women in leadership positions, while the church in Corinth may have had some work to do before this would have been acceptable.  Let us take from both examples, not just the one that we wish to hold up, and work to further God’s Kingdom by utilizing all the gifts of God’s people.

Returning to our reading today, Paul is writing to the Thessalonian believers soon after he has been driven from the city in order to encourage and reassure them in their persecution, and to offer guidance to them as they seek to live a faithful life.  He talks about this right at the beginning of the letter, how they have been faithful and, in many things, he doesn’t feel the need to worry about them at all.

We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.  For we know,brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.

Paul also makes a point of telling the Thessalonian believers that his visit, though short, was not one that was in vain.

For you yourselves know, brothers, that our coming to you was not in vain.  But though we had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict.  For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.

I think that as Americans we tend to lean towards what Paul is trying to counter here.  Western culture pushes us towards production, showing a result of our labor as a way of proving that we have accomplished something.  In this light, if we started a project and then were forced out of it, we would often consider it a failure rather than a success.  To this Paul says, that though they were only there for a short time and they had been persecuted in other cities as well, the visit was not in vain.  God is clearly at work here in greater ways than can be measured by human hands.

Often, this idea of productivity is measured in our church mission work as well, both local and abroad.  What is it that people so very often ask missionaries when they come to visit?  “How many conversions have you had?”  What do we ask ourselves in church when we look at the past year?  “Have we grown in number?”  Its as if we think that the only work that God does is with numbers.  If more people are coming to our church or are getting converted by our missionaries, then that means God is giving us success and we are clearly in God’s will.  I think Paul kind of addresses this here as well.  What is it that is really important?  Lives that are transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit.

You can have a church with a very a great speaker that draws thousands and thousands of people to that building, but if lives aren’t being transformed then we really aren’t doing much more than good motivational speaking.  We can get people to pray “the sinner’s prayer” in droves, but if they aren’t truly coming to faith, and their lives aren’t being changed by the Gospel, then are we simply revealing Christ as some sort of cosmic fire insurance?  This is not the Good News of the Gospel, because it leaves us still in bondage to sin.  Christ did not come so that we could get our “get out of hell free” card and then live in the same ways of the world that we had always lived… Christ came that we might be set free from the Law and from Sin, that our lives may be transformed by the Gospel and that we may be brought to newness of life by the grace of God in Christ Jesus, through the Power of the Holy Spirit!