All Real Living Is Meeting (1 Thessalonians 4:15–18)

Last year, Harold Camping predicted that the rapture of the church would occur on May 21, 2011. When that date came and went, Camping explained that a spiritual rapture had in fact occurred, but predicted the physical rapture would occur on October 21, 2011. When that date came and went, Camping told an associate that nobody could predict the date of Christ’s return.

Ah, now he tells us…

The Second Coming of Jesus Christ is an article of Christian orthodoxy. Summarizing the biblical evidence, the Nicene Creed says of Jesus, “he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” One of the earliest written New Testament passages to deal with the Second Coming in any detail is 1 Thessalonians 4:15–18, where Paul, Silas, and Timothy wrote:

According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.

The missionaries did not write these words in order to encourage speculation or promote confusion about the future. They did not write them, in short, for the benefit of Harold Camping and his ilk. Rather, they wrote them for ordinary Christians who grieved the deaths of their friends and fellow believers. They wrote them to encourage those ordinary Christians with the thought that their friends’ deaths were penultimate, not ultimate—a comma in a sentence that ends with an exclamation point.

When Christ returns, the missionaries explained, the faithful dead will be raised and join the faithful living in the air to meet Jesus Christ. The important point of that meeting is not where it is but who it’s with. Obviously, there is a reunion with dead believers. The living will be “caught up together with them,” that is, the dead who have been raised to life. But even that reunion is not the main event. Rather, the important point is that all believers—whether dead or living—will meet Jesus Christ himself.

Don’t get me wrong, I look forward to seeing my grandparents again, as well as other Christian friends who have died. But they’re not “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). They’re not “the pioneer and perfecter of my faith” (Heb. 12:2). They’re not “the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (Rev. 22:13). But he is.

Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “All real living is meeting.” The most real living is meeting him. Now that’s an encouraging thought.

Do Not Grieve Like the Rest of Mankind (1 Thessalonians 4:13–14)

In the past three weeks, three Christians whom I knew and revered died. Paul Finkenbinder, known as “Hermano Pablo,” was an evangelist whose radio broadcasts in Latin America reached millions. Florence Tracy was a counselor and colleague from my days at Newport-Mesa Christian Center in Costa Mesa, California. Glen Colewas a veteran senior pastor, denominational leader, and college president from Northern California. All were longtime family friends.

I mention these wonderful people by name because death is never abstract. It is always concrete, always personal. A person dies, and we who knew and loved them mourn.

According to Paul, Silas, and Timothy, however, there are two ways to mourn: hopelessly and hopefully. Consider what they write in 1 Thessalonians 4:13–14:

Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For 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.

The issue that occasioned these words seems to have been the death of certain Thessalonian believers, which caught the living Thessalonian believers off guard. Of course, the moment of death always catches us off guard, even when it is the result of a long illness. It is always a surprise, especially when unexpected, but even when expected. Perhaps death caught the Thessalonians off guard because they expected everyone to be alive when Jesus returned. If some died before that event, was there hope for them?

In the pagan world, death was the end of the story. Period. After death, there was nothing, or at best a shadowy, undesirable existence. This was a hopeless view of death, “that Undiscovered Country, from whose bourn no traveller returns,” as Hamlet put it. Or “a fifty yard dash with a brick wall for a finish line,” as restaurateur Rocky Aoki put it.

In the biblical imagination, however, death was but a sleep from which Christ would awaken all who believed in him. This was not an unfounded hope or form of wishful thinking either. Rather, it was the logical inference of an empirical fact: “Jesus died and rose again.” If him, then us in him as well.

Notice that hope doesn’t rule out mourning whatsoever. I am sad that Paul Finkenbinder, Florence Tracy, and Glen Cole have died. I miss them. The world was better with their presence. But I mourn hopefully, knowing that one day, they’ll wake up, and we’ll be reunited. I cry with a smile, not merely because of memories of good times past but because of anticipation of good times future. “All’s well that ends well,” to cite the title of another Shakespeare play. And it will end well.

Death is concrete and personal. It catches us off guard. It makes us sad. But in Christ there is joy on the other side of mourning, the hope of awakening after a long sleep.

Do So More and More (1 Thessalonians 4:10–12)

Love is not amorphous. It takes particular shape in the attitudes that guide and the actions that express how we feel toward others. In 1 Thessalonians 4:9, Paul, Silas, and Timothy wrote: “you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other.” Now, in verses 10–12, they go on to show one application of that general principle to a concrete situation in the Thessalonian church.

Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.

Notice several things about these verses.

First, there is no upper limit on love. No matter how lovingly you feel about or act toward someone else, you can always love them more deeply and more actively. Thus, after commending the Thessalonians’ love for “all of God’s family through Macedonia,” the missionaries urge them to “do so more and more.” Today, what are you doing to love the people in your life “more and more”?

Second, love is ambitious for the right things. The missionaries write, “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life.” Notice that they aren’t anti-ambition. Rather, they’re pro-ambition, as long as ambition is directed at the right end. Too often, ambition has to do with self-promotion, self-advancement, and self-enrichment. The missionaries’ emphasis points in the opposite direction. What are you doing to promote others rather than yourself?

Third, love works. The specific issue at Thessalonians seems to have been that certain members of the church sponged off the church’s benevolence fund instead of working. In 2 Thessalonians 3:10, the missionaries laid down a rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat,” that is, shall not eat at the expense of the church’s benevolence fund. Not feeding the hungry may seem unloving, but when able-bodied freeloaders suck up the church’s benevolence funds, they take resources out of the mouths of the non-able-bodied who have needs. The able-bodied freeloaders are the ones acting unlovingly, not the church that refuses to cater to their whims. What are you doing to husband your resources to meet the needs of people who cannot meet their own needs?

Fourth, love is sustainable. The missionaries encourage the Thessalonians to “win the respect of outsiders” and to “not be dependent on anyone.” Obviously, these words, especially the latter ones, are directed at able-bodied Christians. There’s no shame in being dependent if you can’t help yourself. Indeed, it is the obligation of Christians to care for their own without shaming them. But the goal isn’t to create an ongoing cycle of dependency but to help another through a tough spot. What are you doing to help others move out of poverty and into financial self-sufficiency?

In sum, love helps the poor and does so more and more.

Taught by God to Love Each Other (1 Thessalonians 4:9–10)

What are Christians in American most known for?

A few years back, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons published unChristian, which surveyed the perceptions non-Christian young adults held of the American Church. The results were not pretty. We American Christians are perceived, according to Kinnaman and Lyons’ research, as hypocritical, too salvation-focused, antihomosexual, sheltered, too political, and judgmental.

Obviously, caveats apply. Perception is not reality, for one thing. For another, surveys may only reveal “lies, d***ed lies, and statistics,” as Mark Twain famously put it. On the other hand, as any marketing expert can tell you, perception is reality as far as the customer is concerned. So if we’re perceived as a laundry list of negative qualities, then we’ve got a problem.

What should Christians in American be most known for? First Thessalonians 4:9–10 offers an answer:

Now about your love for one another we do not need to write you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. And in fact, you do love all of God’s family throughout Macedonia.

In Greek, “love for one another” is philadelphia, literally, “brotherly love.” Christians are supposed to be known as people who love each other. We’re supposed to be a community that works.

unChristian surveyed the perceptions non-Christian young adults held of American Christians. Kinnaman went on to write You Lost Me, which surveyed the perceptions Christian young adults held of Christianity. Again, the results were not pretty. We are, according to Kinnaman’s research, overprotective, shallow, antiscience, repressive, exclusive, and doubtless.

If you take unChristian and You Lost Me together, the one thing American Christians are not known for—by young unbelievers or by young believers—is love. That’s a problem, folks. We’re known by who and what we’re against, not by who and what we’re for. Both outside and inside the church. By contrast, the Thessalonian believers were known throughout the Macedonian Christian community as loving people.

How do we become what we should be, especially when we’re perceived as being the opposite of what we should be? Two quick suggestions:

First, we need to remember who teaches us to love. “You yourselves have been taught by God.” How often do we reflect that it is God who gives us the Great Commandment to love him with all we’ve got and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt. 22:37­–40)? Not often enough, if survey results are any indication. If we honestly believed God himself had taught us to love, we would love, wouldn’t we? Since God himself has in fact taught us to love, then let’s just do it!

Second, we need to refocus our priorities. We Christians get wrapped up in all sorts of crusades that don’t have to do with the main things of Scripture. The main thing is love: of God and of neighbor as self. And of enemy too, for that matter (Matt. 5:38–48). That’s what Christianity is all about, and what American Christians should be known for.

Holiness, Sex, and Punishment (1 Thessalonians 4:6–8)

Is the Bible out of touch with contemporary sexual mores?

First Thessalonians 4:3–8 seems to be so, for three reasons: First, it frames Christian conduct in terms of “holiness,” a word contemporaries typically use ironically rather than sincerely. Second, its prohibition of “sexual immorality” seems quaint, given the prevalence of extramarital sex and widespread use of pornography, even among Christians. Third, its warning that the Lord will “punish” the sexually immoral seems heavy-handed, as if God is a pleasure-hating killjoy just waiting to send unmarried, sexually active couples to hell.

Consider, with this last point in mind, verses 6–8:

The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God, the very God who gives you his Holy Spirit.

Of course, the more interesting question is not whether these verses are out of touch with contemporary mores—which they certainly seem to be—but whether what they say is true. This is not merely the more interesting question but the most important one.

Let’s take a closer look at these verses, one phrase at a time.

First, “the Lord will punish all those who commit such sins.” Lord, here, refers to Jesus Christ, not God the Father. According to the Nicene Creed, “[the Lord Jesus Christ] will come again to judge the living and the dead,” a statement that mirrors biblical language (e.g., Acts 10:42; 2 Tim. 4:1; and 1 Pet. 4:5). Jesus’ involvement in the judgment of sexual immorality should warn us of the seriousness of our sexual behavior.

Second, punishment is warranted because sexual immorality violates a divine standard: “God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.”  God is not a pleasure-hating killjoy. God created sexually differentiated human beings, and he commanded—commanded!—them to have sex. The question, then, is not whether sex is good or bad, but, rather, in what context sex is best. And on that score, the Bible sends a consistent picture: The lifelong marriage of a man and a woman is the proper moral context for an active, pleasure-filled sex life (Gen. 1:27–28; 2:20–25; Matt. 19:1–12). When we see that sexual immorality violates a divine standard, we see why punishment is warranted: “anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God.”

Third, obedience to God is possible. The missionaries write, “God…gives you his Holy Spirit.” Notice that the Spirit is holy. When God’s Spirit flows through your life, heartfelt, joyful obedience to God’s standard for sexual morality—or any other issue—becomes increasingly possible.

And that’s good news! No matter where you are today with regard to sexual immorality, no matter what you’ve done in the past, God forgives you, calls you to a new and better standard of living, and makes a life of holiness—in all things, not just sex—possible.

Sexual Holiness (1 Thessalonians 4:3-6)

Few matters roil contemporary sociopolitical waters more than issues related to sex. Sex education, mandatory contraception coverage, abortion, single parenthood, same-sex marriage, divorce…the list goes on. You might think that these issues are modern, that in ancient times, the moral lines were more clearly drawn and more consistently observed.

You’d be wrong. In many ways, the first-century social world in which Christianity was born was as polymorphously perverse as our own. One writer, known to classical historians as Pseudo-Demosthenes, stated his culture’s mores this way: “Mistresses we keep for the sake of pleasure, concubines for the daily care of our persons, but wives to bear us legitimate children.” Compared to this guy, Anthony Weiner’s sexual shenanigans seem normal, and the cast of Sister Wives seems downright conservative.

One group in the ancient world stood out in stark contrast for its sexual probity: the Jews. Their critique of the Gentile world’s sexual laxity influenced the Christian view, as can be seen in 1 Thessalonians 4:3-6:

It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister.

Notice several things about this passage:

First, Paul, Silas, and Timothy frame their teaching in terms of God’s will. This is important. It means that how we use our bodies sexually is not up to us. Rather, how we use our bodies is up to God, who made us. And God desires that we be holy.

Second, holiness is not just an abstract concept, it has specific content. Negatively, we should avoid “sexual immorality.” Positively, we should use our bodies “in a way that is holy and honorable.” The missionaries’ rule sexual morality can be stated straightforwardly: chastity without marriage, fidelity within it.

Third, the practice of sexual holiness requires the development of certain habits, namely, self-control and selflessness. Faithfulness to one’s spouse over the course of their life requires a consistency of purpose and self-control that is incompatible with being swayed by “passionate lust.” It also means not using others as means to one’s selfish ends–taking advantage of others, in other words.

You’ll notice that the missionaries’ presentation of sexual morality incorporates the three elements of ethics I mentioned in a previous devotional: end, rule, and habit. For the Christian, the end of sexual activity–indeed, of all of life–is God. Our Maker is holy, and we must be too. The rule of sexual morality is both negative and positive, what to refrain from and what to engage in. And there is a habit or manner of life that makes obedience to this rule and for this end possible.

Just as the missionaries called the Thessalonians to live lives of sexual holiness in their day, they call us to do the same in our very similar age.

Ethics as Rule, Outcome, and Manner of Life (1 Thessalonians 4:1–2)

Ethics consists of three elements: an authoritative rule, a desired outcome, and a manner of life or habit.

Each of these elements is present in 1 Thessalonians 4:1–2.

As for other matters, brothers and sisters, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.

The authoritative rule is the easiest element of ethics to understand. Paul, Silas, and Timothy wrote, “we instructed you how to live.” That’s what rules do: they show us how to act and how not to act. In Scripture, authoritative rules include the Great Commandment (Matt. 22:37–40, cf. Deut. 6:5, Lev. 19:18), the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:1–17, Deut. 5:6–21), the Antitheses (Matt. 5:21–48), the Golden Rule (Matt. 7:12), and the Law of Love (John 15:12, 17). These rules can be stated positively (“Love your neighbor”) or negatively (“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor”). These are not different rules, but the same rule, applying love to different cases. Regarding the Great Commandment, Jesus says, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matt. 22:40). These rules are authoritative because they flow out of “the authority of the Lord Jesus,” who himself is the point of “the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44).

The desired outcome of ethics is what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the beloved community,” a community in which neighbors love one another and all love God, who made them. The rules demarcate the boundary between behaviors that foster the beloved community and those that hinder it. King, for example, critiqued Jim Crow segregation because it treated neighbors unequally, based solely on the color of their skin. A beloved community cannot be created when its white citizens were allowed to murder, rape, steal from, and lie against their black neighbors with impunity. Of course, a community is more than mere rule-keeping, but we need to see the connection between rules and outcomes. For the missionaries, the desired outcome was “to please God,” and God is pleased when we love one another.

The manner of life is that habit that is necessary for us to create the beloved community. In his Antitheses, Jesus went beyond the external observance of rules to the internal character that drives behavior. It is relatively easy never to kill someone. Not being angry with them is much harder (Matt. 5:21–22). To not be angry with others, we must develop the habits of reconciliation (5:23–24) and settling matters quickly (5:25–26), rather than denying forgiveness and nursing grudges. We develop such habits through practice: “do this more and more.” You have heard the saying, “Practice makes perfect”? The truth is, whatever we do habitually, “Practice makes permanent.”

For the Christian, then, love is our authoritative rule, the beloved community our desired outcome, and resolving conflicts our manner of life.

The Priority of Face to Face (1 Thessalonians 3:11-13)

In 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13, Paul, Silas, and Timothy offer three prayers:

Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you. May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.

The first prayer asks that God would overcome the distance that separates us from one another. We moderns take for granted how easily we can travel to and communicate with one another. In the course of a few hours, we can traverse distances that would’ve take the missionaries months to cover. And with the click of a mouse or the pushing of a few buttons, we can talk to anyone, anytime, anywhere. Nothing, however, substitutes for personal presence. May we recover the apostolic desire for personal presence above instantaneous but electronically mediated conversation!

The second prayer is that Jesus Christ would foster love in our relationships with one another. It is possible to be personally present but emotionally distant. You can hate the family member or friend sitting next to you at the dinner table, after all. The missionaries want the Thessalonians–and by extension, us–to be positively emotionally present with one another. And not in any minimal sense, either. Notice the verbs they use: increase and overflow. May we learn how to relate to one another in such a way that we always desire to relate to one another more, not less!

The third prayer is that Jesus Christ would overcome the sin that resides in our hearts, sin which separates us from God and from one another. At the end of the day, it is neither physical distance or emotional distance that is the problem in our relationships. It is distance between us and God in our thoughts, desires, and actions. To overcome the problems in our relationships, the problem in our hearts must be dealt with. And this can only happen when Christ strengthens our hearts in anticipation of the Judgment Day. May we be blameless on that day!

By way of application, let me suggest we take the following actions so that these prayers can become a reality:

The missionaries offer three prayers, addressing three different issues. Do we pray? Do we pray about our needs in a comprehensive way?
The missionaries focused on the problem of unholiness. Is that a focus of our prayers? Do we trust in Jesus Christ to make us holy on the Day of Judgment?
The missionaries focused on personal presence. In the era of Facebook, Twitter, texting, and ubiquitous “smart” devices, do we major on using our technology, or do we major on face-to-face skills?

May God sanctify our hearts and increase our love until we see him face to face!

Good Prayer Manners (1 Thessalonians 3:9–10)

My wife and I are trying to teach our three-year-old son good manners. When he wants something, we remind him to say, “Please!” And when he gets it, we remind him to say, “Thank you!”

“Please!” and “Thank you!” are good table manners, but they’re also good prayer manners. Indeed, prayer seems to be little more than asking and thanking. Consider what Paul, Silas, and Timothy wrote in 1 Thessalonians 3:9–10:

How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.

At the dinner table, “Please!” always comes before “Thank you!” because asking comes before getting. But in prayer, that order is reversed. The missionaries expressed their gratitude first, and then they submitted their requests to God.

This order of prayer is important because it expresses a theological truth. Before we ask God for anything, he already loves us and is at work to bless us. Gratitude comes first in prayer because God’s grace comes first. It is the air in which we breathe our prayers.

There’s a call-and-response chorus you may have heard in church: God is good all the time, and all the time God is good. This is the foundation of prayer. Unless God is good, we have no business asking him for anything. Jesus put it this way: “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matt. 7:9–11). Precisely because God is good, however, we can thank him, and out of that gratitude ask him for whatever we need.

So, “Thank you!” first. But then always “Please!” It is never inappropriate to ask God for what we need. Even when we have been glorified in the new heavens and new earth, we will continue to ask God for what we need. If thanking God reminds us of his goodness, then, asking God reminds us of our dependence on him for every good thing.

Of course, the missionaries said “Please!” and “Thank you!” for specific things. What things? Not things at all, really, but relationships. They thanked God for the Thessalonians, who brought them joy. And they prayed to be reunited with the Thessalonians so that they could supply whatever their faith needed.

Too often, we focus our prayers on material needs. This is understandable. Even Jesus taught us to pray for our daily bread, after all. But relationships are more important than stuff. Today, make sure to thank God for your family, friends, and associates. And ask him to help you supply their needs.

The Good Life’s Complicated Calculus (1 Thessalonians 3:6–8)

What is the good life?

It is not having a pulse, at least not merely. Having a pulse is a necessary condition of the good life, of course, but it is not sufficient. A good life requires more.

It is not experiencing pleasure either, at least not simply. Of course, pleasure is generally better than pain. (I am a chronic pain sufferer, so I know whereof I speak.) But not all pleasures are created equal. Not only is the pleasure of doing right better than the pleasure of doing wrong, but even the pain of rightdoing is better than the pleasure of wrongdoing. In other words, better to suffer in the cause of justice (Martin Luther King Jr.) than to benefit from injustice (Bull Connor).

The good life’s complicated calculus is on display in 1 Thessalonians 3:6–8, where Paul, Silas, and Timothy write:

But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love. He has told us that you always have pleasant memories of us and that you long to see us, just as we also long to see you. Therefore, brothers and sisters, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith. For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord.

In this paragraph, the missionaries mention two pains they had experienced: “distress and persecution.” The two were related. Both the missionaries and their Thessalonian converts had been on the receiving end of persecution since the founding of the church (Acts 17:5–9; 1 Thes. 2:14, 3:3). The missionaries, being strong in faith, did not worry about themselves. But they were distressed for their converts, not knowing whether their nascent faith had survived the onslaught of opposition.

The missionaries went on to mention four pleasures: “good news” about the Thessalonians’ faith, “pleasant memories” on both sides, a mutual desire to meet once again, and encouragement “because of your faith.” For the missionaries, their ongoing friendship with the Thessalonians mattered more than other goods. What mattered most, however, was the end their friendship pursued: “your faith and love,” “your faith,” and “standing firm in the Lord.”

So here, if I understand it, is the good life’s complicated calculus according to Paul, Silas, and Timothy.

  1. In general, pleasure is better than pain, and pleasure in pursuit of good is best.
  2. But pain in the pursuit of good is better than pleasure in the pursuit of evil.
  3. Pleasure from friendship in the Lord is better than pleasure from any other source.

Is (3) a stretch? I don’t think so. Notice verse 6: “For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord.” In Greek, the adverb really does not appear in the text. Ironically, by adding it, the NIV actually weakens the force of the missionaries’ statement, “Now we live…”

To live is to be friends in the Lord. Everything else—pleasure, comfort, whatever—is gravy.

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