Jesus is coming back! Yesterday in 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul reminded us that when Christ returns, we will all be caught up to be with him forever – the dead first and then those who are still alive when Christ returns. And so we need not fear death – for our risen Jesus has already conquered it. The Christian hope is the hope of life eternal with God.
But the question then, of course, is when Jesus will return. There are theologians who say definitively that Paul and the rest of the early church got the return of Christ wrong: that they expected Jesus to return in their lifetime, and that the fact that he didn’t shows them to be liars, and undermines the whole of Christianity. Such a theory totally misunderstands the way the early church – and Paul in particular – viewed the return of Christ. Yes: Paul lived as if Jesus would return during his lifetime. Yes – when he spoke in 1 Thessalonians 4, it sounds like some of the Thessalonians might have still been alive when Christ would return. But read on to chapter 5 and we see why Paul speaks like this.
The Bible is crystal clear: Jesus will return unexpectedly – like a thief in the night. He’ll return when people least expect it – when all seems to be going well. But return he will. And on that day, those who are not expecting his return will face the disaster of the coming of the judge. As a woman who goes into labour cannot choose to stop the labour, so nobody can choose to stop the coming of Christ; when he returns, he returns.
Again, Paul reiterates: Christ will come like a thief in the night. The world will not expect him. And nobody – not even us Christians – know when Jesus will return. In fact, Jesus said that only the Father knows when that day will be. But as Christians, we are to be ready for that return at any moment. That’s why Paul and the rest of the New Testament speaks of Jesus’ return as being imminent: because for all they knew it could be! Jesus could return at any moment. And if I really believe that, then I need to live every moment as if it was the last before Jesus returns!
What does that mean in practice? It means keeping watch for Jesus’ return. It means being ready for it. For those who are not Christians, that day will be one of disaster. But we who follow Christ wear his armour: trust and love, and as helmet the confidence of our salvation. God has saved us through our Lord Jesus Christ. We will not face his wrath on his return.
But oh – for those who are not dressed in Christ on the day of his return….
Right now – I need to live as if Jesus was about to return. And we Christians should be encouraging each other in this, building each other up. Would I want to be reading this book when Jesus returns? Would we want to be fighting amongst ourselves when Jesus returns? Would we like to be gossiping when Jesus returns…. if we took his imminent return more seriously, how would it change how I thought and acted? Not out of fear (for we have been saved,) but out of a desire to hear his first words be “well done, good and faithful servant.”
So what does a “clearheaded” life that is lived in anticipation of Jesus’ return look like? The end of the chapter seems to describe something of that. It is one where we live at peace with each other, where we aren’t lazy, where the timid are encouraged to speak and act out for Christ, where we are patient with each other, where we return good for evil, where joy is evident (wow! Jesus is coming back – and we’ll be with him forever – that’s a motivation for joy right there!), where prayer is constant (praying for Jesus’ return, perhaps?), where thankfulness is evident (regardless of circumstances, God has blessed us and saved us), where we heed the prompting of the Spirit as he transforms us into the likeness of Christ, where we take seriously those who claim to speak for God (and test what they say, staying away from all kinds of evil but holding on to what is good).
Wow – the grammar in that last sentence is horrible. But it certainly paints a fantastic picture of living in anticipation of Jesus’ return!
Lord, Please help me to live my life in anticipation of your return. Thank you that you are coming back. I know I don’t know when, but I do want to be ready. I want my last thought, word and deed before I meet you in the air to be one that honours you – not one that I will be ashamed of. Please – keep forming me into your Son. Help me to live today as if this very moment is the last one this side of eternity. I know I often don’t…. please help me.