The Hope of the Lord's Coming

Simon Attwood

To borrow words from the Apostle Paul's letter to Titus, the Christians of Thessalonica were ‘ awaiting the blessed hope and appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ' (2:13). They longed to see the Lord Jesus because of who He is and what He had done for them. As far as they were concerned, His coming was imminent; it filled their hearts and shaped their lives.

Paul, Silas and Timothy had only been able to stay with them for three sabbaths: less than four weeks, probably little more than two. Yet in that brief time they taught them the word of God and lived among them in a way that made a living and lasting impression on them (see Acts 17:2 - 4; 1 Thess. 1:5). They were the assembly there, and Paul could treasure up their ‘ work of faith, and labour of love, and enduring constancy of hope, of our Lord Jesus Christ, before our God and Father' (1 Thess. 1:3).

His first letter to them is replete with references to the reality of their faith, the intense bond of affection between them and the apostle and his companions, and the sanctifying effect the lordship and coming of Christ should have on those who profess His name. Their joyful and confident expectation of seeing the Lord bore them up despite their circumstances: persecution in particular, but also poverty (1:6; 2:14; 2 Cor. 8:1 –2). Here then is a letter to first-century Christians to encourage and invigorate last-century Christians who, to quote a hymn, ‘ can almost hear His footfall, on the threshold of the door'. [1]

In chapter 1, Paul reminds the Thessalonians of the reality of the work of God among them when he, Silas and Timothy were with them. Their reception of the word had matched the presentation of it by the apostle and his companions. They became their imitators, but also models themselves for all those who trusted the Lord Jesus in Macedonia and Achaia (another province of Greece), as well as others further afield who got to know of their faith. The great fact that marked them was the positive one that they had turned to God; the necessary corollary was just as marked: they had turned from idols. Their object was the living and true God, the very antithesis of the lifeless and false idols that had occupied them until then. He was their occupation now, and they were serving Him in that humble, devoted way that should characterise all Christians.

They were also waiting for God's Son from the heavens. Their faces were turned to the sky from where, at any moment, they expected to see the one whom God had raised from among the dead. We are going to see shortly that Paul uses the truth of resurrection that gave them confidence in the truth of the rapture to allay their fears about those among them who had already gone to be with the Lord. For now He presses on them their link with Jesus who had borne God's judgment (1 Pet. 2:24), to whom all judgment is committed (John 5:22), indeed the one who is in Himself the deliverer of every saint from coming judgment (1 Thess. 1:10). No doubt the word ‘wrath' here can be connected with eternal judgment (see Heb. 9:27) but it does seem to have particular reference to the judgment we read of in Revelation and elsewhere that will befall the earth-dwellers and idol worshippers of this world prior to the Lord Jesus setting up His kingdom. The challenge for me — perhaps for you — is this: am I behaving like the Thessalonians or making myself comfortable in this world when the Lord Jesus is about to come to rapture me out of it ere that judgment falls?

In chapter 2, Paul reprises the character of his, Silas's and Timothy's ministry to the Thessalonians when they were with them. It is as if, not being able to be present with them physically for the reason he gives in verse 18, he presents himself and his companions to them in spirit by appealing to their memory of those three sabbaths of faithful and sacrificial ministry. The three servants had been as a nurse and a father would be with their own children: gentle, cherishing and yearning in their delight not only to impart the gospel but their own lives to them; exhorting, comforting and testifying that they should walk worthy of God who called them to His own kingdom and glory. The Thessalonians were receptors and reflectors of this ministry in word and life even though it had brought them acute suffering from Jewish opposers of the gospel.

Satan might continue to prevent Paul and his companions from seeing the Thessalonians again in this life, but they were confident of meeting them in the presence of the Lord Jesus at His coming when the enemy would no longer be allowed to interfere. What a meeting it would be: hope fulfilled, joy complete and every reason to boast (contrast 1 John 2:28). For Paul and his fellow servants, these were matters to do with people they had touched with their ministry, among whom the Thessalonians were very special (notice the emphasis in verse 19 in the J N Darby translation). Why? Because as Paul writes to them, ‘ye are our glory and joy' (v. 20). He and his companions could exult and rejoice when they thought of them and the way they had been transformed by the gospel. In this sense they were anticipating the judgment seat of Christ and the marriage and marriage supper of the Lamb, which take place between the rapture and the appearing. At the first, each servant will ‘have his praise from God' (1 Cor. 4:5) for what He has done through him for His glory and the blessing of His people, and at the second, there will be ‘exceeding joy' (Jude 24) as the Lord Jesus surveys each and every one who forms His bride. Oh, that the reality of these future events might motivate us in any little service we do for Him now.

In chapter 3 Paul writes of the love that had led him to send Timothy to the Thessalonians when he might have clung on to him in Athens (vs. 1 - 3; Acts 17:16). [2] The good news Timothy brought back about their faith and love gave the apostle relief and comfort: ‘now we live if ye stand firm in the Lord' (v. 8). This is real Christianity: the great apostle animated because some of his youngest converts are resolute for the Lord! How often we divorce Him as the source of our daily blessing from His people through whom He supplies it to us. Paul and his companions did not do this; they rendered thanks to God for all the joy they had on their account. This seems to have intensified their prayers that they might see them again in this life to perfect what was lacking in their faith, and that God Himself might make them to exceed and abound in love. What we cannot do ourselves with God's help we can pray that he will do Himself. But notice, it is all to the end that the Thessalonians might be confirmed unblamable in holiness before their God and Father at the coming of the Lord Jesus with all His saints. This refers to the appearing when He establishes His kingdom over this world and we reign with Him. May we be spiritually established ourselves now so that our lives are morally consistent with what will be on glorious display then.

Sometimes the impression is given that Paul reveals the truth of the rapture for the first time in chapter 4. This cannot be right because he has already referred to it in chapter 1 in a way that shows he had spoken to the Thessalonians about it when he was with them. Further, chapter 4 starts with the expression ‘For the rest' or ‘Furthermore' . In other words he has moved on from confirming his brethren in their faith to instructing them in matters where Timothy's report must have indicated they needed immediate help. [3] These were matters to do with holy and righteous living but also to do with something that had robbed them of their enjoyment of the hope of the Lord's coming. Indeed, it is interesting to note that although His coming is mentioned in all five chapters of this letter, the word for hope is missing from chapter 3. What was the problem? Their confident and joyful expectation of the Lord's coming assumed that it was imminent. There was nothing wrong with that — we should all assume this — but as time passed and a number of their fellow brethren died, some of the joy went out of the hope. They felt this meant that those brethren would be excluded from the kingdom and glory to which they believed (rightly) they had all been called. What wonderful fellow-feeling! But the Lord did not want it to be at the expense of the prospect of His return so He tells them (and us) how the rapture itself will be the means of His coming ‘with all his saints' (3:13). The word ‘all' in that verse should be sufficient for faith but He is gracious and specifically certifies what Paul writes as His word: a revelation, not explained before, from Himself in heaven. How can God bring Christians who have died — ‘fallen asleep through Jesus' (4:14) — with the Lord Jesus at His appearing? Because at the rapture, ‘the dead in Christ' — Old as well as New Testament saints — ‘shall rise first; then we, the living who remain, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air; and thus we shall be always with the Lord' (4:16–17). Not only will those who have gone to be with the Lord not lose out, but we who remain will not anticipate or take precedence over them. Rather they will be the first to experience the power of the Lord — in resurrection — before we are all raptured together. Hence, the centrality of the truth of the resurrection to the truth of the rapture, which we mentioned earlier. But before moving on to chapter 5, let us note the words: ‘we shall be always with the Lord'. They bear out the significance of the Greek word for ‘coming' in 1 Thessalonians: p a???s ? a or parousia . This word means ‘presence with', drawing attention to the effect and not simply the fact of the Lord's coming. Once the rapture has taken place we will always be with the Lord whether at the judgment seat, the marriage and marriage supper, the appearing or the establishment and conduct of the kingdom. What assurance for the Thessalonians who had feared for their departed brethren. No wonder Paul adds: ‘So encourage one another with these words' (4:18).

In chapter 5, he exhorts the Thessalonians in light of the day of the Lord. He presents it in the character it will take for the world in which it brings His authority to bear. It will come as ‘ a thief by night' (5:2). This gives the lie to the idea that the gospel of God's grace will usher in the kingdom. No, the people of this world at that time will be confident that they have brought about peace and safety without the Prince of Peace. What a shock it will be to discover that He brings sudden destruction on them. But Paul uses this to teach the Thessalonians that if they know the times and the seasons their lives should show that they are ‘sons of light and sons of day' (5:5). He refers again to faith, hope and love; the first two as a breastplate to protect their vital strength as Christians, the third as a helmet to guard their thoughts. God had not set them for wrath ‘but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ' (5:9). Whether watching — alive for the Lord — or sleeping — dead in Christ — every believer would ‘ live together with him' , the one who had died for them (5:10). The word ‘together' reinforces the teaching of the previous chapter that no one was going to lose out and is an encouragement to continue building one another up. A number of practical exhortations follow, underpinned by a prayer committing them to God's care which can never fail: ‘Now the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly: and your whole spirit, and soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is faithful who calls you, who will also perform it' (5:23–24). It is wonderful to have the peace of God, but even more so to enjoy the personal care of the God of peace. This takes us from time into eternity as the persons we are in Christ. Spirit, soul and body, each and every one of us will be perfect for His presence. What a hope! What grace! What reason for enduring constancy now!

Appeared in Truth & Testimony 2013

[1] S Trevor Francis , ‘ I am Waiting for the Dawning'.

[2] It is remarkable that Paul could entrust Timothy with such a challenging mission so early in his life and service. But he was well suited to it, being a young believer who was fully committed to the Lord and His people as well as sympathetic to Paul's exercises (see Phil. 2:19 - 22). No doubt he was also a witness to persecution (compare Acts 14:19 - 20 with 16:1 - 3).

[3] It could not wait for their return to Thessalonica if that was God's will. It seems from Acts 19 and 20 that Paul did go back there.