Seward United Methodist Church
Tuesday, September 25, 2018
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Comfort and Encouragement

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

 In the first century Church, many Christians thought the return of Christ was very close at hand, within their lifetimes.  That shouldn’t sound too weird to us, since many people think the exact same thing today!  

 When some believers in Thessalonica died, likely in a time of persecution, there was some fear and uncertainty.  Does this mean these followers of Jesus are lost?  Is there no hope for them?  Are they gone forever?  

 That might seem strange to us, since we are familiar with the obvious fact that many followers of Christ have died and he still has not returned.  But we should remember that when 1 Thessalonians was written, somewhere around 51 AD, there were basically no New Testament Scriptures yet.  Only a small part of the New Testament had even been written by then, and certainly none of it had found its way to Thessalonica yet.  So they couldn’t go to the book.  There was only oral transmission of the message, and that probably made the uncertainty worse.

 Paul is trying here to set the record straight.  

 First, we should never grieve like people who had no hope.  For the most part, the pagan people of the first century had no hope when it came to the afterlife.  All their understanding of the afterlife was of a dark, shadowy, and joy-less existence.  For example, a Roman writer named Catullus said this, “Once our brief light sets, there is only a perpetual night through which we must sleep.”  And that was basically what all the pagan religions thought about death.  And the Thessalonian Church was mostly comprised of Gentiles who had come from these pagan religions.  

  Now we Christians do grieve, but we do not grieve not as people who have no hope.  We have God’s promise for eternity.  Jesus died and rose again.  He ascended into heaven, and he will return one day.  And when he comes, he will bring with him all those who have died in Christ.  This was basically the Jewish belief of the day about life after death, which was that at death the soul, the non-physical part of a person was separated from the body.  The body decays, but the soul goes to be with God.  At the resurrection, the two are reunited.  So at the return of Christ, the dead will rise.  

There is only one glory for all God’s people who are united with Christ.  One commentator said it this way, “What is important is that in life and death, the Christian

is in Christ, and that is a union which nothing can break.”  As Paul wrote in Romans says, “What can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ?  Can life or death separate us?  No nothing in all creation can.”  

So while we should grieve at death, our grief should be different because it is tempered with the hope of eternal life.

“At the return of Christ, he will come down from heaven with a commanding shout and the call of the archangel, and the trumpet call of God.”  This is the imagery of warfare.  The shout of the archangel is a battle cry.  Trumpets were used to call God’s people to war.  Christ will return as a conqueror.  He will return to vanquish his enemies forever; sin, evil, and death will be no more.  

“And we will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air and be with forever.”  

Is this the rapture?  I would say yes and no.  Yes, this is where the word rapture comes from.  The word in Latin for “caught up” is RAPTUS, so the word comes from this verse, but in the Latin, not the Greek.  

But is this the rapture some people in the American Church today are expecting?  Some believe that Christ will return before a time of great tribulation.  He will take his people out of this world.  Then there will be 7 years of great turmoil.  Things will just get worse and worse.  At the end of 7 years, Christ will return again to bring in his triumphal reign, a literal 1000 year reign of Christ on the earth.  

Belief in the rapture is part of a theological system called Dispensationalism.  Dispensationalist theology says that history is divided into seven “dispensations” or ages.  In each dispensation, God relates differently to his creation, and subsequently, human beings have different responsibilities to God.  We are supposedly living in the sixth dispensation, the “age of grace.”  This dispensation lasts from the death of Christ to the rapture.  After the rapture, God’s wrath will be poured out on the earth for seven years, followed by the seventh dispensation, which is a literal 1000 year long reign of Christ on the earth.  This view of the end times is called “pre-millenialism,” and it’s one of at least four different ways in which the end times are understood.  

As for me, I don’t believe in the rapture.  I’m not a Dispensationalist or a pre-millenialist.  And there are three reasons I don’t believe in the rapture:

First, when it comes to the rapture, Dispensationalism requires belief in something we don’t find in the New Testament:  That Jesus will come back twice.  He comes a second time to remove the Church from the world.  Then he comes back a third time to bring the final judgment.  The Bible is clear that Jesus is coming back.  But there is nothing in the New Testament about Jesus coming back twice.  

Second, it’s important to note that before the 19th century, no one believed in Dispensationalism or in the rapture.  The idea was first laid out by a British preacher named John Nelson Darby in 1827.  It was popularized by a “vision” by a young Scottish woman named Margaret McDonald.  It came to the United States, and it was popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible, which was publicized in 1909.  Before the 19th century, no one in the whole history of the Church believed in the rapture.  That doesn’t make it false, but it also doesn’t help its credibility.  And even today, belief in the rapture is only found in places where Dispensational theology has been popular, most notably the United States.  If you go to many other parts of the world and talk to Christians who have never been exposed to Dispensationalism, they have no clue what the rapture is.  The rapture is a new belief, less than 200 years old.  

And finally, there are better explanations of the passages used to support the rapture.  Basically, there are three passages used to support the rapture:  This one, and Matthew 24 and Luke 17, which are both the same saying of Jesus.  That’s where Jesus talks about two people in the field, one taken, one left, and so on.  

In Matthew 24 and Luke 17, the rapture idea suggests that the person “taken” is taken up to heaven to escape from the tribulation.  The problem with that is that the word “taken” means taken away for judgment.  It’s the person who’s left who is saved, not the one taken.  They have it backwards.

As for this passage, “meet him in the clouds” sure sounds like the rapture, unless you know something about the cultural context.  In the ancient world, when a victorious king returned home, the people of the city would come out to greet him and escort him back into the city.  When a king visited a city of his realm, the city would send out its emissaries to meet him outside the walls and accompany him.  The language of this text describes a “royal coming,” a victorious king arriving.  So rather than us meeting Jesus in the clouds and him taking us to heaven, the better interpretation is we meet Jesus in the clouds, and them come with him to his “city,” the New Earth.  

I can’t definitively say the rapture is incorrect, but the evidence is against it.  

Why does it matter?  I think there’s a tendency in this interpretation of Scripture toward fear-mongering.  When I was in high school, I had a friend who went to a church where her grandfather was the pastor, and he was a die-hard Dispensationalist.  And she described how every Sunday morning was the same thing.  Every sermon was, “You’d better be ready before the rapture.  Otherwise you’ll be stuck here on earth in the Great Tribulation.  And you’ll suffer all this torment and torture at the hands of the Anti-Christ.”  And then he would go on to describe all the horrors of life for those who are “left behind.”  Quite rightly, she hated going to church.  She dreaded it; because it was all about fear. And a system of theology that uses the return of Christ to instill fear is misguided.  

“Comfort and encourage each other with these words.”  That’s what Scripture says about the return of Christ.  And surely there is nothing new under the sun.  We’ve had another go-round of this just recently.  We had the eclipse in August.  There will be another one in seven years.  And some people have said, “This is the seven year tribulation.”  Allegedly, September 23 marked the beginning of the end, or something like that.  And some people have been spreading fear.  

The thought of Christ’s return should comfort us and encourage us.  Christ’s return means that all suffering is temporary.  Death never gets the final word.  Grief and sadness don’t last forever.  And the best is yet to come.  That’s the good news of the return of Christ.

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