November 06, 2017
Author: Scott Hoezee
When I meet with an engaged couple prior to their wedding, and certainly at some point during the wedding rehearsal the evening before the big day, I always make a point to tell people, “Now don’t forget to enjoy yourselves! It goes fast so have fun!” Typically I remind them just to relax and to savor the moment. Too often the bride, groom, and others get so uptight about the choreography of the ceremony that they make themselves miserable instead of joyful. There seems to be a kind of nervous belief that if things don’t go perfectly, it will be a disaster. But aside from the rare fainting spell, and despite some of the zanier wedding clips that you can find on YouTube, the average wedding ceremony sails along quite nicely.
And then just this past summer my own daughter got married and I conducted the ceremony at her request. Suddenly I found myself giving my standard admonition to have fun while staring into the mirror! I spent weeks—months—waking up with a knot in the pit of my stomach. Who knows why. Thankfully, in the end, when the big day came and there was nothing more to do but wait out the clock until the ceremony began, I did by God’s grace relax and both my wife and I had a roaring good time!
The truth is that if there is anything to ponder or fret about at a wedding, it is not that the candles will burn too fast, that the bride will trip on her train, or that the organist will play the wrong song (though all that and more did run through my head some months back now . . .). Instead, a proper thing to ponder is whether the wedding should be taking place at all, whether people are appropriately serious about their vows and sufficiently mindful of what it means to make such weighty promises before the very face of God.
But I can’t recall a single instance when I heard anyone at a rehearsal worry that just maybe the ceremony would not be pleasing to God. We may hope that Aunt Mildred will like it and that cousin Floyd will remember to pick up his tuxedo, but we seem to assume that the divine dimension to it all will take care of itself. (And even if it doesn’t . . . oh well, so long as the wedding photos look pretty, we’re good to go! After all, why would even God not be wowed by that stunning arrangement of freesia!)
Sometimes we simply forget to have the right focus. That seems to be the point of the wedding story in Matthew 25, too. This parable is on one level very straightforward. The major elements of the story lend themselves readily to allegory. It is easy to match up each character and event of this story with a real life person or event. This is so easy to do that we assume that the meaning of the whole story is likewise easy to understand. The bridegroom is Jesus, the ten virgins are people in the church, the oil for the lamps is faith, and the bridegroom’s arrival is the second coming of Christ at the end of history when there will be that ultimate sorting out process known as the last judgment.
But it may not finally be quite that simple. There is a reason we caution people against turning parables into straight-up allegories.
First, let’s note a few oddities we might miss if we too quickly try to sew this up in a neat 1:1 allegorical correspondence:
First, where’s the bride? Where there is a bridegroom and bridesmaids, there is usually a bride to go along with them, but in Matthew 25 not one word is devoted to that person who tends to be the central figure at a wedding. So where’s the bride and, presuming there is a bride, whom would she represent if this whole story really is just an allegory?
Also, why did the five so-called wise virgins bring an extra can of oil along? What made them think to do that? Suppose that next Saturday you attend a wedding in which you see the bridesmaids coming down the aisle, each with a lovely bouquet of flowers in her hands. But suppose that half of that bridal party walked down the aisle using one hand to hold the bouquet and the other hand to lug along one of those old-style tin watering cans with a long spout. Surely you’d conclude that this is a non-standard thing to bring to a wedding. Do they think this could go on so long they will have to keep their flowers watered lest they wilt before the big event gets underway?
So also in the parable: what made half of these bridal attendants conclude that the ceremony could go on so long, or be delayed so long, that they’d need extra oil?
On top of that, what’s the deal with their refusing to share their oil? That hardly seems a gospel-like way of treating other people. Can it really be the same Jesus telling this story who also said on another occasion, “If someone asks you for your coat, give him your shirt, too”? Wouldn’t a generous person say, “Let’s divide this oil among us: after all, it’s better to have ten half-full lamps that can then all burn than to have five completely dead ones.” But that doesn’t happen here, instead half of the girls hoard their extra supply, sending the other five on the unlikely errand of finding an oil shop still open at midnight (a fool’s errand that ultimately will leave those hapless five bridesmaids out on their ear–eternally so if we connect the allegorical dots here).
It would be good to wrestle with these questions.
But more substantively, really to get at the core issue of this parable we need to back up a bit to consider first the context of this parable and then to re-consider the parable itself. The immediate context in Matthew is Jesus’ long speech on the Mount of Olives about the end of the world. All of Matthew 24 was consumed by apocalyptic rhetoric about the signs of the end of the age. Throughout that chapter Jesus makes it clear that there will be, one day, an end to things as we now know them. But Jesus is equally clear that no one, including apparently even he himself (for the time being anyway), knows when that will be precisely. There will be no missing it when it happens. Until then, however, Jesus warns the disciples to steer clear of anyone who claims to have it all figured out.
Despite the cottage industry that has arisen around making apocalyptic predictions anyway, Jesus says that all such speculation and calculation is wrong. And since Jesus himself indicates that even he doesn’t know the date or time, it’s a cinch that no one will calculate that date based on Jesus’ words. I mean, if I tell you I am completely clueless as to the workings of electromagnetism, it makes little sense to scour anything I write for clues as to the inner machinations of electromagnetism. You’re barking up the wrong tree.
In Matthew 24 Jesus is not trying to create starry-eyed disciples who do nothing but scan the horizon for clues as to history’s end, he’s trying to create focused disciples who keep their eyes on the chief things of the gospel. He’s not training short-distance sprinters who will perpetually dash for history’s finish line but long-distance marathon runners who are poised to stay faithful over the long haul.
In context, then, the reason to plan ahead on the likely need for extra oil becomes clear. Wise believers will not necessarily think that the end is near. The wise won’t bother with predictions that might prod one into thinking that the end of everything is so imminent, we don’t need to bother with things like taking care of the environment, developing long-term strategies for peace among the nations, or nurturing a faith strong enough to deal with issues that may crop up many years from now. The wise, in other words, take the long look.
But in so doing, such wise believers display not an uncaring attitude as to when the end may come but a very caring one. Living with the end in sight need not mean being some starry-eyed person who does nothing but scan the horizon. In fact, what it should mean is living into the kingdom at every, every moment, doing the work that each day presents and doing it precisely because you know the Bridegroom is always close at hand, whether the end happens anytime soon or not.
What would you do if you knew Jesus was coming again tomorrow, someone once asked Martin Luther. “I think I’d go out and plant an apple tree.”
There are no particularly difficult or striking features to the Greek original or English translations of Matthew 25:1-13. The story is pretty straightforward. The Greek words used for “wise” and “foolish” are phronimoi and morai. The word for “wise” could also be translated as “prudent” or “thoughtful.” The word for “foolish” is the same one used earlier in Matthew when Jesus (in the Sermon on the Mount) talks about salt losing its saltiness and so becoming “foolish.” In Matthew 5:13 this is usually translated as “becoming useless” but the root word there is the same one used for “foolish” here in Matthew 25 (and is behind the English “moron”). In the context of Matthew 5, the warning about the salt is designed to urge the disciples to stay vibrant in their faith, even through persecutions, and this is followed immediately by the admonition to let your light shine and not hide it under a bowl.
Maybe there is some connection between that light and the lamps of the ten virgins in Matthew 25. In any event, the foolish are those who are not able to stick with Jesus’ program over the long haul. In the context of Matthew 5, maybe this includes those who decide not to view the world through the upside-down vision of the Beatitudes as Jesus laid out in his great sermon. Maybe what makes the foolish virgins so foolish (so “useless” for the kingdom) is that they adopted the prudent ways of this world, living for the moment, going for the gusto, and allowing this world’s standards to define “the good life.” But what is prudent to this world is foolish in the world of Jesus’ kingdom where the meek, the lowly, the merciful come out on top.
William Willimon has written that when he was a young pastor in rural Georgia, a dear uncle of one of his congregation’s members died suddenly, and though this uncle was not a member of Willimon’s church, he and his wife decided to attend the funeral. So Willimon and his wife drove to a back-woods, off-brand Baptist church for the funeral one sunny afternoon.
It was, Willimon said, unlike anything he had ever seen. They wheeled the casket in and soon thereafter the pastor began to preach. With great fire and flaying his arms all over the place, this preacher thundered, “It’s too late for Joe! He might have wanted to do this or that in his life, but it’s too late for him now! He’s dead. It’s all over. He might have wanted to straighten out his life, but he can’t now. It’s finished!”
As Willimon sat there, he thought to himself, “Well, this is certainly a great comfort for this grieving family!” The minister continued: “But it ain’t too late for you! People drop dead every day, so why wait?! Too late for Joe but not for you! Make your life count, wake up and come to Jesus now!”
“Well,” Willimon concluded, “it was the worst thing I ever heard.’ Can you imagine a preacher doing that to a bereft family?'” he asked his wife in the car on the way home. “I’ve never heard anything so manipulative, cheap, and inappropriate! I would never preach a sermon like that.” His wife agreed: it was tacky, calloused, manipulative.
“And of course,” his wife added, “the worst part is that everything he said was true.”
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
Author: Doug Bratt
What’s the Church’s most important task? Some people might answer, “Sharing the gospel’s good news with the whole world,” or “Teaching children to follow Jesus.” Others answer, “Being God’s hands of justice and mercy in the world” or “Being a welcoming place.”
Each of those is certainly among the church’s important tasks. But were you to ask classical Reformed theologians what the Church’s most important task is, most of them would answer, “worshiping the Lord.” In fact, the first Westminster Confession’s question and answer is essentially, “Why did God create us? To glorify God and enjoy him forever.” In other words, God created you and me to first of all worship the Lord.
Yet while worship is central to the life of the church, few places in the Bible give detailed instructions on how to worship. The Old Testament talks a lot about worship. But most Christians believe large numbers of those teachings, such as those related to sacrifices, no longer apply.
What’s more, the New Testament doesn’t present us with a manual for worship either. It describes some worship services. The New Testament offers some guidelines for worship, such as the expectations that it build up the Church and be offered in spirit and in truth.
Perhaps partly as a result, Christians use an almost endless variety of worship orders. Our profession that worship is not an end in itself complicates this. We don’t worship, after all, just in order to pray, praise, and hear God’s Word and respond. No, you and I worship because it both expresses and deepens our relationship with God in Christ.
In that way a corporate worship service is a bit like a wedding. We don’t have weddings merely in order to get dressed up and watch people who are even more dressed up. Weddings exist in order to seal a relationship between a man and a woman.
One of the Bible’s central images of the relationship between God and God’s people is that of a covenant. But we don’t talk much about covenants anymore. So it’s good to remember that a covenant is basically a set of promises. For example, you establish a kind of covenant with a grocery store when you promise to pay it $20 and it promises to give you some food.
One of God’s central covenants with us begins with God’s promise to be our God. In fact, there would be no covenant between God and us had God not first graciously made that promise. God’s people then respond to God’s covenantal promises by promising to be God’s people. We promise to love and obey the Lord exclusively.
Covenants are often established by some kind of ritual, gathering or event. So, for example, our church established our covenant with a building contractor when we signed a contract with him. A bride and groom covenant to love and serve each other in some kind of wedding ceremony.
But sometimes spouses also want to confirm the covenant that is their marriage. So they reaffirm their promises to each other by renewing their vows. They don’t necessarily repeat their original promises to each other. But husbands and wives promise to keep their original promises in what’s basically a covenant renewal ceremony.
Or might we think about covenants this way? Sometimes long-time friends develop issues with each other. One may, for example, feel the other just isn’t paying enough attention to him. So friends may sit down together just to clear the air.
Or working relationships may go stale. So a good boss may periodically call her workers together to discuss mutual concerns and review their expectations of each other.
In Joshua 24, God and Israel do something like that. God had first gathered God’s Israelite people for a covenant ceremony at Mount Sinai. There Moses told God’s Israelite people “all the Lord’s words and laws.” The Israelites responded by promising to do everything God told them to do.
Now, as the Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday opens, God has finally given Israel “rest” from the enemies that surround her in the land of promise. Israel, however, remains in great danger. She’s in a strange land whose ways prove to be attractive to her. Canaan’s women are beautiful and her gods seem powerful.
Joshua knows God keeps all of God’s promises. One of those promises is that if Israel doesn’t keep her promises to serve the Lord alone, God will throw her out of the land of promise. Israel seems to have kept most of her promises to God while she tried to clear the land of promise.
Yet that’s perhaps hardly surprising. When, after all, do God’s adopted sons and daughter generally most clearly recognize we need God? When we, like the Israelites, are in some kind of danger, when we have a serious illness or relationship problems, or age slows us down. And when do we easily begin to assume that we least need God? Isn’t it often when things are going well?
Joshua understands that now that Israel possesses the land of promise, she’ll be tempted to assume she no longer needs God. So what does he do in our text? Israel’s leader basically invites Israel to renew her covenant with the Lord. He begins by reviewing God’s amazing grace to Israel. Starting with God’s call to Abraham and Sarah, Joshua recounts much of what God has done to bring Israel to her new home.
Yet in verse 14 Joshua starts speaking for himself. “Fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness,” he begins there. However, Joshua speaks his perhaps most famous words in verse 15 where he tells Israel, “If serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves whom you will serve … But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Essentially Joshua challenges his fellow Israelites to throw away the gods her ancestors worshipped in Egypt and that they still sometimes worship. He calls them, instead, to serve the Lord by worshiping the Lord only.
Israel responds by promising not to abandon the God who’s already done so much for her. Israel promises to join Joshua and his household in exclusively and wholeheartedly serving the Lord. Even when Joshua insists Israel can’t do that, she vehemently insists she will serve the Lord alone.
My colleague John Witvliet and other scholars suggest that Christian worship is like a covenant renewal ceremony such as the one our text describes. When we gather for worship, we essentially renew the covenant God has made with us in Jesus Christ. In fact, you might say worship is a bit like reaffirming the marriage vows Christians have exchanged with God in Christ.
While that may sound like a strange idea, the Bible often uses marriage as a metaphor for God’s peoples’ relationship with the Lord. In Isaiah 62:5, for example, the prophet says, “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will God rejoice over you.” And in Revelation 19:7 John speaks of that day when “the wedding of the Lamb will come,” when Christ’s “bride,” his Church, has made herself ready.
In worship services God also reminds God’s people of the promises God has both made and kept in Jesus Christ. The Church also renews the promises God’s people have made to God. God’s children need that because we’re often so busy making various promises to each other that we forget the promises God has made to us. You and I are so busy trying to keep our different promises to people that we easily fail to keep the promises we’ve made to God.
People who have healthy relationships, whether in our homes, workplaces or neighborhoods, spend time with each other. We talk and listen to each other. If that’s so important in our interactions with other people, think of how even more important it is in our relationship with the Lord.
In fact, some relationships are so important that we periodically go away to renew them. Friends get away for a weekend together. Spouses go to marriage conferences. Co-workers go off-site for a while. Worship can be a bit like that. In it we remember the promises God has made to us and renew our promises to God. The goal of all this covenant renewal, the renewal of our promises to God? To both express our love for God and that the Holy Spirit deepen that love in us.
Of course, a covenant can be renewed only if it was made in the first place. Israel can renew her covenant with God because God first made that covenant with her at Sinai.
Husbands and wives can renew their marriage vows because they made vows to each other in the first place. Christians can renew our covenant with God in worship because God first made God’s promises to us that we received with our faith.
But some worshipers have never received those promises with their faith. In fact, if they’ve not yet received God’s promises with their own promises to serve God, this whole worship thing may not make much sense. Yet it can begin to make sense as worshipers receive God’s grace with their faith in Jesus Christ. It can become a weekly way of re-committing ourselves to God.
This pattern of covenant renewal, however, isn’t just for corporate worship. It’s also for our daily lives. Those who proclaim Joshua 24 this Sunday might reflect with those who hear us on how we might do that. One good habit is the practice of regular daily devotions. Whether as individuals, friends or families, we hear God’s promises by reading and contemplating some part of God’s word. We often conclude by prayerfully asking God to help us keep our promises to God. We, quite simply, renew our covenant with God.
When a local Christian school wanted to publicize its mission, some people wanted to refer to its commitment to help parents and churches carry out their covenant responsibilities. However, other members of the community rejected that idea because “covenant,” to them, referred to a despicable part of America’s racial history.
According to the Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston’s website, racially restrictive covenants were imposed in a deed on a property’s buyer. They prohibited the purchase, lease or even occupation of a piece of land by a specific group of people, usually African-Americans. Such covenants were enforced with the cooperation of real estate boards and neighborhood associations.
Author: Stan Mast
Psalm 70 is the alternate Lectionary reading from the Psalter for today. I’ve chosen it because I wrote on the regular reading, Psalm 78, barely a month ago. And it turns out that there’s a lot to ponder and perhaps preach in this apparently simple little Psalm. It is given scant attention in many commentaries on the Psalms, in part because it is a nearly exact parallel to Psalm 40:13-17, with only a few verbal variations. Therefore, say the commentaries, see Psalm 40. Other commentators see Psalm 70 as merely an introduction to Psalm 71. So, this second shortest Psalm in the Psalter doesn’t seem worthy of careful study.
What is there to say about this simple little Psalm? It is the second of a little trilogy asking God’s help when threatened by enemies. Psalm 70 is distinguished from the other two by an almost frantic emphasis on speed. That’s how the Psalm opens and closes. “Hasten, O God, to save me,” followed by “come quickly to help me (verses 1).” And it ends the same way; “come quickly to me, O God….O Lord, do not delay (verse 5).” In between these desperate calls to “make it snappy, Lord,” we hear about the effects of God’s help whenever it comes, first upon those “who seek my life (verses 2-3),” and second for those “who seek you… (verse 4).”
Those parallel constructions at the beginning and end and in the middle suggest that this little Psalm may not be as simple as it first appears. There are other parallels. For example, in verse 3 those who seek the Psalmist’s life say, “Aha! Aha!” In verse 4 those who seek the Lord always say, “Let God be exalted.” Add to that the clever choice of words to describe what happens to the enemies, and we have a simple little Psalm that is much more profound than we might have thought at first reading.
In fact, I see it now as a profoundly important prayer for us pilgrims as we near the end of ordinary time. Perhaps we are weary as we lean into the celebration of Christ the King in a couple of weeks and then begin our observance of Advent when we have to wait for his Coming. As we plod along, something deep within wants God to speed it up. “O Lord, come quickly to help me.” I want to explore the profundity in that simplicity in 4 ways.
First, this is a profoundly personal prayer. Often as we study the Psalms we are stuck by the communal nature of Israel’s worship. Even the most personal experiences become occasions to call the whole people of God to praise and thanksgiving. Encounters with God are never kept secret. They become public testimonies. The modern church needs to hear that emphasis loud and clear as a counter weight to our rampant individualism and mania for privacy.
But there are places and times in the lives of God’s people when it really is “just Jesus and me.” In Psalm 70, the writer recalls a time when he felt so alone and threatened that it was “just Yahweh and me.” The Psalm is long unbroken string of “me’s” and my’s.” The only exception is verse 4, where this harassed saint recalls the company of saints and prays for them. “May all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you….” But then he immediately returns to his own plight. “Yet I am poor and needy,” followed by more “me’s” and “my’s.” Here is a prayer for those times when the fellowship of believers seems far, far away, and it’s just “me and Jesus.”
Second, this is also a profoundly painful prayer. I mean that in two ways. First, the Psalmist’s life is full of pain, the pain of murderous and mocking opposition. I wonder how many of us and our listeners have ever had enemies like this, who “seek my life, who desire my ruin, who say ‘Aha! Aha!’” That last set of words refer to enemies who take great delight and joy in the suffering of the innocent, what the Germans called Shadenfreude. As the Psalmist’s life is at risk, his enemies cackle with demonic glee.
Out of that pain, our writer prays a prayer that many Christians might find painful. Given Jesus’ command in the Sermon on the Mount that his followers love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them, can we legitimately take the prayer of Psalm 70:2-3 on our lips. Granted, we do pray things like this, but should we? Is Psalm 70 a counter-example showing how people prayed before Jesus came along and prayed, “Father, forgive them,” even as his enemies crucified him?
Well, maybe, but let’s look at this painful prayer more carefully. It isn’t really a prayer for revenge, all dark with hatred and blood. It is more a prayer for reversal, a prayer that the enemies sins will rebound, recoil upon them. Note the dual use of the words “turn back” in verses 2 and 3. Is this a hint of the biblical teaching that God often punishes sin by giving us up to our sin (as in Romans 1)? God allows our sin to return to us, to rebound into our own lives, so that we reap what we sow. The Psalmist isn’t asking God to do something new and horrible to his enemies, just to let them experience the consequences of their own sin. This is not the prayer of today’s Israeli army that hits back at enemies with ten times the force. This is simply a prayer that the universe will be just and balanced by the boomerang effect of sin. No, it’s not the gracious prayer of Jesus on the cross, but it is a prayer for the justice of the Kingdom.
Third, this is a profoundly relevant prayer. It is exactly the prayer of our hearts. In our pain, we quickly grow impatient. If God loves us, why doesn’t he do something now? Why does he delay? One of the most fervent and frequent prayers in the Bible is, “How long, O Lord, how long?!” We are puzzled by God’s seeming slowness, driven to doubt by his inexplicable delays, and flummoxed in our faith by his apparent unconcern. This is the prayer of our hearts. “O Lord, come quickly to help me.” I can’t think of a more relevant prayer.
Indeed, this simple little prayer has been prayed more times than any other prayer in the Psalter by the Western church. In the liturgical tradition the words of Psalm 70:1 are prayed 7 times every day, as the church observes “the hours.” Patrick Henry Reardon says that this Psalm was “one of the most important early formulas in the quest for constant prayer… it served as a kind of historical forerunner of the ‘Jesus prayer.’”
The Western use of this profound little prayer was rooted in the Eastern tradition, particularly the Egyptian desert Fathers. St. John Cassian quotes one of those Fathers, Abba Isaac, on the relevance of Psalm 70:1 and following. “Not without reason has this verse been selected from out of the whole body of Scripture. For it takes up all the emotions that can be applied to human nature and with great correctness and accuracy it adjusts itself to every condition and every attack. It contains an invocation of God in the face of any crisis, the humility of a devout confession, the watchfulness of concern and of constant fear, a consciousness of one’s own frailty, the assurance of being heard, and confidence in a protection that is always present and at hand, for whoever calls unceasingly on his protector is sure that he is always present. It contains a burning love and charity, an awareness of traps, and a fear of enemies.”
Abba Isaac calls upon all Christians to pray this prayer at all times, because it fits all times. “This verse should be poured out in unceasing prayer so that we may be delivered in adversity and preserved and not puffed up in prosperity. You should, I say, meditate constantly on this verse in your heart.”
Psalm 70 is profoundly personal, painful, and relevant. And finally, it is profoundly biblical, even Christ centered. It is the Bible’s response to the delay of the Parousia. In the last chapter of the last book of the Bible, we hear Jesus say three times, “I am coming soon.” But it doesn’t seem that he has, so that same book ends with our prayer. “Come, Lord Jesus.” Psalm 70 gives us the temerity to add, “and make it quick, Lord.”
II Peter 3 anticipates the day when the enemies of our faith will mock our patience with God’s pace. It explains that God’s sense of time is very different than ours, adding that what seems like slowness is really his patience. That is the New Testament response to our frantic plea. “O Lord, come quickly to help me.” “I’ll come when the time is right.” In other words, this simple little prayer in Psalm 70 is part and parcel of the great biblical drama of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.
Further, there are intimations of Christ in the wording of this Psalm. That’s why the world wide church uses Psalm 70 on Wednesday of Holy Week, where it echoes the “Aha” of the enemies of Christ as he hangs on the cross. Then the church rereads this Psalm as the prayer of the crucified Jesus in his passion, and of the church in its neediness. In the end, the “Aha!” of unbelief is replaced by the joy and gladness of those who love Jesus, because the resurrection of the One who seemed so poor and needy on the cross revealed that he was, in fact, “My Lord and my God.”
Because we know Jesus, we can end our frantic, fearful prayers as the Psalmist does. “You are my help and my deliverer. O Lord, do not delay.” That is the way the faithful pray, with simple profundity.
Albert Einstein gave us a profound explanation of the relativity of time and space. But any parent travelling with children knows that time and space are relative, because five minutes into a 24 hour trip, the three year old in the backseat asks that eternal question. “Are we there yet?” No matter how fast you go, it’s always too far to that space way down the road.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Author: Scott Hoezee
It started out as words of comfort. Paul’s intention was to soothe anxieties, tamp down sorrows, answer some hard questions that the Thessalonians were asking. That’s how it started. Over time, though, these words in 1 Thessalonians 4—coupled with some further talk on similar themes in the next chapter—have become a source of unending speculation, divisions in the church, and fierce arguments. “The Rapture” as it has become known spins out of these words if you interpret them a certain way. Or it’s not so much that people disagree about the rapture. That we will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air when he returns is clearly taught here and if you want to call that the rapture, that’s fine.
Where the disagreements begin is the larger end-times time line and where this rapture fits. Dispensationalist Christians teach it will be a secret coming of Christ, hidden from the unbelievers in the world. Believers will just disappear from the earth, thus the bumper stickers on cars saying, “When the Rapture Comes, Take the Wheel!”). What will follow will be a long period of tribulation and war in a battle for world dominance. This will go on for a long time before Christ makes a more decisive, public return after which he will rule the world for 1,000 years (the Millennium) from a throne in Jerusalem. And only THEN will the final judgment take place and God will fully usher in his kingdom on this earth.
Others see it much more simply: when Christ returns and gathers his people as depicted in 1 Thessalonians 4, that will be a public event and it will swiftly set off an immediate string of events that will culminate quite soon in the final sorting out of humanity and its history before the dwelling of God descends from heaven to make its home on earth. No period of tribulation, no millennial reign on earth as it is.
This seems unlikely to be resolved among varying groups of believers anytime soon. But because it is the first thing most people think of when they read Paul’s words, we tend to miss the real pastoral import of them. These were not meant to be fighting words. These sentences were not intended to be parsed and interpreted and hashed over to within an inch of their life over many centuries. These were words of pastoral comfort.
It seems that in Thessalonica—as perhaps in many places in the earliest days in the church—the belief arose that since Christ had won the victory over death by rising again from the dead, believers would now not die themselves. Or they would remain alive until Christ came back, which would entail of course that he would be coming back very soon and within the lifetime of all of the Christians who were alive at the time of having converted to Christ. Probably the Thessalonians did not know Jesus’ words from John 11, but if they could hear Jesus telling Martha that “anyone who believes in me will never die,” they would have heard that as confirming this idea that being a Christian meant not dying. Ever.
And then members of the church started dying. Funerals were being held after all. A cloud of painful questions arose: were these people not Christians after all? Had they had inadequate faith? If so, how can any of us be sure we are good and faithful enough? Paul had said it was all faith, all grace, all Jesus. But is it? Or, far more darkly, was Paul just wrong? Is the Gospel a hoax? Is there no true victory of life over death?
It takes little imagination to envision how terrifying this was, how gut-wrenching and tear-drenched it was. So they sent word to Paul, and he undertakes to close out his letter with as much reassurance as he can muster. No, the dead are not lost. They did not die because they had fallen away from Christ or had not been strong enough. The dead are still in Christ’s hands and when he returns, those dearly departed sisters and brothers will be first in line to be raised back to new life and before you know it, those of us still alive when that happens will be reunited with them, too. Who knows how long it would be before that dramatic reappearance of Jesus would happen (and it was likely that even Paul suspected it would be sooner rather than later—one wonders what he would make of the now 2,000 years that have passed). But it will happen and when it does, we will see that all is well with the souls of our cherished dead.
“Encourage one another with these words” Paul writes in the end. Encouragement in the face of death: has there ever been a moment in human history when we did not need this? Have the ultimate questions about life and its meaning dried up in even the modern era in the face of death? Hardly. There are very few people to whom we preach—the very young probably excepted—who do not come to church every week with some variation of these ultimate questions banging around in their hearts and minds.
We all die twice they say. First there is that moment when our hearts stop and our brains go silent. Then second there is that time somewhere in the not-too-distant future when we die again after the last person who knew us and could recall us or talk about us also dies. And then we are really and truly gone from the earth. Few well-functioning people can escape the force of the question “And then what? Is this all that there is? Did I never matter? Will I never be heard from again?”
Encouragement in the face of that is a primal need. And the Gospel gives it. Once we are in Christ, we will never die. Not finally. Maybe our bodies give out. Eventually those who remember us are also gone. But we will never die finally. We can’t. We are in Christ. He remembers us. And he has a future for us.
Encourage one another with these words. And do it often.
In one of my Pauline Epistles classes, my professor Andrew Bandstra, had just completed a rigorous and thorough defense of the Reformed position of amillenialism, the denial of most of the complex timelines for end-time events associated with Dispensationalist theology. The class finished and as we students were stuffing our books and notes back into our backpacks, Professor Bandstra said, “Then again, if the Lord Jesus returns and you meet him in the air and he starts talking about setting up a 1,000-year kingdom headquartered in Jerusalem, well . . . go along with it!”
In truth we none of us can fully envision what the end will be. But if it’s Jesus and if we are with him, neither do we or will we have a blessed thing to worry about!