Since coming to St. Martin’s, the question I have been most often asked has been about one topic: the end of days . What will happen (and when)? And related, what’s Revelation about? Am I a pre-millennialist or post-millennialist? (Answer: neither!) Often, when it comes to the end of days and what we believe about Jesus’ return, we get off on the wrong foot by asking the wrong questions. Ralph Abernathy, a Christian minister, civil rights’ activist, and friend and mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said this: “ I don't know what the future may hold, but I know who holds the future. ” This is a really helpful way of looking at things and puts us in a much better place to ask questions about the end of days, as well as to face the uncertainties of this life. There is a lot about the future we don’t know, but we can learn about the One who holds the future and we can be assured of the characteristics of that future. It is this hope–and the One who holds it–that we turn to in today’s passage from 1 Thessalonians.

Read 1 Thessalonians 4:13–5:11
The Thessalonians had cause for grief and, with it, some anxiety–something we all face at some point–but they didn’t have the healing aid of well-articulated Christian doctrine. What about those who have died? They knew Jesus had risen from the dead, but they’re unclear about the fate of those who have died. What happens to them? (It’s possible they thought Jesus’ return was imminent and so panicked for those who wouldn’t be present for it.)

Paul’s response? Yes, we grieve for those who have died, but we grieve with hope (v. 13). Why? Because we hope in Jesus who is Lord of all. He died and rose again and, through this very resurrection, others will be raised also (v. 14). Now, Christians in the West in the last couple of hundred years have gotten very hung up on this passage thinking they’re a literal prophecy of what Jesus’ return will look like. They’re not. (Sorry!) Instead, we are given the assurance of knowing Jesus is coming back (v. 15), and His return is good news both for the dead and living because when He comes, the dead will be raised (v. 16). The language here (the trumpet, the call, the descent and the clouds) is all reminiscent of the Old Testament metaphors that describe God as a victorious king and warrior returning to His city to be enthroned (vv. 16–17). So we have a reminder that Jesus’ return brings with it a final and full rescue mission of all that is still under the power of evil. Add to that, the ‘meeting in air’ is not about us leaving this world, but, like people in a Roman city who would go out to meet the emperor when he came to visit, it’s about us going out to meet Jesus when He returns as King and welcoming Him as He comes to take His place on Earth . The dead will be raised first and will be with Jesus, but then those who are alive will acclaim and honor Him as they would the highest official (v. 17). In other words, Jesus is coming back to finally rescue us from evil, all believers will join him (those who have died as well!) and He will take His position as Lord of all (cf. Phil. 2). So yes, we grieve when our loved ones die, but we know that grief and loss is not the end. We have hope!

After this reminder, Paul reiterates that while we have this hope, we don’t know when it will be realized (vv. 1–3). The Roman Empire used language like “peace and security” (v. 3) to encourage people to trust in the political system (and its gods). Yet, Paul says such certainties are no certainties at all. Life can change in a moment (as we’ve discovered this year) and Jesus’ return could happen as quickly. So we are called to live knowing that dawn will come, even when the world around us still lives in the dark (vv. 4–5). We are called to focus more on working out the reality of our salvation than being intoxicated by the priorities of the world around us (vv. 6–8). We are called to be ready for that unexpected day or hour when Christ comes back or calls us home. We are called to live sober lives (v. 8), not just sobriety from addiction to alcohol, but all things that cloud our hearts and lives and keep us from actively waiting and readying ourselves for that final salvation–that salvation that we, in Christ, are destined to attain (vv. 9–10).

Questions for Reflection
  1. What are the biggest questions and concerns you have about the future (both in this life and the next)?
  2. What difference does it make to know that through Jesus’ resurrection, the dead will be raised and all evil defeated?
  3. If Jesus returned today, would we be ready to go out and welcome Him? What might He have to say about the state of His creation?
  4. Which voices in the world around you offer false hope and false assurance (v. 3)? Why is it easier to trust them rather than the sure hope we find in Jesus?
  5. Paul uses five metaphors to talk about Jesus’ return and our readiness for it (vv. 1–7). What are they? Why do you think he used them?
  6. Where are you tempted to “fall asleep?” Where are you (or need to be) “awake and sober?”
  7. You have been destined for salvation, not wrath (v. 9). That is good news! Do you really believe it? What holds you back from embracing God’s good purposes for you?

A prayer for this week
Lord Jesus, thank you that this life is not the end and that You will one day come back and take your place as King overall. Help us to trust in You rather than the ‘kings’ of this world. Help us to trust You with the uncertainties of this life and our fears of the next. By Your Spirit, make us ready and empower us to live today, even though it is still dark, knowing that dawn will come and You will do as You have promised. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Suse E. McBay
Associate for Adult Christian Education and Prayer Ministries