ON the subject of the Coming of the Lord the First Epistle to the Thessalonians has an altogether exceptional importance. And the more closely we study the condition and circumstances of those to whom it was addressed, our sense of its importance will increase.
The opening clauses of the 17th chapter of the Acts contain all that the narrative records about the Apostle's ministry in Thessalonica. And were it not for the incidental reference of verse 11, we might suppose that his preaching in the synagogue was crowned with unusual success; whereas that verse tells us that the Jews refused even to consider the Scriptures on which his appeals to them were based. We may therefore assume with confidence that, after his three Sabbath days' "reasoning" with them, the Apostle "turned to the Gentiles," and that the 4th verse of the chapter gives the results, not of his synagogue ministry, but of all his evangelistic labours in Thessalonica.
We thus learn that some of the Jews believed, "and of the devout Greeks a great multitude." It is often assumed that these Greeks were proselytes, albeit it is most improbable that the whole company of the proselytes connected with the synagogue were numerous enough to justify the phrase "a great multitude." But the question is absolutely settled by the Apostle's explicit statement that these converts had been pagan idolaters. (1 Thessalonians 1:9) And as his Epistle makes no reference to Hebrew Christians, we may assume that the "some among the Jews" who believed must have been few in number. It is certain that the Church of the Thessalonians was essentially Gentile. And the bearing of this fact will appear in the sequel.
How long the Apostle remained among them is a matter of conjecture; but the facts give proof that his sojourn cannot have been brief. For it is quite incredible that a congregation of recently converted pagans, if left to themselves, would have reached and maintained such a standard of saintship as to become a pattern church, exerting an influence "not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place." (1 Thessalonians 1:8) Results like these must have been the fruit of much doctrinal teaching and not a little pastoral care. And that they enjoyed such a ministry is definitely indicated by the many references to it scattered throughout both Epistles. But at last a storm of persecution robbed them of the Apostle's presence. After a brief but happy ministry in Berea he was again obliged to flee, and he journeyed to Athens. During his stay in Athens some grave tidings reached him about the Thessalonian converts, tidings which raised fears whether all his labours among them had not been in vain. (1 Thessalonians 3:1-5) And much though he needed companionship and help at such a time, he commissioned Timothy to return at once to Macedonia. He himself passed on to Corinth, where in due course Timothy rejoined him, bringing him the particulars he longed for about the trouble in the Thessalonian Church. And the nature of that trouble is clearly indicated by the letter which he forthwith addressed to them. It was due to no lapse toward either immorality or heresy, but to the fact that certain of their leaders had been martyred. (1 Thessalonians 2:14, 15; 3:4)1 We fail to appreciate the fears and difficulties of these Gentile converts of early days. The faith of the spiritual Christian who has the Bible in his hands, and to whom the story of the Church's sufferings is an open page, may pierce the darkest clouds; but these Thessalonians had no such glorious records of a faith-tried past, and it is doubtful to what extent they had access even to the Hebrew Scriptures. They had been told, moreover, that He in whom they believed had all power in heaven and earth; and yet they had been left a prey to the hate of their heathen enemies. But with exquisite tenderness the Apostle reminds them that they were not only the followers of the Hebrew Christians who had endured similar sufferings from their fellow-Jews, but also the disciples of the Lord Jesus, who had Himself been put to death by them.
The groundwork of the Epistle was evidently supplied by the tidings which Timothy had brought him.2 But the Epistle was (to change the figure) a casket to convey to them a special message which the Lord had entrusted to him, a message to comfort their hearts and confirm their faith. That this was its character is plainly indicated by the words "This we are saying unto you in the word of the Lord." We cannot solve the mysteries of inspiration, but from certain passages in his Epistles it is clear that special revelations were occasionally received by the Apostle Paul with peculiar definiteness. By a revelation of this kind, and at this very time, he had "received" the very words in which to preach the Gospel in Corinth. After the utter failure of his testimony at Athens, we can well believe that, with importunate supplication, he may have pleaded for special guidance in preaching to the Corinthians. And he reminds them of this in his First Epistle, in restating the Gospel he had proclaimed to them. For here the Revised Version of 1 Corinthians 15:2 is explicit' "I make known, I say, in what words I preached it unto you; for I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received" — the identical phrase he uses in the 11th chapter with reference to the revelation accorded him respecting the Lord's Supper.
Here, then, are the words in which he conveyed the Lord's special message to the Thessalonians" (13) But we would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning the sleeping ones, that ye may not sorrow, even as the rest do who have no hope. (14) For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also who fell asleep through Jesus will God bring together with Him. (15) For this we say unto you in the word of the Lord, that we who are living, who remain behind unto the coming of the Lord, shall in no wise gain an advantage over them who fell asleep, (16) because the Lord Himself shall come down from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first:3 (17) then we who are living who remain behind, shall be caught up all together with them, in the clouds, to meet the Lord, into the air: and so shall we be always with the Lord. (18) So then comfort one another with these words" (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
This is Dean Alford's translation of the passage, save only that in verse 18 his version reads, "them that are sleeping." The more literal rendering, "the sleeping ones," makes it still clearer that, whereas the 16th verse speaks of all the dead in Christ, the reference in the preceding verses is to the particular individuals whose loss the Thessalonians were mourning. The popular rendering of the 14th verse, "them that sleep in Jesus," is an obvious mis-translation. And a more literal rendering even than Alford's would bring out more fully the exquisite pathos of the Lord's message to them. For the primary meaning of the verb koimao is not to fall asleep but to put to sleep. What troubled these sorely-tried disciples was that they regarded the death of their friends as a sign that the Lord had failed them. And this is the Lord's answer. As it was for His own name's sake that they had suffered, He speaks of them as having been put to sleep by Himself. It is as though He said, "Though I was the cause of their death, I have not failed them. Was not I Myself put to death? And as surely as I died and rose again, they too shall rise, and God will bring them with Me at My coming." And our sense of the infinite grace of this is intensified by the fact that the message of hope and comfort is given in the name of His humiliation — the name under which He Himself was slain! It is His first recorded message to His saints on earth after His ascension. And in that same name is His final message, given us upon the last page of Holy Scripture' "I, Jesus…am the bright and morning star…Surely I am coming quickly."
But what voice has this message for ourselves today? This is the question which specially concerns us. And to enable us to answer it, we do well to consider what it meant, and what it was intended to mean, for those to whom it was primarily addressed hence the importance of this inquiry respecting the condition and circumstances of the Thessalonian Christians. Let us keep clearly in view that they were Gentile converts. They had no share, therefore, in Israel's national hopes; nor do the Epistles give us any reason to believe that they had any doctrinal knowledge of those hopes. The Pentecostal promise which, as a present hope, the Jews had already forfeited, was that, in fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy, Christ would come to His earthly people to put all things right upon the earth. And the literal definiteness of that hope appears from the promise of the Ascension day, confirming Zechariah's explicit words. (Acts 1:11; Zechariah 14:4) But these Thessalonians had "turned to God from idols…to wait for His Son from heaven." And the Lord's message to them plainly indicates the meaning of that special hope of theirs. Now if His coming to call away His heavenly people signifies the same thing as His coming to deliver Jerusalem and the Jews from Gentile armies, we must conclude that in Scripture words may mean anything, and all discussion of them is idle.
It may be said perhaps that although the earthly hope and the heavenly hope differ so essentially, they will be fulfilled at the same advent. But any presumption there may be in favour of this view rests entirely on popular misbeliefs about "the Second Advent." There is no proof whatever of it, and it clashes with the teaching of the Epistles. The Thessalonians were waiting for the Lord. But, for some reason unknown to us, they believed that at His coming it was only the living who would be called away. The martyred dead therefore had lost their part in this "blessed hope," and as their "call" would thus be deferred till a resurrection in the distant future, their death was mourned with a hopeless sorrow.
Now if our popular misbeliefs were true, the Apostle would surely have told them that their grief was due to the error of expecting the speedy return of Christ they had mistaken a future for a present hope, and before the Advent could take place they would all have joined their martyred friends "beyond the veil." But in striking contrast with this, mark the God-given words of the Epistle, "that we who are living, who remain behind unto the coming of the Lord, shall in no wise gain an advantage over the sleeping ones." "WE who are living": if they were wrong in believing that the Lord might come in their own lifetime, could even a trained lawyer have drafted words better fitted to confirm them in the error!
I repeat, therefore, with increased emphasis, that the knowledge which the Thessalonian Epistle gives us of the circumstances of those to whom it was written, and of their special griefs and difficulties, lends to its teaching a peculiar definiteness and importance. Indeed if our expectation of the Lord's return had no other Scriptural warrant, this Epistle might suffice us. But the references to the hope are many in other Epistles also. To deal with them in full detail, however, would be foreign to the scheme of these pages, and a few leading passages will here suffice.
The 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians claims very special notice. That wonderful exposition and defense of the great truth of the resurrection leads up to the following pregnant words: —
"Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shah all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shah be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. Oh death, where is thy sting? Oh grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord."(1 Corinthians 15:51-58)
"We shall not all sleep"' Is this to be read as a mere recital of the obvious fact that when the Lord returns He will find some of His people living upon earth? What an empty platitude to introduce into one of the sublimest passages in all the New Testament Epistles! The purpose of the words is clear. The Corinthians were "waiting for the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ"; (1 Corinthians 1:7) and he thus seeks to confirm them in that attitude, and (as the 58th verse so clearly indicates) to make it increasingly a present hope, fitted to influence heart and life. Therefore is it that, though he speaks of the dead in the third person, he always speaks of the living in the first — "We shall not all sleep." For while the Resurrection is the hope of those who fall asleep, the Coming is the hope of living saints. But if he had known that the advent was an event in a remote future, this would have been so misleading that in a merely human writing it would be regarded as almost a suggestio falsi!
A like thought is suggested by his reference to this truth in his Second Epistle. The symbolism of the 5th chapter is as simple as it is graphic. Our "natural body" is likened to a tent, the spiritual body to a house. Not a house like the Jerusalem temple, built on earth by human hands, and liable to perish; but a building of God, eternal, and in the heavens. Then the symbolism assumes another phase. Death is likened to our being unclothed; and in contrast with being thus stripped naked, our receiving the heavenly body without passing through death is symbolized by our being "clothed upon." Three distinct conditions are thus indicated — clothed, clothed upon, and found naked. The first is our condition during our life on earth, and the last is that to which death reduces us. This is plain to all; but the "being clothed upon" is apt to be misunderstood. It does not refer to the Resurrection, but to the change which the Coming of the Lord will bring to those "who are alive and remain."4
Death is an outrage upon life, a hideous and hateful outrage. And yet (as the Apostle wrote to the Philippians)"to have died is gain";5 for at death do we not pass from earth to be "with Christ," which is "far better"? So here he says, We are "willing rather" to be absent from the body and to be "at home with the Lord." "Willing rather" denotes a bare preference; but when he speaks of the hope to be realized at the Coming, "earnestly desiring" is the phrase he uses. And his purpose in all this, as the sequel plainly shows, is not to instruct them in eschatology, but to enforce the practical bearing of the hope upon life and conduct. How unreasonable this would be, if the Coming were not a present hope!
The closing sentence of the 3rd chapter of Philippians is of special interest in this connection' "Our citizenship is in heaven; from whence also we wait for a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ; who shall fashion anew the body of our humiliation, that it may be conformed to the body of His glory, according to the working whereby He is able even to subject all things unto Himself." (Philippians 3:20, 21, R.V.) Here again, mark the form of the sentence — the present tense, and the first person plural — "We are expecting a Saviour." But this is not all. When challenged by the question, "How are the dead raised up and With what body do they come!" the Apostle's answer was, "Thou fool!" But when in that same chapter he came to speak of the living, his words were explicit, "We shall all be changed." And here to the Philippians he uses a kindred, but still stronger word — the body of our humiliation shah be transformed. The holy dead, it need not be said, will be raised in bodies like the Lord's. But it is not of the Resurrection that he is speaking here, nor yet of the buried dust of them that are "fallen asleep," but of the "flesh and blood" of the living men whom he is addressing; and to them he says, "We are waiting for the Saviour who will transform the body of our humiliation."
First Corinthians was one of the Apostle's earlier Epistles' Philippians was written toward the close of his life, and after the close of his special ministry to Israel. But the doctrine of the Coming is unchanged — the hope is the same; the only difference being that, when writing from his Roman prison, he uses a stronger word than ever before — "We are assiduously and patiently waiting for the Savior."6 And still further to impress upon the Philippian saints the reality and definiteness of that hope, he adds, "The Lord is at hand."7
The Apostle's words to Titus may fittingly conclude this notice of his teaching about the Coming of the Lord. In this Epistle, believed to have been written in the very year of his martyrdom, we find the same glad note of comfort and hope. "For the grace of God hath appeared, salvation-bringing to all men, disciplining us in order that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, justly and godly in this present world, looking for that blessed hope, even the glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ." (Titus 2:11-13)8
Will any one dare to rob us of these words by referring them to "the great and terrible day of the Lord". True it is that the Lord Jesus shall be "revealed in flaming fire to take vengeance on them that know not God." But to call that a "blessed hope" would savor of the spirit of the Spanish Inquisition, rather than of the Christian's grace-taught heart! One word more. In common with certain other distinctive truths of the Christian revelation, this of the Coming has peculiar prominence in the Epistles of the Apostle Paul. But in proof that it was a hope shared by "all saints" in the Apostolic age, appeal may be made to the following words of the Apostle Peter "Knowing that I must shortly put off this tabernacle, even as our Lord Jesus Christ hath shewed me." (2 Peter 1:14) Me emphatic. And the student of evidence will ask what need there could have been for such a special revelation to Peter, if death were the common lot of all; for when these words were written he must have been nearing his threescore years and ten.