Stop the Madness, Part II
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Cascades Fellowship CRC, JX MI
July 13th, 2003
Last week, I mentioned that “End Times Fever” was nothing new to the Christian church. Listen to this list which gives expression to that very point – (read article on list of end times misfires).
Pretty frightening stuff, if you ask me. Possibly the most frightening are the ones that become self-fulfilling prophecies, like the Branch Davidians. Another disturbing trend that comes with an end times obsession is reactionary behavior. As the year 2000 approached, numerous articles began appearing about the preparations some Christians were making in reaction to all the doomsday prophecies that surfaced during that time. Unfortunately, they made compelling reading – the public loves an earnest fool – and were just general enough for all of Christianity to be implicated. Here are some excerpts from such an article – (read article excerpts).
Now, lest you think that we in the Reformed faith – who certainly know better – are immune to such nonsense, listen to this article.
As demonstrated in the three articles I just read, end times fanaticism is a powerful influence in the life of many. Those captivated by its titillation often act in bizarre and nonsensical ways. I heard of people in the year 2000 that emptied their bank accounts of tens of thousands of dollars and hid their cash stash somewhere in the house. And then spent the rest of their savings on large stores of canned goods, gas-powered generators and 55 gallon drums of fuel. Others sold all they had, believing that on January 2 they would have no need for material riches. As I noted last week, such preoccupation with end times prophecies often leads to a scandalous waste of resources and time.
In our passage this morning Paul writes to the Thessalonians and says that about times and dates he did not need to write to them, for they knew very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. Time and dates. The real centerpiece of the end times furor. Trying to nail down times and dates is the passionate core of much research and biblical study on the end times or the field of theological study known as eschatology.
The word eschatology literally means “the study of last things.” In other words, studying the Scriptures to discern or glean how things end up. And Paul, true to the form he demonstrated in the previous passage refuses to speculate on what the Scriptures themselves are silent about – times and dates.
Can I offer you the final and definitive word on this matter? Turn with me in your Bibles to Matthew 24:36. “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Folks, this is Jesus speaking here. Note that there are no qualifiers, no exceptions, no caveats. Jesus says “No one knows….” He doesn’t say that as the time draws near he will give some special visions, insights or words of prophecy to help narrow down the date. He doesn’t say that you will be able to read the current events like a time map and therefore guestimate when he is returning. It is significant that Jesus makes this statement about no one knowing immediately after he talks about the signs leading up to the end times. When he says no one, he means no one. Can we please just accept Jesus at his word and drop the whole discussion on times and dates? Can we please stop watching every political and cultural shift in the nation of Israel and start paying attention to our own culture so that we can discern how best to present the Gospel to the people in our own community. If those who spend so much energy and time on noting so called “signs” and how they fit into the overall end-times scenario spent that time and energy on studying their own community and how the Gospel communicates in their immediate culture we could see a veritable great awakening. All efforts to forecast a time frame, a date, a period, a window of opportunity, whatever you want call it is utter foolishness in the face of Jesus’ own words. That’s what Paul means when he says he doesn’t need to write about dates and times. To do so would engage in idle speculation – a practice that way too often leads to error.
So why does Paul carry on the conversation and why do we have a sermon this morning called “Stop the Madness, Part II?” Because there are two sides to the hope that Paul wants to convey to the Thessalonians. In the previous passage, Paul comforted the Thessalonians concerning those who had died before the return of Christ. In this passage he explains what it means to live in the times before Christ’s return.
Now whether Paul is addressing a particular concern of the Thessalonians – perhaps some among them lived in fear of the return of Christ because of the x-factor involved, the unknown element – or he is just naturally following a line of thought, the Scriptures do not make clear. What is important to note though is that Paul immediately (as we have already talked about) turns the Thessalonians away from idle and worthless speculation and jumps right into what is the only critical thing to know about the timing of Christ’s return. It will come like a thief in the night.
Jesus in Luke 12:35-46 warns of this very thing. Using a parable concerning a master who is returning, expecting all to be ready for a wedding feast, Jesus teaches his listeners that the servant who his master finds ready and waiting will be greatly rewarded. But the servant who says, “Aw, he ain’t coming today. I’ll get ready tomorrow,” will be – and this is the image Jesus uses – cut to pieces and assigned a place among the unbelievers. The Lord’s return will be like a thief coming. If the master of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would made sure the cops were there to arrest the culprit!
That’s how Paul says the return of Christ will be for those who do not know Christ – who do not believe he will return. Like a thief. They will be saying to themselves “peace and safety” thinking that their existence will continue in the circle of life they have come to expect and take for granted. As Jesus warned in Matthew 24, people will be getting married, life will be going on in the cycles we have become accustomed to – when bam! Jesus will return. And they will never see the danger of continuing to reject Christ; it will never cross their mind that their days are numbered. The hour of escape – the time allotted to believe on the name Jesus Christ – will pass and the only thing left for them will be judgment.
Note, I have just said more than Paul writes to the Thessalonians. He says nothing of judgment in the sense of who God’s wrath will be poured out against. He only says that we who are in Christ will not suffer wrath. But he never speaks specifically in this passage on the judgment coming for those who reject Christ. Instead he concentrates on what Christ’s return means for believers.
Look at what he says in v.4-6 of our text.
But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled.
If no one knows the day or the hour, how can we not be surprised by it? Because, though we do not know the timing, we do know it is coming. So what Paul is implying by saying that we will not be surprised is we need to be ready at all times.
In Matthew 25 Jesus tells the parable of the ten virgins who are waiting for the bridegroom. None of the virgins know when the bridegroom will arrive. It would be easy for all of them to think to themselves, “Our Lord tarries. I have time to get things in order. I’ll trim my lamp and get oil another day.” But five of them maintain a vigilant watch – they take oil out with them to keep their lamps alight throughout the night. The other five take a chance – they don’t prepare. Suddenly the word goes out that the bridegroom is approaching and the foolish virgins are running out of oil. While they are away trying to procure some more oil for their lamps, the bridegroom arrives – they are surprised and excluded from the wedding feast. The wise virgins who had oil with them are not surprised and go into the wedding feast.
When Paul says that we who believe in Christ will not be surprised, he is not saying it is possible to know the date and time; he is saying that we know for certain that he is coming and we can be prepared for his arrival.
Again, it is worth noting that the parables Jesus tells immediately after the one concerning the virgins. He first tells the parable of the talents – it matters what you do with the gifts and resources God has entrusted to you. How you use them defines the sort of servant you are – in the words of Christ “good and faithful or worthless.” The parable after that is about the sheep and the goats. The good and faithful servants are identified by the works that they do in Christ’s name. Despite the fact that the Lord tarried, they remained vigilant, doing the work he set them to.
Michael Holmes, in the NIV Application Commentary on 1&2 Thessalonians says “In short, Paul is calling us to stay alert and to keep busy: to conduct ourselves as though Jesus may return soon (he might), and to minister as though his coming may be delayed indefinitely (which it might). Practically speaking, this is a matter of combining a short-term attitude with long-term planning…To summarize, Paul wants us to plan to minister for the long haul, but to do so with the attitude he shared with James: ‘If it be the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’”
So how do we prepare? How do we keep from being surprised? How do we have a short-term attitude with long-term planning? I suggest three things. The first is that we should live in anticipation, not apprehension.
Let me ask what may sound like a silly question. Of the people here that are or have been married, how many of you really enjoyed your wedding day? And I mean enjoyed it while you were going through it, not on reflection and looking back. One of the saddest things to hear is how a bride or groom cannot wait for the wedding to be over – and not so that they can get to the honeymoon. They want the wedding over so that they can relax. Every muscle, every nerve is strained with anxiety – apprehension. The couple – particularly the bride – wants every detail to go perfectly and they live through the wedding ceremony in the constant fear that something will go wrong.
We can do the same in our Christian walk. We can become so wrapped up in trying to determine if something fits into our prophetic scheme that our anticipation of Christ’s return turns to apprehension. We start focusing on details and forget the big picture. To help refocus our vision, allow me to draw the big picture again.
As I stated before, we are not destined for wrath. Do you know what that means? Salvation! Instead of experiencing the unmitigated wrath of God, we experience peace with him. Instead of enmity with God we experience love – eternal love that nothing can separate us from. Not even death – as we learned last week. But there is more to the big picture. Because we are preserved for salvation in Jesus Christ, the coming of Jesus will mark a progression to a level of friendship and fellowship with Jesus Christ not seen since the Garden of Eden. Get this, we will know full, uninterrupted, uncorrupted intimate fellowship with God. No sin will stand in the way our service to him. Talk about something incredible to anticipate! To finally live faithfully before God without the struggle against sin. That’s the big picture – something to really look forward to.
The second thing I’d like to suggest is that we be self-controlled. Paul says in v.8 says that being self-controlled is “putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.” In other words, rather than following after the sinful nature in drunkenness and debauchery, in greed and lust, in hatred and violence let us do the things in keeping with our faith in Christ. If you need a short list of what that looks like how about this, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength and love your neighbor as yourself.” Recall often your redemption in Christ and let it become a spring of gratitude over-welling in you onto works that show the fruit of righteousness. Engage God’s Word, approach him in prayer, and fellowship with him among the saints to know his will and then do it.
The final thing I want to suggest as a way of preparing ourselves is to study long and hard Lord’s Day 1. What is my only comfort in life and in death? That I belong body and soul to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. I don’t know if you have ever sat down and really thought about the truth of that statement, but you really should. The first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism is a compendium in itself of biblical truth and doctrine. It assures us of one thing – it captures one central truth of the Scriptures – that our lives are hidden in Christ and in him we are secure.
Security is a tenuous thing these days. Shifts in the stock market, terrorist attacks and warnings, new diseases that defy conventional treatment all vie for our concern – a piece of our anxiety. Nothing seems secure. The truth is, we live under the illusion of “peace and safety” everyday when in reality we enjoy very little of either. True security – the security that allows us to live in anticipation – comes only through Christ. Take some time to absorb Lord’s day 1 into your heart and mind. For it is when we are secure in Christ that we are able to truly live in anticipation of his coming again.
It is an easy thing to get caught up in the temptation – and that is precisely what it is – of trying to read the signs of the times to declare if this is the day, month, year or era of Christ’s return. Let’s not be so apprehensive about the future return of Jesus that we neglect what he has called us to be – a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people meant to be a blessing to the nations through the proclamation of the gospel. Instead, dwell on your security in Christ – in life or in death. Then live in the joyful anticipation of his return.