Summary: A lot of end times theology has come out Paul’s teaching in 1 Thessalonians - but what did Paul intend to teach?
Stop the Madness, Part 1
Cascades Fellowship CRC, JX MI
July 6th, 2003
Pastor Chris Lanham
Everybody talking about heaven ain’t going there
Going to shout all over God’s heaven.”
So goes the chorus to one of the most beloved Negro spirituals. Truer theology has not been spoken – not everybody talking about heaven is going there. Jesus warned of this in the parable of the wheat and the tares in Matthew13: 24-30 – there are weeds among the wheat, that will be weeded out in the last days. Everybody talking about heaven ain’t going there.
But there is also a fair amount of bad theology in the song. Now don’t get me wrong – this song is an uplifting, rousing affair that has encouraged generations of Christians. And the song provided hope to a people whose lot seemed hopeless: African-Americans oppressed by the chains of slavery. But there is a fair amount of theology based upon folk tales and tradition rather than the Scriptures. Here is one example:
“I’ve got a harp
All God’s children got a harp
When I get to heaven going to play my harp
Going to play all over God’s heaven.”
Heaven, heaven – everybody’s talking about heaven! There is a constant hum in the Christian community about the signs of the times. The discussion of the end times and heaven have even made it into the mainstream. The problem is not everything being said is worth listening to.
But an even more pressing problem with the “last days” fervor that seems to sweep through the church periodically is that the church spends so much time researching signs and gazing at the eastern sky, that we forget to be about the Father’s business. Energy that should be poured into equipping the saints for going out into all nations, baptizing in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is instead being used to scrutinize every international incident and how it might somehow be captured in the words of prophecy. Like the worker who is more concerned about the clock than giving a full day’s honest labor, with the fields white for harvest, we’re busy looking for the sign that will tell us its quitting time.
I remember during the first war against Iraq a number of books hit the shelves tying the events of the war to the prophecies of the Bible. Imminent theologians staked their reputations on works tying the Middle East conflict of 1991 to the beginning of the end. According to their complex formulations of how the Hebrew culture used numbers and calculated dates, the time was ripe for the Tribulation – that period of trouble before Christ’s ultimate return and reign. Some 12 years after the fact, in a recent Christian Books Distributors catalog, I noticed one of those books now goes for $.50. That’s the problem with writing a book predicting the end times – once the time is past and the end still hasn’t come, the book, and the research used to write the book is pretty much worthless. All that time and effort that could have been used for forming good theology, for effectively equipping saints – wasted.
Heaven, heaven – everybody’s talking about heaven. But this is not a new problem in the church. Believe it or not, Paul also dealt with this problem – even at that early stage of the of the church’s development. The church in Thessalonica was particularly bad about this – Paul ends up addressing this issue with them twice: once here in 1 Thessalonians and again in chapter 2 of 2 Thessalonians.
So what does Paul have to say about the return of Christ and our eternal destiny – what does he say about heaven? The short answer is not much. As our passage this morning indicates, Paul was much more interested in communicating the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement, the power of the Gospel, and the immensity of God’s grace than trying to present a coherent, cohesive eschatology – or doctrine of the last things. But in the midst of the comfort he offers the Thessalonians there is a foundation for understanding what the Scriptures have to say concerning the last things.
To get a grip on this teaching, we will first make an effort to understand what prompted Paul to write about the ends times to begin with. Then we will take a look at what I will call Paul’s priority in dealing with the future. That in reality is what we are talking about – the future. How things are going to end up, what is our final state. Then we will take a look at the teaching entrusted to Paul concerning the Day of the Lord, that is the return of Christ – the truly last things of history as we know it. Finally, we will take a look at the application that Paul has for this teaching.