Richard M Brown
1 Thessalonians 1: 8-10; 2: 17-20; 3: 11-13; 4: 13-18; 5: 6-11
It will be evident, dear brethren, that I would like to say a word as to the way the Lord’s coming is presented in 1 Thessalonians. You will have noticed that it is mentioned in each chapter. It may help in considering the various passages we have read to remind ourselves that when we speak of the coming of the Lord, we are talking about one event which will take place in two stages: there is the rapture and there is the appearing. The rapture is when the Lord Jesus will come for his saints; the appearing is when He will come with them. The rapture is a private matter between the Lord and His own, largely unseen by the world. The appearing, on the other hand, is a great public matter when the Lord Jesus will come, as He says, “with power and great glory”, Matt 24: 30. Every eye will see Him. He will come to establish His glorious kingdom over the earth. As we have often noted, the Scripture has relatively little to say about the rapture. The passage we read in chapter 4 is the only scripture which sets out in detail what will take place on that blessed day. By contrast, from beginning to end, the Scripture is full of references to the Lord’s appearing. Think of the first prophecy that was ever entrusted to a man, Enoch’s prophecy, where he speaks of the Lord coming “amidst his holy myriads, to execute judgment”, Jude 14, 15. I think of that dear man going on, walking with God for three hundred years, Gen 5: 22. We do not know if there was anyone else he could share things with. But evidently God spoke to him about the coming of the Lord. He spoke to him of holy myriads. How wonderful that is! I do not know if Enoch ever wondered where these myriads were, but he was in no doubt that when the Lord came it would be with them. So throughout the Old Testament we have references to “the day of Jehovah”; and in the New Testament we have references to “the day of the Lord”, “the day of Christ” and “Jesus Christ’s day”. From beginning to end, the Scripture is full of references to the Lord’s appearing.
Now we might ask why there is to be such a thing as the world to come; why it is necessary for there to be this thousand-year reign of Christ on earth. Why, for example, could not the eternal day begin instead at the same time as the saints are raptured? Well, I think one reason is that if it were not for the world to come it would seem as if evil had triumphed on the earth. What God will manifest in that millennial day, in a very public way, will be the complete and final victory of good over evil. It is important that everyone should see the complete unravelling of good and evil, and the establishment of what is good on the earth. But there is another reason, too, why the world to come is necessary, and it is to do with the public vindication of Christ. The vindication of Christ is a very great matter with God. When you think that the last this world saw of the Lord Jesus was when He was hanging upon a cross, dying the death men thought suited to a common criminal and being buried, you can see just what a great matter it is with God. And not only has God raised Him from among the dead, and given Him that place in the glory we know so well, but God will also ensure that the whole world will be brought to see what it was in Christ that was such a delight to His God and Father; and the whole world will have to confess that God was right to exalt Him. It says that every knee will bow to Him “and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to God the Father’s glory”, Phil 2: 10-11. So you see, dear brethren, those of us who love Him would not be content only with the rapture, blessed hope of our hearts, but we want to see the Lord Jesus vindicated. We want to see Him come into all that is His. The whole earth belongs to Him. All the nations are His. And we want to see the Lord Jesus take possession of all that belongs to Him, and take up all His rights on the earth which have for so long been denied Him.
One further thought. Usually when the rapture is alluded to in the Scriptures, it is presented as a comfort to our hearts, something to encourage us as we make our way through this wilderness. The appearing, on the other hand, is often brought in in connection with our responsibility; as a test as to the extent to which we are fulfilling our responsibility here. I think we shall see that borne out by the scriptures we have read.
In the verses we read in chapter 1 the apostle does not distinguish between the rapture and the appearing, but he simply describes the profound effect that the gospel had had on these Thessalonians and how fundamentally it had changed their lives. He speaks of “how ye turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God”. Remember that most of the Thessalonians would have been pagans prior to hearing the gospel, though some of them were Jews. But the Thessalonians had been enlightened about some very important matters. The first one was that there was a God who could be described as the “living and true God”. No doubt the apostle speaks of Him in that way as standing in contrast to idols that were not only dead but false. And these Thessalonians had discovered the wonderful joy and liberty and dignity of becoming servants of the true God.
There was another point that was new to them, a most remarkable one, that this God they had come to know had a Son. What a blessed thing that is! I wonder if it has ever struck you as most remarkable that God should have a Son. As we have often said, if God has a Son there must be another world where His Son is exalted. It is clearly not yet this one. God has not only raised Him from among the dead, but He has ascended, and He has become the Sun and Centre of another world altogether. This was new light for the Thessalonians.
They had learnt something further too, that God’s Son was coming back for them! They had been converted in order to await God’s Son from heaven. I wonder if all of us in this room who have been converted realise that the reason why we have been converted, according to this scripture, is that we might serve God and wait for His Son. I venture to suggest that in these few verses the apostle sums up the whole reason why we are here. The twofold reason why the saints are still on this earth is that we might serve God, and that we might await His Son from heaven. We are here for no other reason than those two things. I think that consideration would cause us to review where we are. If there is anything we are engaged in, if there is anything we are going on with, that does not properly fall under either one of these two - serving God or waiting for His Son - let us be done with it. It is not what we are here for. What a dignity God has placed upon the saints that they should be standing here waiting for His blessed Son.
This had had a profound effect upon the Thessalonians. He says that “in every place your faith which is towards God has gone abroad”. Their neighbours and acquaintances were all speaking about it. These neighbours of theirs might have thought that the Thessalonians were very foolish to believe that God’s Son was coming for them. But they could not deny that that was what the Thessalonians really believed, because it governed their lives. Now, dear brethren, what about us? I would like, if I can, to convey something of the dignity and the blessedness of being in this position of waiting for the Son of God. I have sometimes used this illustration. There are persons who would regard it as a great honour and privilege to receive an invitation from the Queen. But think if, when the big day arrived, she sent to collect you, not one of her servants, but her own son! What would it say about your standing with the Queen? What would it say about the kind of reception you could expect at the Palace if the one who came to bring you there was the heir to the throne? That is a feeble illustration, but think of our position as waiting for no less a personage than the glorious Son of God. What must God’s thoughts of blessing for us be? What must our place in the glory be, if the One who is coming to bring us there is no less than the Son of God? What a dignity God has placed upon us! As rightly apprehended by us it would deliver us from everything here. You can see, in the light of this, how unworthy is the pursuit of worldly possessions or pleasure for persons who are waiting for God’s Son. What has the world to offer persons who are awaiting the Son of God? As the Son of God He is the great, glorious, attractive object for our affections. I trust that as we are together the Spirit of God might work this into our affections, that it is for Him we are waiting - no less than the glorious Son of God.
Well, I pass on to chapter 2, because here the apostle refers directly to the appearing of the Lord Jesus, when he speaks of being “before our Lord Jesus at his coming”. Now the background to this, as we read from Acts 17, is that the apostle had come to Thessalonica and he had preached in the synagogue for three sabbaths, and many of the Jews and Greeks had been converted. But it was not very long before the unbelieving Jews, jealous as they were, stirred up a persecution against Paul and the saints. It was so severe that the local brethren in Thessalonica urged Paul to leave; so he did. Having had to move on in a hurry, he was worried about the Thessalonians. I suppose some of them had not been converted for more than a month; they were brand new believers. He was worried about whether the severity of the persecution they were suffering would cause them to give up or to turn aside and, as he explains, he had tried more than once to get back to them but had been hindered by Satan. Eventually he sent Timothy to them, and Timothy had come back with very good news of the Thessalonians: they were holding the ground! The apostle was so thankful to hear that, that he sat down and wrote this letter to them. He was presented with the very real possibility that he might never see them again in the flesh. That leads him on to think of the Lord’s coming. You can see that he is thinking about that day when he would appear before our Lord Jesus. What he had seen and heard of the Thessalonians made him confident that they would be there too, and it is as if the apostle Paul is saying to these Thessalonians, ‘If I cannot get to you now I will meet you there’: “Are not ye also before our Lord Jesus at his coming?”. He would be there and the Thessalonians would be there too. As the apostle thought about being before our Lord Jesus, it reminded him that he - as indeed is the case with us all - will have to stand before the Lord in view of having His assessment of our pathways here. The Lord Jesus will review our responsible pathways here, and each of us will receive from Him His evaluation of everything we have done. As the apostle Paul thought about that, he was thankful the Thessalonians were going to be there, because they were the proof that he had not laboured in vain. There was nothing about the Thessalonians that would make him ashamed. In fact, he describes them as his “hope, or joy, or crown of boasting.” On that great day when the apostle appears before the Lord, he will be able to point to the Thessalonians as evidence that his labours for the Lord have not been in vain; and I have no doubt at all that the apostle Paul’s recompense, his reward from the Lord, will be very great.
But then, dear brethren, we need to think about this aspect of the Lord’s coming because we shall all appear before Him. I think, in the first place, that it is intended to sober us, for it will not be a question then of whether I feel that I have done enough for the Lord, or whether I have been able to pass muster among the saints. It will not be a question then of appearances, but only of what can stand in the glorious light of the presence of the Lord. How sobering that is! At the same time the prospect is intended to encourage us. It is intended to stir us up to be committed to the Lord Jesus, to be committed to His interests and to be committed to His service, in the little time that is left to us. So if a man has been called to preach the gospel, for example, if a man has received that call from the Lord, let him labour at it heartily; let him be absolutely committed to it; let him not allow anything else to take priority with him: his own convenience or arrangements or whatever it might be. But let him commit himself to it wholeheartedly in the knowledge that one day he will stand before the Lord to render an account to the Lord for the way he has answered to His call. If it is a question of serving the saints, the Lord will want to see how we have handled those whom He has entrusted to our care. Whether that be in our households, or whether it be in our localities, or wider still, the Lord will take account of all that we have done for the saints. This is to be an encouragement to us in the face of the trials of the way, in the face of discouragements, in the face even of Satan’s hindrances, that we labour on in the light of that great day when we shall stand before the One who misses nothing that has been done for Him. We can rest assured that even the smallest service, undertaken with Him in view, will be remembered by the Lord on that day when we shall appear “before our Lord Jesus at His coming”. May we be freshly stirred up with that day in view.
Chapter 3 speaks of “the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints”. So this is about the Lord Jesus coming out in public glory. We have spoken of the vindication of Christ, and when I think of God’s delight in Him it is no surprise that God will have the glory of Christ to shine out in a very public way. But what strikes me as most remarkable is that God is going to see to it that the saints will shine out in the same glory as Christ! “The coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints”; all of them! Every single one will keep company with Christ on that great day! The next epistle speaks of that day “when he shall have come to be glorified in His saints, and wondered at in all them that have believed”, 2 Thess 1: 10. Think of what God is going to set forth in the saints. In Ephesians we have reference to the display that God is going to make, in the saints, of the surpassing riches of God’s grace, chap 2: 7. And there is that precious prayer of the Lord Jesus, recorded for us in that most sublime of chapters, John 17, where He prays that the saints might “be perfected into one and that the world may know that thou has sent me, and that thou has loved them as thou hast loved me”, v 23. How is the world going to “know”? It will not be a question of faith then. Saints who were greatly despised when they were on earth, saints who were caused to suffer - these Thessalonians - will be there: how will the world know that the saints who were caused to suffer such reproach were, all along, loved by the Father with the same character of love that He had for Christ? Because they will see the saints coming out in the same glory as Christ. How wonderful that is!
So, in the light of that, he exhorts them “to exceed and abound in love toward one another”. I think there was already a good stock of love at Thessalonica. He refers earlier to their “labour of love”, chap 1: 3. The Thessalonians knew well how to serve one another in love but there is just a suggestion here, in the way the apostle speaks to them, that he thought that there was at least one respect in which they could go further. He brings before them, perhaps what the Thessalonians had not seen before, that love for the saints is the way to holiness. He says: “But you, may the Lord make to exceed and abound in love toward one another … in order to the confirming of your hearts unblamable in holiness”. Now, “unblamable in holiness” is what the saints are going to be; it is what they are going to be on that great day when they will come out with Christ. If we look around at all the departure, and the worldliness, and all the things that the people of God, sadly, are mixed up in, what a triumph for God, that on this great day after it all, the saints will be “unblamable in holiness”.
Now, we have to keep before us what the saints are going to be. I do not think we can serve the saints well unless we hold before us what they are, and what they will be, in the mind of God. And we might remind ourselves that if that is what we are going to be, then that must be the standard for us now. It is not that there is one standard of holiness for up there and another for down here. It is not that at all. If this is what God has in mind for the saints we should not allow ourselves to accept any lower standard for ourselves now. And I lay this before the dear brethren, that love, love for the brethren, is the way to holiness. If each of us were individually more deeply affected by the love of God for us, the more holy we would be. The more we love the saints, the more holy we shall desire them to be. People sometimes say there needs to be more love among the brethren; I doubt anybody here would deny that. But love among the brethren does not mean we have to countenance conduct that is unbecoming in the people of God. It does not mean we are to tolerate those things which dishonour the Lord. According to this scripture, love for the saints is the way to holiness. And you notice that he says it is “before our God and Father”. I suppose literally the saints will be in the Father’s house. But I suggest it also includes the thought that there is no one who is more jealous for the glory of Christ than the Father is. No one is more concerned than the Father that nothing should detract from the shining out of the glory of Christ; therefore, any suggestion that we should go on with things which dishonour the Lord is quite out of keeping with the Father’s thoughts about Him. And the sense of that would exercise us as to whether there is anything with us, anything at all, that would be unsuitable for us coming out with Christ, anything that might be a stain on us in view of that great day. This is to stimulate in our hearts a sense of urgency that we might settle matters; that we might set things in order for the Lord’s sake, in view of being held in readiness for that great day when God will draw back the veil and reveal not only Christ, in all His glory, but the saints in company with Him. What a prospect! May it greatly stir up our hearts. May it stimulate fresh exercise and desire with us that we might be held in readiness for that great day, in view of being suitable to come out with Christ.
Chapter 4 refers directly to the rapture. You will notice those verses that we know and love so well, verses 15-18, are in brackets. That is because the apostle only refers to the rapture, so to speak, by the way. It is very important for us, of course. But he only refers to it in order to explain something else. The Thessalonians were worried that those who died before the Lord’s coming, and no doubt there were numbers of them that had been martyred in the persecution they were suffering, would somehow miss out when the Lord came. That is why he says in verse 14, “If we believe that Jesus has died and has risen again, so also God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus”. Paul is saying, ‘You need not worry about the saints have who died, because God is going to bring them with Jesus when He comes’. That then raises another question, how is it that the saints will already be with Christ in order to be brought with Him by God? And in order to answer that question he gives us this section in the brackets which we refer to as “the rapture”.
What struck me freshly about these verses is the emphasis on the Lord. You notice that it says, “that the Lord himself … shall descend”. Then in verse 17 it is “to meet the Lord in the air”. And then he says, “we shall be always with the Lord.” I think it is important to see, therefore, that while there will be an event, it is a blessed Person that is the hope of our hearts. It is the Lord Jesus Himself.
The Lord shall descend, it says, with “an assembling shout.” It is very comforting, in these days of brokenness in which we live, that the first aspect of the Lord’s coming will be to assemble His people. The Lord Jesus is going to put His people together in a way that they have never been together before and He is going to do that before they meet Him. In other words, all the saints will be together as one vast company in order to be ready to meet the Lord. Then he says, “with archangel’s voice”; that is the voice of power. Think of the power there is with the Lord to release the saints, to set them free from whatever may be holding them; bearing in mind that the vast majority of them are at this moment lying in their graves. Then he says finally, “with trump of God”. Now, we understand that that is a military allusion. In writing to the Corinthians the apostle speaks of “the last trumpet”, 1 Cor 15: 52. We understand that in the Roman camp there were three. The first trumpet was the signal for the soldiers to put down their tents and to pack up. The second trumpet was the signal to get into line. The third and last one was the signal to move. The Lord Jesus will descend with trump of God, and the saints will be gone!
So it says that “the dead in Christ shall rise first”. The Thessalonians were worried about the dead in Christ. But the apostle says, ‘You need not worry about them. If there is any advantage to be had it is with them, because they are going to rise first.’ “Then we, the living who remain, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds”. And then he adds, “to meet the Lord in the air”. I want to pause there for a moment, because that is what we have immediately before us. We are going to meet the Lord. That is something that we need to reflect on carefully and soberly. It is to be the joy of our hearts that we are actually going to meet the Lord. I do not know whether you do, but I sometimes wonder what that moment of first realisation is going to be: that moment when we shall see His face for the first time, when we shall hear His voice. You can be sure the Lord will have something to say to us. Somebody asked, ‘What will Christ be like when He comes?’ And the answer was, “Altogether lovely.” He is going to be all that our longing hearts have waited for. “To meet the Lord in the air.” I trust that that might register with us, because this is what we have immediately before us. And then he adds, “And thus we shall be always with the Lord”. Always with Him! I wish I were more with the Lord even now. But it is a very great comfort to think that a day is coming when we shall never be away from Him again. Wherever He is, whether it be in the world to come, as we have spoken of it, whether it be in the eternal day, wherever the Lord is, we shall be with Him, always. Blessed prospect! Well might the apostle add, “So encourage one another with these words”.
Well, the apostle goes on in chapter 5 to speak of what the appearing of the Lord Jesus will mean for the world. He speaks of the Lord coming “as a thief by night”. It will be an unpleasant surprise, because the Lord will come to put down evil, and to exercise judgment, and to establish His kingdom on the earth, but then he says, “But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day should overtake you as a thief”. So we need to be prepared for this. He says, “So then do not let us sleep as the rest do, but let us watch and be sober”. That is the attitude of those that are waiting for the appearing of the Lord Jesus. And then he adds, “putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as helmet the hope of salvation”. Do we not find that it is the waiting time that tests us? One thing it tests is our confidence in God. We tend to wonder about things, and to look this way and that. We look at the problems and the difficulties. It tests our faith in God. Another thing it tests, I think, is our affections. It is easy for our affections to wane while we are waiting. Or it is easy for our affections to go out in a wrong direction: it is easy for something else to become the object of our hearts. How important this breastplate is, in order that our confidence in God might be strengthened and that our affections might be kept alive.
Then he speaks of “as helmet the hope of salvation”. I do not know how it is with you, but I would have to confess that I am liable to get disheartened. I find it easy to give way to discouraging thoughts or unbelieving thoughts. I feel the need of having my mind guarded. I can see the need of having “as helmet the hope of salvation”. The apostle goes on to explain why it is that we can be maintained because, he says, God has set you for this. We have every reason to have hope “because God has not set us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation”. What a great comfort that is. We are conscious that the truth and the principles we have sought to maintain are being severely tested at the present time. But I think it would encourage our hearts not to faint in faithfully seeking to insist on what is right, not to lose courage in seeking to hold the ground for the Lord, in the knowledge that God is set to bring us through. I think that ought to put strength and courage into our hearts while we wait for the coming of our Lord.
Then Paul speaks of “our Lord Jesus Christ, who has died for us, that whether we may be watching or sleep, we may live together with him”. What a beautiful verse that is! We can think, no doubt, of a number of reasons why it is that the Lord Jesus has died for us: to save us from our sins, to deliver us from this present evil world, to make our peace with God. But here is one: He “has died for us, that whether we may be watching or sleep, we may live together with him”. In other words, so great was the desire of the Lord Jesus to have us with Himself, that if in order to reach that end it was necessary for Him to suffer and to die, He would. He would go the whole way. Does that not melt our hearts in relation to our beloved Lord? Does that not stimulate sweet longings after Him? So great was His desire to make us His companions in glory for ever, that He laid down His life! He died for us that whether we may be watching or sleep (“sleep” here refers to the departed saints), we may live together with Him. He wants us with Himself, and He has won for us a place with Himself in the glory for ever! Even at this moment, I believe, the Lord Jesus is preparing to translate the saints to be with Himself; it is what He has before Him. Oh, dear brethren, may we have it before us! May that bright and blessed prospect be much more before our souls. May we be exercised to be held in readiness for it - nothing less than living together with our Lord Jesus Christ.
Well, I trust that our hearts may be stimulated and exercised, but also that we might be very much encouraged and strengthened. May the Lord, in His grace, be pleased to bless what has been before us, for His Name’s sake.
8th October 2016