There is great interest in the biblical teaching about the second coming of Jesus, and rightly so. Acts 1 tells us of the proclamation of two men dressed in white, presumably angels, who were present at Christ’s ascension and who said:
“Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” (Act 1:11 NIV)
The two letters of Paul to the church at Thessalonica address this issue in a clear and straightforward way. But before I discuss content, I wish to give a background to the letter and put it in context of Paul’s missionary travels.
Paul first visited Thessalonica on his second missionary journey, the events of which are recorded in Acts 17:1-9. Here is a thriving city of over 200,000 residents, with a sizable Jewish community that welcomed Gentile God-fearers who were disenchanted with Roman idolatry and Emperor worship. Upon his arrival, as was his custom, Paul brought the Gospel to the synagogue, where these God-fearers responded. But the Jews were not happy with Paul’s ministry so they organized a mob to violently expel him and his team from the city. Paul escaped to Berea and the mob followed him there, causing him to flee to Athens. When Silas and Timothy met Paul, they traveled together to Corinth, where Paul learned of the gospel’s progress in the fledgling church in Thessalonica. From Corinth, Paul writes the Thessalonian correspondence, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, most likely within a few weeks of one another.
The purpose of 1 Thessalonians is encouragement. First, he encourages them in their faith and commends them for their steadfastness in the midst of the intense persecution they just experienced (1:3; 2:17-3:10). He utters a prayer with the nurturing heart of a loving mother (2:7) and guiding father (2:11), that their faith may continue to grow.
Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you. May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones (1Th 3:11-13 NIV)
Of particular concern to Paul was the anxiety of the Thessalonians over the circumstances of the second coming of Jesus (alluded to in all five chapters of this letter – 1:10; 2;19; 3:13; 4:13-18; 5:1-11, 23) and of their ignorance about the relationship of believers who died prior to this event and those believers who might still be alive. The central teaching in the NT about this issue is found in 4:16-18.
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1Th 4:16-18 NIV)
Regardless of one’s view on the timing of this event relative to the Great Tribulation, all believers can be genuinely encouraged to know that there will not only be a union with Jesus in the air, but that there will also be a re-union with loved ones who have already died. This event is called the Rapture, so named because of the Latin translation of the phrase in vs. 17, “caught up.” He closes his teaching on this subject by describing the coming Day of the Lord, a separate event from the Rapture when the unbelieving world is judged with the wrath of the Lord, an event believers will not experience (5: 9). His challenge is that since we have such a tremendous promise, we ought to live lives that display that hope.
So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. (1Th 5:6-8 NIV)
If you are a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, the truth of the events surrounding the return of Jesus can be of great encouragement to you (4:18) But if you are still on the fence concerning Jesus, today is a great day to place your trust in Jesus who may be coming soon. And when he does, it will be too late!