Monday 1 March 2010

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (46/50) – A Forward-Looking Faith: The Return of Jesus

‘Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible’, from London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, is a series of fifty emails designed to look at the main milestones of the biblical story, seeking to show how whole-life discipleship is woven through Scripture as a whole, from beginning to end. Here is the forty-sixth of the fifty emails, this one written by Margaret Killingray.

We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him… 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.
1 Thessalonians 4:14, 16-18

Paul looks back at what has gone before in the story of redemption – ‘We believe that Jesus died and rose again’ – and looks forward to what is to come – ‘and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him’. One day Jesus will be personally present, Lord of the nations, king and judge, in a transformed and recreated earth and heaven, the culmination of God’s purposes for his people and his world.

Jesus spoke about events to come in terms first used by the Old Testament prophets, who themselves looked forward to ‘the day of the Lord’. Immediately after his ascension, the apostles were told that ‘this same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way’ (Acts 1:11). Now Paul, in this letter to the Thessalonians, dealing with their concerns about those who have already died, reassures them that the ‘already dead’ and the ‘still alive’ will rise and meet him when he comes.

Of course, the rich metaphors – sometimes mixed – and the allusive language used to describe the return of Jesus can be confusing. A loud command, the archangel’s call, the sound of the trumpet, Jesus coming in the clouds from heaven – all these word pictures are, in a sense, attempting to describe the unimaginable – suggesting the importance of humility when it comes to trying to describe what will happen. Even so, it seems likely that when Paul uses the language of Jesus coming down and being met by a movement upwards, he is using words which describe a royal visit to a city, when a welcome party would be sent out to meet the prestigious visitor, returning with joy to the city. That’s the image here, which implies that once our reunion has taken place, we will come back to the earth. And so, Paul says, we will be forever with the Lord.

Small wonder, then, that he calls on us to ‘encourage one another with these words’. We will, like the Thessalonians, grieve the loss of loved ones and the separation that death brings, but we have a sure and certain hope. We will all be together at last, for he will come again to judge the living and the dead. Jesus will be personally present – the centre and focus of the new heaven and earth. He will reign and we will reign with him.

Margaret Killingray

For further reflection and action:

1. If you think about the second coming, how do you picture it? Have you expectations of events that will precede it and follow after Jesus has returned? Do you know why you hold these views on the way this present age will end?

2. Read other passages related to the return of Jesus – 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12; 2 Peter 3:10-13; Matthew 24:29-44; Revelation 21:1-22:5. Rejoice in the sure and certain hope of Christ’s coming.

3. In John 11:25, Jesus responds to Martha’s grief at the loss of her brother, Lazarus, with the words, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.’ His resurrection is our guarantee that when we mourn for our dead, we do not grieve without hope. In this light, read and reflect on 1 Thessalonians 4:14 – ‘We believe that Jesus died and rose again’. Here is the basis of comfort for those who grieve the death of loved ones in Christ.

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