Thursday, November 1, 2012

Living life while waiting for the end: 1 Thess 1:9-10

Today in my ongoing Thessalonians series I look at 1:9-10.

9 for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.

In the closing lines of this chapter Paul addresses a group of people waiting for Jesus to return. They had turned from their old gods and idols to follow the true God and his resurrected Son Jesus who would return one day. During his time with them Paul told the Thessalonians about what will happen “when” Jesus returns, but they are waiting for the “when” to become “now.” This the first time he brings this up in the letter and he does so by way of praising them. But as we will see later in 4:13-5:11, they are beginning to wonder a bit more about at what point the “when” will become “now.”

For Paul and the Thessalonians the time of Jesus’ return was imminent. In 1 Corinthians 7:29 Paul says that “the time is short.” But for those of us living 21 centuries later the time has become “very long.” The return of Jesus has not happened and it is difficult to live with a feeling of imminence. It is hard to juggle the responsibilities of life and live with the belief that Jesus could return at any moment. Many of us probably think more about when and how we will die than when Jesus might return.

While growing up I was exposed to teachers and preachers who often proclaimed that Jesus “could return at any minute.” This was presented as good news, but it was also confusing since for those of us in adolescence were also looking forward to growing up, marrying and starting families of our own. I remember one night at dinner my father suggesting that the Lord would probably return before my sister and I were through being teenagers. At that point my sister burst into tears and said “But I want to get married.” That cry of a young adolescent crystallizes the tension we can all feel while waiting for the imminent return of Jesus. We know that our hope should ultimately be focused on the day of Jesus’ final victory, but we also have a life to live in the mean time and need to invest ourselves in it.

But perhaps we should not think so much along the lines of “imminence,” but “anticipation.” I suppose this is a low-key “imminence,” but it does recognize the tension we all feel of needing to live life with the belief that Jesus could return in any generation. We are waiting, and God is not on our time schedule. Waiting means that it is out of our hands. And waiting is how we recognize the sovereignty of God to have the final say. God works it in God’s time. 

There is a scene in C. S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader that helps illustrate. Aslan, the Christ figure in the book, has just appeared to Lucy in the magician’s attic. But almost as soon as he has appeared, Aslan leaves with these words.

“Do not look so sad. We shall meet soon again."
"Please Aslan," said Lucy, "what do you call soon?"
"I call all times soon," said Aslan; and instantly he was vanished away and Lucy was alone with the Magician.

Lucy’s question reflects that desire to know at what point “when” will become “now.” But Lewis reminds us that when we are “waiting” time is not an issue, at least for God. Neither God nor Aslan is bound by time and for both all times and events are immediate and present. But for Lucy and the rest of us, we are left waiting and anticipating for that day and yet living our lives as if we will be here till we die.

Living and waiting in anticipation also recognizes the church’s location within redemption history. We, as the church, are situated between the resurrection of Christ and the revealing of Christ. By its very existence the church is a witness to God’s redemptive work in history. And this is the church’s time for mission, to share the good news of what God has done in Christ. Although we are waiting for Jesus to rescue us from the coming wrath, we are also positioned to share God’s love with the world. As we will see later in this letter, evangelization is linked to the victory in the final arrival of Jesus Christ. Evangelization in the present time takes on eschatological significance. Jürgen Moltmann puts it this way in his Theology of Hope.

The risen Christ calls, sends, justifies and sanctifies men, and in so doing gathers, calls and send them into his eschatological future for the world. The risen Lord is always the Lord expected by the Church – the Lord, moreover, expected by the Church for the world and not merely for itself. Hence the Christian community does not live from itself for itself, but from the sovereignty of the risen Lord and for the coming sovereignty of him who has conquered death and is bringing life, righteousness and the kingdom of God (p.325).

Moltmann hits it on the head. The church of Jesus Christ, like Israel, is not saved for itself. It is saved to be part of the mission of God to the world. Therefore, we should ask ourselves how our lives should be different because of the hope we have that Jesus will one day return.

It’s easy for the church to become insular and detached from the rest of the world as we wait for Jesus to return. But Christians are Christ’s representatives to the world. We have an obligation to not just live out the gospel in expectation of Jesus’ return; we also need to share it. The church cannot ignore the social ills and concerns of the world. This means not seeing the return of Jesus as an escape plan, but rather a close, but fuzzy timeline for the work of the gospel. True there is no clear end in sight. We don’t know at what point in time the “when” will finally become “now.” But as we wait for the return of Jesus we need to be Jesus to the world around us.


  1. Contrary to the point you make by citing Aslan, 'I call all times soon, Jesus said he would return within the generation then living ie in the 1st century, - at least according to Mark 13. This prediction was mistaken. I'm surprised you did not address this point...

  2. He did predict his return in the first generation- and fulfilled it. Try preterism.

  3. I agree, fulfilled it in "coming down in judgment" i.e. 70 AD which is a standard literary way of describing God's judgment from Genesis to Revelation. I'm not 100% preterist, but, the alternative views are so easily disrupted by the text.

    Not to mention that blogging theology would be right if preterists are not. As a believer, there is 0 chance I would think Jesus erred.

    More likely we err in our understanding of the text.

  4. I think it will be interesting to test your thoughts above with 2nd Thessalonians 1, partially quoted below:

    2 Thessalonians 1:5-12 (ESV)
    5 This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering—
    6 since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you,
    7 and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels
    8 in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.
    9 They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might,
    10 when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.
    11 To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power,
    12 so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

    Both Thessalonian passages are making the same point (from the same author to the same audience at nearly the same time in history), but the version from 2nd Thessalonians is a bit more specific. Paul is betting the justice of God on the fact that he is going to save the Thessalonians from their persecutors when Christ comes in judgment at the 2nd Coming. This either happened or it didn't. If it didn't happen as promised then we have a severe crisis in Apostalic authority, the inspiration of scripture, and the veracity of God.

    1. Doug,

      Perhaps Paul is correct in his overall understanding of what we should expect, but his particulars were not. For instance, in the next chapter Paul expects someone to sit in the Temple before Jesus returns. There are good historical reasons for him thinking that way. And the temple is no longer here and I am one of those who don't think we need a third temple for God's plan to be fulfilled. So perhaps Paul was incorrect there about the details even if his hope is in the right place.

    2. The problem is that the details are contained in what we consider to be inerrant scripture, and that Paul considered himself (and Peter considered Paul to be) a prophet who spoke for God. These promises, including their details, were given to a particular community in order to encourage them in a time of persecution at a particular time. If that promise didn't happen then Paul is a false prophet. It brings into question anything he has written (unless we are going to declare both of the Thessalonian epistles to be forgeries). Put yourself in the shoes of the people who received these letters. Would you trust Paul on anything if he could be this wrong?

    3. Actually, Doug, I never used the word "inerrant." It is not how I would describe scripture. I don't think Paul was a false prophet, I just think he was working and writing from his particular historical context. It doesn't even make him "wrong," just incorrect.

    4. My mistake. I assumed that you considered scripture inerrant. If Paul was simply incorrect about what he said in 2nd Thess. 1, and I presume 1st Thess. 1 as well, then I assume that you'd allow as much latitude for the other authors of New Testament scripture when it comes to prophecy. It seems that you are comfortable saying that any of it might be incorrect. If this is so, then what are we to make of prophecy in the New Testament? And, does this possibility of being incorrect extend to other areas such as soteriology?

    5. Doug,

      Sorry for the delay.

      I think Paul may have been mistaken about the details of the parousia (as with his reference to the temple), but I don't think he is incorrect to express the Jewish/Christian hope for the day of the Lord. I think we find many examples in scripture where a motif is present, but the way it is shaped remains the same. I think the NT expression of salvation in the person of Jesus Christ reflects the Jewish hope that God would one day intervene.

  5. "He did predict his return in the first generation- and fulfilled it."

    I don't think so - Jesus (according to Mark & Matthew anyway) predicted that the destruction of the temple and his return ("immediately" afterwards) within his generation.

    'Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.'

    I agree with CS Lewis on this:

    “Say what you like,” we shall be told, “the apocalyptic beliefs of the first Christians have been proved to be false. It is clear from the New Testament that they all expected the Second Coming in their own lifetime. And, worse still, they had a reason, and one which you will find very embarrassing. Their Master had told them so. He shared, and indeed created, their delusion. He said in so many words, ‘this generation shall not pass till all these things be done.’ And he was wrong. He clearly knew no more about the end of the world than anyone else.”

    It is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible.