1 Thess. 4:13-18
On Tuesday, October 22, 1844, tens of thousands of followers of William Miller – known today as “Millerites” – waited throughout the day in eager expectation. They waited all day … and nothing happened. Henry Emmons, a Millerite, later wrote, “I waited all Tuesday and dear Jesus did not come;– I waited all the forenoon of Wednesday, and was well in body as I ever was, but after 12 o’clock I began to feel faint, and before dark I needed someone to help me up to my chamber, as my natural strength was leaving me very fast, and I lay prostrate for 2 days without any pain– sick with disappointment.”
October 22, 1844 is now known as the Great Disappointment. It was the culmination of events that had begun in 1815 when William Miller had left deism and returned to his Baptist roots. He began to study Scripture and became convinced that in Daniel 8:14’s reference to 2300 days, he had the key to determining when Christ would return. Miller believed that each day stood for a year, and that the 2300 days began when the decree had been given in the fifth century B.C. that the temple in Jerusalem could be rebuilt. Using these calculations, Miller determined that Jesus Christ was going to return on or before 1843.
Miller began publicly teaching his view in 1831. He published them in different settings, and they turned him into a celebrity. A large movement developed around Miller and his teachings, and it is estimated that it included up to 100,000 people. Pressed for more specificity, Miller predicted that Christ would return sometime between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844. When the latter date passed and nothing happened, a follower of Miller recalculated and set the October 22, 1844 date. The Great Disappointment of that date brought an end to Millerism … though not entirely. One group determined that Jesus Christ had come on October 22, 1844 – but that instead of cleansing earth, he had come and cleansed the sanctuary of heaven. This group would go on to become the Seventh Day Adventist Church … but that’s a story for another day.
The story of the Millerites – like every group that has incorrectly predicted the date of the return of Jesus Christ – is a somewhat humorous one. It’s humorous because, of course, Jesus has said very clearly that no one knows that day. The attempt to predict the day of Christ’s return is an absurd exercise. But on this next to last Sunday in the Church year, it is worth pondering whether in some ways the Millerites had a more biblically orientated faith than we do. It’s worth considering whether they had correct orientation that the Church today often lacks. For after all, the Millerites were focused on the Last Day.
Our text today is from the apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Thessalonica, Greece. Paul preached the Gospel in Thessalonica soon after he had crossed over the strait that separates modern day Turkey from Greece on his second missionary journey. His letter to the Thessalonians is one of the earliest that we possess.
He begins our text by saying, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” Paul had preached the Gospel to the Thessalonians, and from Paul’s letters we know that the return of Jesus Christ in glory was a central part of that Gospel. Yet now some time had passed. Apparently there were concerns about Christians who had died. What did it mean for them if they weren’t alive when Jesus returned?
Paul says that he wants the Thessalonians to understand, so that they won’t grieve as those who have no hope. And then he tells them why, “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” Paul says that the foundation for the hope that belongs to the Thessalonians is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because of this, they can be confident that God will not abandon those who have died. Instead, they will be with him through the work of Jesus.
And then Paul goes on to describe how this is going to happen. He writes, “For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.” The first thing Paul wants them to know is that those who are still alive when Christ returns are not going to leave behind the Christians who have died.
Instead Paul says, “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
The apostle declares that the return of Christ will be a dramatic event that will be impossible to miss. He says the first thing that will happen is the resurrection of those who are already dead. The Thessalonian concern about the brothers and sisters in Christ who had already died was totally misplaced. In fact, they will share in the resurrection first.
They will share in it first, but that doesn’t mean those who are still living will be left out. In 1 Corinthians 15 and Philippians 3, Paul says that they too will be changed; that their bodies will be transformed to be like Jesus’ immortal risen body. The apostle doesn’t dwell upon this fact in our text. Instead, he seeks to emphasize the fact that no matter whether the Christian is alive or dead at the coming of Jesus, the result will be that we will always be with the Lord.
Paul expresses this in language that in the last one hundred and fifty years has become one of the most abused and misunderstood texts in the Bible. He says, “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” If you have ever been behind a car and seen the bumper sticker, “In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned,” then you know exactly what I am talking about. While based on a massive misreading of Scripture as a whole, the idea of the rapture and dispensational millenialism that was created by John Darby and popularized by Cyrus Scofield, relies heavily on this text.
The problem is that the language Paul uses here would have been very recognizable to his Thessalonian readers. It was part of their world. When the emperor or governor approached a city, the city went out to greet him. They then escorted the leader back into the city as a way of showing honor – and of sucking up to him in the hope of civic favors. Like all of the end time language in Scripture, it is a movement to the earth, not away from it, for the renewed creation is the place we will live.
Paul concludes our text by saying, “Therefore encourage one another with these words.” The challenge for us is the question: “Do we?” Remember, the issue that Paul is addressing is that of Christians who have died before the return of Christ. He describes the situation that we face every time a Christian dies. When this happens, where do we most often look for comfort?
It’s very likely that most often, we don’t look where Paul is pointing us. Most often we probably take comfort in the thougth that the person “has gone to heaven” or that the individual “is with Jesus.” Now these are true answers. They are answers that Paul himself gives – but not very often. Instead the answer Paul almost always gives – the one he thinks is the really important answer – is this one.
It is a blessing that every year the end of the Church year focuses our attention on the end – on the Last Day and the return of Christ. We need this because our tendency is to set our focus short of the real goal. And so our text today urges us to take hold of the real hope of the Gospel. That is the confidence that because Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose from the dead with a transformed body, we will too; we will share in that bodily existence which no longer knows the possibility of death as we live in a creation that is very good once again.
And when this becomes our goal, we can begin to live like it is. Right after our text Paul writes, “For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” The focus on the goal of our Lord’s return and the resurrection prompts us to recognize that it will be sudden and unexpected. As Paul says in our text, “the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.”
The expectation of Christ’s return, is then, a constant reminder to be what God in baptism as made us to be. Paul goes on to say, “But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.”
Our expectation of Christ’s return prompts us to live as people of the light; people of the day. It moves us to live in faith, and love, and hope. The expectation of the real goal that is coming helps us to live in the present as the people God has made us to be.