Jericho Ridge Community Church (Archived)

The Hope of Heaven

“The Hope of Heaven”
Message @ Jericho Ridge Community Church – Sunday, Nov 22, 2015
Text: I Thess. 4:13-5:11 // Series: The Shape of the Kingdom

Good morning. How many of you used to live in Ontario? 20 years ago when I moved from Ontario to BC, I had to learn a new language. More specifically, I had to learn new sub-set of West Coast vocabulary. For example, the phrase “earthquake preparedness kit” had not been a part of my lexicon before. I had to learn to have answers for questions like “are you ready for the Big One?” “Do you have earthquake insurance on your mortgage?” The notion of being ready for a massive life-altering event that could happen at any time loomed large in the minds of people here in BC: at least it did for some of them, some of the time.


Because the other thing that I observed, however, was that while I felt absolutely compelled to prepare for this major event the first few times I heard about it, human nature eventually kicks in and I became complacent. Unless someone asks me specifically about my readiness or if the whole province is having our annual earthquake preparedness drill called “The Great BC Shake Out” every Oct, then I get focused. Other than that, I tend to live as if the Big One were not actually going to happen. Perhaps you fall into the same category.


In our Scripture passage for today in I Thessalonians we are going to see that the early Christians asked some pointed and helpful questions about what is going to happen when Christ returns to the earth. This event - the Big One - has come to be known as the rapture because I Thess. 4:17 Paul says that we will be “caught up” to meet Christ. The phrase “Caught up” in Latin, is rapere, from which we get the English word “rapture”.

A few months ago, I was reading this passage through with my daughter, Sophie. And being a child who has grown up here in BC, she astutely asked a question: “Dad, this rapture thing sounds a whole lot like an earthquake. So if that’s the case, do you think that they have rapture readiness drills in heaven? You know, like we do here for the Big One?” I paused to consider it – a practice trumpet. Perhaps morning announcements: this is a test of the emergency readiness system. I don’t know but this morning we’re going to spend some time talking more about what we do know and what we don’t know about this event.  


This morning, we are concluding our series in I Thessalonians and we’ve come to the heart of the book 4:13-5:11 which is perhaps one of the clearest but also potentially one of the more misconstrued sections of Scripture in the New Testament. It speaks about some of the big questions that all of us as human beings will want to wrestle with at some point – regardless if you are a person of faith or not. The question of “what happens when we die?”

Turn with me in your Bibles or on your devices to I Thessalonians 4:13. I’ll be reading from the New Living Translation through to 5:11. [5 Scripture slides]


Now, I don’t know what your experience with or exposure to these ideas is. Some of you may have had strong and helpful, healthy teaching on the topic… My guess is perhaps if you are like me, your preconceptions on the nature of things like the rapture, heaven, life after death have been formed from places other than rigorous biblical scholarship. I can remember growing up, our little country church would have prophecy conferences - there were huge scrolls plastered up on the walls with various historical events pinpointed for all to clearly see the obvious connections. So and so was the anti-Christ which meant that we could precisely tell when and where Jesus was coming back again to the earth. How many of you ever read the 1970s best-seller by Hal Lindsay “The Late Great Planet Earth”? Lindsey thought he worked to be super scrupulous and not put times and dates in there but it was pretty clear if you read the book that 1988 was the year of our Lord’s return. Then you might remember the hype when we came through the year 2000. How the rapture was going to take place.


This kind of temptation towards speculation is not new. But it is a temptation in that we get distracted from what is really at the heart of this text. In the first century, the idea emerged that if you died before Jesus came back, you were a second class citizen to those who remained alive. So the Thessalonian believers wrote to the Apostle Paul with some questions about these events. And this prompts him to write this section of this letter. The vision Paul has is to describe the shape of life in the Kingdom and the shape that it takes is hope and encouragement. Twice he says that this is his main point: Any discussion of the events that will surround Christ’s second coming should be something that leaves you feeling encouraged not feeling anxious or speculative or fearful.


So I think our first task here and where I think some have gone off track is to clearly acknowledge that there are some things that you and I may have deep interest in or curiosity about but that this text is simply NOT designed to tell us. So I think it is helpful to take a few things off the table and to examine clearly what is this passage NOT saying?   


First thing you want to do when you are doing serious Bible study is to examine your own pre-suppositions and questions you bring to the text and ask if the author intended to speak to that at all. This is one area where I think in a post-Enlightening world we get hung up. You see, if we were writing something like this, we would focus on asking questions about exactly how and when and where these things would all unfold. We would want it written like a news story. But the original author, the Apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is writing in a genre and to a people not as enamoured with this stuff as we are. First of three things to underscore that this passage is NOT about is that it is  

  • Not giving us a sequence, details & descriptions…

This is written to a first century audience who is steeped in apocalyptic literature which was culturally prominent from around BC 200 to 100 AD or so. Both Jesus and Paul and John in the book of Revelation write in a genre that makes perfect sense to their original audiences but often confuses or frustrate us. For example,

  • Note use of language (metaphors, OT images/themes)

Just one example – the notion of a cloud or clouds. We think “white fluffy things in the sky” but the readers of this text would think in theological terms and not meteorological terms. In the Old Testament world, the cloud is the symbol of the presence of God. Think, for example, about the tabernacle and the journey of the children of Israel through the dessert. God’s presence was manifest in a cloud. Or think about the symbolism of a trumpet. Used as a tool of summons, a clear and loud and culturally understood image of calling people together. So while their readers are thinking metaphorically, we often think literally. Paul’s focus here and also Jesus’ description of the same events don’t focus on the details, they…

  • Focus is on the OUTCOME & RESULT of Christ’s return

In some ways, it might be helpful for us to think about Second Advent in the same terms that we think about the creation narratives in Genesis 1-3 here. The point is WHO and WHAT not minute details of HOW. The who we know: Christ will return. The What we know: those who believe in Christ and have professed faith in Him will be with Him forever. Whether there will be a literal trumpet blast that everyone in the world will hear or clouds, we don’t know. And there’s no drill J


The second place we can get into trouble here is on the other side of this same spectrum, however. Some have gone so far to take the notion of metaphor too fare and say “well, this is just a fluffy word picture for us. Nothing like this will actually happen. I mean, come on! Dead bodies coming back to life! What about those who have been lost at sea and eaten by sharks? How could God reconstitute a cremated body that was spread in various places around the globe? Isn’t this all just wishful thinking?” I appreciate honest skepticism and good questions and so I think it’s important to explore obstacles people have. Paul says something powerful in 4:14 that helps us here understand that      

  • Not disconnecting the future from the past

“We believe” as Christians “that Jesus died and was raised to life again.” Remember, we talked at Easter about how this is written at a time when people who were witnesses to these things were still alive and could verify these events. Because in the Bible, we have the testimony that not only Jesus was raised from the grave but also Lazarus and then in Matthew 27:52 at the crucifixion we are told that “the bodies of many godly men and women who have died were raised from the dead. They left the cemetery after Jesus’ resurrection, went into Jerusalem and appeared to many people.” Here is the point: The very basis of resurrection hope is that God did it once, He can and will do it again

The future, our future, your future, is not impossible to guess at. We simply have to look to the past to get a glimpse of resurrection. (Good time for an amen).


Last thing the text doesn’t say (before we dive into what it DOES actually say to us in terms of instruction and focus for living and dying well). In 4:13 it says “don’t grieve like people who have no hope”. Some people have taken this too far and suggest that the Bible is telling us  

  • Not saying “don’t grieve” when someone dies

This is clearly a ridiculous extrapolation of what Paul is suggesting. But we still sometimes get caught in this trap. We may say well-intentioned things like “they’ve got to a better place” or “you’ll see them again someday” or we develop an attitude toward grief and loss that says “just get over it... move on already!” But that isn’t what the text says. It doesn’t’ say “don’t greive”. It says don’t grieve like those who have no hope. In other words, there will be a different quality to the grief of those who know Christ. Why? Because the grave is not the end of the story…

  • But that death is not an insurmountable barrier to God


The reason this is true is that the shape of life in the Kingdom of God is formed by HOPE [photo]. Hope infuses every part of Paul’s thinking about the nature of life and death and life after death. So let’s flip the lens and begin to ask what we can learn and how should we live on the basis of this passage. For these thoughts, I am deeply indebted to scholar and author Dr. Michael Holmes who wrote an excellent commentary on I & 2 Thessalonians. One of the things Holmes notes about Paul’s vision of the future and picture of heaven is that  

1) The future for believers is not as much about a place as it is about a relationship

Here again, we want details. New heavens and new earth? Will it be located here? Up somewhere? Will there be literal streets of gold? White robes? Paul doesn’t go into any of that. He simply but quite powerfully says “we will meet the Lord” (4:17).

  • This is the real hope of heaven – the promise that “we can live with [Christ] forever” (5:11)

Here he draws upon the same images that Jesus does and that the Old Testament prophets do. The image of readiness rooted in right relationship. The notion that this event will come like a thief in the night means that you and I are called to live a certain way. Because

  • The Day of the Lord: judgement & reward

5:9 – Those whose deeds are evil and who remain unrepentant will face the judgement and wrath of a holy God. But those who have embraced a right relationship with God and who are walking in the light can expect on that day to experience a reward of a new expression of relationship with the one who loves them. That eternal relationship with God is the primary reward because it is closer, richer, fuller, deeper than we experience now. This is why Paul says things like his comment in Philippians 1:23

  • “I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better…” (Philippians 1:23)

It’s not that he has a wish to die. It’s just that he is acutely aware of the new dimensions of relationship that await those who die in Christ.


The other connected truth Paul is laying out for us here is that you and I can

  • We can have confidence in where we stand

Our confidence does not come from whether we were a good person. Did I do enough good deeds or avoid enough wrong stuff? Did I give enough money away to help Syrian refuges? Paul says stop focusing on that stuff! When you die, and you stand before God and he asks you “why should I let you into my heaven?” You look to 5:8-9. Your reference point is the confidence of your salvation. You confidence comes NOT from what you have done but from what Jesus has done. God chose to save us through the death and resurrection of His perfect son Jesus Christ. And when you and I place our full confidence and faith in His work we are transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light. We become…

  • “Sons of the Light; daughters of the Day” (5:5 MSG)

Children of God. This is why Christians can face persecution and even their own mortality with such a sense of peace. We do not confront death on our own resources but on the basis of the redeeming and cleansing work of Jesus Christ on our behalf. (That would be another good time for an amen!). Friend, let me say this to you, if you have never taken that step of radical and full obedience and said yes to Jesus, said to God “I believe, help my unbelief” today is your day. In a few minutes I’m going to lead us in a prayer and if you want to become a part of God’s forever family and gain a rooted confidence on the question of where you will spend all of eternity, then I want you to pray with me.   


The other part of this rooted and real relationship means that for the Christian,

2) Death is not an end but a transition


This is a divergent view from many in our culture today who suggest that at the end of your physical life, you cease to exist. If there is nothing beyond what you know and experience now, this can breed a deep cynicism or a deep permissiveness – a kind of eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. But the Bible is clear that we are not physical being having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a physical experience. And once our physical experience is no more, once we draw our final breath here on earth, we do not cease to exist. We simply make a transition.


In 1963, in the racially divisive southern United States, four young girls were killed by a racist’s bomb in Birmingham, Alabama. And Martin Luther King Jr. stood at their funeral service and made a profound statement of hope:


I hope you can find some consolation from Christianity’s affirmation that death is not the end. Death is not a period that ends the great sentence of life, but a comma that punctuates it to more lofty significance. Death is not a blind alley that leads the human race into a state of nothingness, but an open door which leads man into life eternal. Let this daring faith, this great invincible surmise, be your sustaining power during these trying days.”                                                 – Martin Luther King Jr.

For the Christian, “Death is not a period that ends the great sentence of life, but a comma that punctuates it to more lofty significance.” Death is not the end, but a transition. And open door. This is why Christian funeral have a different quality about them than do funerals for people of no faith. This is why we can have confidence and hope in the face of the tragic loss of a loved one. It’s not to say that death or the process of dying is all blissful and peaceful. It is simply to say that death will not get the final word. You don’t have to be afraid of death.  


So it follows that if we go on living after we die, then we ought to think carefully about how we live in the here and now.  

3) What we know about the future ought to shape how we live in the present

  • We live with anticipation, not apprehension

Not a dark sense that we need to help this along or hurry along towards the end of our earthly lives. But a sense that if our future is secure and our hope is in heaven, then we can live without being paralyzed by a fear of death & dying.  

Death is the “last enemy” (I Cor 15) but not the final victor

This is where Paul lands both of these segments. 4:18 and 5:11 – so, since all of this is true, this should be encouraging for each other. You should build each other up. Doing what? How?

  • We spend our time in service, not speculation

We need to stay clear headed. Avoid getting sucked into worthless speculation and drivel. Our goal is clear – to be good stewards of the time God has given us while we still have it. This is what I love about Jericho – people saying “since my hope is in heaven, I want to be part of showing and telling others about that hope” Serving others like yesterday at House of Hope. Serving those who are poor in Guatemala. Working to help resettle displaced people from Syria like Ralph and the group is doing here at Jericho… We spend our time doing these things not because we need to prove to God or others how much we are worthy. We simply love others and serve others because we have experienced the love of God poured out in our own lives and hearts and want to share that with others.


This requires a balance, not only of showing God’s love and telling God’s love but it also requires a balance of  

  • A thoughtful balance of short & long range planning
  • Conduct yourself as if Jesus may return today (He might) and minister as if His coming may be delayed indefinitely (which it might)  

In that sense, we are back to my daughter Sophie’s original question: what might a rapture readiness drill look like? Well, it might look like selling some of you stuff of Craigslist and giving money to the Gateway of Hope this Christmas. It might look like spending time with someone who is lonely making them a meal or simply sitting with them and listening to their story. It might mean sacrificing a holiday week and heading to Mexico with Darryl and Jodi Bueckert this January – March. It might mean you heading out of your comfort zone and coming with our team to Guatemala or Tanzania in 2016. These might seem like “big things” but resurrection hope also infiltrates little things. How we speak to people at Heather’s funeral service on Tuesday. How we care for our earth. How we use the resources God has given to each of us with wisdom in terms of what we buy for others this Christmas.    


What drives any of these actions is the question “If you knew that Jesus was coming back this afternoon, what would you do differently? Would you organize your life differently?” It’s a tough question but it is also one that will look unique for each one of us and so I want to you to ask God about as we move into a time of response in song this morning. Perhaps you have an area of sin in your life that needs repentance because you would be embarrassed if Christ returned today. Perhaps you want to lift your hands and your voice in worship in song as an expression of deep thanks for what Christ has done for you. Perhaps you have a need that you want to share with one of our prayer team. Dustin and the team are coming and they will sing three songs. These songs are prayers of invitation, of declaration so let’s stand and join together as we sing.  

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