The now traditional blog posting of a sermon – this one unusually for me was a topical sermon, on Jesus’ return. (You can listen here, if you want to hear me struggling to keep my voice in the midst of a cold! http://leightonbaptists.org.uk/media-links/current-teaching/ )
This morning we will be looking at the big picture of Jesus’ return. I don’t know how you feel or think about Jesus’ return. In a church like this, where we come from many different Christian backgrounds, and in a world like this, where every sort of teaching is available at the click of a button on-line I guess we may well have very different views on some aspects of this topic.
For some of us this variety of opinions and teachings on Jesus’ return may make it feel like a scary or confusing sort of topic, but what I want to show today is that for the Christian it is ultimate source of re-assurance, it is our motivation for our lives of worship and our hope as we face our own death or the death of loved ones – and I know that for many of us that has resonances over the last little while. So let’s pray.
The great 19th century social reformer, who worked tirelessely to end the cruel practices of child labour, Lord Shaftesbury said towards the end of his life: “I do not think that in the last forty years I have lived one conscious hour that was not influenced by the thought of our Lord’s return”
And what I want to say this morning it that it is not simply that we live with the thought of our Lord’s return as an isolated event, detached from any context, but that we live with the knowledge that Jesus will return, and that this return will be to complete God’s rescue plan to transform his broken world into a new heavens and new earth where will be with Jesus forever.
This cannot stay at the level of thought only. We need to be actively waiting for this. The Christian life is described very often in the Bible as waiting: waiting for Jesus to return:
“Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.” (1 Corinthians 1:7 TNIV)
“But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ,” (Philippians 3:20 TNIV)
“so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.” (Hebrews 9:28 TNIV)
It is this awareness that Jesus is coming back which will help us live now in the midst of unresolved questions and tensions that life now throws up. In a world that is messed up, in the midst of lives that are broken we need the end of the story so that we know that whatever life may look now, one day everything will be put right. It doesn’t stop the hurt and the pain now – we are encouraged to bring that to God, but it does mean that we know that it is not forever.
So the message today can be summarised in one sentence: Jesus is coming back to make everything new, we don’t know when, so wait in eager hope.
We’ll deal with each part of that sentence in turn
Jesus is coming back to make everything new
This return is to complete God’s story and so make all things new.
Remember how God’s story starts: He created a good world, and we were made to live in God’s good world – indeed we were made to be rulers of God’s good world, cultivating it and take care of it, making sure that it ran properly.
We messed up – we rejected God – Adam and Eve ate the fruit, and we live in a world that is now in bondage to sin and decay – the sin and decay that we bring. The sin that puts my comfort, my security and my desires above obedience to God, above the well being of others, and above the well being of this world.
That sin ruins us, it makes us self-centred and self-defining, instead of God defined and God centred. That is the story of Genesis 1-11. That is the story told in those tragic tales of Cain and Abel – brother on brother violence, of Lamech and his wives – of brutality and violence – of the world of Noah’s flood, of the drunkness afterwards, and of the pride and arrogance of the builders of Babel. We think we can rule the world, but every time it ends in violence and oppression, in bloodshed and separation. Open a history book if you want the proof.
And so God begins his work of renewal. He calls one man to become a nation, indeed the father of nations, and calls him to show what it looks like to live a life of righteousness, to be a blessing to those around and to bless others. God doesn’t call people out from the world, he sends a man into the world to be a blessing to the nations.
And so Abraham is called, and becomes the father of a great nation – and Israel are rescued out of slavery to Pharaoh and given a land of their own. God’s people, rescued for a new life in God’s land – to give a real flesh and blood demonstration of God’s ways and values. They are supposed to live in such a way that people look at them and comment on how great their God must be.
But of course it doesn’t work out like that – Israel sin just as Adam did. They think they can improve on God’s plan and pattern, just like Adam did. They choose sin repeatedly and their story goes from bad to worse. Right at the start of the sin pattern God promises that there will be a day of final punishment on sin – but in the meantime he is patient with them.
He has to send them into exile – they can’t stay in his land, any more than Adam could stay in the garden – while they live like the people they replaced in the land. God is just.
And yet God does not give up on his people. God does not stop being a compassionate and forgiving God – their history does not stop with the exile – a remnant return, with the promise of a glorious future ahead, and with hints that this future will reach beyond Israel to the rest of the world.
600 years or so after the anti-climatic return from exile Jesus comes – he is born, lives and dies. Not only does he die he is raised to life again, and then he ascends to heaven as the risen Lord of all. And, as we saw last week he sends the Spirit to live in us now, starting the process of changing us to be like him.
But the promise is made that he will return. He will not give up on his world. Salvation is not removal from this world. Jesus’ return brings God’s kingdom to earth, it makes it a reality. It is the answer to the Lord’s prayer. Jesus returns to make everything new.
And we can divide that ‘everything’ into us, and into the world. First of all us: Thessalonians is written to one of the churches that Paul’s team established on their missionary journeys. The concern that many had in this church was that they had been taught that Jesus would return, and that he would come unexpectedly and potentially soon, and they were worried that those who died would miss out on being with Jesus.
But Paul writes to reassure them that those who have died will not miss out on Jesus’ return. The hope for them, and for us, for believers who have died is that Jesus is coming back, and we will all be with the Lord for ever. Notice how believers who have died are described – they have ‘fallen asleep’ in the Lord.
The church throughout the centuries has generally understood this to mean that believers who die before Jesus returns are with him in some kind of conscious, but non-body existence enjoying his presence and refreshment – before he returns and they are raised together with us, as Paul outlines here. It may also be that we can think of believers dying, and at death simply coming straight to that last day, to the final resurrection – that for all of us, the day of our death is the day of being resurrected – and that again could fit into what Paul says here – and whichever of those is right, believers who have died are safe in the Lord, and they will be raised and united with the coming Christ, and second those who are still alive are raised to meet the coming Lord.
We are waiting for the coming Jesus who will raise us so that we will be with him forever, and who will transform us, so that we will be like him – just a couple of verses to reinforce that point:
“But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”
(Philippians 3:20–21 TNIV)
“Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”
(1 John 3:2–3 TNIV)
And then Jesus returns to make this world new
This described in two ways in the bible – Romans 8 talks about creation being liberated from bondage to decay, while 2 Peter 3 seems to talk about the world being burned up, and totally replaced. A closer look at 2 Peter suggests that while the heavens are described as being burned up and dissolved that the earth is described as being laid bare. So perhaps Peter is talking about a purging fire that destroys the ruin and mess of this world before the world is made new. Perhaps an analogy with the resurrected bodies helps. Just as we will have new, recognisable bodies, that are in continuity with our current ones, and yet utterly made new, so the new heavens and new earth will be recognisable from what we see now – and yet utterly made new.
That making new means that Jesus’ return is the day when sin will finally be punished. It is the day when all oppression, injustice and pain will be gone. And it is the day when all collude in that oppression, and when all who reject Jesus will face the consequences of their sins. There are only two places for sin to be dealt – on the cross, by Jesus in our place, or in hell, excluded and shut out from God’s presence forever. Jesus return is the day when God’s righteous and holy anger against sin will be seen – and when we will see truly what sin is and what it does.
On that day sin will be fully and justly dealt with. Now we see partially and now we have a lot of questions about God’s justice and about hell – but on that day we will know that God has been utterly just and utterly fair, and that no-one will have an excuse.
That should make us cautious about pronouncing judgement on others now – we don’t know what the stories of other are. We don’t know how God has dealt with them in their hearts. We know our stories and we are accountable to God for our actions and ways. And one day we will see and understand how God’s judgement works, and that it is just and fair.
And when sin has been judged and destroyed then God’s kingdom will be established on the renewed and transformed earth.
We don’t know when Jesus will return.
Back to our reading in 1 Thessalonians – it is hard to get away from the sense of expectation in the NT that we have – Jesus is coming back, and it could be soon. And we are not to be surprised. Not in the sense that we know when Jesus is coming back, but in the sense that we expect him to one day, and it may well be today.
I know that there will be some who would want to push back, and say ‘but what about event x – doesn’t that need to happen before Jesus returns?’
Now. I know that for some of you this is an area of confusion, while for others it is an area where you have a definite view of what should happen and when. I don’t want to get into the details of the various debates on the issues. What I want to hopefully show is how the Bible says we should think about these things.
First thing to remember is that Jesus is very clear that know one knows when he will return. When Jesus was on this earth he did not know (Mark 13:32). That means that anyone who has a timetable is wrong – I guess one day someone will get lucky – but that is all it will be.
Second thing to remember is that we are in the last days now. Remember last week, Pentecost is the start of the last days – the Spirit given to the church – there is no event in God’s salvation plan to come between Pentecost and the Return of Jesus – so in the NT whenever you read ‘the last days’ think ‘Pentecost -> return of Jesus.’
Third thing is that difficulty and hardship and suffering characterise these last days: 2 Timothy 3:1, Mark 13 – earthqakes and famine and war – and the end is still to come. Sometimes you hear ‘tribulation’ used – it is simply a translation of ‘suffering’ – there will be a lot of suffering before Jesus returns – and some of you here right know that all too well. And yet the gospel goes to all nations – as well as hard times we will see times of great fruit and advance for the gospel – and that is what we have seen throughout church history.
Fourth thing is that Jesus’ return is very often spoken of in picture language – Revelation is not a timetable for the end, or a detailed explanation – it is picture language for all of history – using imagery readily understood by the first readers. So don’t make it into a detailed timetable of events that need to happen before Jesus returns
The fifth and final thing I would want to say on this – promises made of a return to the land in the OT to Israel are usually to be regarded as fulfilled by the return of Jesus – think of Ezekiel 47 with its vision of a temple and a river, finding some fulfilment in Jesus’ words about the Spirit given to believers flowing out like rivers in John 7 and then the way the language is taken up in Revelation 21 and 22 about the new Jerusalem.
But, even if we think there are events that need to happen before Jesus’ return it is worth remembering that we could be wrong – I could be wrong, you might be wrong – there is room for disagreement around the finer details. Jesus could return any time.
Look at 1 Thessalonians 5:2-4 Jesus’ return will be unannounced, until it happens. It is like the labour pains – that suddeness that is essentially unpredictable, yet part of a larger pattern that points to what is coming. You don’t know when labour will start – but you know the end of the pregnancy is soon. And that brings us on to the final point:
Wait eagerly with a waiting that changes everything
And, just as in labour when we don’t know exactly when it will come, or how long it will be, but we know it will be worth the wait, so with Jesus’ return – so many details are not clear, but I’m going to read a few verses from Isaiah and then a large chunk from Revelation which will just whet our appetite for what is to come.
Just before we do that, a brief explanation of one of the phrases we are about to read: ‘no longer any sea’ – doesn’t sound great – except that all through scripture sea is the symbol of chaos and darkness – it means danger, it means the devil and all his forces – and so what no more sea means is that there is no more chaos, there are no more dark forces to bring havoc and destruction on the earth – finally there is perfect peace – so with that in mind I’ll read these verses:
“On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine— the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth. The LORD has spoken.”
(Isaiah 25:6–8 TNIV)
Rev 21 “Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.””
(Revelation 21:1–5 TNIV)
“I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.”
(Revelation 21:22–22:5 TNIV)
The wait is worth it:
We live life now waiting. Waiting eagerly, waiting expectantly, but still waiting. You might be familiar with the bumper stick slogan: “Jesus is coming back: look busy” – but actually it is ‘Jesus is coming back – wait eagerly’. We don’t fill our lives with frenitic busyness in service to God – rather we realise that we are waiting – there is nothing we can do that will bring in God’s kingdom. That waiting leads to activity – we are waiting, in the sense that a couple waiting for their first baby are waiting – doing things now that will get us ready for the coming day, and living now in the light of his return – but it also gives a sense deep in us that God’s kingdom and plans do not depend on us.
Look back at 1 Thessalonians 5:4-8. I think the point of that is that in terms of our daily routine: sleep, food, work, rest, play – in one sense nothing changes when we are Christians, we don’t get removed from this world. But actually everything changes. We do the normal stuff of human existence, knowing that it all matters, because in all of it we live out our obedience to Christ – we are called to work, we are called to family life, we are called to friendship and love – and in all of these things we live showing that Jesus is supreme.
We are children of light. We don’t sleep – not in the sense of staying awake all night, but in the sense of not being asleep to the reality that Jesus will return one day. Instead we are to keep awake – remember Jesus’ command to the disciples to watch. We are to be alert. We belong to the day. We belong to the light. We don’t belong to darkness, we don’t belong to the night – a symbol here of evil and sin. We are awake and watchful over all of our lives, ready to put on the breastplate of faith and love, and a helmet of the hope of salvation. We trust Jesus, we love him and others, and we place our hope in him for deliverance.
Doing those things is what matters. Doing those things will mean we are alert. We plan individually and together how we can show that trust Jesus and love him and others. We live out our lives as signposts to the reality of what is to come. We don’t bring God’s kingdom by our mission – instead we join God’s mission in his world – which looks outwards to call others to him, and to show his love and compassion to a broken world of broken people.
We will focus on what matters most. As we go about our daily work our focus will be not so much the performance targets as the people. We will seek to love our colleagues, our patients, our pupils in word and deed – which of course means very often that we will work hard at our jobs as a form of love for those around us. As we do that our character will be more and more formed and shaped and prepared for our new lives to come.
As we do that we will attract others to the life to come – acting as signposts. And as we do that we will remember that no good thing we do for Jesus is ever wasted. Somehow all of it matters, and all of it will follow us – both in terms of the goodness of what we have done in its own right, and in terms of the impact that goodness on others.
And we will encourage one another with these words: “We will always be with the Lord” – that is what it comes to down to – there are a lot of questions about the end of the world, about Jesus return, but our final destination is that we will always be with the Lord – one day we will see his face. One day we will be with him forever.
Think of that: ponder that: Always. With. The Lord. With the Jesus who was born for us, who lived for us, who died for us, and who rose for us. We will be with him forever. Trust the one who holds us.
After the sermon we had communion, and after communion I read this poem by John Piper (edited down slightly): https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/glorified which is also towards the end of “Future Grace”. The end of the poem goes like this (I changed me to us at the end).
The blind can see a bird on wing,
The dumb can lift his voice and sing.
The diabetic eats at will,
The coronary runs uphill.
The lame can walk, the deaf can hear,
The cancer-ridden bone is clear.
Arthritic joints are lithe and free,
And every pain has ceased to be.
And every sorrow deep within,
And every trace of lingering sin
Is gone. And all that’s left is joy,
And endless ages to employ
The mind and heart to understand
And love the sovereign Lord who planned
That it should take eternity
To lavish all his grace on me.
I’ve read this out loud a few times before and these lines always catch me – ‘the cancer-ridden bone is clear’ is always poignant – and then the next lines too, so that getting through a public reading without tears stopping the reading is a challenge. So I hadn’t been sure about reading it, but thought, I’ll only do if there is time – and sure enough there was time, and sure enough it was hard. But it is right that these lines should move us to tears, there is a place for tears of sorrow and tears of joy and relief in the face of the reality of what the new creation will bring, that, as Isaac Watts puts it in one of his hymns: “there will shall see his face, and never, never sin, and from the rivers of his grace drink endless pleasures in”.
Then we sang ‘There is a Day’ (this is a great video for it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5dPJQ8Jve1E), which somehow right now seems to be a song that particularly strikes cords at church and concluded with 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24:
May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.