Living in the Story: The Second Coming of Jesus
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
(The following sermon has made use of:
Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and New Earth
Tom Wright, Surprised by Scripture
Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope)
Today we come to the second coming of Jesus which, apart from mentioning on occasions, is not something I’ve ever specifically preached on. There’s a bit of a backstory as to why that’s the case. In my teenage years a number of people with whom I associated were heavily into second coming theology and would go nuts when things like the six day war happened in the Middle East. They would always be trying to match world events with what they understood of OT prophecy, with the Russia & the USA often featuring. One particular group used to have an annual Easter Second Coming Convention where they would teach and discuss the theology and world events. Their emphasis actually put me off. But the time has come for me to preach on it because Jesus’ return is very much part of the story in which we live. I won’t be answering many of your questions (perhaps even none!), and there’s every chance I’ll raise others.
Let me begin by offering four observations.
Firstly, I’m aware that there are differing views about the second coming and how things are going to work out. Probably the most prominent among evangelicals is the view known as Dispensationalism which holds to the rapture of believers, a seven year tribulation and a millennial reign of Jesus. Another is Amillennialism which holds that there is no 1000 year reign. My general impression is that those who hold firm to one particular view can be quite dogmatic and inflexible in their belief. My problem is that they are all argue from Scripture and claim biblical authority for their view! What that says to me is that to be dogmatic in one particular view is to be on very shaky ground.
Secondly, the only consistent fruit that I could see was fear—which is a little bit odd given that the second coming of Jesus is meant to be an event eagerly anticipated.
Thirdly, it’s my belief there’s a deeper underlying issue at play when people get all caught up in second coming theology and prophecy and try to fit world events into their own scheme. I don’t think this it’s necessarily conscious, but I think the deeper issue is one of control. Knowledge is power, so if we can map out what is happening and what’s going to happen, that offers a certain degree of control over our environment and destiny.
My final observation is this. Today we’re talking about the second coming of Jesus. In our imagination, let’s transport ourselves back to a time before Jesus’ first coming and listen in on a conversation around Jewish expectations of the coming of the Messiah. Those people also had the scriptures and prophecies of what would happen, and were expectantly waiting for the promised Messiah to come. In all of those conversations, how many people do you think would have got the picture right i.e. a Messiah coming as a helpless baby—a servant; a Messiah who was rejected by the very people to whom he came; a Messiah who welcomed Gentiles; a Messiah who died a humiliating death; a Messiah who came back to life? I’m guessing there would have been very few, if any, who would have picked what actually happened. What would then make us think we’ve got it right this time? Apart from the fact that Jesus is coming again, the only thing of which I believe we can be certain is that it won’t work out the way we might be expecting!
1 THESSALONIANS 4
This passage from 1 Thessalonians is one which has often been used as part of second coming theology, especially in relation to the theology of the rapture of the saints i.e. believers being taken from this earth on the return of Jesus. In trying to understand what this passage is saying, we have to do our best to extract ourselves from our 21st century mindset and put on the mindset and understanding of 1st century Jews and their context. Here’s a few thoughts.
Firstly, Paul’s ultimate intent in writing is pastoral. It is not to expound a theology of the second coming. The death and resurrection of Jesus created questions for the people: given that Jesus said he was coming back, what will happen to the believers who are already dead when he does come back? Paul is telling them they don’t have to worry because the believers who have already died will actually rise first. They should encourage each other with that .
This passage speaks of Jesus descending from heaven to the earth . Other references to Jesus’ coming again use the word ‘appear’.
Hebrews 9:28 (NRSV) 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
The ways in which we might normally use those words carry the implication that Jesus comes to the earth from somewhere far away. That in turn contributes to the thought of Jesus coming to take his own out of the world to go and be with him wherever he normally is. But that’s not the idea in the scripture.
When our family moved from Whyalla to Adelaide so I could go to Burleigh College we lived in a cottage in Bridgewater. There were two rooms in the front of the house—the lounge and a bedroom—but the doorway between the two was quite wide and only divided with a curtain. They were unseen from the other, but were essentially one room because there wasn’t any hard division.
Jesus’ appearing is more like drawing aside the curtain where the two spaces can be seen for the one space they actually are. That fits with the NT understanding of earth as our space and heaven as God’s space, with God’s space simply being a further, currently unseen, dimension of our space. So it’s not that he comes from somewhere else to come to the earth; it’s that the curtain of his space is drawn back so we can see both.
Coming of the Lord—Parousia 
The Greek word from which we get the word ‘coming’ is Parousia, literally meaning ‘presence’, as opposed to absence. The risk for us is imposing on the scripture our usual understanding of the second coming rather than trying to understand how the early church would have considered it.
The most common use of the word Parousia referred to the visit of a king or high ranking government official to a colony or state. The royal presence was in town. Because of the importance of the visiting official, this was a time of great celebration and circumstance. Associated with this coming was a meeting  as it was the custom to send a delegation outside the city to receive the important person on their way into town, and then to escort them in grand procession the rest of the way.
Given this context, the point here is that at the royal appearing of Jesus is a time of great celebration, accompanied by the call of the archangel and the sound of God’s trumpet. His faithful followers will go and meet him, not to then go with him to someplace else away from this world, but to escort him back into this world as its rightful king and judge. God’s space and ours finally fully merge and Jesus comes to reign on earth as in heaven.
Caught Up in the Clouds
But, you will say, surely the fact that Paul says we’ll be caught up in the clouds means we’ll go somewhere else to be with Jesus. Is not this exactly what the rapture is supposed to be? Once again, we have to see this in light of the metaphor Paul is using. Being caught up in the clouds is reminiscent of the Daniel 7 Son of Man being caught up in the clouds to stand before the throne of the Ancient One and be vindicated. Both the dead and still alive believers are caught up in the clouds to meet with and be vindicated by the coming Jesus (remember this is pastoral for people in dark times)—not to go and be with him somewhere else away from this earth but to join with him in procession as the reigning king. We normally assume to be with him for evermore refers to somewhere else, but it means to be with him on earth.
Two Asleep and One Taken
But, you’ll also say, what about this passage from Matthew:
Matthew 24:40-41 (NRSV) 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.
Surely this refers to the believer being taken out of earth to heaven to be with the Lord (which is how I’ve always understood it)?! We automatically assume that the one taken is the righteous one whose reward is to go to heaven and be with Jesus forever. The problem is that the verses immediately preceding these make reference to the time of Noah when people were so busy eating and drinking that the flood came and swept them away. The day of the coming of the Son of Man would be like that i.e. the ones who were swept away in judgement were the carousers, the wicked. It was Noah and his family who were left after the flood. The ones taken away are not the believers but the unrighteous.
What am I saying?
- The most important thing is that Jesus is coming again!
- We stand on very shaky ground if we’re dogmatic about how we see it happening.
- The second coming is not about believers being taken to a better place out there somewhere, but it is about the followers of Jesus coming in procession with Jesus, the true King, who establishes his reign on earth.
- That’s the hope that sustains us in current times.
- When is Jesus coming back? We don’t know; all we are told to do is to watch and be ready.