Today is an exciting day, fearless readers! Today we get begin our exploration of what scripture says we can hope for, both for ourselves and for our world. Of course, there are many different passages to choose from, and we do not have nearly enough time to consider them all. So I’ve chosen a handful of the most significant and frequently quoted (and misquoted!) passages for us to investigate over the next three days. And, each day we’ll consider one of the passage in light of the three hopes of Israel: a true king, being free to serve God, and being a people of blessing. Today we’ll be looking at pictures of the coming king from 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 15 For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16 For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
1 Corinthians 15:21-25
For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; 22 for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.
#1: All future hope begins with the return of the King.
In 1 Thess. 4:12-13 Paul is exhorting the Thessalonian believers to hope in the resurrection of the dead (see 4:16, “the dead in Christ will rise first”). However, this hope rests upon the hope of Christ’s return; the resurrection is linked with Christ coming to establish his Kingdom in power. The return of the king in power is the foundational hope offered here, as there is no resurrection until the King comes (see 1 Cor. 15:23 also).
#2: The King intends to rule.
The return of Jesus is not portrayed here as a momentary occurrence before a rapture or the end of the earth. Paul gives us a vision of a royal entry, and makes it clear that Jesus is coming to deal with his enemies and rescue his people. Jesus, according to Paul, is going to destory “every ruler and every authority and every power.” This is a vision of a king establishing peace, and dealing with all threats to that peace. It fulfills those original hopes of Israel, to live in peace under a just king, and in fact extends those hopes across the globe. All unrighteous and unjust and oppressive rule will be done away with by Jesus.
#3: There is no rapture!
This passage from 1 Thessalonians is often used as the source for belief in “the rapture.” But this is a misinterpretation. It was a tremendous honor to host the Roman Emperor or a royal personage in the ancient world (when Paul is writing!). To demonstrate this honor, the citizens of a city would exit the city gates to meet the emperor before he arrived, and they would then process together (think of a parade here) to a place of power and honor in the city where the emperor would be celebrated. This is what Paul has in mind here. He is using this image to describe the return of Jesus. The idea is that the dead in Christ are not forgotten, but actually lead the way in meeting Jesus as he arrives, and then the living believers behind them. Paul says that the believers “meet the Lord in the air” (a figurative description of their joyous reception of him), but they don’t stay in the air forever or fly away! They then would descend to their earth where Christ will rule, and where they will “be with the Lord forever.” Remember, the goal is for the king to establish his rule on earth, for his people; that is the original hope! Not to come and fly them away to a different place.
#4: Political tensions
Both of these passages speak to political hopes; they are about rule and about power. And because of these political hopes all disciples of Jesus are called to live in a state of political tension. We are obedient to our current governments insofar as they do not ask us to violate the “law of Christ”, but we also understand that they will ultimately be done away with and are certainly not worthy of adoration or uncritical loyalty. Therefore, we should not invest ourselves in glorifying our nation, or any political body, and we should avoid claiming that they are aligned with God (God doesn’t destroy things that are aligned with him!). These passages suggest that they are tolerated as a necessity of human life, for a time, but that they are all facing God’s judgment and will be done away with. This does not mean that we cannot serve our nation or a political entity, because that is often a critical piece of loving our neighbors well. But it does mean that all of our political/national service should be understood as a subset of loving our neighbors for God, and not as simply serving the ends of human political bodies. All of these issues boil down to allegiance. Our allegiance must be given to Jesus, God’s chosen King, and all other calls for loyalty, service or obedience must be judged on the basis of our first allegiance.
#5: Christmas means expanded hopes
Today’s scriptures show us that we are called to share Israel’s hope for a just, peacemaking king. And of course Christmas, the first coming of the King, was the beginning of the fulfillment of this hope. But our hopes have also expanded, because of the miracle of God’s coming in the flesh to rule himself. Now our hopes must encompass the whole world. This entire earth will one day be ruled in justice and righteousness, and will have peace. And because we have these expanded hopes, we can begin now to live into the future that we believe is coming, by working to be a global church that lives together in peace. We can’t fix the world or bring peace ourselves, but we disciples of Christ can give witness to what is coming in the future by caring for each other, living at peace with each other and working for justice without regard for current political alignments or powers. In fact, we get to show our allegiance to the coming king, Jesus, by living in solidarity with one another in a world that wants us to give our allegiance to its current rulers and powers.
I’m not going to give any “to-do’s” over the next few days- we’ll get there when we recap our hopes. For now, stick with your Advent disciplines- are you being watchful? Are you listening? Are you ready to show hospitality, and to withhold judgment? Are you remembering your hopes? I think those are plenty for now!