How Will History End?

1 Thes. 4:13-18; 5:1-11

13Brothers, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 14For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18Therefore encourage one another with these words. 5:1Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, 2for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. 4But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. 5You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. 6So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. 7For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. 8But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. 9For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. 10He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. 11Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.


This final episode in these recent posts on basic theology comes with a “spoiler alert.” If you have ever read a movie review online, you have come across a “spoiler warning,” where the reviewer warns you that he is going to give the ending away.

In this chapter, we are going to talk about the end. Not the end of a movie, but the end of human history.

In theology, we call this eschatology, which comes from a Greek word, eschaton, meaning “end.”

Depending on your theological background, you may have encountered two extremes: obsess over it or ignore it.

The Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, “Properly understood and applied, eschatology has a powerful, positive significance for Christians. It is to be a source of comfort (1 Thes 4:18), of encouragement (1 Cor 15:58), of challenge to watchfulness and faithful service, and the assurance of reward (Mt 25:14–30).”[1]

Properly understood, eschatology helps us frame our understanding of the gospel. God’s redemptive purposes for history are designed with an end in mind.[2]

The beginning of history (the inauguration of the gospel’s promise) is described in Genesis and the consummation of history (the fulfillment of the gospel’s promise) is described in Revelation, among other places.

When it comes to the book of Revelation, two events that loom large in the conversation are usually “the millennium” and “the great tribulation.”

It would be possible for us to wade deep into the interpretive debates over those events. But my purpose is to cut through the confusion and make this study as simple as possible.

  • For example, Revelation 20 seems to teach a pre-millennial view of the millennium.
  • But the Old Testament prophets sound like post-millennialists.
  • Then, reading the apostle Paul, post-tribulation amillennialism, or what I prefer to call “realized millennialism,” seems to make the most sense.

But there is no need to stress over nailing down the correct view, as another view synthesizes them all together – a view affectionately called pan-millennialism, which teaches that it will all pan out in the end! 🙂  Jesus wins. He reigns. Will return… this is the main point of John’s vision in Revelation.

Since the OT prophets and the Revelation describe eschatology in more apocalyptic terms, I think the best route for us to take concerning a discussion of eschatology is to focus on Paul’s clearest teaching on the subject, which is in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11.

The question is: How will history end? And why does it matter?

 

A PASTORAL CONCERN

13Brothers, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 

I find it interesting that Paul’s discussion of eschatology is driven by a practical, pastoral concern. He isn’t treating the subject academically or theoretically.

He is comforting believers whose loved ones have died.

In verse 13, Paul is NOT saying not to grieve. But not to grieve without hope.

The death of a loved one who dies in Christ is bitter-sweet. Bitter for us; but sweet for them.

The Scriptures tell us that believers who die, while in an intermediate state between this life and the final resurrection, enter into the presence of Jesus and experience the fullness of rapturous joy.

This is what we most desire – long for. The sweet!

Yet, with a veil between this world and the next, we are unable to experience the fullness of that joy. So we grieve – and we should! The feeling of loss is desperately painful. But the bitterness of our grief is not a hopeless grief of despair.

That is the pastoral concern. It is a concern that has a context.

 

A TRIUMPHANT RETURN

14For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 

Paul describes the return of Jesus as visible and triumphant.

It is during this visible, loud, triumphant event that those who have died and have been with Jesus in their intermediate state will be reunited with their glorified resurrection bodies. They will rise and meet Jesus as he descends in his second coming.

Now, there are several things that Paul does not mention here about the end of history. He does not mention the tribulation or the millennium. He doesn’t mention the new heavens and the new earth – only that we will be with Jesus forever.

Notice that this is personal; not merely informational.

The rub is that if Jesus is just a historical figure to you, this is not going to move you to worship. Will not fill you with hope and anticipation.

But if he is Savior, then his return will be exceptionally glorious!

 

A GLORIOUS REUNION

17After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.

The reunion of which Paul speaks is a reunion with Jesus – in person, face to faceand with those believers who have gone before us.

This pastoral application is the main point.

However, if you are familiar with discussions in the field of eschatology, you will know that verse 17 has been the subject of much theological debate.

Books like The Late, Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey and Carole Carlson in 1970 and the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins (16 books and 4 movies), have popularized the event in v. 17 as “the rapture,” where Jesus comes down half-way to secretly take the church out of the world either before or after the Great Tribulation. Those who were not believers at the time of “the rapture” would be “left behind.”

I do not believe that is the correct interpretation of this passage. Let me explain.

The English word “rapture” comes from the Latin word rapto, which was used by a 4th century church leader named, Jerome, who translated the Bible from the original Greek text into a Latin translation called the Vulgate.

In verse 17, Jerome used the Latin words rapiemur (from rapto) and obviam to translate the Greek words harpazo and apantēsis.

  • Rapiemur translates harpazo, which means “to grab, snatch, or seize suddenly.”
  • Obviam translates apantesis, meaning “to meet.” This is the key word of the two.

According to the ESV Study Bible, apantesis “was used in ancient literature to describe an important dignitary’s reception by the inhabitants of a city, who come out to greet and welcome their honored guest with fanfare and celebration, then accompany him into the city.”[3]

It was also used of the people to greet a victorious king returning from battle.

This is what I think Paul is describing—the return of THE victorious king, Jesus!

 

AN UNKNOWN DATE

1Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, 2for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.

So now you know not to trust anyone who says he knows the date of Jesus’ return.

But we all long for comfort and peace and safety.

However, Paul teaches us that it is when we are savoring comfort, peace and safety that Jesus will return, unexpectedly.

His coming will be like an earthquake… sudden, loud, and visible. Judgement will be destructive, and as verse 3 indicates, “they will not escape,” which is an emphatic double negative in the original Greek text.

At the end of history, Jesus will come to gather his people, to judge mankind, and to usher in the new heavens and the new earth.

Malcomb Muggeridge, a 20th century British journalist who became a follower of Jesus later in life, wrote Jesus Rediscovered in 1969, which contains one of the most moving statements I read during my seminary years. It still haunts me. He wrote, The only ultimate disaster that can befall us, I have come to realize, is to feel ourselves to be at home here on earth.”

 

A PERSONAL EXPECTATION

4But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. 5You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. 6So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. 7For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. 8But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. 9 For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. 10 He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.

The problem with feeling ourselves too at home here, now, is that we will lose our mindfulness, awareness, and anticipation for the return of the King.

Paul says to be “awake and sober,” as those who have been “appointed” or “destined” to receive salvation. The Greek word for appoint is tithemi, which means “to subject someone to an experience by force.”  A similar feel as apantesis in 4:17.

Jesus uses this Greek word tithemi in John 15:16,

“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last.”

The word “appointed” is the same word that Paul uses in 5:9.

Paul is saying with pastoral tenderness and apostolic authority, “Jesus died for us. He chose us. He will come for us. We will be with Jesus forever!”

 

A PROFOUND ENCOURAGEMENT

4:18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

5: 11 Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

This means that grief and suffering is not final. Neither is failure.

It also means that YOLO is a lie.

The movie reviewer Roger Ebert once warned his fellow critics that they never have a right to play the spoiler.

But a study from two researchers at the University of California, San Diego suggests that, contrary to conventional wisdom, spoilers may actually enhance our enjoyment of a story.

One of the researchers had an interesting theory about why people liked getting a spoiler alert. He says, “It could be that once you know how [the story] turns out … you’re more comfortable processing the information and you can focus on a deeper understanding of the story.”

Such is the purpose of eschatology for the disciple of Jesus.

Just like if we knew our team would win the game, we could watch with less stress and anxiety, Jesus has achieved victory for us through his death and resurrection. So, we can live with less stress and anxiety.

Jesus died for us. He chose us. He will come for us. We will be with Jesus forever!”

In this life, there will be reason to grieve, but for the disciple of Jesus, our grief is not without hope.

Because of the resurrection of the crucified Jesus, believers are guaranteed a glorious, joy-filled eternal future.

The only remaining question is, “Are you a believer?”

________________________________

How Will History End – Review and Discussion Guide

  1. What is significant about the fact that Paul’s concern when discussing eschatology was not primarily a theological, but a pastoral concern?

 

  1. Why is a theology of the return of Jesus helpful for the believer to understand?

 

  1. How might Paul’s description of the return of Jesus provide a different interpretation of how history will end from the popular concept of a secret rapture?

 

  1. How is the return of Jesus going to be like an earthquake?

 

  1. Discuss this statement: “The only ultimate disaster that can befall us, I have come to realize, is to feel ourselves to be at home here on earth.”

 

  1. What is the ultimate purpose of eschatology?

 

 


[1] Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, “Eschatology,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 717.

[2] Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, 25

[3] ESV Study Bible. “The Greek for “caught up” (harpazō, “to grab or seize suddenly, to snatch, take away”) gives a sense of being forcibly and suddenly lifted upward (see John 6:15Acts 8:39). together with. The dead Christians would suffer no disadvantage (cf. “we who are alive … will not precede,” 1 Thess. 4:15). clouds. Probably not earthly rain clouds but the clouds of glory that surround the presence of God (cf. Ex. 13:21; 33:9–10; 40:38Num. 12:51 Kings 8:10–11Ps. 97:2Dan. 7:13Matt. 17:5Mark 13:26Acts 1:9Rev. 14:14). to meet. The Greek term apantēsis is often used of an important dignitary’s reception by the inhabitants of a city, who come out to greet and welcome their honored guest with fanfare and celebration, then accompany him into the city (cf. Matt. 25:6Acts 28:15; a related term hypantēsis is used in Matt. 25:1John 12:13).”

 

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