Sermon: People of God, this is the third Sunday of Advent. Our hope and expectation is increasing as Messiah nears us in the biblical story. Advent means “coming.” One of the elements we stress during this season is that Jesus came for us at his Incarnation, born of the Virgin Mary. But we also stress that Jesus comes for us again and again. He comes today to be with His people; to comfort and guide us. He is the rod of Jesse who will free us from Satan’s tyranny who will also disperse the gloomy clouds of night and death’s dark shadows put to flight. He comes under the law, born of a Virgin Mary, He comes today to renew us in covenant, and one final element of His Coming is His final coming to judge the living and the dead; to introduce a world of sinless bliss and everlasting resurrected life. In summary, Advent celebrates the facts that Christ has come, Christ is coming, and Christ will come again. Advent has a past, present, and future.
We have discussed the past and present, but today and next Sunday we are going to focus on a double-layered coming of Jesus: a past and future coming. We are actually going to focus on the epistle section of the lectionary. Our attention in the remaining weeks of Advent will be on I Thessalonians 5.
Our passage is the conclusion of Paul’s address to the church in Thessalonica. The context of this epistle is that Paul sent Timothy with the church. Paul had visited the church in his second missionary journey, and as he writes he longs to be with them again. The Church in Thessalonica is the anti-Corinth Church. What I mean is that while the Church in Corinth was castigated and rebuked for her sinful behaviors by Paul; here, the great apostle is delighted by the work of this church. Timothy brought back good news of their faith in chapter 3:6. Paul says in chapter 1:8 that their faith has gone forth everywhere. People have heard how you have turned from idols to serve the living God (1:9). This church has become Paul’s glory and joy (2:20). But as in every church, especially in that first century context, there was discouragement. Loved ones had died and now they were left wondering what would happen to them. Paul here emerges full of conviction. Paul is the resurrection prophet. His word is one of hope and encouragement. He repeats his message of hope that in the coming of the Lord the world will begin to see the light. In chapters four and chapters five, Paul comforts the saints with the announcement that Christ is coming. Paul’s argument is that just as Christ was raised from the dead, so too will He come for us. The point is that you should not grieve as the pagans do. They have no hope; they give in to their lustful passions; they deny the living God and live as they please. But that is not how we are to live in the light of the coming of Jesus.
Let me add one other contextual point before we are introduced to our passage. The Bible teaches many comings of our Lord. A quick glance through the Bible and you will quickly realize that God comes again and again to judge, to bring mercy and grace, to comfort, and on and on. God is in the business of coming. He is not a God who watches the world like we watch a movie; rather, He comes to the world because the world is His movie; His story. He shapes it in whatever way He sees fit. God is always intervening in history. We are to pray that God intervenes not only in our lives for our good, but also in the world for the good of the world.
Obviously certain comings take a more prominent place in Scriptures. The first Coming of our Lord in birth and the last Coming of our Lord in history are the two prominent Comings. But in between these two comings, there is one coming that in many ways shaped the entire Bible and the entire world. What coming could that be?
When Paul addresses the first century church He is not saying that they are living in light of the final coming of Christ; He is not saying that within their lifetimes the entire created world will be destroyed, rather he is referring to the soon coming of our Lord in judgment in the first century. Matthew 24 describes this very clearly. There will be a great day of the Lord when the central landscape of the first century—namely Jerusalem—will be shaken and the powers that be will be scattered. Jesus says in the Gospels that all these things will happen in this generation. Jesus was addressing a first century audience. He was not addressing twenty-first century America. And to that first century audience Jesus says: “These things will happen to you; you will see them and know that my word is true.” What coming was he referring to? Jesus was referring to his coming in judgment in AD 70. The Old Testament prophets prophesied of a day like no other; a day where the blood of innocent men would be avenged; a day when God would pour his wrath upon a people who hated and crucified him. His coming in judgment would end the darkness of the Old Covenant. Jesus came to destroy the temple, which was to be used for holy purposes and now was transformed into a center of religious harlotry. Jesus will not tolerate idolatry in his house of prayer. For the Jews in the first century, the temple meant everything. The Jews were heirs of the promises of God, and they believed that their status alone would guarantee their salvation. The reality, however, is that they had betrayed Yahweh and His anointed. They had corrupted the ways of God. They were blinded to how God was working in history to bring the Gentiles into His family. Much of what we read in the gospels and in the epistles have in mind this coming of Jesus in destruction to avenge the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah. The house of Israel will be left desolate after Jesus comes in judgment riding his chariot of fire.
This is the context in which Paul addresses the Thessalonians. Paul wants to prepare them for this Day of Judgment. Paul was writing somewhere in the 50’s; that means that the days of destruction are not but 20 years away. He wants them to know that they will escape the great tribulation to come. For the pagans, the Day of Judgment will come like a thief in the night. It will surprise them. But the believer is sober and vigilant. The Day of the Lord’s Coming will not surprise him (5:4). Christ followers are to be faithful even when difficult times are on the horizon. The Christian believes in the faithfulness of God to preserve him and he understands, as Paul says in chapter 5:9, “that God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.
So who is Paul writing to and to what Advents is he referring?
First, Paul is writing clearly and directly to the Church in Thessalonica. This is his original audience. He is addressing them in their first century context. But Paul is also addressing the entire church of the ages. We too face death, persecution and sickness. We too fall prey to the discouragement that befell the first century church.
Secondly, what comings does Paul have in mind? The conversation can get quite technical, but the correct answer is that Paul has in mind the destruction of the temple in AD 70 and the Final Coming of Jesus at the end of history.
Paul is addressing the church in the first and 21st century, and he is pointing us to the immediate context of the soon coming destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, but also pointing and directing us how we are to live in light of the final coming of Jesus in history whenever that may be.
This is the broad look at the context of I Thessalonians 5. Now, let us look briefly at the specific verses at the end of chapter 5 beginning in verse 12.
12We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.
What Paul intends to do as he closes his letter with instructions and blessings, is to show that as a believer in Christ who hopes in the Coming of the Lord, you cannot hide the soul. Our Christian testimony cannot be internalized, it has to be externalized. If we live in the hope of Christ coming again to bring full justice to earth as it is in heaven, then we “should be concerned about how we are living life.” For Paul, we all reveal our character before God, our community, and society. Paul concludes this discourse on eschatology with a series of exhortations; a series of practical reminders of how we are to live before God and before the Coming of Jesus Christ.
Paul begins in verse 12 by using a common speech: “We ask you,” literally, “we beseech, beg, appeal, implore, or exhort you.” This is significant to grasp if the Thessalonian church wants to live in harmony with one another. At the center of this Pauline exhortation is a call for honoring those who labor in the Lord; whether alongside in the ministry or in a pastoral calling. What does Paul exhort the church to do? To honor those who work in the labor of the Lord and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. In other words, if there is to be any peace in this church, there must be a respect for the leadership of the church. Timothy spent time with this church and the indication is that they indeed respected him. Paul was specifically addressing the community life of the church as the text goes on to say. If any community is going to succeed, its structure cannot stand if people are tearing down their leaders. The intent here is more on the local community. The ancient world had a greater interest in localism. The local community bears greater weight in the Bible. We cannot simply say that we want to change the world when our communities are in disarray. We cannot say we honor our pastor when we dishonor our boss and father or vice-versa. Paul says there must be respect for those who are over you and working among you. How much do we esteem one another in our workplace? If we desire that others honor us then we must honor those among and over us. The Bible speaks a lot about the pastoral role towards the people, but in some cases as this one it speaks about the role of people towards pastors. The role of the minister has been trivialized in some circles. The entertainment driven evangelical world has really damaged the importance of the minister and the church. I am reminded of how Reformed missionary Wes Baker who went to work in Peru with his 10 children. The Peruvians have a high regard for the priest and minister. Wes Baker’s first task was to knock on doors in his neighborhood in Peru and introduce himself to the people as their new pastor. The people responded in kindness as if to say “this is the man God has placed over us to guide and minister to us as His people.” There is a hierarchy in the church. Not everyone is called to be a minister, but at the same time everyone is called to minister to one another. In the first century Paul was saying that the ministry is not only to the Jews, but also for Gentiles. Gentile converts were to minister to Jewish believers and vice-versa. Imagine if an unbeliever you have battled in the past, someone with whom you have had an unbiblical hatred towards walks in the church on Sunday morning claiming to be a Christian and wanting to be fed by the Church. What would you do? Similarly in the first century, Gentiles—the enemies of the Jewish people– were being converted and now there was this tension arising. They are enemies of the faith, but now I have to treat them as friends of the gospel. Another interesting bit of context is that some of the Church leaders in Thessalonica may have been formerly synagogue community leaders or Gentile community leaders and now they are affirming a new faith and a new Lord. Paul is saying honor your pastors because they have followed the truth of the gospel, rather than remained in sin. They believed it is more honorable to be persecuted for truth than to live in falsehood.
How Now Shall we Then Live?
We will conclude this next Sunday, but this is all going to culminate in verse 23 where Paul says we are to be blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus. This coming can be quite specific, but it has a general tone to it. Christ comes at our death. He comes at our weakness. He comes in our sorrow. He comes in this season of expectation. In every sense, in every hour, we should strive to be blameless.
How do we make Jesus the very source of our lives? How will others find comfort in the son of God? The answer is that we are to be like him, and one way to be like him, Paul says, is by honoring the labors of the church; by encouraging the work of the gospel.
This is at the very heart of what I believe to be this congregation’s greatest triumph: to be at peace with one another and in tune with the mission of the Church.
Pastor James Grant who visited Providence last year and just recently published a commentary on I Thessalonians wrote these words:
Even in the midst of disagreements and difficulties, there should be a combination of respect and affection, and if this is the attitude within the congregation, we will see the result that Paul describes in verse 13: “Be at peace among yourselves.”
“Pride destroys peace, but the gospel brings peace and well-being.”
The relationships within the body shape the life of the Church. Matthew Henry addressed this issue when he wrote:
And the people should be at peace among themselves doing all they can to hinder any differences from rising or continuing among them, and using all proper means to preserve peace and harmony.
You cannot text your way out of a conflict. In the church there is no room for a hiatus from reconciliation. The church is necessary because it keeps you accountable to your brothers and sisters.
The Advent of Christ comes to reconcile humanity, and specifically to bring peace to the church. Let us now taste of this peace together at His sacred Table.
In The Name of God the Father, and God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Quotation from “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”
 See Matthew 24 and Mark 13.
 A double fulfillment theory brings together Preterists of different sorts and Amillennialists like Kim Riddlebarger. The “we” of 4:17 has a generic and specific flavor.
 Phrase taken from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.
 Paraphrase of David May’s excellent article for Review and Expositor (Atlas) 1999.
 The idea of moral exhortations are called “parenesis.”
 David May, “You cannot hide your soul,” 278.
 I & II Thessalonians, The Hope of Salvation, James Grant, 147.
 Matthew Henry, Commentary on I Thes.