The following is an edited section of a sermon preached on 2 Thessalonians 2 at City Church a few weeks ago on the knotty issue of when and in what way Jesus will return.
Maybe you remember Harold Camping, in the news last year, who predicted that Christ would come in judgement on 21st May 2011. When by May 23rd it hadn’t happened Camping stated that May 21 had been a “spiritual” day of judgment, and that Jesus would come again on October 21, 2011. Camping was wrong and no doubt there were lots of spiritual casualties too.
Something strange was going on at the church in Thessalonica (2 Thess 2v.1-2) Paul is writing to them about the coming of our Lord and v.2 the church has become unsettled and alarmed. The word unsettled has the idea of being ‘shaken from your mind’ like a ship being forced from its mooring by a storm and bobbing about in the high seas. The Thessalonians were in danger of being ‘all at sea’.
Something was getting to the Thessalonians and v.2 it seemed to be some report or prophecy saying that the Day of the Lord has already come. We don’t really know exactly what was going on here but 2 options are our best guesses.
1) The Greek word ‘already come’ can have the idea of ‘is at hand’. So the AV translation of the verse reads
be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand
It might be that they were thinking that the Lord’s Day was imminent.
2) Or it could be as the NIV translates the word the return of Christ has ‘already come’. Maybe some in the church were teaching that in some sense Christ has come spiritually. But if Christ has come, if the Kingdom of Heaven is powerfully breaking in, why were Christians still suffering so much?
Either translation could be right but if we don’t know maybe we don’t need to know the exact form of the error. Paul’s answer in v.3 seems to answer either way.
But Jesus is not coming yet v.3-4?
Now this is where it all gets difficult. Leon Morris wrote ‘This passage is probably the most obscure and difficult in the whole of the Pauline writings and the many gaps in our knowledge have given rise to extravagant speculations.’
What do we make of Paul saying that Jesus cannot come until evil gets worse and a certain man of lawless is revealed?
Does this mean Jesus can’t come back today?
Essentially 2 options are open to us. It could be that Paul’s answer to the Thessalonians doesn’t relate directly to us because he was thinking about something that happened in AD70.
1) a prophecy fulfilled in AD70
In 169BC the Syrian King Antiochus Epiphanies’ captured Jerusalem and desecrated the temple in the most appalling way. He erected an alter to Zeus and sacrificed of all things a pig on the altar of burnt offering in the temple. Many saw this as a fulfilment of a prophesy in the book of Daniel in the Old Testament in which he describes ‘an abomination that causes desolation.’
But Jesus insisted that although this might have been a fulfilment in part Daniel’s prophecy awaited a further fulfilment. In Matthew 24:15-16 Jesus tells us that Daniel’s prophecy is fulfilled in the siege of Jerusalem. In AD70 the Romans defeated the Jews the armies entered the temple carrying the emblem of Caesar into the temple and offered sacrifices to their gods. So could the rebellion Paul is prophesying in 2 Thessalonians 2 refer to the same event? When Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians it was still only 50AD and so the timing works. There was still 20 years to go before the destruction of the temple.
Now if the man of lawlessness is Caesar then what Paul says to the Thessalonians in one sense he is not saying to us. To them he is saying something like ‘Don’t be alarmed or unsettled …Jesus has not come….and he won’t yet come because the Romans haven’t invaded Jerusalem yet..the man of lawlessness is still to come.’
But that wouldn’t be what he is saying to us. To us he’d say ‘Don’t be alarmed or unsettled because Jesus has not come…but do understand that he could come at any moment because everything that needs to happened has happened.’
So that’s option 1 and the problem with it is that every commentary I read rejected that interpretation for a number of reasons that space doesn’t permit us to discuss. Perhaps the key one is that a number of books of the Bible that are almost certainly written after the fall of Jerusalem in AD70 – especially Revelation and the book of 1 John — still expect the coming of the man of lawlessness or the Antichrist as he is also known. John writes in 1 John 2:18 ‘this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming.’
2) The lawless one is yet to be revealed
If the man of lawlessness was not revealed in AD70 that would mean that what Paul is saying to the Thessalonians he is also saying to us (v.7) that the secret power of lawlessness, evil and opposition to God will be at work in the world until at the very end of history but then there will be one final embodiment of evil who will trigger the return of Christ. God’s plan and timing will decide when the arrival of the man of lawlessness will trigger the return of Christ and at that time the man of lawlessness will be utterly defeated.
Now if you are a suffering Christian somewhere in the world today (like the Thessalonians) then that is of great reassurance. Paul is saying ‘don’t be surprised by the presence of evil. There will be evil in the world right up until the day the Lord returns but God is in control.’
Could Christ come back today?
Firstly, we should admit that these verses are so difficult and Christians disagree on their exact meaning that whatever view we hold we should hold provisionally.
That means that if it is possible (even if we think unlikely) that everything that needs to happen has happened then we should be ready for Jesus to come back at any moment. Wayne Grudem in his chapter on eschatology in his Systematic Theology asks ‘is it possible to be ready for something that we think unlikely to happen in the near future?’ Certainly he says ‘Everyone who wears a seatbelt when driving gets ready for an event he or she thinks to be unlikely.’ The point is because we can’t be sure what will happen, because we don’t know for sure whether this prophecy has been fulfilled, either way we need to be ready.
John Stott as a young man was a pacifist even going so far as to join the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship during the second world war. Reflecting on that time he said:
I was sent to at least three clergymen to be sorted out, and looking back I am really horrified at how badly they dealt with me. Not one of them introduced my mind to the concept of the just war. I had never heard of the just war theory.
But as Timothy Dudley Smith records, The day would come when his own study of the Scriptures would carry him beyond any simplistic viewpoint and he would resign his membership [of the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship].
What Stott discovered is that when it comes to what the Bible teaches not all killing is forbidden. All death is a tragedy but not always a breach of the 6th commandment. Stott rooted this theology of just war in Romans 13:1-7 in which Paul teaches that God has given authority to the state to act as an agent of his justice in this world which extends to taking life. In his Bible Speaks Today commentary Stott argues from Romans 13:1-7 that the state has an authority from God to act as his agent to take life. In summary form he argues;
The state has a God-given authority and a God-given role (v.1)
(remember than when Paul was writing there were NO Christian authorities)
To rebel against the state is to rebel against God (v.2)
Three times Paul tells us that the state is God’s servant (v.4a, 4c, 6)
That role includes rewarding those who do good (v.3, 4)
That role includes punishing those who do evil (v.4)
The punishment extends to taking of life (v.4)
Christians should submit to the authority of the state not only because of fear but conscience (v.5)
Turn the other cheek?
What then should we do with passages of the Bible that seem to suggest that Christians are to turn the other cheek? Passages to which Stott himself appealed as a young man? In his book Issues facing Christians today Stott addresses the issue of just war and focuses our attention on the fact that the very verses that preceed Romans 13:1-7, are a call for Christians to love their enemies, Romans 12:17-21. Clearly Paul is not seeking to contradict himself here.
The reason why wrath, revenge and retribution are forbidden us is not because they are in themselves wrong reactions to evil, but because they are God’s prerogative, not ours…It is better, then, to see the end of Romans 12 and the beginning of Romans 13 as complementary to one another.
And here is his key conclusion:
Members of God’s new community can be both private individuals and state officials. In the former role we are never to take personal revenge or repay evil for evil, but rather we are to bless our persecutors(12:14),serve our enemies (12:20) and seek to overcome evil with good (12:21). In the latter role, however, if we are called by God to serve as police or prison officers or judges, we are God’s agents in the punishment of evil-doers. True, ‘vengence’ and ‘wrath’ belong to God, but one way in which he executes his judgement on evil-doers today is through the state.
Stott then sees a natural extension of the same Scriptural principles when the disturber of the peace is not just an individual or group but another nation. The state’s God-given authority encompasses restraint and resistance of evildoers who are aggressors rather than criminals, and so the protection of its citizen’s rights when threatened from outside as well as from inside.
And so John Stott came to change his mind. We cannot say that war is wrong in itself. War has sometimes been, and maybe again, the weapon of God’s wrath and righteous judgment.
An interesting post by Chris Wiles on being a single Christian on Valentine’s day prompted me to offer up some material on marriage, singleness and Christian ministry. A second post will follow on some of the practical outworkings on the issues faced by married’s and single’s in ministry situations.
1. Biblical models of marriage and singleness in the Bible
- The Apostles – 1 Cor. 9:5
- Priscilla & Aquilla – Romans 16:3
- Typical situation of a church elder – 1 Tim. 3. 2-5
- Jesus, Paul
2. Does the New Testament offer any advice on whether marriage or singleness is better for Christian ministry?
a. Genesis 2, Ephesians 5:22-33, 1 Tim.3:2-5
Marriage is a gift from God to be enjoyed. Companionship, procreation.
Christians, through marriage, have opportunity to model to the world God’s ultimate purpose of the heavenly marriage between Christ and the church. Given that the majority of people in a local church congregation will be married a church minister has opportunity to model to the church, and to a watching world, Christian marriage and through marriage point people to Christ.
Marriage is a privilege, blessing and gospel opportunity!
b. 1 Corinthians 7 – a brief overview
1 Cor. 7:1 should follow the ESV translation
Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’
Some at Corinth seem to have been following the Greek practice of celibacy and considering themselves more spiritual for doing so. They were possibly also using Paul’s celibacy to justify their own attitude to sex and marriage.
In Chapter 7 Paul wants to defend the value of singleness without defending their rationale for it.
The theme of Chapter Seven can be summed up as ‘remain in the situation in which God called you’ v.8, 17,20,24,26,40. i.e. Be content with who you are in Christ.
Were you married when you became a Christian? Then stay married, even if your spouse is an unbeliever. This is command of the Lord v.10-11
Were you a widow(er) or unmarried? Then Paul’s advice is that it is best to stay unmarried, as he himself is. v.8.
Please notice that to those who are married Paul issues a command from the Lord but to the singles Paul does not use commands but rather offers guidance. He chooses not to speak with the full force of his apostolic authority but with words of advice.
‘Paul’s argument takes on a character of its own, quite unlike anything else in his extant letters. He begins with a caution, that what is about to be said, even though he thinks it trustworthy, is less than a command of the Lord; it is his ‘opinion’ (v.25). The argument is then laced with ‘I think’ (36), ‘I am sparing you’ (28), ‘I wish’ (32), ‘I say this for your own good’ (35), ‘let him do as he wishes’ (36), ‘he shall do well’ (37). Whatever else this is not your standard Paul.’
c. Why does Paul seem to prefer singleness?
i) Eschatological perspective – Christ is coming soon vv.26-29
This is almost certainly what Paul is referring to in vv.26-29 as the present crisis v.26 and again in v.29 when he comments that the appointed time is very short. If Christ is coming soon then there is an urgency about the Lord’s work and we must be free from the grip of the world’s values e.g. Pursuing the things the world chases after – spouse, 2.4 kids, nice house, car and dog!
ii) Those who are married inevitably have divided interests. v.28, 32-24.
Family life is hard work and requires time and effort to sustain. Being single enables an undivided service of Christ.
d. Is it less spiritual for Christians to seek to be married?
No. Twice Paul affirms that if you marry you are not sinning v.28, 36
Paul also recognizes that God gifts people differently. He gives a marriage partner to some and not to others. v.7. If you are married, thank God for your partner. If you are single thank God for that too! Both are gifts from God.
Paul is concerned that we seek the Kingdom of God first, c.f. Matt.6:31-33, and not get hung up on marriage. However if a suitable marriage partner comes along and we wish to marry then we are free to do so.
‘Ultimately, however, it is our freedom to marry or not which Paul emphasizes time and again. .. As such, we should regard singleness (whether short or long term) as an available option and, since we all start out single, we should approach life form the point of view of seeking the Kingdom of God, not the end of our singleness, as our priority.’
- First things first. Seek to serve Christ where you are!
- Don’t idolize either marriage or singleness.
- Don’t consider yourself superior because of your status e.g. ‘smug married’s or ‘single for the gospel’.
- If looking for a potential marriage partner ask:
‘Will this person I am thinking of going out with / marrying help or hinder me in the work of the gospel?’ ‘Will I help them?’
- If you are thinking about starting a relationship look to go out with someone more godly than you.
- Consider life goals i.e. how, where and when you might serve in say 10 years time when thinking about marriage.
g. Can I know today which gift I have been given by God?
Not necessarily. John Stott helpfully comments in an interview with Al Hsu at the end of his book Singleness
In spite of rumours to the contrary, I have never taken a solemn vow or heroic decision to remain single! On the contrary, during my twenties and thirties, like most people, I was expecting to marry one day. In fact, during this period I twice began to develop a relationship with a lady who I thought might be God’s choice of life partner for me. But when the time came to make a decision, I can best explain it by saying that I lacked an assurance from God that he meant me to go forward. So I drew back. And when that happened twice, I naturally began to believe that God meant me to remain single. I’m now seventy-six and well and truly ‘on the shelf’! Looking back, with the benefits of hindsight, I think I know why. I could never have travelled or written as extensively as I have done if I had had the responsibilities of a wife and family.
It should also be noted that some people long to be married and yet for various reasons never do. This must be seen as God’s sovereign gift for them.
Some good books to read on the broader issues of marriage, singleness and the gospel:
Good commentaries on 1 Corinthians!
Surely the most influential British evangelical of the past 100 years John Stott went to be with the Lord yesterday at the age of 90. There will be a memorial service at St. Paul’s cathedral in due course. Here is a short video produced by the Langham Partnership (John Stott Ministries in the US) in celebration of his life.
One of the marks of the man was the recognition and respect he earned from those who may not have agreed with his theology but could not fail to admire his humanity. Here is a short piece from the New York Times in 2004 entitled Who Is John Stott?
I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. – 1 Tim. 2:1-4
Have you ever thought what extraordinary words those are? When Paul wrote them there was not one King anywhere in the world who was a Christian ruler. For Paul then there is no secular government and that means for the Christian there cannot be secular government.
What is even more extraordinary is that Paul’s prayer focuses on the fact that God has put secular rulers in place not just for the common good of man but God calls upon the state to serve the church by upholding freedom and justice and thereby allowing Christians to get on with their lives and their evangelism!
We find other early church leaders calling on Christians to pray in the same way.
Clement writes in the second century:
Grant them Lord, health, peace, harmony and stability, so that they may give no offence in administering the government you have given them.
Tertullian writes in his Apology:
We pray also for the emperors, for their ministers and those in power, that their reign may continue, that the state may be at peace, and that the end of the world may be postponed.
If we are to learn how to pray for the state the heart of all of these prayers is the recognition that rulers are appointed by God to rule in such a way as to enable Christians to ‘live peaceful and quiet lives’ and by so doing enable the church to be God’s agent in the world bringing salvation as it preaches and lives out the gospel.
John Stott writes:
Here is important apostolic teaching about church and state, and about the porper relations between them, even when the state is not Christian. It is the duty of the state to keep the peace, to protect its citizens from whatever would disturn it, to preserve law and order and to punish evil and promote god (as Paul teaches in Rom. 13:4), so that within such a stable society the church may be free to worship God, obey his laws and spread his gospel.
There is therefore a great deal at stake in how a government governs. Paul’s prayer implies that when a government fails to uphold the freedom of the Christian it is actually failing in its God-given duty! For many Christians around the world this failure of the state to live up to it’s calling is all too apparent. In recent months in the middle-east in particular the state has failed in its role of protecting the church from harm. Witness recent bomb attacks on churches in Iraq, Pakistan and Egypt.
Whilst the church should and must turn to God in prayer at such times the leaders of other nations do have the opportunity to challenge government that is failing to protect it’s people, including Christians.
The article reports:
A meeting of EU foreign ministers failed to agree on a condemnation of sectarian attacks over the Christmas period that targeted Christians in Egypt and Iraq.
Talks ended angrily when Italy accused Lady Ashton, the EU’s foreign minister, of “excessive” political correctness because she refused to name any specific religious group as a victim of attacks.
Franco Frattini, the Italian foreign minister, demanded an EU response on the persecution of Christians after a New Year suicide bombing at a Coptic church in northern Egypt in which 23 people were killed.
The Egyptian bombing followed attacks in Baghdad and fears, expressed by the Vatican, of persecution leading to a Christian exodus from the Middle East.
Mr Frattini, backed by France, said it pointless to issue statements defending religious tolerance without any references to the specific minority, Christians, that was under attack.
Wouldn’t life be simple if before Darwin came along all Christians interpreted Genesis 1-3 as literal history. The following quote from Origen, written around 231 AD, shows how far from the truth such a view of church history would be.
Now who is there, pray, possessed of understanding, that will regard the statement as appropriate, that the first day, and the second, and the third, in which also both evening and morning are mentioned, existed without sun, and moon, and stars— the first day even without a sky? And who is found so ignorant as to suppose that God, as if He had been a husbandman, planted trees in paradise, in Eden towards the east, and a tree of life in it, i.e., a visible and palpable tree of wood, so that anyone eating of it with bodily teeth should obtain life, and, eating again of another tree, should come to the knowledge of good and evil? No one, I think, can doubt that the statement that God walked in the afternoon in paradise, and that Adam lay hid under a tree, is related figuratively in Scripture, that some mystical meaning may be indicated by it.
What Origen, one of the great church Fathers, makes apparent is that as long as there has been a church there have existed a whole variety of views on how to handle the early chapters of Genesis. All held with a passion by Bible-believing Christians.
Luther writes in the introduction to this Commentary on Genesis of chapter one:
There has not been anyone in the church who has explained everything in the chapter with adequate skill.
And so it is then that in our own day a growing number of Christians both eminent scientists and leading churchmen who are making a case for the compatibility of the early chapters of Genesis with the theory of evolution. I want today to draw attention to three leading Christian Biologists and three world-renowned Christian Pastors and theologians by way of a sample. At this stage I’m not seeking to comment on their views.
Leading evangelical scientists who have written in support of theistic evolution include:
Dr. Francis Collins – A physician and geneticist who was appointed Director of the National Institutes of Health (US) by President Obama. He is a winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the highest civilian honour given by the president, for revolutionizing genetic research) and has also received the National Medal of Science. He is the author of The Language of God and founder of the Biologos Forum.
Dr. Dennis Alexander – The Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, where he is a Fellow. For many years he was Chairman of the Molecular Immunology Programme in Cambridge. Since 1992 he has been Editor of the journal Science & Christian Belief. He is the author of Creation or Evolution: Do we have to choose?
Professor R.J. Berry – Professor of Genetics at Univeristy College London between 1974-2000 and winner of the Templeton UK Individual Award for progress in religion. He has written God and the Biologist: Faith at the Frontiers of Science.
We might not be surprised to find scientists who believe endorsing an evolutionary model of creation but what may be surprising to us are the growing number of high-profile, well respected pastors and theologians who are ready to recognize evolution as a model compatible with the Genesis account.
Tim Keller – Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York. In his New York Times Top 10 book The Reason for God he writes:
For the record I think God guided some kind of process of natural selection, and yet I reject the concept of evolution as All-encompassing Theory. (p.94)
For a fuller statement from Keller visit here.
John Stott – Rector Emeritus of All Souls Church, London. Time magazine, as recently as 2005, voted John Stott as one of the 100 most influencial people in the world.
Stott writes in his BST commentary on Romans:
The evidence of Genesis 2-4 is that Adam was a Neolithic farmer. The New Stone Age ran from about 10,000 to 6,000 BC.
When considering the human fossil record and skeleton record he concludes by suggesting that homo habilis and homo erectus were:
All pre-Adamic hominids, still homo sapiens and not yet homo divines, if we may so style Adam .
JI Packer – British born theologian and author. In 2005 Time magazine voted him one of the 25 most influencial evangelicals in North America.
The following is taken from Wikipedia entry on Packer and evolution:
In 2008 Packer wrote an endorsement for a book called ‘Creation or Evolution: Do We have to Choose?’ by Denis Alexander. The book advocates theistic evolution and is critical of Intelligent Design. Packer said of the book: ‘Surely the best informed, clearest and most judicious treatment of the question in its title that you can find anywhere today.’ This perhaps reveals Packer’s current position in the evolution/intelligent design debate.
However, he has also expressed caution as to whether the theory of evolution is actually true, ‘its only a hypothesis… its only a guess… so as science, in terms of philosophy of science… evolution is by no means proven and as a guess it is very strange and contrary to all analogies…‘ He also said, ‘the biblical narratives of creation… don’t obviously say anything that bears one way or another on the question of whether the evolutionary hypothesis might be true or not…‘
The most recent information on Packer’s position on evolution comes from his foreword to Reclaiming Genesis by Melvin Tinker. Reclaiming Genesis is a ‘pro-evolution’ book with the subtitle ‘The Theatre of God’s Glory – Or a Scientific Story?’ in it Packer writes “Melvin Tinker is fully on wavelength in this lively and enlivening series of expositions. His book is wise, popular, and powerful. I heartily commend it.”
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