As we read through the New Testament this year, last week and this week have been a blitz through several of Paul’s shorter epistles. Philippians and Colossians, like Ephesians before it, were captivity letters. That means they were written while he was imprisoned sometime after the events described in Acts 23.
The epistle to the Philippians astonishes us, first promising that Paul’s imprisonment actually forwards the Gospel (1:12). Then, at the end, Paul gives the surprise proof. Among the new converts to Christianity, thanks to Paul’s incarceration, are members of Caesar’s household (4:22)!
Colossians, on the other hand, reveals a cosmic view of Jesus’ grand work of salvation. While Paul is shut away in a hole in the ground, looking at the same walls each day, he proclaims by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, “Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:15ff.). Just as Jesus was there in the beginning, His resurrection is the cosmic new beginning, “that in everything he might be preeminent” (1:18).
Colossians and Philippians are marvelous Scriptures on their own; that they were written by a man who knew not how long he would be imprisoned makes them more glorious and inspirational.
The next epistles we read come from the beginning of Paul’s career. His epistles to the Thessalonians may well have been his first (with the lone possible exception being Galatians), probably written around the years 51-52 from Corinth.
Just because Paul was not yet imprisoned, however, did not mean the early Christians were safe from persecution. Indeed, “When we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know” (1 Thessalonians 3:4). One of the great comforts for the persecuted is the preaching of Jesus’ kingdom coming, the eternal victory of Christ’s church. So in his letters to the Thessalonians, Paul comforts the suffering by explaining how Jesus will return.
Today, there are a lot of complicated doctrines of men put forward as the Bible’s supposed teaching of Jesus’ return. Your head can spin learning about all the different cataclysms, the “secret returns,” the wars and rumors of wars. It’s amazing, when you read the Bible instead, how simple it is. Paul tells us we can “encourage each other with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:18), the straightforward explanation of Jesus’ return.
The Bible’s easy timeline is this: 1) Jesus returns loudly and clearly (1 Thessalonians 4:16); 2) the dead rise (4:16); 3) we are all gathered together forever with God (4:17). This matches Jesus’ teaching, as Paul explicitly says (4:15), which we can read in Matthew 24-25.
If that seems too simple to you, you’re not alone in thinking that. After Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians, there must have been a reply letter to bring about 2 Thessalonians. We can imagine the Thessalonians asking, “But what about antichrists and false miracles and…”
So Paul answers and gets into some more details. But before he does that he says something important which we do well to hear: “Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed” (2 Thessalonians 2:1-2). The teaching of Jesus’ return should not be something used to frighten you! When Jesus preached about His return, He summarized, “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28).
From the very beginning, you see, false teachers have used the uncertainty inherent in future events to twist Jesus’ teaching and unsettle God’s people. Jesus warned about these teachers (Matthew 24:23-28). Paul warned about them (2 Thessalonians 2:9-12). Peter warned about them (2 Peter 2). John (1 John 2:18-27) and Jude (Jude 3-16) told the church they were already among us. If the teaching you hear about end times is causing you to fear instead of to hope and rejoice, dive back into the clear waters of the Scriptures! 1 and 2 Thessalonians give us all we need to know in clear detail.
I have a theory about why so much modern American teaching about end times is scary instead of encouraging. The context of the Bible’s teaching on Jesus’ return was outlaw apostles writing to persecuted communities, promising release from tribulation. In America, however, at the turn of the 20th century, when millennialism had its rise, not only were Christians fairly comfortable in America, they also had the progressive view of history in mind, which before the two great world wars, thought life was only getting better and better on earth. Christians in America forgot how rare our refuge nation was, how our relative peace and security are a great exception to much of history. Remember, “When we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know” (1 Thessalonians 3:4).
So the Western Christians of the late 19th and early 20th century invented a mythology of Armageddon. Of course, it’s frightening to think about losing the freedom of religion we have had in America for over two centuries. Meanwhile, around the world, other Christians must wonder at our invented tribulations. Christians in Africa and Asia do not wonder when tribulation and the plague of false teaching might come among them. It’s there.
“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). What has been strange, and a great gift from God, is the sanctuary Christians have had in many Western nations, to share Christ without state-sponsored persecution. An appreciation of this grace will safeguard us from dissipated living (1 Thessalonians 4:3-8; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-10), inspiring us to make the most of the time given us. “Since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:8-9).