Christ has appeared once for all at the climax of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for men to die once and after that the judgment, so Christ, having been offered once for all to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. (Hebrews 9:26–28)
The Son of God entered once into human history as Jesus of Nazareth primarily for the purpose of dying for our sins, so that we who trust him might have new and eternal life. And he is coming a second time into human history not to atone for sin or purchase life, but to complete and perfect our deliverance from all evil and pain. What I want to do very briefly this morning is describe some of the significance of that second coming and its relationship to the Lord's Supper that we will celebrate in a few minutes.
When Jesus came the first time, it was not his purpose to divide and condemn but to save and reconcile (John 3:17; Ephesians 2:14–18). But division was inevitable. So he said, "Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and a man's foes will be those of his own household" (Matthew 10:34, 35). This division that happens in this age, wherever Jesus is preached, is a picture and a warning of the final division which will happen at Jesus' second coming.
Unbelieving Sinners at the Second Coming
The text of the morning, 2 Thessalonians 1:3–10, gives us one of the fullest descriptions of that event and what it will mean for believers and unbelievers. Paul writes this second letter to the Thessalonians to Christians who are being abused in various ways by unbelievers. He encourages them in verse 5 that this affliction is not a sign of God's anger at them but a sign of his loving justice, because this is how he refines their faith to make them worthy of the coming kingdom. "This is an evidence of the righteous judgment of God that you may be made worthy of the kingdom of God for which you are suffering" (1:5).
Then in verses 6 and following he goes on to assure them that the tables will be turned. Your affliction will be replaced by joyful rest, and their proud disobedience will be punished, and this will happen at the coming of Jesus Christ.
God deems it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you and to grant rest with us to you who are afflicted, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints and to be marveled at in all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.
Here we can see what the coming of Christ is going to mean for the unbeliever and the believer. Three observations from this text sum up the lot of the unbeliever at the second coming. First, Christ is going to be revealed from heaven with the "angels of his power" (a literal reading of v. 7) in flaming fire. The picture here is one of an irresistible army—the Lord of the universe returning from a long journey to settle accounts with the tenants of his earth. There will be no escape and no recourse, no place to hide, and above all no possibility to withstand. As Malachi said (3:2f.): "Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire." For the unbeliever there will be no defense.
Second, the unbeliever will "suffer the punishment of eternal destruction" (v. 9). Or as verse 6 says, "they will be repaid with affliction." Jesus had warned it would be this way. He said in Matthew 25:46 that those who reject or abuse the messengers of the gospel "will go away into eternal punishment but the righteous into eternal life." The romantic notions of endless mercy or tolerance to those who keep on resisting the gospel will be blown into smithereens at the second coming. The meek and lowly Lamb of God will come as the roaring Lion of Judah and rend his foes. And the Jesus who wept over the unbelief of Jerusalem and gave his life for sinners will come a second time and lay waste everyone who has spurned eternal life in him. And their destruction will be eternal.
Third, according to verse 9 unbelievers will be "excluded from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might." Of course, that is no great threat to an unbeliever. He has devoted his life to trying to get away from the face of Christ and his might. Picture two men in a totalitarian regime, one is single, the other married with three small children. The secret police go after both men to arrest them and send them for life to hard labor and torture. As they take away the single man, he weeps at the prospect of the pain and emptiness to come. Then they break into the married man's house as he is laughing at table with his family. They bind his hands and tell him he will never see his family again and drag him out. And he too weeps, but the labor and torture that he can imagine as he rides away are overwhelmed by the agony of being excluded from the presence of his wife and children and the glory of their happy faces. How will he bear it? Paul is writing as a man who loves Christ more dearly than any of us in this room loves his own wife. And that's the way all of us should love him (Luke 14:26), so that the prospect of being excluded from the presence of the Lord and the glory of his might is an unbearably dreadful thought.
So, in sum, for unbelievers the second coming of Christ will mean confrontation with an irresistible and inescapable army from heaven, condemnation to eternal destruction, and finally exclusion from the presence of the Lord and the glory of his might.
Believing Sinners at the Second Coming
But what will it mean for those who are following Christ in the obedience of faith? The text focuses on two things: rest and amazement. In verse 7, Paul says to the beleaguered believers at Thessalonica, "God will grant rest to you along with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels." The word for "rest" here means more literally "release" or "relief" from whatever is making life hard to live. Paul said, for example in 2 Corinthians 7:5, "For when we came into Macedonia our bodies had no rest but we were afflicted at every turn—fighting without and fear within" (cf. 8:13; 2:13). On the one hand Jesus says, "Come to me all you who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28). We have a foretaste of Christ's comfort as he dwells in us by the Holy Spirit. But, on the other hand, while we yet live in this world there will always be a race to run and a fight to fight, namely, against the flesh, the struggle to keep hoping in Christ instead of our achievements or possessions. But the second coming of Christ will mean the end of all our struggles; everything physical and spiritual that threatened to make life unbearable will be gone, and we will have rest and release with the Lord forever.
The idea of rest or release is mainly negative. It describes the absence of weariness or troublesome experiences. But the meaning of Christ's second coming should not be thought of mainly as the absence of bad things. Paul describes something tremendously positive. He says in verse 10 that Christ is coming "to be glorified in his saints and to be marveled at by all who have believed." One of the most exhilarating experiences in life is to see a wonder or a marvel so great and so glorious that we are utterly amazed, speechless before beauty. That's how it will be when we see Jesus coming in his glory.
The kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens (Jesus said) who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five of them were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom delayed they all slumbered and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, 'Behold the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.' (Matthew 25:1–6)
And so we will: "The dead in Christ will rise first (Paul said), then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air" (1 Thessalonians 4:16, 17). Like five young, excited maidens full of wonder and awe at the bridegroom's coming we will run out to meet him and do cartwheels before him as he comes back into his kingdom, like David danced before the Ark of God entering Jerusalem.
Do you remember the day the prisoners of war came home from Vietnam? Do you remember seeing on one side of the ship the wife who had waited six years as the husband walked out on the other side and started across the deck? Behold the bridegroom comes! Come out to meet him! And she did. And the whole world watched that embrace.
Paul said at the end of his life, "Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but also to all who have loved his appearing" (2 Timothy 4:8). If we love Christ as we ought, we will love his appearing. Do you love the prospect of Christ's coming as much as that wife loved the appearing of her husband after six years as a P.O.W.? If not, pray that Christ would manifest himself to you in his Word, so that you might know him and love him with all your heart. There is nothing that we are planning in our future that can compare with the marvel and wonder and joy of seeing our Lord Jesus face to face.
So, in sum, the meaning of the second coming of Christ for us sinners who are trusting him for his grace is that he will give rest and relief from every weariness and troublesome and depressing experience, but even more he will fill us up with a joyful amazement and awe and wonder when we see him face to face in all his gracious glory.
The Death That Sealed the Victory
Now what does all this have to do with the Lord's Supper? Let's go back to our P.O.W.'s and imagine a group of twelve men imprisoned in a camp in North Vietnam. They've been there six years. Somehow they have been able to communicate with the American troops and have learned that if they could escape and be at a certain point at midnight, a helicopter could pick them up. So they planned, and finally were able to confiscate a timed detonating device that would explode 24 hours after being set. They decided to plant the device at the base of the surrounding fence the night before they could be set to go. One of the twelve volunteered to make the attempt to plant the charge—he was the only one with no children. That night he managed to leap over the coils of barbed wire and land at the base of the fence and plant the charge. But then without a running start, he couldn't leap the wire. So he crept along the fence. But just before he found an opening he was spotted and shot to death.
The guards saw what hut he was from and threw his body at the door as a lesson for the other eleven prisoners. They took him in and buried him in a shallow grave. And then in the darkness of that night they had a memorial service for him. And they thought about his death. But mingled with their grief there arose a strong hope and expectation. For this was no ordinary death; because of this death there would be release from prison and reunion with the beloved.
And that's the way it is with the Lord's Supper. A memorial service looking back to Jesus' death, but an utterly unique death—a death that so satisfied the righteous demands of God that Jesus was granted to rise from the dead and come again as King of all. The sacrifice of Christ set the charge for the explosion of his second coming. May the celebration of his dying fill us all with a readiness and a love for his appearing.