The Forward Life

Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5
A number of years ago I heard the sad story of a girl who began to live "backwards". She wore her clothes backwards, walked backwards, sat backwards in her chair at the table… She had this obsession about being backward and needed a great deal of special help.

The Christian life is meant to be forward, not backward. It isn't safe to drive a car with your eyes fixed on the rear-vision mirror! We need to be aware of what's behind, but our focus is on what's up ahead.

Paul wrote very pointedly about this in Phil. 2.12-14 - "I do not claim that I have already succeeded or have already become perfect. I keep striving to win the prize for which Christ Jesus has already won me to himself. Of course, my brothers and sisters, I really do not think that I have already won it; the one thing I do, however, is to forget what is behind me and do my best to reach what is ahead. So I run straight towards the goal in order to win the prize, which is God's call through Christ Jesus to the life above." He doesn't look back at his spiritual heritage and achievements - he counts them all as "complete loss for the sake of what is so much more valuable, the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord" (v. 8). He knows himself, as he writes later to Timothy, "the worst of sinners" (1 Tim. 1.15). Yet he doesn't spend his time dwelling on his sinfulness, but on the grace of God for sinners - "Christ came into the world to save sinners."

Christ calls us to receive his grace, to be forgiven, to become new creatures and to move forward. The Christian life isn't a backward life, but a forward life!

Significantly, the three churches forming the Uniting Church in 1977 declared their readiness to "go forward together in sole loyalty to Christ the living Head of the Church" (Basis of Union para 1).

Looking Forward

But which way is forward? The other day we came back from Brisbane having visited a relative in Sandgate. Naturally, we crossed the Houghton Highway (next to the old Hornibrook) and continued on through Redcliffe. Then we turned at the roundabout into Deception Bay Road. That's when I remembered. Twice when travelling along that same road at night I had taken a wrong turn and found myself heading toward Brisbane. Perhaps you know the feeling - I think we are heading in the wrong direction. Now, looking at it by daylight, I wondered how I had ever made that mistake - twice! The signs are clear enough.

Which way is forward? We read in Hebrews 12, "As for us, we have this large crowd of witnesses round us. So then, let us rid ourselves of everything that gets in the way, and of the sin which holds on to us so tightly, and let us run with determination the race that lies before us. Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, on whom our faith depends from beginning to end" (vv. 1,2a) - on Jesus who came to be the Saviour and will return to be Judge of all.

Already in 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul has begun to speak of the Second Coming of Christ. The early Christians seem to have assumed that the Lord would return during their lifetime. But already Christians were dying. Would they miss out on all that God had promised?

No, said Paul. "We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will take back with Jesus those who have died believing in him… There will be the shout of command, the archangel's voice, the sound of God's trumpet, and the Lord himself will come down from heaven. Those who have died believing in Christ will rise to life first; then we who are living at that time will be gathered up along with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord" (1 Thess. 4.14,16-17).

Always Ready

That is certainly cause for assurance and comfort, but how are we to live in the meantime?

"The Day of the Lord," Paul tells them, "will come as a thief comes at night. When people say, 'Everything is quiet and safe,' then suddenly destruction will hit them! It will come as suddenly as the pains that come upon a woman in labour, and people will not escape" (5.2-3).

Paul is following so closely the teaching of Jesus himself. Jesus said, "Be on your guard, then, because you do not know what day your Lord will come… So then, you also must always be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you are not expecting him" (Mt. 24.42,44).

Paul goes on, "But you, brothers and sisters, are not in the darkness, and the Day should not take you by surprise like a thief. All of you are people who belong to the light, who belong to the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, we should not be sleeping like the others; we should be awake and sober" (1 Thess. 5.4-6).

It is not simply that we are "enlightened" by the teachings of Jesus about such things and therefore aren't "in the dark." Rather, we live in the light. Light is the sphere in which we live. Because we are people who belong to the light, we are to be "awake and sober" - not sleeping and revelling (vv. 6-7). There is a serious struggle going on in this world - between light and darkness, between good and evil, between truth and falsehood. And we know ourselves to be on the threshold of an event in which final issues are to resolved for everyone - whether of salvation or judgment. We are to be ready, equipped for action.

"We must wear faith and love as a breastplate, and our hope of salvation as a helmet" (v. 8b). Thomas Constable notes, "A Roman breastplate covered a soldier from his neck to his waist and protected most of his vital organs (cf. Eph. 6:14). That is what Christians' faith and love do. Faith in God protects inwardly and love for people protects outwardly. These two graces cannot be separated; if one believes in God he will also love other people (cf. 1 Thess. 1:3; 3:5)… In addition, the hope of salvation guards their heads from attacks on their thinking. The salvation they look forward to is deliverance from the wrath to come when the Lord returns, as is clear from the context. It is not a wishful longing that some day they might be saved eternally… Followers of Christ have a sure hope; they are not as others who have no hope" (BKC).

The purpose of God in the first coming of Christ was salvation - "God did not choose us to suffer his anger, but to possess salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us in order that we might live together with him, whether we are alive or dead when he comes" (vv. 9-10).

Forward Living

There appear to have been some in Thessalonica who had the idea that, if the Lord is returning, all we have to do is wait and enjoy ourselves. But the people who belong to the light are to be positive and active - living "forward".

This is why it is important for them to "pay proper respect to those who work among you, who guide and instruct you in the Christian life" (v. 12) as well as to "warn the idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone" (v. 14).

We are called to active forgiveness and active goodness - "See that no one pays back wrong for wrong, but at all times make it your aim to do good to one another and to all people" (v. 15).

And positive faith in God will lead to joy and thankfulness no matter what happens - "Be joyful always, pray at all times, be thankful in all circumstances. This is what God wants from you in your life in union with Christ Jesus" (vv. 16-18). Forward living is based on positive confidence in God. It responds to the genuine revelation of God's will - "Do not restrain the Holy Spirit; do not despise inspired messages. Put all things to the test: keep what is good and avoid every kind of evil" (vv. 19-22).

There is a blessing - "May the God who gives us peace make you holy in every way and keep your whole being - spirit, soul, and body - free from every fault at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" (v. 23). This is God's blessing as we live out in practice our relationship with him. The purpose of God's peace (salvation) is a life transformed (holiness). The two are not to be separated - just as we are also to understand that the one who came to be Saviour will also return as Lord and Judge.

This brings our thoughts back to the Second Coming. We have a life to live. We have work to do. We have a commission to fulfil. The Lord will come again, but, in the interim, we are called to the "forward life" - a life of love and joy and peace, a life of faith and of positive action… Thankfully, it is a life in which we can depend on a promise - "He who calls you will do it, because he is faithful" (v. 24).

© Peter J. Blackburn, Buderim Uniting Church, 12 December 1999
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Good News Bible, © American Bible Society, 1992.

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