テサロニケの信徒への手紙二2:1-2 2 Thessalonians 2:1-2,
In December, we see more and more Christmas decorations and hear more and more music. Christmas has become one of the major annual events for people living in modern Japan. Considering that Christians account for only 1% of the total population in Japan, it is surprising that the celebration of the Nativity of Christ has permeated people’s lives. However, even if it is pervasive, it is a commercialist Christmas of buying presents and cakes, not a real Christmas of celebrating Christ’s Nativity. However, that does not mean that we should just criticise it as a secular event, but it is the task of the Christian church to proclaim during the Christmas season that “the true meaning of Christmas is that Jesus Christ, the only Son of the true God, became a man and was born into the world.”
Recently, not only Christmas but also “Advent” has come to be known to the general public in Japan. This is probably due to the growing popularity of the Advent calendar as a gift. The Advent period in the church calendar begins four Sundays before Christmas on 25 December. This year, the Advent period begins today, 3 December. However, most Advent calendars sold as gifts generally start on 1 December. These calendars do not just have the dates printed on them. There are numbered boxes with dates, which are opened one by one each day. And inside the numbered boxes with dates are sweets, toys or cosmetics. The purpose of the advent calendar as sold to the public is to take one of these items out of the box each day and enjoy them while looking forward to the celebration of Christmas.
However, in addition to preparing for the celebration of Christmas, the period of Advent in the church calendar has another important meaning. It has the solemn meaning of confirming our faith in Christ’s return to the world in the Last Day and preparing for the Last Judgement of the Last Day. To begin with, the English word advent comes from the Latin word “adventus,” which means arrival or coming. And although advent is also used for the arrival of a general person or event, when written with the first letter “a” capitalised, the word means the coming of Christ. Christmas is the event about 2,000 years ago when Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of the true God, was born into the world in human flesh. This is sometimes called the First Coming. In contrast, Christ’s return to earth for the Last Judgement is called the Second Coming. The general public will be surprised to hear that the word “Advent” has the meaning of Christ’s Second Coming. This is because, for the average person in Japan, the teaching of Christ’s Second Coming and the Last Judgement seems unrealistic. For non-Christians, the whole of the Christian faith will seem incomprehensible, but the Second Coming of Christ and the Last Judgement are perhaps the most difficult of all to accept.
The Second Coming of Christ and the Last Judgement are essential elements of the Christian faith. In the Apostles’ Creed, which the Christian churches of all ages have believed, it is confessed that Christ, who “ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty,” “will come again to judge the living and the dead.” In the Confession of Faith of our denomination, i.e., the Church of Christ in Japan, it is also confessed that the Christian Church “makes ready for the Last Day, awaiting the coming of the Lord.” Thus, the Second Coming of Christ and the Last Judgement are essential parts of the Christian faith, but some Christians may say they cannot believe in them. However, a Christian faith that does not believe in the Second Coming of Christ is like a bucket without a bottom. No matter how much grace is poured out from the top, it flows out more and more from the bottom and the grace of Christ cannot stay in the person. This is because the assurance that salvation through Christ will be completed at his Second Coming and at the Last Judgment is what enables Christians to live in grace and not lose hope in the midst of suffering. Without that assurance, the grace of forgiveness of sins and life everlasting would be just a temporary comfort. Therefore, during this Advent period, which begins today, we want to confirm our faith in the Second Coming of Christ, and to welcome the Christmas season with a firm hold on his grace in preparation for the Last Day.
Today, many people may be wary of religion due to the problems of so-called cults, etc. However, Christianity has the Bible, which is the norm for faith and life, and a system of doctrines built on the Bible. And there is an accumulation of 2000 years of academic knowledge on the interpretations of the Bible. Therefore, if we respect the Bible and the Christian doctrines and accumulation of biblical interpretations, Christianity will not become like a cult. We, the Church of Christ in Japan, are a church that respects the authority of the Bible and stands in the tradition of the doctrines of the Reformation. And we place great importance on learning God’s teachings by listening to Bible-based sermons every Sunday. This is the basis for a correct Christian life for each one of us, that the words of the Bible are preached and heard correctly. It is also the basis for the correct formation of the church as a community of faith.
In New Testament times, when the Bible was not yet a complete book and the system of doctrines had not yet been established, there must have been more room for false teaching to enter the church than there is today. False teaching also infiltrated the church in Thessalonica in Macedonia. We can see part of the problem in today’s Bible verses. Verses 1 and 2 state as follows.
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, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.
It goes without saying that what Paul writes here “concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him,” is about the doctrines of the Second Coming of Christ and the resurrection of believers in the Last Day. It is, in other words, about Christ’s coming again to the world in the Last Day to make the Last Judgment, and about the gathering together of believers in Christ to be resurrected to bodies of eternal life. In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Paul says that those who have died in faith in Christ have not perished, but will be resurrected to bodies of eternal life when Christ comes again, and that those who believe in Christ who are on earth when he comes again will also be changed into bodies of eternal life and live with Christ forever. And in 4:16-17, Paul says as follows.
For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.
There is no need to interpret these biblical verses as literally hearing the sound of trumpet or literally people being caught up in the clouds and lifted up into the air. It teaches that from heaven, the world beyond this world, Christ will come again in the Last Day and this world will also become the kingdom of God, at which time those who have died believing in Christ will be resurrected with bodies of eternal life, and those who believe in Christ and live in this world will be changed into bodies of eternal life, too. When Paul first evangelised Thessalonica, the believers of Thessalonian church heard his teaching on the Second Coming of Christ and began to look forward to his return from heaven (I Thessalonians 1:10). And Paul, in his first letter to the Thessalonians, also teaches about the Second Coming of Christ and believers’ resurrection on the Last Day, as quoted earlier. In the words of today’s Scripture passages, he taught “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him.”
However, there were those who had a false understanding of the doctrines of Christ’s Second Coming and the resurrection in the Last Day. Not only did they have a false understanding, but they began to assert the false teaching based on a false understanding. These were those who say as if the day of the Lord has already come. According to verse 2, they say “that the day of the Lord has come.” “The day of the Lord has come” means that Christ’s Second Coming, the bodily resurrection and the glorification of Christians have already happened. This is such a strange thing that, if one considers the objective facts, it does not matter at all. However, in the world of faith, it is often the case that teachings are subjectively reinterpreted and claimed to be different from the original teachings.
For example, the Bible teaches that Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose again on the third day as historical facts. However, some people seem to subjectively reinterpret this and explain it in such a way that Christ was resurrected in the hearts of his disciples. Such a teaching would then be something other than what Christian doctrine originally taught. And it becomes something that is no longer Christianity. Similarly, the doctrines of the Second Coming of Christ and the resurrection in the Last Day, instead of believing as historical events that Christ will come again in the Last Day and that those who have died will be resurrected, could be subjectively interpreted to mean that Christ has come again in one’s heart and one is spiritually gathered together to Christ. There may have been people who interpreted it in such a way that Christ has come again in my heart and I am spiritually gathered together to Christ.
What, then, was the basis for such subjective interpretations, i.e., the claims of those who, according to their own beliefs, said that the Last Day had already come? Since the Second Coming of Christ had not occurred in any tangible way as an objective fact, it seems likely that they were making this claim from some inner experience. The first half of verse 2 gives a clue to this. That is, there it says: “by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us.” The churches in New Testament times did not, of course, have a book called the New Testament as we have it today. Instead of sermons being preached in worship based on the New Testament, as is the case today, people who were directly inspired by God spoke of it in the form of revelations and tongues. This is illustrated when Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 14:26: “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.” So it would have been possible for someone claiming to have received revelation from God in worship to speak “by a spirit or a spoken word” as if “the day of the Lord has come.”
What does he mean by “a letter seeming to be from us”? Some think it could mean that a spurious letter was written in Paul’s name, but this would rather refer to Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. And some of those who claim that “the day of the Lord has come” may have cited certain passages in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians and used them as a basis for such a claim. In 5:1-10 of 1 Thessalonians, it is taught that the Last Day is imminent and that we should prepare for them. For example, in 5:2 of 1 Thessalonians, it is stated that “you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” It is likely that there have been people who have interpreted the imminence of the Day of the Lord in their own way, claiming that in fact the Day of the Lord has already come, although many people are unaware of it.
If there are those who say so, Paul asks “not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed.” The fact that he had to give this admonition probably means that there were in fact people who were “quickly shaken in mind or alarmed.” In 1 Thessalonians, we are told that the Christian life is a life of tension, looking forward to the Last Day, but faithfully keeping the post which we have been given in this life. However, if, as some misinterpreters claim, “the day of the Lord has come,” then the proper tension of the Christian life is lost and an unaccountable fervour of belief that they alone have already experienced the Last Day takes over. Paul must have seen the danger of such a fervent faith. When the right faith is perverted, it is not a teaching that brings salvation, but a teaching that brings destruction. Curiously, those who preach false teaching can appear from the outside to be filled with strong conviction and human charm. Therefore, Paul encourages believers to stand firm on the right teaching and not to be deceived.
As a final word, what may be deceptive to people today is the idea that there is no Last Day coming, as opposed to the idea in today’s Bible verses that the Last Day has already come. But the Bible teaches that the history of this world has a beginning and an end. The correct teaching of the Bible is that at the end of the history of the world, Christ will come again to make the Last Judgment and complete the history of salvation. Let us live our lives on earth with a sense of tension and hope, firmly believing in the Last Judgement, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting as stated in the Apostles’ Creed.