The thought of running a race to win the crown is discouraging to some. One of the most faithful congregations in the New Testament were commanded to “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). These Phillipians had been delivered from the power of darkness (Col 1:13) and from their past sins (Ac 22:16), but they were still given this command. If they already had the guarantee of their salvation, why would the Lord have told them to work it out with fear and trembling? The Lord commanded the early Christians to “…pass the time of your sojourning here in fear” (1 Pe 1:17). Pressing toward the mark requires a strong motive. In this case, our Lord provides fear. Did Paul not have that mind of fear? He said: “But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be acastaway” (1 Cor 9:27). But what if we die before we reach the goal? The Thessalonians no doubt wondered the same thing. The Lord wrote through Paul to allay their doubts.
But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words. (1Thes 4:13-18)
The Lord describes his children as being “in Christ,” while all those who are lost are “without Christ.” Those outside of Christ are “. . . aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12). However, all those who are in Christ have hope (Eph 2:13). The Thessalonians were apparently sorrowing as those who had no hope. They were not to sorrow like that. The Thessalonians were in Christ. They had hope. It is unlikely that these brethren had finished the race. They had been converted on Paul’s second missionary journey only three years or less before. They still had hope. It took Paul about 30 years after his conversion to state that he had finished the course. About six years before Paul died he said:
If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead. Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. (Phil 3:11-14)
Paul nor the Philippians had finished the race when he wrote this letter, but in the same letter he was confident that “…the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:7). He fully trusted God to watch over him as he ran. The Corinthians were converted a few months or even weeks after the Thessalonians on the same journey. They had not finished the race and told to run to win (1 Cor 9:24-26). Peter wrote to brethren who were still babes (1 Pe 2:2) but he told them: “Wherefore let them that suffer according to the will of God commit the keeping of their souls to him in well doing, as unto a faithful Creator” (1 Pet 4:19). The Thessalonians who had died had hope even though they had not finished the race.
Why was the one talent man an unfaithful steward? “Then he which had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed: And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine” (Mt 25:24,25). He feared that he would not be able to fulfill his master’s command and so he refused to try. He went and hid his talent. How are we different if we fear that we will not finish the race and so refuse to obey the command of God to run? We must be found running faithfully when we die, even if we are taken out of the race before we finish it. To those running the race faithfully, he says: “. . . sorrow not, even as others which have no hope there is no need to sorrow as those who have no hope (1 Thes 4:13). (If we refuse to run according to the command of God, we need to sorrow like the others in the world who refuse to obey him.) He says “Wherefore let them that suffer according to the will of God commit the keeping of their souls to him in well doing, as unto a faithful Creator” (1 Pe 4:19). He says “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee” (He 13:5) as long as we do not deny him (2 Tim 2:12). He says “See that ye refuse not him that speaketh. For if they escaped not who refused him that spake on earth, much more shall not we escape, if we turn away from him that speaketh from heaven:” (Heb 12:25). Those who claim that the race is mere figurative language with no real race to run, ignore the fact that God has commanded us to run the race he has set before us (He 12:1-3). There is no difference between running the race with patience and running in Jesus’ steps. “For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps” (1Pe 2:21). He ran that race ahead of us (Heb 12:2). We can not be faithful to God and reject his command to run the race because of our unbelief, doubts and fears.
Some claim that hope and promise are the same thing. Thus, if they had hope of eternal life, they had the promise of eternal life. This definition is false. We all know that we must endure to the end to be saved (Mt 10;22, Jas 1:12). Laodicea had the same promises and hope that we have, but they did not endure to the end and were going to be spewed out of Jesus’ mouth. He wants us to abound in hope (Ro 15:13), which tells us that there are degrees of hope just as there are degrees of love.