He’s Coming Back -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 23A (1 Thessalonians 4)
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 New Revised Standard Version
13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 15 For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16 For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Down through the years, debates have raged over when or if Jesus will return to gather up the saints. Among the questions asked is whether Jesus will return before or after the millennium (Rev. 20:4-5). There is a third position on this question, in case you’re wondering. Amillennialists avoid the question of a millennium, treating it simply as a metaphor for the church age. Beyond the question of a millennium, there is the question of the timing of the tribulation. Are you pre? Mid? Or Post? There is a multitude of books that will explain how all of this works if you are interested. Truth be told lots of people are interested.
As a high schooler, I got extremely interested in these speculations. So, I read Hal Lindsey and other prognosticators who were sure that we were living in the Last Days. I was led to believe that Jesus would return around 1988 (a generation after the founding of the state of Israel, according to Lindsey). I also learned that those bar codes that allow us to scan our goods at the grocery store were the mark of the beast, and that before long they would be imprinted on our foreheads and our hands (and you wonder how conspiracy theories find a ready audience among Christians?). Then there is the rapture, an idea that seems to have its roots here in 1 Thessalonians 4. Many attempts have been made to visualize this event. So, as Christians are caught up in the clouds, cars careen off the road and planes fall from the sky because the drivers or pilots have suddenly disappeared.
So, are you ready to dive into this passage? Or, like many progressive/liberal Protestants would you rather avoid the passage and others like it as if it were the plague? I understand the sentiment. Talk of Armageddon and the like is often troubling, as is the glee with which tales are told of how people are going to die horrific deaths after the Christians are rescued. However, avoiding passages that have been used to support ideas like this might not be wise. That’s because the kind of images that many find present in texts like this have a certain hold on many people. Since there are numerous apocalyptic passages in Scripture they can’t be avoided and beg for interpretation.
In the passage before us, Paul and his companions, offer a word of encouragement to a group of believers who are concerned about where they stand with God. More specifically, in light of certain expectations—that Jesus was going to return in the near future—they were concerned about those who had died in the interim. What is their fate? What does Jesus plan for them? Paul offers this brief word in the closing verses of chapter four of his letter to set their minds and hearts at ease. He tells them that he doesn’t want them to be uninformed, so he will give them some more details as to what the future might entail. Remember that this letter comes very early in the life cycle of the Christian community. The movement is a little more than fifteen to twenty years old. Apparently, they didn’t think that they would be long for this world. That can put people on edge. While it can motivate action it can also hinder it.
Paul answers the question of the fate of those who have died by letting the Thessalonians know that they need not grieve as if there is no hope. It’s not they shouldn’t grieve their loss, but the nature of their grief should be different from those who live without hope of the resurrection. That is because they could hold on to Jesus' own death and resurrection. So, don’t worry, God will bring the dead with Jesus. Thus, they can take solace in the hope of Jesus’ triumphant return. This was not a vision shared by all, as seen in the words of people such as Plutarch and Seneca, who essentially encouraged those who grieved to face their mortality with a stiff upper lip. Not so with Paul. [Beverly Gaventa, First and Second Thessalonians, p. 63]. For him, the promise of the resurrection offers a very different sense of things. As Beverly Gaventa writes: “Jesus’ resurrection is not an isolated event, a single rabbit God pulls out of the hat to demonstrate that Jesus is in fact the Christ. The resurrection is directly connected to God’s final triumph and with the lives of all human beings” [First and Second Thessalonians, p. 64].
To clarify things further, Paul speaks of timing. First, the dead will rise, and then the living, not the other way around. Using very apocalyptic language, Paul writes that the Lord will issue the command and then with the archangel’s call and God’s trumpet sounding, Jesus will descend from heaven and meet the dead in Christ who rise first. The descent from heaven and the sounding of the trumpet are common visions found in apocalyptic texts. When we hear about a trumpet here, think of royal trumpeters letting the people know that the monarch is arriving. As for the references to angels and in this case archangels, these are common in apocalyptic texts (see Daniel and Revelation). Though, in this case, Paul doesn’t identify the archangel.
Unless you are used to being with people who embrace apocalyptic visions, this language might be unfamiliar and even bewildering. While this isn’t true for me due to my own experiences in contexts where this kind of language was common, I can understand how bewildering this might be to some who don’t have my background. It all might seem like watching a TV show like Grimm.
As for the living in the Thessalonian church and beyond, at the time of the “coming of the Lord” (Parousia) they will be caught up in the air so they too might be with Jesus forever. This is where the idea of the rapture idea comes into play. The word itself is not present in scripture but the idea surely is. Modern speculation might be somewhat off-center, but you can understand where it comes from. In fact, in the subsequent chapter, things get a bit more specific. Though at the same time Paul warns against getting caught up in trying to figure out when and where this will take place. Know that his return will be similar to the coming of a thief in the night—unexpectedly! (1 Thess. 5:1-2).
A text like this may seem strange to many in the church. We don’t have the same sense of expectation that the second coming, the Parousia, is close at hand. We’re too far out from these early moments. It’s not that there is no expectation, we’re just not quite as on edge as these believers were. At the same time, it’s understandable that a community under duress, which appears to be true for them, would find a certain comfort in the expectation that Jesus would return in their lifetimes to set things right. Nevertheless, the text does offer a reminder of the strong eschatological dimension to the Christian faith. There is an expectation that is rooted in the message of Jesus and Paul that a day of judgment, a final accounting, will take place. We might not know the times and seasons (1 Thess. 5:1) with any precision, but that’s the expectation. While we’re still a few weeks out from Advent, that is one of the elements of the season. We don’t just observe Advent as preparation for the coming of the baby Jesus. Advent speaks also, and very profoundly, of that second coming spoken of here.
Perhaps the word we can take from this passage is that death will not have the last word. Whether living or dead at the coming of Christ in triumph, we will experience resurrection. This is a promise to take hold of, not as an escape from reality, but as empowerment to live boldly (though Paul would have us live rather quiet lives, living holy lives and behave properly to those outside the community of faith—1 Thess. 4:11-12). As Paul notes in verse 18, let us encourage each other with these words of hope in the resurrection.