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23 March 2019

The Parousia in First Thessalonians


Resurrection
A key passage in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians has become the main proof text for the doctrine of the “rapture,” the belief that near the end of the age Jesus “raptures” his church from the earth to heaven (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). Allegedly, Paul first revealed this “mystery” in this epistle.
This interpretation ignores the literary context and its immediate concern (“What happens to believers that die before the parousia?”). The solution Paul proposed was the resurrection of dead believers and their reunification with living saints, not their removal from the planet.
Further, the passage never states whether Jesus returns to heaven accompanied by the saints or continues his descent to the earth. Finally, this understanding stands in tension with Paul’s other statements about the parousia or “arrival” of Jesus.
(1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) - “But we do not wish you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are falling asleep lest ye be sorrowing, even as the rest also, who are without hope; for if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so also will God bring with him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus. For this we say to you by a word of the Lord, that we the living who are left unto the arrival of the Lord will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep, because the Lord himself, with a word of command, with an archangel’s voice, and with a trumpet of God, will descend from heaven and the dead in Christ will rise first, after that we, the living who are left, together with them will be caught away in clouds to meet the Lord in the air: and in this manner we will evermore be with the Lord. So then be consoling one another with these words.”
In verses 1-12, Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to walk in holiness, to abstain from sexual immorality, to refrain from transgressing against fellow believers, to continue in love, and to attend to their own business. In such ways, they will become proper witnesses of the gospel to the outside community and thereby “please God.”
Paul’s purpose in verses 13-18 is to reassure the Thessalonians that believers who die prior to the “arrival” of Jesus will fully participate in said event. Dead and living Christians will be reunited with Jesus he descends from heaven at a meeting “in the air.” From that point, believers will be “together with the Lord forevermore.” Paul’s words are meant to comfort the Thessalonians.
Threaded throughout the chapter is the theme of attaining holiness before God, especially in light of the parousia of Jesus.  This is achieved by proper conduct, exercising love and remaining faithful through tribulations. 
This paragraph begins with the clause, “now…concerning” (deperi), a phrase Paul uses elsewhere to introduce new subjects (cp1 Thessalonians 4;9; 5;1; 1 Corinthians 7;1; 7;25; 8;1; 12;1; 16;1).  He does not wish his readers “to be ignorant” of the topic about to be discussed (cpRomans 1:13; 1 Corinthians 10:1; 12:1; 2 Corinthians 1:8).
The Thessalonians are ignorant about the coming of Jesus but about the relationship of dead Christians to that event.  This is made clear by his statements: “…we would not have you ignorant… concerning those who are asleep: that you may not grieve…God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep… we who are alive: who are left until the coming of the Lord: will not precede those who have fallen asleep… the dead in Christ will rise first… then we who are alive…will be caught up together with them… to meet the Lord…in this manner we will evermore be with the Lord… comfort one another with these words.” Will believers who die before the parousia participate in it?  How this question came about is not stated. 
The issue is not theological but functional or pastoral. Paul addresses a real concern that could impact the entire community of believers. An incorrect understanding of the issue could turn Christian grief into hopelessness (“that you may not grieve even as the rest who have no hope”). Paul’s purpose is to reassure and comfort (“comfort one another with these words”).
Paul does not criticize the Thessalonians for their grief; Christians experience grief when loved ones die but they are not without hope.  But he does not want them to grieve as those outside the church that have no hope because they do not possess the knowledge that God will resurrect the righteous dead. 
The Thessalonians were concerned that fellow believers who die prior to the parousia might not experience the resurrection at the same time or in the same manner as Christians who are still alive on that day. Paul’s answer was that just as God raised Jesus from the dead, “so also God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus.”
At the outset, Paul grounds the resurrection hope in the past death and resurrection of Jesus. As elsewhere, Christ’s resurrection is presented as the guarantee of the future resurrection of believers (cp. John 14:19: Acts 26:23: Romans 8:11: 1 Corinthians 15:20-23: Colossians 1:18: Revelation 1:5).
Participation is not based on whether one is dead or alive, but on faith in what God has already accomplished (“for if we believe that Jesus has died and rose again…”). What counts is faith either at the time of death or the moment of Christ’s arrival.  This is demonstrated in the phrase, “God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus,” which indicates that believers in the right relationship with Jesus at the time of their death will be resurrected (cp. “those who have fallen asleep in Christ”; 1 Corinthians 15:18). 
Paul refers to a “word of the Lord” to authenticate this hope.  He does not state whether this “word” is a pre- or post-resurrection saying of Jesus.  Elsewhere, Paul demonstrates his familiarity with many of Christ’s sayings (cp. 1 Corinthians 7:10-129:14 with Matthew 5:32; 10:10; 19:6-9; Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18).
The picture of the parousia in Thessalonians draws on sayings recorded in Christ’s so-called ‘Olivet Discourse.’ Paul describes how Jesus will “descend from heaven” accompanied by an “archangel”; a trumpet sounds and believers are gathered to him “in the clouds” (cpMatthew 24:30-31, “the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven and he will come on the clouds…he will send out his angels to gather his elect…a loud trumpet.”
Another verbal parallel is found in the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13).  The bridesmaids fall asleep while waiting for the bridegroom. They are awakened by “a shout” and command to go out “to meet” the bridegroom as he arrives.  They “rose” and “went with him” into the wedding feast. Likewise in Thessalonians, the issue is the participation of believers that “have fallen asleep.”
When Jesus arrives he will be accompanied by “shout” and the voice of the archangel.  Then the dead, those who have fallen asleep, “rise” first and are caught up with living saints “to meet the Lord and to be with him forever.”
The Greek noun rendered “meet” in 1 Thessalonians 4:16 (apantêsis) is the same one used in Matthew 25:6. The only other New Testament verse where it occurs is Acts 28:15. The bridesmaids do not die but “fall asleep.” But this occurs over time because the bridegroom tarries. Likewise, in Thessalonica, some “fell asleep” or died over the passage of time while waiting for the parousia. Paul’s “word of the Lord,” therefore, most likely refers to sayings of the historical Jesus.
Sleep was a common euphemism for death in Greco-Roman society and Paul uses it to depict the state of dead Christians. His language is metaphorical, not literal. One should not press the image of sleep to determine whether the dead are at present conscious or unconscious. That issue is not under discussion in the passage.
Paul is more explicit when he refers to those asleep as “the dead in Christ.” He uses the Greek adjective nekroi, which refers not to the abstract state of death but to dead persons. This reference to dead saints indicates they have yet to receive full salvation; dead believers and those still alive are waiting to be resurrected and united with Jesus, thus their salvation remains incomplete.  
If the Thessalonians believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, so also “God will bring those who fell asleep through Jesus with him.”  The phrase is like Paul’s usage in 1 Corinthians 15:18, “those who fell asleep in Christ”).  Most likely this means Christians who die while in a proper relationship to Jesus; “him” refers to Jesus. This is comparable to verse 17, “in this manner we will be evermore with the Lord.”
Paul states that “we, the living, who remain to the coming of the Lord.”  This demonstrates that Christians remain alive on the earth at the time of the parousia (cp1 Corinthians 15:51-52: “we will not all sleep: but we will all be changed: and the dead will be raised imperishable: and we will be changed”).
The Greek noun for “coming” is parousia, which means “arrival, coming, presence.”  Its most frequent use in the New Testament is the sense of “arrival.” Thus, in 1 Corinthians 16:17 Paul rejoices at the “arrival of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus.”  In 2 Corinthians 7:6 Paul was “comforted by the arrival of Titus.”
In his letters to the Thessalonians Paul applies parousia in all but one instance to the coming of Jesus (1 Thessalonians 2:193:13: 4:15: 5:23: 2 Thessalonians 2:1: 2:8). Once he refers to a coming of the “man of lawlessness” (2 Thessalonians 2:9).  He uses parousia for the coming of Jesus only once outside of Thessalonians (1 Corinthians 15:23).
Elsewhere, he uses different Greek terms for Christ’s “coming” (e.g., Titus 2:13 [“appearing”]). Parousia is used for the coming of Jesus also in Matthew 24:324:2724:37-39James 5:82 Peter 1:163:4, and 1 John 2:28).
Since Paul consistently applies parousia to Christ’s coming in this letter, it is more than probable that each time he refers to the same event.  If so, then associated with it are the sanctification of the saints before God (3:13: 5:23), the resurrection of dead saints (4:13-16), the arrival of Jesus “from heaven,” the sound of a trumpet, the voice of an archangel, the gathering of both resurrected and live saints, (4:16-17: 5:1-2), the “meeting” with the Lord on clouds in the air, the destruction of the man of lawlessness (2 Thessalonians 2:1-9), and the “Day of the Lord.”
The Apostle uses a double negative for emphasis: “no not”. Those still alive will “certainly not” precede the dead in Christ.  The emphasis serves to reassure the Thessalonians regarding their dead compatriots; they will be raised “first” before the transformation of saints still alive at that time.
Verse 16 uses an intensive pronoun, autos; “the Lord himself will descend from heaven.” This is to emphasize that Jesus will arrive in-person to reunite living and dead saints. This is another small touch by Paul to reassure Christians regarding their dead fellow believers.
The dead in Christ will rise first.”  This is the key “new” piece of information that Paul now introduces.  Paul taught this previously, but what he now divulges is that the dead rise first, even before those who remain alive. This new information serves to comfort the Thessalonians concerning the fate of their dead brothers and sisters.
Paul describes three audible features of the parousia: a shout, the voice of an archangel, and the trumpet of God.  The audible aspects indicate this will be a public, not a secret event.  Verse 16 does not state to whom the shout is directed. One possibility is that it is Jesus’ call to the dead to rise from their graves.  This idea is found also in John 5:25 (“an hour is coming and now is: when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God: and those who hear will live”). 
“Archangel” does not have a definite article or “the”; Paul does not identify a specific archangel.  The emphasis is on this archangel’s “voice.”
The reference to the “trumpet of God” is similar to other scriptures that associate trumpet blasts with the “Day of the Lord” (cpIsaiah 27:13: Joel 2:11: Zechariah 9:14: 1 Corinthians 15:52). 
The Greek word rendered “meet” is apantêsis, a noun found only here, Matthew 25:6 and Acts 28:15. It means a “meeting” and with the preposition eis, as here, it has the sense, “we will be caught away on clouds for a meeting of the Lord in the air.”
In Greek-speaking communities parousia was used to refer to the “arrival” of royal dignitaries to a city or province. When an exalted personage approached a city, its leading citizens went out of the city walls to “meet” him with pomp and ceremony, after which they escorted him back into the city. For such “meetings” the Greek term apantêsis was used, the same word employed for believers “meeting the Lord in the air.”
In cities of the Roman Empire, it was illegal to bury the dead within city walls.  The roads approaching a city were lined with graves, sometimes for miles.  If Paul is using apantêsis and parousia with this imagery in mind, the picture he draws becomes clear. The righteous dead are raised first, then together with those still alive, they are “caught up” to meet the Lord as he approaches to then accompany him as he descends to the earth.
Verse 17 refers to believers “caught up” to the clouds.  This rendering can be misleading. The Greek verb harpazō means “to snatch: to seize.” By itself it contains no information regarding direction; no “up” (cpMatthew 11:12: 12:29: 13:19: John 6:15: 10:12: 10:28-29: Acts 8:39: 23:10: 2 Corinthians 12:2: 12:4: Jude 1:23: Revelation 12:5).
Clouds are associated elsewhere with the return of the Son of Man in glory at the end of the age (Matthew 26:64; Mark 14:62; Acts 1:9-11; Revelation 1:7).
After the meeting with the Lord “in the air,” believers will be with him “always” or pantote. The term means “always,” “evermore,” “at all times.”  The point is after this meeting believers will be with Jesus forevermore.  Precisely where this occurs is not provided. Some argue that Jesus at this point returns with his saints to heaven, but this is an assumption.  It is just as likely the saints accompany Jesus as he continues his descent to the earth.
The Thessalonians are to “comfort one another with these words.” Thus concludes this section of the letter.  This passage is intended to comfort those grieving over the deaths of fellow believers. Christians who die before the coming of Jesus will not be deprived.
Old Testament Allusions
The Lord will descend “from heaven with a shout: with the archangel's call: and with the sound of a trumpet of God.” This alludes to Psalm 47:5, “God has ascended with a shout: the LORD with the sound of a trumpet.”  This echo is fitting since it is a celebration of God’s rule over the nations.  Yahweh was declared king over all the earth and all nations were subjugated under His feet. 
The clause, “caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord,” alludes to Daniel 7:13 (“and behold: with the clouds of heaven one like a son of man was coming”).  In Daniel’s vision, all kingdoms come under the rule of the Son of Man and his saints.  This dominion takes place on the earth.  The reference to clouds also recalls other divine theophanies found in scripture (Exodus 19:16: 24:15-18: 40:34: 1 Kings 8:10-11: Psalm 97:2: Mark 13:26: 14:62).
Summary
The doctrine of the “rapture” is found in this verse only by reading it into it, whether the pre-, mid- or post-tribulation version. Nowhere does the passage state that believers are removed from the earth to heaven; the issue of how and where this event fits with the Tribulation is never raised. Such questions are not addressed.
Paul's focus is on reassuring the Thessalonians regarding the full participation of saints who die beforehand in the events of that day. Dead believers will be resurrected and reunited with ones still alive, then together they will meet Jesus as he descends from heaven and, thus, be in his presence forevermore.

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