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23 August 2019

Sorrow Not – Resurrection Hope in Thessalonica

SynopsisThe hope of the church is not its physical transportation off the Planet Earth but the bodily resurrection of believes when Jesus arrives from heaven.

Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash
By frank mckenna on Unsplash
The Apostle Paul’s famous description of the “coming” of Jesus in 1 Thessalonians was intended to comfort living Christians about the fate of believers who died before the “arrival” of Jesus from heaven. Saints need not sorrow BECAUSE dead Christians will be raised from the dead at the very moment Jesus arrives from heaven; thereafter, both living and resurrected believers will meet him as he descends to the earth. The Apostle’s answer to Christian sorrow is the bodily resurrection (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).

In the opening section of this letter, Paul praises the church for its excellent example of faith for other churches in the region. The Thessalonians had “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus, who is delivering us from the coming wrath.” The Apostle links Christ’s present exalted status to his past resurrection, a feature prominent in Paul’s gospel (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).

In Chapter 4, Paul deals with questions about the status of believers who die before the “arrival” or Parousia of Jesus. Apparently, some were sorrowing over the deaths of other believers and concerned that Christians who die before the Parousia would miss out on the blessings of that day. Precisely how they came to this conclusion or how they conceived some would lose out, is not addressed.

Paul reassures them; not only will dead believers participate fully on that day, but they will also rise from the dead “first” to be reunited with believers still alive, then together all will ascend to meet Jesus in the “air” as he descends to the earth. In this way, they will be together with him forevermore. The Thessalonians are to comfort one another with these words (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).

What Paul links to the coming of Jesus is not the transportation of Christians off the planet, but their bodily resurrection. Precisely where they go after meeting Jesus “in the air” is not stated, whether they accompany him to the earth as he continues his descent, or he returns to heaven with his newly raised saints. In the preceding chapter, Paul described how at his Parousia Jesus would come with all his saints, so the first option is the more likely one.

Note well how Paul uses the metaphor of “sleep” for death, a common one in that society, as it is today. He will speak of “sleep” again in the next chapter.
Paul bases the resurrection of Christians on the past raising of Jesus from the dead (“if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, them also that are fallen asleep in Jesus will God bring with him”). Paul acknowledges that some Christians will be alive on the earth on that day. 

Paul continues in Chapter 5. The Thessalonians are not in darkness so that day should not “overtake you as a thief.” This is not because they know all the appropriate “signs” and chronologies of the “last days,” but because “you are all sons of light, and sons of the day”; that is, they live in the light of the gospel and no longer in the darkness of sin. Believers prepare for the end by “putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for a helmet, the hope of salvation.”

God did not appoint Christians to wrath; Jesus is delivering them even now from the coming “wrath.” Instead, the saints have been appointed to the “obtaining of salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him.” Implicit in these statements is that salvation and deliverance are obtained through the resurrection, which occurs at Christ’s Parousia.

Paul concludes by encouraging the Thessalonians that God will sanctify them wholly: “May your spirit and soul and body be preserved entire, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is he that calleth you, who will also do it.”

Paul’s point is not to disclose his doctrine about the tripartite nature of man, but to stress that the whole person will be saved on the day Jesus arrives in glory, including the physical body. Becoming disembodied spirits or souls is not part of the Apostle’s conception.

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