The apostle Paul, writing about 51 AD to believing Christians in Thessalonica in the Roman province of Macedonia, expected with them, an imminent return of the Lord. Paul wrote they had turned from idols to serve the living God and to wait for his son from heaven (1 Thessalonians 1:10).
As we read this letter today, bear in mind we are reading mail written to believers living 2000 years ago. We must reject the temptation to think we are being addressed by Paul. This is not about us.
The Thessalonians were anticipating the most profound life-changing thing to occur within their lifetime: the Parousia of their saviour! Yet they were deeply troubled and Paul was addressing their concerns.
First, let us ask: Were they still waiting for Jesus to come when they all passed away 2000+ years ago?
Think: Jesus’ second coming was near for these believers, so it cannot be near for us. And if Jesus’ return is near for us today, was Paul in error? If they had the wrong expectations, why didn’t Paul correct them? Why didn’t he write ‘sorry, you’ve got it wrong, Jesus won’t be coming back for a long, long, time.’
Now let’s look at that 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 passage carefully in more detail.
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as the rest of mankind do, who have no hope.
Paul’s concern as he wrote to these troubled believers, who were worried that those Thessalonians who had died before the Lord’s coming were going to miss out. Their concern was not about the truth of resurrection, as it was when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians. For the Thessalonians the fact of the resurrection was not the issue.
14 for if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.
Paul reasoned: we believe Jesus died and rose, even so [Greek, kai houtos—likewise, it follows] God will bring with him’ those you are concerned for! Great news! Jesus’ resurrection guaranteed theirs also!
Isn’t this evidence that both Paul and his readers believed Jesus was coming soon, not aeons hence?
Some scholars think the bodily resurrection comes at the end of the Messianic age—still in the future.
But does that agree with Paul’s teaching? We ask, do all deceased believers now sleep for thousands of years before their resurrection? Are the Thessalonians and Paul still asleep in Jesus today? Let’s see.
Paul wrote some have fallen asleep in Jesus. Did God bring them ‘asleep’ i.e., with disembodied spirits with Jesus? Or had they been raised when the Lord descended from heaven as it plainly says in v16)?
Is there any hint this resurrection would not occur until 2000+ years hence, as some others claim? Would that idea really comfort his readers?
15 for this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord — shall not precede those who have fallen asleep.
Now Paul gave them more details. He said what he wrote about this came from Jesus. If Paul was mistaken, was Jesus also mistaken? No way! Recall that Jesus was ignorant of the day or hour of his coming (Mat 24:36), and so Paul could not be certain about it either.
Here we read of two distinct groups of long-ago saints at His coming: first, those ‘fallen asleep’ and second, those alive and who remain. Jesus had twice told His disciples that there will be some people hearing His words who will remain alive at His coming (see Mat 16:27,28 and 24:34,42,44).
Paul has now said enough to reassure his readers. But surprisingly, he continues with such extraordinary, strange remarks and making verse 17 perhaps the most puzzling in the NT:
16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ shall rise first.
Paul expects Jesus will descend from heaven; not to Earth, not to Jerusalem. The text in v17 mentions clouds and air for the meeting site, not Earth.
Paul tells them the ‘dead in Christ’ will rise first. They will not miss out on their experience of the Parousia. Is this not their resurrection from the dead—not a spiritual rising. They are raised first, before those who remain alive. Those who remain will also experience resurrection. There are no time limits given. Nobody in Christ will miss out! (Are we today not in a somewhat similar state as those remainers?)
Some writers (For example author, Mike Rogers, www.mikerogersad70.com) think the resurrection comes at the end of time at a single point-in-time event in the future. But this does not follow from the text.
Paul later explained to the Corinthians “Christ has been raised from the dead the first fruits of those who are asleep . . . so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming. (1 Cor:21-27.)
The phrase each in his own order implies, not a mass collection of millions together, but one at a time—’each’ not ‘together’; ‘his’ not ‘they’. As Isaiah 27:12-13 prophesied, On that Day the Lord will thresh from the flowing stream of the Euphrates River to the brook of Egypt, and you will be gathered up one by one, you sons of Israel. It will come about also on that day that a great trumpet will be blown, and those who were perishing in the land of Assyria and who were scattered in the land of Egypt will come and worship the Lord on the holy mountain in Jerusalem. And Moses declared If any of your scattered countrymen are at the ends of the earth, from there the Lord your God will gather you (Deut 30:4).
We can see Paul expected the Parousia soon, as did all the apostolic writers, but they said nothing about any post-Parousiabelievers like us, far in the future. Did they assume there would be no future?
Paul wrote ‘The last enemy that will be abolished is death’ (1 Cor 15:26). And Jesus did so—see Rev 20:14, Heb 2:14, 2 Tim 1:10. We all die one at a time (Heb 9:27) and when each dies, is not death abolished, one at a time? That’s what has been declared at funeral services for centuries.
Like Paul, I know that if my earthly tent is torn down, I have a building from God . . . That’s reassuring indeed! He goes on, For indeed, in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven, since in fact after putting it on, we will not be found naked. For indeed, we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed but to be clothed, so that what is mortal will be swallowed up by life. (2 Cor 5:1-4). Can we gauge what joyous state Paul expected from this and other passages e.g., Phil 1:21-24? Seems like he couldn’t wait to be so clothed when he wrote that!
I can’t imagine Paul still ‘unclothed’, as a disembodied spirit. Can you?
Paul goes on with some puzzling details, but not about the nature of resurrection . . .
17 Then we who are alive, who remain, 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.
Note the adverb of sequencing, then. The original word is epeita meaning thereupon, thereafter, afterward (Strongs G1899). So this catching up was not simultaneous with the coming of Jesus with the risen saints. This leaves open the possibility those ‘remaining could be ‘caught up’ at any time.
Paul here used the 3rd person, we who remain, not ‘you’. Did Paul think he might be included among those remaining? Recall that both Paul and his readers expected a soon return of Jesus (see 1:10, 3:13). We know Paul was executed around 66/67 AD. Has Paul been raised or is he still ‘fallen asleep’, waiting for a ‘general resurrection’ at the end of time as some teach? I think not.
To the Philippians Paul confidently and eagerly wrote our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body (Phil 3:20f).
We may wish Paul had said more. What happens to unbelievers? Or believers who will remain alive?
Reflect that the apostle John died an old man sometime after AD 98 in Asia Minor and Thomas died in AD 72 in India, both still alive and remaining on Earth after the time when all these things take place as Jesus declared to His disciples on the Mt of Olives recorded in Matthew 24, verse 34.
Many more questions arise. Could Paul have been among the countless numbers brought with Jesus, all having died before the Lord’s coming—as he had—and already risen? If those who remain are caught up together with them, do they come together all risen and meet the Lord in the sky? Does this include the untold numbers of saints from the earliest of times? Fantastic, mysterious language!
Why did Paul, writing to the Corinthians 5 years later about the resurrection (1 Cor 15) not even hint there, or anywhere else in the New Testament, of such phenomena as we read in this letter?
Is there some other explanation of how they meet up with the risen believers in the air? Do you think all the remaining saints really took off, leaving behind their corruptible bodies, rising into the clouds and meet the Lord there with those who died in Jesus? Taking it literally raises many difficult questions.
Think about Paul’s use of that word ‘caught up’ (Greek hapazo, to seize, carry off by force)here: he was caught up into paradise (2 Cor 12:22f). Let’s consider how can all believers have already come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem (Hebrews 12:22-24)—just how have they come? What about John’s being ‘in the Spirit’ and being ‘called up here’ (Rev 1:10, 4:1)? And how Phillip could be suddenly ‘snatched away’ and was found at Azotus (Acts 8:39-40).
Are these not examples of ‘rapture’ without anyone leaving the Earth?
Paul was not that concerned with detailing the method of the Parousia—that was secondary. Comforting his readers’ fears was his objective. Paul was not writing a systematic theology for people living 2000 years in the future! Rather he writes to assure them that nothing can separate them from Christ (Rom 8:38).
Verses 16 and 17 contain highly symbolic, apocalyptic language like we find in Matthew 24:29-30 and in Revelation–angels, trumpets and the like.
Let’s try taking this not literally, but figuratively.
First, the remaining—including you and I today—are, and can be ‘caught up’, with those gone before, just like Paul was caught up into the third heaven (2 Cor 12:22ff). Was Paul here applying his experience to the Thessalonians as additional comfort?
And where? Well, not up into the air where the birds fly—Paul would have used a different Greek word, oranos. No. Here Paul used the Greek, aer, not oranos (see Strongs). This aer is the air we all breathe, as God designed, spontaneously, the foundation of all life (Gen 2:7; 7:2,15), a ‘spiritual’ air, and a realm inhabited by spiritual beings (Eph 2:20), as Greek speakers in Paul’s day would have understood. In Greek mythology, aer was the god of the lower atmosphere in charge of the air breathed. (For more uses of the word aer see 1 Cor 9:2, 14:9; Eph 2:20; Rev 9:2, 16:17.)
In that space, we who believe remain forever with the Lord. Whether we live or die (Romans 14:8) we remain in a mystical union with Jesus that begins by faith and is with us for and into eternity. As William Neil wrote in his 1950 commentary of Thessalonians, being a part of that Body of which Christ is the Head. Jesus taught we already experience eternal life when we believe. And He said Truly, truly, I say to you, a time is coming and even now has arrived, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in Himself, so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself . . (John 5:19-30)
18 so, then, comfort one another with these words.
Would they have been comforted and encouraged if this was not going to happen in their lifetime? No.
If Jesus’ coming was near for them, as Paul wrote around 55 AD, and both they and their dead loved ones were raised and live eternally with Jesus, then the Parousia cannot be near for us today. If this happened to them as described and within their lifetime, then it is impossible for this be near for us.
Because we today look confidently to Jesus to raise each of us incorruptible in the future (though we cannot say when) we can conclude that Paul was writing figuratively in his earnest desire to comfort the distressed Thessalonians.
So we can take this figuratively and not literally. As I said, five years on when he wrote to the Corinthians, that mysterious language was absent. There he simply declared ‘I tell you a mystery’. Mystery!
When Paul writes to them by the word of the Lord (v.15), then we must take that literally: that we who are alive and remain . . . shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. But in verses 16 and 17 it seems he was “prophesying in part, seeing dimly as by a mirror (NASB margin in a riddle)”? Mystery!
I don’t believe that Paul taught that the Thessalonians were to be literally ‘caught up into clouds’. When I consider that Paul’s use elsewhere of his being ‘caught up’ and how other apostolic writers wrote of various ecstatic experiences, and his use of the Greek word, aer, helps me to make sense of this passage.
If the Parousia is coming near for us today, as many teach, the Thessalonians all died without the comfort Paul was assuring them. So God did not come down from heaven and they were not ‘caught up’ then.
According to many Christian friends, this event is all in the future and it’s going to happen ‘soon’, 2000+ years after Paul wrote this letter? Has the meaning of the word ‘soon’ been changed to mean ‘sometime’?
Paul did not teach that the resurrection comes at the end of time as a single point-in-time event in the future. From what he wrote then, I can’t imagine Paul still now, ‘unclothed’—a disembodied spirit.
Paul concluded “so we will always be with the Lord”. Praise God! We can be encouraged as well—so shall we be also always with the Lord—nothing can separate us from the love of Christ (Romans 8:38). That’s something so clear and concrete that all His brothers and sisters can be in agreement as one.
What do you think? I am eager to hear your comments, both positive or critical.