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Proper 27A 2nd Reading

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Ryan Hansen

Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian church is likely the earliest document in the New Testament canon. Written some 20 years after the death and resurrection of Christ, it comes to a people who do not have the resources of creedal traditions from which to form a foundation for their faith. Indeed, their correspondence with Paul is the beginning of the formation of the church’s tradition. Theology is still very much in process here. Thus, one of Paul’s main purposes in writing to this church is to fill in some gaps for them, connecting the theological dots, so to speak. It is not as if they haven’t heard of the resurrection of Christ or even their own participation in Christ’s victory, and certainly Paul has told them that Christ will return in final victory, but it seems likely that the Thessalonians don’t have a full grasp of how the whole picture fits together.

The Resurrection Age

It’s possible that the Thessalonians had a slightly skewed understanding of Paul’s bold, arresting declaration of the resurrection of Jesus and how that victory plays itself out in history and toward history’s end. Jesus death and resurrection had ushered in, according to Paul, in an initial way, a new age: the age of resurrection. Though the “present evil age” (Gal 1:4) had not come to an end completely (see 1 Cor 10:11), the way of resurrection was triumphant, and Christ’s victory was something in which his followers could participate in powerful ways. Perhaps the Thessalonians had heard this message from Paul and understood that they were now, in the present, living fully in the resurrection age (i.e., they had an overly realized eschatology). They may have understood their daily lives of faith, hope, and love (1 Thess 1:3) as sharing in the divine victory of Christ’s resurrection fully in the here and now.

Imagine the problems that might arise, then, when some of the congregation died (4:13). If the church was composed of those who were living in the resurrection age, what then would happen to those who had died before Christ comes in final victory? Would they be left out of the final consummation of Christ’s resurrection? Were only those who were left alive at Christ’s coming going to share in that victory? Paul writes to address this misunderstanding and to encourage the Thessalonians to continue in their lives of faithful discipleship to the resurrected one who will come to reign and rule.

The Return of the Triumphant King

To correct the Thessalonians view on how the resurrection of Jesus fits together with the destiny of those who have died and the vision of the end of all things, Paul employs some dynamic and dangerous political discourse (proclaiming a king other than Caesar was always risky). First, Paul uses the language of “parousia” (1 Thess 4:15: presence, coming, arrival), which carried, in Paul’s Greco-Roman context, connotations of the arrival or visitation of a king, politician, or even the Caesar himself.[1] Paul writes here not just of any arrival but the arrival of the “Lord” (Greek: kyrios), another term reserved in political discourse for the Roman emperor. Used together, these terms speak powerfully of a political event in the Greco-Roman world where a conquering king would arrive at a city, perhaps having just won a victory over an enemy of the empire. The arrival was a cause for great celebration and hope—the ruler’s presence would bestow great honor on the city and would signify safety and peace and a sharing in the victory. The parousia, therefore, is an event in which one can participate, something one can move toward and go into.[2] The next section of this reflection will explore more fully what that participation looks like.

The parousia is Christ’s way of finalizing the victory of resurrection. It is through the resurrected Christ’s activity at the parousia that God will gather (4:14 NRSV: “bring with”) those who have died. In fact, those who have died “in Christ” will be the first to move toward Christ’s coming. As they had shared in resurrection life in their lifetimes, so will they most fully experience Christ’s victory as they will rise first and will meet the parousia together with the living. Paul reassures the Thessalonians that those beloved members of their community who have died will not miss out on the age of resurrection, but will, in fact, be its first full participants (4:16).

The Welcoming Committee

According to Paul’s vision of the end, the parousia will be accompanied by several things. First, is the “cry of command” (4:16) which probably refers to the loud voice that calls the dead to awaken from their slumber (John 5:25-29; 11:25; Eph 5:14). Second, the Lord’s arrival will be heralded with the sounding of a trumpet and the archangel’s call. These sounds signal “the commencement of the Day of the Lord, where the King of the cosmos has arrived to lead the final battle, in which Death as the last enemy is completely destroyed and God becomes ‘all in all.’”[3]

Finally, and most fraught with baggage, is the two-step process of being “caught up” and “meeting in the air.” The word for “caught up” (1 Thess 4:17) is harpazo and is the verbal form of the word Paul uses in the Christ hymn of Philippians 2:6 “something to be exploited/plundered.” The word describes a sudden, violent snatching away and is the word dispensationalists use to speak of the rapture. However, “rapture theology” is a gross misreading of the thrust of this text. The word that follows is apantesis, another political term that describes not just any meeting, but the way a welcoming committee goes out to meet the ruler or victorious conqueror at his parousia (see Acts 28:15). Those who go out to meet the coming ruler, the welcoming committee, were tasked with beautifying the city and repairing roads as a way to celebrate the arrival and presence of such an honored guest. The welcoming committee would await the announcement of the king’s arrival and then go out to meet him and bring him in celebratory procession back into the city. Therefore, there is no sense from Paul’s text in which those who are “caught up” are taken away from the world (when visiting a city, Caesar did not bring the inhabitants of that city back with him to Rome). Rather, since this is the Lord’s final victory, he is finally coming to reign on earth as in heaven (the New Testament witness is remarkably consistent on this vision of the end of all things). Therefore, Paul is convinced that when the Lord arrives and the church as welcoming committee goes out to meet him, “we will be with the Lord forever” (1 Thess 4:17).

Far from a vision of escape from a world in decay, Paul gives the Thessalonians a vision of restoration and rescue of the world, which the church, as welcoming committee gets to participate in now and at the end. The church gets to be the community that prepares for the Lord’s arrival by beautifying the world: loving each other, living peaceably and quietly, working hard, and treating all people well (4:9-12). They also get to be the welcoming committee that rushes out to meet the Lord at his arrival and parade him back into the city with great celebration and honor and glory.

With this teaching, Paul frames the entire theological picture of Christ’s resurrection, the fate of those who have died in Christ, and Christ’s return. In the process, he has given a powerful vision of what those who are living in Christ are to be about in the meantime: preparing for the Lord’s arrival with acts of faith, hope, and love. Having seen the theological dots connected, the Thessalonians are to comfort one another (4:18); they free to grieve their dead brothers and sisters, but in a different way: not as those who have no hope, but as those who have the greatest hope of all (4:13).

[1] Paul uses “parousia” six times in the Thessalonian letters (1 Thess 2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23; 2 Thess 2:1, 8) and only once elsewhere (1 Cor 15:23).

[2] Andy Johnson, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, The Two Horizons New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 126.

[3] Johnson, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 129.

Ryan Hansen


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