Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
We all long to hear a good word: a word that brings good news, a word that can sustain us, a word that can give us the vision and courage to make it through another day, a word that tells us God is with us.
Precisely what that ‘good word’ is, what it says, will vary from context to context.
A person who is drowning doesn’t want to hear about food any more than a person who is starving wants to be thrown a life preserver. We each long to hear a word that speaks to where we are, in our own particular place and time.
A good word for the Thessalonians
Whatever Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy proclaimed while they were with the Thessalonians, it appears to have left the Thessalonians with the impression that the moment when Christ would return to usher in the reign of God was imminent. And then a problem arose: some of the Thessalonians died. This left them with a perplexing problem. What would happen to those who had died? Would they be excluded from participation in the new creation?
This likely left the Thessalonians with concern not only for those who had died, but for those who were still alive: what if they, too, should die before the coming of Christ? Would they also be excluded, and, if so, what hope did this offer them in the present?
That this issue is primarily a matter of hope is signaled by the occurrence of the language of hope within the letter. In the opening prayer of thanksgiving, the Thessalonians are praised for their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:3). When Timothy returns from his visit with the Thessalonians, however, he brings news only of their faith and love; no mention is made of their hope (3:6). Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy therefore write to clarify matters, so that the Thessalonians may not grieve as those do who have no hope (4:13).
A good word?
What they describe in 4:13-18 presumably instilled new hope in the Thessalonians. For us, however, it may simply sound strange. What are we to make of this apocalyptic scenario in which Christ descends from the clouds with a cry of command, and the sound of a trumpet, and lifts the faithful up into heaven? Are we required to take this at face value as a description of what is to come?
It may be helpful to recognize in this language a challenge to imperial Rome. Christ is described arriving with precisely the same pageantry and fanfare that would announce the arrival of an imperial messenger or even the emperor himself, an event that was often accompanied by a declaration of euangelion: i.e., “good news” The reference to “peace and security” in 5:3 further underscores the imperial context: the reign of Augustus is said to have established the ‘pax Romana’ (the peace of Rome). Reflecting this, Roman coins bore the inscription ‘peace and security’.
The description of the coming of Christ, then, is perhaps intended less as a literal description than as one intended to assure the Thessalonians that the promises of God were backed up by a power even greater than that of Rome. Further, that true peace and security (and hope) are found in God, not in Rome which effected peace and security through force of might. The Thessalonians, therefore, were encouraged to put on a breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation (5:8) and to let God be the source of their peace (5:23) for “The one who calls you is faithful, and he (God) will do this” (5:24).
A good word for us
What is the good word that we need to hear? In some respects it may not be so different from the good word that the Thessalonians needed to hear: two thousand years later, we continue to look for signs that can assure us that God has not forgotten us, that we will not be ‘left behind’, that we will not be separated forever from those who have already died. And, as time marches on, we may find ourselves placing more and more hope and confidence in governmental powers that, by force of might, appear to offer us peace and security as we patiently wait for God.
In this context, it might be comforting to receive a vision of Christ coming down, with a cry of command, the archangel’s call and the sound of a trumpet, but perhaps all we really need is simply the assurance that the power and the promise described by that scenario is real. Short of Christ coming down from the sky, how do we know this is real, real enough to offer us the hope we need to get by each day?
Ultimately, we must each speak to this out of our own experience. For myself, I find this hope in the little things rather than the apocalyptic scenarios. Nonetheless, they are things that are also identified in the letter: in the encouragement we receive from one another (4:18; 5:14); in the practice of praying without ceasing (5:17) so that I learn to live in the presence of God; of discovering some way of giving thanks, regardless of the circumstances (5:18) because this helps me to see God at work in all circumstances; in not becoming complacent, but keeping awake even when I would prefer to numb my senses through alcohol, mindless television shows, or shopping sprees; in attempting to discern what it means to live by the grace and peace of Christ so that I may hold fast to what is good and abstain from evil (5:22-23).
Through these small things, lived day by day, the power and presence of God becomes real, as real as Christ coming down out of the sky, and offers me hope to face each new day with courage.