Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
The reading for today and the one assigned for next Sunday (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11) function together to describe the nature of Christ’s longed-for return in the most vivid language possible, to help the recipients of the letter have the sense that they can actually see, hear, and trust the salvation they are risking their lives on.
Today’s reading sets forth the theological framework that will then ground the ethical counsels of 1 Thessalonians 5:6-11.
Unfortunately, the kind of imagery that supported the faith of first-century believers is problematic for 21st century Christians operating with a very different cosmology. Yet the basic Christian understandings, intuitions, and hopes that guided Paul’s pastoral response in 1 Thessalonians are still operative today, though expressed in very different terms. What follows is an attempt to open up Paul’s theological framework in a way that might offer pastoral guidance for 21st century hearers.
A pastoral problem
It appears that someone has conveyed to Paul the Thessalonians’ concern about those who have died (literally, “fallen asleep”) before the Lord’s coming (parousia) in victory. Scholars today are mainly agreed that the Thessalonians’ concern is not so much about the salvation of their loved ones as it is about community, about whether they will be eternally cut off from those they have loved, simply on account of a slip of timing.
Construing the underlying concern as one of community actually helps to bring this whole passage into focus. The vision of Christ’s triumph that Paul develops in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 is one in which heaven and earth are suddenly and beautifully reconciled in an embrace (“caught up together”) that takes place in a newly opened space between heaven and earth (“in the air”) and which will never end (“and so we will be with the Lord forever”). The image gathers together Paul’s deepest beliefs about God’s reconciling purpose in Christ (see also 2 Corinthians 5:18-21), and paves the way for the ethical counsels to follow (1 Thessalonians 5:4-24).
Paul’s understanding of his mission is to assist the Gentiles (Galatians 1:16) in fully accepting the salvation offered to them in Christ by learning to live in holiness toward God and their neighbor (for example 1 Thessalonians 5:5). The vision he paints of Christ at the parousia, gathering up the nations, is intended to give the Thessalonians courage to stay the course, in spite of earthly opposition.
Does Paul have secret information about exactly what the parousia will look like? No. What he does have is a history of mystical practices (2 Corinthians 12:1-4) that no doubt help to inform the vision he describes. His imagery is also informed by biblical literature, by the pomp of Roman military victories, by apocalypticism, and by his own experiences of God’s reconciling power at work among the communities he serves. This passage offers a view into Paul’s pastoral practice: he is willing to use all the resources at his disposal to encourage the Thessalonians to trust God entirely with their present and their future.
The parousia of Christ
The popular phrase “second coming” (the New Revised Standard Version says simply “coming,” 1 Thessalonians 4:15) is one of the most unfortunate mistranslations of the Greek New Testament. As the time has grown long since the “first coming,” there is a tendency, after two thousand years, to doubt in the whole idea of a parousia (appearance, presence), thus making Christian hope seem fruitless or delusional. The phrase “second coming” sounds like a hope for God to send Jesus again, and it implies that the time between the first and second comings is just an open space, rather than the electrically charged field of salvation that Paul saw it to be.
But the full appearance, or full presence of Christ that the earliest Gentile Christians were awaiting was grounded in their lively experiences of the power of Christ and the Spirit to bring them into right relationship with the one true God and their neighbor in righteousness and justice, in holiness and love. In other words, their partnership with Christ in their day-to-day moral decision-making was the first edge of the presence making its way into human life. They could see it, touch it, believe it, because it wasn’t solely in an imagined future; it could be seen in the transformation of themselves and their communities.
The presence they were preparing for would be the ripened fruit of what they were experiencing, a time in which, finally, God would be all in all (1 Corinthians 15:27-28). They expressed their trust and hope in this future fullness by living daily with the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:1-13), by being built up in practices of love toward one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11; see also 1 Corinthians 8).
Bridging the centuries
Paul’s skillful pastoral response to his hearers invites an equally skillful pastoral response to the questions generated by our own communities. What Paul is seeking to do in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is to make ultimate realities that are beyond ordinary sight so real that the Thessalonians can entrust themselves completely to them. What is expressed as a future reality is, ethically, an expression of the ends, or purposes, of the creation. These ultimate realities are:
- The origins and ends of the creation are in God.
- Jesus Christ is God’s means for reconciling people to one another, to the creation, and to God.
- God will leave no one out who desires to be in right relationship.
- The transformational presence of Christ is known tangibly when the reconciling Christian community gathers and also when believers partner with Christ in loving their neighbor.
- Thus, Christians live with faith in the goodness of God’s purposes, with love for the people who come into their lives, and with hope for a time when God will be all in all.
It is in living the Christian life, of seeking right relationship with God and with all, that believers in the first century and in the 21st century have actual experiences of Christ in, through, and among them. These experiences of the power to love beyond human capacity then grounds a deep thirst for the full presence of God.