Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
There’s an important detail about 1 Thessalonians that every reader should keep in mind and it’s so important that I will repeat it at the beginning of each of my commentaries: 1 Thessalonians is the oldest book in the New Testament. It is the first of the letters of Paul, written before any of his other letters and even before the Gospels. This letter gives us a glimpse into the concerns of one of the first communities outside of Syria-Palestine to receive the good news of Jesus Christ. It is an under-appreciated treasure.
As noted in the commentary on 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, Paul does not write alone. This letter is not Paul’s personal opinion, but an expression of communal faith. In addition, Paul and his companions wrote their letters to address specific issues in the communities that they founded. In this pericope, the three authors (Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy) speak to a concern that the Thessalonians had regarding the believers in their community who had died. Put simply, they worry that dead believers will not get to share in the glory of Jesus’ second coming.
The Thessalonians’ worry is the result of a problem faced by missionaries across the world, in other words, the tension between existing cultural categories and the message that the missionaries wish to get across. In this case, the Thessalonians seem to be operating under traditional Greek religious conceptions (the city of Thessaloniki is in modern day Greece). For many ancient Greeks, the dead were thought of as doomed to separation from the living in the underworld. They were shades of their former selves without thoughts or feelings. This separation from the living was not a punishment, but it was permanent. Though Greek myth contained stories of people who attempted to cheat this fate (for example Orpheus and Eurydice, Sisyphus), the conclusion of all of the stories was that it could not be avoided.
Put in conversation with Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy’s preaching about Jesus, the Thessalonians’ preexisting beliefs cause them headaches. They look forward to Jesus’ triumphant return, but many of them are grieving because they believe that death has permanently separated them from their loved ones. These are the people whom the senders of the letter describe as having no hope.
The trio then begin their work of introducing a new way of thinking about death to the Thessalonians. Their new way begins with their bedrock belief: Jesus died and rose again (4:14). Right away, this strikes at the heart of the Thessalonians’ understanding of death. Unlike Greek heroes, Jesus was not held down by the power of death. Unlike the Greek underworld, death has no permanence for those who die in Christ. Death and the world, though they seem eternal, will one day pass away.
Though the Thessalonians’ concern was specific to their culture and time, the issue of the resurrection of the dead pops up throughout history. Each time that it pops up, it reveals how a particular culture relates to what the first letter to the Corinthians called “the foolishness of the cross” (1 Corinthians 1:23). Put simply, people continually show discomfort at the idea that Jesus, God incarnate, died on the cross.
In the early church, this discomfort showed up in a movement called Docetism. The Docetists were concerned with guarding the divinity of Christ. If Jesus was God, they argued, he could not die, thus he only seemed to die (the name docetism comes from the Greek word for “seems”). But the Docetists ran into a problem: all humans die, and if Jesus did not die, then he could not be a real human. In opposition to this stance, the Apostles Creed was formulated. Following the faith of Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, this creed confesses that Jesus Christ “was crucified under Pontius Pilate, died and was buried. He descended to the dead.” The Apostles Creed shouts out: Jesus was a human, Jesus died, and don’t you forget it!
The focus on Jesus’ death emerges out of a pastoral focus. After all, if Jesus does not die, then the resurrection is simply a magic show. And if Jesus does not die and rise again, then we continue to be held in the permanent grasp of death.
This discomfort with Jesus’ death and resurrection shows up in other places in history. The Quran makes the claim that Jesus only seemed to die; some branches of modern Christianity emphasize Jesus’ teachings to the point that his death and resurrection become mere footnotes to their theology. In each case, denying or deemphasizing Jesus’ death and resurrection leaves Christians in the same place as the Thessalonians: hopeless.
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy ground their faith in Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection because they are fighting for hope. In the face of a cruel and desperate world, they preach the foolishness of the cross and proclaim that there is hope, even for those who have died. This Gospel goes out to all of those whose loved ones have died before their hope is fulfilled. It is a word meant for those who have lost children and siblings and spouses and even, elderly parents.
God has not forgotten those who came before us. God has not abandoned them. God will raise them up and we will see them again. This is the scandal of the Gospel and the foolish hope that Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy preach to the Thessalonians and it rings true two millenia later. As Jesus reminds his accusers in the Gospel of Mark, God is God of the living, not the dead (Mark 12:27). Life has the permanence that death only seems to hold. As the trio write to the Thessalonians, “Therefore encourage one another with these words!” (4:18).