The Coming Of The Lord
1Thessalonians opens a window on to newly planted church in the middle of the 1st century AD. It tells us how it came into being, what the apostle taught it, what were its strengths and weaknesses, its theological and moral problems, and how it was spreading the gospel. What is of particular interest, because it applies to Christian communities in every age and place, is the interaction which the apostle portrays between the church and the gospel.
- He shows how the gospel creates the Church [1:1-4].
- He shows how the Church spreads the gospel [1:5-10].
- He shows how the gospel shapes the Church [ ], as the Church seeks to live a life that is worthy of the Gospel.
According to John Stott, the above theme gives the following analysis of the letter:
- Christian evangelism, or how the Church spreads the gospel [1:1-10].
- Christian ministry, or how pastors serve both the gospel and the church [2:1-3:13].
- Christian behaviour, or how the Church must live according to the gospel [4:1-12].
- Christian hope, or how the gospel should inspire the Church [4:13-5:11].
- Christian community, or how to be a gospel Church [5:12-28].
- THE PROBLEM
1. General Observations
In this section Paul sets out to “encourage the fainthearted…” [5:14]. The anxiety was related to two matters:
- The problem of bereavement: they were apprehensive about their Christian brethren who had died.
- The problem of judgement: they were apprehensive about themselves and about their own readiness for the day of reckoning.
- What is clear is that the church did not understand the fundamental points of Christian eschatology.
2. The Problem
The problem has to do with the dead and their participation in the coming of Christ from heaven.
- It seems that between the foundation of the church and the return of Timothy, some members of the church had died; an event that caused much sorrow among them.
a. The Gospel Received
Paul had preached the gospel to them: “our gospel came not unto you in word only…” [1:4].
- Resurrection: “Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead…” [Acts 17:3].
- Faith and hope: “the perseverance of hope…” [1:3].
b. The Question of the Dead
The basic question is: ‘what will happen to the dead in Christ? What becomes of believers who die before the second coming?
- The reconstruction of greatest merit argues ‘that at the moment of confronting the reality of death, the Thessalonians did not allow their confession to inform their reaction to this human tragedy’ (Green, 215).
- What is clear is that the Thessalonians were experiencing great grief because of the death of one or more of their members, and the apostle needed to respond with the appropriate teaching so that they would not be overwhelmed with grief like the unbelievers who “have no hope”.
- Paul’s purpose was distinctly pastoral as he urged the church to use this teaching to comfort one another [4:18].
c. The Resurrection & The Parousia
The apostle seeks to console his readers through instruction regarding the relationship between the resurrection and the Parousia of Christ.
- We get the impression that the Thessalonians had understood Paul to mean that the Parousia would take place within their lifetime (Morris, 135).
- The Thessalonians believed that to be assumed to heaven with Christ at his Parousia one had to be alive.
- THE PASTORAL CONCERN
Before the apostle responds to their enquiry with positive instruction about the Lord’s return, he makes two preliminary and negative points.
1. The Theme
a. The Dead
The theme of the passage: “concerning them which are asleep…” [4:13].
§ περὶ - “concerning” [4:13], ‘around’; ‘on all sides’; this ‘sets the theme of the passage’;
§ κοιμωμένων - “asleep” [4:13], present passive participle, related to keímai, ‘to lie outstretched, to lie down’; ‘to cause to lie down to sleep’;
§ It is worth noting that our word “cemetery” is derived from this term; from the Greek word κοιμetέrioν, ‘sleeping room’.
i. The Sleep
The metaphor of “sleep” for death was used by those who had no real concept of afterlife (apart from the Book of Daniel): “slept with their fathers…”
§ Moses: “the LORD said unto Moses, Behold, thou shalt sleep with thy fathers; and this people will rise up…” [Deu.31:16].
§ Death is only temporary: “multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake…” [Dan.12:2].
§ Lazarus: “Our friend Lazarus sleeps; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep” [Joh.11:11];
§ The final resurrection: “And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose…” [Mat.27:52].
Death is a rest after labour: “that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them” [Rev.14:13].
2. The Reason
The reason for Paul raising the matter of the dead: “I do not want you to be ignorant…” [4:13].
§ θέλομεν - “would not have” [4:13], present active, ‘to desire, purpose’;
§ ἀγνοεῖν - “ignorant” [4:13], present active infinitive, from the priv. a, not, and noéō, ‘to perceive, understand’; ‘not to recognize or know’; can denote ‘being mistaken’ or ‘being in error’.
b. The Sorrow
The present sorrow: “that you sorrow not, even as others…” [4:13].
§ μὴ λυπῆσθε - “sorrow not” [4:13], present passive subjunctive, from λύπη, ‘pain, sorrow’; ‘to cause pain’;
§ Primarily an inward grief: “ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy” [Joh.16:20].
§ Physically λύπη can denote any pain, though especially that caused by hunger or thirst, by heat or cold; spiritually λύπη is sorrow, pain or anxiety at misfortune or death, or anger at annoyances or hurts.
c. The Comparison
The comparison between his readers and those outside the Christian community: “others who have no hope” [4:13].
§ λοιποὶ - “them” [4:13], ‘remaining, left over’; ‘them that are without the kingdom’;
§ μὴ ἔχοντες - “not have” [4:13], present active participle, ‘to hold, possess’;
§ ἐλπίδα - “hope” [4:13], ‘a looking forward with confident expectation’;
§ The ungodly: “without God and without hope in the world” [Eph.2:12].
Nowhere outside of Christianity do we find at this period any widespread view of a worthwhile life beyond the grave.
- Pagan literature contains some literature about it; philosophers had an idea about it; but this did not penetrate into the beliefs of the ordinary people.
- THE THEOLOGICAL ANSWER
1. The Basis of Hope
Out of a pastoral concern for their grief, Paul reminded the church of the theological basis of their hope of reunion.
a. The Creedal Formula
The basic creedal formula: “if we believe that…” [4:14].
§ πιστεύομεν - “believe” [4:14], present indicative active, ‘think to be true, implying trust’;
§ The Thessalonians: “work of faith, labour of love, perseverance of hope…” [1:3].
b. The Historical Foundation
i. The Death of Jesus
The foundational belief: “if we believe that Jesus died and rose again…” [4:14].
§ ἀπέθανεν - “died” [4:14], aorist indicative active, ‘physical death’;
§ Paul speaks, not of Jesus’ “sleeping” but of Jesus’ dying; Jesus’ death is the ‘penal consequences of sin’: “the wages of sin is death…” [Rom.6:23].
§ Christ in his death bore the wages of sin: “he was made sin for us…” [2Cor.5:21].
§ Thereby he transformed the whole position of those who are in him: “asleep in Jesus…” [4:14].
ii. The Resurrection of Jesus
The triumph of the resurrection: “and rose again…” [4:14].
§ ἀνέστη - “rose again” [4:14], aorist indicative active, ‘to cause to stand up’; ‘to raise to life’;
§ The resurrection demonstrates that death is truly conquered: “Where, O death, is your victory…” [1Cor.15:55].
iii. The First-Fruits
The resurrection of Christ guarantees the resurrection of believers: “become the first fruits of them that slept” [1Cor.15:20].
§ avparch. – “first-fruits” [15:20], first portion from grain and fruit harvests and from flocks.
§ The term is deliberately chosen to make evident the organic connection between the two resurrections, the inseparability of the initial quantity from the whole.
§ Consecration of the firstfruits: “when you come into the land that I give unto you, and shall reap the harvest thereof, then you shall bring a sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest unto the priest” [Lev.23:9-14].
§ The point of these sacrifices is that they are not offered up for their own sake, as it were, but as representative of the total harvest, etc. they are a token expression of recognition and thanksgiving that the whole has been given by God. The initial part of the harvest is brought into view but only as it is a part of the whole.
c. The Resurrection of Believers
Belief in the resurrection of Jesus should lead to the belief that God will raise those who have died in Jesus: “even so them also which sleep in Jesus…” [4:14].
§ κοιμηθέντας - “sleep” [4:14], aorist passive participle, related to keímai, ‘to lie outstretched, to lie down’; ‘to cause to lie down to sleep’;
§ Moulton suggested that this is a true passive, ‘was put to sleep, which gives a strikingly beautiful sense.
i. Relationship with Christ
The aorist tense points to their relationship with Jesus at the moment of death: “sleep in Jesus…” [4:14].
§ διὰ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ - “in Jesus” [4:14], ‘through’; ‘by way of’; in this context, is similar to Paul’s “in Christ” formula.
§ The issue at that moment was whether they belonged to Christ or not; this was of central importance for their future salvation: “buried with him by baptism into death…” [Rom.6:4].
§ The idea of “through Jesus” [4:14] is difficult. Morris says that ‘the meaning I probably that it is through what Jesus ha done, through Jesus, that Christians “sleep” only, and do not undergo the horrors of death.
ii. The Result
The result: “will God bring with him” [4:14].
§ ἄξει - “bring” [4:14], future active indicative, ‘direct movement of an object’; ‘to bring, carry’;
§ σὺν αὐτῷ - “with him” [4:14], marker of association, ‘togetherness’; ‘bring with Jesus’.
§ Jesus ‘will bring the faithful departed with him when he comes back.
Paul’s triumphant words in the light of this certainty: “for me to live is Christ, and to die is gain; I desire to depart and to be with Christ…” [Php.1:21-23].
2. The Order
a. The Authority
The living: “for this we say by the word of the Lord…” [4:15].
§ ἐν - “by” [4:15], ‘withinness’;
§ λόγῳ κυρίου - “word of the Lord” [4:15],
b. The Living
The believers who did not die: “remain unto his coming…” [4:15].
§ ζῶντες - “alive” [4:15], present active participle, ‘to have life in contrast to being dead’;
§ περιλειπόμενοι - “remain” [4:15], present passive participle, ‘remnant’; λεῖμμα (from λείπω) means ‘what is left over’; ‘what remains, surplus’;
§ In the literature of the era, refers to ‘those who have survived a tragedy that left others dead’.
§ εἰς - “unto” [4:15], ‘motion up to and into’;
§ παρουσίαν - “coming” [4:15], ‘presence, coming’; ‘being in person’; ‘a coming to a place’; referred to ‘the coming of a deity or ‘the official visit of a sovereign to a city’;
c. The Order
The order: “will not prevent them which are asleep…” [4:15].
§ οὐ μὴ φθάσωμεν - “not prevent” [4:15], aorist active subjunctive, ‘go prior to’; ‘precede’;
§ to arrive: “if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you” [Luk.11:20];
§ κοιμηθέντας - “them asleep” [4:15], aorist passive participle, related to keímai, ‘to lie outstretched, to lie down’; ‘to cause to lie down to sleep’;
The believers who are still alive at Jesus’ return will not have an advantage over those who have died.
§ The participation: “we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed…” [1Cor.15:51-53].
- THE GREAT EVENT
1. The Coming of the Lord
a. The Event
The coming of the Lord: “the Lord himself shall descend from heaven…” [4:16].
§ καταβήσεται - “descend” [4:16], future middle indicative, from katá, ‘down’, and baínō, ‘to go or come’; ‘to move down or descend’;
§ ἀπʼ οὐρανοῦ - “from heaven” [4:16],
b. The Description – Three Sounds
i. The Grammar
There are three prepositional phrases: ἐν κελεύσματι, ἐν φωνῇ ἀρχαγγέλου καὶ ἐν σάλπιγγι θεοῦ.
§ The phrases are to be taken in the sense of circumstances attendant with the Lord’s descent from heaven.
§ The last two prepositional phrases should possibly be taken together as epexegetical of the first. If so, they express the means by which the command is issued.
§ The statement in John: “the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God…” [Joh.5:25-29].
ii. A Loud Command
The command: “with a shout…” [4:16].
§ κελεύσματι - “shout” [4:16], ‘a shout of command’; ‘the cry made by the ship’s master to his rowers’; ‘or by a military officer to his soldiers’;
§ When used of military or naval personnel it was a battle cry; a loud authoritative cry.
§ The command of the Lord: “the time is come when those who are in their graves shall hear his voice…” [Joh.5:28-29].
iii. The Archangel
The archangel will add his voice to the call that awakes the dead: “with the voice of the archangel…” [4:16].
§ φωνῇ - “voice” [4:16], ‘sound’; ‘any type of breaking of sound waves’;
§ ἀρχαγγέλου - “archangel” [4:16], ‘chief angel’; ‘commander in Lord’s host’;
§ The only New Testament occurrence: “Yet Michael the archangel, when contending with the devil…” [Jud.1:9];
§ The idea goes back to the days of Daniel: “Lo, Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me…” [Dan.10:13]; “at that time Michael shall stand up, the great prince which stands for the children of thy people…” [Dan.12:1].
§ The phrase connotes the involvement of the heavenly host: “he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds…” [Mat.24:31].
iv. The Trumpet
The trumpet: “with the trump of God…” [4:16].
§ σάλπιγγι - “trump” [4:16], ‘musical instrument’; ‘an announcement’; ‘found its place in military exercises in this era, cultic events, and funeral processions’;
§ As announcing the approach or presence of God and the ensuing encounter: “it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightenings…the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud” [Exo.19:13-19].
§ Used in the Old Testament in connection with times of festivity and triumph: “Then shalt thou cause the trumpet of the jubilee to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month, in the day of atonement shall ye make the trumpet sound throughout all your land” [Lev.25:9]; “So the people shouted when the priests blew with the trumpets…they took the city” [Jos.6:20].
§ The final establishment of God’s kingdom: “And the LORD shall be seen over them, and his arrow shall go forth as the lightning: and the Lord GOD shall blow the trumpet…” [Zec.9:14]; “Blow ye the trumpet in Zion, and sound an alarm in my holy mountain: let all the inhabitants of the land tremble: for the day of the LORD cometh, for it is nigh at hand” [Joel 2:1].
The cry of command by Christ and the voice of the archangel and the trumpet of God, which carry out the command, are all intended to call those who sleep to the resurrection.
§ The Corinthian correspondence: “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible…” [1Cor.15:52].
§ Calvin: ‘as a commander summons his army to battle with notes of a trumpet, so Christ will call the dead to Him, by his resounding proclamation, which will be heard distinctly all over the world’: “they lived and stood on their feet, an exceeding great army” [Eze.37:10].
2. The Order
a. The Place of Honour
The dead will have a place of privilege and pre-eminence: “the dead in Christ shall rise first…” [4:16].
§ οἱ νεκροὶ ἐν Χριστῷ - “dead in Christ” [4:16], the one who have “slept in Jesus” [4:14].
§ ἀναστήσονται - “rise” [4:16], future middle indicative, ‘to cause to stand up’; ‘to raise to life’;
§ πρῶτον - “first” [4:16], in order, ‘first of several’;
b. The Second Place
Afterwards, those who are still living: “then we which are alive and remain…” [4:17].
§ ἔπειτα - “then” [4:17], ‘next’; ‘after that’;
§ οἱ ζῶντες - “are alive” [4:17], present active participle,
§ περιλειπόμενοι - “remain” [4:17], present passive participle, ‘be left remaining, behind’;
§ ἅμα – ‘at once’; ‘simultaneously’;
3. The Re-Union
The final reunion: “shall be caught up together with the Lord…” [4:17].
§ ἁρπαγησόμεθα - “caught up” [4:17], ‘to seize, snatch away’; ‘carry off by force’;
§ σὺν αὐτοῖς - “with them” [4:17], ‘togetherness’; ‘close association’;
a. The Action
The action in the New Testament points to something being taken by force:
§ The word of God: “the wicked one, and catches away that which was sown in his heart…” [Mat.13:19].
§ Philipp: “the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, that the eunuch saw him no more…” [Acts 8:39].
§ The woman and the child: “her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne…” [Rev.12:5].
b. The Clouds
The gathering in the clouds: “in the clouds…” [4:17].
§ ἐν νεφέλαι - “in the clouds” [4:17], ‘mist’;
§ Associated with divine theophanies in the Old Testament: “the LORD said unto Moses, Lo, I come unto thee in a thick cloud that the people may hear when I speak with thee…” [Exo.19:9]; “the glory of the LORD abode upon Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days…” [Exo.24:16]; “the LORD descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD…” [Exo.34:5].
§ The vision of Daniel: “one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days…” [Dan.7:13].
§ The New Testament: “While he yet spoke, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud…” [Mat.17:5]; “Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him…” [Rev.1:7].
The clouds are ‘the place of meeting between the human and the divine’.
§ The ascension of Jesus: “a cloud received him out of their sight…shall so come in like manner as you have seen him go into heaven” [Acts 1:9].
4. The Place
a. The Encounter
i. The Encounter
The encounter: “to meet the Lord in the air…” [4:17].
§ εἰς ἀπάντησιν - “meet” [4:17], ‘meeting up with’; ‘encountering’;
§ The idea of ἀπάντησιν has a more formal use, such as ‘the formal reception of a newly arriving magistrate’; it implies the welcome of a great person on arrival: “Come, you blessed of my Father…” [Mat.25:34].
§ τοῦ κυρίου - “the Lord” [4:17], “we shall see him as He is…” [1Joh.3:5].
ii. The Significance
The idea of ἀπάντησιν is a technical expression for the departure from a city of a delegation of citizens to meet an arriving dignitary.
§ This was done in order to accord the person proper respect and honour by escorting the dignitary back to the city.
§ A delegation of Christians from Rome went to receive Paul: “from thence, when the brethren heard of us, they came to meet us as far as Appii forum…” [Acts 28:15].
§ The customary procedure was for the delegation to return to the city with the visiting dignitaries: “when we came to Rome…” [Acts 28:16].
b. The Location
The place of the encounter: “in the air…” [4:17].
§ εἰς ἀέρα - “in the air” [4:17], ‘space inhabited and controlled by powers’;
§ In the first century, the “air” was often thought to be the abode of the demons: “the prince of the power of the air…” [Eph.2:2].
§ That the Lord chooses to meet his saints “in the air” [4:17], on the demons home ground so to speak, shows his complete mastery over them.
i. New Testament
The New Testament speaks of Christ’s return to heaven:
§ The handing over of the kingdom: “then comes the end when he shall have delivered the kingdom to God, even the Father…” [1Cor.15:23-28].
§ The final judgement: “before him shall be gathered all nations…” [Mat.25:32ff].
ii. The Final Gathering
The final gathering: “so shall we ever be with the Lord” [4:17].
§ ἐσόμεθα - “ever be” [4:17], future, ‘to exist’; ‘to be’;
§ πάντοτε - “ever” [4:17], ‘at all times’; ‘evermore’;
§ σὺν κυρίῳ - “with” [4:17], ‘togetherness’; ‘close association’;
With this= message the Thessalonians are to be comforted: “wherefore comfort one another…” [4:18].
§ παρακαλεῖτε - “comfort” [4:18], ‘from pará, ‘to the side of’, and kaléō’, to call’; ‘to aid, help, comfort, encourage’;
§ ἀλλήλους - “one another” [4:18], reciprocal pronoun’;