Sorrow Not - Resurrection Hope in Thessalonica

SYNOPSIS - The hope of the church is not its physical removal from the Earth but the bodily resurrection of believers when Jesus arrives - 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.

Photo by Irina Iriser on Unsplash
By Irina Iriser on Unsplash
The Apostle Paul’s famous description of the “coming” or parousia of Jesus in his first letter to the Thessalonians was intended to comfort Christians about the fate of believers who died before his arrival from heaven. Saints need not sorrow BECAUSE dead Christians will be raised from the dead at the very moment Jesus arrives. Thereafter, both living and resurrected believers will meet him as he is descending from heaven. For the disciples of Jesus, the answer to death is bodily resurrection at the end of the age - (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).

In the opening section of his letter, Paul praises the church for its excellent example of faith for other churches in the region. The Thessalonian Christians had “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus, who is delivering us from the coming wrath.” The Apostle links Christ’s present exalted status to his past resurrection, a feature prominent in Paul’s gospel - (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).

In Chapter 4, Paul deals with questions about the fate of believers who die before the “arrival” or parousia of Jesus. Apparently, some believers became sorrowful over the deaths of fellow saints - It seems they became concerned that Christians who die before that day would miss out on its glory and blessings. Precisely how they acquired this concern is not addressed.

Paul reassures them - Not only will dead believers participate fully on that day, but they even will rise from the dead “first” to be reunited with believers still alive, then together, all saints will ascend to meet Jesus in the “air.” In this way, we will be together with him forevermore - (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).

What Paul links to the coming of Jesus is not the removal of Christians from the planet and their transportation to heaven, but their bodily resurrection. Precisely where they go after meeting Jesus “in the air” IS NOT STATED, whether they accompany him to the earth as he continues his descent or he returns to heaven with them. In the preceding chapter, Paul described how, at his Parousia, Jesus would come with all his saints. Therefore, in this literary context, the first option is the more likely one.

Photo by Victoria Kure-Wu on Unsplash
Photo by Victoria Kure-Wu on Unsplash

Note well - Paul uses the metaphor of “sleep” for death, a common one in the ancient Greco-Roman society, as it also is today. He will speak of “sleep” again in the next chapter.
Paul bases the resurrection of believers on the past resurrection of Jesus from the dead (“If we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, them also that are fallen asleep in Jesus will God bring with him”). And the Apostle indicates his belief that some Christians will remain alive on the earth on that day.
Paul continues in Chapter 5. The Thessalonians are not in darkness so that day should not “overtake you as a thief.” This is not because they know all the appropriate “signs” and chronologies of the “last days,” but because “you are all sons of light, and sons of the day”; that is, they live in the light of the gospel and no longer in the darkness of sin. Believers prepare for the end by “putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for a helmet, the hope of salvation.”

God did not appoint Christians "to wrath" - Jesus is delivering them even now from the coming “wrath.” Instead, the saints have been appointed to the “obtaining of salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him.” Implicit in these statements is that salvation and deliverance are obtained through the resurrection, which occurs at Christ’s parousia.

Paul concludes by encouraging the Thessalonians that God will sanctify them wholly: “May your spirit and soul and body be preserved entire, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is he that calleth you, who will also do it.”

Paul’s point is not to disclose a doctrine about the tripartite nature of man but to stress that the whole person will be saved on the day when Jesus arrives, including the physical body. Becoming disembodied spirits or souls is not part of his theology.

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