NT Eschatology—Letters 02
Last time, we started looking at the eschatology of the New Testament letters. We continue our look at 1 Thessalonians.
Brothers and sisters, we want you to know about people who have died so that you won’t mourn like others who don’t have any hope. Since we believe that Jesus died and rose, so we also believe that God will bring with him those who have died in Jesus. What we are saying is a message from the Lord: we who are alive and still around at the Lord’s coming definitely won’t go ahead of those who have died. This is because the Lord himself will come down from heaven with the signal of a shout by the head angel and a blast on God’s trumpet. First, those who are dead in Christ will rise. Then, we who are living and still around will be taken up together with them in the clouds to meet with the Lord in the air. That way we will always be with the Lord. So encourage each other with these words.
Some people see in these verses the “rapture.” But that’s not what Paul refers to here.
This isn’t a general address for all followers of Jesus throughout the ages, either. No. Paul is specifically responding to the Thessalonians (he uses the personal pronoun “you” twice) about a genuine concern of theirs. Apparently, they were upset that their brothers and sisters who had already died wouldn’t witness the coming of Christ. He assures them that they will.
But also notice that, even if Paul was referring to the supposed “rapture,” he clearly believes this is something he and the Thessalonians (at least) and, perhaps, all of the living followers of Jesus at that time would experience. He wrote, “We who are alive and still around…” This is something that was expected to happen then—not thousands of years in the future.
And why would Paul expect this? Where did he get his belief that his generation wouldn’t die out before Christ returned? As we saw from our look at the Gospels, that belief and teaching came from Christ himself. Even here, he states that this message was “from the Lord,” i.e., Jesus. This coming of Jesus, like we mentioned previously, is tied directly to the judgment of G_d upon the Jews of the first century. Again, this isn’t a separate event, even though some believe it to be the “rapture.” And to that, we now turn.
People understand Paul’s “taken up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” as describing this “rapture.” But this is a novelty (as church doctrine goes). The notion of a “rapture” was unheard of until the mid to late nineteenth century. Now, that should give us pause. To think that something so vital as this would be unknown for over 1800 years is astounding. Up until then, these verses were viewed as describing the resurrection.
But there’s something that needs to be cleared up. What Paul describes wasn’t unknown in his day. What he’s talking about is a royal visitation. When there was a new king, emissaries (ambassadors) would be sent out to proclaim the “good news” to all the territories. These emissaries would let people know that their king would be making his rounds and visiting all of the realm. When the king arrived, the trumpet would sound, the heralds would proclaim his approach, and the people would rush out to greet him. We see just this scene played out in the Gospels when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the colt (see Matthew 21.1-11 and parallels).
That story points to the important point I’m wanting to make here. In the story of Jesus, he starts out on the road. The people rush out to meet him, spreading palm branches and their own clothes to spread upon the road.
But they don’t stay out on the road.
Along with Jesus, all of them went into the city.
That’s the picture Paul’s painting here. The king will return. The herald will proclaim the approach. All the people with rush to meet him. And then they will return to the earth.
The message of the Realm of God is not that God has forsaken the earth. No. Jesus taught people to pray that God’s will and Realm would be “on earth as in heaven.” The destruction of the Temple signified the full establishment of God’s Realm here. Now. Click here for the next post in this series.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC