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How 1 Thessalonians 4 Pictures Christ’s Return as a Royal Parade

1 “Then his kingdom will appear throughout his whole creation. Then the devil will have an end. Yea, sorrow will be led away with him. 3 For the Heavenly One will arise from his kingly throne. Yea, he will go forth from his holy habitation with indignation and wrath on behalf of his sons. 7 For God Most High will surge forth, the Eternal One alone.[1]  (Testament of Moses 10:1, 3, 7)

And Yahweh will be king over all the earth; on that day Yahweh will be one and his name one. (Zechariah 14:9, LEB)

Isaac Watts’s famous “Joy to the World” is among my favorite hymns of all time. Though fitting the message of Advent, it also pertains to eschatology. Consider its first two lines:

Joy to the world! The Lord is come; Let earth receive her King.

Note the location of the king’s reception—earth. God’s aim is about a rescue of the world, not an abandonment of it. Unfortunately, a particularly strange and new (as new as the late nineteenth century) idea emerged concerning eschatology. The consequences of this viewpoint have gotten many Christians thinking that earth does not matter and what we do with it is irrelevant since we are just “waiting for the rapture.” But is that the case? Is the idea of a “rapture” (at least as explained by dispensational circles) in line with what the New Testament teaches? These are valid questions as we turn our attention to the parousia of the Lord—the event that initiates the eschaton itself.

If you are a Christian in the United States, I am going to assume you have probably heard of the Left Behind book series and even the movie(s) based on the books. This all stems from “rapture theology.” The belief, oversimplifying here, is the hope of Jesus’s second coming for believers as a secret return of Christ to “rapture” the church away from the world into heaven while the world goes through a period of distress called “the tribulation.”

Well, I do not believe that the rapture is true. I do not think that is what we are waiting for regarding Jesus’s return. It is more persuasive to see how the Bible teaches that the Parousia is when God will set all things right and will usher in His kingdom, here, on earth. But hey, enough stating unexamined opinions. Let us look at the most important text on this topic: 1 Thess 4:13–18. This is not the only passage concerning the return of Jesus, but it is one that those who believe in the “secret rapture of the church to heaven” reference in order to make their point. So, let us look at it, and instead of doing a compare and contrast, I want to just explain the text on its own terms. And if you disagree with me, that is okay! Christians can disagree on these things. You just should have a better argument as to why you hold your belief.

Now we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, concerning those who have fallen asleep, so that you will not grieve as also the rest, who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, thus also God will bring those who have fallen asleep through Jesus together with him. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who remain until the Lord’s coming, will not possibly precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who remain, will be snatched away at the same time together with them in the clouds for a meeting with the Lord in the air, and thus we will be together with the Lord always. Therefore comfort one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18, CSB)

Talking about the return of Christ can be difficult because we do not exactly have categories of what it will look like when Jesus comes back to judge the world and bring about the new creation. So, how do you describe an event that a listener has no category for? You use metaphors. Hopefully, you would use metaphors that the listeners have a category for so that they actually fathom what you are saying. This is, in fact, as we will see, what the apostle Paul does in what words and phrases he uses to communicate to the Thessalonians, a group of Christians who were entrenched in the Graeco-Roman world of the mid-first century.

By the time someone reads 1 Thess 4:13–18, it is expected that they read all that preceded it. Here are the important things to note. The Church in Thessalonika was established by the Paul.[2] However, Paul was persecuted heavily for saying things like “Jesus is Lord” and “Jesus is King.” Especially in an important town like Thessalonika, this language would have been the equivalent of treason.[3] For those in the Roman Empire in the first century, you were subjects of the world’s greatest superpower. And the Emperor, Caesar, whoever bore that title–was declared lord and king. To say anyone else was, well, was to be guilty of committing treason to Roman rule. And so, Paul had to eventually flee, but he left behind some faithful, new followers of King Jesus back in Thessalonika. Though, as Paul seemed to do regularly, he wrote to them to continue edifying and teaching them gospel truths.

When Paul wrote to them in his first letter, he had heard about the persecution they were facing but also their steadfast faith. However, he also heard about their distress and confusion. One of their chief concerns was what happened to believers who died before the return of Jesus (the “Second Coming”). Phrased as a question: Will there be a disadvantage for believers who have died before the return of the Lord? This is the underlying question of the text. Paul is not writing out a robust theology of the Parousia. We wish he had said more here, but thankfully he did elsewhere.[4] But what he says here is to be taken on its own terms in its own context. What is said about the return of Jesus in this passage? Let us walk through it verse by verse.

Verse 13: “Now we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, concerning those who have fallen asleep, so that you will not grieve as also the rest, who have no hope.”

Paul does not say to not grieve. He says not to grieve like those “who have no hope.” We still grieve when loved ones in the Lord die. Death is not the way things are supposed to be. We do not live in God’s ideal, yet. So, we grieve. But not like others. We know that a Christian’s story does not end at their death! It has only begun anew. And there is so much more yet to come!

Verse 14: “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, thus also God will bring those who have fallen asleep through Jesus together with him.”

“Jesus died and rose again” comprises the central aspect of the gospel in a short phrase. The death and resurrection of Jesus are at the center of our hope. Though central, they are not the bookends. We await His return where He will finish what He started. Calling the dead “those who have fallen asleep” was a euphemism in the ancient world. We have preserved that when we say things like “rest in peace.”

As Christians, our hope is not concluded at death.

For us, death is a comma, not a period.

For those who die before Jesus’s Parousia they are called “sleeping.” From other passages in Paul we can gather that this is not sleeping as in unconsciousness. Passages like Phil 1:21 and 2 Cor 5:8 imply that Paul views death before the Eschaton as a delightful reunion with the Lord Jesus, Himself. We call this intermediate state heaven The Bible, however, is not all that concerned with heaven or the intermediate state. The state of existence that occurs right now is more of a side note compared to the primary subject of the eternal state. What happens when you die is not that important to the New Testament authors. What happens when Jesus returns and ushers in the new creation—that is what is important!

Paul is giving some brief teaching on the return of Christ to comfort the Thessalonians going through persecution. But going through persecution or not, we can find comfort in these words.

In verse 15: “For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who remain until the Lord’s coming, will not possibly precede those who have fallen asleep.”

Those who are alive when Jesus returns do not have any advantage to those who had “fallen asleep.” The arrival of Jesus is the Greek word parousia,[5] which has rich connotations of a royal appearing of a figure, arriving to a city or province.[6] The New Testament authors pick up on this and apply it to Jesus.[7] They are anticipating the arrival of the Earth’s true king. Parousia communicates manifest presence. It is not just the arrival of someone in spirit or in thought. Right now, Jesus is present and working in the world, yes. But not in a manifest way. We know this to be true! Our hearts ache to be with Him. Jesus’s parousia will be, for those of us who have known and loved Him here, like meeting face-to-face someone whom we have only ever known by letter or email. Our relationship with Him right now is real, but there is a distance to it. Not that He is billions of miles away. The distance is by a dimension that we cannot traverse. The parousia will be a permanent closing of that gap. And this will be the climax of our happiness! Let us keep reading.

Verse 16: “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.”

The end of the gospel story concludes with Jesus ascending to heaven. More than it being literal (heaven being “up there”), it is metaphor. The ancients understood heaven as the higher form of life. So, if last we saw of Him was His ascension, His royal arrival and return would have to be a descension. Look at the imagery being deployed. This is no quiet, secret event! No one will miss or misunderstand what is happening. Quite the opposite of a “secret rapture of the church” we have a loud, visible, return of the King! He comes with glory and with an entourage.

Christ’s return will be the fulfillment of the Christmas lyrics: “Let earth receive her king.”

The “loud trumpet call” alludes to Jesus’swords in Matt 24:31 (“He will send out his angels with a loud trumpet, and they will gather His chosen from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.”). The point here is that the return of Jesus will not be a secret. It will be visible and it will be disruptively loud. He does not intend to sneak back to the world discreetly. His return will be loud and boisterous, like that of a king, after all, He is the world’s true King.

Note, too, the resurrection language in 1 Thess 4:16. When it says that the “dead in Christ will rise first” it is using the very word for resurrection. The dead in Christ will “resurrect” first, as it can appropriately be translated. This is the life of the age to come interrupting our world with resurrection power. This is far from disembodied spirits being snatched off to heaven. Resurrection is the Christian hope—not a disembodied existence in heaven.

Verse 17: “Then we who are alive, who remain, will be snatched away at the same time together with them in the clouds for a meeting with the Lord in the air, and thus we will be together with the Lord always.”

The language of “meeting” the Lord is the Greek phrase eis apantēsin. It is a technical phrase in Greek. This technical phrase, paired with the word parousia (referenced already for Jesus’s royal arrival) means something consistent in the cultural world of the first century.

Eis apantēsin always (and I mean always!) refers to meeting someone on their way and escorting them in. It is a phrase of hospitality where a happy person or crowd intercepts that special someone who is en route to make his or her way to you. It would be like seeing a guest coming to your home and you decided to meet them in the driveway and walk them into your home. It is not only a phrase of hospitality but a phrase conveying an eager and enthusiastic demeanor. It is when you cannot wait to see someone so when they finally arrive you delay not a second longer of separation! You go to them and meet them as you walk with them for the rest of the way.

This exact phrase, eis apantēsin (literally: “to meet”) is used two other times in the New Testament. Matthew 25 is full of parables where Jesus speaks concerning His return:

“Then the kingdom of heaven may be compared to ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 Now five of them were foolish and five were wise. 3 For when the foolish ones took their lamps, they did not take olive oil with them. 4 But the wise ones took olive oil in flasks with their lamps. 5 And when the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and fell asleep. 6 But in the middle of the night there was a shout, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet (eis apantēsin) him!’” (Matthew 25:1–6)

Next they welcome the bridegroom into the banquet. They go meet him, with the purpose of jubilantly accompanying him in to the feast.

And in this way we came to Rome. And from there the brothers, when they heard the news about us, came to meet (eis apantēsin) us as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns. (Acts 28:14b15a)

These eager believers ran to meet Paul and his companions to personally walk him into Rome.

From these examples, we see that the technical phrase eis apantēsin has an intentional meaning that Paul does not need to spell out in the passage of 1 Thess 4. There is no debate of what kind of meeting takes place. Of course, believers meet the Lord “in the air” as He descends to the earth! What else could we do when we see our king finally coming to restore all things? And it is obvious that our meeting Him in the air implies that we accompany Him for His final descent. (Perhaps we will even be singing Joy to the World.) The language of 1 Thess 4 is only confusing if we rip it out of its literary environment. Placed within (and exegeted within) we understand precisely what kind of picture Paul is drawing for us.

Keener writes:

Judaism traditionally associated the resurrection of the dead with the end of this age and the inauguration of the kingdom, and readers would assume this connection in the absence of a direct statement to the contrary. When paired with a royal “coming” … the word for “meeting” in the air normally referred to emissaries from a city going out to meet the dignitary and escort him on his way to their city. The contrast that this image provides with the honor thought to be particularly due to the “Lord” Caesar and his emissaries could well have provoked hostility from local officials (cf. 2:12; 5:3; Acts 17:7).[8]

1 Thessalonians 4:15–17 are cast in language and images depicting the arrival of a grand dignitary. In other words, this is a very common and known picture to them. There is no mystery surrounding the cultural backdrop of this text! When the Emperor comes to Thessalonika, they do not see him off in the distance and wait for him to make his way into the city, no, they run out to him to meet him as far as they could. A parade of people celebrate his arrival and with loud songs and jubilation, they walk with him and escort him into the city. The heralds would announce his coming. You would hear his coming before seeing it. Then crowds surge out of their city to meet him and celebrate his arrival. At this point, such a dignitary would not take the crowd with him and leave.

Paul does not deploy this language arbitrarily. The Thessalonians would know what this means. But Paul now applies this language as a metaphor for Christ’s return. The most likely way to complete the scenario Paul painted is by assuming that after assembling His people, gathering them, and clothing them with resurrection, Christ would not leave but would proceed with His parousia, with a parade that outdoes anything Disney could put on! What 1 Thessalonians 4 depicts is not the removal of the church but the dawn of the Day of the Lord—the Day when judgment comes to set all things right.

The choice of language is meant to depict a wonderful, celebratory arrival of the long-awaited event of Jesus’s second coming.

This is victory language. It is Jesus’s victory that we, as believers, are benefactors of.

Speaking of victory language. The reference to “the air” (in 1 Thess 4:17) is probably also symbolic. The air was thought of as the dwelling-place of the powers of darkness.[9] The fact that the Lord chooses to meet His people in the air, on the demons’ home ground, so to speak, displays His complete mastery over them. Remember, part of what we wait for regarding the return of Jesus is His final sweep and decimation of the devil and his demons. The church gathers in the air—the locale between heaven and earth—clothed with resurrection—to fervently welcome the king back home to earth.

In summary, 1 Thess 4:13–18 is meant to be an encouragement that whether someone dies before the Lord’s coming or is alive, the hope remains the same. No believer in Jesus “sleeping or awake”; dead or alive, will be left behind or miss out! We will all be gathered to Him, meeting the King of heaven as He descends to secure His final victory on earth. We meet Him in transit (metaphorically) to be the entourage, the parade of people celebrating the arrival of the King and the establishment of His kingdom.

The parousia is the breaking point between the present age and the promised new age. The claim that Christ will return to bring about the dissolution of the present world and the commencement of the next is a central theme of the New Testament. 1 Corinthians 15:24 talks about the return of Christ, His parousia, as bringing about “the end” (which really is the new beginning), when the kingdom of God is brought in at full force. All the future promises and hopes are at once being brought into reality!

And with this eager expectation, we sing: “Let earth receive her king!”

On the journey with you,

Brayden Rockne Brookshier

__________________

Notes:

[1] Translation from J. Priest, “Testament of Moses,” in James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 1 (New York; London: Yale University Press, 1983), 932. Note to my lay reader: The “Testament of Moses” is not part of the biblical canon (nor do I advocate that it should be) but it does represent a stream of Jewish thought contemporaneous to the New Testament and in the apocalyptic genre, like Revelation. The quote is helpful in demonstrating the Jewish eschatological expectation that Yahweh would and set things right.

[2] Cf. Acts 17.

[3] Paul W. Walaskay, Acts, ed. Patrick D. Miller and David L. Bartlett, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 245.

[4] 1 Corinthians 15 would be another key Pauline text.

[5] If you have not noticed, theologians have made a rich tradition of this word, parousia, to where it now stands as a single word substitute for all that encompasses the discussion of the event of the return of Christ.

[6] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 1 Thess 4:15.

[7] The word parousia is applied to Jesus in Matt 24:3, 27, 37, 39; 1 Cor 15:23; 1 Thess 2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23; 2 Thess 2:1, 8; Jas 5:7, 8; 2 Pet 3:12; 1 John 2:28.

[8] Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, 1 Thess 4:16–17.

[9] Silva, NIDNTTE, 1:160.

Eschatology, New Testament

CATEGORY

12/24/2020

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How 1 Thessalonians 4 Pictures Christ’s Return as a Royal Parade

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