Continuing my work on Paul’s first letter to Thessaloniki
1 Thessalonians 4: 13
But we don’t want you to remain ignorant, brothers and sisters, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not be sorrowful like other people who have no hope. For if we trust that Jesus died and rose again, in the same way, God will fetch along with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. We’re telling you this as a divine word, that those of us who are alive, who are left over until the Lord’s Arrival, will certainly not overtake the ones who have fallen asleep. For that same Lord, with a loud summons, with the archangel’s voice, and with the blast of God’s trumpet, will come down from the sky, and the dead in Messiah will rise first. Then we who are still living, the leftovers, will be snatched up to meet the Lord in the air; and so we’ll be with the Lord forever.
Now comfort one another with these words.
The motive for this unexpectedly detailed scenario is Paul’s desire to answer the question which Timotheos had brought from the Thessalonians. Paul had told them to expect the Arrival or Appearance of Jesus putting an end to the world as it had been. Without doubt there were teachings attributed to Jesus about his return as Son of Man to establish God’s Rule. Paul here passes on a teaching which he calls “a divine word”, a phrase which means something less specific than a ‘ Word of the Lord’ but which distinguishes it from his own opinion.
The content is, like the teaching of Jesus in Mark 13, a sequence of apocalyptic events, in the language of specific revelation, inspired by God’s spirit. No one can tell how literally people understood this language. Paul presents it soberly as something to be cherished rather than understood: this is what will happen fairly soon. Far from the dead missing out, they will be at the forefront of the resurrection process, and the living will follow on.
Paul is saying that the world as it has been, the story of nature and history, will not run out into nothingness but will be concluded by the returning Lord Jesus, who will assemble his faithful people and their dead, into his new assembly in the sky. His summing up is significant. “ So we’ll be with the Lord forever.” Sharing the life of Jesus Messiah is not a temporary grace but a permanent dwelling. We share his dying; we share his risen life. Paul’s detailed scenario seems bizarre to me, but doubtless the end of the world will seem bizarre if I’m there to see it. People may legitimately have expected more than “ we’ll be with the Lord.” Paul gave this “something more” for his own time and place.
The Thessalonians who have died, he says, have in fact “fallen asleep”, which is not a mere euphemism but an attempt to describe the condition of those who are waiting to be part of the victory of Jesus. They are not dispatched to an individual paradise, but wait in peace to share in the new world which God will establish through Jesus. Resurrection is not a purely individual event, but a cosmic transformation, in which individuals will share the new life of Jesus Messiah.
Paul is sympathetic to the request of his converts for more information about resurrection, and gives them the tradition he has received, in terms of the world view he shares with them. Theologians today might attempt to revise his scenario according to the world view which our sciences have constructed.