Saturday, July 20, 2013





The study of 1 Thessalonians offered here is in the form of a traditional commentary, although secondary scholarship is engaged more intermittently than would be the case in a commentary published in a regular print series. This is the eighth entry in the online commentary on 1 Thessalonians. In the first entry I began by looking at introductory matters, comprised of comments on the nature of a Greco-Roman letter and the background of Paul’s activity in Thessalonica, which we know primarily from Acts of the Apostles and partially from Paul’s letters. In the second entry, I gave a basic overview of the content found in the whole letter and then discussed the very short salutation. In the third entry, I discussed the Thanksgiving for the letter. In the fourth post, I started to discuss the Body of the Letter, particularly the parental affection Paul, Silvanus and Timothy have for the church in Thessalonica, which was continued in the fifth post in the series. The sixth entry in the online commentary examined the love Paul, Silvanus and Timothy have for the community, which is expressed to some degree as anxiety for the Thessalonian Christians they had to leave behind when they were forced to leave the city. In the seventh blog post, I examine Paul and his co-workers’ exhortations to the Thessalonians to behave ethically in sexual matters, though we have had no previous information that there have been sexual indiscretions in the community. Please do follow the links above to see my definition of a Greco-Roman letter, how I have divided this letter in particular and to catch up on the previous entries in general.


4. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians:

c) Body of the Letter: Theological teaching: The Coming of the Lord part 1 (4:13-18): 

13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 15 For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16 For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words. (NRSV)

Paul, Silvanus and Timothy turn from teaching about sexual behavior to theological teaching regarding the resurrection. While this seems like the most basic of Christian teaching, resurrection would have been a particularly difficult concept for non-Jews to comprehend, as the Greco-Roman notion of life after death more readily posited a separation of body and soul in the afterlife. Add to this the fact that the Christian teachers had to leave town rapidly, under threat of persecution, and the confusion about the return of Jesus, the end of the current age and the resurrection itself makes sense.

The initial point that Paul and his co-workers make, a point that is lost in many English translations, is that those who have died physically with faith in Christ are not dead but asleep. The Greek participle used in 4:13, translated as “those who have died” is based on the verb koimoô, which translates literally as “those who have fallen asleep.” There are good Greek words for death and dying in Greek, so if Paul and his friends are using “sleep,” there is a reason for it: physical death is not the end of life.

Their exhortation that the Thessalonians “may not grieve as others do who have no hope,” indicates a strong possibility that some Thessalonians have already died since Paul and the others were there. Scholars have speculated that members of the church might have died in the persecution which chased Paul out of town. This is possible, though by no means certain, although there is good reason to think that some Thessalonians have died, even if the reasons are unrelated to the mob scene described in Acts 17. The issue, whatever the reasons for the deaths, is that grieving is unnecessary since there is a spiritual hope for life after death.

Paul, Silvanus and Timothy explain that this hope is based on Jesus’ resurrection: “for since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died” (4:14). Jesus is said to have died, but the second verb, speaking of “those who have died,” is once again koimoô, “to sleep.” It is important to stress that Jesus’ conquering of death is the entire basis for saying these people have not died but are “asleep.”

 Verse 15 makes a central theological point about those who are "sleeping," for the issue might have been for the Thessalonians that they believed only those alive at the coming (parousia) of the Lord could share in the world to come. Paul and his co-workers write that “by the word of the Lord,” that is, with full authority of Jesus’ teaching, “that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died” {koimoô, “those who have fallen asleep”} (4:15). Whether alive or dead, Paul and the others stress, Christ’s return will include all of his faithful.

They then invoke a typical Jewish apocalyptic scenario for the coming of the Messiah and the judgment to follow (see Is 27:13; Joel 2:1; Zeph 1:14-16): “for the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet, will descend from heaven” (4:16). The trumpet blast proclaimed earthly battles and was imagined as the herald of the Judgment. The "ascending" into the air also plays on ancient notions of God's heavenly dwelling in the sky. In the early Christian understanding, as expressed by Paul, Silvanus and Timothy, “the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever” (4:16-17). The significant issue here, though, is not the ascension into the air or the battle with the forces of evil – a foregone conclusion and so not even discussed – but the Thessalonians’ concern about whether those who have died will share in God’s kingdom. In fact, Paul and his co-workers say, it is “the dead in Christ” who will rise first; in this case the term is not “those who are asleep,” but “the dead,” hoi nekroi. Note, however, that “the dead” are qualified by being “in Christ,” which is to indicate they are those who have been “sleeping.” Not only do those who have died in Christ have nothing to worry about regarding the afterlife, they will be taken before those who are alive at the time of Christ’s coming.

It was an early Christian hope that Christ’s return would happen soon, so perhaps Paul, Silvanus and Timothy see themselves among the living when Christ returns, but this hypothesis is not essential. The basic belief expressed here is simple: Jesus will return for those who have died and those who are alive at the time of his return. Whatever category of person you belong to, dead or alive, is not significant as long as you are a part of the faithful. These words are intended for a simple purpose, namely, to “encourage one another with these words” (4:18).

Next entry, Paul, Silvanus and Timothy continue to teach the Thessalonians about the return of Jesus, specifically, when will it occur?

John W. Martens
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