Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: 1 and 2 Thessalonians (Pt 2)

Part 2: “Day of the Lord”: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11

Having discussed five key eschatological references in 1 and 2 Thessalonians—1 Thess 1:10; 2:19; 3:13; 5:23; 2 Thess 1:6-10—in Part 1, along with 1 Thess 2:14-16 (in a special note), we must now examine the main eschatological portion of 1 Thessalonians: the two related sections, 4:13-18 and 5:1-11. These are central to the primary instruction given in the letter—the probatio, using the terminology of rhetorical analysis—in which a main proposition (propositio) is stated, and then expounded through various arguments and illustrations meant to convince (or exhort) the audience. The propositio occurs in 4:1-2, in which Paul urges the Thessalonians to continue in the tradition and instruction given to them, living in a manner worthy of their identity as believers in Christ. The probatio (proving) follows in 4:3-22, and may be divided into six sections:

    • 4:3-8—Ethical instruction: the need to live in a manner befitting believers
    • 4:9-12—Instruction on filadelfi/a: on expressing one’s care for brothers (and sisters) in Christ in daily life
    • 4:13-18—Eschatological instruction: exhortation for believers in light of the end-time
    • 5:1-11—Eschatological instruction: on how believers should conduct themselves in the end-time
    • 5:12-14—Practical instruction: on the need for believers to be engaged in honest work
    • 5:15-22—Miscellaneous instruction, ethical and practical

The two eschatological sections are closely connected, and are at the heart of Paul’s teaching.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

In this first eschatological section, Paul appears to be addressing a specific question or concern, introduced in verse 13:

“But we do not wish you to be without knowledge, brothers, about the (one)s lying down (to sleep), (and) that you should not be in sorrow, even as the (one)s remaining (are), the (one)s not holding hope.”

The verb koima/w (“lie down [to sleep]”) often serves as an idiom for a person dying (i.e. death as “sleep”), and so is used here. The exact issue Paul is addressing has been variously understood. I believe that a proper understanding is based on identifying the two things he wishes would not be so for the Thessalonian believers: (1) to be without knowledge (vb a)gnoe/w), and (2) to be in sorrow (vb lupe/w) over those who have died. In other words, their sorrowing reflects a lack of knowledge. Sadness about those who have died is characteristic of the “remainder” (loipoi/) of humankind—that is, those who are not believers. Such non-believers are said to be “not holding hope”. The word hope (e)lpi/$) occurs frequently in Paul’s letters (36 in the corpus, out of 53 in the NT), and may be understood in a three-fold sense which is fundamentally eschatological:

    • our union with Christ gives us hope for salvation and (eternal) life at the end-time
    • this hope is specifically defined in terms of resurrection from the dead
    • it will soon be realized at the (end-time) appearance of Jesus

All three aspects are involved in establishing the reason why the Thessalonians should not be in sorrow regarding others (i.e. other believers) who have died: (a) they have the promise of salvation and life, (b) they will be raised from the dead, and (c) this will soon occur when Jesus appears. In my view, it is not simply a question of a belief in the resurrection, but that this all will take place very soon. What point is there of being sad over those who have died when their resurrection will soon occur? The three aspects noted above are joined together in Paul’s statement in verse 14:

“For if we trust that Yeshua died away and stood up (again), so also will God bring the (one)s (hav)ing lain down (to sleep), through Yeshua, (together) with him.”

The place of expression “through Yeshua” (dia\  )Ihsou=) is a bit unclear—whether it belongs with “the ones (hav)ing lain down (to sleep)” or “will bring…with him”, or both. I prefer to view it as a semi-independent phrase, expressing the idea of believers’ union with Jesus—in particular, their/our dying and rising with him (cf. Romans 6:3-4, etc). Both our death and resurrection takes place “through Jesus”. Also somewhat ambiguous is the central clause “God will bring…with him”. While this may relate to the idea, further on in vv. 16-17 (cf. below), of believers meeting Jesus in the air, I believe it is better understood in the more fundamental sense of participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus. God himself brings/leads (vb a&gw) believers through death and into new life, even as he did for Jesus.

The eschatological setting of the resurrection, which Paul connects with the end-time appearance (parousia) of Jesus, is established in verses 15-16 by what Paul says is “a word/account of the Lord” (lo/go$ kuri/ou). We cannot be certain precisely what that means, other than it seems to refer to a tradition that goes back to the words of Jesus himself. There are a number of eschatological sayings and teachings of Jesus preserved in the Gospels, but the most prominent collection is found in the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” (Mark 13 par), which I have discussed at length earlier in this series. There is some evidence, seen especially in 1 and 2 Thessalonians, that Paul—probably in common with many early believers—accepted an eschatological framework that is at least roughly similar to that of the Discourse. If so, then the notice here in verse 15 may be an indication that he inherited this from the early Gospel Tradition, identifying it with preserved sayings/teachings by Jesus. In vv. 15-17, Paul is likely paraphrasing or summarizing this traditional teaching for the Thessalonians:

“For this we relate to you, in a word/account of the Lord, that we—the (one)s living (and) remaining about unto [i.e. until] the Lord’s (com)ing to be alongside (us) [parousi/a]—we shall (certainly) not go first (ahead) of the (one)s (hav)ing lain down (to sleep); (for it is) that the Lord (him)self, in (the) shout (to begin), in (the) voice of (the) chief Messenger and in (the sounding of the) trumpet of God, he will step down from heaven, and the dead in (the) Anointed will stand up first, and then at (this) we, the (one)s living (and) remaining about, together (at the same time) with them, we will be seized up in (the) clouds, into a (go)ing away to meet the Lord, into (the) air…”

Some commentators would claim that the issue for the Thessalonians had to do with a concern that believers who died would not meet the returning Jesus at the same time as those who are living. This reads too much into the wording, and, in my view, is not correct. I tend to think that Paul, here, is giving a more detailed explanation of what he may have previously conveyed to the Thessalonians only through more general eschatological statements (cf. the examples from 1-2 Thessalonians in Part 1). Now, in vv. 15-17, he offers a fuller presentation of the tradition, one which reads almost like an exposition of the words of Jesus in the Eschatological Discourse (Mark 13:26-27 par). In this ‘exposition’, I believe Paul is emphasizing several points:

    • That all believers—both living and dead—will be gathered together at the coming of Jesus.
    • That this will essentially happen at the same time, priority being given to the dead only in that they are not alive, and need to be raised before they can join the living believers.
    • For Paul, this is fundamental symbol of our unity—both with Christ and with each other—to be realized fully at the moment of Jesus’ appearance.
    • And, finally, the dramatic narration of this tradition, in the context of 1 Thessalonians, emphasizes again that the coming of Jesus (and, with it, the resurrection) is imminent.

Verse 17 closes with the following declaration: “…and so we will be with the Lord always [pa/ntote]”. Paul gives no indication of anything that is to take place following the meeting of believers with Jesus in the clouds, but the wording generally suggests that they will be taken with him into heaven—the statement concludes with the words “into the air”, without any indication at all of a return back to earth.

This “taking up” of believers into the sky is commonly referred to as “the rapture, from the Latin raptio and the Latin (Vulgate) translation of 1 Thess 4:17. It has come to be a regular part of modern eschatological parlance, often to the point where the original background (and Scriptural basis) for the idea is often ignored, the term having by now taken on a life of its own (“the Rapture”). Modern eschatological discussion is frequently dominated by speculation as to just when this event will occur within various (and often elaborate) end-time schema. Much of this is far removed from the thought world of the New Testament, and early Christian eschatology in general; however, due to its prominence in modern-day eschatology, I have decided to devote a special note to the subject as part of this series.

Paul certainly understood that the coming of Jesus would bring about the great (final) Judgment on humankind, but that aspect of his eschatology is not described here, rather it is the gathering together of believers that is emphasized, as in Mark 13:27 par. The section ends with a final word of exhortation: “As (this is so), you must (also) call one another alongside in [i.e. by/with] these words”.

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

If the eschatological instruction in 4:13-18 was meant to encourage believers, that in 5:1-11 has the purpose of exhorting them regarding how they should conduct themselves in this end-time. The imminence of the end, seen throughout the letter (cf. discussion in Part 1), and emphasized again in the previous section, now takes on greater urgency and importance. Paul begins with a question of chronology—an aspect of eschatology that seems to be of perennial concern for Christians. On this point, the relationship between 1 and 2 Thessalonians is of some significance, as to whether: (a) 2 Thessalonians was indeed written by Paul, and (b) if was written prior to 1 Thessalonians or after. This will be discussed in more detail in Part 3 (on 2 Thess 2:1-12), but it must be noted here that, according to 2 Thess 2:1-2, there would seem to have been some confusion, on the part of the Thessalonians, on the relationship between the end-time generally and the specific event/moment known by the expression “the day of the Lord”. Here, in 1 Thess 5:1, Paul refers generally to the chronological dimension of the end-time events:

“But about the periods and moments (of time), brothers, you hold no occasion [i.e. there is no need] (for me) to write to you…”

He pairs together the plural nouns xro/noi and kairoi/; both xro/no$ and kairo/$ essentially refer to “time”, but with a slight difference—xro/no$ tends to indicate a period of time, and kairo/$ a point in time. Probably the words used in tandem here represent a hendiadys (i.e. two terms for one thing), and refer generally to any chronological questions about exactly when the end will come. This “end” more or less corresponds to the “day of the Lord” in 2 Thess 2:1ff—that is, the moment when Jesus appears and the final Judgment comes upon humankind. Paul uses the same expression (“day of the Lord”, h(me/ra kuri/ou) here in verse 2:

“…for you (your)selves have seen [i.e. known] precisely that ‘the day of the Lord so comes as a stealer in (the) night’.”

I think it quite possible that Paul is quoting a proverbial saying (perhaps coming from Jesus, cf. Matt 24:43; Lk 12:39). Clearly the thrust of the saying is that the “day of the Lord” will come at a time when people are, or may be, caught unaware. The middle of the night is a time when people are asleep, but it also reflects a period of darkness. Paul plays on both of these aspects in the exhortation that follows; as such, he cleverly shifts the discussion from interest over when the end will occur, to how the Thessalonian believers ought to think and act while living in the end-time. However, the traditional imagery of the unexpectedness of the end continues to be brought out in verse 3:

“(And) when they should say, ‘peace and security’, then (it is that), without (any) shining forth [a)fni/dio$], destruction [o&leqro$] will stand upon them, just as the pain (that comes) for the (woman) holding (a child) in the womb, and they shall not flee out (of it).”

The comparison with the pains of a woman in giving birth is traditional, symbolic of the suffering of the human condition—especially in association with the coming Judgment at the end-time (Mark 13:8, 17 par), which, in the Gospel narrative is set generally in the context of Jesus’ own suffering and death (cf. Luke 23:28-29; John 16:21). The characteristic of the destruction (esp. of the wicked) at the time of the Judgment, using the adjective a)fni/dio$, is difficult to translate properly in English syntax. Literally, a)fni/dio$ means “without (any) shining forth”, i.e. without anything appearing to indicate that it is about to happen, etc. It is often rendered by the adjective “sudden” or “unexpected”. A more literal translation here brings out the motif of the fire of Judgment, corresponding to the glorious and fiery appearance of Jesus when he comes to earth accompanied by heavenly Messengers (Angels)—cf. 2 Thess 1:7-8 (discussed in Part 1). This fire of destruction will hit suddenly, without any glow or light to warn of its coming. The noun o&leqro$ (“destruction, ruin”) also reflects traditional Judgment-language, and is used, in a similar (but more graphic) context, in 2 Thess 1:9.

It is in verse 4, that Paul shifts the focus to the situation of believers, who, as believers, will be saved from the destructive anger of God in the great Judgment. Here, however, the emphasis is on the identity of believers in Christ, who are not to be characterized by the slumber and darkness (cf. above) of the end time:

“But you, brothers, are not in darkness, (so) that the day should take you down as a stealer (does); for you are sons of light and sons of (the) day, and we are not of (the) night and not of darkness—so then, we should not go down to sleep, as the (one)s remaining (do), but we should keep awake and should stay sober.” (vv. 4-6)

Paul’s shift in mid-sentence from 2nd person to 1st person is most effective, including himself (and all other ministers) with the Thessalonians to whom he is writing. This expresses the theme of unity for believers in Christ in a different manner than he does in the previous section (cf. above). The motif of wakefulness, while natural enough as an extension of the “thief coming at night” illustration, is also traditional, and can be seen in several eschatological parables of Jesus. Indeed, Paul’s entire discussion in 5:1-11 could be seen as an exposition of Mark 13:32-37 par, just as that in 4:13-18 expounds Mk 13:26-27. The thrust of the warning here is, not that believers might end up falling away and face the Judgment, but, rather, that they ought to live according to their identity—as those who belong to the light and who will not be “taken down” (vb katalamba/nw) in the time of darkness. Jesus’ words to his disciples in the Gethsemane scene of the Synoptic Passion narrative (Mk 14:38 par) make much the same point, but with a greater sense of the danger that the disciples could fall away during the time of “testing” (peirasmo/$); on this, compare Mk 13:13b par.

In verses 7-8, Paul applies this traditional language of watchfulness/sobriety more directly to the religious identity of believers:

“For the (one)s going down to sleep go down to sleep at night, and the (one)s getting drunk get drunk at night; but we, being of the day, should stay sober, sinking ourselves in(to) (the) chest-armor of trust and love and (the) (protection) about the head (that is the) hope of salvation.”

This “hope of salvation” is the same “hope” (e)lpi/$) mentioned in 4:13 (cf. above). For the believer in Christ, trust, love, and hope—the same triad emphasized by Paul in 1 Cor 13:13—serve as the protective armor we wear. This armor-imagery is developed more extensively in Ephesians 6:11-17; here there are only two protective pieces mentioned:

    • the qw/rac, “chest-guard”, primarily protecting the heart, from which stem our trust (pi/sti$) in Jesus and love (a)ga/ph) for our fellow believers
    • the perikefalai/a, protection “around the head”, representing the uppermost part of our person, and that which point upward, the direction from which our salvation comes, at the end-time

This “salvation” (swthri/a) is given more precise definition in vv. 9-10, emphasizing again the eschatological aspect:

“(for it is) that God did not set us into (His) anger, but (rather) into the making of salvation around (us) through our Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed, the (one hav)ing died away over us, (so) that, if we should be awake (or) if we should go down to sleep, we would live together with him.”

This statement repeats much of the same language from earlier in 4:14-17 (cf. above); in particular, we may note:

    • the salvation of believers comes “through [dia/] Jesus”
    • the idea of believers going down to sleep (using different verbs), and still living
    • that believers will come to be “together with him” (su\n au)tw=|)
    • and that this unity, with Jesus and with (all) other believers, is understood as being complete and simultaneous (“at once”), expressed by the particle a%ma.

Since the verb kaqeu/dw (“go down to sleep”), earlier in vv. 6-7, was used to characterize unbelievers in the time of darkness, its application to believers here needs to be explained. There are two possibilities:

    • Paul is shifting the meaning of both grhgoreu/w and kaqeu/dw to the ordinary human experience of being awake and sleeping
    • He is telling believers that, even if they should lapse into moments of “sleep”, during this time of darkness, they still live (and have life/salvation) in Christ

Probably Paul intends the former, though the latter idea could be justified, for example, by the situation of the disciples in the Synoptic Passion narrative (Mark 14:37-41 par). I would say, however, that Paul is here retaining the eschatological nuance of believers living (i.e. their daily Christian lives) during the end-time of darkness.

The section concludes (in verse 11) much as the prior section did (4:18), following a basic formula, with a message for believers to exhort one another (using the verb parakale/w, “call alongside” [i.e. for help, comfort, etc]):

“Therefore, you must call one another alongside and build (each other up) one by one, even as you also do (now).”

The closing phrase, with the conjunction kai/ (“and”), serves as an important part of the exhortation—and the rhetoric Paul is using—framing it in terms of what the Thessalonians are already doing. From the standpoint of rhetorical analysis, 1 Thessalonians can be characterized as paraenetic rather than deliberative rhetoric—that is to say, its chief purpose is to instruct and exhort, rather than to persuade the audience of the correctness of a particular position. Unlike in Galatians or the Corinthian letters, Paul is not addressing any particular conflict or problem facing the congregations; instead, he is simply encouraging the Thessalonians to continue in the faith.

Taken together, the two sections 1 Thess 4:13-5:11, represent the clearest and most specific summary of Paul’s eschatology that has come down to us in any of his letters. There is virtually nothing in it which goes beyond the traditional belief (and mode of expression) common to Christians at the time (c. 50 A.D.). It is actually highly instructive in providing us a snapshot of the early Christian eschatology in its relation to the Gospel Tradition and the (historical) sayings of Jesus. As noted above, Paul appears to have held an eschatological framework that generally corresponds with that of the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse. This will be seen in greater detail, as we examine 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 in the next part of this study.