Untitled Sermon (3)
Same Message, New Method (part 3)
This is not a passage about the parousia but a passage about grieving for the dead. This does not mean that it is improper to mine these words for insight into the coming of the Lord (any more than it is wrong to study the Christological content of Phil 2:6–11). First Thessalonians 4:13–18 and 5:1–11 are classic texts, useful for the study of Pauline eschatology. We must not, however, allow interest in last things to blind us to the use for which these verses were intended—as a word of encouragement to a church dealing with death.
‘One word of command, one shout from the archangel, one blast from the trumpet of God and the Lord himself will come down from Heaven!’
The loud command (keleusma) is used of the cry of the charioteer to his horses or the hunter to his hounds; it is the shout of the ship’s master to the rowers, or of the commander to his soldiers. Always there is the ring of authority and the note of urgency. It is not said who will utter the command, but it may well be the Lord (cf. John 5:25, 28). If not, then the command, the voice and the trumpet call may all be ways of referring to the same thing (Rev. 1:10 has ‘a loud voice like a trumpet’). Hendriksen and others hold that the Lord utters the command, while the voice and the trumpet call are identical. We should reject translations that might give the impression that the Lord responds to a command (e.g. JB, ‘At the trumpet of God, the voice of the archangel will call out the command and the Lord himself will come down’). He is in control.
The dead in Christ (even death does not break the union; we are still in him) are to rise first, i.e. before the events of the next verse. It is unlikely that Paul has in mind the ‘first resurrection’ (Rev. 20:5), or that he is thinking of the resurrection of all men. He is simply pointing out that, far from the faithful departed missing the parousia, they will have a prominent place.
17. After that, believers who remain alive on earth will be caught up with them in the clouds. The verb harpagēsometha combines the ideas of force and suddenness seen in the irresistible power of God. We should not overlook the fact that believers will be caught up with them. There will be a reunion with Christ, but there will also be a reunion with the friends who have gone before.
meet the Lord in the air. The expression translated to meet is a kind of technical term ‘for the official welcome of a newly arrived dignitary’ (MM), and is very suitable in this context (cf. Matt. 25:6; Acts 28:15). It is a measure of the Lord’s complete supremacy that he should meet his saints in such a region, for the air was held to be the abode of all manner of evil spirits (cf. Eph. 2:2). At the same time this is not anything more than a meeting-place. It seems that the Lord proceeds to the earth with his people (cf. 1 Cor. 6:2).
Paul calls on his readers not simply to take heart, but actively to encourage (see on 3:2) each other with what he has written. Whiteley sees this as very important. Paul’s words are a source of continual strengthening for the believer, not a spur to fascination with the future. They convey the assurance that the power of God will never be defeated. God is supreme, and when he sees that the time has come, he will draw this age to its close and usher in the new age with the parousia. Whether we live or whether we die, we do not go beyond his power. Even in the face of death, that antagonist that no human can tame, we can remain calm and triumphant, for we know that those who sleep sleep in Jesus and that they have their place in the final scheme of things. Well might Paul call on his friends to encourage each other with these words.
In the midst of distress, comfort often comes in the form of the presence of one who cares. The one who cares may not be able to solve the problem afflicting the one suffering any more than Paul could end persecution, vanquish death, or eliminate loss. But just as joy shared is joy intensified, paradoxically suffering shared is suffering diminished. Just as the Thessalonians were called to comfort one another, so also believers of every age are called to “rejoice with those who rejoice” and “mourn with those who mourn” (Rom 12:15).
But it is not only the presence of an empathetic fellow sufferer that is comforting. The “word” can comfort also. The word Paul shared in vv. 13–17 does not eliminate loss, but it does put it in a larger context. The sufferer often can see only his suffering; it becomes his entire world. The presence of a fellow sufferer broadens that world and lets the sufferer know that he is not alone. Hand in hand with the comfort of Christian companionship, the gospel provides the comfort of Christian hope. The hope expands our world beyond the moment of mourning by placing it in the context of eternity. The moment of loss is seen in the context of certain future reunion and eternal togetherness in the presence of the Lord. The loss remains a reality, but it is a temporary reality. The grief is real, but it is no longer grief without hope. The harsh reality of separation is joined by the joyous promise of reunion as the fact of death is transformed by the promise of life eternal.