Parousia of Jesus in Thessalonica

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In his first letter to the Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul wrote to reassure the congregation about the participation of fellow saints who died before the Parousia in the glories of that day. BOTH dead and living saints will assemble to "meet" Jesus. In doing so, he provided one of his more detailed descriptions of the “coming” of Jesus. On that day, dead Christians will be resurrected and, together with those still alive, will meet Jesus as he descends from heaven. -
[Photo by Michael Kroul on Unsplash].
  • (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) - “But we do not wish you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are falling asleep lest you sorrow even as the rest also, who are without hope; for if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so also will God bring with him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus. For this we say to you by a word of the Lord, that we the living who are left unto the arrival of the Lord will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep, because the Lord himself, with a word of command, with an archangel’s voice, and with a trumpet of God, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first, after that we, the living who are left, together with them will be caught away in clouds to meet the Lord in the air: and in this manner we will evermore be with the Lord. So then be consoling one another with these words.”
In the first half of the chapter, Paul exhorted believers to walk in holiness, to abstain from sexual immorality, to refrain from transgressing against fellow believers, to continue in love, and to attend to their own business. In such ways, they would become proper witnesses of the gospel to the outside community and “please God.”

In the second half, Paul’s purpose was to reassure the church that believers who died prior to the “arrival” of Jesus would, indeed, participate fully in that event. Dead and living Christians would be reunited and then meet Jesus as he descended from heaven. From that point, believers would be “together with the Lord forevermore.” Paul’s words were meant to comfort the Thessalonians.

Threaded through the chapter is the theme of attaining holiness before God, especially in consideration of the Parousia of Jesus.  This they would achieve by proper conduct, exercising love, and remaining faithful through tribulations.

This description of the final event begins with the clause, “now…concerning” (deperi), a phrase Paul uses elsewhere to introduce new subjects. The Thessalonians were not ignorant about the “arrival” of Jesus, but instead, about the relationship of dead believers to that event.  This is made clear by his statement - “We would not have you ignorant… concerning those who are asleep.”

The issue was not theological but pastoral. Paul addressed a real concern that could have impacted the entire congregation. An incorrect understanding could easily turn Christian grief into hopelessness (“that you may not grieve even as the rest who have no hope”). The purpose was to reassure and comfort (“comfort one another with these words”).

Paul did not criticize the Thessalonians for their grief. Christians experience grief when loved ones die, but they are not without hope.  But he did not want them to grieve in the same way as did unbelievers who had no hope because they did not possess the knowledge that God would resurrect the righteous dead. In contrast, for believers, just as God raised Jesus from the dead, “so also He will bring with him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus.”
Thus, Paul anchored the resurrection hope of believers in the past Death and Resurrection of Jesus. As described elsewhere in the New Testament, his resurrection is the guarantee of the future resurrection of believers (John 14:19, Acts 26:23, Romans 8:11, 1 Corinthians 15:20-23, Colossians 1:18, Revelation 1:5).
Participation on that day is not based on whether one is dead or alive, but on faith in what God has accomplished in Jesus - (“for if we believe that Jesus has died and rose again…”). What counts is faith, either at the time of death or the moment of Christ’s arrival.  This is demonstrated by the phrase - “God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus,” which indicates that believers in the right relationship with Jesus when they die will be resurrected - (e.g., “Those who have fallen asleep in Christ.” Also, 1 Corinthians 15:18).

The description by Paul draws on sayings of Jesus from his ‘Olivet Discourse.’ Jesus would “descend from heaven” accompanied by an “archangel.” The trumpet would sound, and believers would be gathered to him “in the clouds”:
  • (Matthew 24:30-31) - “The sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven and he will come on the clouds…he will send out his angels to gather his elect…a loud trumpet.”
Another verbal parallel is from the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids.  The bridesmaids fell asleep while waiting for the bridegroom. They were awakened by “a shout” and command to go out “to meet” the bridegroom as he arrived.  They “rose” and “went with him” into the wedding feast. Likewise in Thessalonians, the issue was the state and participation of believers that had “fallen asleep” - (Matthew 25:1-13).

Likewise, when Jesus arrives, he will be accompanied by “shout” and the voice of the archangel.  Then the dead, those who have fallen asleep, will “rise” first and be caught up with living saints “to meet the Lord and to be with him forever.”

The Greek noun rendered “meet” or apantêsis in first Thessalonians is the same term used in Matthew when the “bridesmaids” went out to “meet” the bridegroom. The bridesmaids did not die, but instead, “fell asleep.” But this occurred over time when the bridegroom tarried. So, also, in Thessalonica, some “fell asleep” or died while waiting for the Parousia.

The reference to “falling asleep” is metaphorical, not literal. This becomes clear when Paul labeled this group the “dead in Christ.” He used the Greek adjective nekroi, which refers to dead persons, not to the abstract state of death. Since they still are waiting for resurrection, this indicates they have yet to receive their full salvation.

We, the living, who remain to the coming of the Lord.”  This clause demonstrated the Apostle’s belief that Christians would still be alive on the earth at the time of the parousia - (1 Corinthians 15:51-52 - “We will not all sleep: but we will all be changed: and the dead will be raised imperishable: and we will be changed”).

The Greek noun commonly rendered “coming” is parousia, which means “arrival, coming, presence.”  Its most frequent use is for “arrival.” Thus, for example, Paul rejoiced at the “arrival of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus.” Later, Paul was “comforted by the arrival of Titus” – (1 Corinthians 16:17, 2 Corinthians 7:6).

In his letters to the Thessalonians, Paul applied the term parousia in all but one instance to the future “coming” of Jesus, and once he referred to a coming of the “man of lawlessness” - (1 Thessalonians 2:193:13: 4:15: 5:23: 2 Thessalonians 2:1: 2:8, 2 Thessalonians 2:9).

Sunburst - Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Since Paul consistently applied 
parousia to Christ’s coming in this letter, it is more than probable that each time he did so, he was referring to the same event.  If so, then associated with that event are the sanctification of the saints, the resurrection of the dead, the arrival of Jesus “from heaven,” the sound of a trumpet, the voice of an archangel, the gathering of both resurrected and living saints, the “meeting” with the Lord in the air, the destruction of the “man of lawlessness,” and the “Day of the Lord” - (1 Thessalonians 3:13, 5:1-2, 5:23, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-9).

The dead in Christ will rise first.”  This is the key “new” piece of information introduced by Paul - The dead would rise first, even before those who remained alive on that day. This information was provided to comfort the Thessalonians concerning the fate of their dead brothers and sisters.

Paul described three audible features of the Parousia - A “shout,” the voice of an “archangel,” and the “trumpet of God.” He did not state to whom the “shout” would be directed. One possibility is that it would be Jesus’ call for the dead to rise from their graves – (John 5:25 - “An hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God: and those who hear will live”).

Archangel” does not have a definite article or “the.” Paul did not identify a specific angel. His emphasis was on its “voice.” The reference to the “trumpet of God” parallels other scriptures that associate trumpet blasts with the “Day of the Lord” - (Isaiah 27:13, Joel 2:11, Zechariah 9:14, 1 Corinthians 15:52).

The Greek word rendered “meet” is apantêsis, a noun found only here and in Matthew 25:6 and Acts 28:15. It means a “meeting,” and with the preposition eis, as here, it has the sense “we will be caught away on clouds for a meeting of the Lord in the air.”

In Greek-speaking communities, parousia was often applied to the “arrival” of royal dignitaries to a city. When the person approached the city, its leading citizens went out to “meet” him with pomp and ceremony, then they would escort him into the city. For such “meetings,” the Greek term apantêsis was used, the same word applied to believers when they “meet the Lord in the air.”

In this society, it was illegal to bury the dead within a city’s walls. Commonly, the roads approaching a city were lined with graves, sometimes for miles. If Paul was using apantêsis and parousia with this background in mind, the picture becomes clear. The righteous dead are raised first, then, together with those remaining alive, they all “meet” Jesus as he approaches, then accompany him as he continues his descent to the earth.

Those “caught up” to the clouds.  This rendering can be misleading. The Greek verb harpazō means “snatch, to seize.” By itself it contains no information regarding direction; no notion of upwards motion - (Matthew 11:12, 12:29, 13:19, John 6:15, 10:12, 10:28-29, Acts 8:39, 23:10, 2 Corinthians 12:2, 12:4, Jude 1:23, Revelation 12:5).

Elsewhere, “clouds” are associated with the return of the “Son of Man in glory” at the end of the age - (Matthew 26:64, Mark 14:62, Acts 1:9-11, Revelation 1:7).

After meeting the Lord “in the air,” believers will be with him “always” or pantote. The term means “always,” “evermore,” “at all times.”  The point is that, after this meeting, believers will be with Jesus forevermore.  Precisely where this occurs is not stated, whether Jesus returns with his saints to heaven, they accompany him as he descends to the earth, or the entire company remains suspended in midair for eternity.

Old Testament Allusions: The Lord will descend “from heaven with a shout: with the archangel's call: and with the sound of a trumpet of God.” This alludes to Psalm 47:5. The verbal echo is fitting – it celebrates Yahweh’s rule over the nations:
  • God has ascended with a shout: Yahweh with the sound of a trumpet.”
Caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord.” This clause alludes to a prophecy from the book of Daniel concerning the one “like a son of man”:
  • And behold, with the clouds of heaven one like a son of man was coming” – (Daniel 7:13).
In Daniel’s vision, all kingdoms came under the rule of the “Son of Man” and his “saints.” The reference to “clouds” also recalls other divine theophanies found in scripture, and especially the description of his “coming” given by Jesus himself - (Exodus 19:16, 24:15-18, 40:34, 1 Kings 8:10-11, Psalm 97:2, Mark 13:26, 14:62).

In Summary, Paul's purpose was to reassure the Thessalonians regarding the participation of dead saints in the events of that day. Dead believers will be resurrected and reunited with those still alive, and together they ALL will meet Jesus as he descends from heaven. No true believer will be excluded or shortchanged. In this way, all the elect will be gathered to him and remain forevermore in his presence.




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