The fourth and fifth chapter of 1st Thessalonians written by St. Paul, Timothy and Silas around AD 48-51 deals with a variety of issues. The Thessalonian community had seemingly lost some of their believers, and those who remained were worried on several levels: what would happen to the believers who had passed away, would both the living and the dead be reunited one day, how do those outside of the Christian community view the deaths, and how do Christians act in comparison to the pagans? Would the pagans view the deaths as the wrath of the Greco-Roman gods coming upon the Christians? How would they fit into society? These issues and others inform the letter as a whole.
As a result, St. Paul, Timothy and Silas utilize a plethora of literary features, motifs, symbols and traditions as well as engaging in theological discussions in order to comfort and provide hope for the Thessalonians community. In this paper, literary, theological, and ideological methodologies are used to glean further understanding about what the authors were trying to convey, what these symbols, features, motifs and theological understandings meant as well as how they are understood today, and what this means for the two pericopes contained within 1st Thessalonians 4:13-5:11.
The Genre of 1st Thessalonians and the 4:13-5:11 Pericopes
Within the range of Biblical literature, we find letters, poetry, wisdom, history, narratives, law, prophecy and a variety of other genres. 1st Thessalonians is considered an epistle – a letter. It bears an introduction, thanksgiving, a body, a rhetorical dimension, and a conclusion. The genre of the 1st Thessalonians letter has been argued and debated among scholars, yet for a variety of reasons one can contend that it constitutes as a type of consolatory letter.. Paul, Silas and Timothy wrote the 4:13-5:11 pericope to console the brothers and sisters in the Thessalonian community in an attempt to give them peace as well as to exhort them to act differently than the pagans. This may force the reader to view the passage in a different light: it is not written to be a coherent and chronological narrative of the end times, rather, it appeals to the parousia (coming) of Jesus Christ in order to console to Thessalonian community. The 4:13-18 pericope been classified by some scholars as a consolatory topos (a rhetorical theme), given its content intended to provide the grieving and confused community with hope that they will be reunited with those who have “fallen asleep.”
One indication that the letter is to be considered a consolation letter is through considering basic features of a letter written at the time. For example, the “recipient has experienced some major misfortune that is apt to produce grief… [in this case], the Thessalonians’…grief over the death of loved ones (4:13).”1 In fact, 4:13-18 is filled with this consolation motif, although this motif becomes clear mainly through the framing verses of the periscope, verses 13 and 18.2 According to 4:13, “brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest, who have no hope” (TNIV, emphasis mine). The central idea is, as aforementioned, consoling the community – just as one would find in a consolation letter.
Another indication that this is a letter of consolation is that in the Hellenistic world, suffering is considered to be a “sign of a deity’s approval, blessing or reward to exemplary individuals – not a sign of a deity’s disfavor.” 3 Throughout 1st Thessalonians, the theme of suffering is very prominent. The Thessalonian audience would likely have understood the suffering to be a sign of divine approval, lending further credence to the idea that this is a consolation letter. Indeed, these letters were quite common in the Hellenistic world, yet Paul’s letter is consolatory with hope injected to it, whereas the Hellenistic writers were devoid of hope in the face of death.4
The 4:13-5:11 pericopes are also apocalyptic in nature. In biblical literature, an apocalypse is not necessarily an event, but more of revelation recorded in written form. As with many other Biblical ideas and writings, an apocalypse arises from a crisis and it reveals (hence, a “revelation”) truths about the past, the present, as well as the future generally through symbols. Also, a revelation usually comes in dreams or visions (cf. Joel 2:28), and an angel is usually included in the work to aid in interpretation. An apocalypse is written in order to provide hope and encouragement for individuals who are suffering, and is also a sometimes a coded message. Other examples of apocalypses going around in the first few centuries include the Apocalypse of Peter, the Shepherd of Hermas, Apocalypse of James and several others. According to Abraham Smith, “1 Thessalonians included many of the structural features and typical arguments found in the consolatory letter, though the principal hermeneutical context reflected in the letter was an apocalyptic one.”6 Indeed, although 1st Thessalonians and the 4:13-18 and 5:1-11 sections are not primarily apocalyptic, it is evident through the symbols and motifs that it is partly apocalyptic.
St. Paul, Silas and Timothy use common apocalyptic images of an “angel”’ (2 Esdras 4:36-37; cf. 1st Thessalonians 4:16), a “trumpet of God” (Psalms of Solomon 11:1; 2 Esdras 6:17-24; cf. 1st Thessalonians 4:16), as well as “clouds” (Daniel 7:13; cf. 1st Thessalonians 4:17). In fact, all of the images found in these sections were common apocalyptic images in the 1st century.5 The descent of Christ is likened to the the descent of the Son of Man described in Daniel 7:13 and Mark 14:62. The "cry of command" seen in 4:16 is likely the voice of the Son of Man as he descends for judgment (2nd Esdras 11:37; 12:31-34; cf. Revelation 5:1; 6:1). Archangels are only mentioned once in the New Testament outside of 1st Thessalonians (Jude 9 – “the archangel Michael…”; cf. Daniel 10:13, 12:1). Archangels appear often in intertestamental literature as well as post-NT works (Tobit 12:15; 1 Enoch 20:1-8, etc.), and they were often connected to eschatology. Further, Paul's claim that "the dead in Christ will rise first" is similar to prior Jewish thought concerning who comes first in the resurrection (2nd Esdras 5:42).
With these considerations in mind, it is evident from the text itself as well as other canonical and non-canonical texts that 1st Thessalonians is a consolation letter, include the 4:13-5:11 pericopes, yet these same periscopes are also partly apocalyptic. Not only does Paul draw on multiple eschatological and consolatory images and concepts common to the time, but he also utilizes several literary features to convey his message.
Literary Features of the Text
There are a number of literary features evident in the 4:13-18 and the 5:1-11 texts. Antithetical statements (parallels) are often seen in Pauline texts. For example, St. Paul contrasts those who are alive to those who are dead We also find antithetical comparisons in those who are in safety and those prepared for destruction, those who are awake and those who are asleep, the day and the night, the darkness and the light, and those who are sober compared to those who are drunk. This sort of dualistic language is how Paul conveys his point about the difference between believers and non-believers. These statements also bring about a myriad of social and religious implications and associations that are explored elsewhere.
We find within the 4:13-18 pericope the usage of a common euphemism – “fallen asleep,” a metaphorical expression common for the time. The reason for using “fallen asleep” as a euphemism can be seen in the writings of the Greek poet Theocritus, “Hopes are for the living; the dead are without hope.”7 It was often “an attempt to avoid confrontation with the harsh reality hiding behind a euphemism,” “to avoid the brutal reality and the offensiveness of the term ‘death.’”8,9 In the antiquity, the image of sleep was, as aforementioned, a widely used euphemism for death. It was evidently used as early in Greek writings as Homer (Iliad 11.241), and we find death as a form of deepened “sleep” or “rest” in the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 47:30; Deuteronomy 31:16; Job 14:10-12; Psalm 13:3; 1st Kings 22:40; Jeremiah 51:39; Daniel 12:2).
It is also found within the New Testament, (Mark 5:39; Matthew 27:52; John 11:11-13; Acts 7:60; 13:36; 2nd Peter 3:4), including in the Pauline letters (1 Corinthians 7:39; 11:30; 15:6, 18, 20, 51). Another literary feature is the parallel structure seen between the two periscopes of 4:13-18 and 5:1-11. For example, the problem is addressed (1st Thessalonians 4:13 and 5:1), followed by an immediate response (1st Thessalonians 4:14 and 5:2), continued with a more in-depth explanation (1st Thessalonians 4:15-17 and 5:3-10), finishing with an exhortation to comfort one another (1st Thessalonians 4:18 and 5:11).10 Also, “It appears that 4:13-5:11 consists of three units, of which the third corresponds to the first; this section thus has a concentric feature: a: 4:13-18: because of the future resurrection comfort one another; b: 5:1-8: because of the near but uncertain date be sober and awake; a’: 5:9-11: because of the final salvation encourage one another.”11
Evidently, there are a number of literary features seen in and through the 1st Thessalonians 4:13-5:11 passages. As with other Pauline epistles, there is usage of metaphors (and antithetical statements/comparisons), euphemisms, literary structures as well as other such features. Another very common and prominent literary feature of Pauline letters – particularly 1st Thessalonians – is the usage of themes, motifs, images and intertextual connections between not only works from the Hebrew Bible but also other New Testament documents, elements of the pseudepigrapha and the apocryphal works.
Intertextual Connections and Motifs
One example of this intertextual connection comes from with the Pauline corpus itself. In the book of Romans, written within 5-10 years after 1st Thessalonians, Paul utilizes a lot of the same (or similar) imagery and themes. Romans 13:11-14, for example, is very similar to the 1st Thessalonians 5:1-11 pericope. Both Pauline pericopes refer to time (hour, dates), day and night, light and darkness, battle imagery (armor), soberness and drunkenness, immorality and of course, the Lord Jesus. Other material found in 4:13-5:11 is not only strikingly similar to other expressions and concepts in apocalyptic and prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, but also that of the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in the 1940s at Qumran.12
The New Testament refers to the Second Coming of Christ in a variety of ways, and does so in nearly every NT document. Yet it is not only the New Testament but also the Old – the Hebrew Bible, as well as extrabiblical Jewish literature. In each, we read of those who were assumed (caught up; raptured; translated) into heavenly realms while they were still living, just as we read in 1st Thessalonians 4:17 (see Enoch in Genesis 5:24; Elijah in 2nd Kings 2:11; see also Apoc. Moses 37.3; Greek Apocalypse of Ezra 5:7; 1 Enoch 39:3; 52:1; 3 Baruch 2:1). The verb to be “caught up” is also used in the New Testament in regard to the "snatching away" of individuals or items (cf. Matthew 11:12, 12:29; John 6:15, 10:12, 28-29). The apostle Phillip is also “caught up” by the Holy Spirit and taken to another place (Acts 8:39). Finally, we read in 2nd Corinthians 12:2 and 4 that St. Paul was “caught up” in a vision to the third heaven - to paradise. Also, in Revelation 12:5, the child is snatched up into heaven by God. Of interest, clouds are a divine way of transportation through the air (Daniel 7:13; Revelation 11:12; cf. 1st Thessalonians 4:17).
We also see the repeated motif and image of God riding on a cloud in Isaiah 19:1 and elsewhere. Indeed, in Deuteronomy 33:26 for example we read, of the God “who rides on the heavens to help you and on the clouds in his majesty,” or in Psalm 68:4, “Sing to God, sing in praise of his name, extol him who rides on the clouds; rejoice before him – his name is the LORD” (alternate reading “prepare the way for him who rides through the deserts”). Revelation 1:7 also says, “Look, he is coming with the clouds.” According to Matthew 24:30 and 26:64, Jesus claims to be the Son of Man who will come on the clouds of heaven in “power and great glory” (cf. Mark 13:26-27). Psalm 18:9-10 and 104:3 also refer to the Lord, who “makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind,” and “He parted the heavens and came down; dark clouds were under his feet. He mounted the cherubim and flew; he soared on the wings of the wind.”
Now, as for parallels in regard to the parousia in the Hebrew Bible, there exist a few. For example, in Micah 1:3 we read, “For behold the Lord comes forth out of His place and will descend” and Joel 2:1, “Blow the trumpet in Zion… for the day of the Lord comes, it is nigh at hand.” Finally, Isaiah 29:5b says, “Suddenly, in an instant, the LORD Almighty will come” (cf. 1st Corinthians 15:51-52). There is also the motif of the world being gathered together, although this gathering takes on more of a prominent role in later Jewish apocalyptic literature (Tobit 13:15; Baruch 5:5-9; 2nd Maccabees 2:7-8) as well as the pseudepigrapha (1st Enoch 57; Psalms of Solomon 11:2-3; 17:26).13 According to Daniel 7, the nations will be gathered under the Son of Man – something Jesus refers to (Matthew 24:30-31), evidently showing his intention as the Son of Man to fulfill this gathering.
One of the more interesting intertextual connections is the allusions, expressions and concepts related to Jesus’ Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24, Luke 21 and Mark 13. As Blaising points out, these connections “include the metaphor of ‘a thief in the night’ (1 Thess. 5:2; cf. Matt. 24:43; Luke 12:39-40); the element of ‘surprise’ (1 Thess. 5:4; cf. Matt. 24:43-44, 50); ‘sudden destruction’ when people will be saying ‘peace and safety’ (1 Thess. 5:3; cf. Matt. 23:37-41, 50-51; Mark 13:33, 35, 37; Luke 21:34, 36)… [and] is the metaphor of the beginning of labor pains… (1 Thess. 5:3; cf. Matt. 24:8; Mark 13:8).”14 The connections between the Olivet Discourse and the Pauline pericopes are significant as they appear to establish that Paul is dependent upon the teachings of Jesus (perhaps heard during one of his visits o Jerusalem as recorded in Galatians 1:17-19, 2:1-10), and also to further establish further what the Pauline eschatological viewpoint is on the day of the Lord. Also, Paul and Jesus emphasized the commencement of the labor process, not the culmination of that process (the birth itself). This is consistent with the use of the labor metaphor with the day of the Lord in the Old Testament, which conveys the notion of extended trauma (Isaiah 13:8; cf. 21:3; Jeremiah 48:41; 49:22; Micah 4:9-10).”15
Another common image is the divine trumpet seen in 1st Thessalonians 4:16. There are a number of passages in the Hebrew Bible where we read about a trumpet used in connection with the Lord (Exodus 19:16; Psalm 47:5; Isaiah 27:13; Joel 2:1, 15; Zephaniah 1:14-16; Zechariah 9:14) as well as in the New Testament and other writings of the time (Matthew 24:31; 1st Corinthians 15:52; 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17; Revelation 8-9, 11:15; cf. Didache 16:14; the Qumran War Scroll).16-17 Indeed, just as God’s descent upon Mount Sinai was proclaimed with a great trumpet, so too is the return of the Lord for his people announced with a great trumpet blast.
It is worth noting that that St. Paul, Silas and Timothy called the Thessalonian community the “sons of light,” which is a concept also found in one of the Qumaran scrolls “The War of the Sons of Light with the Sons of Darkness” As Young notes, “It was especially important for the Dead Sea sect at Qumran, who considered themselves the "sons of light" (the literal rendering of "children of light," v. 5) and God's only righteous remnant (1QS 1:9-10; 3:13,24-25; 1QM 1:1, 3).”18 Indeed, the “children of light” or “children of the day” is found in both 1st Thessalonians 5 and in Romans 13. According to Morris, “In this context we must understand ‘day’ to refer to the ‘day of the Lord’”19, or rather, “the sons of the day of the Lord.” Jesus, in his sermon on the Mount, also makes reference to an Essene teaching of hating your enemies – but he goes against this and says to love your enemies.20 In the New Testament, outside of 1st Thessalonians we also read of the “sons of light” (Luke 16:8 and John 12:36) and the “children of light” (Ephesians 5:8).
There are also a number of other literary motifs, traditions, allusions and themes, most of which revolve around the image of the “thief in the night,” those in labor pains as well as the Jewish concept of the “day of the Lord.”
The Day of the Lord and other Traditions
The phrase the “day of the Lord” is an ancient phrase, mentioned at least by the time of Amos and appears to be much older than the prophet, as it was mentioned in order to dispel ideas that had come up by basing his claims on the older idea of the day of the Lord (Amos 5:18-20). The day of the Lord is understood as being the day God comes to judge the world, hence why 2nd Peter 2:9 refers to it as the “day of judgment.” It is not simply a well-documented phrase and concept from the Hebrew Bible but – as seen in the quote from 2nd Peter – a New Testament phrase and concept as well. It is seen as the “the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5) but also as the “the day of redemption” (Ephesians 4:30). It is also referred to as “the day of the Lord” (1st Corinthians 5:5), “the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6), “the day of God” (2nd Peter 3:12), as well as” the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1st Corinthians 1:8). Elsewhere it is called ‘that day’ (2nd Thessalonians 1:10), or “the last day” in the Johannine gospel (6:39-40), as well as or “the great Day” (Jude 6).
Along with the “day of the Lord,” the usage of a “thief in the night” is a common NT phrase. According to Dr. Christopher Stanley, “As an apocalyptic image, the phrase is uniquely Christian; it has no precedent in the Hebrew Bible or Judaism.”21 In fact, the image of Jesus coming back “like a thief” is prominent in later Christian writings such as in that of John Chrysostom and St. Augustine as well as Tertullian, Gregory the Great and Basil of Caesarea.22 It was, of course, Jesus who first spoke of this idea. As Stanley points out, there is no parallel in the Hebrew Bible, although we do indeed find this Christian phrase in the canonical and non-canonical works (Matthew 24:43-44; Luke 12:39-40; 2nd Peter 3:10; Revelation 3:3, 16:15; Gospel of Thomas 21). This image “plays upon common stock of cultural lore regarding the nocturnal activities of house burglars… [and] poor people and women had the most to fear from burglars.”23
Indeed, women would have been particularly troubled with the image of a “thief in the night,” possibly associating the coming with fears of rape or helplessness. To double this fear, Paul, Silas and Timothy also utilize the image of labor pains. As aforementioned, the image of labor pains was a common way of relating suffering in the Hebrew Bible (Jeremiah 4:31; Hosea 13:13) and is also found in other Jewish apocalyptic literature (1st Enoch 64:3-6). Jesus Himself used the same image to describe the tribulations that would accompany the end (Mark 13:8), just as Paul did – both describing the beginnings of the labor process, not the actual birth itself. Later on, St. Augustine, in his Confessions uses the phrase “birth pains.” In the Biblical tradition, women have birth pains because of Eve’s transgression in Genesis 3:6 – and birth pains are seen as intensified sensations. As a result, God said to Eve, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Genesis 3:16).
Biblical traditions, motifs and themes are not only seen throughout 1st Thessalonians, but they also form and inform the message that Paul, Silas and Timothy are conveying about hope.
Gaps and Textual Ambiguities
As with many Biblical passages, there are a number of textual ambiguities and gaps. One can read a variety of interpretations back into these gaps and ambiguities, and throughout the centuries several different ways have been put forth to fill in (or answer) some of the gaps in the text. For example, who is the archangel mentioned in 1st Thessalonians 4:16? When St. Paul refers to the “word of the Lord,” is it an actual saying of Jesus, or is it something else? Also – did Paul actually believe he would live to see the parousia of Jesus? Lastly, what happens to non-believers according to this apocalyptic sequence of events?
The archangel in this passage is not named. The only archangel mentioned in Scripture is Michael (Jude 9), Gabriel is called an angel only (Daniel 8:16-26, 10; Luke 1:19, 26) and Lucifer is called a “guardian cherub” (cf. Isaiah 14; Ezekiel 28; 1st Corinthians 11:14). However, in Jewish writings we see mention of seven archangels: Uriel, Raphael, Raguel, Michael, Saraqa’el, Gabriel, and Remiel. Indeed, the archangel Raphael appears in the apocryphal book of Tobit, which pre-dates Paul’s letter by about two hundred years. The phrase has been translated “with the voice of the archangel” or “the voice of an archangel,” so the possibility remains open as to whether or not Paul intended to allude to one of these traditions. Not only is Michael the only named archangel in the New Testament, it is interesting that he also appears in the apocalypses of both Testaments (Daniel 9:12, 21, 12:1; Revelation 12:7). As a result of these considerations, it is quite likely that Paul was simply referring to the archangel Michael – yet the possibility remains open that it was an archangel from Jewish literature or simply an angel in general.
The Word of the Lord is another ambiguity in the text. According to Houwelingen, there are three general options for determining what is meant by this expression. “The word of the Lord is taken as a pronouncement of the earthly Jesus, which is not preserved in the gospel tradition. So, we may think of an unwritten word (cf. Acts 20:35; 1st Corinthians 7:10; 9:14) or perhaps an apocryphal word… [second,] The word of the Lord is taken as a pronouncement on behalf of the heavenly Jesus made by a prophet in the church… [third,] The word of the Lord is taken in a general sense (cf. 1 Thess. 1:8; 2 Thess. 3:1). We are dealing, then, with a summary of what Jesus taught about the lot of the dead.”24 One could perhaps also posit that Paul received this word of the Lord – as well as other early creeds, statements, hymns and poems – on his visit with the disciples in Jerusalem as documented in Galatians 1-2 (cf. 1st Corinthians 11:2, 23-25, 15:3-7a; Ephesians 5:14; Philippians 2:6-11; 1st Timothy 3:16b).
Subsequently, another textual ambiguity rises. What happens to the unbelievers? Does this event signify the end for all, if so, what happens to non-Christians, and where do the Christians actually go? The text itself does not say. Based on other canonical texts, we assume that – using the general idea of the “day of the Lord” – God is coming to judge the unbeliever, and that the believers will then be with God when Heaven touches down on earth and God reigns from a new earth. The text itself, however, is silent on the topic. Another textual ambiguity is this: did Paul actually think he would be alive at Christ’s coming or did he believe it could be after his death? For some, Paul’s words here as well as Jesus’ words “this generation will not pass away” clearly show that the early church was convinced that Jesus would return within their lifetime. However, by “this generation” Jesus may have meant the generation who would be alive at that time. Pauline eschatology overall seems to imply that he believed Jesus would return within his lifetime, yet when he did not, this is one of the reasons why Christians began collecting and writing what we now have as the canonical New Testament.
Among other ambiguities, there is also no consistent or coherent apocalypse narrative within these pericopes. Although Paul, Silas and Timothy do not discuss other considerations such as what the new body will be like or how those are alive will actually be caught up, but Paul discusses this elsewhere in his writings (see 1st Corinthians 15:5). Indeed, perhaps much of the reason for these textual ambiguities and gaps is due to the whole purpose of Paul’s writings is thus – “his description of the end at this point is tailored to the pastoral needs of the Thessalonians. As grieving believers, they need the assurance that God will keep their departed Christian friends in God's care. An exhaustive script of the end-times is not called for, but attention to the readers' spiritual needs is.”25
Ideological and Modern Interpretations
As with many Biblical texts, there are a number of ideological interpretations as well as modern ideas that are read back into the text, either to support a particular ideology or one that – because of living in a different time period and cultural – are ideas skewed due to the barrier between the original audience and the modern audience. For example, based on passages such as 4:13-5:11, there are some individuals who believe that heaven is actually in the sky, neatly tucked away. Popular television shows have sometimes portrayed this concept, yet it is not found explicitly in the text.
Another example of modern thinking is the image of the “thief in the night.” For a modern audience unfamiliar with Greco-Roman and Jewish homes, society, crime and fears, the image brings to mind someone in the 21st century who can bypass security systems, dogs (or cats), security cameras and alarm systems in order to break into the house. However, this was not the socio-historical situation at the time the text was written, as historical, textual and archaeological evidence clearly shows. The image of labor pains coming on a woman is another example of how modern thinking and occurrence is different than that of the 1st century. We now have medicine to alleviate the pain of the birth process – they did not have these anesthetics in the 1st century. Therefore, when St. Paul, Timothy and Silas appeal to this image, those who have already given birth would know (and perhaps convey to the male audience) just how painful labor pains could actually be.
One example of how the ideology of a particular group uses a text such as 4:13-5:11 to support their dogma is the Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jesus was once the archangel Michael, and not actually equal to the Father. The Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that 1st Thessalonians 4:16, which says that the Lord Jesus will descend “with the voice of the archangel” supports their Christological view connecting Jesus to Michael the archangel.26 Others point out early understandings of Jesus as God, and attempt to demonstrate that this view was actually a later development not present in the text.
Perhaps one of the most well-known ideologies to emerge from this text and several others is the concept of the Rapture. The concept is as follows: the Rapture is the upcoming event in which Jesus Christ returns in the clouds to "snatch up" (rapture) his Church. There are differing views on when this will occur, and this is where the issue lies. There are three dominant views concerning the Rapture: the Pre-Tribulation, Mid-Tribulation, and Post-Tribulation. The Pre-Tribulation states that Christ will return to rapture His Church "in the twinkling of an eye," and seven years of Tribulation will follow. The Mid-Tribulation states that this event will occur in the middle of the tribulation, 3.5 years in. The Post-Tribulation view states that this event will occur at the end of the seven years. There is also, to be sure, the view that this will simply not occur as a way to save the Church from a Tribulation but will be the event that brings about the final judgment instead.
According to the well-known Pretribulationist viewpoint, one of the major issues is as follows: Jesus says in Matthew 24:36, "that day or hour no one knows..." The second phase of Christ's return is called the Glorious Appearing (Titus 2:13), and in this second phase, He does not return in the clouds but sets foot on the Mount of Olives (Zechariah 14:4), just as the angels told the disciples that Jesus "will come back in the same way you have seen Him go into heaven." (Acts 1:11) This second phase in Christ's Second Coming (the parousia) will occur at the very end of the seven years, and because of this, those living during the Tribulation will know that He will return to set up His kingdom exactly seven years after the Tribulation begins. The Tribulation (in this ideology) begins with the signing of the treaty between the Antichrist and the rest of the world, including Israel (Daniel 9:27). Those living during the Tribulation need only take the date of the signing of the treaty and add seven years to reach the date of Christ's return - the second phase, the Glorious Appearing. Therefore, Pretribulationists determine that when Christ says, "that day or hour no one knows," He is referring to the first phase of His coming, the Rapture.
As Blaising points out, however, “Pretribulationists commonly admit that the Scriptures include no explicit statement on the timing of the rapture with respect to the tribulation. As John Walvoord often noted, this is a matter of inference.”27 Certainly, the idea of being “snatched up” or “caught up” is a Biblical concept as previously addressed. Enoch, Elijah, Jesus and others are taken up into heaven. In visions we see Isaiah taken up (Isaiah 6), Ezekiel is lifted up by the Spirit multiple times (Ezekiel 2:2; 3:12, 14, 24; 8:3; 11:1, 24; 37:1; 43:5), as well as St. Paul and likely others – John included (Revelation 4:1-2). The Pre-Tribulation Rapture allegedly came from John Darby in 1827, but it actually seems that this view has been around longer. For example, Joseph Mede, who lived 1568-1638, wrote, "Therefore, it is not needful that the Resurrection of those which sleep in Christ, and the Rapture of those which shall be left alive together with them in the air..."28 This view has also been explored in popular end times fiction.
Indeed, the Left Behind series is one of the most influential end-times series. It puts forth the view described above. The Chronicles of Brothers series by Wendy Alec is another example. The main idea behind this series is that it follows the three brothers: Michael, Gabriel, and Lucifer. In a cinematic style of writing that makes the reader picture the scene in their head with vivid detail, the series begins with the Creation of Time, and of the Universe, and goes from the chambers of the First Heaven to the Fall of Lucifer and what he did to be banished, and the series will conclude with the end of time, with the final battle between Michael and Lucifer, and the Christians going to live with the "Nazarene," Jesus, for eternity. From her book introductions, Alec notes that she has done research into conspiracy theories and has carefully woven them into the tapestry of her novels. Ideas such as the inception of the Antichrist - a clone of Lucifer himself, the Illuminati, 9/11, Black Ops, and many others are found in the pages, in vivid detail. The difference between the two series is the Rapture. The Chronicles of Brothers seems to support a Mid-Tribulation Rapture. Both series are fictional in nature, but such works also influence popular thinking and thus, ideological interpretations of texts such as 1st Thessalonians.
Setting the date of the end of time is another point of consideration. People have been trying to set the date of the end times for a long time. The oldest surviving prediction we have is from the Assyrians, inscribed on a clay tablet, "Our earth is degenerate in these latter days. There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end. Bribery and corruption are common."29 This may sound remarkably familiar. In the second century AD, the Motanists, who were founded ca.155 AD by Montanus, believed that Jesus' return was imminent and proceeded to set up a base in Anatolia in central Turkey, where they lie in wait for doomsday - which came and went.30
March 25, 970 was predicted by the Lotharingian computists. Pope Innocent III predicted that the year 1284 was the return of Christ, basing his prediction solely on the date of the formation of Islam and adding 666 years. February 1, 1524 was predicted by London astrologists, when they were anticipating a great flood from the Thames. 1648, 1666, 1792, 1914 and others were said to be the end of time. Jehovah's Witnesses have continued to set dates: 1914, 1915, 1918, 1919, 1920, 1925, 1941, 1975, 1994, among others. Harold Camping, who set the May 21, 2011 date, previously predicted that Christ would return on September 6, 1994. When nothing occurred on that day, he claimed he had miscalculated concerning the numerology, and re-set the date, and both dates have come and gone.31
It is not difficult to take our modern presuppositions, worldviews, doctrines and ideologies and either read them into a text such as the 4:13-5:11 pericopes or to tailor the text to our needs and claim that it says whatever we desire to say. This is a fundamental problem among many Christians and non-Christians today, particularly when the original audience, what symbols, images, phrases and ideas meant during that time period and a heap of other considerations. One of the other sides of this is the ethical implications that come from the text and those who use the text to support their ethics.
The Amish may be a good example of those who separate themselves from the world as “sons of light,” just as the community at Qumran did. Although their primary text to support separation from the world is found in James 1:27, texts such as these which admonish the believing community to “not be like the others” (5:6) provide further verses used to support their cause. The language that Paul uses in this passage was likely intended to remind the Thessalonian believers that they need to show with their actions that they are different from the pagans. His contrasting images of light and darkness, day and night, sober and drunk, as well as the battle imagery all support this. The usage of armor as a symbol may have implied that they ought to stand firm in their beliefs and go against the grain of the ethical system at work in pagan Thessaloniki.
The eschatological worldview put forth by Paul, Timothy and Silas in these pericopes was what drove home the point of the ethical exhortation. The ethics and the eschatology were closely tied together, and in many Pauline works we find similar ties between the two.32 The Ethical and moral implications of the passage are this: our good works are external signs of an inward faith, and they also show the secular society that we are different in our thinking, our words and our actions. We serve Jesus Christ, who is master over the earth, the air (by appearing in the air He shows mastery over the demons, who were thought to have their abode in the air) as well as the heavens. He is the Son of Man who will gather His people. As Jesus is master over all, the Christian communities ought to bear this in mind, hold hope, but not use this fact to gloat but rather to help others, build up others and care for others. To be sure, this is where Christian theology comes into play.
The Theology of 1st Thessalonians 4:13-5:11
As a Biblical text, 1st Thessalonians 4:13-5:11 is subject to theological interpretation. Indeed, there is plenty of theological implications at work here. A simple example can be seen through authority, in the authority of apostles compared to the authority of Christ. Paul uses “We believe” (v.14) and “we believe that” when appealing to his own authority. However, the early Christians taught that Jesus was Lord and God, and hence, the authority of Jesus would have held more weight. He therefore says, “According to the Lord’s word, we tell you” (v.15). Paul, Timothy and Silas appeal to their own authority in belief, but speak firmly and authoritatively when appealing to the authority of Christ. This demonstrates further how Jesus was viewed in the community.
A better example of theology is through the triadic formula. 1st Thessalonians 1:3 and 5:8 has the triadic Pauline formula, “faith, love and hope.” Readers find this formulation used in other Pauline letters as well (1st Corinthians 13:13; cf. Colossians 1:4-5; 2nd Timothy 2:22). According to 1st Thessalonians, when Timothy reports back to Paul about the church, he speaks of their “faith and love” (3:6), which seems to imply that hope is not present. Paul seeks to “supply what is lacking” (3:10) and restore and provide hope in the Thessalonian community, and as a form of consolation and admonishment, does so. Significantly, we see that Faith is used 7 times (faithful is used once), hope is used 4 times, love is used 8 times (loved is used twice), and peace appears 3 times in this epistle. Therefore, in the 4:13-5:11 pericopes, he is likely attempting to supply that hope.
Although members of the congregation were dying or already deceased, Paul wanted these believers to understand that victory over death had been won – “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” Paul uses this in 1st Corinthians 15:55 (AD 54), which is itself a quote from Hosea 13:14 (710 BC). Notably, Paul alludes to the concept found within the 1stThessalonians 4:13-5:11 in the previous verses in 1st Corinthians 15:51-53, “Listen, I tell you a mystery: we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” Here we see the usage of the trumpet, the resurrection of the dead, and “sleep” as a euphemism for death, just as in the 4:13-18 pericope.
The relationship between the problem of deceased believers and the parousia’s prominent place in Paul’s theology is summarized in 1st Thessalonians 5:9-10: “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we wake or sleep we might live with him.” 1st Thessalonians was written in order to console the brothers and sisters in the Thessalonian community and provide them with hope, which they were lacking. With this hope, they are exhorted to realize that they are different than the pagans and so too ought to act like it – all the while expecting the sudden and imminent “day of the Lord” to come “like a thief in the night,” which will be as labor pains – not the birth itself, but the circumstances leading up to it. If we have faith and love, the primary purpose in the 4:13-5:11 is to provide us with a sense of hope.
Literary, ideological and theological methodologies not only clarify items within the text but also enhance our understanding, sometimes lead to further questions while at the same time answering others. 1st Thessalonians can be considered a consolation letter, and the 4:13-5:11 pericope is both consolatory and apocalyptic in nature. Regarding literary features, St. Paul, Silas and Timothy wrote the two pericopes in a way that euphemistic and antithetical language brought across their point to the Thessalonian believers, and also structured the letter in a way to make the repeated phrases a way to bring out the message.
Intertextual connections with other letters in the Pauline corpus, connections to the Olivet Discourse as well as elements from the Hebrew Bible and apocryphal Jewish literature are woven together into the tapestry portrayed in these pericopes. However, as this is not intended to be a chronological eschatological narrative, it has several gaps and ambiguities which readers continue to debate and argue over. Along with this, readers continue to bring their modern assumptions and ideas as well as doctrines into the text, in order to promote a particular ideology or simply as a difficulty created across the time barrier. Theological interpretation also sheds light on the intention behind the consolation letter – while the community has faith and love, they lack hope. As the believers are in the light and not of the darkness, not only are they to act differently than the pagans – they are also to be full of hope until the coming of the Lord Jesus.
1. Smith, Abraham. Comfort One Another: Reconstructing the Rhetoric and Audience of 1 Thessalonians. 1st ed. Westminster John Knox Press, 1995. 53. Print.
2. Donfried, Karl P., and Johannes Beutler. The Thessalonians Debate: Methodological Discord or Methodological Synthesis?. 1st ed. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000. 186. Print.
3. Smith 90.
4. “Juan Chapa has noted the similarities between 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 and "letters of consolation," missives which were designed to ease the grief of relatives mourning the loss of a loved one. Such letters were a common convention in the Hellenistic world. But whereas these letters often appealed to reason as the best remedy for grief, Paul appeals to the dual realities of the resurrection of the dead and the lordship of Christ as it will be manifested at Christ's parousia.” (Young 267 – see below)
5. Young, R Garland. "The Times And The Seasons: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11." Review & Expositor 96.2 (1999): 269. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. Web. 7 Oct. 2013.
6. Smith 59.
7. From the Idyll 4.4.2.
8. Malysz, Piotr J. "Paul's Use Of The Imagery Of Sleep And His Understanding Of The Christian Life: A Study In The Thessalonian Correspondence." Concordia Theological Quarterly 67.1 (2003): 69. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. Web. 7 Oct. 2013.
9. Malysz 73.
10. Smith 309.
11. Donfried and Buetler 171.
12. Collins, Raymond F. Studies on the First Letter to the Thessalonians. 1st ed. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1984. 156. Print.
13. Houwelingen, P H R van. “The Great Reunion: The Meaning And Significance Of The ‘Word of The Lord’ In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.’” Calvin Theological Journal 42.2 (2007): 316. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. Web. 4 Dec 2013.
14. Blaising, Craig A. “The Day Of The Lord And The Rapture.” Bibliotheca Sacra 169.675 (2012): 260-261. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.
15. Blaising 262-263.
16. Houwelingen 318.
17. Morris, Leon, and F.F. Bruce. New International Commentary on the New Testament. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William E. Eerdman's Publishing Company, 1991. 144. Print.
18. Young 272.
19. Morris 155.
20. Admittedly, there is still debate among scholars as to whether or not the community at Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found or not is an Essene community.
21. Stanley, Christopher D. "Who's Afraid of a Thief in the Night?." New Testament Studies. 48. (2002): 468. Print.
22. Stanley 469.
23. Stanley 468.
24. Houwelingen 314.
25. Young 269.
26. According to the JW, Jesus was Michael the archangel who became a man (The Watchtower, May 15, 1963, p. 307; The New World, 284.)
27. Blaising 259.
28. Huebner, Precious Truths Revived and Defended.
29. Hitchcock, Mark. 2012: The Bible and the End of the World. 1st ed. Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 2009. 102. Print.
30. Hitchcock 102.
31. Hitchcock 103-104
32. Young 271.