12 December 20171 Thessalonians 4:13-18
“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.” (v. 16)
Psalm: Psalm 135:15-21
Paul arrived in Thessalonica in the year 50, along with Silvanus (also known as Silas) and Timothy. Luke tells us in Acts 17:1-4 how they went to the synagogue, and how Paul met with the Jews there for three Sabbaths, trying to convince them to become Christians by arguing "from the [Jewish] scriptures". What was the main thing Paul was trying to get across? He was "explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead" (Acts 17:3). Though Paul was actively opposed by many Jews in Thessalonica (so much that they chased him all the way to Beroea, 45 miles away, in order to warn the synagogue there about him - Acts 17:10-13), he nevertheless established a church. Having left Thessalonica in a hurry, he needs to give the church some more information - but he is sending a letter rather than risking appearing there in person.
But if Paul's main argument is that 'it was necessary' for Jesus to suffer and to rise from the dead, what was the point of it? Earlier in the letter, Paul reminds the church that they "turned to God … to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead - Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming" (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10). Notice that Paul does not say that Jesus has already rescued them. They are in the process of being rescued, and the final rescue will come from future wrath. But if they are being rescued from wrath, what is the alternative? What are they being rescued for?
In this part of the letter, Paul tells them that "this is the will of God, your sanctification" (1 Thessalonians 4:3) and "God did not call us to impurity but in holiness" (1 Thessalonians 4:7). But what is the ultimate goal of those who live in holiness? In today's passage, Paul spells it out: "since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died" (v. 14), and so the resurrection of Jesus causes the resurrection of "the dead in Christ" (v. 16). The goal of God's activity is full reunion with Christ, to be "with the Lord for ever" in the holiest place: heaven (v. 17). Paul uses imagery from the Jewish scriptures in order to describe heaven (Exodus 19:17-19; Isaiah 27:13; Zephaniah 1:14-16).
- Paul argues in the synagogue in Thessalonica by asking people to read Jewish scripture for proof of who Jesus is. If the Church today wants to convince people about Jesus, why should people accept what Jewish scripture says? What other writings or thinking might the Church use when trying to share the message of Jesus in the 21st century to people who might see Jewish scripture as totally irrelevant to them?
- How helpful do you find Paul's description of heaven? To what extent is it still relevant for people who have flown above the clouds - or even into space - and have found neither God nor heaven in those places?
- How does the process of grieving differ between Christians and non-Christians, if at all?