Monday of Week 22 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

The early Christians, including the Thessalonians, were convinced that Jesus would return in their lifetime. They were consequently upset about the fate of their brothers and sisters who had already died. What would happen to them if they were not around to greet the Lord when he came?

So here Paul takes up the practice among the Thessalonians of mourning excessively for their dead, a reaction deriving from the stress placed by the community on their belief that the Second Coming of Christ was going to happen very soon, definitely in their lifetime. But now people were dying off before this took place: what was going to happen to them? Did they think that the dead, in accordance with Jewish and Greek belief, went to a place for the dead (Sheol or Hades) from which there was no escape? And so they would not be around when Jesus came to take all the Christians to himself?

The apostle reminds them of the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the dead in Christ. On the basis of Christ’s teaching, he affirms that the resurrection of the dead is to precede the Second Coming. Those who are alive at the time of the latter will not have the advantage over the dead of being the first witnesses to it. On the contrary, the Lord will first command the dead to rise; the living will then join them and both groups will be witnesses of the Parousia.

The doctrine spoken of here is to be remembered when there are more deaths in the community. Since Paul does not know the time of the Parousia, he aligns himself with the Thessalonians in the hope of living to that day, i.e. within the first Christian generation. In his mind such a possibility seems not to have been excluded by the teaching of Jesus himself.

That is the background, now to the reading proper. The converts in Thessalonica had obviously been worried about friends and relatives who had died and would not be there to see the coming of the Lord. Replying to their questions Paul affirms the fundamental doctrine of the resurrection so as to strengthen their faith and hope.

Paul wants the Thessalonians to be quite certain about the fate of those who have “fallen asleep”. This euphemism for death was common in both the Old and New Testaments and in Greek literature. It was natural, then, to refer to ‘resurrection’ to new life or from death as an ‘awakening’. For the Christian, sleep is a particularly apt metaphor for death, because of its finality.

Some of the Thessalonians seem to have misunderstood the meaning of the Parousia and thought all believers would live until Christ returned. When some died, the question then arose, “Will those who have died have part in that great day?”

But, says Paul, there is no need to grieve over them, as others do who have no hope. Inscriptions on tombs and references in literature show that first-century pagans viewed death with horror, as the end of everything. The Christian attitude was in strong contrast (see 1 Cor 15:55-57; Phil 1:21-23).

For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. [i.e. those who have died as Christians]

The resurrection of Jesus is absolutely essential for Christian belief in a future life. As Paul wrote to the Christians of Corinth:

If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation is in vain and your faith is in vain…If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. (1 Cor 15:14,17-20)

Paul can also state from the Lord’s own teaching, namely, that those who are still alive when the Lord comes will not have any advantage over those who have fallen asleep, that is, who have already died. The Thessalonians had evidently been concerned that those among them who died would miss their place in the great events when the Lord came, and Paul assures them that this will not be the case. There is no exact reference in the written gospels for this saying of Jesus. Perhaps Paul is relying here on traditions he had received from others, but which did not find their way into the gospel texts. There must have been many such sayings.

Paul next speaks about those believers who are still alive at Christ’s Second Coming:

…we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord…

‘We’ does not necessarily mean that Paul thought he himself would be alive then. He often identified himself with those he wrote to or about. Elsewhere he says that God will raise “us” at that time (1 Cor 6:14; 2 Cor 4:14). If he is including himself among those who will be present at the Parousia, it is more by hope or desire rather than by conviction.

The apostle then gives an image of the Parousia using traditional apocalyptic imagery for a divine intervention. It is not to be taken as a literal description of an experience that is totally beyond our imagination.

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…

The only named archangel in the Scripture is Michael (Jude 9; Dan 10:13). In Luke, Gabriel is simply called an angel, similarly with Raphael in the Book of Tobit. Later tradition calls them all ‘archangels’. The ‘trumpet’, together with voice and clouds were traditional signs that accompanied a theophany, a divine manifestation, such as that at Mount Sinai. They were later adopted as conventional elements in apocalyptic literature, for example, Matthew’s description of the coming of the Son of Man at the end of time (Matt 24:29).

Then, in a reassuring remark, Paul affirms that:

…the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air…

This is the only place in the New Testament where a ‘rapture’, being caught up or taken up into God, is clearly referred to. Although some hold that such experiences will be secret, Paul seems to be describing something open and public, with loud voices and a trumpet blast.

Contrary to their fears, Paul says that:

…we will be with the Lord forever.

Of all the details given here: that the dead will answer the summons by returning to life, that they and the living will be taken to meet the Lord, and that they will accompany him to the judgement with which the eternal kingdom begins, the essential one is the last – eternal life with Christ. That is the ‘salvation’, the ‘glory’, the ‘kingdom’ that Jesus shares among his chosen followers.

And, Paul concludes:

Therefore encourage one another with these words.

The primary purpose of the whole passage is not to give a chronology of future events, though that is involved, but to above all urge the Thessalonian community to mutual encouragement.

As mentioned, it is not necessary to take the scenario here described too literally; in fact, it would be quite wrong to do so. It consists of traditional apocalyptic and scriptural language to describe the indescribable – our future life with God after our death.

Very soon in the life of the Church people began to think less and less about this problem. We need to remember that this Letter is a very early Church writing. By the time we get to the gospels, this anxiety has passed and the concern is now about how to live in a time of uncertain and presumably lengthy or indefinite duration.

But the gospel warnings we saw in Matthew’s Gospel last week still remain valid. The critical issue is not the when or the how of the Lord’s final coming, but the when and how of our leaving this earth. Will I be ready? Am I ready now?

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