1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died.

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.

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; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Everything that I was taught about the New Testament in the seminary, and everything that I have read since, at least by reputable scholars, is that Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonica is the oldest writing in the New Testament. Written, maybe, from Corinth, in, maybe, 52 CE, it helps us see the thinking of the young Paul, the early Paul. Even though there is obviously a lot of conjecture and educated guesses here, one thing is certain. Beyond a doubt. Paul was wrong.

The young Paul, the early Paul, clearly and certainly expected that Jesus would return as an avenging angel, leading a celestial army, heralded by a heavenly trumpet, in Paul’s own lifetime. He expected Jesus to suck the dead out of the ground where they had been buried. He expected a sea of bodies to rise through the air and meet Jesus in the clouds. The dead would go up as Jesus would come down, and those still alive, including Paul, would party with Jesus forever.

Paul was wrong.

Paul was as wrong as William Miller was when he preached that Jesus was coming back sometime between March 1843 and March 1844. Eventually they settled on October 22nd as the big day. Many gave their possessions away, thinking they wouldn’t need them anymore. Imagine their surprise – estimates are that over 100,000 people came to fervently believe that Jesus was coming back that very night – to wake up on October 23rd.

You would think that would have settled it. That people would realize that their anticipation of the second coming was misguided. That they had been, however innocently, misled. But that isn’t what happened. Instead they went back to the Bible again. And some found the parable of the virgins in Matthew 25 to explain Jesus’ delay. I don’t know, I guess something suddenly came up for Jesus other than bodies flying into the clouds from their graves.

And yet there are still today millions of Christians who remain convinced that Paul’s sense of the future IS what is going to happen, exactly in the way the Bible describes. Absolutely convinced. And I say – knowing that people will not like to hear this, and freely admitting that it is my opinion – I believe that they are just as wrong now as Paul was then.

Does that mean that I don’t believe “in the Bible”? Absolutely not. I take the Bible very seriously. It is God’s Word to all of us, especially to those who actually read it. But I do not take the Bible literally. To do so elevates an idea above the plain words of the text and that is idolatrous. To hear the plain words of the text is to listen well to the Bible. And when I read the plain words of this passage from 1 Thessalonians, it is clear to me that Paul’s understanding and expectation of the future was simply wrong.

I think even Paul figured that out over time as his final work, the letter to the Romans, never mentions trumpets or clouds or meeting Jesus in the air. He came to a new understanding. He grew. He matured.

By the time you read this the election will be over. As in every election, some will wake up this morning feeling excited, vindicated, hopeful about the future. Others will wake up feeling devastated, deflated, less hopeful about the future. People from both parties have joked that if their candidate doesn’t win they are moving to Canada. Oh well, if they aren’t willing to stay and work to make things better it probably is best for all concerned if they go. Just know that they will still run into real life there too and it will still be far more complicated than simple answers suggest.

But let’s do let Paul words be a warning to us. People can be dead wrong about a lot of things. Only time will tell.

Jesus will put a wrap on it when he is good and ready. In his time, not in ours. And between now and then he was crystal clear what he expects from us – to love God and to love our neighbor, to baptize and make disciples, to teach and to serve. Nothing about yesterday’s election changes a thing about any of that.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, like Paul we look forward with anticipation for whatever it is that you have prepared for us. By grace we hope to be included in it. But now we will live for today. We pray all the best for those who were elected to office yesterday and for the common good that we all strive toward. We pray for encouragement to the discouraged and courage and wisdom for those who will soon assume new positions of honor, authority, and trust. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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3 Responses to “1 Thessalonians 4:13-18”

  1. Sharon L. Says:

    Thank you for you faithfulness in writing to us. I am especially grateful for the words of yesterday and today. I am glad for the courageous words in today’s, but what you wrote about the difference between seriously and literally is very important and helpful. I am saddened by the results, mostly because I fear that a wave of lawlessness may be unleashed against certain minorities and those less fortunate. But, you are right that we must do our best in our daily lives to carry out Jesus’ ministry while we have the gift of days to do so.
    God bless you. With a grateful heart,
    Sharon

  2. Theresa Wyatt-Prebilsky Says:

    yep. amen and thank you.

  3. Diane Conneman Says:

    Your words remind me to move ahead with courage and faith. Thank you!

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