"What about First Thessalonians? How can what you've written in this series possibly harmonize with what 1 Thessalonians says about Jesus' second coming?"
Years ago, when I first heard that there were people who believed Jesus' second coming had already occurred, I immediately dismissed the possibility as foolishness.
"There's no way," I said, emphatically. "What about 1 Thessalonians 4-5? What about 2 Peter 3? What about 1 Corinthians 15?"
Although I thought of myself as being open-minded in considering other perspectives on what the Scriptures teach, in hindsight, I see that I was entirely closed-minded about this particular subject ... at that time.
(Aside: I learned looking back that it is possible for a person to be generally open-minded and yet have that speck in our eye—or plank, as the case may be—when it comes to a specific subject or text.)
Fast forward five years or so.
Entirely through my own private study, I realized that Matthew 24 was discussing one subject from beginning to end: the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple buildings.
The hard shells that had covered my eyes from years past began to crack and break apart.
As I continued to study over the next few years, I gradually realized that what I'd once dismissed as heresy was, in fact, the truth. And what I'd always believed to be true was, in fact, incorrect.
A seminal moment for me—perhaps my biggest "Aha!" moment—was when I saw what I am going to share with you in this post and in the next post regarding Paul's letters to the Thessalonians.
As a whole, we Christians have been (dis-)missing some important evidence from these letters. You don't want to miss this!
Welcome to the 33rd post in my series of rethinking Christian eschatology. Because these posts build upon each other, if you've not already done so, I invite you to read the previous posts in this series before continuing here.
Let's dive in...
Quick Background Info
In the Scriptures, we are introduced to the Thessalonian people in Acts 17. There, during Paul's second missionary journey, Luke informs us that Paul, Silas and Timothy spent 3 weeks in Thessalonica preaching in the synagogue.
Sadly, as they preached the gospel, guess what happened?
Yep, those jealous, rebellious Jews struck again!
4 Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women.
5 But other Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason’s house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. 6 But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other believers before the city officials, shouting: “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, 7 and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.” 8 When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil. 9 Then they made Jason and the others post bond and let them go.
10 As soon as it was night, the believers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea.
(Acts 17:4-10a NIV)
Yet these Thessalonian Jews were even more violently zealous than others we've previously read about. They traveled to the next town over, Berea, and stirred up trouble there, too.
On arriving there [in Berea], they went to the Jewish synagogue. 11 Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. 12 As a result, many of them believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.
13 But when the Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching the word of God at Berea, some of them went there too, agitating the crowds and stirring them up. 14 The believers immediately sent Paul to the coast, but Silas and Timothy stayed at Berea.
(Acts 17:10b-14 NIV)
Not long after this, while Paul was in Corinth, he (along with Silas and Timothy) apparently wrote both the letters we know as 1 Thessalonians and 2 Thessalonians. In order to properly understand these letters, we need to know the historical context of what events were happening around that time.
The Daily Bible places the writing of 1 Thessalonians around 51 A.D. and about 52 A.D. for 2 Thessalonians.
The Theme of 1 Thessalonians
The theme of the letter is Paul and companions' encouragement for these newborn Thessalonian Christians to persevere in the midst of the suffering they faced from the Jews because of their faith.
6 You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. 7 And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.
(1 Thess. 1:6-7 NIV)
Paul was concerned that they might return to the world while he was away from them.
Paul Expected Jesus' Return to be Soon
Throughout the letter, we find multiple evidences that strongly—dare I say, clearly— indicate that Paul anticipated Jesus' second coming to happen during his and the Thessalonian individuals to whom he was writing's collective lifetime.
Let me show you...
Evidence #1: The coming wrath
8 The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, 9 for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.
(1 Thess. 1:8-10 NIV)
In 1:10, Paul said that Jesus' return would rescue them—himself and the Thessalonians to whom he was writing.
A little later, he continues:
14 For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews 15 who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone 16 in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last.
(1 Thess. 2:14-16 NIV)
The wrath of GOD has come.
These verses raise a number of important questions:
- How would Jesus' second coming "rescue" Paul and the Thessalonians from severe suffering (per 1:6), unless it would happen during their collective lifetime while they were yet suffering?
- Why would Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, say the wrath of GOD had come upon those wicked Jews at last if Jesus' return wouldn't happen for another 2,000+ years? (And lest we say that this wrath was not associated with the second coming, see 1:10 and 2:17-20 which clearly show the wrath and the second coming were linked.)
In 2:16 (The wrath of God has come upon them at last), Paul was alluding to the judgment upon that wicked generation of Jews prophesied in the Song of Moses (see Deut. 32:15-43) and by Jesus Himself (see Matt. 23:29-39). Recall that the Song was repeatedly applied by Paul and other New Testament writers to the first century timeframe.
The persecution Paul, Silas, Timothy and the Thessalonian Christians were enduring was prophesied by Jesus and others. Paul reminded them of this in 3:3-5:
2 We sent Timothy, who is our brother and co-worker in God’s service in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, 3 so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. For you know quite well that we are destined for them. 4 In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know. 5 For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter had tempted you and that our labors might have been in vain.
(1 Thess. 3:2-5 NIV)
Evidence #2: The Thessalonian Christians were Paul's crown
19 For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? 20 Indeed, you are our glory and joy.
(1 Thess. 2:19-20 NIV)
Why would Paul say that these individuals were his crown, glory and joy when Jesus returned? Why not these people plus all the subsequent generations of Christians who became Christians because of these people and all the others around the world that Paul taught?
Because Paul knew that Jesus would return soon and his reward was these specific individuals—those he personally taught the gospel.
Paul understood that Jesus' parable of the talents (see Matt. 25:14-30) applied specifically to that generation and to the apostles, for that is who Jesus spoke those words to.
14 “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. 15 To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey.
19 “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’
21 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
(Matt. 25:14-15, 19-21 NIV)
Evidence #3: May Jesus strengthen your hearts
11 Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you. 12 May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. 13 May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.
(1 Thess. 3:11-13 NIV)
Why would Paul want Jesus to strengthen their hearts for His second coming?
If they were dead for 2,000+ years when Jesus returned, what good would it do to strenthen their hearts at that time?
Their souls would already be resting peacefully in Abraham's bosom if this were true.
The end of 3:13 ("with all his holy ones") was a reference to Jesus' words from Matt. 24:31, "...he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call..." as well as Matt. 25:31, "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him..."
Evidence #4: We who are still alive and remain
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 of mankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
(1 Thess. 4:13-18 NIV)
In these statements, Paul connected his statements with what Jesus taught (4:15 – "According to the Lord's word...").
This is one clear reason why our understanding of Paul's teachings here must harmonize with Jesus' teachings, and vice versa.
If Paul were teaching here that Jesus' still-awaited-today return would be the final day of life on earth, as many understand (and as I used to, as well), then Jesus must have also taught that. And as I've already shown you, I can't find Jesus teaching that.
On the other hand, if Jesus plainly taught that His return would occur during the first century (which He did, as I've previously shown from Matt. 10, 16 and other passages), then Paul's teaching must harmonize with that.
In 1 Thess. 4:13-18, twice (v.15 and 17), Paul says, "we who are still alive" with reference to Jesus' return.
This is a place where understanding the "primary audience principle" becomes so very important.
Here's what I mean:
Before we can figure out what a Scripture means today, we've first got to determine what it meant to those who originally received it.
Whether knowingly or not, many people's eschatological views (i.e., their beliefs about death, the judgment, resurrection and Christ's second coming) are a big reason why they read the Scriptures as though the Scriptures are primarily speaking not just to the first recipients but to all subsequent generations of Christians, as well.
We tend to minimize or ignore the historical context of Scripture and doing so leads us to erroneous conclusions at times.
The primary audience principle is important in these verses because the "we who are alive and remain" is not referring to...
"any Christians who are living in some future generation at the time of Jesus' eventual return"
...but rather to...
"you Thessalonian Christians to whom we are writing, and us—Silas, Timothy and myself [Paul]—the ones doing the writing."
Furthermore, traditionally, many Christians have understood 1 Thess. 4:16-17 to be speaking of instantaneous events (influenced by their understanding of 2 Pet. 3, which we will address later). This perspective goes something like this:
- One day in the future, Jesus will return in the sky with a trumpet blast all people on the planet can hear. Somehow, miraculously, the whole planet would see and hear these things simultaneously.
- The dead faithful children of GOD would immediately rise from their graves, visible to the human eye, and fly up into the sky to meet Jesus.
- Once the dead have finished their ascension, then, immediately (and apparently in hot pursuit), those who were still alive on the earth at the time would fly up into the sky also.
- Once we all have joined Jesus in the physical sky, everyone will then somehow be transported to Jesus' throne for the great judgment, as described in Matt. 25:31-46.
But when I consider everything we've studied so far (and in particular, that Jesus did not teach this) and I am intellectually and spiritually honest about the text of 1 Thessalonians (suspending preconceptions), it seems clear to me that Paul was instead saying that some of his primary audience were going to still be alive (on earth) even after Jesus returned.
And this understanding is fully consistent with everything we've studied thus far.
Note: This text provides an opportunity to remind ourselves that even Bible translators can be and are influenced by their preconceptions when translating Scripture.
For example, I am generally a fan of the Amplified Bible (AMP). But in 1 Thess. 4:17, the translators allowed their views to taint their translation of the text. There, it says:
17 Then we who are alive and remain [on the earth] will simultaneously be caught up (raptured) together with them [the resurrected ones] in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord!
(1 Thess. 4:17 AMP)
As you can see here, nothing in the Greek text specifies simultaneously or uses the word "raptured."
To be fair, AMP puts "simultaneously" in italics and "raptured" in parenthesis to indicate their non-Spirit-inspired insertion, but it is no less misleading and influencing to readers. It's dangerous.
Evidence #5: This day shouldn't surprise you
4 But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. 5 You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. 6 So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. 9 For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. 10 He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.
(1 Thess. 5:4-11 NIV)
If this were our only evidence in the letter, we could easily dismiss it by saying that Jesus had said nobody knew when the day/hour of His return would be and therefore everyone always needed/needs to live prepared for that day's coming.
But when we consider the totality of the evidence from 1 Thessalonians, it's clear that Paul (with the Holy Spirit's inspiration, mind you) fully expected Jesus' return to occur during the lifetime of the primary audience.
Evidence #6: Spirit, soul and body blameless
23 May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.
(1 Thess. 5:23-24 NIV)
We close this post by noting that, as Paul, Silas and Timothy closed the letter, they expressed their prayer that the Thessalonians' bodies be kept blameless at the coming of Jesus, and assure them that GOD would do that.
Before, this passage always bugged me because it raised a huge question I couldn't answer:
Why would Paul be allowed—much less inspired—to write something that the Holy Spirit knew wouldn't happen, and then say it would happen?
The only way the Thessalonians' bodies would be preserved blameless at Jesus' coming is if their bodies were still intact.
Once they had turned to dust after death, what difference would the preservation of their bodies make?
When we objectively consider the evidence, it is clear to me that 1 Thessalonians is consistent with the perspective I've presented thus far.
Statements that may appear to teach a future day of Jesus' return as the final day of life on earth can easily be explained to fit a first century fulfillment and, in so doing, are fully aligned with Jesus' teachings regarding His first century return (and all the Old Testament prophecies too).
By contrast, assuming that these statements from 1 Thessalonians are speaking of a yet-to-occur coming of Christ presents us with major, and I believe unanswerable, questions, as I have shown.
I have provided six strong internal evidences from the letter which show that the inspired writers fully anticipated Jesus' return to occur during their collective lifetime.
Continue to the next post where we study what Paul wrote to the Thessalonian Christians in 2 Thessalonians regarding Jesus' second coming.
Got questions or comments? Leave them below. (I'm truly happy to help. But please, carefully read the entire series first.)