1 Thessalonians 4:13-end
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, [fallen asleep] 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. [fallen asleep] 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. [fallen asleep] 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 for ever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
Two weeks ago we looked at a passage that many people thought was about the second coming of Christ, and we showed how it was actually more about the ascension and return of Christ into heaven after Easter. I told you then that there were other passages that genuinely speak about the second coming and that we would deal with them when they come up in the lectionary, and today that is exactly what we have before us.
The return of Christ seems to me to be one of those pieces of our theology where Old Testament imagery, prophecies and beliefs have been drawn together into the story of Jesus to help produce a more coherent picture of an event that was both longed for and feared. In the Old Testament it was called ‘The Day of the Lord’, and by the New Testament it was understood that this event was the same thing as their understanding of the return of Jesus. It was the end of the age and the dawn of something new.
However, this passage from Thessalonians has been abused by fundamentalist theologians, often with a self-righteous political agenda, to describe a time when Jesus will come and snatch away all the Christians from the world in an event they call ‘The Rapture’. Their belief is that after this event the world will be left in the power of the devil for a period of seven years, known as the great tribulation.
At the end of that time they believe Jesus will return to judge the world, but that the Christians get off scot free from all the hard times because the angels will have snatched them out of the world. You can see that it’s a very nice middle class vision of people who really don’t want to get their hands dirty. And I also don’t believe it’s what’s in the text.
So what I’m going to do here is try and unpick the Thessalonians reading and then apply that through the Gospel message to our daily lives and how we live now. So let’s begin with the Thessalonians reading.
Now I know I always talk about contexts, but it is important that we understand something of the background to any reading. What makes this one more interesting is that there are actually two contexts to be considered. The first one concerns why St. Paul wrote these words, and for that it’s interesting to note that this is probably the earliest written document in the New Testament, and was written before the Gospels probably around about AD52, so we’re thinking in terms of within twenty years of the death of Christ.
So in case you were thinking that St. Paul was responding to people who had read what St. Matthew had written about Jesus coming again, you need to recognise that this was written before St. Matthew put ink to parchment. The teaching that Jesus was going to return was well established in the church from early on, presumably because people remembered Jesus saying it and passed it on.
Yet despite this teaching being well established even before St. Matthew wrote his Gospel, something had obviously happened which had sent a shiver of worry through the Thessalonian church, and that was why St. Paul was writing to them. His use of language suggests that he was responding directly to a question he had been asked.
You see essentially it came down to this. They believed that Jesus was coming back, and that his return was imminent, but in the intervening twenty years since his ascension some of the believers had simply died. And so the Thessalonians were confused. Jesus had said he was coming back, but before he had returned a number of followers had died, and so what would happen to them. Were they lost forever?
There is a not-yet-fully-formed theology of the resurrection here. We sometimes forget that the beliefs that we all take for granted now was being worked out in the first few hundred years. In fact the theology that we believe in now continues to be worked on, but that’s another sermon! Anyhow, there was a very genuine concern about those who had died.
And so it’s very interesting to note the word that St. Paul uses when he refers to those who have died. You see the usual greek word for death is thanatos and that is exactly the word St. Paul uses when he refers to the death of Jesus. But when he talks of the believers he uses a different word, koimaō, and what makes that interesting is that it is a euphemism for death which can also mean someone being asleep.
So Jesus’s death before his resurrection was real death, but the death of a believer, well that is still death, but not in the same absolute sense, which is why some translations still refer to it as ‘Falling asleep’. It clearly means death, but euphemistically. So by his language St. Paul was trying to give them hope; theirs was not a final death.
Then he begins to unpack what will happen when Jesus returns, and here is where the second contextual argument is vital. As I said when I began, many people believe that this passage is about an event they call the rapture, when Jesus will come and collect all the believers and take them away to safety in heaven. And a face value reading would agree with that interpretation.
But you should always be cautious about basing theology on face value readings. If you put it in the context of their society you find something else. When a Roman leader, or perhaps the Emperor himself, arrived near a city the people who lived there would go out to meet him, and then escort him into the city.
And so the description that St. Paul is giving of the second coming is akin to their culture of how one went out to meet someone important. There would be a fanfare and the people would go out to meet him and accompany him on his arrival.
So rather than being about a rapture event, this recording of the end of this age seems to be about the believers, dead and alive, being caught up to meet Jesus and then escorting him to the earth. It’s not about running away from this planet, but about Jesus returning here. The word for this is parousia which literally means a revealing.
For the last two thousand years Jesus has been present on earth through his Holy Spirit in the heart of the believers, but at his return he is revealed in his fullness. The description St. Paul uses draws on his cultural imagery to describe the indescribable. The core teaching is that, however we understand or experience it, when Jesus returns we will be caught up in order to return with him, to be fully present to this world at its recreation.
John’s Gospel, which he ties to the start of Genesis, opens with, ‘In the beginning was the Word.’ It was through Jesus that God the Father spoke creation into being. Is it any wonder, therefore, that when we start talking about the second coming of Christ, what we’re talking about is the new creation, and of God once again speaking this new creation into being through Christ?
The joy of what St. Paul is writing about is that whereas at the first creation it was just the Son, the Word of God, through whom the Father was speaking creation into being. But with the second coming Jesus is accompanied by those he has saved and redeemed; us.
And it is this motif of being caught up with him and accompanying him on his arrival which ties this reading to the Gospel reading. You see what we find there is the description of a wedding tradition from the Middle East. Now in this country we have laws that mean you have to have been married by 6.00pm for the wedding to be legal.
But in the Middle East it was, and still is, quite possible for the wedding to take place in the evening, or for the bridegroom to be delayed on his journey to the wedding. But when he arrived the bridesmaids were expected to go out and accompany him on a torch lit journey to the venue of the wedding. That was why they needed the oil, to keep their lamps alight so that when the call came to go out to meet the bridegroom, they were ready for it.
Can you begin to see now how this ties to the Thessalonians reading? Jesus is often referred to as the bridegroom. And when he arrives, at his second coming which is thought of as the wedding feast, Christians are to be caught up to go and meet him, which is the bridesmaids being ready with their lamps still lit. St. Paul and Jesus, as recorded by St. Matthew, are describing the same event.
So what then does this passage have to say to us? Well even after just twenty years the Thessalonians were worried about whether Jesus was coming back. We’ve been waiting another two thousand years. Is it ever going to happen?
Jesus warned the disciples that the Bridegroom might be delayed. By telling us this parable what he was trying to say was that we need to be alert, because we don’t know when it’s going to happen. But there is something even more immediate than that. None of us really have a clue what may happen today, let alone tomorrow. How prepared are we spiritually?
Last week, on Wednesday, we had our annual All Souls Day service when we remembered before the Lord those who have died, and bereavement is always a reminder of the truth that not one of us knows how long we’re going to live. We might hope for years yet, but those of us who have felt death breathing across our collar knows that it can arrive at an unexpected time.
This is not in any way meant to be threatening. This is about grace. I think the Lord gave parables like this out of love not power. He wants the best for us, and the best is for us to be travelling with him, and so he tries to encourage us that we need to live lives the whole time that are dedicated to him, and not to become lax in our spiritual journeys.
It’s so terribly easy to stop working at growing as a Christian. I can’t tell you how exciting it is to give spiritual direction to someone over the course of several years and watch how they grow and change spiritually, and I yearn that we should all take that approach, because it’s the right thing to do.
When we put our feet up and stop trying, like the bridesmaids we risk running out of oil, and not being prepared. We need to be alert, spiritually growing, because not just the second coming, not just death, but pretty much any kind of crisis can come at us without warning. As the Lord said, be ready, therefore, because we do not know the day or the hour.
So at it’s core this passage teaches us two things. The Lord will return at the time of his choosing, and we should be ready. But also any number of events can come upon us at an unexpected time, and if we are to be able to deal with them we need to be spiritually prepared by growing in the Spirit. Amen