(1 Thess. 4:13 ESV) 13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.
First, just to break the ice, I can’t read this verse without being reminded of a preacher story — you know, one of those stories told as true so many times by so many preachers that its veracity is uncontested — with no supporting evidence of any kind.
Many years ago, it seems that the deacons were gathered outside the church building one Sunday evening after church, smoking and discussing the afternoon’s NFL game. A lovely young single woman, a church member, walked past. One deacon said, “Sally, why haven’t you gotten a man from here at church and married?” She replied, “If you knew your scriptures, you’d know the answer.”
The deacons were stymied. They knew no scripture that would answer the question. With a heavy sigh of exasperation, she said, “Romans 1:13, of course.” And she got in her car and left.
None of the deacons knew the passage, and so they grabbed an elder, who was carrying a well-thumbed, goldleaf Bible — where they read, “I would not have you ignorant brethren …” (KJV). Of course, the print version has a comma between “ignorant” and “brethren.”
Sally never was asked a question by the deacons again. (I’d bet it’s true; except being a Christian, I don’t gamble.)
1 Thes 4:13
As is his habitual practice, Paul refers to those who’ve died in Christ as “asleep.” Commentators disagree as to whether the dead experience what some call “soul sleep.”
When Paul speaks of “hope,” he means a confident expectation that God will honor his promises to his people. In particular, Paul is speaking of the New Heavens and New Earth, but we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. Paul begins by pointing out that the pagans have no hope. Why not? They believed in an afterlife! How is that not “hope”?
Most pagans believed in a shadowy afterlife in the underworld and did not share the philosophers’ optimism or neutrality toward death.
Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 592.
That is, to pagans, death was a dreadful, horrible expectation, even though they believed human souls survived to exist in an afterlife.
It is not accurate to say that others in Paul’s world did not believe in the afterlife. The hope that Paul has lies in the extraordinary power of the parousia [Second Coming] as the consummation of the new age and the climactic conclusion to the old. That is, it has the power to raise the believers from the dead and to transform both the living and the risen into a lasting union with Christ (v. 17).
Abraham Smith, “The First Letter to the Thessalonians,” in 2 Corinthians-Philemon, vol. 11 of NIB, Accordance electronic ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 724.
The contrast is exemplified in two early statements cited by Frame. The first is a letter of the second century which reads:
Irene to Taonnophris and Philo, good comfort. I was as sorry and wept over the departed one as I wept for Didymas. And all things whatsoever were fitting, I did, and all mine, Epaphroditus and Thermuthion and Philion and Apollonius and Plantas. But, nevertheless, against such things one can do nothing. Therefore comfort ye one another.
Deissmann, from whom Frame takes this letter, speaks of Irene as experiencing ‘the difficulty of those whose business it is to console and who have no consolation to offer’ (LAE, p. 177). The second is from a Christian of about the same date, Aristides:
And if any righteous man among them passes from the world, they rejoice and offer thanks to God; and they escort the body as if he were setting out from one place to another near.
Leon Morris, 1 and 2 Thessalonians: An Introduction and Commentary, TNTC 13; IVP/Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 88.
The Christians offered the Greco-Roman world hope, while their philosophers offered an eternity as a disembodied soul. Some Greek philosophies, such as Epicureanism, denied the afterlife rather than have to worry about a miserable one.
1 Thess 4:14
(1 Thess. 4:14 ESV) 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.
Let me re-translate —
(1 Thess. 4:14 ESV) 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and [was resurrected], even so, through Jesus [that is, because we’ve been saved into Jesus], God will bring with [Jesus] those who have [died in Jesus].
Paul is not talking about the Ascension but the Resurrection. “Bring with him” means resurrect just as God resurrected Jesus.
Paul may or may not believe that souls are stored in heaven pending the Second Coming and general resurrection. He does not address that question in v. 14. What he says here is that the saved who died in Christ will be resurrected from death to life just as was Jesus — in the future. The grammar is clear that Paul is not saying that this has already happened for some. Some have already died in Christ, but God has not yet brought them with Jesus from death to life.
Our hope, therefore, is built on, among other things, the fact that Jesus’ resurrection assures us of our own future resurrection. This is a shorter form of an argument made by Paul at length in 1 Cor 15.
1 Thess 4:15
(1 Thess. 4:15 ESV) 15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.
Now, Paul’s argument raises the obvious question of what about the living? How can those who remain alive when Jesus returns be resurrected? Only the dead can be resurrected!
Paul responds that the dead in Christ will be brought to Jesus first. They’ll be resurrected before the living are joined with Jesus.
“A word from the Lord” refers to a teaching of Jesus. This teaching is not found in the Gospels, but we know that Jesus said and did many things not in the Gospels.
Some believe that this passage indicates that Paul believes Jesus will return in his lifetime, but Paul elsewhere says he doesn’t know when the Second Coming will be. And N. T. Wright has pointed out that, if the early church expected to Jesus to return by, say, 100 AD, we’d expect the Christians who wrote around that time to mention their dashed expectations or the needs to rethink this assumption. But the many writings we have from this time period say no such thing. That is, the historians disagree because the record of history does not confirm the necessary results of such a theory.
This means, of course, that the old scholarly warhorse of the ‘delay of the parousia’ has had its day at last, and can be put out to grass once and for all. This is becoming increasingly recognized in some circles at least: Hengel speaks of the idea as a ‘tired cliché’. The word ‘parousia’ is itself misleading, anyway, since it merely means ‘presence’; Paul can use it of his being present with a church, and nobody supposes that he imagined he would make his appearance flying downwards on a cloud. The motif of delay (‘how long, O Lord, how long?’) was already well established in Judaism, and is hardly a Christian innovation, as is often imagined.
The usual scholarly construct, in which the early church waited for Jesus’ return, lived only for that future and without thought for anything past (such as memories of Jesus himself), only to be grievously disappointed and to take up history-writing as a displacement activity, a failure of nerve—this picture is without historical basis.
The church expected certain events to happen within a generation, and happen they did, though there must have been moments between AD 30 and 70 when some wondered if they would, and in consequence took up the Jewish language of delay. Jerusalem fell; the good news of Jesus, and the kingdom of Israel’s god, was announced in Rome, as well as in Jerusalem and Athens.
But there is no sign of dismay, in any of the literature that has come down to us from the period after AD 70, at the fact that Jesus himself had still not returned. Clement looks forward to the return of Jesus without any comment on its timing. Ignatius is worried about many things, but not that. Justin Martyr, in the middle of the second century, is as emphatic as anyone that the event will happen. He does not know when; but then, the key passages in the New Testament always said that it would be a surprise. Tertullian, at the end of the second century, looks forward to Jesus’ return as the greatest show on earth, outstripping anything one might see at the stadium or theatre.
As far as the early Christians were concerned, the most important event—the resurrection of Jesus—had already happened. One did not need to worry about the timing of that which was still to come.
Back in the first generation, Paul could quite easily see the whole complex of events, including the Lord’s return, as being likely to happen at any time: 1 Thessalonians 4 and 5 bear witness to that. But there is no suggestion that the Lord’s return itself must happen within a generation, or that its failure to do so would precipitate any sort of crisis, or that it was only after such a crisis that the church would start to look to its historical basis in the actual life of Jesus, instead of simply to the future coming of the Lord.
N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1992), 462–464.