A Commentary by John Stott
1 Thessalonians 4:17b. (iv) The Reunion: And so we will be with
the Lord for ever.
Having been caught up to *meet the Lord*, we shall now *be with the Lord* for ever. The momentary encounter will lead to an everlasting fellowship. Thus the descending Lord and the ascending saints, heaven and earth, will be united. For this is Paul’s theme. The Christian dead (about whom the Thessalonians were worrying) will be separated neither from Christ (since God will bring them *with him*, 14) nor from the Christian living (who will be caught up *with them*, 17a). On the contrary we will all be always *with the Lord* (17b). We cannot miss this threefold repetition of the preposition *syn* ‘together with’. This is the ultimate reunion, the *synagogue* or ‘our being gathered to him’, to which the apostle will allude in his second letter (2 Thess. 2:1).
Paul has been content to refer in the barest, briefest way to the four great eschatological events which we have called the Return, the Resurrection, the Rapture and the Reunion. How are we in the twentieth century to react to his teaching which comes to us from the first? We must resist three temptations. First, we have no liberty to embroider his instruction with fanciful speculations of our own, or even to stretch the text beyond what the apostle intended to say. To be sure, it is tantalizing that he says nothing here about the nature of the resurrection body, the resurrection of unbelievers, the judgment day, the new heaven and the new earth, hell, or the final reign of God. And there is a place, of course, for supplementing what Paul writes here with what he teaches elsewhere in the New Testament. Yet even in this we must be cautious and allow these five verses to retain their own integrity. Secondly, we must resist the temptation of sophisticated ‘modernists’ to de-bunk Paul, to dismiss him as a child of his age, to deny that he was an inspired apostle, and to strip his statements of their ‘mythological’ clothing. We must insist that, however much imagery he may have used, he was referring to real events which belong to history, not myth. Thirdly, we must avoid the total literalism which denies that the passage contains any figures of speech at all. For the sleep of the dead, the spatial ‘descent’ of the Lord, the archangel’s voice and the trumpet blast, the clouds and the air all belong to the realm of symbolic and apocalyptic imagery. Resisting these three temptations, we will be wise to combine affirmation (we are eagerly expecting a cosmic event which will include the personal, visible appearing of Jesus Christ and the gathering to him of all his people, whether dead or alive at the time) with agnosticism about the full reality behind the imagery.
d). A practical conclusion (4:18).
*Therefore encourage each other with these words*. It is important to remember that Paul is addressing himself to a group of ‘faint-hearted’ Thessalonians. His purpose in this passage is to fortify them in their bereavement, not answer academic questions about the last things. ‘There is absolutely nothing in it for curiosity’, wrote James Denney, ‘though everything that is necessary for comfort.’
Most contemporary commentators compare Paul’s message with a second-century letter of condolence, which was discovered in one of the Oxyrhynchus papyri and first published in 1907 by Adolf Deissmann. It was written by an Egyptian lady named Irene to a bereaved couple whose son had died. She is very sorry, she says. She weeps over her friends’ lost relative, as she herself recently wept over the loss of her own dear one, Didymas (her husband perhaps, or more probably her son). She and her family have done everything they can in the circumstances (perhaps funeral offerings and prayers). ‘But nevertheless’, she concludes in despair, ‘against such things one can do nothing. Therefore, comfort one another. Farewell.’
In contrast to the ‘comfort one another’ of Irene, who acknowledged that she had ‘nothing’ to offer as its basis, Paul’s ‘comfort one another’ (RSV) is built upon *these words*. Nothing comforts and sustains the bereaved like words of Christian truth. In saying this, we must not forget one of the lessons of the book of Job. Job’s already appalling condition was aggravated, not ameliorated, by his mindless and heartless so-called ‘comforters’. They began well, in that for seven days they sat beside him in silent sympathy. One wishes that, when this first week was over, they had kept their mouths shut. Instead, they drowned poor Job in a torrent of cold, conventional, false verbiage to the effect that he was being punished for his sins, until in the end God himself contradicted them in anger, and accused them of not speaking about him what was right (Job 42:7-8). Their mistake, however, was not that they had talked, but that they had talked ‘folly’. Generally speaking, words can and do comfort, if they are true and gentle, and if they are spoken at the right time. In the case of the Thessalonians, to compensate for their ignorance (13), Paul taught them the great truths of the return of the Lord, the resurrection of the Christian dead, the rapture of the Christian living and the reunion of all three with each other. With these words they could indeed comfort one another.
Tomorrow: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11. 2). The problem of judgment.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.