A Commentary by John Stott
1 Thessalonians 4:14-15. b). A fundamental creed.
It is immediately clear that the Christian hope focuses on *the coming of the Lord* (15), which Paul here calls the *Parousia*. Although this word’s usual meaning is simply either a ‘presence’ or a ‘coming’, BAGD explains that it is used ‘in a special technical sense’ of Christ, and that this use had a double background.
On the one hand, the word served as a cult expression for the coming of a hidden divinity, who makes his presence felt by a revelation of his power…On the other hand, *parousia* became the official term for a visit of a person of high rank, especially of kings and emperors visiting a province…These two technical expressions can approach each other closely in meaning, can shade off into one another, or even coincide…
Thus the coming of Jesus, Paul seems to be hinting by the mere adoption of this word, will be a revelation of God and a personal, powerful visitation by Jesus, the King. It can hardly be fortuitous that he is writing this to the Thessalonians among whom, at least according to his critics, he had defied Claudius Caesar’s decrees by announcing ‘that there is another king, one called Jesus’ (Acts 17:7).
The Christian hope, however, is more than the expectation that the King is coming; it is also the belief that when he comes, the Christian dead will come with him and the Christians living will join them. For it is the separation which death causes (or seems to cause) which is so painful, both separation from Christ, since the dead have died before he comes, and separation from those who survive them, since they have gone ahead and left the living behind. It is these two bitter separations which the apostle solemnly assures his readers are neither real nor permanent. For the dead will come with Jesus, and the living will not precede them. He expresses his assurance in the form of a creed: *We believe that…and so we believe that…we tell you that…*(14-15). Thus, the creed has three clauses. The first relates to Jesus (*he died and rose again*, (14a), the second to the Christian dead (*God will bring them with Jesus*, 14b), and the third to the Christians living (they *will certainly not precede* the Christian dead, 15).
First, *Jesus died and rose again*. This is the irreducible core of the gospel which the apostles preached and which the church believes. Paul elaborates it later (e.g. 1 Cor.15:1-4). In this letter he gives it only in embryo, with a minimum of explanation. He writes only that Christ ‘died for us’ (5:10), in order to dealwith our sins and so secure our ‘salvation’ (5:9). But he did not remain in death; he rose again, which implies that in some sense he triumphed over it.
Secondly, Jesus did not die and rise alone, for those who have died in him will rise with him. ‘God will bring them to life with Jesus’ (NEB). True, in spite of NEB, Paul does not explicitly say this. He says rather *that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him* (14b). That is, he is referring to the Parousia, not the resurrection. Nevertheless, the resurrection is implied, for there is in Paul’s mind ‘an unexpressed inner connection’ between the death and the resurrection of believers in Christ (e.g. Rom.6:4-10; 2 Cor.4:14). If God did not abandon Jesus to death, he will not abandon the Christian dead either. On the contrary, he will raise them as he raised him, and he will bring them with him, so that when he comes, they will come too.
Thirdly, Paul addresses himself to the Christian living: *we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep* (15).
What Paul is affirming then, is that neither the Christian dead nor the Christian living will be left behind or excluded or disadvantaged in any way. On the contrary, God will observe ‘the
most absolute impartiality’ between them. Neither group will take precedence over, nor have the advantage over, the other. In particular, there is no possibility that the Christian dead (about whom the Thessalonians were anxious) will be separated either from Christ (for they will come with him) or from the Christian living (for they will be joined by them). The apostle’s emphasis is on the unbreakable solidarity which the people of Christ enjoy with him and with each other, and which death is utterly unable to destroy (Cf. Rom.8:35-39).
Two further questions arise from verse 15, to which we must give some attention. First, Paul makes his declaration about the Christian living *according to the Lord’s own word*; to what ‘word’ was he referring? Secondly, he associates himself with the Christian living by using the first-person plural (*we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord*, verses 15 and 17); was he asserting that the Parousia would take place during his lifetime?
Tomorrow: 1 Thessalonians 4:14-15. b) A fundamental creed (continued).
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.