A Commentary by John Stott
1 Thessalonians 4:14-15. b). A fundamental creed (continued).
First, what is this ‘word of the Lord’ to whose authority Paul appealed for his statement about the Parousia, whether it is thought to refer only to verse 15 or to cover verses 16 and 17 as well? Broadly speaking, there are two possibilities. Either it was a saying of the historical Jesus, or it was a pronouncement of the contemporary Lord, now ascended and glorified, speaking through one of his prophets or apostles. That there were a number of Christian prophets in those days is well know. Since, however, the authority of the prophets was inferior to that of the apostles (Cf. Acts 21:10-14; 1 Cor. 14:37-38; 1 Thess. 5:20-22, 27), it would be odd for an apostle to appeal to a prophet’s authority. Was Paul then alluding to his own apostolic authority, claiming that the word of the Lord had come to him as it had kept coming to God’s messengers in the Old Testament? Some notable commentators have held this view. J.B.Lightfoot thought it probable ‘that St. Paul refers to a direct revelation, which he had himself received from the Lord’. Henry Alford similarly explained the phrase ‘by the word of the Lord’ (AV) as meaning ‘by direct revelation from him made to me’. And Milligan concluded his discussion: ‘On the whole, therefore, it is better to fall back upon the thought of a direct revelation granted to the Apostles to meet the special circumstances that had arisen.’ But the problem with this interpretation is that Paul was accustomed to making a broad and general claim that Christ was speaking through him and that his words were God’s words (E,g, 1 Cor.2:12-16; 7:40; 2 Cor.13:3; Gal.4:14; 1 Thess.2:13); It would be anomalous for him to single out one or two sentences as being in a special sense *the Lord’s own word*. it seems more probable, therefore, that Paul was quoting a remembered *logion* or saying of the historic Jesus. There are other examples of his doing this, for example on divorce (1 Cor.7:10-11) and on the payment of evangelists and teachers (1 Cor.9:14; 1 Tim.5:18). Since, however, there is no saying of Jesus recorded in the Four Gospels which Paul can be shown to be quoting here, either he was making an allusion rather than a citation (E.g. to Matt.24:31), or he was quoting an otherwise unknown word of Jesus, a so-called *agraphon* or unwritten saying, as he did later to the Ephesian elders.
The second question which is raised in verse 15 (as also by verse 17) concerns Paul’s use of the first-person plural (‘we’). It seems to imply that he expected to be *still alive* when the Parousia took place, in which case he was of course mistaken. His error is confidently asserted by liberal scholars while those who query their conclusion and suggest an alternative are accused of reprehensible manipulation. What case for the defence of Paul can be made? First, since Jesus himself stated that the day of the Parousia was known only to the Father (Mk.13:32; cf. Acts 1:6-7), and since Paul virtually said the same thing in this very letter (5:1), it is antecedently improbable that the apostle would assert what neither he nor anybody else knew. Secondly, he continued to hold together in his later letters two apparently incompatible perspectives, namely his expectation both of the Lord’s coming and of his own death and resurrection. In Philippians, for example, he combined his confident affirmations that ‘the Lord is near’ (Phil.4:5) and that when he comes he will transform our bodies (3:20-21), with a longing to die (1:20-23) and ‘to attain to the resurrection from the dead’ (3:10-11). The case is similar in his Corinthian correspondence. On the one hand he could cry *Maranatha* (‘Come, O Lord’, 1 Cor.16:22) and again use the first person plural that ‘We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed’ (1 Cor.15:51), while on the other hand he could elaborate considerably on death and resurrection ( E.g. 1 Cor.6:14; 15:12ff.; 2 Cor 4:1-5:10).
Thirdly, Paul’s major practical emphasis in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 is on the need for watchfulness because the Parousia will come unexpectedly like a thief in the night. This was also the thrust of the teaching of Jesus, who said, ‘Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come’ (Mt.24:42). Again, ‘Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour’ (Mt.25:13). Now the call for watchfulness does not necessarily mean that the Parousia *will* come in our life-time, but only that it *may*. This was Paul’s position. G.C.Berkouwer rightly wrote of ‘the brilliant glow of Paul’s expectation’, which is evident in his letters. He knew that after death, resurrection, exaltation and Spirit-gift of Jesus there was no further saving event on God’s calendar before the Parousia. The Parousia would be the next and the last. For that reason Paul was eagerly expecting it, and it came naturally to him to say ‘we who are still alive’, meaning ‘those of us who are alive’. It should be equally natural for us to use the same language. So JB is right to say that Paul included himself ‘more by aspiration…than by conviction’. (JB, 1 Thess.4:15, note i). He was certainly not dogmatizing; in 5:10 he envisaged the possibility of his death before the Lord’s coming.
Tomorrow: 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17. c). An eschatological programme.
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.