The First Epistle of St. Paul to the Thessalonians
Chapter 4 (Contd.)
3- St. Paul writes about the Lord's coming (4:13-17)
The Lord proclaimed His second coming and the signs of the last Day, to judge the living and the dead, in numerous biblical passages, hence: Matthew 10:28-33, 16:27, 22:30, Ch. 24, 25:31-46, 26:64; Mark 8:38, 12:25, Ch. 13, 14:62; Luke 9:26, 12:8,9, 19:43,44, 20:35,36, 21:5-36, 22:69; John 5:22,28-29, Ch.14-16; and Acts 1:11. Consequently, the certainty of Christ's second coming was fully entrenched in the hearts and minds of early evangelists; that was the seal of salvation which they preached, and the gate through which believers pass, to enter Christ's eternal kingdom. This is what St. Peter taught in the days of the first Church (Acts 3:21, 10:42,43).
On the other hand, given that St. Paul's epistle to the Thessalonians is older than the gospels, it can be said that his message to them in this respect may constitute the first biblical record of the Lord's second coming. He underlines that which the Spirit revealed to him concerning the signs and mysteries of the latter days, in order to forewarn believers of the awesomeness of those days. He cites signs of the Lord's coming in addition to those foretold by Christ immediately before His crucifixion (Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21).
In sending them this message, St. Paul intended to alleviate the Thessalonians' concerns with respect to their beloved persons who had already departed prior to the Lord's second coming - which they had been anticipating. He started by comforting them through our hope in Christ: steadfastness in this faith stipulates that as He died and rose, so will the believers who departed also rise. Consequently, it is unbecoming us to grieve like the Gentiles who have no hope. Put differently, the Thessalonians' hope in Christ should confine their natural grief within reasonable boundaries, emphasizing that as "...we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus [those who departed as believers in the Lord]." They will thus be present at that glorious scene, where the Lord will summon their souls from paradise to meld with their bodies rising from the graves.
St. Paul subsequently elaborates on the fate of those who are alive at that hour (expecting that he would be among the living during the Lord's imminent coming(1)); he says that they would not be the first group to join the Lord in the clouds - rather, the departed would be first.
The Lord Himself (in the very body in which He entered the Holies) will descend from heaven amidst the angels' jubilation (led by Archangel Michael - Daniel 10:13,21 and Revelation 12:7) and the sound of trumpets. St. Paul expounds further on the Lord's sayings concerning His appearance on the last Day, including: "Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth (the sinners) will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other ..." (Matthew 24:30,31, Mark 13:26,27, Luke 21:27)
+ Those who died in Christ will rise first; St. Paul then resumes his vision: "Then we who are alive [the believers] and remain [until the Lord's coming] shall be caught up together with them in the clouds(2) to meet the Lord in the air." He adds to this what he later wrote to the Corinthians, in the context of answering their queries about the bodies' resurrection and explaining what happens during the moment of Rapture: "We shall not all sleep [meaning that some will still be alive on the last Day], but we [the living righteous] shall all be changed - in a moment [from death to resurrection], in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead [the reposed righteous] will be raised incorruptible [first], and we [the living believers] shall be changed. For this corruptible [the earthly body] must put on incorruption(3), and this mortal must put on immortality." (1 Corinthians 15:51-53)*****
+ Thus, the resurrected (reposed) believers, and those believers who were alive and were transformed in a moment, will all acquire the glorified resurrected body (in conformance to Christ's glorious body - Philippians 3:21) will accompany the Lord in His coming for judgment; those who remain on earth (whether dead or alive) are the evildoers, who will also be raised for judgment (the "resurrection of condemnation" (John 5:29)).
This does not imply that the two resurrections are sequential, separated by a period of time; since time, as we know it, will change, and heaven and earth will be replaced by a new heaven and a new earth (2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21:1), and eternity will have started, replacing the perishable which was slated for perdition.
+ Through the glorious resurrection, believers "shall always be with the Lord." This happy ending concludes all suffering, tribulations and persecutions, and turns the page over the last defeated enemy - death. This is St. Paul's answer to those who were worried about the fate of reposed believers; he thus concludes this chapter with the instruction: "Therefore comfort one another with these words." This is the means whereby we should comfort ourselves, and those around us: Christ is our true hope (1 Timothy 1:1) and His resurrection is the hope of our resurrection on the last Day.
1- St. Paul urges vigil and watchfulness in preparation for the Lord's unannounced coming (5:1-5)
Having clarified misconceptions related to the Lord's second coming and the fate of the living and the dead on that Day, St. Paul proceeds to address practical aspects. He thus talks about believers' position with respect to this great occurrence which all Christ's followers eagerly await; he also talks about those who dread facing it, namely, those who despised the Lord's calling, rejected His salvation, persisted in their iniquities and their love for this present evil age (Gal. 1:4) and, possibly, questioned the likelihood of such an occurrence, saying, "Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation." (2 Peter 3:4)
+ "The Day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night" (1-4)
St. Paul starts by saying that he would not discuss a precise time for the Lord's coming; since it is not up to us to determine (Matthew 25:13, Luke 12:45,46, Luke 17:26-30) exact periods (seasons) or specific moments (times) "which the Father has put in His own authority." (Acts 1:7) There was therefore no need for him to write to the Thessalonians about it. He simply emphasizes what is widely taught in churches about our Lord, namely, "The Day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night." The Lord used the same analogy when He said, "... if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into." (Matthew 24:43) St. John also says in his Revelation (Christ Himself warning the angel of the church in Sardis): "... Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, ... Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent. Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you." (Revelation 3:2,3) Also, "Behold, I am coming as a thief. Blessed is he who watches, and keeps his garments, lest he walk naked and they see his shame." (Revelation 16:15)
+ Finally, St. Paul drew a parallel with a pregnant woman's labor pains: "For when they say, "Peace and safety!" (i.e. when the worries of life in this world, and the desires of riches, distract them and make them see, wrongly, that they are in peace) then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape." (1 Thessalonians 5:3, Jeremiah 8:11, Jeremiah 6:14, Ezekiel 13:10)
(to be continued)
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(1) St. Paul wrote later to the Corinthian believers warning them not to be preoccupied with life's concerns, given the approaching latter days, and given that "the time is short, so that from now on even those who have wives should be as though they had none, those who weep as though they did not weep, those who rejoice as though they did not rejoice, those who buy as though they did not possess, and those who use this world as not misusing it. For the form of this world is passing away. But I want you to be without care." (1 Cor. 29 - 32)
(2) This will happen in some form or another - similarly to Enoch (Genesis 5:24 and Hebrews 11:5) or Elijah (2 Kings 2:11) who were taken up.
(3) "The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body." (1 Corinthians 15:42 - 44)