1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
We have been studying
Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians, and this morning we come to
one of the most misunderstood portions of that text, probably one of the
most misunderstood passages in all of scripture. So this morning I
want to try and give a different way of reading this passage so that
when you come across it, or folks bring up these ideas, you have a
different way of describing your understanding of it:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 15For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangelís call and with the sound of Godís trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever. 18Therefore encourage one another with these words.
I was teaching a course for Lent, I
think it was last year, and one of the sessions was discussing the 'Son
of Man' imagery as it is used in the gospels, from which Paul draws
inspiration for this text. In Daniel 7, we read:
I saw one like a son
of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the
ancient one and was presented before him. To him was given
glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should
serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall
not pass away.
So Paul is drawing on this image of the
descending Son of Man to usher in this new era, and adds to it the image
of the faithful who will rise (including the dead, who will rise first)
to meet the descending Lord in the air.
Someone in that class gave me a
post-card to describe this event, commonly known as the Rapture:
With the Internet these days, you can
find such things, and I Googled "rapture" images, and lo & behold, it
was the first thing that came up, that very post-card. It portrays
this idea of the dead rising out of a cemetery in the right-hand corner,
and people rising out of their vehicles, which then careen out of
control. No one rising out of those business buildings, not sure
what that says about the business world & Wall St
Notice in the upper left-hand corner --
the plane that is crashing into the building. Kind of sends a
chill up your spine, that this is portrayed as a Godly or Christian
thing? I don't know what you'd call it.
I found a nicer image (the above image
has always disturbed me), the notion of people rising up from their
various stations in life:
There's no crashing, no death and
destruction, and I thought that's much nicer, I like that. Until I
looked closer at the church -- the "Global Community Church", and all
the people still sitting in the pews
Except I want you to take careful note that the pastor is gone from
behind the pulpit! I think it's him up there on the roof, he's
probably cleaning the gutters J.
I got to looking at some other images.
I like this one, because it clarifies the date when this will all take
October 28, 1992 -- I don't know, I
don't remember the 90s. If you look close at this poster that was
made, and I'm sure it was quite serious, quotes this passage from 1
Thessalonians. Except they used the wrong chapter -- they printed
chapter 5, it's actually in chapter 4. You know, if you're going
to get the date wrong, why worry about details like that.
Now here's a timely one -- entitled
"Down at the Rapture with George":
I find it interesting that the children
are all dressed like in Sunday-school 1950s clothes. But I think
the focus is our current President. I'd say if you think of the
intent of the artist there, and their understanding of our President,
you would want your President to be there. I would hope that this
artist would portray President-elect Obama in the same way, as being
there among the faithful. And maybe the two of them together --
that would be a powerful statement.
Never mind the death and destruction
that's occurring down in the valley, we're going to come back to that.
As long as we're standing on thing
political ice, I found these next 2 images really interesting.
This one was entitled "The Political Map Before the Rapture":
And of course it's from the 2004
The next one is entitled "The Political
Map After the Rapture":
I kid you not -- I'm not making this
up, it's all out on the Internet
J. Evidently Mormons and
Democrats don't fare too well in the rapture.
I probably should move on, and not say
anything more about this, but I have to tell you, when I see something
like this, it just gets my blood boiling. And it doesn't have
anything to do with my particular political affiliation. It's when
people use their religion to bash the opponents of a political party --
and I don't care if you're bashing Democrats or bashing Republicans --
this is plain wrong, to use our faith in that way.
It is a serious mistake to use religion
to condemn people for their deeply-held political beliefs, often that
are held as deeply as their religious ones. Our faith may lead us
to disagree with one another about some of our political beliefs, but
such disagreements must always be within the faith, in the context of
love, so that we can be in dialogue with one another and not condemning
each other (as I think this map does, quite intentionally).
If God sees any color, looking down on
our country, I think it's purple. The Christian faith transcends
politics, rises above it. Of course that's easy for me to say now,
after the election. The challenge for us is to work
together as citizens of one nation, under God, indivisible, that is as
one people. And if we as a country are ever going to do that, if
we truly believe that the American flag is color-blind, then this is the
time to make it happen. And what a wonderful occasion that is,
regardless of one's political beliefs.
But if that proves to be too difficult
for us a nation, then let this be the place -- the church -- that makes
it happen. Where we are called to put aside those worldly
divisions, to live as one people, around the world, not just in this
country. One people, under God.
What does that have to do with this
text from 1 Thessalonians? Absolutely nothing. I just
couldn't help myself
Some people, though, think 'only the
Republicans' are going to be raptured. Some people think 'only the
Protestants', or 'certain protestants'. Only 'bible-believing
Christians', only 'born again' Christians, only the 'holy roller church
of God Millennial' Christians, whatever your stripe may be. Every
group has their own theories about who's in and who's out.
If I may so humbly say: they're
wrong. All of them. How can I say that? It's easy,
Read my lips: THERE IS NO
And I don't mean to ridicule anyone's
beliefs, but please look at this picture again:
I mean, how can we, as Christian
people, believe that. It's no wonder that serious, thinking people
have a problem with Christianity when that's the image that they have.
That our faith is about teaching that some get selected and
everybody else is damned to Hell. I think it's a serious problem.
On the Internet site where I found a
lot of these images, there was a discussion, and one person said "I'm so
glad I'm not a Christian, we Jews don't believe in this nonsense".
And someone else said: "Waiting for, looking forward to, and
welcoming death and the end of the world -- what is wrong with these
[bleep] Christian [bleep bleeps]. Right, like your profanity-laced
attack on Christians is an example of the goodness of humanity (?).
But be that as it may, my problem with
the rapture is not just that it's bizarre, and it portrays violent death
of millions of people as the will of God, my problem is that it's not
scriptural. It is a complete and total fabrication based on a
faulty interpretation of this one text (primarily), which comes out of
historical ignorance. You know me, how important I view such
So, let's set the record straight.
Now, please first of all note that
whatever Paul expects this event to be, his description of the coming of
Christ, he expects it to happen in his lifetime:
For this we declare
to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are
alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by
no means precede those who have died.
Paul expects it in his lifetime.
So how we can take that as to be referring to events some 2,000 years
into the future (and counting), is beyond me.
Second, and more importantly, please
read the text carefully, and tell me where it says that after
meeting Jesus in the clouds we will then go with him up into the
. . . [we] will be
caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the
air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever.
Now, you can read that literally
("forever and ever, all time"), or you can read it like a fairy-tale
ending ("they lived happily ever after"). But the question is:
where does this ending of 'forever' take place? And the
fact is, Paul doesn't say.
However one sees this happening --
literally or figuratively -- is the point that Jesus is going to lead us
back into heaven with him, or that we are going to escort Jesus back to
I don't know about you, but I was
taught that whatever goes up, must come down. So if we're going to
meet the Lord in the air, we're going to come back down, right?
Except for the stock market, of course. . . . . .
If an Emperor/King comes to your city,
what do you do as the Mayor of that city? You get a delegation of
folk to go out and meet that arriving dignitary, and escort them back
into the city.
The Jewish historian Josephus, writing
just a couple decades after Paul writes, gives this account of when
Alexander the Great came to Jerusalem with his world-conquering army,
causing no small consternation among the leaders of Jerusalem.
Josephus says :
"The high-priest of
Jerusalem, one Jaddus, had a vision. God spoke to him in his
sleep, telling him to take courage, and adorn the city with wreaths
and open the gates and go out and meet
[and the Greek term here is
them, that the people should be in white garments. And after
doing all the things that he had been told to do, he awaiting the
coming [the Greek term here
of the King".
Now, "meet", and "the coming".
Look again at Paul's letter to the Thessalonians, and we see those same
For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are
alive, who are left until the coming [parousia]
of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16For the
Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangelís call and
with the sound of Godís trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the
dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are
left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet
the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever.
18Therefore encourage one another with these words.
'The coming', or 'parousia' of the
Lord, and the 'meeting', or 'apantesis' of the Lord.
You don't have to be a reader of
Josephus in the ancient world to know that when a King or Emperor comes,
you go out and meet him and escort him into the city.
Paul is using this common image of a
parousia, a coming of a dignitary, a royal person, to describe the
coming of Christ. So wonderful and glorious that even the dead
will rise and together with his living followers, they shall meet him
and escort him down to earth, in a victorious celebration marking the
end of evil, event death itself.
That Paul doesn't have to say
the fact that they are coming back down to earth is because it's obvious
to all the readers of ancient times, because they are so familiar with
this image of the apantesis, of meeting the dignitary, and the parousia,
of coming back with him to the town.
By the way, that's the same image in
the Book of Revelation -- where the new Jerusalem comes to earth and God
dwells among the people and death shall be no more.
Now whether or not Paul understood this
to be a literal event that you can mark on your calendar (and
it's quite possible he did), or as a metaphorical event (like the
story Jesus tells of the poor man Lazarus eating the crumbs at the table
of the rich man and then in the next life their fortunes are reversed),
the point is there will be no rapture to take us out of this world.
And if this world is the only one we've got, we better be sure we take
good care of it so it's going to be here long into the future.
So then, if Paul is not telling us that
Jesus is coming to take all of his followers away, out of this world,
what is he telling us?
First of all, I think what Paul is
saying is that to speak of this 'parousia', of the coming of Christ, is
another way of saying that the end of evil has already begun.
We're confident in it, because he is coming. And that is the same
message of the resurrection: death, powers of this world, have
been defeated in the rising of Christ. And therefore, the message
that we as Christians are called to proclaim is not doom, but hope.
Not death, but life.
And that is why the symbol of our faith
is an empty cross -- to remind us that Christ was not defeated by it
(the power of terror -- remember, crosses were symbols of terror in the
Roman world), but that symbol has been transformed into a new kind of
power that will not terrorize, destroy, or kill anyone, because it is
the power of love and life.
Sojourner Truth, the freed slave and
great abolitionist of the 19th century got this, understood it.
Although not a highly educated woman, her insights are wonderful.
Speaking at a conference, a clergy conference of some kind, in typical
fashion she probably interrupted the meeting to do so, she said
"You seem to be expecting to
go to some parlor away up somewhere. And when the wicked have
been burnt, you are coming back to walk in triumph over their ashes.
This is to be your new Jerusalem. Now I can't see anything so
very nice in that, coming back to such a mess as that will be.
A world covered with the ashes of the wicked. Besides, if the
Lord comes and burns, as you say he will, I am not going away.
I'm gonna stay here and stand the fire, and Jesus will walk with me
through the fire to keep me from harm".
So, I'm sorry, though I know the artist
meant well, President Bush and President-elect Obama, if they are
followers of Jesus, they will not be up there on the hill overlooking
the city in flames and destruction:
They will be down in it, aiding the
The second thing that I think Paul is
trying to say to us, through the whole thrust of this letter, is to call
on the good folk of Thessalonica not to sit and wait for the coming of
Jesus to solve all the world's problems, but to work as the body of
Christ with God in the on-going work of transformation that ultimately
will result in the end of evil.
And if we believe that God's intent is
to bring and end to evil, then does it not make sense that the least we
can do is not use or support the use of evil ourselves? Indeed,
Paul says in the very next chapter:
See that none of you
repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another, and
to all. Abstain from every form of evil.
When "Glorious Appearing", the 12th and
final book of the popular 'Left Behind' series by authors LaHaye and
Jenkins was published last year (or maybe 2006), with Jesus returning to
wipe out all the non-Christians on earth, Oregon's favorite son Nicholas
Kristof wrote for his syndicated column in the New York Times:
to find ethnic-cleansing celebrated as the height of piety. We
should be embarrassed when our best-selling books gleefully
celebrate religious intolerance and violence against infidels.
That's not what America stands for, and I doubt it's what God stands
I believe that Kristof is absolutely
right. That's why I, and a dozen other Protestant, Roman-Catholic,
Jewish, and Muslim clergy are going to meet with Representative Peter
Defazio on Thursday, as part of a national campaign of religious
leaders, to request that our representative, on our behalf, go to the
President-elect, and request that upon taking office that he immediately
issue an executive order banning the use of torture (in all its forms)
by our government.
The statement that we will release to
the press tomorrow says:
"Our President must lead by our core
principles. We must be better than our enemies. And our
treatment of prisoners captured in the battle against terrorism must
reflect our character and values as a Americans".
By the way, this campaign was organized
months before the election, and so was to be held regardless of the
results of that election.
In just a few weeks, we will be
entering into Advent, which of course focuses on then coming of the
Messiah. There is something incongruent with angels singing about
singing 'peace on earth' at the birth of Jesus, and us calling this
newborn Christ the 'prince of peace' at his first coming, and then to
proclaim the second coming of Christ as a victorious warrior who
slaughters all non-believers.
Such a vision is not only wrong, I
believe that ultimately it is evil. It's what is behind much of
the evil that we have been caught up in.
So what about Revelation, you say?
That's another sermon, it's a little late to go there now, but
you can read a serious of
sermons I gave back in May of 2004 on our Internet site. Also
Barbara Rossing's book, "The Rapture Exposed", I recommend very highly.
But let me just summarize by saying the
Book of Revelation is not about the end of the world, it is about
Christianity's struggle with the evil of empire, specifically the Roman
Empire, which I studied on my sabbatical this summer. And the
beginning of the peaceful reign of God that will bring an end to that
kind of evil.
So we have to ask ourselves in these
times, not just what does America stand for, but what does God stand
Is it violence, destruction, torture,
wars for non-existent weapons of mass destruction?
Or love and life, beauty, harmony,
peace, and an end to that kind of violence?
Paul wants to give us, the Christian
community, a word of hope. That death does not have the last word.
That the Lord will come to usher in a different kind of world which we
cannot only look forward to, but which we can begin working for, now.
Encourage one another
with these words.
Truth--Barbara Rossing, "The Rapture Exposed". 2004,
Westview Press. p. 10.
 Josephus--John Dominic Crossan, "In Search of Paul". 2004,
HarperCollins. p. 167f.