The online journal of Luke Dockery

A New Heaven & A New Earth Part 3: “Problem” Texts–1 Thessalonians 4.13-18

Introduction

Last week, we talked about some “distractions”—different things that are not really related to renewed eschatology, but that people often think of and want to talk about when NHNE is discussed. First, we talked about some alternative visions of what the end times look like: historic premillennialism, dispensational premillennialism, and Jehovah’s Witness eschatology, and ultimately, I shared with you the problems I have with each of those perspectives, and insisted that renewed eschatology is not any of these views.

Then, we talked about the intermediate state, the time period between an individual’s death and the second coming of Christ. Ultimately, I did not come down strongly on what happens to us when we die, but I argued that this is not the basis of Christian hope. The Bible says that believers will be taken care of when they die and in some sense “be with the Lord”, but that this is not the focus. The Christian hope is not about “going to heaven when you die” (those words are never found in the Bible); rather, it is about what happens when Jesus returns—Satan, sin, and death are defeated, we are resurrected and given new bodies, and we live with God eternally. That’s where this series comes in: what does that look like? Do we fly off to heaven and live as spirits with God, or does God in some sense come down, heaven and earth unite, and we live eternally with Him in some sort of embodied existence?



“Problem” Texts

Today and for the next few weeks, we are going to be looking at texts that are often produced in an attempt to refute the renewed earth position. These three texts—1 Thessalonians 4, 2 Peter 3, and John 14.1-3—are ones that I thought of myself when I was first exposed to the NHNE perspective, and I have repeatedly witnessed them being produced in an attempt to refute it.[1] However, I consider these to be “problem” texts, with the quotation marks meaning that I don’t believe these texts, properly understood, oppose the renewed earth perspective at all.

The first text that we want to consider is 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18:

13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

Generally, this is read to mean that we will “meet” Jesus in the air (v.17) and then float away with Him back to heaven. But is this the best way to read this passage?

First, what is the purpose of this passage? Contextually, Paul is providing comfort to the Thessalonian Christians about their fellow believers who have died. The point here is really not to describe exactly what their current condition is, but rather to argue that they are taken care of by Jesus. They will rise first when Jesus returns. Paul’s words are meant to provide comfort and reassurance to the Christians in Thessalonica about their loved ones who have died.

Second, to interpret this passage properly, we have to see that this is a text with political overtones, and for us to pick up on this, we have to be familiar with the politics of the first century. Paul is writing to people living in a Roman colony, and the Imperial Cult was a major feature of their lives.[2]

There are several terms used in our Bibles that were actually very commonly used in reference to Rome. For example, we tend to think of the word “gospel” (ευαγγελιον) as a specifically Christian word that refers to the “Good News” of Jesus Christ. But before that, this same word was used in reference to Caesar Augustus, who was seen as bringing about an age of peace and prosperity. Similarly, we tend to think of the title “Lord” as a specific title for Jesus, but first, it was a title for Caesar. When early Christians referred to Jesus as Lord, they were actually making a very subversive claim, because they were stating that Jesus is Lord; Caesar is not. In a similar way, some of the language used in 1 Thessalonians 4 is technical language that Paul borrows from Roman political life.

In 1 Thessalonians 4.15, Paul uses the Greek word parousia (παρουσια; this is the word translated as the “coming” of the Lord). This word often referred to an official divine or imperial visit, the coming of a god or a king into a city. In ancient times, this was a matter of great ceremony and celebration (and, indeed, Paul mentions the voice of an archangel and the sound of a trumpet).

Then, in 4.17, Paul uses the Greek word apantesin, (απαντησιν) which is translated in our Bibles as “meet” the Lord in the air. In English, the word meet can mean different things. Consider three hypothetical scenarios between me and a friend:

  • Scenario 1: My friend calls me at my office at the church building. “Let’s go eat! I’ll drive. Meet me in the parking lot.” So in this instance, my friend comes, I go out to meet him, and then leave with him.
  • Scenario 2: My friend calls me at my office at the church building. “Hey, I have that document you needed, but I am in a hurry. Can you meet me in the parking lot?” So in this instance, my friend comes, I go out to meet him, and then we both go our separate ways.
  • Scenario 3: My friend calls me at my office at the church building. “Hey, I brought those books for you. There are several boxes of them, and I could use some help bringing them in. Can you meet me in the parking lot?” So, in this instance, my friend comes, I go out to meet him, and we both come back to where I am.

In English, any of these scenarios work, because the word “meet” has a range of meaning. The context is necessary to determine which meaning is the correct one. When we read 1 Thessalonians 4.17 and see the English word “meet”, we just assume that the word has the same range of meaning as our word “meet”, and then we have tended to interpret it as meaning that we “meet” Jesus in the air and then return with Him to heaven.

But the Greek word that is used here for “meet” (apantesin/απαντησιν) has an almost technical meaning: sending a delegation outside the city to receive a dignitary who was on the way to the town. So, if Caesar came to your city, you would apantesin him—the leading citizens of the city would go out to welcome him and escort him back. This is how the word is used in many ancient documents and inscriptions outside of the Bible, but is also used this way elsewhere in the New Testament:

  • Acts 28.11-15: In this passage, Paul is on his journey to Rome, and in verse 15, the “brothers” come out to “meet” Paul. When they “meet” him, did they go back with Paul to where he came from? Or did they welcome Paul and then accompany him back to Rome? Obviously, the latter.
  • Matthew 25.1-6: This is the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. In verse 6, when the wise virgins went out to “meet” the bridegroom, did they leave and go back with him? Or did they welcome the bridegroom into where they had been? Obviously, the latter.
  • John 12.12-15: A version of this same word (hypantesin/υπαντησιν) is also used in verse 13 of John’s account of Jesus’s triumphal entry. When the crowd went out to “meet” Jesus with palm branches, did they leave and go back to where Jesus came from? Or did they welcome him into Jerusalem where they had been? Obviously, the latter.

In each of these contexts, you can see that the word means precisely as we defined it earlier: apantesin refers to a group of people going out to meet someone special (Caesar, an apostle, a bridegroom, the Messiah, the Returning King Jesus), and then welcoming that person back to where you are.

1 Thessalonians 4 is a passage written by a Roman citizen (Paul), to Roman citizens (Thessalonian Christians) living in a Roman colony (Thessalonica) where he borrows politically-charged Roman words and applies them to the return of Jesus. Against this backdrop of what these Greek words actually mean, this text takes on a clear (but different than what we are used to) meaning: Jesus will return with great ceremony, and we will meet Him in the air to escort Him back here. And we will be with Him forever.[3]

I am going to share 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18 again, but now, instead of the words “Lord”, “coming”, and “meet”, I am going to replace them with what the words mean in their historical context:

13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from [Our King, Jesus, the true Caesar], that we who are alive, who are left until the [royal visit from our God, King Jesus], will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For [King Jesus] himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet [King Jesus] in the air, [to welcome Him and escort Him back here], and so we will always be with [our God and King]. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

1 Thessalonians doesn’t argue against the renewed earth perspective. It doesn’t teach that we will meet Jesus in the air and then float off to heaven with Him. That is simply not what the word means. 

If you only know the English word “meet”, then the traditional interpretation makes sense. But once you know what the Greek word apantesin means, it changes everything. This is not a case of having different possible interpretations: in English, the word “meet” can mean a lot of different things, but the Greek word apantesin does not have that same flexibility. We have looked at it and it has a very specific meaning: the traditional interpretation does not work with the actual meaning of the Greek word.[4]

This passage tells us that we are going to meet Jesus in the air, and then come back here. It doesn’t tell us what “here” means exactly, or what it is going to look like (in other words, it doesn’t prove the NHNE case), but it does not refute it in any way.

When I was ignorant about the historical background of this passage and the specific meaning of the word, it was one of my top passages for “disproving” renewed eschatology. But when I studied it, I had to face the facts that it didn’t say what I assumed it said. So it forced me to reconsider my thinking: if I am going to be honest, I have to do something with this information; I can’t just pretend that it’s not there.

Excursus: How in the World are we Supposed to Know This?

When I first presented this material, one question I received was, “How in the world are we supposed to know this? Do we have to read Greek or be experts on ancient history to understand the Bible?”

That is a good and important question, and I understand the concern and confusion that underlies it. As Christians, we believe it is really important for us to understand the Bible, because it directs how we should live our lives. If mastery of ancient languages and obscure historical details is necessary to understand it, that is too high of a bar for the vast majority of us.

We need to remember, though, that Scripture was written for us, but it was not written to us. It is written for us in the sense that it has something to teach us, it applies to our lives, it gives us instruction and direction, etc. But it was not written to us in the sense that we were not the immediate, primary audience. In this case, that audience was the Christians at Thessalonica. Paul was writing to them about problems they were having, telling them things they needed to hear, and in ways that they could understand. When he talked to them and referred to concepts like parousia and apantesin, they would have absolutely understood what he was talking about without any trouble. But we are 2,000 years removed from that context and are products of a different culture who speak a different language.

Although it is a common assumption that we should be able to just read the Bible for what it says at face value and that it should be easy for us to understand, when you think about it, that’s really not a very reasonable assumption. I do think that Scripture is basically understandable and that we can learn what we need to know about the Gospel story and how to be saved by just reading the text without understanding much behind it. But the idea that we can basically read someone else’s mail—Paul’s letter to the Thessalonian Christians—from 2,000 years ago and easily understand everything that is going on without doing some extra work at times doesn’t make a lot of sense. Let me give an example to explain my point.

I live in Arkansas, in the Southern United States. Since we don’t write a lot of letters anymore, let’s say that I send an email or a text to a friend who lives in Alabama. While updating my friend on how things are going in my life, I say, “Oh, I burned my hand on the 4th of July; I was holding a Roman candle.” My friend in Alabama would know exactly what I was talking about: July 4th is Independence Day in the United States, and a common way of celebrating in the United States is by shooting off fireworks, of which Roman candles are one variety. Particularly daring (or foolish!) celebrants sometimes hold Roman candles in their hands to shoot them off, which can easily lead to burns. All of this background knowledge related to the celebration of American Independence Day would be easily understood by my friend.

If, however, I were to send an email or Facebook message to a preacher in, say, India or Uganda, and were to say, “Oh, I burned my hand on the 4th of July; I was holding a Roman candle,” that statement would likely require some explanation. What is special about July 4? Why am I holding a candle from the capital city of Italy, or, alternatively, some ancient Roman artifact? How did it come to burn my hand?

With this example in mind, I think it is easy to see how it would be necessary for us to do some additional work (through understanding historical background, cultural practices, and linguistic nuances) to come to a place where we can understand certain parts of the biblical text at a deeper level.[5]

All of that to say, it shouldn’t alarm us that studying the Bible on a deeper level yields new insights and understandings. Rather, it should fill us with wonder and praise that God’s Scripture can be so meaningful at different levels—providing comfort, guidance, and purpose for life at even surface-level readings, while also containing untold depths that keep scholars searching and learning for their entire lives.


[1]When I taught this material as a Bible class, I solicited additional texts from the class for us to consider, but these were the only ones that were really brought up. I am sure there are other texts that could be discussed as well; J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014): 179-237, discusses at length various texts that could be construed as presenting a perspective contrary to renewed eschatology, and I recommend his work.

[2]For more on the political background of 1 Thessalonians 4, see Bobby Valentine’s excellent post, “Paul, the Roman Imperial Cult, the Return of King Jesus and “Flying Away” in 1 Thessalonians 4.17”, http://stonedcampbelldisciple.com/2011/03/10/paul-the-roman-imperial-cult-the-return-of-king-jesus-and-flying-away-in-1-thessalonians-4-17/; Also, Middleton, 222-25. These two sources lie significantly behind what I have written here.

[3]Michael R. Cosby, “Hellenistic Formal Receptions and Paul’s Use of ΑΠΑΝΤΗΣΙΣ in 1 Thessalonians 4:17,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 4 (1994): 15-34, argues against this technical meaning, saying that Paul’s description in this passage lacks many of the elements of Hellenistic receptions as seen in records from ancient papyri: “Instead of being a cipher for understanding what Paul meant through the supposed use of a technical term, they function more as a foil—a loose pattern to play against when describing the coming of the heavenly king” (31). Cosby’s analysis is flawed for multiple reasons, as Robert H. Gundry, “A Brief Note on “Hellenistic Formal Receptions and Paul’s Use of ΑΠΑΝΤΗΣΙΣ in 1 Thessalonians 4:17,”” Bulletin for Biblical Research 6 (1996): 39-41 points out: “Paul’s description of the Parousia in 1 These 4:15-17 comes closer to what we know of Hellentistc formal receptions than Cosby allows” (41). Gundry further states that all the imperial elements that Paul includes in this passage combine to render the connotation of απαντησις that I have set forth in this article. 

Additionally, Cosby’s analysis is problematic because, in his survey of relevant ancient texts, he acknowledges a diversity of practices in relation to Hellenistic Formal Receptions, but then conjures up some sort of standard set of practices against which Paul’s description supposedly comes up deficient. Finally, the notion that Paul is using the entire imperial imagery as a foil to lampoon imperial power and highlight the superiority of Jesus is surely correct; but such a comparison only makes sense if it is referring to the arrival of a conquering dignitary who is welcomed back to his rightful domain.

More recent commentators like Middleton and Valentine (mentioned above) and Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Leicester: Apollos; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 223-26, reject Cosby’s view as well. The scholarly case for the technical meaning of απαντησις as has been suggested here is solid. 

[4]A question I was asked when teaching this material is that if this is what the word apantesin means, why do all of our translations use the word “meet”? Why don’t they use something like “welcome” or “escort”? Well, in short, those words don’t really convey the meaning of apantesin, either. Again, this is a specialized technical word that simply doesn’t have a parallel in English. It conveys the meaning of “go out and meet a visiting dignitary, welcome him, and escort him back to your city.” We simply don’t have a word for that. “Meet” doesn’t convey all of that meaning, but it does as good of a job as any other English word we have.

[5]Valentine, “Paul, the Roman Imperial Cult, the Return of King Jesus and “Flying Away” in 1 Thessalonians 4.17”,  begins his essay by establishing this same idea, that we must within “Understanding Distance” of 1 Thessalonians.

2 Comments

  1. Krysti

    Very interesting reading Luke. Thank you.

  2. Luke

    Thanks for reading, Krysti!

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