Wednesday, April 8, 2020

A Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (Part One)

“Now we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren…”

In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (Concordant Literal New Testament) we read the following:

“Now we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are reposing, lest you may sorrow according as the rest, also, who have no expectation. For, if we are believing that Jesus died and rose, thus also, those who are put to repose, will God, through Jesus, lead forth together with Him. For this we are saying to you by the word of the Lord, that we, the living, who are surviving to the presence of the Lord, should by no means outstrip those who are put to repose, for the Lord Himself will be descending from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of the Chief Messenger, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ shall be rising first. Thereupon we, the living who are surviving, shall at the same time be snatched away together with them in clouds, to meet the Lord in the air. And thus shall we always be together with the Lord. So that, console one another with these words. ”

The believers to whom Paul wrote the letter in which the above passage is found were members of the ecclesia – i.e., the called-out assembly (or “church”) – that existed in the city of Thessalonica. Like all of the ecclesias to whom Paul wrote, the ecclesia in Thessalonica was comprised primarily of people from among the nations who once belonged to the pagan, idol-worshiping religious system of that day (1 Thess. 1:9). In addition to what we read in 1 Thess. 1:9, the uncircumcised, gentile status of those to whom Paul wrote is also implied in 1 Thess. 4:3-5. What Paul wrote in these verses only makes sense when the recipients of this letter are understood as having consisted primarily of gentiles who were formerly involved in idol-worship and other activities that the “nations also who are not acquainted with God” were involved in at the time.  However, these believers had been called out of their idolatry to the worship of the living God through the heralding of the “evangel of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 8; cf. 1 Thess. 1:5; 2:2, 9; 3:2). This evangel is the “testimony” that they’d believed (v. 10), and consists of the truth that “Christ died for our sins” and “was roused from among the dead” (1 Cor. 15:3-4).

Having been called by God through this evangel (2 Thess. 2:14), the Thessalonian believers thus became members of that company of believers that Paul referred to elsewhere as “the body of Christ” and “the ecclesia which is [Christ’s] body” (1 Cor. 12:12-13, 27; Eph. 1:22-23). As members of the body of Christ, the Thessalonian believers had been “sealed with the holy spirit of promise” (Eph. 1:13), and were thus destined to enter (and enjoy an allotment in) the “kingdom of God” referred to in v. 5. And as I’ve argued elsewhere (see, for example,, when Paul referred to the kingdom of God as the expectation of those in the body of Christ, he did not have in mind the kingdom in its future earthly location (which is the location that is in accord with the prophesied and covenant-based expectation of God’s covenant people, Israel). Rather, Paul had in mind the kingdom of God as it will exist in its heavenly location (i.e., what Paul referred to in 2 Tim. 4:18 as the Lord’s “celestial kingdom”).

At the time when Paul wrote his first letter to the Thessalonians, the body of Christ existed alongside both national Israel and the chosen Jewish remnant among God’s covenant people (which Paul referred to in Gal. 6:16 as “the Israel of God,” and in Rom. 9:6 as simply, “Israel”). And during this time, the body of Christ consisted of both uncircumcised, non-proselytized gentiles as well as those who were former proselytes of Israel. Although (as already noted) most of the Thessalonian believers probably belonged to the former category, there were also a minority of believers in the body of Christ who, like Paul and Barnabas, were Jews “according to the flesh,” and former members of God’s covenant people, Israel. However, those who came from this particular ethnic and covenantal background would’ve understood themselves to have joined a body of believers that was (and is) completely distinct from Israel, and which has been called by God to an expectation that is completely distinct from Israel’s covenant-based expectation. Within this body of believers, covenant identity (as well as circumcision, the sign of God’s covenant with Israel) was, and is, completely irrelevant. 

In contrast with what’s been said above, there are some students of Scripture who believe that the Thessalonian believers (and, by implication, the body of Christ as a whole at the time Paul wrote this letter) shared Israel’s earthly, covenant-based expectation, and were basically an extension of the ecclesias to which “the Israel of God” (i.e., the believing Jewish remnant) belonged. In defense of this position, some appeal to the following words of Paul in 1 Thess. 2:14:

For you became imitators, brethren, of the ecclesias of God which are in Judea in Christ Jesus. For you suffered the same, even you by your own fellowtribesmen, according as they also by the Jews…”

The word translated “imitators” in this verse (mimetes) does not mean that those in Thessalonica belonged to the same company of saints as those who comprised “the ecclesias which are in Judea in Christ Jesus.” The very next verse informs us of exactly how the Thessalonian saints had become “imitators of the ecclesias of God which are in Judea.” According to Paul, the saints to whom he wrote had “suffered the same, even you by your own fellowtribesmen, according as they also by the Jews…” In other words, the Thessalonian believers had endured persecution from their own “fellowtribesmen” (or “countrymen”) just as the ecclesias in Judea had suffered persecution from the unbelieving Jews. It is in this way that they had become “imitators” of them. This understanding of 1 Thess. 2:14 is perfectly consistent with the view that Paul had in view two different categories of saints with two distinct expectations. Moreover, the fact that Paul contrasted the “Jews” (as a people group) with the “fellowtribesmen” of the persecuted believers in Thessalonica further confirms the fact that the saints to whom Paul wrote (or at least the majority of the saints within this ecclesia) weren’t Jewish. 

“Concerning those who are reposing”

In verses 13-15, those who have died (specifically, deceased believers) are figuratively referred to by Paul as if they were asleep or “reposing.” This kind of figurative “sleep” imagery is fairly common among the inspired writers of Scripture (see, for example, Deut. 31:16; 2 Sam 7:12; 1 Kings 2:10; 1 Kings 11:43; 1 Kings 14:31; 1 Kings 15:8; 1Kings 15:24; 2 Chron. 28:27; 2 Chron. 33:20; Job 3:13; 7:21; 14:21; Ps 13:3; 17:15; 76:5; 90:3-6; Jer. 51:39; Isa. 26:14; Dan. 12:2; Matt 9:24-25; Matt. 27:52; John 11:11–14; Acts 7:59–62; Acts 13:36; 1 Cor. 11:30; 1 Cor. 15:6, 16-18, 20, 32, 51; 1 Thess. 4:13–16; 5:10; 2 Pet 3:4). To better understand this figurative language, let’s consider Job 14:10-12. In these verses we read the following:

“But a man dies and is laid low; man breathes his last, and where is he? As waters fail from a lake and a river wastes away and dries up, so a man lies down and rises not again; till the heavens are no more he will not awake or be roused out of his sleep.”

Here it is “man” who, in death, is figuratively spoken of by Job as if he were asleep and in need of being “roused.” Similarly, in Daniel 12:2 we read, “From those sleeping in the soil of the ground many shall awake, these to eonian life and these to reproach for eonian repulsion” (CVOT). Here, the “sleep” metaphor obviously applies to that which returns to “the soil of the ground” – i.e., the human body. And since it is human persons who are said to “sleep” after they die, then it can be reasonably inferred that our body is essential to our existence and personal identity. In other words, the human body that returns to the “the soil of the ground” after a human being dies is, in a very real sense, the remains of the person who died. It is not something that humans can exist without. Humans do not survive the death of the body; when our body dies, we die.

In keeping with this fact, read in Acts 7:60 that Luke referred to the death of Stephen as follows: “…he was put to repose” (or “fell asleep”). If the words “he was put to repose” are to be understood as applying to anything other than the human person, Stephen (or that which was essential to Stephen’s “personal identity”), then it would have been inaccurate to say that “he was put to repose.” For the pronoun “he” refers, of course, to Stephen himself (and not to some unessential part of Stephen).

Those whom Paul referred to as “reposing” in v. 13 are later referred to as “the dead in Christ” (v. 16). Death, of course, is the opposite of life, and to be dead is to be lifeless. Those who are dead – whether they died as believers or unbelievers – are not alive in any way. It’s likely that the dead began to be figuratively described as if they were “asleep” (or “reposing”) because of the close resemblance between the appearance of the recently deceased and those who are asleep. Because those who have died appear, to the living, as if they’re sleeping, it was only natural that sleep-related terms begin to be used in reference to death and those who have died. But it must be kept in mind that this figurative language presupposes that what can be observed after a person dies (i.e., the lifeless body) is the remains of the person who once lived. And this means that the person who died cannot be considered any more alive than the person’s lifeless body.

Among those who believe that the dead are not really dead (and that they remain conscious in a “disembodied state”), some have argued that the Greek word translated “reposing” in 1 Thess. 4:13 (koimao) does not necessarily mean that those who have died are unconscious. Rather, it’s argued that the term koimao can simply denote a state of rest from labour and troubles. It’s further suggested that the Greek word “hupnos” would be more appropriate if Paul had wanted to convey the idea that the dead are unconscious. In response to this view, it must be kept in mind that those to whom the term koimao is being figuratively applied by Paul are dead. Thus, however one understands the term koimao when figuratively used in reference to those who have died, the use of the term must be consistent with what Scripture elsewhere reveals concerning the state of the dead. And according to what is revealed elsewhere, those who have died are not engaged in any kind of conscious activity:

“The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing” (Eccl 9:5).

Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol [i.e., the domain of the dead], to which you are going” (Eccl 9:10).

“For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise?” (Psalm 6:5)

“Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon? Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?” (Psalm 88:11-12)

“The dead do not praise Yahweh, nor do any that go down into silence” (Psalm 115:17).

“His spirit departs, he returns to the earth; in that very day his thoughts perish” (Psalm 146:4).

“For Sheol cannot thank you, death cannot praise you; those who go down to the pit cannot hope for your faithfulness” (Isaiah 38:18).

But what, then, about the word koimao? The fact is that this word can and does apply just as naturally to a state of unconsciousness as the word hupnos. In the LXX, for example, the word koimao was used to convey the same meaning of “sleep” as hupnos (e.g., Judges 16:14, 19, 20; 1 Kings 19:5; Ps 3:5; 4:8; 13:3; Prov. 4:16). Job 14:12 is especially relevant, for in this verse both koimao and hupnos were used in reference to the “sleep” of the dead. In Psalm 13:3 hupnos is used in the expression “sleep of death,” and in Psalm 76:5 the word appears yet again in reference to death. The same goes for Jer. 51:39 (“sleep a perpetual sleep”). Moreover, in the Greek Scriptures, koimao seems to have been used and understood to convey the same general meaning as hupnos. For example, in Matt. 28:13, we read that the unbelieving chief priests said the following to the Roman soldiers who were guarding Jesus’ tomb: “Say that ‘His disciples, coming by night, steal him as we are reposing’” (cf. Luke 22:45 and Acts 12:6). It would be pretty strange if, in this verse, the term koimao (translated “reposing”) didn't denote an unconscious sleep! Consider also John 11:11-12, where we read the following:

After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep [koimaō], but I go to awaken him [exupnizō, “to awake out of sleep”].” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep [koimaō], he will recover.” Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest [koimēsis] in sleep [hupnos].

Notice that when Jesus told his disciples that Lazarus had “fallen asleep” (koimaō) they thought he was talking about literal sleep (hupnos). Jesus then has to tell them plainly that Lazarus was dead (and when he spoke of “Lazarus,” Christ was clearly talking about the dead occupant of the tomb who he was soon to visit, not an “immortal soul” that was relaxing somewhere in a conscious state of existence). So while it’s true that the term hupnos is the more specific word for “sleep,” koimao was often used to communicate the same meaning. And when applied to the dead, it can be understood as carrying the same idea (since those who are dead appear to the living to be “resting” or “reposing” in a state of sleep).

Thus, while the word koimao doesn’t, by itself, necessarily suggest an unconscious state (as does hupnos), it is completely consistent with it. And there is good reason to believe that an unconscious state is implied by this word when used in reference to those who are dead. While in a state of death, the dead are “reposing” in the sense that they are no longer engaged in conscious thought or vital activity, as are the living. Any objection that the scriptural metaphor of sleep refers “only” to our physical bodies presupposes an erroneous (and unscriptural) understanding of human nature. That is, it presupposes that our body isn’t essential to our existence as living, sentient beings, and that our capacity for consciousness can continue after death in a so-called “disembodied state.” But this commonly-held belief (i.e., the belief that our body is not essential to our existence as “living souls” who have a capacity for consciousness) is simply not in accord with what Scripture reveals. Consider the following argument: 

1. When Christ died, his spirit (i.e., the “breath of life,” or life-source) returned to God (Luke 23:46), and his body was entombed (Matt 27:59-60).
2. After his death, Christ was always said to be wherever his body was, and never where his spirit went (Matt 12:40; John 19:33, 40, 42; Acts 2:39, 13:29; 1 Cor. 15:3-5; cf. John 11:17, 43-44).
3. Therefore, it was Christ’s lifeless body that constituted his personal remains while he was dead, and not his spirit (that is, Christ’s body was all that remained of Christ while he was dead for three days and nights).

In 1 Thess. 4:14 Paul went on to say, ”For, if we are believing that Jesus died and rose, thus also, those who are put to repose, will God, through Jesus, lead forth together with Him.” We know from other passages in Paul’s letters – such as 1 Corinthians 15:1-5 – that Christ’s death was “for our sins.” That is, Christ died so that our sins would cease to be a source of condemnation for us (which is what takes place when God justifies sinners and ceases to reckon their sins to them). However, Paul doesn’t mention this particular element of his gospel here. In accord with the subject introduced in verse 13, Paul simply affirmed the fact that “Jesus died and rose.” The fact that Christ died means that, after breathing his last on the cross, our Lord ceased to exist as a living, sentient being capable of thinking, feeling and volitional activity (for more on this important topic, see the following article And in this lifeless state, Christ was completely dependent on his God and Father to restore him to a living existence. But after three days, God did just this when he roused his Son from among the dead and – in the words of Hebrews 7:17 – bestowed on him “the power of an indissoluble life.”

Just as we believe “that Jesus died and rose,” so we can have confidence that, through Jesus, God will do the same for all who die (cf. 2 Cor. 4:13-15). This is the meaning of the words, “…will God, through Jesus, lead forth together with Him.” It is from among the dead that God will, through Jesus, be “leading forth together with [Christ]” those believers who will be dead when the event referred to in 1 Thess. 4:15-17 takes place. The Greek word translated “lead forth” in v. 14 is “ago.” A related Greek word (“anago”) is found in Rom. 10:7 and Heb. 13:20 (where God’s “leading up” Christ “from among the dead” is in view). Just as God “led up” Christ from among the dead when he was resurrected, so God will, through Jesus, “lead forth together with him” the “dead in Christ” when they are roused from among the dead (concerning the meaning of the words “together with [Christ],” see Rom. 6:3-9, Eph. 2:4-6 and Col. 3:1). 

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