Lesson 7: What’s Ahead? (Thessalonians)

Thessalonians pictures the church being persecuted for their belief that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ who shall rule the earth for God. As they wait for him, they live as much as possible in his Spirit, living quietly and loving all. Anne rightly asks how we can understand this in our time 2,000 years later.

In order to do so, we have to comprehend the “Day of the Lord”. The people of the Old Testament looked around them and realized God’s will was not being done on earth. They asked, “If we are God’s people, how come we are getting beat up?” First they were slaves oppressed by Egypt, then citizens abused by their own kings, and finally an occupied nation impoverished by the great imperial powers, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and Rome.

Their hope was that God would intervene, making things right, so bad things no longer happened to good, innocent people. The Day of the Lord was coming when God’s will would finally be done on earth. In most of the Old Testament this was of an historical event in the future. Those who died before it took place would participate through their children.

Later writing, much of it in the Apocrypha between the testaments, promised even those who died could participate. God would raise them to share in the blessed event. Pharisees took this position; Sadducees rejected it. The former accepted the new writings; the latter did not. The issue was so contentious that Paul could divide his opposition by simply mentioning resurrection. (Acts 23: 6-10)

Christians linked Jesus with this tradition. His resurrection signaled the beginning of the Day of the Lord. Now he sat at God’s right hand ruling heaven. When he returned to earth he would rule here.  At that time all the dead would be resurrected to share the joy.

Christians made the “Day of the Lord” the “Day of Jesus”. Scholars often remark that first century people would have asked why only Jesus was raised, if Easter was the Day of the Lord. Where were the rest of the dead? The early church responded Jesus was the first fruits; the rest would follow soon. So the church prayed at its communion meal then and now, “Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!” They lived in the unbearable tension between “what is” and “what ought to be”.

Of course, people would always ask, “How long do we have to wait?” The Church refused to give a date, responding as Paul does here, “The day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night.” (I Thessalonians 5: 1, 2) You had better be ready at every moment.

In the first letter Paul is comforting some who worry about their friends and family who died in the delay. Paul assures the worriers the dead will not miss out. In fact, they will be the first to enjoy the great day. When Jesus comes to rule the earth, they will accompany him. (I Thessalonians 4:13) The rest of us will go to meet them in the air and never again will be separated from Jesus.

Some modern Christians use this passage as the proof text for the “rapture”. It is easy to see it has nothing to do with the ideas we hear in the “Left Behind” books, where the saints are jerked from cars into the clouds to watch the final tribulation of the unrepentant. This completely misses Paul’s meaning. The Greek words parousia (coming) and apantesin (meet) are clearly taken from the ritual when the people go out to meet and escort the visiting emperors into their city. So the saints go out to meet Jesus so they can escort him to earth with “alleluia” and “you are worthy”. This is clearly a statement that Jesus shall rule not the emperors. Revelation’s pictures of the Holy City descending to earth echo the message. (Revelation 21:1-4)

In the second letter the writer addresses a different situation. Another group believes the Day of the Lord has come already. Baptism enables Christians (at least the prophets who claim to channel God’s Word) to rule over others. The writer rejects this position, saying a great rebellion must first take place when the Lawless One will be revealed.

This figure was popular in some circles. The Gospel writer, John, called him the Anti-Christ in I John 2:18 and 4:3. The Prophet John pictures him as the beast in Revelation 12 and 13. Jesus says it will be the time the desolating sacrilege is set up in Mark 13:14.

All of this goes back to 167 B.C. when the Greek, Antiochus IV Epiphanes professing divinity made pagan sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple. Some believe these involved pigs. The event led to the Maccabean revolution, but also became the symbol used for all major profanations of God by imperial powers. First century Jews used it to describe Roman soldiers bringing their military insignia into the temple.

Paul uses it here in the same manner. The Lawless One “opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God”. (II Thessalonians 2:24) He makes the same point in the first letter maintaining the end comes “When they say, ‘There is peace and security’” (I Thessalonians 5: 2, 3) referring to a common Roman motto.

Modern televangelists have a great time with the Anti-Christ image, tacking it on politicians they do not like. He becomes a useful device to scare their viewers into believing the Last days are upon us. They are right perceiving it is a  political image. The problem is they usually are on the wrong side of the issue.

Although Paul argues the Day of the Lord is still in future, he does believe we enjoy the first fruits of it through our baptisms. Dying and being raised with Christ, we share his Spirit. Christ rules our hearts, so we are able to live now in some degree as if Christ ruled the earth. However, the process is not complete. We still live in the tension between “what is” and “what ought to be” Living in Christ is still to suffer with him in this world.

So how about Anne’s question?  When I pray, “Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus!” I in no way expect him to come on clouds surrounded by angels on Mount Zion. Some do. I remember reading about a woman who believes modern technology makes this feasible. Her people have a television camera set up on Mount Zion, so his literal coming can be broadcast throughout the world as it happens.

However, others of us try to translate this into twenty-first century thought forms. The popular method is to individualize the resurrection into our being raised to heaven at our deaths. The problem is this misses Paul’s primary message. Jesus is coming to rule the earth. “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. How can we capture Jesus’ future rule on earth for our time? I’d like to hear your ideas about what this means in our time. Some might think it makes no sense at all.

Let’s take a reading break so those falling behind can catch up. I won’t offer a new lesson on Tuesday. Use the time to catch up on your reading. Continue your conversations in “comments”.  I hope you notice comments are being added to past conversations. Rebecca made a powerful argument on hospitality at the Communion Table a couple days ago.. Begin reading Galatians. If Thessalonians speaks of hope, Galatians speaks of faith. Martin Luther called it “my epistle; I have betrothed myself to it; it is my wife.” I would not go that far, but it is a very important book.

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