Paul: Controversies and Commitment Part Five
It’s the End of the World as We Know It
In Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians he writes about what it will be live in the end. Some have taken this to mean that one day before the great tribulation when God will judge the world, Jesus will rapture up the church into heaven. The controversy stems from these verses.
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. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then 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 forever.
In order to talk about these verses, let me set the context. Paul is writing to encourage the Thessalonians because they were upset about the people who had died missing out on the coming of Jesus. Paul and other Christians believed that Jesus had been resurrected and would soon come back to gather the Christians in a final resurrection. The Thessalonians did not want their loved ones to miss out. Paul goes on to say that the time of this will be a mystery.
I think some people have misunderstood Paul in this passage. I think we are taking his words literally when they are meant to be figurative. Paul is actually using language to describe the meeting between a king who is coming back. The king would be received with a trumpet blast and the people would come out to meet him. The coming in the clouds is symbolic for coming with power. This image from Paul does say that he believed Jesus would come back with power and that Jesus’ followers would meet him and live under his reign. This would be the great resurrection when all the dead would rise. Paul is really drawing from his Pharisee background and understanding it through the eyes of Jesus.
Paul also addressed this issue of Jesus’ coming in the second letter to the Thessalonians. This time he was trying to calm them down because some of them thought Jesus had already come. Paul was reassuring them that this had NOT happened yet.
In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul adds to his teaching on the coming of Jesus. He tells the Corinthians that sense Jesus was resurrected in bodily form; we could expect to do the same. One day Paul says we will exchange our corruptible body for one that will never perish. Again, it seems that Paul still believes that one day Jesus will return and at that time, the resurrection will take place and Jesus will redeem the whole world.
To properly understand Paul we have to see that Paul did not divide up the second coming of Jesus with a rapture. Paul writes as if they are the same event. Jesus will come in power and we will be resurrected. The folks that try to take Paul’s teaching in Thessalonians and make it fit into their timetable in Revelation are doing an injustice to both Paul and John of Patmos.