Lesson 6 of 6
In Progress

Bible in the World – 1 Thessalonians

A Crown of Boasting

In 1 Thessalonians 2:19-20 (compare Philippians 4:1), Paul tells the Thessalonians that they themselves are his, Silvanus’s, and Timothy’s “hope or joy or crown of boasting before” Jesus Christ. A “crown” symbolizes honor and even pride. The expression is one of deep respect, joy, and intimacy as Paul reflects on the Thessalonians and his delight over their enduring faith.

The expression may have contributed to the German hymn known in translation as “Fairest Lord Jesus.” It includes this lyric: “Thee will I cherish, Thee will I honor / Thou, my soul’s glory, joy, and crown.” The hymn refers to Jesus himself as the singer’s crown, or source of honor. Paul would no doubt approve.

Jesus’ imminent return

In 1 Thessalonians 4:16, while discussing Jesus Christ’s return to human society, Paul refers to “we who are alive” during that event. This suggests that Paul assumed he would still be alive when Jesus returned. Many New Testament writings reflect expectations that Jesus would return before much time elapsed (e.g., 1 Corinthians 7:31; Mark 9:1; Revelation 22:7). Other writings intimate that Christians gradually came to accept that it might take more time (e.g., Philippians 1:22-24; 2 Peter 3:3-9). Still other writings show no interest in or awareness of the idea that Jesus will return physically. Among Christians today, many different beliefs are expressed concerning when, how, and even whether Jesus might return some day.

The hope for Jesus’ return continues to be expressed in the church today. That hope emerges in some Christian preaching as well as in hymns such as “Soon and Very Soon” and the gospel song “Jesus Is Coming Soon.” In songs like that, the hope for Jesus’ return often expresses a hope for rest after hardship or deliverance from suffering.

Christ’s return and the question of a “rapture”

In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, as Paul describes a time when Christ will return to earth, he says that people will “be caught up in the clouds together with [those who have already died] to meet the Lord in the air.” What Paul appears to be doing here is likening the return of Christ to the spectacle that would surround the visit of a dignitary in Roman imperial culture. Just as people in Paul’s day might line the roads outside their city to welcome an important visitor with appropriate pomp, when Christ returns his people will meet him in the air—the road he will be traveling—and accompany him to where they live, namely earth, where they will, according to Paul, “be with the Lord forever.”

Some have interpreted this passage differently, claiming that it describes a future time when Christ will snatch believers away from the earth and take them to a distant heaven. This is a relatively new idea, originating in some pockets of British and American populist Protestantism about 150 years ago. Those interpreters speak of a “rapture,” in which people leave the earth instead of welcoming Christ to it. The word “rapture” comes from the Latin word used to translate the Greek word in 4:17 that is rendered “caught up” in some English translations of the letter. The expectation of a “rapture” has become more widespread through such popular publications in evangelical circles as the Scofield Reference Bible, the book The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey, and the Left Behind series of novels and films by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. It is consistent with much of the Christian Zionism promulgated by right-wing Christian groups who favor political policies that might use the modern state of Israel to hasten Jesus’ return, according to their beliefs.

Expectations of a “rapture” in which Jesus takes believers away from the earth while human society descends into disarray make for good scare tactics and political recruitment, but they derive from ways of reading the Bible that are quite esoteric and intellectually dubious. What Paul is talking about in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 bears hardly any resemblance to what proponents of “rapture” theology describe.

Angels, trumpets, and clouds

When Paul discusses Jesus’ return to earth, in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11, he refers to “a cry of command,” the call of an archangel, and “the sound of God’s trumpet” accompanying Jesus’ descent from the skies (4:16). He also mentions that believers will meet Jesus amid clouds (4:17). Paul is deploying images that appear in numerous Jewish scriptures and other ancient Jewish texts. Such imagery indicates the presence of God and/or opportunities when God is communicating with humanity. Paul is not giving a sneak preview of the sights and sounds of Jesus’ return as much as he is indicating that it will be another instance of divine disclosure.

The imagery nevertheless helps give expression to the inexpressible: the experience of God becoming present to human beings. Because of passages like this one in 1 Thessalonians (see also similar imagery scattered throughout the book of Revelation), Christian art and iconography often portray Christ’s future appearance to his people as an event accompanied by angelic beings, trumpets, and clouds or smoke. The hymn, “Lo He Comes with Clouds Descending” is a good example of a lyrical depiction of the scene Paul summons in his letter.

“The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2)

Several New Testament passages liken Jesus’ return to a thief breaking into a home, sometimes adding a reference to the cover of nighttime (Matthew 24:43; Luke 12:39; 2 Peter 3:10; Revelation 3:3; 16:15). This frightening image, meant to encourage watchfulness among Jesus’ followers, is perhaps most plain in 1 Thessalonians 5:2.

Some Christians, especially among those who claim the Bible supports the idea of Jesus returning to “rapture” away his followers before human societies descend into chaos, have adopted the image as a kind of scare tactic, ostensibly as an evangelism tool. A 1972 film called “A Thief in the Night” is a notable example. The film, like a lot of “rapture”-based interpretations of the future, seems designed to strike terror in the hearts of its audience. That approach is a strong contrast to Paul’s repeated insistence (4:18; 5:11) that Jesus’ return is a source of encouragement.

The holy kiss

In the final sentences of his letter, Paul briefly mentions a “holy kiss” that the Thessalonian believers can use to greet one another (5:26). Other letters mention the same, in a similar context (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; compare 1 Peter 5:14).

Kissing in Greek society was not only romantic; it was also a sign of affection or respect among family members and friends, even as it is in many cultures today. The practice of greeting fellow believers with a kiss may have been an expression of their kinship, consistent with the notion of the church as an alternate society or a new familial unit. By the middle of the second century, at least some Christian congregations employed a kiss as part of their regular liturgy, according to Justin Martyr (Apology 1.65). Justin describes the exchange of kissing following the communal prayers that preceded the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. At the end of the fourth century John Chrysostom mentions that Christians in attendance would kiss a person immediately after their baptism.