Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Anticipating Christ’s Return: Alarming, Confusing, or Comforting? (Part 1)

     The lengthy discussion in 1 Thess. 4:13–5:11 is the most extensive single account in the NT of Christ’s future return. Even so, much is left unsaid that we might want to know but cannot know with certainty. W. Neil offers a helpful perspective: “the point that Paul is concerned to make has nothing to do with forecasting the manner of the Lord’s Second Coming. All that is incidental though important. Paul’s real interest and emphasis are much more on the fact that if a Christian dies in Christ he remains in Christ. Whatever happens after that ought to give those who loved him no anxiety at all. He is in his true home. Paul is primarily concerned to comfort sorrowing relatives, not to describe the Second Advent” (Thessalonians 99-100).
A Personal Return
     We read in 1 Thess. 4:16, “since the Lord himself (in a loud command, in an archangel’s voice, and in God’s trumpet) will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first …”1 The conjunction “since” [hoti] connects the preceding thought (“the living ones … will not precede those having fallen asleep”) with the succeeding explanation, “the dead in Christ will rise first.” Accordingly, the concise description of the Lord’s return mentioned in between is parenthetical and somewhat incidental.2
     The descent of “the Lord himself'” [emphatic!] reaffirms the divine promise of a personal return (1 Thess. 1:10; 2:16; cf. John 14:1-3; Acts 1:9-11). In the meantime the Lord has sent the Holy Spirit (1 Thess. 1:5, 6; 4:8)3 and is represented by authorized emissaries (1 Thess. 2:4, 6), and is to be accompanied by angels (2 Thess. 1:7). Nevertheless, a personal appearance will be made as the Lord descends from heaven (cf. 1 Thess. 1:10; 2 Thess. 1:7).
     The parenthetical description of Christ’s appearing consists of three brief statements each introduced by the preposition en (“in”),4 referring to the mode of descent and circumstances accompanying it. The language used is clearly apocalyptic. “A real event is being described, but it is one which cannot be described literally since the direct activity of God cannot be fully comprehended in human language. The biblical writers have therefore to resort to analogy and metaphor, the language of symbol, in order to convey their message” (I. H. Marshall, Thessalonians 128).
     The accompanying circumstances are described as follows: “in a loud command, in an archangel’s voice, and in God’s trumpet.” The first question is whether this is descriptive of one, two, or three distinct actions? If only one, the last couple of prepositional phrases could be explanations of the first: “in a loud command, which is an archangel’s voice and God’s trumpet.” Another possibility is that the “loud command” is one action, while the other is “an archangel’s voice” that is “God’s trumpet” (cf. Rev. 1:10; 4:1). But the most straightforward reading of the text involves three separate (though interrelated) occurrences.
A Loud Command
     The noun kéleusma [“a loud command,” vb. keleúō, to “command, order, direct”] is a “signal” or “command,” or an “arousing outcry.”4 In secular literature this was a military term used of a commander calling out orders to his soldiers; also of a charioteer commanding his horses, or a hunter directing his dogs, or a boat captain charging the rowers, or a governing official issuing a decree (TDNT 656-59; BDAG 538). The text specifically identifies neither the one delivering the command nor to whom it is directed. Contextually either God (v. 14), an archangel (v. 16), or Jesus (vv. 15-16) could be the source. Seeing that “the Lord himself” is the subject of the sentence, this would parallel Christ’s words in John 5:25, 28, “when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those having heard will live …. all those in the tombs will hear his voice.” Accordingly, “the dead in Christ” are the recipients of the loud command (cf. John 11:43).
An Archangel’s Voice
     Another associated action is “an archangel’s voice.” Jude 9 mentions “Michael the archangel,” the only other NT passage to employ the term archággelos – from árchōn [“leader,” “ruler”] + ággelos [“angel”], meaning “chief among angels,” or “leader of angels.”6 In a later first-century apocalyptic text, we read of “Michael and his angels” (Rev. 12:7). Seeing that “at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven” Christ will be accompanied by “angels of his power” (2 Thess. 1:7b-9; cf. Matt. 13:39; 25:31; Mark 8:38; Jude 14-15), it would appear that Michael, whose “voice” directs the charge, is the leader of the angelic forces. However, the expression here is noticeably indefinite (“a voice of an archangel”), perhaps to keep the main focus on the event’s principal character, “the Lord himself.”
God’s Trumpet
     The third phenomenon is “God’s trumpet.” In the next recorded description of the parousía, the same imagery is used: “in the last trumpet; for a trumpet will sound …” (1 Cor. 15:52).7 In ancient times the trumpet was rarely used as a musical instrument; it primarily functioned as a signal (TDNT 7:71-88). In Jewish history the trumpet called together an assembly (Num. 10:2-7) and signaled a meeting with God (Ex. 19:13, 16, 19; 20:18). It also issued a warning of danger, impending doom, or approaching judgment (Num. 10:9; Jer. 4:5; 6:17; Ezek. 33:3; 1 Cor. 14:8), particularly divine judgment (Isa. 27:13; Joel 2:1; Zeph. 1:16; Zech. 9:14). Since a trumpet blast is captivating and draws immediate attention (Num. 10:2; Psa. 81:3; Isa. 18:3; Matt. 6:2), the Lord’s return will be no secret! In this particular context, “God’s trumpet” may merely signify the resounding loudness and captivating nature of the commanding voices (cf. Rev. 1:10; 4:1).
     The main point of the narrative is that “the dead in Christ will rise first,” i.e., the living “will by no means precede those having fallen asleep” (1 Thess. 4:15). While all humans will be resurrected in the final day, whether in Christ or otherwise (John 5:28-29; Acts 24:15), this is not the focus of the present text. The matter at hand is the fate of “the dead in Christ,” and their future resurrection is assured (cf. Acts 23:6-8; 24:21; 26:23; 1 Cor. 15:12-58). What, then, will happen to those “in Christ” who are still alive at the time? To be addressed in next week’s post.

     1 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.
     2 The actual arrangement of words is as follows: “since himself the Lord in a loud command, in an archangel’s voice, and in God’s trumpet will descend …” The brief description here is not intended to be comprehensive but is all the information the Thessalonians presently need to comfort their troubled hearts.
     3 See also John 7:39; 14:25-26; 15:26; 16:12-15; Acts 1:5, 8; 2:1-4.
     4 The same triple use of en occurs in 1 Cor. 15:52, “in [en] an instant, in [en] a twinkling of an eye, in [en] the last trumpet …”
     5 This is the only occurrence of the noun kéleusma in the NT. The verb keleúō is found twenty-six times, all in the writings of Matthew and Luke (Matt. 8:18; 14:9, 19, 28; 18:25; 27:58, 64; Luke 18:40; Acts 4:15; 5:34; 8:38; 12:19; 16:22; 21:33, 34; 22:24, 30; 23:3, 10, 35; 24:8; 25:6, 17, 21, 23; 27:43).
     6 The name “Michael” is applied to “one of the chief princes” in Dan. 10:13, and “the great prince” in Dan. 12:1; cf. also Rev. 12:7. The post-exilic Jews recognized up to seven archangels (Tobias 12.15-22; Testament of Isaac 2.1; 1 Enoch 9.1; 20:1-7; cf. Sybilline Oracle 2.215).
     7 The noun sálpigz (“trumpet”) appears eleven times in the NT. In its literal sense, it is employed for illustrative purposes in 1 Cor. 14:8 and Heb. 12:19. As a symbol in the context of the Lord’s coming, it is used in Matt. 24:31; 1 Cor. 15:52; and 1 Thess. 4:16. All other occurrences are symbolic in the book of Revelation (Rev. 1:10; 4:1; 8:2, 6, 13; 9:14). The verb salpísei is the future active indicative third person singular of salpízō (to “sound a trumpet”); although in the active voice, it is consistently rendered in English as passive (CSB, ESV, ISV, N/ASV, NIV, N/KJV, N/RSV), seeing that the third person (“he,” “she,” or “it”) is unidentifiable. The verb occurs twelve times in the NT. In Matt. 6:2 it is used metaphorically in the sense of making a big showing and drawing attention to oneself. Beyond 1 Cor. 15:52, all the other references are in the highly symbolic book of Revelation (8:6, 7, 8, 10, 12, 13; 9:1, 13; 10:7; 11:15).

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