Read 1 Thessalonians 5 here.
In my previous post, I maintained that Paul’s views on the Kingdom of God may have evolved over time – originally, Christ’s followers appeared to have believed that his return was imminent – meaning measured in months, not years. There wasn’t much need to develop an opinion on what might become of someone who converted to Christianity and then died of old age before Jesus’ return. As the years rolled by and people began to die off, the need arose. I suspect that Paul meditated / prayed /thought it over, and decided that Jesus’ resurrection was a precursor to that of believers – the ‘first fruits’ doctrine that he develops later in his letter to the Corinthians.
Conservative Bible commentaries seem to abhor the idea that Paul may have developed this doctrine later, as the situation arose. Most seem to explain 1 Thessalonians 4.13-17 by saying that Paul was simply telling the Thessalonians something he had neglected to mention to them before. I find this implausible. To teach a resurrected Christ without mentioning the promise of resurrection to deceased believers just doesn’t seem likely.
It seems much more likely to me that his central message for two decades had been Christ’s immediate return to set up a kingdom. I think the part about the dead in Christ rising first was something he came up with as the situation changed. This is not to say he made it up necessarily; if you’re a believer, you might think that he simply received further enlightenment from the Holy Spirit. I’m not sure why many commentary writers feel the need to insist that he had simply neglected to inform his flock of so critical a piece of information.
In chapter 5, Paul again returns to the topic of the return of Christ, and the sparing of believers from the coming wrath. It seems to me that it is a topic never far from his mind as the wrote this letter. He tells them to forget about trying to predict the exact time or day when Jesus would be coming back; it wasn’t something that was possible to do. This hasn’t deterred many of his followers from trying to do so over the centuries. Seems the last guy to do so was sometime within the last year or so.
Basically, Jesus is going to sneak up on everyone – just when they think things are going pretty well, he’ll return. However, Christians are not to be caught unaware, for they are to live their lives in a constant state of preparedness for his return. He may not come back tomorrow, but believers should live as if he will.
Again, I would take issue with those who might neglect their civic duty in a democratic government due to their belief that Jesus is going to come back and fix everything. I believe the problems that we face as Americans are quite fixable, so long as everyone is truly interested in fixing them. If a large proportion of the population feel that the purpose of government is to prepare for Jesus’ return – not to try and create a better society – then America suffers due to their belief. Even if you think Jesus is coming back, you shouldn’t stand in the way of progress. What if he waits another 2000 years?
I’ve found several things in this letter that I think do potential harm to American democracy, but finally, here at the end, is some advice that, if taken, would actually improve it.
Live in peace with each other. And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.
Imagine if we always strove to do what is good for each other and everyone else – what a brilliant democracy we would have. Why is it that we seem to be only looking at what’s best for us personally, or what fits into our particular worldview, instead of what would be good for America? Paul’s admonition to be positive is also not bad advice, as long as we don’t insist that problems don’t exist.
He ends the letter with instructions that prophecy not be treated with contempt; that is, allow people to say ‘thus sayeth the Lord’, but to ‘test’ what they say, and to hold on to the good prophecies and forget the others. However, he doesn’t really spell out what kind of test would be appropriate, and this is troubling. How am I supposed to know when someone is really speaking for God, or when they are just a little stirred up about something themselves? For the average believer, it usually boils down to accepting the prophecies they agree with, and neglecting the ones that might actually require them to change their views.
I actually had one believer tell me, just today, that when she was unsure whether the ‘voice’ she heard in her mind was God or just her own, she might ask God to give her a sign – through her dog, if I understood her correctly. Pardon me if I sound dismissive, but in a democracy, I’d rather folks use the mind God gave them to make important decisions, and not seek out canine oracles. But I guess if in the Old Testament, God spoke to Balaam through an ass, he must speak through dumb-asses today.
And finally, I don’t know what a holy kiss is – but I’m glad that’s one custom of the early church that didn’t make it to the 21st century.