But we would not want you to be ignorant brothers [and sisters], concerning those who are asleep, since you do not need to grieve, as others do who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose [again], so also God will bring back with Jesus those who have slept. Let us put it like this to you, a word of the Lord: “We who are still alive at the coming of the Lord will not proceed [to our reward] ahead of those who are asleep.”
     For Himself, the Lord will, with a word of command, with the voice of the archangel and with a blast from God's own trumpet, descend from heaven, and those dead and buried in Christ will rise again to begin with and then we, the living, those remaining [in this life], shall be caught up together with them in [what are] the clouds to a reception of the Lord in that air, and so [as he has always intended] to be henceforth with the Lord. It is with these words, brothers [and sisters], that you should comfort one another. - I Thessalonians 4:13-18/transliteration by Bruce C Wearne

Clouds

PICTURE: Łukasz Łada/Unsplash

 

"Paul is here teaching the church in Thessalonica - and us, how we are to imagine the culmination of our life and the culmination of God’s purposes in creation. With the knowledge that Christ has risen we are now called to live with hope, expecting His coming. This is Paul’s apocalypse."

In other places, Paul refers to Jesus’ resurrection to confirm the efficacy of the sacrifice of the suffering servant. But here he refers to His resurrection – Jesus' appearing to His disciples after His being raised from the grave – as an intimation of His final coming. His work is secure. And those who have fallen asleep are defined as those who have gone on before (us) to be in God’s care. They lived out their allotment of years, have lived and died as Jesus Himself did, and like Jesus was when He was in the grave, are in God’s care.

They, having lived out their lives, are in God’s care, just as we are, as those who are in the process of living out our lives. And just as Jesus rose, so He, as the first to be raised, the firstborn from the dead, will bring them with Him when He comes to receive those of us who are still alive at the time of His coming.

Paul’s language should be carefully examined. What is he teaching here? We are reminded of Acts 1:9-11: "And having said this, as they were looking on, He was lifted up, a cloud taking Him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as He went, behold, two men stood there with them in their white robes, saying, 'Men of Galilee, why stand looking into the heavens? This Jesus, who was taken up to be received from you into heaven, will come in the self-same way as you saw Him depart into heaven.'"

Here the words “clouds”, “air” have something to do with how we, those who believe, are to consider God’s rule, our Father’s place in Heaven, in relation to our place and task “here below”. What Paul writes here is similar to what the two messengers (angels) said to Jesus’ disciples at the point of His departure.

Paul is here teaching the church in Thessalonica - and us, how we are to imagine the culmination of our life and the culmination of God’s purposes in creation. With the knowledge that Christ has risen we are now called to live with hope, expecting His coming. This is Paul’s apocalypse.

In relation to our envisioning this future, Paul stresses the importance of seeing our part in terms of an act of God that is also described in John’s apocalypse where the son of the woman is “snatched away”. Here we are told of our being “caught up together” to be with the Lord in the air. We will experience the same divine intervention that the new-born son experienced when “snatched away” from the dragon’s grasp (Revelation 12:5).

As we tell the story of God’s covenantal victory in times past – we read of baby Moses cast upon the Nile in response to the murderous decree of the Pharaoh but wisely saved by a mother’s act and willingness to exploit a would-be Egyptian mother’s desire for a child of her own to nurture. We recall Elijah “snatched away” by the fiery chariot to confirm the calling of Elisha. We remember the warning given to Joseph in a dream so that he, his wife and the new-born son could flee to Egypt out of the jurisdiction of the paranoid king bent on securing his throne by declaring war on the baby boys of Bethlehem.

And so, as we look forward, we are encouraged to assume our own place in the story, “snatched away” subject to a similar providence, the focus of God’s personal care and protection (Psalm 67; Numbers 6: 22-26).

The reference to “clouds” reminds us of Luke’s description of Jesus being taken from the disciples (Acts 1). We also remember the voice from the clouds in the vision granted Peter, James and John on the Mount of Transfiguration when Jesus was seen to converse with Moses and Elijah. “This is my Son; listen to Him!” (Mark 9: 2-8). Mark has also written of Jesus’ description of the Son of Man’s “coming on the clouds” (Mark 13: 26; Daniel 7: 13). That is the day of great power and glory when the angels will gather those God has chosen to be with Him forever.

And the other term that provokes our reflection here is “air”. The intention with the use of this word seems to be that Paul is reminding his readers that we are in God’s hands. Even when we return to the dust from which we came our life is taken care of. This is not a formulation that suggests we will defy the laws of gravity. Rather it would be consistent with the whole weight of Scripture that Paul is seeking for the words to express that reality of what it means that we will share with Christ in His “air”, the domain of the entire creation that He owns and which is His. We will be “caught up” in what is His, what has been His and what will ever be His.

In this sense, Paul’s formulation emphasises the hope of sharing with that glory that Christ Himself assumed when He ascended, when He was taken from His disciples and the angels asked the disciples why they were standing their looking into heaven. The very air we breathe will also participate in the great fulfilment when God’s Son comes to meet with us. The air is not the possession of those who throw their weight around on this earth and try to claim it. The air and the dust all belongs to Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.