Eschatology and the Structure of 1 Thessalonians

James T. Dennison, Jr.

The two worlds of Thessalonica—Hellenistic legacy, Roman supremacy—were one: one coherent Graeco-Roman world with a cultural symbolism anchored in political, religious and social paganism. The coherence of this pagan status quo was turned upside down by the preaching of the apostle Paul between 50-52 A.D. The power structures of that pagan world were turned upside down; the religious ethos of that pagan world was turned upside down; the social fabric of that pagan world was turned upside down. Not in any insidious or violently revolutionary manner, rather the world which Paul proclaimed in the death and resurrection of Christ (Acts 17:3) was the coming—the appearance—the parousia—of a new world, a different world, an eschatological world.

The antithesis between the world Paul proclaimed in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ produced a clash of values virtually immediately in Thessalonica. Graeco-Roman politarchs ("city authorities") responding from their side of the antithesis reduced the eschatological world of Paul to their own political horizontalism. In their view, no other world was possible save Caesar's. Paul's evident display of life in two worlds—eschatological and temporal (even as his citizenship is in heaven and Rome)—was incomprehensible to them; incomprehensible and threatening (Acts 17:6, 7).

Diaspora Jews from the synagogue in Thessalonica responded from their side of the antithesis reducing the eschatological world of Paul to their own nationalistic horizontalism. In their view, no other world save that of the rabbis was possible. Paul's realized eschatological world was incomprehensible to them; incomprehensible and threatening (Acts 17:5).

Thessalonian idolaters responded from their side of the antithesis reducing the eschatological world of the invisible God of Paul to their own pious and concrete horizontalism. In their view, no other world save that of the pantheon was possible. Paul's eschatological God and Savior was incomprehensible to them; incomprehensible and threatening (cf. 1 Thess. 1:9).

The clash of the two worlds—Graeco-Roman-Jewish and Christian—generated "tribulation" (1:6), "opposition" or "conflict" (2:2), "suffering" (2:14), "affliction" (3:3, 4), perhaps even death (4:13, where those who have fallen asleep may be dead on account of tribulation, conflict, suffering, affliction).

Reflections of a Different World

The antithesis brings suffering to the Thessalonian Christians as it brings suffering to the apostle. The narrative world of the apostle becomes mirrored in the narrative world of the Thessalonian Christians. They are identified with the eschatological world of Christ's death and resurrection (note 1:10; 4:14; 5:9, 10) even as Paul is identified with that world. The emphatic joint participation of both the apostle and the believers at Thessalonica in the kingdom of glory (2:12) is underscored over and over in this letter by the relational personal pronouns "us" and "you" (with plural variants "we" and "you"). Throughout this epistle, Paul draws his readers into relationship with himself: "you became imitators of us" (1:6); "you abound in love for one another as we also do for you" (3:12); "you are sons of light . . . [as] we are not of the darkness" (5:5).

Paul's method is to draw the Thessalonian Christians into his own world in an intimate union with the crucified and risen Jesus. The pronominal relationalism is a part of the horizontal/vertical paradigm. You are to us as we (together) are to Christ Jesus.

Eschatological Markers

This letter has been associated with the eschatological message of the apostle, usually because of 4:13-18 which treats the sequence of the parousia. But there are eschatological markers sprinkled throughout this epistle, not restricted to chapter 4 alone. In fact, eschatological markers structure the entire epistle.

As we come to the conclusion of Paul's epistolary thanksgiving (1:2-10), we are brought into immediate relationship with present deliverance from eschatological wrath ("Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come," v. 10). The first major unit of the epistle is capped with an eschatological marker.

2:1-12 is the next section of the epistle and here we find another concluding eschatological marker: "God calls you into his own kingdom and glory (doxos, Greek)" (v. 12). A doxological kingdom is an eschatological kingdom.

2:13-20 contains an eschatological antithesis—a mirror of anti-eschatology ("wrath to the uttermost," v. 16)—which is the reverse of eschatological parousia ("the presence of the Lord Jesus at his coming/parousia," v. 19). The church is the antithesis of the Jewish establishment. In the eschatological world—glory, joy, the crown of exultation! In the anti-eschatological world—enmity, wrath, filling up the measure of sin! Note: this section contains the first of four mentions of the parousia of the Lord Jesus (2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23).

3:1-13 is the next unit capped with an eschatological marker (v. 13). The biographical narrative here reinforces my previous point, i.e., that Paul's narrative world overlaps the narrative world of the Thessalonian Christians. The sending of Timothy (3:2) is the sending of Paul himself—even as the advent of Christ is the advent of God himself.

Chapter 4 contains an extended eschatological marker—the lengthy discussion of the rapture, resurrection and the eternal state. Verses 13-18 are the capstone to this unit apparently in response to eschatological confusion or clarification needed by the Thessalonians. Paul's declaration that he wants them to be "informed" (v. 13) about those asleep in Christ indicates some questions or need for additional instruction. He sets his doctrine over against the Graeco-Roman-Jewish hopelessness (v. 13), implicitly pointing to the flip side of the eschatological coin he is displaying. In other words, the resurrection question for professing Christians already dead before the parousia has implications for the resurrection question for those not professing Christ and already dead before the parousia.

If the mirror of the anti-eschatological paradigm is valid in 2:13-20, then it is valid in 4:13-18 as well. The canard that Paul has no eschatology of the damned is absurd given the language, imagery and context of First Thessalonians.

The thorough implications of the resurrection of Christ had not been applied by the Thessalonians to those brothers and sisters already in the grave. If the resurrection of Christ would benefit those alive at his parousia, what about those already asleep in Jesus at that time? If we begin with v. 17 ("thus we shall always/ever be with the Lord"), we realize Paul is inserting no provisional resurrection-kingdom between the present and future aspect of the interadventual age. Whether asleep in Jesus or alive at his parousia, we will ever be with the Lord body and soul. Jesus' bodily resurrection is the guarantee of the bodily resurrection of those asleep in Jesus and the bodily resurrection of those alive at his appearing. Note that the Jesus who comes again is the Jesus who has already entered glory by resurrection of the body. Hence v. 14 is definitive for the mode of bodily resurrection attendant upon Christ's parousia—it is bodily resurrection in conformity to the glory of Christ's very own resurrection body. The resurrection which Paul describes here for the edification of the Thessalonian Christians is the resurrection unto glory—everlasting glory ("always/ever with the Lord"; cf. 5:10).

The final unit of the letter begins and ends with an eschatological marker. 5:1-11 is fraught with cosmic eschatological imagery: day of the Lord, woman in birth pangs, sons of light, sons of day, darkness and night. 5:23 contains the final reference to the parousia. In between are a series of aphoristic exhortations and imperatives which are sandwiched by the eschatological antipodes. The apostle envelops the ethical life with the eschatological container. Not surprisingly the imperative and hortatory is in the indicative and positional. As inseparable as the mystical union between Christ and the believer is the unbreakable union between being in Christ and living Christ-like.

Eschatology in Christ

The eschatological vector is definitive for Paul's remarks to the Thessalonian Christians. Because death is past for Christ; because the wrath of God is past for Christ; because agony, travail and darkness is past for Christ, the eschatological antithesis is present for the Thessalonian Christians. Life eternal not death; salvation not wrath; light not darkness; peace and joy not birth pangs of sorrow.

This eschatological world stands over against the political, religious and cultural agendas of this world. Paul is content with rejection, ejection, suffering and affliction because Paul is content with Christ. His life is even now as it will be at the appearing of the Lord Jesus with the glory of the risen Son added.

The narrative story of the apostle is the foil for the narrative story of the Thessalonian Christians. His story—their story. Both stories—Christ's story. Your story—this story.