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Third Millennium Study Bible
Notes on 1 Thessalonians 4:16-5:11

The dead in Christ will rise first - 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18

According to Hendriksen:

By separating these two verses (1 Thess 4:16 and 1 Thess 4:17) many readers have failed to see the true meaning. By printing and reading them together we see at once that here are the same two groups of believers whom we met in 1 Thess. 4:15.
So, those "in Christ" constitute a subcategory of those "in Adam" (the whole human race), and they comprise all who participate in salvation (1 Cor. 15:22-23), living either before or after Christ. Therefore, this rising of the "dead in Christ" is a bodily resurrection (1 Cor. 15:35-44) of all the righteous dead, not merely that of New Testament believers, at the time of Christ's return (John 5:28-29; 1 Cor. 15:23). The resurrection of the unrighteous is mentioned explicitly by Paul only in Acts 24:15, although he presupposed it in his warnings of a universal judgment of individuals at the time of Christ's return (Acts 17:31; Rom. 2:5-16). See WLC 56; BC 37.

The Day of the Lord - 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

The Thessalonians were told to prepare for the return of Christ, which will take the ungodly by surprise. 1 Thessalonians 5:5-7 form a chiastic structure (a writing style that uses a unique repetition pattern for clarification and emphasis) stressing this fact. They are to be ready NOW:

  • A. of the night or of the darkness (1 Thess 5:5)
    • B. sleep (1 Thess 5:6)
      • C. let us keep awake and be sober (1 Thess 5:6)
    • B'. sleep . . sleep (1 Thess 5:6)
  • A'. at night . . at night (1 Thess 5:7)
Beale says:

The history of the church is checkered with people and communities who believed they knew beyond doubt when Jesus' second coming would occur. A most notable episode took place in Korea, where a group of Christians believed that Christ would come again in October 1992. Some people believed this so fervently that they sold their homes and gave away their possessions. When the date came and went, there was despair on the part of some; a few even committed suicide. Obviously, without exception, the expectations of each of these groups throughout history have been dashed. Such overly definitive expectations did not arise only in later centuries but have plagued the church from its earliest beginnings. Paul's opening statement in 1 Thess 5:1 addresses this potential problem in the church at Thessalonica: Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you. The "times and dates" refers to Christians attempting to set up timetables in order to ascertain the specific point at which Christ will return (see also Acts 1:7).

Like a thief in the night - 1 Thessalonians 5:1-3

The words "times" and "seasons" (chronon and kairon) are also found in Daniel 2:21; 7:12. The "day of the Lord" is a prominent designation of the day on which Christ returns (Matt. 24:42). The term is well known from the Old Testament (used 19 times; e.g., Joel 2:1, 31; Amos 5:18; Zeph. 1:7, 14; Mal. 4:5), where it is used of God's drawing near in judgment. Beale tells us:

The day of the Lord is a well-known phrase throughout the Bible and without exception refers to God's judgment of and defeat of his adversaries, including those who claim to be his people but really are not (see Acts 2:20 [citing Joel 2:31] and 2 Pet 3:10; above all, see Zeph 1:14-16, which mentions destruction, darkness, and trumpet, features in common with 1 Thess 4:16-5:8). Together with judgment, the phrase sometimes also includes the notion of deliverance for God's people (Obad 1:15-21; Zech 1:14). Christ will come, not only to raise his own people from the dead (1 Thess 4:13-18), but also to judge his antagonists.

This association of the day of the Lord with judgment is carried on in the New Testament, where the last judgment and final rewards and punishments are in view (Acts 17:31; Rom. 2:5, 16; 2 Cor. 1:14).

According to 2 Peter 3:10-13, the heavens, the earth and the elements will be destroyed on that day, giving way to a new heaven and new earth. See "Day of the Lord - 2 Peter 3:10" and "The day of God - 2 Peter 3:11-12" below. It will come "like a thief in the night," that is, suddenly (cf. 1 Thess 5:2, 4; Matt 24:42-43; Luke 12:33, 39; 2 Pet 3:10; Rev 3:3; 16:15). Stott says:

The trouble with burglars is that they do not tell us when they are coming. They make no advance announcement of their arrival. It is not their habit to send a warning postcard. The same unexpectedness will characterize the day of the Lord. Secondly, while people are saying, 'Peace and safety' (that is, they imagine they are entirely secure), destruction will come on them suddenly, as labour pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape (1 Thess 5:3).

Paul seems to have been familiar with at least some of the material that we now read in Jesus' Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24:3-25:46; Mark 13:3-37; Luke 21:5-36; cf: ). See the chart at "The Dead in Christ Shall Rise - 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18" below. See BC 37. Hughes says:

Paul describes the second coming of Christ by using two images - the sudden labor pains of a pregnant woman and a thief. Both of these are illustrations of moments when we are surprised or caught off guard. Although a pregnant woman knows labor is coming, the actual labor pains are a surprise. The thief is also trying to catch you by surprise. Paul's point is that we are not in darkness about the second coming. We know it is coming, but we do not need to know the specific times and seasons.

Beale goes more in depth, saying:

Paul uses a simile to describe the destruction that will suddenly come upon all those who look to the political power of Rome for peace and security: "as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman." The symbolic or metaphorical use of labor pains is found with great frequency in the Old Testament (e.g., Psa. 48:6; Isa. 13:8; 21:3; 26:17-18; 37:3; 42:14; 66:7-8; Jer. 4:31; 6:24; 22:23; 30:4-7; 48:41; 50:43; Hos. 13:13; Mic. 4:9) and in the intertestamental literature (e.g., 1 En. 62:4; 4 Ezra 4:40-43; 16:37-39; Sib. Or. 5:514; 1QHa XI, 712; XIII, 30-31). The image of labor pains in these texts functions in differing, though related, ways (Gempf 1994): it can be an "intense" pain that makes clear the acuteness of suffering; a "productive" pain that leads to a positive outcome; a "helpless" pain that the sufferer cannot avoid; a "cyclical" pain that, once begun, must run its course.

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