Paul’s words concerning the return of the Lord were a comfort to the grieving Thessalonians, but they have caused protracted strife among theologians. Perhaps the solution lies in his use of Covenant-literary structure.
The Apostle’s description of the coming of the Lord in 1 Thessalonians 4 defies any attempt to locate the event concretely in either the past or the future. Each explanation fails because in every possible scenario at least one piece of the puzzle refuses to fit: one facet of his description must be overlooked, redefined or explained away.
Since literary structure is employed by all the biblical authors as a means of allusion, what if an analysis of Paul’s careful poetic arrangement provides a clue? His words recapitulate an architectural form with which his readers were familiar, one which describes history as a process, a pattern of conquest by sacrifice. Such an arrangement confers greater meaning upon each of its parts because it reveals their relationship to each other as members of the whole. The entire epistle follows the Covenant-literary pattern common to all of Scripture, which means that the author’s comments concerning the resurrection must be understood in their context as one step in a “liturgical/historical” sequence.
PLEASE NOTE: This post is categorised under the expert level, so the assumption is that the various threads of the Bible Matrix are second nature to the reader to some degree. But there is something here for everyone so I hope you will read on. For further study, see the link at the end of this article.
Covenant-literary Structure of 1 Thessalonians
The Thessalonians’ Faith (1:1-10) (Initiation / Sabbath)
Paul’s Ministry to the Thessalonians (2:1-20) (Delegation / Passover)
Timothy’s Encouraging Report (3:1-13) (Presentation / Firstfruits)
A Life Pleasing to God (4:1-12) (Purification / Pentecost)
The Coming of the Lord (4:13-18) (Transformation / Trumpets)
The Day of the Lord (5:1-11) (Vindication / Atonement)
Final Instructions and Benediction (5:12-28) (Representation / Booths)
- The Bible Matrix “thread” which Paul has chosen for the arrangement of 1 Thessalonians appears to be the sevenfold process of sacrifice. The faithful Church is a blameless animal selected for God (Initiation) and set apart by Paul (Delegation). Timothy’s report exalts them, lifting them up onto the altar (Presentation), and the fire of the Law of the Love tries their hearts (Purification). Paul then describes the Lord’s coming “in the clouds” (Transformation) which indicated that the sacrifice was an acceptable savor to God (Vindication). This was also pictured in the High Priest approaching the veil in a cloud of fragrant incense on the Day of Atonement. The faithful Thessalonians would be vindicated in the judgment, and Paul ends his letter with a prayer that they might remain blameless (Representation), matching his commendation of them at the beginning of the epistle’s overall “sacrificial” progressive chiasm.
- The location within the epistle of the passage in question gives us some important information concerning its subject matter. The themes at step 5 of the matrix are witness/martyrdom, resurrection, the incense altar (the heavenly court), and the maturity and wisdom of the elders who serve before the throne of God. We find these themes under the banner of the Fifth Seal in Revelation, where the blood of the Old Covenant martyrs, which had been splashed against the altar like the blood of Abel, was crying out for vengeance. Later in the prophecy, the altar itself cries out for vengeance upon those who murdered the New Covenant martyrs in Jerusalem.1For more discussion, see Michael Bull, Moses and the Revelation. This architectural background is crucial for our understanding of this pericope.
Analysis of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
This pericope within the epistle consists of five stanzas rather than seven, which indicates that it is a mystery yet to be opened. It also means that a) the pattern of the Pentateuch undergirds it at the deepest level, and b) the focus of each of the five stanzas changes as we move through the steps of the Covenant process, just as it does as we move through the entire epistle, only with more subtlety.
I do not want (No Initiation)
you to be ignorant, (No Delegation)
brothers, (No Presentation)
concerning those having fallen asleep, (No Purification)
that you should not be grieved (No Transformation)
just as also those left behind, (No Vindication)
those not having hope. (No Representation)
- The first stanza works through the sacrificial thread but in a negative sense. Describing death as “sleep” is common throughout the Bible, but perhaps here the allusion to the events in Genesis 2 – the pronouncement of the Sanction of death and Adam’s subsequent deep sleep – is deliberate.
- The heptamerous sequence of sacred architecture is also apparent, beginning with Paul’s authority as the legal representative of God (Ark of the Testimony), the ignorance of the Thessalonians (Veil), the Christian brothers (Altar & Table), and the absence of the breath of life (Lampstand).
- The placement of “those left behind” at the Vindication step perhaps reveals that the grief which Paul speaks of is not merely the sorrow of bereavement but also the distress caused by the ridicule of the saints by unbelievers who disputed their testimony concerning the resurrection of Jesus, and thus of His followers. The stoning of Stephen, the first martyr, over which Paul presided, may also have been in the Apostle’s mind. This interpretation is supported by Paul’s reference to the resurrection of Christ as the foundation for his encouragement. Jesus was vindicated when He rose from the dead, and He would be vindicated again – in them.
If indeed we believe (Sabbath/Creation – Genesis)
That Jesus died (Passover/Division – Exodus)
and rose again, (Firstfruits/Ascension – Leviticus)
so also God, (Pentecost/Testing – Numbers)
those having fallen asleep (Trumpets/Maturity – Deuteronomy)
through Jesus (Atonement/Conquest – Joshua)
will bring with him. (Booths/Glorification – Judges)
- The second stanza displays the “head then body” nature of the Bible Matrix, and is thus a microcosm of the first century ministry of Christ and His Firstfruits Church. Notice the symmetry of the mentions of Jesus, the first corresponding to the tearing of the Temple Veil and the second to the destruction of the entire Temple. The murder of the saints appears at step 5, the Apostolic Witness, which is another indication that Paul is possibly referring to, or at least including, martyrs rather than simply those who had died of natural causes.
- This stanza appears at the Exodus step of the Torah, so the underlying theme is the covering of the saints by the Passover lamb and their rescue – a “bringing out” – of slavery. For a person or an animal, the word used for “bring” (ἄγω) has the connotation of being led or guided. The placement of this at the end of a pattern which alludes to first century history gives us a clue concerning the timing of the event: the blood of all the martyrs – the Old Covenant saints from Abel onwards, and a contingent of New Covenant witnesses – would be avenged upon that generation (Matthew 23:25). They would then be enthroned as a heavenly court of human elders with the authority to judge (Matthew 19:28; Revelation 20:4-6).
This indeed (Initiation)
to you we declare (Delegation)
in the word of the Lord (Presentation)
that we the living left behind, (Purification)
unto the coming of the Lord (Transformation)
shall not precede (Vindication)
those having fallen asleep. (Representation)
- The central stanza is not expanded into three stanzas (Priesthood / Kingdom / Prophecy) but it does work through the triune office: the priestly ministry of the Apostles, the kingdom which belonged to the saints, and the prophetic prediction concerning the sequence of future events. Indeed, Paul puts “the living left behind” at the centre of the stanza, and thus of the pericope, as its thesis.
- The placement of “shall not precede” at Oath/Sanctions indicates that the coming blessing would not only divide between the faithful and unfaithful dead, but also between the faithful dead and faithful living. The word “precede” (φθάνω) can also be translated as “come” (Matthew 12:28; 2 Corinthians 10:14; 1 Thessalonians 2:16) and “attain” (Romans 9:31; Philippians 3:16). It indicates not only timing but also priority in importance or sequence. This suggests that Paul’s meaning may be larger than simply a differentiation between the timing of, say, the birth order of Esau and Jacob. Those who died in the era of animal sacrifice would receive their inheritance first, as part of the sacrificial body of the “firstborn from the dead.” As pictured in the Levites under the Old Covenant, they were denied an earthly inheritance as the firstfruits of a greater harvest, attaining the state described in Revelation 21:3-4, a heavenly country. Of course, all the saints of all history comprise the Body of Christ, but God works in fractals, in layers or waves bearing the same image but in ever-increasing iterations. This will be explained in more detail below.
Because the Lord himself (Glorification)
with a loud command, (Conquest)
with the voice of an archangel, (Maturity)
and with the trumpet of God (Testing)
will descend from heaven, (Ascension)
and the dead in Christ (Division)
will rise first. (Creation)
- As in the book of Numbers, the Sanctions of the Covenant would fall upon the people. However, just as 3,000 were saved at the last Pentecost in contrast to the 3,000 slain by the Levites at the first Pentecost, here the bodies of the saints would rise from the dead instead of falling in the wilderness. The reversal would explain the fact that the Bible Matrix sequence is reversed in this stanza, a technique which occurs infrequently in Scripture, sometimes as a reference to de-creation but usually with reference to resurrection. In this case, Jesus comes from the heavenly habitation (Booths) which He had prepared for them (John 14:2-3).
- In the sevenfold sequence, Oath/Sanctions corresponds to Joshua, which is another reason to tie this event to the first century offering of Jerusalem to God as a city under the ban. But there is other evidence which makes this connection undeniable. The similarity of the events described in this stanza with those described in Matthew 24 and 1 Corinthians means that full preterists are correct when they observe that all three passages clearly refer to the same event. But since they are unaware of Covenant-literary structure, they miss the subtle shift in subject matter between the steps in the sequence. This is why they condemn as “futurists” those who take the period described in Revelation 20 to be yet unfulfilled. The prophecy works through the Covenant pattern and the final step concerns Succession, which by definition the future inheritance. This is where we must part ways with them. All Covenants have a day of reckoning, including the New Covenant. There is indeed a future judgment, and that puts a lot of history between the first resurrection and the second resurrection. I believe that gap exists between the Oath/Sanctions and Succession steps in this pericope in 1 Thessalonians just as it does in the Revelation. (For more discussion of the “millennium,” see Michael Bull, Moses and the Revelation: Why the End of the World is not in Your Future.)
And only after that, (Initiation)
we the living remaining, (Delegation)
together with them, (Presentation)
will be caught away in the clouds (Purification)
for the meeting of the Lord in the air; (Transformation)
and so always with the Lord we will be. (Vindication)
Therefore, encourage one another with these words. (Representation)
- The final stanza is a Deuteronomic promise of a future inheritance for those on the cusp of conquest, in this case not the Land (of Canaan) but the entire World.
- Is it feasible to put a gap of millennia between stanzas 4 and 5? The answer is yes, since the Revelation does something similar. The prophecy describes two resurrections separated by a long period of time (under the symbol of “a thousand years,” an allusion to the duration of the ministries of the Old Covenant tents and temples). But there is, I believe, another example in the writings of Paul, and it is found in another contentious passage, one which was mentioned above: 1 Corinthians 15: 12-28. Verses 23 and 24 work through the threefold architecture of the Tabernacle as it represented a glorified version of the “triune” primeval world:
- But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, (Sanctuary / Garden / High Priest / Adam)
- then at his coming those who belong to Christ. (Holy Place / Land / Israel / Cain & Abel)
- Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. (Courts / World / Gentiles / 70 Nations)
- This is where the nature of fractals comes into play. In the first century pattern, Jesus was the firstfruits (Head) and the Apostolic Church was the remainder of the harvest (Body). But in the greater New Covenant picture, Jesus and the Apostolic Church together are the firstfruits (Land) and the nations of the World are the greater harvest (World). This “outer layer” is what is described in Revelation 20 as two resurrections.
- Paul uses the same word for “then” in both passages. The word “then” (ἔπειτα) means afterward but it does not mean immediately afterward. Properly, it means “only then,” emphasizing that what precedes is a necessary precursor. In Galatians 1:18 and Galatians 2:1, Paul uses the word to describe what happened after periods of three years and fourteen years respectively.
- The word translated “together with them” can mean at the same time but is also freely used as a preposition of adverb denoting close association rather than time. Some claim that the Apostle is describing the ascension of individual saints upon death, but a resurrection is always a corporate event – a “bridal” harvest. Even Jesus did not emerge from the grave alone (Matthew 27:52; John 12:24).
- The structure of this final stanza lifts the “World” saints up at Presentation / Ascension, “seizes by force” at Purification / Testing the ultimate form of the Church as kingdom on earth just as the Lampstand was removed from the Land before the judgments of Jerusalem in the Land (Jeremiah 7:34; 25:10, Revelation 1:20; 2:5; 18:23; 21:23). All the saints of history are gathered at Transformation / Maturity, the final plunder of the World, and the blessing at Vindication / Conquest is now extended to all the faithful, just as the judgment of the wicked will be extended to all the unfaithful. The judgment of all the dead which Daniel predicted would take place as a single event (Daniel 12:2) was split into two events (Revelation 20:5), just as a temporary stay of vengeance was placed upon Cain in the Land. Tearing out the tares would harm the wheat. Likewise, the blessing of the righteous was split into two resurrections for the life of the World.
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|1.||↑||For more discussion, see Michael Bull, Moses and the Revelation.|