There is a tool that humans require for information to be accurately received, processed, understood, and synthesized. The tool is called, “CONTEXT.” Here’s how the tool works–humans see something, then begin to receive information through at least one of the 5 senses, which are then processed, generally by the use of what are our most trusted experiences and knowings. And what we think we understand we then craft/synthesize into something—an idea, which at the end of the day, is often either an understanding, or a misunderstanding, or even a blend of both.
Take my wife of 21 years as a case study. Imagine you enter a church’s sanctuary and find her face up on the floor, hands flailing, and me sitting atop of her waist, with my hands on her chest. Will you not form conclusions as your senses receive the experience—the sight, the sounds? Perhaps you’ll run out the sanctuary in disgust and call the church council president. Perhaps you’ll call the oldest members of the church to process out the shock, if shock is indeed what you felt. Perhaps you will feel crushing disappointment and as a result quietly leave the parish, dodging callers, ignoring letters, etc.
But for the sake of illustration, let’s say you pick up your handy-dandy iCoconut and join Jimmy Buffet’s Coconut Telegraph where, “You can hear it on the coconut telegraph, can’t keep nothin’ under their hat. You can hear ’em on the coconut telegraph, sayin’ who did ‘dis’ and ‘dat,’ ‘dis’ and ‘dat.'”
Imagine that a few days later (and more-than-a-few parishioner to parishioner juicy coconut calls later) the poor clergyman receives phone calls, texts, FB msgs, and more than a few emails from angry parishioners accusing the minister and his wife of having sex in the sanctuary, right there before the chancel gate, right there where people commune. Excited and anxious, some even float a petition to rid the parish of the “randy” duo. And so it goes and goes and goes…until someone reads in the local paper that a 911 emergency unit was dispatched to Our Lady of the Blessed Misinformational Out of Contextual Church…where it had been summoned…because the priest’s wife had choked on a peppermint…and that she had been taken to First Lutheropalian Memorial Hospital after her husband who had, by way of the Heimlich maneuver, dislodged the mint. No sex scandal—just a heinous irreverent mint.
In this fictitious tale we see how a small portion of a story was lifted from the larger portion of the story, and was done so in such a way that was wounding and harmful. CONTEXT was the tool that had not been applied. Information was received, processed, understood, then synthesized—-and none of this was tooled through the context of a choking person’s salvation by way of a life-saving technique. This entirely is the case with 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. It is a small piece of a larger letter than has been lifted out of context so often, and so convincingly, that the Christian Coconut Telegraph has created a fiction from an image….one just as inaccurate as the Priestly Private Part Peppermint Scandal.
The larger letter, Paul’s Epistle to the Thessalonians, is the context for ch. 4, vv.13-18. This means that whatever the ENTIRE LETTER is addressing, then these verses function to address. These are not stand alone verses—-if they are forced to stand alone then the meaning of the entire letter is incomplete and the function of the verses will not be the function as originally intended . Think of it this way——-imagine yanking an auto transmission from a junkyard, standing it up in your yard, then swearing to everyone that you own a Mercedes Benz. What you own is a part of a vehicle. It is NOT THE WHOLE CAR. Add the other parts that connect to the transmission and then you have a car—-but claiming to have a car while you only possess a transmission—well, it just makes you look like a fool. But, you will get a fool’s following, usually ill-informed folks who will totally believe that your transmission is indeed the entire Mercedes Benz–and to such as these I offer the sentiments of Great Grandma Howard, “Bless their hearts, they jus’ don’t know no better.”
And speaking of which, do know that the concept of a rapture as it is being preached in current circles has NEVER BEEN the understanding of this text in the larger Christian community—in other words, all Christians. Which, by the way, is our context—since we are Christians—our largest context is the total body comprised of all Christians. And it is within that context that we should stop and ponder any theology or practice of ours that clearly departs from 2000 years of practice, tradition, and understanding. Our ego makes us think that we have some new revelation—and our ego is NOT JESUS. It’s just our ego massaged by the “attaboys” or “attagirls” offered to us when others agree with our take on things.
A transmission is not a car. A window is not a house. And, in the words of my dear friend Mary Donna, “Just ’cause it’s in the garage, don’t mean it’s a car!” This is the case with the concept of “rapture” that is synthesized from taking this text, “will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air,” (v. 17a) and forcing it to stand alone. It is only part of a story—not the whole—not even close.
For starters, “we are reading another’s mail,” as my New Testament seminary prof used to say. And these others to whom the letter was written are likely to be 1st century Jewish Christians, Roman Christians, and mostly Greek Christians, in a seaside town founded around the year 300+/- BCE which was the seat of power in the Roman Empire’s Macedonia province. It was (and is) a relatively wealthy town and it is still rocking and rolling today. And somewhere around 50+/- CE this town gets a visit from St. Paul who stays for a while yet leaves as a consequence of trouble. (ch. 2, v. 2) And somewhere after he departs, St. Paul writes this letter, which as a point of fact is the oldest text in the New Testament, even older than the Gospels, and it is the first letter of St. Paul, older than all the other letters. It offers us much: a unique view into St. Paul’s theological perspective, a unique view into first century Christian community, and a unique view into culture as seen through St. Paul’s choice of imagery.
The imagery piece is our focus. And St. Paul’s imagery has a context, which should surprise no one, never. The context of this phrase, “will be caught up in the clouds,” points to an event called the parousia, in Greek, παρουσία. St. Paul chooses a common image that the Christians in Thessalonika would clearly know. A parousia, at the time of the writing of this epistle, is the physical—in the flesh—arrival of a dignitary. When the dignitary approached a city trumpets were blown by messengers to tell the people, “get ready to receive the important person,” and as a consequence people would run out of the city to meet the leader in the open air, not behind walls, or along city streets, but out in the open.
An aside—-the word parousia is used throughout 1 Thessalonians, i.e., ch. 2, v.19, ch. 3, v. 13, ch. 4, v. 15 and ch. 5, v.23–yet do know that the word “rapture” is not in this epistle—nor is it in any other writing of St. Paul.
So where did that notion come from? The word “Rapture” pops on the scene in the Vulgate, where the Latin word “rapiemur” is used to translate ἁρπαγησόμεθα in I Thessalonians 4:17. And ἁρπαγησόμεθα means, “to carry away,” and implied in this can be, “to carry away for one’s own purpose.” (It’s easy to imagine Jesus doing something for Jesus’ own purpose…after all he is the one who says, “You did not choose me, I chose you.”) But consider this—if parousia—the notion that “the leader returns” is mentioned multiple times and some notion of “being carried” is only mentioned peripherally, then which is the focus for St. Paul—Is it being carried away a-purpose? OR, Is it that Jesus returns? The ENTIRE LETTER in CONTEXT makes it clear that it’s the return of Jesus. And isn’t our hope, which was the hope of St. Paul, that Jesus is coming again to establish God’s kingdom on earth which just happens to be completely consistent with the most popular prayer in Christian circles?
In fact it’s the only prayer that people ever asked Jesus to offer—-and the only prayer that Jesus gave as an example. Look at the prayer. And use your noodle as you read—-
[Jesus says] Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
Perhaps you might’ve considered the prayer this way:
Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven, (where from a human point of view God’s kingdom is totally in effect—perfectly pristine)
hallowed be your name. (hallowed is a form of ἁγιάζω which means “set apart,” but can also mean “to purify”—a name like no other in a place like no other)
Your kingdom come. (wait—Your kingdom come? What!?! Don’t you mean, “carry us to your kingdom?” Nope!)
Your will be done, (well, in heaven that will already is being done, therefore, “where must it need to be done?”)
on earth as it is in heaven. (oh, gosh, that makes perfect sense—make here like there—just like popping a peppermint out of the goozle of a choking gal heals her from above, earth is healed as we ask God for heaven’s society to become the earth’s society)
Give us this day our daily bread. (Could this be heaven on earth? God as Lord of all and plenty of bread for all? None lacking, all having legitimate needs met?)
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors. (Wait, and in the such a heavenly kingdom no “get-backs,” nor “counting of slights,” neither a laundry list of “scores to settle?”)
And do not bring us to the time of trial, (apart from trial we will have no need for want or retribution in such a kingdom)
but rescue us from the evil one (because we cannot make such a kingdom a reality here on earth on our own).
Wait? Can this really happen?
And what’s the point of such a prayer if God sends Jesus for round #2 and round #2 looks like God saying to Jesus, “snatch yo’ people up.”
Does that honor Jesus’ prayer? Is that how God the Father celebrates the prayer of God the Son? Nope. So why pray a prayer (even if Jesus did give it to you) that asks the God of heaven to make heaven on earth if you actually think that God intends to flush earth-remade-after-the-form-of-heaven down the celestial crapper once you’ve been snatched away? That’s not scriptural. Not in the text. Nope. Consider this—-if earth is like heaven who might God intend to dwell there? The Daleks? Nope. The Jedi? Nope. How ’bout those who Jesus draws from cities, even those out of graves first, by the trumpeting sounds of his grace-filled arrival.
Could 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 be showing God the Father’s answer to God the Son’s prayer? I don’t know. But isn’t that the hope of the Church? Wasn’t Ancient Israel’s hope for a Messiah ruling earth with a heavenly justice? And doesn’t God honor God’s promises which give rise to such hopes?
Ponder that a bit.
Please stay in CONTEXT and do not lift this text up, up, and away from the ENTIRE LETTER and turn it into a chance to misinform and frighten. Please do not be one of those that uses the iPulpit like an iCoconut for the spreading of stories. Look at the total letter—then climb into the iPulpit and preach away!