He Said, She Said: Where Did Paul Get it?
1 Thessalonians 4:15, For this we say to you by the word of the Lord,
Who is the “we”? It is Paul and his apostolic team referring to the well known prophecy of Jesus from Matthew 23-24. Paul is simply repeating the same context, same criteria, and the same imagery.
For example, there are at least 13 items of Jesus in his Olivet Discourse that Paul repeats. For instance: coming persecution, apostasy, teachers saying Christ had come already, Christ’s coming, with angels, with clouds, with trumpet, gathering the elect, coming as a thief, impending judgment, a woman in travail and being warned to watch. There is no doubt, and most scholars agree, that Jesus is speaking figuratively and apocalyptically of the destruction of the city. Therefore, Paul is also speaking of the same thing, especially in light of the fact that they are suffering at the hands of the Jews and would be relieved of that suffering by God’s judgment.
These scriptures are difficult to interpret by moderns simply because we don’t understand the use of apocalyptic language. Remember, in biblical times they can’t make a point by bold print or making a movie with dramatic music playing in the background pressing onto their hearts. Instead, they used what is called in hermeneutics, de-creation language or apocalyptic language. It is painting the most dramatic picture possible of the world falling apart, the sun being darkened, the moon turning to blood, and the stars falling from heaven all in an effort to impact the heart. In particular it was used to describe how the governmental powers of the day in a nation or city were about to fall from power. It was never literal and always a dramatic metaphor.
Let me give two examples, though there are many:
Isaiah 13:8-10, “And they will be afraid. Pangs and sorrows will take hold of them; they will be in pain as a woman in childbirth (compare 1 Thes. 5:3); they will be amazed at one another; their faces will be like flames. Behold, the day of the Lord comes, cruel with both wrath and fierce anger to lay the land desolate and he will destroy its sinners from it. For the stars of heaven and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be darkened in its going forth, and the moon will not cause its light to shine.”
This is not a prophecy of the end of the world. It is a prophetic word to Babylon of how it was going to fall to the Medes (vs 17) which was fulfilled in 721BC. The stars did not literally fall, but the leadership literally fell. It was a way of saying their world (not THE world) was going to come crashing down, and their kings and princes (sun, moon and stars) were going to be removed. This was fulfilled in history but it was’t literal, otherwise the universe would have ceased a long time ago!
How about this one:
Psalm 18:6 In my distress I called upon the Lord, And cried out to my God; He heard my voice from His temple, And my cry came before Him, even to His ears.7 Then the earth SHOOK AND TREMBLED; The foundations of the hills also quaked and were shaken, Because He was angry.8 Smoke went up from His nostrils, And devouring fire from His mouth; Coals were kindled by it. 9 He bowed the heavens also, and CAME DOWN With darkness under His feet.10 And He rode upon a cherub, and flew; He flew upon the wings of the wind. 11 He made darkness His secret place; His canopy around Him was dark waters And thick clouds of the skies.12 From the BRIGHTNESS before Him, His THICK CLOUDS passed with hailstones and coals of fire. 13 The Lord thundered from heaven, And the Most High uttered His voice, Hailstones and coals of fire. 14 He sent out His arrows and scattered the foe, Lightnings in abundance, and He vanquished them. 15 Then the channels of the sea were seen, The foundations of the world were uncovered At Your rebuke, O Lord, At the blast of the breath of Your nostrils.
Do you know what this song of David is referring to? Notice the introduction: To the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David the servant of the Lord, who spoke to the Lord the words of this song on the day that the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul.
It was, to the naked eye, simply a battle that David won over King Saul. There were no hailstones, no coals of fire. The sea wasn’t opened up so that the foundations of the earth were exposed. God did not literally come down on a cloud to destroy his enemies. David was describing in apocalyptic language that God gave him a victory over his enemies.
Yet, when we come to the New Testament, we mistakenly assume that God suddenly used the same language but meant something different. If that were the case, don't you think he would have at least clued them in that he was completely flipping all prophetic language upside down? God is not the author of confusion!
This is the language of Jesus to describe the destruction of Jerusalem which was fulfilled in 70AD.
Matthew 24:29 Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30 Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the land will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31 And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
Notice only a couple verses later Jesus continues saying,
32 “Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near—at the doors! 34 Assuredly, I say to you, THIS GENERATION (this Greek word is called a "near demonstrative". It doesn’t mean “that" generation in the future, but “this” generation alive right now) will by no means pass away till ALL THESE THINGS TAKE PLACE."
Another major principle of interpretation is called The Analogy of Faith. It means that we are to interpret scripture with associated scripture. So just to seal the deal with incontrovertible evidence notice the implications of these two passages regarding his coming:
Matthew 16:27-28, “For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and WILL THEN REPAY EVERY MAN ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS. Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here WHO WILL NOT TASTE DEATH UNTIL they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.”
This passage tells us several vitally insightful details:
1. Everything listed there including coming in judgement, with angels and clouds will be fulfilled within the lifetime of some standing there. (See also John 21:21-22 when Jesus said John would be alive at his coming)
2. This is not a prophetic word about the Transfiguration. They were ALL alive 6 days later at that event and there were no angels and no judgement. The Transfiguration is instead an illustration of Mt 16:27-28 revealing that Christ's coming would be marked as a time when the Law (Moses) and Prophets (Elijah) would be removed, making way for the glory of Christ alone. This of course was fulfilled in 70AD.
3. It would be in the same glory of the Father, i.e. the same way the Father did things in the past by using apocalyptic language of clouds and sun, moon and stars, and allowing another nation to bring that judgement. As we saw in Babylon, so too in Jerusalem.
4. Jesus is directly quoting from Isaiah 40:10-11 and Isaiah 62:11 which place the context after John the Baptist's ministry (Is 40:3-6) and it is applied to Judah. In other words the fulfillment is not a worldwide event, but a localized one. This is a very important truth with which one must humbly come to grips.
Mark 9:1, "And he said to them, "Truly I tell you, some who are STANDING HERE will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God HAS COME with power."
1. In this parallel passage the Greek is even more clear than in Mt 16:27-28. He says some standing there will still be alive and be able to look back to see that the kingdom (with clouds, judgement and angels as seen in parallel verse) already came in power.
2. This places the supposedly worldwide end time events not in 2015, but localized within their generation.
So the words that Paul is using are identical apocalyptic-prophetic metaphors that Jesus used to describe his judgment on Jerusalem.
With those things in mind as context let’s go back to Thessalonians and continue
16 And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.
There are key phrases we are going to look at in the upcoming posts:
• dead in Christ will rise first
• caught up together
• in the clouds
• in the air