Vol. 25 New Series August 1964, No. 4
There was a time when I, as a young and inexperienced Christian, felt a little inclined to disparage those, older and wiser than myself, who insisted on understanding and interpreting everything in Scripture within its proper context. Now that I am much older, I have become wiser, to this extent at any rate; and have learnt that attention to context is one of the most important considerations in studying the Scriptures. This matter came vividly to my mind when I studied Commander Steedman's remarks about 1. Thess. 4:13-17 on pp. 111 to 115 of our June, 1964 issue; for he placed it within the same context as Acts 1:11 and 3:20, 21 without, apparently, pausing to ask himself whether this placement is valid.
One of John Buchan's romances is built around three ideas which, at first, have no apparent connection of any sort. The story depends entirely on the skill of the author in inventing a connection. The trouble with such a construction is that it is entirely artificial; and the story, though cleverly conceived and written, is artificial throughout. Similarly, the Scriptures, all of which are certainly not in the same context. Yet he has certainly proved his point for the two Acts texts, and thereby done us all a considerable service; for the last word on the matter has yet to be said.
To some it may come as a surprise to be told that ouranos, heaven, has no single, fixed, meaning; though this should be evident from the fact that the plural, heavens, is frequently met with. Out of the 84 occurrences of the word in Matthew 29 are singular, heaven, and 55 are plural, heavens. In Matt. 5:34, the heaven is God's throne. Yet in Matt. 6:26; 8:20; 13:32, the heaven is where the birds fly; in 14:19; 16:1, 2, 3; 24:30 it is the sky, in 22:30 it is where God's angels are and in 26:64 where clouds are. Thus, when we read of "heaven," we have to depend on the context and good sense to determine which aspect of "the heavens" is under consideration; and we always have sufficient data to prevent us going astray.
Why is it that the meaning is so indeterminate? Simply, that in the nature of things there is no boundary that our minds as at present constituted can define. For instance, where does the air end? Apparently from recent discoveries, there is some sort of atmosphere more than a hundred miles above the earth's surface.
Thus, when we read in 1. Thess. 4:17 of the surviving living being snatched away simultaneously with the rising dead in clouds, literally, "into meeting of the Lord into air"; we can properly visualize the Lord at a vast height above the ground being met by these saints streaming from points all over the earth's surface, so that they would appear from observers on the ground as assembling in clouds. This meeting will be an assembling of scattered individuals: as Paul points out, literally: "and thus always together to Lord we shall be." As regards the Lord, in connection with Him, we shall no longer remain scattered and lonely. Instead, we shall have constant access to Him and to one another, and He and they will have constant access to each one of us. This certainly does not mean, as some apparently think, that we shall be perpetually following Him about as a dog follows its master. Such an idea verges on the fantastic when we consider that we must number millions altogether; in fact, it is absurdly materialistic. We know very little about spirit; but there is no reason to suppose that spiritual beings (as we shall be) would be incapable of moving instantly to any place they might wish, however distant in the Universe.
"The Lord Himself will be descending from heaven." While He is doing this, His own will be snatched in clouds for meeting Him in air. In this prophecy, the whole action begins and ends in air, in heaven in the sense the word is used in Matt.6:26, etc., as noted above. Nothing is said of proceeding further down to the earth's surface or, directly, of returning to heaven in the higher sense of the location of God's throne, though this (then or at some later time) is implied in being "together to Lord," that is, ever in the closest touch with him. We must keep in mind, too, that in this connection "up" and "down" are simply human words to represent something beyond the reach of common language to express.
Having thus to some extent cleared our minds about 1Thess. 4:13-17, we can now turn to Acts 1:11 and 3:20, 21. the former is part of a narrative which covers the first fourteen verses of the book. From v. 12 it seems clear that the event took place on the Mount of Olives, and that the prophecy of he two men in white attire is a direct reference to Zech. 14:4. this places its fulfilment at the moment of the return of the Lord Jesus to the surface of this earth. Cloud took Him as He was lifted up from the ground; He will in due time emerge from cloud and touch ground again at the Mount of Olives. It is most important to observe the emphatic way those resent were told that Jesus would be coming in the same lanner as He was taken away.
The experience of many years of study has convinced me that when a passage in Scripture gives what appears on the surface extreme and apparently unnecessary emphasis to the matter, this is done by the Holy Spirit in deliberate anticipation of some question or problem that He foreknew was to arise in later times. In the passage we have just considered are two conspicuous examples. Why should it matter that our meeting with the Lord is to be "in air"? Why would it matter that when the Lord Jesus comes to Israel He will arrive in precisely the same way as He was taken up, and that His feet should rest on the Mount of Olives? If there had been nothing more in Paul's mind than that the Lord would descend and that His own would be snatched away to meet Him, any embellishment would have been not only unnecessary but rather foolish. Similarly, if the two men in white attire had nothing mote to say than that the Lord would eventually return, why should they emphasize that the return would be "in the same manner" as the departure? Surely there must be an underlying purpose behind such precision-that it was foreseen that the two events might be confused in later times? Consequently, it was necessary that no excuse for confusion should be provided. Nevertheless, in spite of the double precaution, most serious confusion has occurred.
To some it has been abundantly clear that what they call "the Second Coming" will be to the surface of this earth and is to inaugurate "times of restoration"; and therefore that every reference to the coming of the Lord Jesus relates to this purpose. To others it has been equally clear that such passages as Phil. 3:20, 21; 1. Cor. 15:51, 52 and 1. Thess. 4:13-17 have nothing to do with the coming of the Lord Jesus to the surface of this earth, or with Israel's prophecies, or with the thousand years; but with the removal of the company which is Christ's body from this earth and the snatching away of these saints to be ever with Him. The issue has been alarmingly and most unnecessarily befogged by associating these three passages with the "coming" of Christ, though this word is conspicuously absent from them and has to be inserted when required by mistranslating the word parousia, which means presence.
Perhaps we can clear our minds of the last remaining wisps of fog by asking again the very simple question: Why, does 1. Thess. 4:17 say literally, "into meeting of the Lord into air"? Those last two words are utterly pointless unless -they were deliberately intended to convey that the meeting point is AIR, not EARTH; and therefore that the prophecy is wholly outside the context of Acts 1 to 3. Snatching away the Lord's celestial saints to meet Him as He is descending from heaven does not involve for Him any exclusion of Him from heaven. Just as He is absent from earth now, so will He be absent from earth while His earthly people Israel are involved in the apostasy (2. Thess. 2:3) and the man of lawlessness has his short spell of triumph. Nothing is said in Scripture of any sort of flying visit in between; but that is no reason whatever why He should not approach, while still in the heavens, close enough to earth to have us snatched away in, clouds to meet Him.
The reverse side of the truth about 1. Thess. 4:13-17 is the fact that nothing whatever is said anywhere about any assemblies of Israel, even those addressed in Rev. 1-3, being snatched away to meet the Lord in air. Nor can Rev. 4:1 be brought into this, because John was one of the apostles of the circumcision. In any case, the order applied to him only, and hen in a vision. Nor can Rev. 12:5, 6 be adduced, for the idea of the company which is Christ's body also being about to be shepherding all the Gentiles in an iron club is entirely out of keeping. Years ago, Dr. Bullinger showed that we are wholly outside this prophecy. Let us leave it at that.
There remains for our consideration Acts 3:20, 21. It is binding on heaven to receive Jesus Christ "until times of restoration which God talks through mouth of the holy ones, the prophets of His from eon," to render it very literally.
When do these times start? When heaven ceases to receive Him, according to this passage. But just when is that (when He enters the earth's atmosphere, or when His feet touch solid ground? Can we get any further by considering just what is meant by "times of restoration"? Do they mean the period that begins at the instant when the Lord Jesus reaches the Mount of Olives? If so, why "times" and not, simply, "the time"? Yet, on the other hand, if we start the "times of restoration". It the moment of fulfilment of 1. Thess. 4:13-17, we may find ourselves charged with dating what is purely an affair of Israel's Prophets by a prophecy which is not for Israel at all and has nothing to do with Israel—a proceeding of highly questionable validity. For 1. Thessalonians does not even mention Israel or circumcision and the Jews only once, and then by way of contrast. To teach or even suggest, any direct connection of this Epistle with the Evangel of the circumcision or with anything in the book commonly called, "Revelation" is wholly unwarrantable. Some do teach this quite openly, and are thus in an untenable position; but that is beside the point here. While it is quite true that Israel's affairs are purely Israel's, nevertheless the fact remains that our existence on earth constitutes an insuperable barrier to their development. Consequently, whether anyone likes the idea or not, our snatching away will clear the path for Israel and therefore to that extent unavoidably affects them.
Yet, even so, we must not lose sight of other questions. First: "What is holding up the return of the Lord Jesus to the Mount of Olives?" This is easily answered: a mass of unfulfilled Prophecy—and Israel's Prophecy at that. Then what is holding up the fulfilment of this mass of Prophecy? The only possible answer is that the time is not ripe. But why not? Again, the only possible answer is that God has other purposes which are not yet accomplished; namely, the completion of the task He has undertaken in Paul's Evangel, the Evangel of the uncircumcision. So when will the task be completed? Simply; when He chooses to fulfil the special prophecy exclusively given to the Apostle Paul and promulgated by him in 1. Thess. 4:13-17.
Thus, it seems plain enough that we ought to hold firmly to the truths we have and suspend final judgment on speculative problems until we receive further light. Meantime, one thing is certain: we must not use anything in Acts with a view to damaging or destroying 1. Thess. 4:13-17.
There remains the problem of 1. Thess. 1:9, 10. After taking all this time to consider the matter further, I am still not entirely happy as regards this verse over some of the things said in Vol. 22, pp. 252-261, though most of the paper still stands unshaken. One thing is certain: anamenO, upremain, cannot possibly meant wait for or await or ardently await, the rendering we found for apekdechomai. Translators have serenely gone on copying one another in this mistake, and no commentator available to me gives any help at all, except Ellicott. He says of the verb anamenO that it "does not here involve any reference to awaiting one who is to return, nor yet any specific notion of eagerness or joy, but simply that of patience and confidence; the ana having that modified intensive force. . . which is so hard to convey without paraphrase. . . . . ek tOn ouranOn belongs to anamenein, involving a slight but perfectly intelligible form of brachylogy" (i.e., expression in the most concise and briefest manner).
The trouble is that he drops the subject at that and does not suggest any paraphrase; and it must be admitted that in supplying the omission we are not left with an easy task. However, as the first part of his remark is undoubtedly correct, we ought to take the remainder very seriously and be thankful that someone has been prepared to have a fresh look at an exceedingly difficult problem. So we have to try to express in English, somehow, "to be out of the heavens upremaining His Son." A possible paraphrase is, I suggest, "By virtue of your standing which is out of the heavens, to be remaining settled upward in relation to His Son, Whom He rouses out of the dead—Jesus, the One rescuing us out of the wrath, that which is coming." Admittedly, this is extremely free; but it is for anyone who may feel led to complain of this either to overthrow Ellicott's contention, or to suggest a better way or a better paraphrase. He appears to have been one of the very few with courage enough to face this problem most others have, like the Pharisee, passed by on the other side. King James' translators, though they worked in the age of Shakespeare, the golden age of the English tongue, lamentably failed us here.
The position apparently amounts to this: At that point, when the Thessalonians had turned back to God from their idols, they had no clear understanding of how events would eventually turn out for them. Their understanding of Paul's evangel and its revelation of God's purpose, and their confidence, were securely anchored above, since it derived from he heavens; and they were waiting for the fuller knowledge that eventually was supplied by Paul in this epistle. For, part from the objection to rendering anamenO by await, here is the further difficulty that if 1. Thess. 1:10 shows that the Thessalonians already had the main part of the truth that is disclosed in 4:13-17, there remains less point in a fresh "word of the Lord," which is what the latter claims to be.
Another question arises: Why is the title 'Son' used here?
The first time the Apostle Paul uses it is Rom. 1:3, where God's Evangel is concerning His Son. It is the Evangel of His Son (Rom. 1:9). It pleased God to unveil His Son in Paul that he might be evangelizing Him among the Gentiles (Gal. 1:16). he was living in faith of the Son of God (Gal. 2:20). The other transports us into the Kingdom of the Son of His love Col. 1:13). Taken together these throw a brilliant light on Ellicott's suggestion about 1. Thess. 1:l0 in showing something of the breadth and depth compressed into the remarkable phrase "out of the heavens up-remaining His Son." It involves nothing less than fixed, assured faith in God's evangel, firm continuance in what God has unveiled in His apostle, Paul, life in that faith, full realization of what it means to be transported into the Kingdom of the Son of His love.
Appropriately 1. Thessalonians comes immediately after Colossians, for it is so closely related to Col. 3:1-7 as to be in a measure a commentary on it; and we now can see 1. Thess. 1:10 as a summing up of those seven verses. The Thessalonians had turned back from their idolatry, from the demons who once had dominated them. Firmly fixed on that which is above, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, everything they possessed was out of the heavens, and they themselves were remaining in that upward attitude in their whole relation to God's Son.
Read as what they are, the last of the Church Epistles, crowning the set, 1. and 2. Thessalonians appear in a strange and brilliant light—strange, because hitherto we have been viewing them the wrong way round, so to speak; brilliant, because they are now set in their proper place as the consummation and completion of Paul's message to churches. And this realization is an immense help to us, too; for now we can see how it came about that this church turned out to be the most nearly perfect of all, and how splendid was their achievement, and even more splendid the word of the Lord which Paul was able to disclose to them. There was nothing earthly, nothing fleshly, in their disposition towards God's Son; but an out-of-the-heavens, firm and steady attitude which will in due time be crowned by being ever with the Lord.
So in reading this passage as meaning that the Thessalonians were waiting for God's Son to come out of the heavens, we would be reading into it ideas from altogether different contexts and wholly inapplicable to what ought to be a beautiful simplicity. In the fresh light we now have, the passage comes much nearer to the true reading of Phil. 3:20, 21. It is out of our citizenship that we are awaiting a Saviour, as here it is out of the heavens that we are remaining in faith fixed above that, in due time, He will rescue us out of the coming wrath. No question arises, in this context, of any coming of the Lord Jesus, any return of Him out of the heavens.
Over fifty years ago (July, 1912) Dr. Bullinger wrote: "It is we who have robbed Israel of the promise of 1. Thessalonians." This utterly untrue assertion—bluntly, lie—is based solely on the theory that 1. Thessalonians was written before the Prison Epistles and therefore belongs to another "dispensation," a conclusion that does not logically follow anyhow.
I would gladly refrain from exposing Dr. Bullinger in this way; for I have the deepest regard and respect for his best work; but so long as others insist on repeating over and over again that this epistle is Israel's, belongs to the Evangel of the circumcision and is related to the prophecies of the book ,titiled Revelation, there is no option. Once again I ask, nay entreat, those who support such ideas to prove them, instead of asserting and reasserting them as established certainties. That is the very least they ought to try to do if they are sincere. Some are, I know. Why, then, not descend from the pedestal of infallibility erected by Coles and Bullinger and the lesser men who succeeded them, and defend these doctrines? They must be aware in their hearts that the way of Christ in the way of humility, not of proud refusal even to discuss their differences with others.
Why is it that so many Christians seem prepared to go out of their way and beyond all reason to divide Paul's Epistles and, in dividing them, attempt to hand over to Israel what most certainly belongs alone to the company which is Christ's body? If we leave Israel and Christ's body each in its own roper sphere, all difficulties vanish. Scripture does for itself all the "dividing" it needs. Now we are witnessing an attempt to drive a wedge between 1. Thess. 4:13-17 and 1. Cor. 15:51-53. Is it not time to cease that sort of activity and return to God's Word—undivided?
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