Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words. – 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Well the water references in this reach of the bible are few and far between. I floated right through Philippians and Colossians with no water-related passages. I finally found one here in 1 Thessalonians, a letter written by Paul to the believers in Thessalonia. Apparently this group of believers was somewhat isolated and Paul was concerned about their making the entire “journey home“.
It sounds like there were some questions surrounding resurrection and when Jesus would be returning and who He would bring with him. In seem like in modern times the curiosity about resurrection has faded, but speculating about how and when Jesus will return remains a popular pastime – despite Jesus making it clear that we are not supposed to get too focused on times and numbers.
Paul seems to be reassuring the Thessalonians that it does not matter whether you are alive when Jesus returns or not as long as you , continue to faithfully follow God, “we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep”. This focus on priority and who will get to escape this land of oblivion first, seems a bit out step with the perspective and teaching that Jesus shared as he taught the disciples by the lake.
I am not sure why it matters the order of participation in the second coming of Christ, but Paul believes that the “the dead in Christ will rise first” then those still living and following Christ will “caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. There will be a great confluence in the clouds. At some point we will be together in a place that is not the same as this earth.
I think Paul was using the word “clouds” metaphorically to refer to the undiscovered country or “Heaven” as it is typically referred to in other passages, and in popular culture. The impression I have of heaven is that it is not so much a place as a metaphysical meeting – soul soup if you will, but a soup in which the ingredients remain distinct and individual. A spiritual sea into which we are poured out when we die. I am not sure this how this image of what heaven could be like fits into the resurrection and “confluence in the clouds” Paul is talking about.
I am not convinced that some sort of reanimation of our earthly vessels is what it will be like. It seems to me that to “meet the Lord in the air” and “be with the Lord forever” we will need a different “ship” for our souls, perhaps a virtual vessel that is compatible with the spiritual sea we will be navigating. I am purely speculating here so there is plenty of room for other ideas and ways of understanding what resurrection will look like. I suspect it will be something we cannot really imagine and we will not really know until it happens.
In the meantime Paul asks the Thessalonians to “encourage one another…”. Perhaps we should encourage one another to focus on allowing God to strip away all that could ensnare us and keep us from reaching the clouds.
Prayer: God help us to encourage one another and focus on our inner souls so they are ready to join You.
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