Friday, November 11, 2005

A Second Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lesson: First Thessalonians 5:1-11

"Always have a plan. Always be ready to break from your plans." Good advice! Earlier this week, I planned to write at least three considerations of this Sunday's Bible lesson for our worship at Friendship Church. But life intervened. So, here's a second consideration, based on some study I did in The New Interpreter's Bible (NIB), a great commentary of the entire Bible...

1. Context effects content. Just prior to the passage (4:13-18) we'll be delving into on Sunday, Paul has been talking about what it will be like for two groups of people when Jesus returns to the world: "those who are asleep" and those who are still alive when reappears. Now, in 5:1, Paul says that we don't really need to know more than this.

2. Some see "an adversative contrast" between 4:13-18 and 5:1-11. Not so, says the NIB, paraphrasing scholar Tracy Howard's argument that "neither section gives a systematic chronological timetable, and both sections are exhortative in purpose and parallel in content. Both commend a certain type of behavior in the light of eschatological [end time] matters. Both discuss the...parousia [the coming, appearance, or presence of the risen Jesus] (or the day of the Lord), and draw on various apocalyptic images to clarify the importance of that day for believers in the present."

In other words, both sections deal with the impact of the reality of Jesus' future return on how we live our lives today.

3. Believers lives in an already/not yet state of being. We know that as we follow Christ, we already have resurrection victory even in the midst of the challenges of today.

4. So-called "transitional markers," words that mark seams in the passage make it easy to outline this passage:
5:1-2: Hearers of Paul's letter aware of the day of the Lord
5:3: Unbelievers ignorant of the day of the Lord
5:4-5: End-of-day contrasts between believers and unbelievers
5:6-8: The call for believers to be sober
5:9-10: The justification for remaining sober
5:11: Recommendation of "mutual consolation and edification [building up]"
5. Paul peppers the entire passage with several synonomous phrases commonly used in his day, especially about end times. The first is "a time of judgment." (v.1)

6. A "thief at night" is another such phrase from Jewish apocalyptic literature. (v.2) (Luke 12:38-39; Revelation 3:3)

7. "labor pains" is also commonly used in Jewish apocalyptic writing. (Psalm 48:6; Mark 13:8)

8. Interesting: "peace and security" (v.3) was a "propaganda slogan" of the Roman imperial regime. Paul's phrasing may have been an attack on those in the Thessalonian church who were putting the empire in a higher place in their priorities than Jesus Christ. In fact, this problem underlays much of what Paul says in this entire letter. Caesar Augustus was seen by many as the benefactor of a kind of new age, with Augustus' role painted in almost godlike terms. Paul says that the only true new age will come with Jesus' return on that occasion the New Testament always calls, "the day of the Lord.'

9. About vv.4-5, NIB says that night "represents a condition of unawareness or insensitivity." Believers are children of the day and therefore won't be flummoxed by the day of the Lord. But unbelievers, experiencing the exact same thing, will be disconsolate and disoriented.

I imagine that C.S. Lewis does a good job of showing what this will be like in two of the books from The Chronicles of Narnia. In The Magician's Nephew, four persons from our world and the evil Queen Jardis from the dead world of Charn, are present when Aslan, the great Lion, "sings" Narnia into being. For three of the people--Digory, Polly, and the London cabbie, Frank--the sights and sounds of Aslan's creation are breathtakingly beautiful, arousing feelings of awe and wonder. But in Digory's Uncle Andrew and in Jardis, Aslan's activities rouse revulsion, fear, and a desire to run away.

In The Last Battle, a number of people are transported to eternity after entering a stable in which they have died. For the followers of Aslan who have entered, eternity is a place of beauty, restoration, life, and joy. But, in their midst are dwarves who are so resolutely selfish and cynical that even when offered the best of food and drink, can only taste refuse.

An analogous difference of perspective will mark believers and unbelievers, according to Paul, when they experience Jesus' return. For some, it will be a moment of indescribable joy. For others, it will bring dread or perhaps, even indifference.

10. At v.6, there's a shift in Paul's discussion. He moves from contrasting the perceptions of believers and unbelievers to looking at how believers are to live during these "in-between times." Besides the contrast in attitudes then, the differences between believers and unbelievers are also seen in the way they live life.

11. Believers, Paul says, are vigilant...ready for what life throws at them because they're deeply rooted in their relationship with Jesus Christ.

12. The church's weapons for dealing with daily life and the return of Jesus: FAITH, HOPE, LOVE.

13. In vv.9-10, we're told not to be like the sleepers in 4:13-18.

[Here's the first pass at this passage, from earlier in the week.]

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