Friday, May 20, 2011

The Lord is Coming Soon.

In light of the imminent beginning of the end, I thought I would share some recent thoughts about the coming (παρουσία, parousia) of the Lord as it is described in the writings of St. Paul.

A central eschatological event for Paul is the parousia, the coming of the Lord. “Parousia” becomes in the New Testament a technical term for the future coming of the Lord – every non-Pauline use of the term parousia in the New Testament refers to this specifically – but at first, for Paul, its meaning is more fluid.

In its Hellenic origins – and, interestingly, it has no exact equivalent in Hebrew – it has both a sacred and a profane sense. Literally, it simply means presence, arrival, or coming. It comes from the compound verb πάρειμι (pareimi), which, while it is occasionally also used in the technical or sacred sense of the coming of a great personage or a god, often simply refers to “being present” in the most pedestrian sense. In kind, the noun parousia sometimes also has this plain or profane meaning in the writings of Paul. In his book Paul: Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ, Thomas Schreiner makes the point that in each of these instances and everywhere “in the New Testament the word coming always has the idea of physical presence” (455). This sense is particularly strong in 2 Cor 10:10, which refers to “παρουσία τοῦ σώματος,” that is, “bodily presence” (RSV). Schreiner points out that its use in referring to the physical presence of ordinary human beings, such as Titus or Paul himself, points – when it does refer to Jesus’ coming – to the physicality of Jesus’ return to earth (454).

Paul’s first use of this word is in the oldest book of the New Testament, 1 Thess. Its four uses in this epistle (2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23) refer exclusively to the coming of the Lord, making this its earliest New Testament sense. Paul also mentions it in this sense in 2 Thess 2:1, 8 and 1 Cor 15:23. I will focus mainly on the relevant passages in these three epistles.

Therein, Paul provides vivid, sonorous descriptions of the parousia of the Lord. He writes, “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God” (1 Thess 4:16). Paul reiterates the trumpet blast in 1 Cor 15:52 and the presence of angels in 2 Thess, writing, “the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels” (1:7). These images combine to give the impression that the parousia is going to be loud (many of the images are sonic), public, visible, and bodily. There will be shouting and angels and trumpets.

These images also appear in the descriptions of the theophany at Sinai (Exod 19:10-18; Deut 33:2) – the trumpet, the cloud, the voice, the holy ones – and were continued in the Jewish apocalyptic tradition. Paul’s use of these images associates his understanding of the parousia with an existing tradition, though with important differences. For example, the cloud in Exod acts as a covering or a veil and so affects a kind of separation – but for Paul, the people are taken up to meet the Lord in the clouds. Joseph Plevnik, author of Paul and the Parousia, even thinks that Paul understands the clouds to be the very vehicles “of transportation between heaven and earth” which take the faithful up to the Lord (64).

Before this, at the parousia of the Lord, the departed faithful arise. Resurrection is in fact what occasions Paul’s writing of 1Thess. As in each case, Paul is addressing a pastoral concern, not writing a theological treatise, so it is important to take what he says about the parousia in the contexts in which he discusses it. The Thessalonians appear to have doubted whether those who have died will be able to benefit from the parousia and so Paul describes the resurrection of the dead as its first result. 1 Thess 4:16 says that immediately after the aforementioned trumpet blast at the Lord’s return, “the dead in Christ will rise first.” Their participation in the Lord’s parousia will not be compromised in the slightest. In fact, those “who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thess 4:15). 1 Cor also associates the resurrection with the coming and the accompanying trumpet blast: “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable” (1 Cor 15:51). Because Christ has already risen, “the age to come has invaded the present evil age,” as Schreiner puts it (456). Christ’s resurrection is the “first fruits,” as it says in 1 Cor (15:20, 23), of the resurrection that is coming. Again, the end – the ἔσχατον (eschaton) – has already begun, but it is not yet consummated. “Christ [is] the first fruits, then at his coming those that belong to Christ” (1 Cor 15:23, emphasis mine). For Paul, it seems, it is the moment of Christ’s parousia that believers are raised from the dead.

It is not entirely clear to us what Paul thinks will happen regarding those among the dead who are not believers. As directly connected with the parousia, the resurrection he refers to is that of believers, or those “in Christ” (1 Thess 4:16, 1 Cor 15:22) seeming to exclude those who are not believers. In 1 Cor, however, he also writes, “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (15:22). 1 Cor 15 has a tone of resurrection for all – not just believers – here and elsewhere. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (15:26). All die – whether or not they are believers – all will rise again to the utter destruction of death. This seems to us to be Paul’s message. Again, however, when he speaks directly about the parousia, he seems to refer only to the resurrection of those in Christ. Does he envision a separate moment of resurrection for non-believers? It simply is not clear.

It does seem clear to me that, according to Paul, only believers will be “taken up.” After the dead rise, then the believers who are still living and those who had died together are lifted up and glorified equally. “Then we which are alive [and] remain shall be caught up together with [those who have died and been raised] in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.” (1 Thess 4:17). Paul also writes concerning this coming glorification and immortality in 1 Cor. He writes, “I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed” (15:51). Death is not coming to all. Some will live until the parousia and will be taken up and glorified without having died.

Demonstrating that an immanent eschaton is not a new idea, Paul vacillates on whether he will be among those who lives until this moment. In 1 Thess, he says “we shall be taken up” (4:17, emphasis mine). Yet later, Paul considers dying, which he believes will enable him to be with Christ (Phil 1:20-23). Paul does not say whether the being with Christ accomplished by the taking up at the parousia differs from the being with Christ accomplished by dying.

Despite his apparent early expectations that the parousia would occur during his life, he also consistently points out that he does not know. He writes, “The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thess 5:2). That sounds to me like it will come suddenly and unexpectedly. When he then says that the believers will not be surprised by the day of the Lord in 5:4, I do not think that he means they know when it will happen, but that they live in constant expectation. This, I think, is the whole point. I believe Paul wants his communities – I even think that he would want us – to live in constant expectation of the parousia. This informs his thought on many levels.

Though Paul is clear that the time of the parousia is not known, he does mention certain things that must happen first. To cool an “eschatological frenzy,” as Schreiner puts it (464), Paul describes in 2 Thess certain events that must take place before the day of the Lord. Apparently, even if we do not know when the end is coming, we can know that it is not here yet. Specifically, first, the “lawless one” or the “son of destruction” must appear, set himself up in the temple and call himself “God” (2 Thess 2:3-4). Interestingly, the term used to describe the “coming” of the lawless one by the activity of Satan is also "parousia" (2 Thess 2:9). The knowledge that these highly noticeable events must take place before the parousia seems to contradict the notion of parousia occurring suddenly and surprisingly. While discussing 2 Thess, of course, it is important to bear in mind that scholars are evenly divided over whether or not Paul actually wrote it, according to Raymond Brown in his Introduction to the New Testament (591).

Another event that Paul later seems to set up as a prerequisite to the parousia is the salvation of all Israel. Paul’s discussion of the ultimate conversion of Jews to Christ is limited to Rom, in which he writes, “all Israel will be saved; as it is written, ‘The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.’” There are a couple of interesting things to note about this verse. Firstly, salvation, Paul expresses clearly in this epistle, is for those who have faith in the gospel (Rom 1:16). Consequently, when he says here that Israel will be saved, it seems to me that he means they will come to believe in Jesus Christ. Using the metaphor of branches broken off from an olive tree, he writes, “if they do not persist in their unbelief, [they] will be grafted in… again” (Rom 11:23, emphasis mine). Secondly, he quotes Isa that the deliverer will come from Zion and banish ungodliness from Jacob. The deliverer, for Paul, is none other than Jesus Christ. The deliverer has already come but, for Paul, his work is not finished yet, because many Jews have not accepted the gospel. Not only has he come, but he is also coming. The eschaton is now and not yet.

Paul, I expect, when writing Rom would have experienced more and more frustration of this hope in the short term – due to increasing tensions and divisions between the Jewish and Christian communities. This tense and divisive context gives the claim that all the Jews would accept Christ – and not only Christ, but Paul’s preaching of Christ for the Gentiles – an eschatological sense. That is, such an event would represent a radical change from the present experience, just as the parousia and the resurrection would be a radical alteration in experience.

Further, Paul connects this to a more explicitly eschatological event: resurrection from the dead. In Rom 11:15, Paul indicates that his fellow Jews’ acceptance of his ministry, which is his gospel of Jesus Christ, means “life from the dead.” Perhaps Paul means that the resurrection will not occur until this event takes place

This looks to me like another large and noticeable event that, in Paul’s thinking, must take place before the parousia. Rom is a late work of Paul, whereas 1 Thess, which contains most of his writing about the parousia, is early. As life went on and Paul came close to death on more than one occasion, his expectation of the Lord’s return and the coming resurrection did not diminish, but his expectation that it would happen in his own lifetime seems to have ebbed and he began to expect more events to take place prior to the consummation of the eschaton.

Whenever it does come, Paul rightly wants us to be ready. So, my advice to all now hearing the claim that the Lord is coming back tomorrow is to go ahead and panic. That is, repent, set your life in order, live as if the end were very soon, be loving, kind, good, and holy.

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