The apostle Paul draws us a word picture of Christ’s parousia in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.
Do you remember the children’s song, She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain? Not very many people know that the song was derived from a 19th century African-American spiritual about the coming of Christ. (The omniscient Wikipedia has the original lyrics of When the Chariot Comes)
There was a line in the children’s version of that song that went like this:
Oh we’ll all go out to meet her when she comes.
Paul gives us a similar image in 1 Thessalonians 4:17: we’ll all go out to meet him when he comes.
Paul’s word picture draws on the ancient practice of welcoming the sovereign when he came to your city or to your estate. The inhabitants went outside the gates of the town or the villa to welcome the visitor and escort him with honors. The Greek word for the sovereign’s arrival was parousia, sometimes translated “presence” – and this is the same word that the New Testament uses to describe Jesus’ coming again (e.g, 1 Thessalonians 2:19, 3:13, 4:15). In fact, Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem before his crucifixion is a kind of mini-parousia, a sneak preview of coming events and the future public reign of Christ.
As the earliest document in the New Testament, 1 Thessalonians provides us with solid evidence that the first Christians looked for Christ’s coming again. The expectation of his return was not a later invention.
The Christians at Thessalonica were waiting for Jesus to come from heaven (1:10, 4:16), but over 15 years had passed since Jesus’ death and resurrection. Some Christians died while they waited, and their death caused some of their brothers and sisters great emotional pain. Paul didn’t want the Thessalonians to grieve like the Gentiles who had no hope.
Perhaps the hope of Jesus’ coming again somehow made the pain worse, even for those who believed in the coming resurrection. In the Gentiles’ thinking, there’s nothing that could be done about the cruel reality of death. Christians, on the other hand, believed that Jesus’ appearing would put an end to death. “If only Jesus had come as he promised, we wouldn’t have had to endure the pain of watching our loved one die or bear this horrible grief,” they may have thought.
Paul reminded the Thessalonians that the promise of the resurrection means that all Christians will share in the glory of his coming, the living and the dead, no matter what. The dead in Christ will rise and together with those are still alive we’ll all go out together to meet him when he comes.
And since he’s coming from the sky, that’s where we’ll go meet him.
It will all work out, Paul tells them. No worries, then. Chin up. Encourage each other with these words. The world may call this wishful thinking or easy believism.
And while the world may scoff, for those who believe in a crucified and risen savior, Paul’s words do provide great hope and encouragement.