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Both of them!

Paul writes to the Thessalonians from Corinth, his destination after Athens on his second journey.  After having visited them on his way out, he heard of some difficulties and sent Timothy back to give guidance.  To make up for not having returned himself, he wrote these letters to let them know that he still thought of them and to give some guidance on his own.

The difficulties that prompted Timothy’s visit and Paul’s letters is the reaction by the Thessalonian congregation to some deaths of their members, probably by persecution or illness.  Having assumed that Jesus would be returning in their lifetimes (as has every single generation of the church since then), seeing believers around them die came as something of a shock, and they wanted to know what the new faith had to say about death and the Second Coming and the afterlife.  Paul wrote to address these issues.

One thought occurred to me as I read these books.*  There are three main instances I can think of in the New Testament that describe the end times and the Second Coming of Christ.  Jesus does so in the gospels, Paul does so here, and John does so in Revalation.  Jesus is God, so we can assume He’s speaking with an unmatched level of authority on the subject.  John is relating a vision, which comes from God and is not the product of his own wisdom or understanding of concepts; he’s merely relating what he saw as best as his vocabulary will allow. 

Paul, however, unless I’m missing something, is not speaking from a vision.  He is drawing on his reason to interpret Jesus’ words on the subject.  Paul’s discussion of the end times to the Thessalonians is thus more a work of theology than of prophecy.  To me, this means that without impugning the infallibility of Paul’s letters we can assume him to be speaking about these things at a different level of certainty or immediacy. 

I’m not sure how far I want to take this conclusion, seeing as how we still credit the Spirit for inspiring the letters, but I think this has applications on how literally to take his language on the resurrection of the dead and the coming of Christ.  Within the context of reassuring the new believers that their death this side of heaven will not prevent them from enjoying the promised return of Christ, Paul’s language seems less of a prediction to me and more of an illustration of general principles.  Does this seem reasonable to anyone else?


*  ‘That many?’ you say to yourself…

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