10 Mar 2011

Paul, the Roman Imperial Cult, the Return of King Jesus and "Flying Away" in 1 Thessalonians 4.17

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: 1 Thessalonians, Alexander Campbell, Christian hope, eschatology, Exegesis


But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve {present subjunctive used by Paul} as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so {houtos}, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord {kyrios}, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming {parousia} of the Lord {kyrios}, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air {eis apantasin tou kuriou eis aera}; and so we will be with the Lord {kyrios} forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thess 4.13-18)

These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also … They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus (Acts 17.6b-7)

Rule of Exegesis via Alexander Campbell

“Rule I. On opening any book in the sacred scriptures, consider first the historical circumstances of the book. These are the order, the title, the author, the date, the place, and the occasion of it.

II. In examining the contents of any book, as respects precepts, promises, exhortations, &c. observe who it is that speaks, and under what dispensation he officiates. Is he a Patriarch, a Jew, or a Christian? Consider also the persons addressed–their prejudices, characters, and religious relations. Are they Jews or Christians–believers or unbelievers–approved or disapproved? This rule is essential to the proper application of every command, promise, threatening, admonition, or exhortation, in Old Testament or New.

III. To understand the meaning of what is commanded, promised, taught, &c., the same philological principles, deduced from the nature of language, or the same laws of interpretation which are applied to the language of other books, are to be applied to the language of the Bible.

IV. Common usage, which can only be ascertained by testimony, must always decide the meaning of any word which has but one signification; but when words have according to testimony,–(i. e. the Dictionary)–more meanings than one, whether literal or figurative, the scope, the context, or parallel passages must decide the meaning; for if common usage, the design of the writer, the context, and parallel passages fail, there can be no certainty in the interpretation of language.

V. In all tropical language ascertain the point of resemblance, and judge of the nature of the trope, and its kind, from the point of resemblance.

VI. In the interpretation of symbols, types, allegories, and parables, this rule is supreme. Ascertain the point to be illustrated; for comparison is never to be extended beyond that point–to all the attributes, qualities, or circumstances of the symbol, type, allegory, or parable.

VII. For the salutary and sanctifying intelligence of the oracles of God, the following rule is indispensable:–We must come within the understanding distance.”

Coming within Understanding Distance of First Century 1 Thessalonians

One of the most basic matters for coming within a first century “understanding distance” of Thessalonians (applies to Philippians too) is understanding the significance of the Roman imperial cult. According to Simon Price says, a leading scholar on the Roman imperial cult, the cult sort of “mapped the universe” for the people of eastern empire. The practice of the cult has been clearly demonstrated on both literary and archeological grounds at both Philippi and Thessalonica.

In Philippi there was in the forum a prominent temple to the imperial family, and of particular relevance to Paul’s day a large monument associated with the Cult of Livia who was deified by Claudius. The city of Thessalonica issued coinage featuring Caesar as Theos. Thessalonica was both a Roman colony (as was Philippi) and the provincial capital thus with a lot at stake in the imperial cult. The commitment of both Philippi and Thessalonica to Roman ideology is thus unquestioned.

The historic battle of Philippi in 42 BC was a key turning point in the life of both cities. Thessalonica had been isolated and endangered by backing Octavian against Brutus and Cassius. The Thessalonians looked to Rome for a savior to rescue them … language that has remarkable parallel in 1 Thessalonians 1.10

wait for his Son FROM HEAVEN whom he raised from the dead – Jesus, who RESCUES us from the wrath that is coming

This language is hardly accidental. The city of Thessalonica’s coins, as mentioned above, celebrated its gratitude for the salvation it received from Rome.

Philippi, on the other, hand was the base for Cassius and Brutus resulting in disaster for that city. The city was conquered, the Greek ruling council disbanded and veteran Roman soldiers were settled there to establish a Roman colony. The Roman colony looked to the battle as the “new birth” of the city as a Roman city. Philippi was a Roman town in a Greek ocean. There was even a Latin library and actors guild maintaining the Latin culture.

What was involved in practicing the imperial cult? This called for two commitments by the Roman. First was the maintenance of a shrine and second the celebration of imperial festivals. A city such as Thessalonica would have a major shrine maintained by wealthy benefactors which provided communication of the importance of the imperial gods to the existence of the town and even the world. Average citizens would come to pray to the emperor and offer sacrifice. In addition to a central prominent shrine, folks would maintain small “window shrines” as has been archeologically demonstrated in Pompey and other places. The failure to maintain such a shrine would be interpreted as rebellion.

Festivals occurred several times a year. These were popular events but not obligatory to attend. However, the festivals often were occasions for further testifying to one’s loyalty to the deified emperor and the gods of Rome. On these occasions, a disciple of King Jesus may find him/herself in a dilemma. Here is an example of a loyalty oath taken a mere 13 years before 1 Thessalonians was written by the people of Aritium (37 AD) upon the accession of Caligula:

“On my conscience, I shall be an enemy of those persons whom I know to be enemies of Gaius Caesar Germanicus, and if anyone imperils or shall imperil him or his safety by arms or by civil war I shall not cease to hunt him down by land and by sea, until he pays the penalty to Caesar m full I shall not hold myself or my children dearer than his safety and I shall consider as my enemies those persons who are hostile to him If consciously I swear falsely or am proved false may Jupiter Optimus Maximus and the deified Augustus and all the other immortal gods punish me and my children with loss of country, safety, and all my fortune.”

It is evident from 1 Thessalonians 1 that the believers in this Roman colony had indeed given up the pagan cults. “For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God” (1.9).

It is the opinion of many NT scholars that failure to fulfill these loyalty oaths is what lead to the very deaths of those believers mentioned in our text (4.13ff). This cannot be proved, but given the language of such oaths and the evidence from Acts 17, it would seem that the Thessalonians perceived Paul and his converts as fomenting revolt and acted accordingly.

The imperial cult presented two particular problems for Paul and the Thessalonians. One the one hand everyone participated in it. Unlike other pagan cults there was no “denominational” or sectional loyalty in it. Some may have interest in Isis or Osiris or not but all participated in the imperial cult. All of Paul’s gentile converts would have previously taken part in it. All of them!

The second problem is the fact that the imperial cult expressed Roman ideology. The ideology – eschatology – declares that Caesar has become “god” and he has brought peace and stability to the entire world. He has inaugurated the Golden Age, a millennium of sorts. Paul taps into the very language of the imperial cult in order to proclaim things “contrary to the decrees of the emperor.

To briefly illustrate the last point 5.3 is adduced. Paul quotes, directly, a Roman slogan from the imperial gospel. “When THEY say, ‘There is peace and security.” Although some in the past have thought Paul was alluding to either Ezekiel 13.10 or Jeremiah 6.14 neither text says what Paul says. Further it is highly unlikely that Paul refers to the prophets as “they say …” However this slogan was ubiquitous throughout the Roman Empire! It is the central ideological claim of the cult. The exact slogan appears in inscriptions from Roman Asia as well as far away Pompey and beyond. From far away Syria the Roman machine declared,

The Lord Marcus Flavius Bonus, the most illustrious Comes and Dux of the first legion, has ruled over us in peace and given constant ‘peace and security’ to travelers and to the people.”

The social and political situation that the Thessalonians found themselves in moved Paul into a collision with the Roman political gospel that was proclaimed at every level of life. Paul takes that political gospel and remaps the universe for the disciples. He taps into three key images for doing this:

1) the use of the term kyrios. Though kyrios had a deep history in the Septuagint the term was also integral to the Roman gospel. The average Roman/Greek had no exposure to the Jewish scriptures but they heard the word kyrios everyday of their lives in reference to the one on the throne in Rome. Paul is unabashed that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. The great Christ hymn in Phil 2.6-11 is most assuredly anti-Caesar!!

2) the use of the term paraousia. This term, used throughout the NT for the coming of Jesus, was important for Rome “gospel.” The Emperor too had a paraousia. This term is used 4x in 1 Thess (2.19; 3.13; 4.15; 5.23) two more times in 2 Thess (2.1, 8) and then only one more time in all of Paul’s other writings (1 Cor 15.23)!

3) the use of the term apantesis. More on this word below.

To sum up so far I offer this quote from Karl Donfried.

In 2.12 God, according to the Apostle, calls the Thessalonian Christians ‘into his own kingdom’; in 5.3 there is a frontal attack on the Pax et Securitas program of the early Principate; and in the verses just preceding this verse one finds three heavily loaded political terms: parousia, apantesis, and kyrios … All this, coupled with the use of the term euaggelion and its possible association with the eastern ruler cult suggests that Paul and his associates could easily be understood as violating ‘the decrees of Caesar’ in the most blatant manner.

A Look at 4.17 in Its Historical Setting

When we come with in first century understanding distance of 1 Thessalonians it is abundantly clear that Paul is addressing real people in circumstances that affect them directly … even in life and death. Paul turns the Roman gospel on its head even using its own terminology against it, to assure the Christians of who is really in charge.

Knowing that Paul has a firm grasp on the culture in which he is ministering, and bearing witness to King Jesus, is crucial. To describe the return of the King, Paul does not simply use any ordinary word to talk about it, instead he uses the very word that Caesar would claim for himself and that all the towns and cities of the Roman world gladly gave him: apantasin. The word is a technical word for the formal reception of a king or upper dignitary. This is the only time Paul uses the term though we will learn that it is used two other times in the NT.

John Chrysostom describes the meaning of the word and the ceremony.

For as when a king ceremoniously entered a city, certain dignitaries and city rulers, and many others who were confident toward the sovereign, would go out of the city to meet him; but the guilty and the condemned criminals would be guarded within, awaiting the sentence which the king would deliver. In the same way, when the Lord comes, those who are confident toward him will meet him in the midst of the air, but the condemned, who are conscious of having committed many sins, will wait for their judge.”

Chrysostom goes on to say that the confident ones meet the coming king “and upon the coming of an affectionate father, his children indeed, and those who are worthy to be his children, are taken up into the chariot” as they return to the city.

The term apantasin was a well known technical term for the going out, greeting the king and then joining his entourage as he returned to the city. Here are some examples from the Greco-Roman culture.

From Syria: “we reached Seleucia. The priests and the government officials and the other citizens and the leaders and the soldiers, wearing wreaths, came as a group to the harbor with very evident good will toward us, and we were escorted all the way into the city.”

For the King of Pergamum: “And the publicly appointed priests, the priestesses, and the chief magistrates, and the rulers, and the victorious athletes wearing wreaths won in the games, and the gym with his young men … and the teacher, and the citizens, and the virgins and the city dwellers met {apantasai} him

From Antioch: “After this we preceded to Antioch and found preparation and the enthusiasm of the crowds to be so great that we were all amazed. For they met {apantasan} us outside the city gate, chief officials and satraps … They brought out all the sacred artifacts for the procession to the meeting {apantasin}. Some extended the right hand in greeting, while others expressed their approval with applause and shouting.”

Josephus, Paul’s contemporary, describes the reception of Vespasian by the people of Rome as their new emperor.

Amidst such feelings of universal goodwill, those of higher rank, impatient of awaiting him, hastened to a great distance from Rome to be the first to meet {apanton} him. Nor, indeed, could any of the rest endure the delay of meeting, but al poured fourth in such crowds—for to all it seems simpler and easier to go than to remain—that the very city then for the first time experienced with satisfaction a paucity of inhabitants; for those who went outnumbered those who remained. But when he was reported to be approaching and those who had gone ahead were telling of the affability of his reception of each party, the whole population … were by now at the road sides to receive him; each group as he passed in their delight at the spectacle and moved by the blandness of appearance gave vent to all manner of cries, hailing him as benefactor, savior, and only worthy emperor of Rome. The whole city, moreover, was filled, like a temple with garlands and incense. Having reached the palace, though with difficulty, owing to the multitude that thronged around him, he offered sacrifices of thanksgiving for his arrival to the household gods.” (Jewish War 7.68-72)

Josephus again describes Titus’s reception by the people of Antioch

The people of Antioch, on hearing that Titus was at hand, through joy could not bear to remain within their walls, but hastened to meet him {espeudon d’ epi tan ‘hupantasin} and advanced to a distance of over thirty furlongs, not only men, but a crowd of women and children also, streaming out from the city. And when they beheld him approaching, they lined the road on either side and greeted him with extended arms, and invoking all manner of blessings upon him returned with him in his train” (Jewish Wars 7.100-102)

So ingrained was this Greek term for formally greeting and welcoming a coming king or dignitary that it came over into Latin untranslated. This is clearly seen from the Latin writer Cicero. I cite from F. F. Bruce’s commentary on Thessalonians

When a dignitary paid an official visit (parousia) to a city in Hellenistic times, the action of the leading citizens in going out to meet him and escort him back on the final stage of his journey was called apantasis. So Cicero, describing Julius Caesar’s progress through Italy in 49 BC says, ‘Just imagine what apantasis he is receiving from the towns, what honors are paid to him” … and five year later he says the same about Caesar’s adopted son Octavian: ‘The municipalities are showing the boy remarkable favor …Wonderful apantasis and encouragement

Abraham Malherbe notes that apantesis was so well known as a technical term for formally going out to welcome a dignitary and escorting him in the city, that not only was it taken directly over into Latin but also by the Jewish rabbis!

From the above quotations, which could be multiplied greatly, it is abundantly clear what apantasin meant to people in the Greco-Roman world. It was because of that meaning Paul deliberately chose it for Jesus. The true King is coming … not from Rome but from Heaven … to settle the score and right the wrongs (i.e. particularly the wrongful deaths at the hands of the faux king Caesar!). The king is coming in glory and the people rush out to meet him as he makes the final leg of his journey to the city (i.e. earth!).

In 4.17 Paul draws on the traditions of Hellenistic formal receptions of kings, conquering generals and the like. Where a town or city goes out to greet and escort the monarch into his destination. In our day it would be like when President Obama flew into Tucson with every politician in the state, city and county along with thousands of others going out to “meet” him and escort him into the city. When Paul used apantasin it had as distinct meaning to the Thessalonians as when we use the word “inauguration!”

Paul did not mean the people leave or abandon their town or city and no Thessalonian would have dreamed he meant that by that term. Christians are not said to either “fly away” or be “raptured” in this text. The term means the believers would go to greet King Jesus, join his entourage and escort him into the city. That this was so understood by the folks in the first century is clear from the remaining uses of the term apantasin in biblical Greek. There are only two other examples in the New Testament but I will include the other from Tobit.

Though Tobit is not in the Protestant canon, it is “biblical” Greek in that it is part of the LXX and exists in koine Greek just as the New Testament. In Tobit we read that after a long difficult journey, Tobias is returning to his father (Tobit) with his new bride Sarah along with the angel, incognito, Raphael.

Because Tobias was blinded earlier in the story, Raphael and Tobias run ahead of Sarah to restore his sight. Tobias gives the good news to his father about his bride Sarah. Tobit “rejoicing and praising God, went out to apantasin his daughter in law at the gate of Nineveh” (Tobit 11.6). Did Tobit intend to just say hi? Would Tobit take his Sarah somewhere else!? or did Tobit escort Sarah, the bride, into the city? What Tobit did was escort his new daughter back to his home, her destination.

In Matthew 25 we read of the Parable of the Bridesmaids. Jesus says “Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to apantasin the bridegroom” (25.1, the groom being the dignitary symbolic of Jesus himself!). Why do the bridesmaids go meet the groom? What will they do? Will they go with the groom back to where he came from?? No! The maids will escort the groom back to the place they were originally waiting alertly for.

In Acts 28 the believers in Rome hear Paul is coming. Recall what Josephus says the city did for Vespasian. Paul himself is now the dignitary, “The believers there, when they heard of us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to apantasin us. On seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage” (28.15).

Did the believers stay at the Forum or the Three Taverns? Did they turn Paul around and head back to the Mediterranean? No! The saints accompanied Paul and his entourage back to Rome.


First Thessalonians, and its shorter sister, is a marvelous window into the conflict between the Empire of Caesar and the Empire of God, between King Augustus/Claudius and King Jesus. it is a textbook case of the necessity of coming within understanding distance or to use modern lingo, historical context.  Anyone that believes in the authority of Scripture and not just their assumptions will ask the question, what did this mean in the Thessalonians world.

Paul has tapped into the rhetoric of the imperial gospel to make a counter revolutionary “contrary to the decrees of the emperor” proclamation of “another king named Jesus.” In assuring the suffering Thessalonians, Paul further taps into the traditions of both Greece and Rome about the visitation of the King, declaring the true King is coming so we should not loose heart (as we learn in 2 Thessalonians this is GOOD news for the sufferers and bad news for the persecutors).

The band of believers look to Heaven for the King to come and rescue them. He does just that as they go out to meet him, joining in his entourage as he returns to his destination. Earth!

6 Responses to “Paul, the Roman Imperial Cult, the Return of King Jesus and "Flying Away" in 1 Thessalonians 4.17”

  1. Wes Dawson Says:

    Good luck with getting our brethren to understand historical context. I have trouble even getting folks to understand Biblical context. I have been trying for 54 years and seem to have made very little headway.

    I agree that what people understood at the time has a great deal to do with the words God inspired his scribes to record. The marvellous thing is that God also picked words that bring up more modern images in my mind.

    When God took a “rib” from Adam’s side and “built up” (made in KJV) a woman, the ancient pagan probably visualized God anchoring the rib in the ground and swirling dirt up around it until it produced the likeness of a perfect woman into whom passed the breath of life.

    What the same phrase brings to my more scientific mind comes closer to cloning. Both may be inaccurate, but each comes as close as the understanding of each allows.

    Peace and Joy Christ,

  2. Randall Says:

    Well that was most interesting!

  3. kingdomseeking Says:

    Great Post. This is the exact reason why I feel very uncomfortable with the Patriotic celebrations that take place (and especially when many of the nations leaders employ messianic language) because it increasingly seems to be a substitution of the Lord and the hope we have in the Lord.

    And the text about the kidnapping at Jason’s house in Acts 17 has for several years has piqued interest (and stirring trouble for me).

    Grace and Peace,


  4. Anonymous Says:

    very nice Bob,
    when Homer Haley would come out to so.ca. he would conduct week long meetings, I would “dog” him around So. cal. with a tape recorder,like i “dog” JM’S blog.
    he would teach minor prophets,REV. etc.

    and STRESS those points of interpretation!
    in reading the new perspective on Paul, the style of reading his books and the underling interruptions,and substructure of culture and politics that enter into the world of the scriptural
    narrative, “MIGHT” just turn the “myth” interpretations of Scripture by contemporary “snake OIL doctors” pre trib, post trib.
    and my but trib.
    of gods Israel being built in 1947.
    rich constant

  5. Adam Gonnerman Says:

    Thank you for writing that out and posting it. I’ve had that general understanding of the passage for a while, but without the details from the historical and cultural context.

  6. Robert Limb Says:

    Good study. Would you happen to have a version with footnotes, citing your sources?

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