The Bible doesn’t answer all of our questions
Over the past two months, we’ve been working our way through the book of 1 Thessalonians in Sunday School. This past Sunday we looked at one of its more controversial passages – chapter 4, verses 13 through 18. Why so controversial, you ask? This is a major source for the doctrine of the rapture as made popular by the Left Behind books.
As I was thinking about these verses and the way that they’ve been interpreted (and misinterpreted) I was reminded that when we encounter the Bible, we must be careful not to ask questions that the Bible doesn’t answer. I’m not saying that it’s wrong to ask questions. But, if we’re going to understand scripture, we need to remember the context of what’s being said and not assume that the author had our questions in mind. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is a fantastic example of a passage that has been asked questions Paul never intended to answer.
Reading too much into Paul’s letters
If you’ll read the whole context of these verses, you’ll realize that Paul is addressing a very specific question that the congregation at Thessalonica had: What happens to those who have died in Christ? Will they participate in Jesus’ second coming like those living will?
I know this is the question they’re asking because of the way Paul answers it. Notice verse 13, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” This is the beginning of Paul’s discussion on this topic and he frames it in a very specific way – his focus in these verses is “those who have died” and he’s telling them for a specific reason, “so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”
In addition, if you look at verse 18, the conclusion of this discussion, he writes, “Therefore encourage one another with these words.” This whole passage is written as an encouragement to those who have lost friends and family members to death. This is neither a theological treatise on the end times nor a timeline of events concerning Jesus’ second coming. If it was, he probably would have ended it with something like, “Therefore argue with one another over these words.”
Instead of seeing these verses of scripture for what they are, comfort in the face of death, we spend our time arguing about answers to questions that weren’t even on Paul (or the Thessalonians’) mind. And in the midst of that arguing, we miss the real power of God’s loving word.
Coming to the Bible in love
Too often, we read the Bible like this:
Before heading out to work, a man kisses his wife and grins when she says, “I love you.” He spends the rest of the day thankful for such a loving and caring wife – a wife who would sacrifice so much to make him happy. But all of that changes when he comes home from work and asks his wife, “Where’s my fried chicken and mashed potatoes?” she looks at him with a raised eyebrow and says, “I didn’t make fried chicken or mashed potatoes. We’re picking up McDonalds on the way to the boys’ ball game.”
Frustrated, the man says, “But you said you were making my favorite dinner, fried chicken and mashed potatoes, tonight.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Sure you did,” he replies, “I could tell that’s what you meant – the way you kissed me and said, ‘I love you.’ It was a ‘fried chicken and mashed potatoes’ kind of kiss.”
“Sorry, that’s not what I meant. If you would have asked, I would have told you. Tonight, it’s McDonalds.”
We err when we read the Bible with a certain question (or set of questions in mind) like the man in the story above: We want to know the details of the end-times. He wanted to know the details of tonight’s menu.
When we read this way, we’ll assume that it’s answering our question: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 must be detailing the specifics of Jesus’ second coming. My wife’s words and actions must be telling me she’s preparing my favorite meal.
Unfortunately, when we disregard the intention of the one communicating, we end up confused – and miss out on the beauty and transforming power of what they actually are saying.
We need to receive the text on its own terms, as a husband would come to his wife. Not reading all kinds of possible intentions and ulterior motives into the other’s words and actions but receiving each kiss, each “I love you”, each silent moment together for what they are – gifts from our beloved.
We need to let scripture speak for itself – submitting our questions to God while we know that we might never get an answer.
And that’s okay because we’re not following Jesus because he answers all of our questions – we’re following him because he is the answer to the only question that matters.