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April 11, 2009

Parousia and the Presence of the Lord Jesus

Filed under: biblical studies,theology — C. J. Dunn @ 8:46 am
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In N.T.Wright’s book, Surprised by Hope (p. 128), he notes that the Greek word parousia “is usually translated “coming,” but literally it means “presence”-that is, presence as opposed to absence.”  He goes on to discuss two meanings of the word in non-Christian contexts which would have influenced the Christian understanding (page 129):

The first meaning was the mysterious presence of a god or divinity, particularly when the power of this god was revealed in healing.  People would suddenly be aware of a supernatural and powerful presence, and the obvious word for this was parousia.  Josephus sometimes uses this word when he is talking about YHWH coming to the rescue of Israel.  God’s powerful, saving presence is revealed in action, for instance when Israel under King Hezekiah was miraculously defended against the Assyrians.

The second meaning emerges when a person of high rank makes a visit to a subject state, particularly when a king or emperor visits a colony or province.  The word for such a visit is royal presence:  in Greek, parousia.  In neither setting, we note, obviously but importantly, is there the slightest suggestion of anybody flying around on a cloud.  Nor is there any hint of the imminent collapse or destruction of the space-time universe.

Wright then applies this meaning to the Parousia of Christ, saying that the Early Christians believed that while Jesus was present in spirit, he was absent in body, and they waited for Christ to come in body and make his powerful presence known to the everyone.  Secondly, the Early Christians were evidently proclaiming that Jesus was the true Emperor of the world, who would soon rule not in absence but in person, and that Caesar was a “sham”.

Rapture, not

I have been reading N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope and have been finding his views very refreshing and intelligent.  Last Sunday was Palm Sunday and we celebrated the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem.  With this scenario in my mind, I find that N.T. Wright’s explanation of 1 Thessalonians 4 makes perfect sense of the text (Surprised by Hope,  p. 132-133):

When the emperor visited a colony or province, the citizens of the country would go to meet him at some distance from the city.  It would be disrespectful to have him actually arrive at the gates as though his subjects couldn’t be bothered to greet him properly.  When they met him, they wouldn’t then stay out in the open country:  they would escort him royally into the city itself.  When Paul speaks of “meeting” the Lord “in the air,” the point is precisely not–as in the popular rapture theology–that the saved believers would then stay up in the air somewhere, away from earth.  The point is that, having gone out to meet their returning Lord, they will escort him royally into his domain, that is, back to the place they have come from.  Even when we realize that this is highly charged metaphor, not literal description, the meaning is the same as in the parallel in Philippians 3:20.  Being citizens of heaven, as the Phillippians would know, doesn’t mean that one is expecting to go back to the mother city but rather means that one is expecting the emperor to come from the mother city to give the colony its full dignity, to rescue it if need be, to subdue local enemies and put everything to rights.

See also, “What’s wrong with the Rapture“.

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