Awake or asleep.

The literary unity of 1 Thessalonians 4.13-5.11.


1 Thessalonians 4.13-5.11 is a discrete textual unit bounded on both ends by an inclusio, a literary device whereby a passage ends like it begins, with a recap of pertinent themes and motifs. The recap can consist of the repetition of a concept (such as the death of Jesus), or even of the expression of an opposite theme (such as sorrow and comfort).

The two sides of an inclusio, then, serve as bookends, so to speak, providing an interpretive framework for the material between them. In 1 Thessalonians 4.13-5.11 the initial bookend is 4.13-15, and the final bookend is 5.8-11. These portions are presented below in synoptic format.

The relevant points of contact are boldfaced:

1 Thessalonians 4.13-15. 1 Thessalonians 5.8-11.
Ου θελομεν δε υμας αγνοειν, αδελφοι,
περι των κοιμωμενων,
ινα μη λυπησθε καθως και οι λοιποι
οι μη εχοντες ελπιδα.
ει γαρ πιστευομεν οτι Ιησους απεθανεν
και ανεστη, ουτως και ο θεος
τους κοιμηθεντας δια του Ιησου
αξει συν αυτω.
τουτο γαρ υμιν λεγομεν εν λογω κυριου,
οτι ημεις οι ζωντες
οι περιλειπομενοι
εις την παρουσιαν του κυριου
ου μη φθασωμεν τους κοιμηθεντας.

We do not want you to be ignorant, brethren,
about those who are sleeping,
so that you might not be sorrowful as the rest
who have no hope.
For if we believe that Jesus died
and rose again, thus also God
will bring with him
those who have fallen asleep through Jesus.
For this we say to you by the word of the Lord,
that we who are alive
and remain
to the advent of the Lord
will not precede those who have fallen asleep.
Ημεις δε ημερας οντες νηφωμεν,
ενδυσαμενοι θωρακα πιστεως και αγαπης
και περικεφαλαιαν ελπιδα σωτηριας·
οτι ουκ εθετο ημας ο θεος εις οργην
αλλα εις περιποιησιν σωτηριας
δια του κυριου ημων Ιησου Χριστου,
του αποθανοντος υπερ ημων
ινα ειτε γρηγορωμεν
ειτε καθευδωμεν
αμα συν αυτω ζησωμεν.
Διο παρακαλειτε αλληλους
και οικοδομειτε εις τον ενα,
καθως και ποιειτε.

But, since we are of the day, let us be sober,
having put on the breastplate of faith and love
and the hope of salvation as a helmet,
because God did not set us for wrath,
but for obtaining salvation
through our Lord Jesus Christ,
who died for us
so that whether we are awake
or asleep
we might live together with him.
Therefore comfort each other
and build one another up,
just as you are also doing.

The passage ends like it begins. To wit:

  1. In the initial bookend Paul addresses the Thessalonian concern over the fate of those who sleep (περι των κοιμωμενων), id est, the dead, compared with that of the living at the coming of the Lord. In the final bookend Paul asserts that whether we wake or sleep (ειτε καθευδωμεν) we shall live with him, directly answering this Thessalonian concern.
     
  2. In the initial bookend Paul wishes to dispel potential Thessalonian sorrow (μη λυπησθε) over the fate of the dead. In the final bookend Paul insists that the intervening discussion has given the Thessalonians cause (διο) for comfort (παρακαλειτε αλληλους) instead of sorrow.
     
  3. In the initial bookend Paul wishes to distance the saints from those who have no hope (οι μη εχοντες ελπιδα). In the final bookend Paul urges his Thessalonian converts to take hold of the hope that the intervening passage has offered (ενδυσαμενοι... περικεφαλαιαν ελπιδα σωτηριας).
     
  4. In the initial bookend Paul hangs the fate of the dead on the death and resurrection of Jesus (ει... Ιησους απεθανεν και ανεστη). In the final bookend Paul hangs the fate of both the dead and the living, both those awake and those asleep, on the death of Jesus (του αποθανοντος υπερ ημων).
     
  5. In the initial bookend Paul insists that it is God (ο θεος) who will bring the dead to be reunited with the living. In the final bookend Paul insists that it is God (ο θεος) who has appointed us to something better than wrath.
     
  6. In the initial bookend Paul speaks of those who have died through Jesus (δια του Ιησου). In the final bookend Paul speaks of salvation through Jesus (δια... του Ιησου), directly answering the question about those who have died in the Lord. Eschatological salvation is through him for those who have died through him. (Compare 2 Timothy 2.11: Faithful is the saying: If we are dead with him, we shall live with him....)
     
  7. In the initial bookend Paul notes that God will bring with Jesus (συν αυτω) those who have already died before the coming, and insists that the living will share in the moment with them. In the final bookend Paul notes that both those who are asleep and those who are awake will live with him (συν αυτω).

The point of this inclusio is to wrap up the shared destiny of both the living and the dead, both the awake and the asleep, in the tight package of the coming of Jesus both with and for those who are his (with the dead, for the living). 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11 is a unified whole. It demands to be read as a unit, with a single reason or set of reasons for being penned.