1 Thessalonians 3:13 refers to “the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His holy ones” (literal translation). Are these holy ones angels, God’s people, or both?
Some conclude holy ones are angels for multiple reasons.
First, Paul could be echoing Zechariah 14:5, a text speaking about our Lord’s final descent to earth to judge the world, an event in which He comes with His angels (cf. Matt 25:31; Mark 8:38). Zechariah 14:5 states, “Then the Lord my God will come, and all the holy ones with him.” Not only does Paul echo Zechariah, but calling angels holy ones is in keeping with how the OT speaks of angels (e.g., Ps 89:5, 7; Jude 14).
Second, Paul speaks again to the Thessalonians about this event “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance” on His enemies (2 Thessalonians 1:7–8).
Third, Paul had to clarify for the Thessalonians that the holy ones (“saints”) in 2 Thessalonians 1:10 were “all who have believed,” lest the Thessalonians think that the holy ones in this passage were angels once again (cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:7).
Fourth, Paul does not refer to God’s present people in his Thessalonian letters as holy ones. He only refers to God’s future people as holy ones at Christ’s second coming (cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:10).
Fifth, if one holds that the rapture of the saints simultaneously occurs with the final descent of Jesus, there is no eschatological dilemma in 1 Thessalonians 3:13. The glorification of believers (“he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father”) takes place at the same time as the final descent of Jesus with His angels (“at the coming of our Lord with all His holy ones”).
Others conclude that the holy ones are God’s holy people.
First, when Paul uses the Greek word for holy ones (hagios) to refer to beings, he always refers to holy people. Of Paul’s 76 uses of this word, 40 uses refer to people (including 1 Thessalonians 3:13), typically translated saints.
Second, when writing to the Thessalonians and referring to angels who accompany Christ for judgment, Paul unambiguously refers to them as angels (Greek, angelos) in 2 Thessalonians 1:7. He even distinguishes holy ones from angels by referring to holy ones as human believers in this same passage (2 Thessalonians 1:10, “all who have believed”; cf. 1:7–10).
Third, the identity of holy ones as people is more fitting than angels in the context of 1 Thessalonians 3:11–13. Paul prays for his readers to grow spiritually so that they will be perfected in holiness with all of the holy ones at their judgment, and this prayer prepares his readers for admonitions on holiness in the next two chapters (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:3, 4, 7, 8; 5:23, 26). The idea is something like, “I pray that you grow so that God will perfect you in holiness with all of the holy ones in the future, a holiness that you should be living out right now.”
Fourth, if one holds that the rapture of the saints takes place before the final descent of Jesus (with the day of the Lord in between; cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:9–10; 5:2–4, 9), then this verse fittingly speaks of the glorification and positive judgment of God’s holy people before the Father and Son (cf. Rom 14:10; 2 Cor 5:10), a judgment that takes place in heaven after the rapture. The term coming (Greek, parousia) refers to a complex event that includes the rapture of the saints, the day of the Lord, and the final descent of Jesus, in that order (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:14–17; 5:2–4; 2 Thessalonians 2:8).
Even if one holds to a concurrent rapture and final descent, holy ones could still be understood as God’s people in keeping with Paul’s regular use of hagios. In this understanding, Paul mentions Christ coming with His people here in 1 Thessalonians 3:13, and he mentions Christ coming with His angels in 2 Thessalonians 1:7–8. If so, if Paul echoes Zechariah 14:5, he reinterprets Zechariah’s holy ones as people.
Both Angels and God’s People
This position typically understands 1 Thessalonians 3:13 to refer to Christ’s final descent and that Paul echoes Zechariah 14:5. This being the case, Paul reinterprets Zechariah’s holy ones by adding people to Zechariah’s prophecy of angels. Or, perhaps Zechariah’s reference to holy ones was originally ambiguous enough to include both people and angels.
If one understands holy ones in 1 Thessalonians 3:13 to be people who join Christ at the rapture that takes place before the day of the Lord and Christ’s final descent, it would seem that the linguistic parallels to Zechariah 14:5 are only coincidental. No attempt need be made to reinterpret or expand the meaning of the text of Zechariah’s prophecy.
In order to make a conclusion on how to interpret this verse, one must decide what to do with Paul’s use of hagios, the timing of the rapture, whether or not he echoes Zechariah 14:5, and if so, whether Zechariah 14:5 can mean more than its author meant.
For my own conclusions for each of the factors above…
Holy ones follows its regular use with reference to “saints.” To understand holy ones otherwise would be the lone exception of Paul’s 40 uses of hagios with reference to beings, this one being angels, a highly unlikely conclusion.
As to the timing of the rapture, even within 1 Thessalonians, I believe the Lord raptures and rescues us from the wrath to come, the day of the Lord, before it takes place on earth (1 Thessalonians 1:9–10; 5:2–4, 10). That hour of trial is for the world and not the church (cf. Rev 3:10).
Any parallels between Zechariah 14:5 and 1 Thessalonians3:13 seem to be only coincidental. In 1 Thessalonians 3:13, the judgment scene is not the negative wrath of Christ at His final descent with His angels. Rather, it is a positive judgment for all believers. We are glorified with all of our fellow holy ones before the Father at the outset of the second coming of Christ.
As Zechariah 14:5 is not on Paul’s mind, the words of Zechariah retain their original meaning. We do not have to compromise the ordinary use of language by saying Zechariah thought one thing (angels) while Paul apparently used his words to mean another (people).