The apostle Paul
addresses the question, what is the fate of those
who die "in Christ" before He returns?
The believers in the
Greek city of Thessalonica knew that Jesus was risen
from the dead and alive and that He would return.
They had been taught to expect Christ to come as an
unexpected thief from heaven. His resurrection from
the dead was a prelude to the resurrection of His
It would appear that some
of the believers had died recently and some members
in the church were wondering if those who had "died
in Christ" would miss out on some participation in
the glory at His appearing.
Death is a fact of life.
Death is not an accident; it is an appointment. We
all have an appointment with the death angel. "It is
appointed unto men to die, but after this the
judgment" (Hebrews 9:27).
The Gospel of Jesus
Christ brings hope to those who believe on Christ as
opposed to those who are without God and without
hope. The pagans were hopeless in the face of death.
How tragic when Christians do not place their faith
in the hope of this Gospel as an inward living
conviction. The hope of the resurrection is based on
the assurance that Jesus died and rose from the
dead. We also have the witness of the Holy Spirit
(Romans 8:11) and the indwelling Christ (Colossians
F. F. Bruce suggests that
the apostle Paul had already taught these
Thessalonian believers the basic truths regarding
Christ's return including the following points:
"This tradition speaks of
the coming of the Lord as His Parousia (cf. Matthew
23:3, 27, 37, 39; 1 Thess. 2:19; 3:13; 5:23; 2
Thess. 2: 1, 8) and represents it as taking place
from or in heaven (cf. 1:10; 2 Thess. 1:7; Matt.
24:30), with clouds (cf. Matt. 24:30; Rev. 1:7),
accompanied by angels (cf. 3:13; 2 Thess. 1:7; Matt.
24:31) and announcement by a trumpet blast (cf.
Matt. 24:31; 1 Corinthians 15:52). . . manifestation
of power and glory and the execution of judgment on
the ungodly (5:3; 2 Thess. 1:7-10; 2:8)" (Thessalonians,
Believers in the early
church had a daily expectation that Christ would
return. They did not set any dates for the return of
Christ, but they were looking for His return in
their lifetime. There was daily expectancy of His
return. They were looking for Christ to come any
moment and take them home to glory with Him, not in
death, but in a visible personal coming for
Christians. They were looking for Christ to come and
take them home to glory without dying.
The blessed hope of the
Christian is that when we die there is a glorious,
unending existence for us in the presence of God.
What a joyful reunion when we are joined with Christ
and our loved ones in Christ who have gone to heaven
We are therefore not like
those who have no God and no hope.
It is important to keep
in mind that nothing is said here of the
resurrection of those who are not in Christ. We find
that in other passages such as Acts 24:15; John
"On Paul's principles,
any resurrection of unbelievers would be different
in character from the resurrection of believers. The
resurrection of believers was their participation in
Christ's resurrection, and this could not be said of
the resurrection of unbelievers. It is precarious to
draw inferences from Paul's silence about his views
on the nature and timing of the resurrection of
those not in Christ" (Bruce, p. 105).
Neither is Paul concerned
in this passage about when Christ will come.
Paul's resurrection hope
is grounded in the saving work of Christ. Since Paul
does not know when Christ will return he therefore
does not know if he will be alive or not when it
will actually takes place. However, he does know
that he will be a part of that grand event. This is
what matters to Paul. Paul did not have any problem
with the "delay of the parousia." His
conviction was simply Christ is coming again, maybe
morning, maybe noon, maybe evening, but surely it
will be soon. Christ is coming again and that should
give us great comfort (John 5:24; 6:50-58; 8:51;
10:28; 11:25, 26; Romans 8:1, 38, 39; Philippians
1:19-21; 2 Corinthians 5:8; 2 Timothy 4:6-8; Psalms
The believer in Christ
already has eternal life; and by his departure from
this earth, he takes possession of it in a greater
measure. Even his body will be raised up at the last
day. Why therefore, fear an experience that simply
brings us closer to our Lord and Savior Jesus
Christ? Death is gain for the Christian because it
brings us into the presence of Christ.
Ever since His
resurrection and ascension Jesus has taken with Him
into heaven the believers who have died. The
children of God are brought at the very instant of
their death into the presence of the Lord. The
apostle Paul declared that when a Christian dies he
is "absent from the body" and "present with the
Lord." This gives the Christian hope when our loved
ones are taken away from us in death. There is no
hope in the future life apart from a saving
relationship with Jesus Christ.
The emphasis the apostle
is making in our text is a message of hope. "For the
believer who arrives victoriously to the port, there
is nothing more to worry about: the battle is won,
and he is at the entrance to glory. What Christian,
about to depart into the presence of his God, would
prefer to begin his life's course down here all over
again? And who would want to call back a loved one
who has just entered into the presence of the Lord"
(Rene Pache, The Future Life, p. 45).
This hope of eternal life
will sustain us until that moment when all tears
shall be wiped away from our eyes. The death of a
believer in Christ is not a permanent loss, but a
temporary separation until we are all gathered into
the presence of our Lord. This grand reunion at
Christ's return will rob death of its sting (1 Cor.
15:54-58). These words give us a confident hope in
anticipation of a future promise by the Lord.
The Lord Jesus Christ
will come; it is only a question of when. Since we
do not know when, therefore it is essential that we
be prepared. Will there be any disadvantage for the
believers who have died in Christ before the
rapture? Will they be disqualified from sharing in
the glory of that day perhaps because they have
sinned in some way? Let's listen carefully to Paul's
WHAT ABOUT THOSE WHO
ARE DEAD "IN CHRIST" (1 Thess. 4:13-15)
What happens to believers
who die before Christ returns for them? What is
going to happen to our loved ones who have preceded
us in death?
Perhaps they were
thinking Christ would come in their lifetime. Now
some of their own family and friends had died since
Paul had been there preaching and instructing them.
What would be the effects of their premature death
at the coming of Christ? Would it be detrimental to
their spiritual life? They were quite concerned for
their loved ones. Was their death because they were
under the wrath of God? Were they being punished for
Revelation of God
is true and accurate (1 Thess. 4: 13)
"But we do not want you
to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are
asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest
who have no hope" (v. 13)
When Paul says, "we do
not want you to be ignorant," he is stating in an
emphatic way, "we wish you to know." It is something
very important that Paul wants to emphasize. They
need to be aware of this important fact. In verse
fifteen he says, "For this we say to you by the word
of the Lord" giving emphasis to the authority of
God's Word. God has spoken; we need to listen.
Therefore, why substitute
human speculation for divine revelation on such an
important subject? We have a sure revelation from
God in His Word. We do not have to turn to
philosophers, spiritualists or humanism or the
occult for answers to the problem of life and death.
Paul will lay aside their
fears with a strong affirmation, "by the word of the
Lord." Paul is probably referring to a saying of
Christ that is not recorded by the four evangelists
in their gospels. There were many sayings of Christ
not recorded for us. He could also be referring to a
direct revelation from Christ regarding the Second
These believers still had
questions about the fate of their loved ones who had
died since Paul had been there and taught them.
Who are these who "are
asleep?" The verb koimaomai is in the present
tense indicating they continue to sleep. "They are
lying asleep." "Sleep" is a beautiful euphemism for
"death" of a Christian. The Old Testament writers
used the idiom "slept with one's fathers." For the
Christian it expresses the view that just as a
person awakes from sleep the Christian will awake to
resurrection life. However, for the pagans in Paul's
day death was a sleep from which they would never
awake. Death is the opposite of life, but nowhere do
the Scriptures state that men will cease to exist.
The truth of God's Word is the pagan will be
resurrected and stand before the Lord God in
judgment (Rev. 20:11-15).
We get our English word
cemetery from koimeterion. The koimeterion
here are deceased Christians, probably members of
the church at Thessalonica. They could even be
martyrs who died giving witness to Christ in
Paul does not want them
to be ignorant about the death of believers and
therefore sorrow as the pagans who have no hope in
the resurrection of Christ. Those who are without
God and without hope can do nothing in the face of
death but pity one another. The Christian hope is
grounded in the historical resurrection and
ascension of Christ.
Christ has transformed
death. Death has been overcome by the risen Lord
Jesus. It is never said that Christ is "asleep"
meaning He is dead, though He is the "first fruits
of them that have fallen asleep" (1 Cor. 15:20).
Jesus Christ is awake! He is alive; He is not dead.
These deceased believers
were with the Lord spiritually (2 Cor. 5:6-8; Phil.
1:20-24), but their bodies were physically "asleep"
in the earth. Paul made it very clear that the soul
of the believers went to be with the Lord. It is not
the soul that sleeps; it is the body. The spirit
leaves the body at death, and the body goes to sleep
and no longer functions. When Christ resurrects our
bodies of decay, disease and weakness that plague us
now will be stripped away. When He comes we will
have Christ like bodies (1 Cor. 15:50-55; I John
Therefore, we do not
sorrow as those who have no hope in the resurrection
of Christ. For the unbeliever it is an unending
sorrow. It is a continuing sorrow. It is an absence
of the knowledge of the Lord that leads to this
hopelessness. Cf. Eph. 2:12.
A review of the writings
of early Christians and the pagans of their day
reveals an astonishing difference in their attitudes
toward death. Very few pagans had a lofty view of
death. The typical attitude of the ancient world to
death was one of utter hopelessness. They had no
consolation to offer. Milligan said, "The general
hopelessness of the pagan world in the presence of
death is almost too well known to require
The apostle Paul is not
counseling stoicism or callous indifference. Without
the hope of the resurrection of Christ people must
view death only as a sleep from which there is no
awakening. Catallus, a pagan wrote, "Suns may set
and rise again but we, when once our brief light
goes down, must sleep an endless night." Without the
resurrection it is "one unending night to be slept
through" (Catullus), or "one unbroken night of
sleep" (Aeschylus). Without the living hope of
Christianity there is only "hope for the living, the
dead are without hope." What a difference the
resurrected Christ makes upon the living and the
dead. The Christian hope is in the person of Jesus
1 Corinthians 15:55 and
Philippians 1:21-23 are refrains of victory, not
hopelessness. There is no reason for despair for the
"Precious in the sight of
the Lord is the death of His saints," wrote the
Hebrew Psalmist. Paul is rejoicing in complete
victory which Christ won for us in His resurrection.
It is a great comfort to know that our loved ones
and friends who have put their faith in Christ have
simply fallen asleep in Christ. One joyous day they
will awake with Him.
The anxiety of the
believers for the dead loved ones is put to rest by
the strong affirmation made on the authority of the
risen Lord Himself. When He comes "the dead in
Christ" will be raised first and then those who have
not died but remain alive will be snatched away with
them to join their Lord, and will be with Him
forever. Both those who are alive and those who have
died will fully share in the experiences of that
blessed event. Neither will suffer any disadvantage
when Christ comes.
W. E. Vine says, "The
object of the metaphor is to suggest that as the
sleeper does not cease to exist while his body
sleeps, so the dead person continues to exist
despite his absence from the region in which those
who remain can communicate with him, and that, as
sleep is known to be temporary, so the death of the
body will be found to be. Sleep has its waking,
death will have its resurrection" (Thessalonians,
The body alone is in view
in this metaphor, never the soul. Also in the New
Testament the resurrection is used of the body
What happens at the
death of the believer?
"When the physical frame
of the Christian, "the earthly house of our
tabernacle,' 2 Cor. 5:1, is dissolved and returns to
the dust, the spiritual part of his highly complex
being, the seat of personality, departs to be with
Christ, Phil. 1:23. And since that state in which
the believer, absent from the body, is at home with
the Lord, 2 Cor. 5:6-9, is described as "very far
better' than the present state of joy in communion
with God and of happy activity in His service. . . .
it is not intended to convey the idea that the
spirit is unconscious" (Vine, pp. 128-29).
The victory will be
complete when we receive our resurrected body (1
The resurrection of
unbelievers (John 5:28-29) cannot be described as a
hope. They are not "in Christ" and therefore are
without God and without hope. The pagan Lucretius
said, "No one awakes and arises who has once been
overtaken by the chilling end of life." How sad, but
Return of Christ is
sure (vv. 14-15)
"For if we believe that
Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring
with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For
this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we
who are alive and remain until the coming of the
Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep"
Since Christ died
and rose again
The words "if we believe"
state a fulfilled condition. A better English
translation would be "since we believe." Paul's
statement is beyond dispute. The reference to their
believing points to the certainty of their faith.
Christ is never said to
be sleeping. He died and in His death He bore the
wages of our sins. He died the worst death possible.
Death has not been final in His case, however. He is
alive. He is awake! Jesus took away the horror of
death for the Christians. It is because Jesus died
that we no longer need to fear death.
The resurrection of Jesus
Christ separates Christians from all other world
religions. Just as God raised Christ, so in due time
He will raise all those who are in Christ. The
resurrection of Christ is our guarantee of eternal
As 1 Corinthians 15:17
tells us the resurrection of Christ is the critical
issue upon which Christianity rises or falls. Paul
states, "If Christ has not been raised, your faith
is worthless; you are still in your sins." Jesus is
the "first fruits of them that are asleep" (1 Cor.
15:20). The implication of these first fruits is
there will be later fruit. Just as Christ has risen
and is alive we can rest assured that we, too, will
rise from the dead (1 Cor. 15:22; Col. 1:18).
Because of what Christ
has done the Christian "sleeps" and does not undergo
the horrors of the second death which is eternal
separation from God in hell. Death is the
consequence of sin. Jesus suffered a death
that we can never experience. He experienced the
full wages of sin as our substitute dying in our
place bearing the full punishment of our sins.
"God will bring with Him
those who have fallen asleep in Jesus."
Literally Paul writes,
"God them that fell asleep through Jesus will bring
with Him." The word "God" is at the beginning of the
sentence in the place of emphasis. God will bring
with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in Christ.
Their faith is in God who raised Jesus from the dead
and who will also raise believers in Christ.
The apostle Paul has in
mind the Parousia. Jesus will bring with Him the
faithful believers when He returns. Their death does
not mean they will not share in His coming. Paul is
certain the event will take place.
"Death," says Vine, "when
used of man, and not merely of his body, may be
defined as conscious existence in separation from
God. All out of Christ are dead, all in Christ live,
or have eternal life, Jn. 6:47; Col. 3:4. But all,
whether living or dead, equally exist and are
equally conscious of existence (cf. Luke 16:19-31)"
(Thessalonians, p. 134).
1 Corinthians 6:14; 2
Cor. 4:14; Rom. 6:3-8 all emphasize the same truth
that just as God raised up Jesus He will also raise
the believer in Christ. Through the risen Christ God
will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep. If
Christ has not risen then those who have fallen
asleep in Christ have perished (1 Cor. 15:17-18).
Milligan notes, Jesus is
"the mediating link between His people's sleep and
their resurrection at the hands of God." Note the
attendant circumstances of their death. "They were
in a certain relationship with the risen and living
Jesus when they died." They were as the New English
Bible reads, "those who died as Christians." They
died in fellowship with Christ. They died as
believers in Christ.
The place we must begin
is at the cross of Christ. Jesus Christ died for our
sins and it is there that we had a substitute who
died in our place as a sufficient sacrifice for our
sin. The stamp of certainty of our salvation is the
fact that Christ rose from the dead. Our ground of
hope is the reality that Christ died for us and rose
from the dead. We have no Christian hope unless we
are absolutely certain concerning the death and
resurrection of Christ.
The resurrection of Jesus
is the direct result of the power of God (1 Cor.
6:14; Eph. 1:20). God raised Him from the dead. When
used in a literal sense the resurrection always
refers to the body.
It is those who have
"fallen asleep in Jesus" that He will bring back
with Him. This "sleep" in verse fourteen refers to
the bodies which are laid in the grave. John
Walvoord correctly states, "As far as our souls and
spirits are concerned, we go immediately into the
presence of God, into the conscious enjoyments of
heaven, for "to be absent from the body' is "to be
present with the Lord.' We believe in the sleep of
the body, but we do not believe in the sleep of the
soul. Those whose bodies are sleeping in the grave,
according to this Scripture, will be resurrected
when Christ comes back" (Thessalonians, p.
62). Therefore, "Our loved ones who are asleep
through Jesus go to sleep in the certain hope of
Paul's formula is simply
"since we believe" "we also believe." Since we
believe Jesus rose from the dead we also believe we,
too, shall rise from the dead. The same gospel that
gives us the great assurance of the death and
resurrection of our Lord, also gives us the great
assurance of the resurrection of all who believe on
Christ. His resurrection is the pledge of our
resurrection (1 Cor. 6:14; 15:16, 20).
Believers are never said
to be "in Jesus," but always "in Christ" expressing
intimacy in our relationship with the risen Lord.
The Gospel message is
that "Jesus died and rose" (1 Cor. 15:3-4). Note
that Christ is not asleep. He is nowhere said to
have "fallen asleep" because of the mention of the
resurrection which follows immediately. Christ
"died" stressing the full impact of His death and
therefore the divine miracle of His resurrection.
F. F. Bruce stresses,
"His people's resurrection is corollary of His, and
therefore their death can be described as 'falling
asleep' in the new Christian sense of that figure,
but three was no precedent for His resurrection. 'If
we believe that Jesus died and rose again,' the
fullness of Christian hope follows. The continuing
life of his people depends on, and is indeed an
extension of his own risen life (cf. Rom. 8:11; also
Jn. 14:19, "because I live, you will live also')" (Thessalonians,
Since God acted in the
past to raise Jesus from the dead He can be depended
upon to "bring with Him those who have fallen
asleep." Cf. 1 Cor. 15:23; Acts 3:15; Rom. 8:11; 2
Cor. 13:4; Eph. 1:20; Col. 2:12; 2 Cor. 1:9).
We now "sleep" and will
"awake" only because Jesus endured the full furry of
God's wrath against sin (Rom. 6:23). He has spared
us of the "wages of sin" which is spiritual death
and eternal separation from God in hell. Our death
has been swallowed up in His victory through His
death and resurrection (1 Cor. 15:54). Christ is our
propitiation, and therefore turns away the wrath of
God from us.
We do not have an
advantage over the deceased
"For this we say to you
by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and
remain until the coming of the Lord, will not
precede those who have fallen asleep" (1 Thess.
believers were worried that their deceased loved
ones would not share in the Parousia. They were
longing for the coming of Christ. That is the
characteristic attitude of believers in every
generation. They were not afraid of death which may
come first. Paul sometimes associates himself with
those who are waiting Christ's coming and at other
times with the dead in Christ. He is comfortable
with both possibilities. He looked forward to and
expected the Parousia of the Lord Jesus. He prepares
us for unflinching courage in the face of death.
Many scholars stress that
the Greek here does not affirm that Paul expected
that he would still be alive when Christ would come
back for the redeemed. Paul states that he does not
know when Christ will return (1 Thess. 5:2, 3). It
is only natural for Christians in every century to
anticipate that Christ will come before they die.
However, Paul does not say so here. In 1 Cor. 6:14
Paul placed himself with the believers who will be
raised when Christ comes.
"Shall not precede
those who have fallen asleep"
The word for "precede" or
"prevent" is variously translated "gain an advantage
over," "precede into His presence" or "have any
advantage at all over" or "shall not come before."
The word phthano implies both the gaining of
an advantage as well as priority in order. There
will not be any advantage or disadvantages because
we will all be full participants along with all
believers in Christ. Neither will miss a moment of
glory in His coming on that day. The living will not
have the advantage "to come before" another. Paul
uses a strong double negative in the original, ou
me to mark his emphasis.
The important thing Paul
is stressing is that those who are alive when Christ
returns will not have any advantage over those who
have already died in Christ. Paul underscores his
point by saying emphatically "in no wise." Believers
who die will not be at a disadvantage when Christ
On the other hand, Paul
says those who are living and who survive to the day
of Christ will not be at an advantage over the dead
in Christ. Probably Paul did expect to be alive, but
we do know that he had a strong living faith in the
second coming of Christ. Paul expressly states that
he does not know when Christ will come. It is only
natural for Paul and us to put ourselves in the
category of those who will be alive to see it
happen. One vital thing is sure. I am not going to
be left out! The important thing is that we are
ready when He comes. His coming will be unexpected,
just when we least expect Him He will appear.
By the time Second
Corinthians was written Paul definitely associated
himself with those who would die before the Parousia
and would have to be raised from the dead (2 Cor.
4:14). The LORD God who raised Jesus will also raise
us from the dead to be with Jesus. He will present
us who have gone before those who are still alive on
the earth to those whom He will gather when He
returns. What a day of rejoicing! What a blessed
hope for you and me.
What will be the effect
on those who have already died? Will they suffer any
disadvantage at the Parousia because they have
already died? What is the relation between the
resurrection of the dead in Christ and His coming?
Will they miss out on something that the living will
enjoy? The main point Paul is stressing is no, they
will not suffer any disadvantage when Christ comes.
At the Parousia the
believing dead will be raised up before the
translation of the living believers. The living and
the dead will be on equal footing for the reason set
out in the verses that follow. There is no ground
for uneasiness about the "dead in Christ." In the
verses that follow Paul gives us the order of
THE PLAN FOR ALL WHO
ARE "IN CHIRST" (4:16-17)
Return of Christ
from heaven (v. 16a)
Jesus is seated at the
right hand of God the Father in heaven (Rom. 8:34;
Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3).
No one knows the time
when Christ will return except God the Father (Acts
1:6-7). Fanatics never pay attention to that fact.
Paul writes, "For the
Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout,
with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet
of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first."
The manifestations of
divine glory in the Old Testament are associated
with the coming of Christ. The Parousia is an answer
to Isaiah's cry in 64:1, "O that Thou would rend the
heavens and come down."
The One who is coming is
"the Lord Himself." It will not be a delegated task.
It will be a Divine intervention like in the Old
Testament. The Lord Himself is coming personally.
"This Jesus . . . will come" (Acts 1:11). "The Son
of Man will descend . . ." (Mark 13:26; Luke 17:26;
The dead are summoned
back to life with the descent of Christ, the voice
of the archangel, the trumpet call and the shout of
the commander. The clouds that gathers Christ and
His people reminds us of the surrounding radiance of
the divine presence of the Shekinah glory of God.
This coming of Christ
will be with majesty and honor. There will accompany
the "shout," the "voice of the archangel," and the
"trumpet of God." Paul gives us the impression that
there will be three distinct sounds. The "shout"
denotes an "authoritative utterance." Morris notes,
"It is the cry made by the ship's master to his
rowers, or by a military officer to his soldiers, or
by a hunter to his hounds, or by a charioteer to his
horses" (p. 143). The military commander used it as
a battle cry. The keleusma is a military word
of command always with a ring of authority and note
of urgency to it. It is "a loud authoritative
cry, often one uttered in the thick of a great
excitement" (Morris). Majesty, authority and urgency
are the emphasis. Jesus comes with "irresistible
authority and indescribable grandeur." "It is not
said by whom the shout will be uttered, but the
probability is that it is the Lord (cf. John 5:28f),
"the hour cometh in which all that are in the tombs
shall hear His voice, and shall come forth.'" Since
there is no article "the voice that will be uttered
will be a very great voice, an archangel type of
voice. But more probably the meaning is that some
archangel will add his voice to the call which wakes
the dead" (p. 114).
Other Bible scholars see
it as the voice of the Lord Himself. F. F. Bruce
thinks, "Here it is the Lord Himself who shouts the
quickening word, which commands a ready and obedient
response (John 5:25), "the dead shall hear the voice
of the Son of God, and those who hear shall live'"
(p. 100). Only the voice of the Son of God can
awaken the dead and change the living.
J. B. Philips captures
the power of the original language with these words:
"One word command, one shout from the archangel, one
blast from the trumpet of God and God in Person will
come down from Heaven!"
There is no article
before voice or shout so the quality of the voice is
emphasized. Literally, "a voice of an archangel." No
specific archangel is meant. Perhaps a loud clear
voice is described under the similitude of a
trumpet. W. E. Vine, "If as it seems probable, the
subject of this threefold description is one great
signal from heaven, then the words may be
paraphrased: with a shout in the archangel's voice,
even the voice of the trump of God" (p. 143).
The "trumpet of God" is
also found in the Old Testament at festivals and
times of triumph. It will be the Parousia (1 Cor.
15:52) and used to stress majesty and greatness of
the day (Matt. 24:31).
John Calvin said, "As a
field marshal gathers his armies to battle by the
sound of the trumpet, so Christ will summon all the
dead with a voice that rings and resounds throughout
the whole world." The trumpet seems to be a sign of
the assembling of the unfolding of something not
revealed before. It is like the assembling of an
army that is called to march forward. The shout, the
voice and trumpet picture one great event. It is a
call to those who have been saved by grace to rise
and follow the King of kings.
Resurrection of the
"dead in Christ" (v. 16b)
Our resurrection hope is
related to the hope of the Parousia of Christ. What
Paul is now stressing is that the dead in Christ
would rise first. Far from suffering any
disadvantage at the Parousia, the faithful departed
believers would actually have precedence over those
believers who are still alive. It is their
resurrection that would be the first result of the
coming of Christ. Only after the dead in Christ rise
will those who are still alive enter into their
inheritance. It is a matter of sequence. It is first
Christ, and then those who are "dead in Christ" at
His coming and finally those who remain alive at His
coming will be snatched away together with them.
John Walvoord says,
"Christians will be resurrected like the resurrected
body of Christ and will have a resurrection body
which will never wear out, which will never be
subject to death or disease or pain a body which
will last for all eternity, suited for the glorious
presence of the Lord" (p. 66).
"The dead in Christ will
rise first." The dead shall rise before those who
are living on the earth are changed.
The Christians whose
bodies have been in the grave will be resurrected,
and their bodies will be transformed into
resurrection bodies, and then they will meet the
Lord in the air. This will take place in the blink
of the eye. It will all of this will take place in a
split second before living Christians are translated
from these bodies of flesh into resurrection,
immortal, incorruptible bodies.
"The dead in Christ" are
those believers who in life were "in Christ" and
have died a physical death. Their spirits went to
heaven to be with Jesus the moment they died, and
their bodies were laid in the grave. It refers to
our position in Christ when we received Jesus Christ
as our personal Savior who died for us and rose from
the dead. In the instant we trusted in Christ to
save us we were placed into "the body of Christ." We
became a part of the organism which is called His
church. Every authentic born again Christian is
equally in Christ. The dead in Christ will be raised
when Christ returns. This is a "selective
resurrection." Only those who are "in Christ" will
be raised in that moment. The unsaved will not be
raised at this time. Death cannot upset the vital
union the believer has "in Christ." Those who live
"in Christ," in death remain "in Christ." We are
with the Lord forever. It is an unchanging
relationship with Christ in life and in death.
Rapture of the
living "in Christ" (v. 17a)
"Then we who are alive
and remain will be caught up together with them in
the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we
shall always be with the Lord" (1 Thessalonians
"We who are alive and
remain" are those believers "in Christ" who have not
died and are still alive here on the earth.
After the dead rise, then
the living "will be caught up together with them"
and then we "shall always be with the Lord." The
thought of the resurrection and reunion gives the
grieving heart hope and assurance. A. T. Robertson
says, "This rapture of the saints (both risen and
changed) is a glorious climax to Paul's argument of
The living saints will be
transformed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye,
and in that instant will be given immortal,
incorruptible bodies (1 Cor. 15:51-52). There will
not be an interval between the raising of the dead
believers and the change of the living saints. Those
rising from the grave and those who are caught up
are going to meet the Lord in the air. He will take
us to heaven where He is now preparing a permanent
dwelling place for us (John 14:1-3).
The reunion with those
who have died is very important to Paul. He stresses
the fact that they will be together. The saints who
are alive will be caught up to be with Christ, and
the dead in Christ who have been taken up to their
place with the Lord. It is comforting and
encouraging thought to those who are bereaved. Here
are words of comfort to those who have loved ones
who have gone on to be with Christ.
Living Christians will be
transported with the resurrected Christians to meet
Christ "in the air" (v. 17a). Paul does not tell us
in this passage, but the bodies of the believing
will be changed to imperishable and immortal bodies
just like those who have just been resurrected (1
Cor. 15:42-44, 50-54). This translation will take
place suddenly, "in a moment, in the twinkling of an
eye." We will be with the Lord unblamable in
holiness. In that majestic moment we will be like
Christ perfectly holy. We will be cleansed from
every spot and wrinkle and every sign of age and
corruption. We will be clothed in the beauty of His
perfect righteousness and we will be with Him
forever. The dead in Christ will be raised in
incorruptible bodies, i.e., "bodies not liable to
the decay." Our living bodies cannot enter their
heavenly inheritance until these bodies are changed.
This "mortal body must put on immortality." The
"mortal" body must be "swallowed up of life" (2 Cor.
God will raise up "the
natural body" of the "dead in Christ." The living
"in Christ" will be changed into "the spiritual
body." "The image of the earthly" will give place to
the "image of the heavenly and this body of
humiliation will be fashioned anew to the likeness
of the glorious body of the risen Lord. We get some
idea of what this will be like when we examine the
accounts of the transfiguration of Jesus (Matt.
17:2; Mark 9:3; Luke 9:29; 2 Peter 1:16-17; Rev.
"Shall be caught
up together with them in the clouds"
means "to snatch up, to seize, to carry off by
force, to rapture. The word often denotes the
emotion of a sudden swoop and usually that of a
force which cannot be resisted" (Linguistic Key to
Greek New Testament). It means, "to seize, carry off
by force" (Grimm-Thayer, Lexicon). "There is often
the notion of a sudden swoop, and usually that of a
force which cannot be resisted. The application of
such a verb to the snatching away (the "rapture') of
the saints is obvious" (Morris, p. 145). Bruce says
it "implies violent action, sometimes indeed to the
benefit of its object, as when the Roman soldiers
snatched Paul form the rioters in the Jerusalem
council-chamber (Acts 23:10) or when the male child
in the apocalyptic vision was caught up to God to
preserve him from the great red dragon (Rev. 12:5).
It is used in Acts 8:39 for the Spirit's snatching
Phillip away after his interview with the Ethiopian
chamberlain and (more gemanely to the present
passage) of Paul's being caught up to the third
heaven of paradise (2 Cor. 12:2, 3)" (p. 102). Our
word harpazo expresses what will happen in
terms of a sudden and almost violent action. Those
who are caught up are subject to the irristible
power of God. Neither will the living be
disadvantaged when Christ comes. For all practical
purposes the resurrection of the dead and the
rapture of the living will be simultaneous. Only a
moment of time will separate the resurrection of the
dead and the translation of the living (1 Cor.
We get our English word
"rapture" meaning "the act of conveying a person
from one place to another." The word "rapture" is
frequently used as a technical word in theology to
describe the event foretold in this verse.
"To meet the Lord
in the air"
The place of meeting is
in the air. Once again "clouds" are mentioned. The
divine glory is veiled in clouds (Exodus 19:16;
24:15-18; 40:34; 1 Kings 8:10, 11; Psalm 97:2;
Daniel 7:13; Mark 13:26; 14:62; Rev. 1:7). They are
associated with the transfiguration of Jesus (Mark
9:7), His ascension (Acts 1:9) and His coming in
like manner as they have seen Him go (1:11).
Milligan cites examples
of "the formal reception of a newly arrived
magistrate." Moffatt says it implies "welcome of a
great person on his arrival." It may well be "a
royal reception" that Paul has in mind with our
"meeting the Lord in the air." The King is coming!
We will be presented to the King.
The words "to meet the
Lord" are used to describe a dignitary paying
official visit to a city. The leading citizens of
the city would go out to meet him and escort him
back on the final stage of his journey. When Julius
Caesar went through Italy in 49 B.C., Cicero wrote,
"just imagine what meeting he is receiving form the
towns, what honors are paid to him!" Also the bridal
party goes out to meet the bridegroom in a Jewish
wedding and escort him with a procession to the
banquet hall (Matthew 25:6). Roman Christians did
the same thing for Paul (Acts 28:15). Everything
leads up to the great note of triumph, "so we shall
ever be with the Lord."
These analogies Paul uses
in relation to the Parousia suggest the possibility
that the Lord is pictured as being escorted on the
remainder of His journey with His people both those
newly raised from the dead and those who have
remained alive. F. F. Bruce writes, "it cannot be
determined from what is said here whether the Lord
(with His people) continues His journey to earth or
returns to heaven. Similarly it is not certain
whether the Son of Man, coming "in clouds' (Mark
13:26; 14:62), is on His way to earth or (as in
Daniel 7:13) to the throne of God" (p. 103).
Reunion will be
with Christ forever (v. 17b)
"We shall always be with
the Lord" is the glorious outcome. Paul doesn't tell
us in this passage if we return to the earth with
Christ or immediately depart for heaven. However,
Paul's chief concern here is to give the blessed
hope that we will be with Christ for all eternity (1
Thess. 5:10; Phil. 1:23; Col. 3:4; 2 Cor. 5:8). All
Christians will be united with Christ. From this
time and forever they will be with the Lord. He will
take the living believers to the permanent dwelling
place He is presently preparing for them in heaven
(John 14:1-3). The one thought Paul embraces is that
we will be with the Lord forever.
All of the resurrected
and raptured Christians will be with Christ forever.
"We shall always be with the Lord." Having joined
Him we shall be continually with the Lord. This is
the grand climax of blessedness. It was Paul's
desire on more than one occasion (Phil. 1:23; 2 Cor.
5:8). Note the permanence of the fellowship with
Christ and one another.
How should this reunion
with our loved ones and our resurrection affect our
view of death, our life today, and the future?
"Those who are alive and remain will be caught up
together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in
the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord."
THE PROMISE FOR ALL
"IN CHRIST" (4:18)
"Therefore comfort (parakaleo)
one another with these words."
This great message of
comfort, encouragement, cheer and hope should cause
the believers at Thessalonica to actively strengthen
one another. It should give them courage to face
death and comfort their hearts in the face of death
of loved ones.
"Death makes no
difference to our relationship to the Lord. . . All
things and all men are in His hands. When it is His
will to bring in the end of this age, those who have
died in Him and those who still survive will be
united in His presence" (Morris, p. 146).
Those who "die in
Christ" live "in Christ."
Phillips translates, "God
has given me this message on the matter, so by all
means use it to encourage one another." Here are
solid grounds for comfort, encouragement and hope.
Paul has given us a
definite word from the Lord. He has spoken "by the
word of the Lord." He is not making some suggestions
about how we might comfort one another. We, just as
the Thessalonians, can comfort one another because
God has been pleased to reveal to us what has
happened to our loved ones who have died. He has not
left us ignorant and without hope. God has revealed
some good news for us who face death.
The whole point Paul is
making is that this great event will happen. It is a
voucher that will be redeemed. It is a promise for
us to personally believe. Emil Brunner well said, "A
Christian faith without expectation of the Parousia
is like a ladder which leads nowhere but end in the
Do we really love the
Lord's appearing? What does it mean to you that
Christ might come back today for you? Do you have a
living expectation of His coming for you? Do we have
our minds and hearts fixed upon Christ?
"We will love the
appearing of the Lord in direct proportion as we
love the Lord Himself. If we love Him, if we long to
see Him who first loved us, then the truth of the
Lord's coming and the fact that He could come today
will be a precious truth," writes John Walvoord, p.
Let us live every day as
if it will be our last day lived for Christ upon
Death is real for the
believer in Christ, but the hope of the resurrection
means that it is not an everlasting state. It is
temporary interruption. For the believer in
Christ, death is only a transition from this life to
the next. The moment we die physically we are
ushered into the presence of the living God.
"Christ has been raised
from the dead, the first fruits of those who are
asleep." Even so, come Lord Jesus.
The Christian can face
death, not with despair, but with a hope in what God
will do, grounded in what He has already done in the
resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The believer who dies "in
Christ" remains "in Christ" for all eternity.
We have nothing to fear
because Jesus will come either with us or for us!
Here is the blessed hope
for the "dead in Christ" as well as for the living
"We shall always be with
the Lord." Do you have that assurance in your heart?
If you died today and stood before the Lord God and
He said to you, "why should I let you into my
heaven," what would you say? Here is A Free Gift for
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Thessalonians 413-18 What Happens After You Die?