The Dead in Christ

Paul reassured believers concerning those who had died in Christ and their full participation in the future resurrection - 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Cemetary sunrise - Photo by Madeleine Maguire on Unsplash
Paul addressed the concerns about the fate of fellow believers who die before Jesus will arrive “
from heaven.” Apparently, some believers at Thessalonica were concerned that dead saints might not participate in the glories of that day. But he reassured them; not only will dead believers be resurrected on that day they will also precede those still alive, and all together will meet Jesus - [Photo by Madeleine Maguire on Unsplash].

The core issue addressed in the passage is not the future return of Jesus but the status and participation of dead believers on that day. Paul’s response is to point to the resurrection of the dead, an event he links to the “arrival” or ‘parousia’ of Jesus. Though very likely Paul here provides new details about that event, his real purpose is to reassure the Thessalonians regarding dead fellow believers. His conclusion is that all saints will be together “with the Lord forevermore,” words intended to console believers who were sorrowing over the deaths of their loved ones.
  • (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) - “But we do not wish you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are falling asleep lest you are sorrowing even as the rest also who are without hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so also will God bring with him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus. For this, we say to you by a word of the Lord, that we, the living, who are left to the arrival of the Lord will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep, because the Lord himself, with a word of command, with an archangel’s voice, and with a trumpet of God will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first, after that we, the living, who are left together with them will be caught away in clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and in this manner, we will forevermore be with the Lord. So, then, be consoling one another with these words.”
In the first half of chapter 4, the Thessalonians are exhorted to walk in holiness, abstain from sexual immorality, refrain from transgressions against fellow believers, continue in love, and to attend to their own business. In such ways, they will become proper witnesses for the gospel to the outside community, and thus “please God.”

Thus, the first half of the chapter stresses the need to attain holiness before God, especially in consideration of the future “arrival” of Jesus.  And holiness is achieved by proper conduct, exercising love, and remaining faithful through tribulations.

The passage begins with the clause “now…concerning” (deperi), a phrase Paul uses frequently to introduce new subjects. He does not wish his readers “to be ignorant” about how the coming of Jesus will impact living and dead believers - (1 Thessalonians 5:1, 1 Corinthians 7:1, 7;25, 8:1, 12;1, 16:1).

His Thessalonian audience is not uninformed about the “coming” of Jesus but about how it will affect dead Christians.  This is clarified by several statements:
  • We would not have you ignorant… concerning those who are asleep: that you may not grieve…God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep… we who are alive: who are left until the coming of the Lord: will not precede those who have fallen asleep… the dead in Christ will rise first… then we who are alive…will be caught up together with them… to meet the Lord…in this manner, we will evermore be with the Lord…comfort one another with these words.”
Unfortunately for us, precisely how or what questions about the dead came about is not stated. But the issue was not theological so much as it is functional and pastoral. Paul addresses a very real concern that impacts the entire congregation. An incorrect understanding could easily turn Christian grief into hopelessness - (“That you may not grieve even as the rest who have no hope”).

The Apostle does not criticize the Thessalonians for their grief, but he also does not want them to grieve as unbelievers do. The unsaved do not possess the knowledge about the promised resurrection of the dead. And just as God raised Jesus from the dead, “so also, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus.”

Paul anchors the hope of the church in the past death and resurrection of Jesus. His resurrection is the guarantee of the future resurrection of all believers. And participation in the ‘parousia’ is not based on whether one is dead or alive, but on faith in what God has accomplished in Jesus - (“For if we believe that Jesus has died and rose again…”).

God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus.” This clause indicates that believers who are in a right relationship with him when they die will be resurrected at his return. As he does elsewhere, Paul located the resurrection of the righteous at the “arrival” of Jesus at the end of the age - (1 Corinthians 15:18).

Paul refers to the “word of the Lord” to authenticate his hope. He does not state whether this “word” was a pre- or post-resurrection saying of Jesus. But it does include several parallels to the saying of Jesus on the Mount of Olives that describes the appearance of the “Son of Man in heaven.” According to Paul, Jesus will “descend from heaven” accompanied by an “archangel,” the trumpet will sound, and believers will be gathered to him “in the clouds.” Likewise, Jesus declared:
  • The sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven and he will come on the clouds…he will send out his angels to gather his elect…a loud trumpet” - (Matthew 24:30-31).
Another verbal parallel links Paul’s description to the parable of the ten bridesmaids.  They “fell asleep” while waiting for the bridegroom. They were awakened by “a shout” and a command to go out “to meet” the bridegroom as he arrived.  They “rose” and “went with him” into the wedding feast - (Matthew 25:1-13).

Likewise, in First Thessalonians, the issue is the participation of believers who have “fallen asleep.” When Jesus arrives, he will be accompanied by “shout” and the voice of the archangel.  Then, those who have fallen asleep will “rise” first and be caught up with living saints “to meet the Lord and be with him forever.”

The Greek noun rendered “meet” in the letter is the same one used in the parable of the ten bridesmaids. The bridesmaids “fell asleep” because the bridegroom tarried. Likewise, in Thessalonica, some believers “fell asleep” while waiting for his “arrival.” Thus, the “word of the Lord” referred to by Paul most likely is based on the parable of the ten virgins and Christ’s description of the “coming of the Son of Man.”

Sleep” was a common euphemism for death in Greco-Roman society. The language is metaphorical, not literal. Paul is more explicit when he calls those who are asleep the “dead in Christ” and uses the Greek adjective nekroi, which refers to dead personsNOT to the abstract state of death.

If Christians believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, then “God will bring those who fell asleep through Jesus with him.”  The phrase refers to Christians who die in a proper relationship with Jesus. The pronoun “him” refers to Christ and is comparable to the clause in verse 17, “In this manner, we will be evermore with the Lord.” (Compare - 1 Corinthians 15:18).

We, the living, who remain to the coming of the Lord.” This means Christians will still be alive on the earth at the time of his “arrival.” Likewise, Paul informed the church at Corinth that “we will not all sleep: but we will all be changed: and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed” - (1 Corinthians 15:51-52).

Heavens - Photo by Kaushik Panchal on Unsplash
Photo by Kaushik Panchal on Unsplash

In the passage, the Greek noun rendered “
coming” or “arrival” is ‘parousia,’ which means “arrival, presence.” In his two letters to the Thessalonians, Paul applies the term ‘parousia’ in all but one instance to the future “coming” of Jesus - (1 Thessalonians 2:193:13, 4:15, 5:23, 2 Thessalonians 2:1, 2:8-9).

In the Greek sentence, Paul uses a double negative for emphasis: “No, not precede them who have fallen asleep”. Those still alive will “certainly not” precede the dead in Christ. Instead, they will be raised “first” before the transformation of believers still alive on that day.

Verse 16 uses an intensive pronoun, autos, “the Lord himself will descend from heaven,” which stresses that Jesus will arrive in-person to reunite living and dead saints who will then together meet him “in the air.”

The dead in Christ will rise first.” This is the key “new” piece of information provided by Paul.  The dead rise first before those who remain alive are transformed. He also described three audible features that will be heard at the ‘parousia’ - the “shout,” the “voice of an archangel,” and the “trumpet of God.” The audible aspects indicate a public event.  The “shout” may refer to the call of Jesus to summon the dead from their graves, an idea that occurs in the Gospel of John:
  • An hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” – (John 5:25).
The Greek noun rendered “archangel” does not have the definite article or “the.” The clause does not refer to a specific archangel, and the stress is on his “voice.” The “trumpet of God” parallels other scriptures that associate trumpet blasts with the “Day of the Lord.” This fits well. In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul links the ‘parousia’ to the “Day of the Lord” - (2 Thessalonians 2:1-2. SeeIsaiah 27:13, Joel 2:11, Zechariah 9:14, 1 Corinthians 15:52).

The Greek noun rendered “meet” or apantêsis refers to a “meeting.” With the preposition eis, as here, it has the sense “we will be caught away on clouds for a meeting of the Lord in the air.”

In Greek-speaking communities, ‘parousia’ often referred to as the “arrival” at a city of a royal dignitary. When such a person approached the city, the leading citizens went outside the walls to “meet” him, all with pomp and ceremony. Next, he would be escorted into the city.

In Greek cities, it was illegal to bury the dead within city walls; consequently, the approach roads to many cities were lined with graves. That background fits Paul’s picture of the dead being raised “first” as Jesus approaches the earth. Believers rise to meet him as he descends from heaven.

Believers will be “caught away.” The Greek verb harpazō means “to snatch, seize.” By itself, it contains no information about direction, no sense of “up” or “down.” “Clouds” are associated elsewhere with the return of the “Son of Man in glory” - (Matthew 26:64, Mark 14:62, Acts 1:9-11, Revelation 1:7).

After the “meeting,” believers will remain with Jesus “always” or pantote. The term means “always,” “evermore,” “at all times,” regardless of where he is.  Precisely where this occurs is NOT stated. Paul does not state whether Jesus will continue his descent to the earth, or instead, will return to heaven with his gathered believers.

The Thessalonians are to “comfort one another with these words.” The phrase concludes the passage, which is intended to comfort those grieving over the deaths of fellow believers. Christians who die before the coming of Jesus will not be deprived in any way of the glories of that day.

Old Testament Allusions. The Lord will descend “from heaven with a shout, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of a trumpet of God.” These clauses allude to a passage from the Psalms:
  • (Psalm 47:5) - “God has ascended WITH A SHOUT: the LORD WITH THE SOUND OF A TRUMPET.”
The verbal echo is fitting. This Psalm celebrated God’s rule over the nations.  Yahweh was declared king, and all the nations were subjugated under His feet. “Caught up in the CLOUDS to meet the Lord” alludes to a passage from the book of Daniel:
  • (Daniel 7:13) - “Behold, with THE CLOUDS OF HEAVEN one like a son of man was COMING.”
In Daniel’s vision, all kingdoms came under the rule of the “Son of Man” and his “saints.”  His dominion and reign were located on the earth and endured “forevermore” - (Compare - Mark 13:26, 14:62, Revelation 1:12-20).

Summary. Paul’s purpose was to reassure Christians about the participation of believers in the glories of the ‘parousia’ who die before that day. Dead believers will be resurrected and reunited with those still alive, then both groups will “meet the Lord” as he descends from heaven, and thus all will be with him forevermore. The Apostle’s to the concerns of the Thessalonians was the resurrection of the dead.



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