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Posts Tagged ‘1 Thessalonians 4:13-18’

Series: Paul to the Thessalonians

We have been looking at 1 Thessalonians for a number of weeks and we are now in the final part of chapter 4, where Paul is going through a list of topics that need to be addressed. First was sex, or how we are to control our own bodies in holiness and honor. Next was mutual love, or how we should give generously to the needs of others, and how we ought not take advantage of such generosity to become idle busybodies.

Today the focus in on the resurrection of the righteous when Jesus returns. The second coming of Jesus is a big theme in 1 Thessalonians, mentioned in six different places. It also dominates 2 Thessalonians.

 But there was some confusion among the Thessalonians on the question –

What about the dead in Christ?

“13Now concerning those who are asleep, we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters.” Since Paul left, someone had died, or as he says here, fell “asleep. [Paul uses this metaphor for death  three times in these verses – vs. 13, 14, 15. This was a common euphemism for talking about death in Judaism and the Greek and Roman world. It also came to be connected with those who are waiting to be awakened at the resurrection – Daniel 12:2. See also Mark 5:39. He also speaks of “the dead in Christ” in v. 16.] But having a Christian die was distressing to the Thessalonians, because they’re not sure what that means for the person. 

As we will see in a moment, Paul has taught them the basics of the Olivet discourse from Jesus about his second coming and the resurrection (Matthew 24-25). And it’s true that here and elsewhere Jesus focuses on those living at the time of his coming. He doesn’t explicitly address the issue of the righteous dead (at least not in the first three gospels). So the question arose among them – ‘Will the dead in Christ take part in all that happens when Jesus returns?’

And apparently some thought not. And this led them to be full of grief for the one who had died. So Paul wants to teach them on this “ . . . that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” It’s true that in the Greek and Roman world there was very little hope for anything after death, except eternal sleep in the gloomy underworld. As one of them said, “Hopes are for the living, but the ones who die are without hope” (Theocritus). But as Christians we have hope.

So this is a place where Paul needs to supply what is lacking in their understanding (1 Thessalonians 3:10), given that he had to leave them so quickly. So he shares –

The story on those who have died

First, he appeals to the example of Jesus. “14For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” Paul is saying, Jesus died too – but he rose again. And in the same way, because of the salvation that Jesus gives (“through Jesus”), God will bring with Jesus at his coming the dead in Christ, so that they can follow his pattern of first dying and then being raised.

So the dead in Christ are not left out. They will come with Jesus in order to be resurrected to new life. [When Paul says, “God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” are those “with him” already resurrected or do they come with him to be resurrected? Two things point to the latter: 1) The resurrection happens after Jesus descends from heaven – v. 16. But these are “with him” at his coming; at his descent. The idea, almost certainly, is that they come with Jesus from heaven, from their interim state, from being with him in heaven – Philippians 1:22; 2 Corinthians 5:8. 2) God does not “bring with” Jesus those who are already raised, but those who are identified as “asleep,” that is, those not yet resurrected.]

But this teaching is not just based on the example of Jesus’ death and resurrection, it is also supported by a word from the Lord“15For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord . . .” What’s this all about? As I said, there’s no saying of Jesus that explicitly addresses the dead in Christ. 

Rather, I believe that Paul is referring here to Zechariah 14:5 which is a part of a “word of the Lord” oracle (Zechariah 12:1). This says, “And the LORD my God will come and all the holy ones with him” (LXX).

  • The name, “LORD” or “Yahweh” is most often taken as a reference to Jesus, when Paul reads the Old Testament. So this speaks to Jesus’ coming.
  • The phrase “the holy ones” most often refers to the angels who are a part of “the assembly of the holy ones” in heaven (Psalm 89:5). But even in the Old Testament “holy ones” can also refer to the people of God. [In the LXX see Psalm 33(34):9 and Daniel 7:18, 21.] And Paul uses this particular phrase (the plural ῾οι ῾αγιοι as a substantive) to refer exclusively to believers or saints in his letters [38 times by my count with one instance of the singular – Philippians 4:21.] And he speaks of the dead in Christ as being “with Jesus” in several places (Philippians 1:26; 2 Corinthians 5:8), so this puts them in this assembly. They are a part of the “all” of his holy ones. [See also Hebrews 12:22-24, Revelation 4-5, 6:9-11.]
  • Finally, the dead in Christ, will come “with him.” They will come along with the rest of the host of heaven at his return. [Didache 16:7 quotes Zechariah 14:5 and clearly refers it to the resurrection of the dead in Christ.]

Notice the similarity of this to v. 14, “God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” His reasoning is, if  “all” the holy ones come with him, then the dead in Christ will come with him too.

[Paul clearly alludes to Zechariah 14:5 (LXX) already in 1 Thessalonians 3:13 – “at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones,” in the prayer that sets up this teaching section. (This can be seen in the Greek. Both use κυριος and both have similar phrase about the “holy ones” – Zechariah – πάντες οἱ ἅγιοι μετ’ αὐτοῦ; Paul – μετὰ πάντων τῶν ἁγίων αὐτοῦ – see Gordon Fee). Notice that it is cited in the context of praying that the Thessalonians will become holy.] [Although there is no word of Jesus that makes this precise point, which is the reason for confusion in the first place, given that Paul takes Yahweh as a reference to Jesus, it turns out that this is in a sense a word of Jesus.]

Paul goes on – “. . . that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.” Paul also concludes from this word of the Lord that since the dead in Christ descend with Jesus from heaven, even before the resurrection happens, they have a certain precedence over the living, who are still on earth at this point. They are first, because they are already with Jesus. [Those “who remain” might well mean those that are not already a part of the assembly of the holy ones with Jesus.]

So, not only do they take part in what happens when Jesus returns, they have a certain chronological priority.

Next, Paul gives the sequence of events that will happen when Christ returns and the righteous are raised. “16For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air and so we will always be with the Lord.”

Notice how this sequence is really just a summary of the Olivet discourse of Jesus from Matthew 24:30-31, which Paul had taught them when he was with them. [The connections with the Olivet discourse continue in 5:1-11, where Paul says that they know these things – 5:1-2.] 

1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 Matthew 24:30-31
1. Jesus will descend from heaven 1. “The Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven”
2. A cry of command, the voice of an archangel 2. “And he will send out his angels”
3. The trumpet of God 3. “With a loud trumpet call”
The dead in Christ will rise first Zechariah 14:5
4. We who are alive will be caught up (resurrected) 4. The angels will “gather his elect from the four winds” (a common metaphor for resurrection)

But since Jesus doesn’t address the dead in Christ in the sequence, which caused the confusion for them, Paul adds in Zechariah 14:5. A word of the Lord that supplements and clarifies the teaching of the Olivet discourse on the place of the dead in Christ (in blue).

Paul also makes clear that this is a royal event. Several aspects of his description of it in vs. 15-17 point this out. For instance having an angel herald his coming and the blowing of a trumpet. Also, the word used here for “coming” makes this point. It means presence, coming or arrival. But it could also be used of the coming of a ruler or emperor on an official visit. Finally, the word “meet” has to do with an official delegation that goes out to welcome, and then escort a dignitary back into the city (Acts 28:15-16; Matthew 25:6). This will be the role of the living when Jesus comes. So the dead in Christ will be raised first, and the living will function as the welcoming committee.

The Thessalonians had welcomed Roman emperors to their city before, so they would know what Paul is talking about here. Except that here they will be welcoming the emperor of all creation to earth.

Paul’s message is – be encouraged! “18Therefore encourage one another with these words.” He has taught them that:

  • the dead will be a part of the events of the second coming
  • they will even have a certain priority in the order of resurrection
  • we will be “together with them” in the resurrection – v. 17
  • we will all be with the Lord forever – v. 17

And he has done so, “that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” – v. 13.

[Why is there no discussion of a reunion with loved ones in the interim state? Most likely because of the contrast that controls this passage between the living and the dead. The living, as living ones, can only be reunited through the resurrection. If they die they can presumably be reunited in this way, but then they are no longer the living. Paul does not speak of a reunion in the interim state, perhaps because the real hope of the Christian is the resurrection. And also this isn’t the specific question being addressed. Rather it is, ‘Will the dead in Christ take part in the events of the second coming?’]

Finally, a few words on –

Hope and grief

Paul is not saying don’t grieve when a fellow Christian dies.

  • Jesus grieved for Lazarus, even though he knew he would be a part of the resurrection and even though he knew that he was about to raise him back to life  – John 11.
  • And in Philippians 2:27Paul spoke of the sorrow he would have had if his coworker, Epaphroditus had died, “sorrow upon sorrow.”
  • And we are told in Acts 8:2 that when Stephen was killed fellow believers “made great lamentation over him.”

It is perfectly fine and natural to grieve. Paul is simply saying don’t grieve like those who have no hope. The Christian who has died will be raised again to new life when Jesus returns. This tempers our grief and is a testimony to our strong belief in the salvation that Jesus brings. That we if we are dead when Jesus returns, we will awake. And if we are alive we will be caught up. And this should encourage us indeed.

May God make us to be a people of hope in a hopeless world. May we be a light to the world of a faith that even death cannot defeat. Amen.

William Higgins 

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A. Grief: 13Now concerning those who are asleep, we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.

B. The dead will come with him: 14For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.

C. The living will not precede the dead: 15For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.

D. The coming of Jesus: 16For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God.

C1. The dead will be raised before the living: And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air,

B1. The living will be with him: and so we will always be with the Lord.

A1. Hope: 18Therefore encourage one another with these words.

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