Studies in Colossians and Thessalonians
16. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 - Preparing for the Lord's Return
Paul’s next topic is the return of Christ — the only place in his letters where he gives details about what will happen. The Thessalonian believers wanted to know more about this topic. We’d like to know more, today, too, because some of the things Paul says are puzzling.
He begins by discussing the resurrection of believers who die before Jesus returns. It sounds like someone in the Thessalonian church had died — although it’s possible that the people were asking a hypothetical question.
Paul assures them that people who die will not miss out on the great event. They will have places of honor as the saints rise to meet the returning King.
The return of Christ (verses 13-18)
“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.” It seems that the Thessalonians had asked about what happens to believers who die before Christ returns. Paul replies that we do not grieve in the way that unbelievers do. Death is still an enemy, so we may grieve, but our sorrow is mixed with hope because we know that we will all live again in far better circumstances.
Paul begins by stating the doctrine: “We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” Because Jesus has been raised from the dead, we will be, too, if we are spiritually united with him. Those who die will come with Jesus. Just what they are doing in the meantime, Paul does not say.
He quotes a saying of Jesus — one that is not in the Gospels: “According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.” By using the word “we,” does Paul imply that he expects to live until Christ returns? Many scholars think so, and they suspect the Thessalonians had a similar belief, thus causing their worries about those who die in this age.
However, it is not necessarily so. If Paul had used the third-person “those,” he could have implied that he would not live until the return, and since he did not know one way or another, he used the more pastorally optimistic “we.”1 Paul knew that believers could die before Christ returned, and simple logic would tell him that he might be one of them.
Paul’s point is that people who live until Christ returns will not have any advantage over Christians who die. The living ones will not rise to greet Christ while the dead ones are still struggling to get out of their graves!
Paul sketches a simple sequence: “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.” There will be a loud sound, and the dead will rise. Do they come with Christ from heaven, or do they rise from graves on earth?
Paul is not dealing with that question — he is just addressing sequence. “After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” This is the key verse of the “rapture” theory, which says that Christians will rise into the air to meet Christ and then go with him to heaven while the Great Tribulation savages unbelievers on Earth.2 Those ideas are not in this verse; they come from other books of the Bible.
Actually, no verse teaches the rapture — it is only when verses from different sections of the Bible are combined, that anyone can construct the theory. The Bible does not promise that believers will escape the Tribulation, nor does it say that Christ will come once for the saints, and then a few years later for the Last Judgment. The believers in Thessalonica would not understand Paul to be saying anything like this.
What would they think? Paul refers to the presence or parousia of the Lord; the word parousia was also used for the arrival of a king in a city. Whenever the ruler visited, there was a lot of pomp and ceremony. Heralds announced the impending event, and city officials formed a procession to greet the king as he approached, and they would escort him into the city.
By using the word parousia, Paul is suggesting that kind of scene: Christ the king will come and his people will go to greet him and escort him as he comes to where they live. The Thessalonian believers were asking about who would be first in the welcoming procession. Those who die are not left out of the party —they’ll be raised so everyone can celebrate together.
The bottom line is simple: “And so we will be with the Lord forever.”
And then Paul writes, “Therefore encourage each other with these words.” What are the encouraging words? Is it that the dead in Christ will be in the welcoming delegation? That we will be in the clouds? Those are good, but such details pale into insignificance when compared with the eternal result: We will be with Christ forever. That is the message that puts all our trials into perspective, and gives us courage to be faithful until the end.
Author: Michael Morrison, PhD, 2008