1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Paul, Silvanus (also known as Silas), and Timothy were the founding fathers of the church in Thessalonica. However, they were able to remain in Thessalonica for only a short time—perhaps no longer than three weeks (Acts 17:2), before their preaching stirred opposition that forced them to leave (Acts 17:10 ff.).
Paul and his colleagues were anxious to learn what was happening in the little church in Thessalonica? Paul was unable to go, so he sent Timothy to assist the fledgling congregation—and to report back regarding the situation there (3:1).
Timothy brought a good report, which Paul greeted with great joy (3:6-8). Nevertheless, Timothy’s report also mentioned reasons for concern. Paul is writing this letter, in part, to “perfect that which is lacking in (the) faith” of Christians in Thessalonica (3:10).
Chapter 4 provides significant clues regarding the problems that Timothy surfaced:
• There were moral issues in Thessalonica—sexual immorality in particular (4:1-8).
• While the Thessalonian Christians loved one another, Paul urges them to broaden their love to include “all the brothers who are in all Macedonia (4:10).
• He encourages them to “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, even as we instructed you; that you may walk properly toward those who are outside, and may have need of nothing” (4:11-12).
• That brings us to today’s text. At least one believer, perhaps more, has died in Thessalonica—inspiring concern about those who die while awaiting Jesus’ return. What is their status? Will they participate with living believers in the joy of the Second Coming—or has their death somehow disqualified them?
In our text, Paul addresses these concerns.
1 THESSALONIANS 4:13-14. THOSE WHO HAVE FALLEN ASLEEP IN JESUS
13 But we don’t want you to be ignorant, brothers, concerning those who have fallen asleep, so that you don’t grieve like the rest, who have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.
“But we don’t want you to be ignorant, brothers, concerning those who have fallen asleep” (v. 13a). This suggests that Paul is breaking new ground here—that he didn’t teach the Thessalonian Christians what would happen to believers who died while awaiting Jesus’ return.
Keep in mind that Paul was able to remain in Thessalonica for only a short time—possibly as little as three weeks (Acts 17:2). The amazing thing is that he was able to establish a viable church in that short time. It’s not at all amazing that he failed to teach those new Christians the whole body of Christian doctrine—which, after all, was in the process of being formed. This was one of Paul’s first letters, so he is having to “make it up” as he goes along—learning what problems exist and finding ways to address them.
“concerning those who have fallen asleep” (v. 13a). “Fallen asleep” is a euphemism (a milder substitute) for death. That leads us to ask whether Paul is shying away from the word death. Is he trying to soft-pedal the issue of death?
The answer to that question is surely “No!” The substitution of “sleep” for “death” was quite common, both in scripture (Daniel 12:2; Matthew 27:52; Mark 5:39-42) and in secular literature. In letters yet to be written (especially Romans and 1 Corinthians 15), Paul will address the issue of death and resurrection explicitly and boldly.
“so that you don’t grieve like the rest, who have no hope” (v. 13b). This is not a call to forego the grieving process. Even if we firmly believe in the resurrection of the dead, the death of a loved one deprives us of his/her company, so grief is both natural and appropriate. We might also grieve at the thought of a life cut short—or when a loved one experiences a particularly difficult death. We need to be careful to respect the grieving process—and not to deny it.
But Paul isn’t suggesting that Christians shouldn’t grieve, but rather that they shouldn’t “grieve like the rest, who have no hope.” While some Gentiles believed in life beyond death, the Christian faith in resurrection went far beyond the standard Greek or Roman belief system.
“For (Greek: gar) if (Greek: ei) we believe that Jesus died and rose again” (v. 14a). This is one of those places where little words mean a lot. The little Greek word gar (“for” or “because”) connects this phrase with verse 13. The reason that Christians “don’t grieve like the rest, who have no hope” (v. 13) is that “we believe that Jesus died and rose again” (v. 14a).
Also note the little word, ei (if). The word “if” often sets up an IF/THEN statement. IF a certain thing is true (“if we believe that Jesus died and rose again”), THEN it follows that another thing is also true (“God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus”). While we don’t find the word “then” in verse 14, the phrase “even so” (houtos) is the functional equivalent.
Christ’s death and resurrection constitute the central belief of the Christian faith. Belief in the resurrection—both Christ’s resurrection and the general resurrection of believers in the last days—is foundational to the Christian faith. Elsewhere, Paul says, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith also is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14).
The New Testament includes a number of accounts of people who saw the resurrected Christ (Matthew 28:9-10, 16-20; Mark 16:14-18; Luke 24:13-43; John 20:11-23; 21:1-23; 1 Corinthians 5:5-7). Most of these accounts involved several people, and one included five hundred (1 Corinthians 15:6).
Especially important is the fact that Paul had experienced the risen Christ personally on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:4-6)—an experience that turned Paul from the church’s chief persecutor to its chief apostle. As an apostle, Paul suffered beatings, imprisonment, shipwreck, and a host of other miseries for the sake of Christ (2 Corinthians 11:23-28). Paul’s willingness to endure these hardships makes sense only if he had, in fact, experienced the risen Christ personally.
“even so (Greek: houtos) God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus” (Greek: dia tou Iesou) (v. 14b). As noted above, the Greek word houtos is the functional equivalent of “then” in an if/then statement. “IF we believe that Jesus died and rose again” (v. 14a), THEN it stands to reason that “God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus” (v. 14b). Thus, we have no reason to “grieve like the rest, who have no hope” (v. 13b).
Jesus promised his disciples an eternal home, saying, “In my Father’s house are many homes. If it weren’t so, I would have told you. I am going to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and will receive you to myself; that where I am, you may be there also” (John 14:2-3).
“fallen asleep in Jesus” (dia tou Iesou—through Jesus). This is a difficult phrase, and scholars offer a number of interpretations, some of which seem quite tortured.
In most cases, “through Jesus” (dia tou Iesou) means that Jesus is the agent who makes something possible. Thus, “grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ” (dia Iesou Christou) (John 1:17; see also Romans 2:16; 5:21; Galatians 1:1). In other words, Jesus is the agent who makes grace and truth possible.
However, Paul doesn’t mean that Jesus made it possible for Thessalonian Christians to die (“fall asleep”). He instead means that these Christians died in a state of belief in Jesus, which has opened the door to their salvation.
1 THESSALONIANS 4:15-17. THE DEAD IN CHRIST WILL RISE FIRST
15 For this we tell you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left to the coming of the Lord, will in no way precede those who have fallen asleep. 16For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with God’s trumpet. The dead in Christ will rise first, 17 then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air. So we will be with the Lord forever.
“For this we tell you by the word of the Lord” (literally, a word from the Lord) (v. 15a). Paul mentions the word of the Lord to give authority to what he is about to say.
In his writings, Paul is careful to distinguish between “the word of God,” by which he means God the Father (1 Corinthians 14:36)—and “the word about Christ,” by which he means the message about Christ (Romans 10:16)—and “the word of the Lord,” as in this verse. He uses theos (God) when he means God the Father. He uses kyrios (Lord) when he means Jesus Christ. In this verse he is referring to a word from Jesus.
“that we who are alive, who are left to the coming (Greek: parousia) of the Lord, will in no way precede those who have fallen asleep” (v. 15b). What Paul says in this verse goes beyond what Jesus says in the Gospels—but is consistent with it (see Matthew 24:29-41).
In verses 15-17, Paul directly addresses the concern of the Thessalonian Christians that their deceased brothers and sisters might be disadvantaged when Christ comes again. No, he says, they will not be disadvantaged. All the faithful, dead or alive, will be equally advantaged.
Later, in his second letter to the Corinthian church, Paul will speak of an advantage enjoyed by deceased believers. Those who “are at home in the body (i.e., those who are alive) …are absent from the Lord” (i.e., aren’t yet permitted to see the Lord face to face). Paul expressed his willingness “to be at home with the Lord,” (i.e., dead) implying that those who are at home with the Lord walk by sight (i.e. see Jesus and know by fact rather than by faith that he is Lord) (2 Corinthians 5:6-9).
“For the Lord (Greek: kyrios) himself will descend from heaven with a shout, (Greek: keleusma) with the voice of the archangel, and with God’s trumpet” (Greek: salpinx) (v. 16a). In verse 15, Paul spoke of “the coming (parousia) of the Lord.” The people reading this letter would associate the word parousia (coming) with the coming of the emperor or other important person. Such visits, both then and now, are accompanied by fanfare, large crowds, and an air of celebration.
“the Lord (kyrios) himself will descend from heaven.” As noted in the above, Paul uses theos (God) when he means God the Father. He uses kyrios (Lord) to speak of Jesus. In this verse, he is talking about the Second Coming of Jesus to save the faithful and to judge the wicked (see 1 Thessalonians 1:10; 2 Thessalonians 1:7).
The Lord “will descend from heaven with a shout “(keleusma). The word keleusma was used by commanders urging on troops—or coaches urging on their teams. A keleusma shout is intended to encourage, but it also has the ring of authority—of command.
“With the voice of the archangel” (archaggelou). The voice of the archangel will announce Christ’s coming. It is a voice intended to command attention.
The word archaggelou is a combination of archon (chief) and aggelos (pronounced angelos and meaning angel)—so archangels are leaders of angels—or, as in this verse, the Lord’s principal spokespersons.
Daniel 10:13; Jude 9; and Revelation 12:7 mention the name of one of the archangels—Michael—who will fight against and defeat the great dragon, Satan. 1 Enoch, an apocryphal work, lists the names of seven archangels—Uriel, Raphael, Raguel, Michael, Sariel, Gabriel, and Remiel. The mention of seven angels and seven trumpets in Revelation 8:2 – 11:15 almost certainly involves the seven archangels.
“and with God’s trumpet” (salpinx). In the Old Testament, the shofar was a trumpet crafted from the horn of a sacrificial ram. It was used for several purposes—to announce the Sabbath and other religious observances, to call soldiers to battle, and to warn people of impending danger. At Mount Sinai, a trumpet was one of the four signs (the others being thunderings, lightnings, and a smoking mountain) that alerted people to God’s presence (Exodus 20:18).
In the New Testament, trumpets were used to draw attention to important events. For the most part, trumpets in the New Testament are used to signal eschatological events, such as Christ’s Second Coming. Jesus said, “(The Son of Man) will send out his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together his chosen ones from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other” (Matthew 24:31).
Paul wrote about the sounding of the last trumpet, at which “the dead will be raised incorruptible” (1 Corinthians 15:52). The book of Revelation spells out in considerable detail the seven trumpets that will sound in the last days to announce a number of cataclysmic events (Revelation 8:2 – 11:15).
In this letter to the Thessalonians, Paul says that God’s trumpet will be part of the fanfare used to signal the coming of the Lord Jesus, whose coming will usher in the salvation of the faithful.
“The dead in Christ will rise first” (v. 16b). Not all the dead will rise, but only “the dead in Christ”—those who have made Christ the Lord of their lives.
Paul’s point in this verse is the faithful dead will not be disadvantaged in the Parousia—Christ’s Second Coming. Before anything else happens, they will be raised from the dead.
“then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air” (v. 17a). Nor will the faithful dead enjoy an advantage over those who are living at the time of Christ’s Second Coming. All will “be caught up together…to meet the Lord in the air.”
“in the clouds.” Clouds are associated with the presence of the Lord in both testaments (Exodus 13:21-22; 16:10; 19:9; Daniel 7:13; Mark 9:7; 13:26; 14:62; Luke 21:27; Revelation 1:7; 14:14-16).
The phrase “in the air” is unusual, but supports Paul’s imagery. Christ will descend from heaven and we will ascend from earth, so we will meet Christ in the in-between space—”in the air.”
“So we will be with the Lord forever” (v. 17b). Note that Paul doesn’t emphasize spiritual geography here. He doesn’t talk about going to heaven, but rather being “with the Lord forever.” That’s Paul’s concern—being with the Lord.
In the only place where Paul talks about heaven as our destination he says, “For our citizenship is in heaven,” where “the Lord Jesus Christ…will change the body of our humiliation to be conformed to the body of his glory” (Philippians 3:20-21). Even there, he emphasizes the changes that the Lord will make rather than the wonder of attaining a heavenly existence.
That is not to say that our destination isn’t heaven. It is rather that Paul’s concern was our relationship with the Lord. Going to heaven (often our first concern) was so secondary to Paul that he doesn’t even mention it.
1 THESSALONIANS 4:18. COMFORT ONE ANOTHER WITH THESE WORDS
18Therefore comfort one another with these words.
“Therefore comfort (Greek: parakaleo) one another with these words” (v. 18). The Greek word parakaleo combines two words, para (to the side of) and kaleo (to call), and means “to call by the side” or “to encourage” or “to comfort.”
This verse sharpens the focus of Paul’s concern, which is the comfort of those who are grieving at the death of loved ones. He wants them to be reassured that their loved ones haven’t forfeited anything by dying prior to Christ’s coming.
That doesn’t mean that Christians shouldn’t grieve. The loss of a loved one through death is a terrible thing, and the survivor should feel free to grieve. However, we need not “grieve like the rest, who have no hope” (v. 13).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2014, Richard Niell Donovan