Paul responded to concerns about the dead in Christ by pointing to the resurrection that will occur when Jesus arrives from Heaven. In his first Letter to the Thessalonians, Paul reassured the congregation concerning the participation of saints who die before the ‘Parousia’ in the glories of that day. According to him, BOTH dead and living saints will assemble and “meet” the Lord as he descends from Heaven. Thereafter, they will be with Jesus “forevermore.” He wrote these words in response to believers who were sorrowing over the deaths of fellow saints.
On the day when Jesus “arrives,” dead believers will be resurrected, and together with those who remain alive, they all will “meet” the Lord “in the air.” Paul’s response to the concerns of the Thessalonians begins with the bodily resurrection of dead believers.
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In making his case, the Apostle provides one of his most detailed descriptions of the “arrival” or ‘Parousia’ of Jesus. In it, his focus is on how it will affect believers:
- (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) - “But we do not wish you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are falling asleep lest you sorrow 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 unto 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 evermore be with the Lord. So then be consoling one another with these words.”
In the first half of the fourth chapter, Paul exhorts believers to walk in holiness, abstain from sexual immorality, refrain from transgressing against fellow believers, continue in love, and attend to their own business. In such ways, they will become proper witnesses of the Gospel to the surrounding community.
In the second half, he reassures the Assembly about the full participation of dead saints in the ‘Parousia’ of Jesus. Whether dead or alive, no believer will be shortchanged on that day. After (newly resurrected) dead and living Christians are reunited, they will meet Jesus as he arrives “from Heaven.” The entire Assembly will thus be “together with the Lord forevermore.” Paul’s words are meant to comfort the congregation.
Threaded through Chapter 4 is the theme of attaining holiness, especially in consideration of the coming return of Jesus. Believers achieve holiness by proper conduct, exercising love, and remaining faithful through tribulations.
The description of these final events begins with the clause, “now…concerning” (de…peri), a phrase Paul uses often in his letters when he is introducing a new topic. The Thessalonians were not ignorant of the “arrival” of Jesus, but they were unsure about the relationship of dead believers to that event. This is made clear by his statement, “We would not have you ignorant… concerning those who are falling asleep.”
FATE OF THE DEAD
Paul addressed a real concern that could impact an entire congregation. An incorrect understanding might easily turn grief into hopelessness (“that you may not grieve even as the rest who have no hope”). Again, his purpose was to reassure and comfort grieving saints. He did not criticize the Thessalonians for their grief. Christians experience grief when loved ones die, but they are not without hope.
Paul does not want the Thessalonians to grieve in the same way as unbelievers do since the latter are without hope because they do not possess the knowledge that God will resurrect the dead. Just as He raised Jesus from the dead, “so also He will bring with him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus.” Paul anchors the resurrection hope of the Assembly in the past death and resurrection of Jesus.
As described elsewhere, the bodily resurrection of Jesus is the “guarantee” and “first fruits” of the future resurrection of believers - (John 14:19, Acts 26:23, Romans 8:11, 1 Corinthians 15:20-23, Colossians 1:18, Revelation 1:5).
Participation on that day is not based on whether one is dead or alive, but instead, on faith in what God has accomplished in Jesus (“for if we believe that Jesus has died and rose again…”).
ON THAT DAY
What counts is faith, either at the time of a man’s death or the moment of Christ’s return. This is made clear by the phrase - “God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus.” In turn, this indicates that the believer in a right relationship with Jesus when he dies will be resurrected (e.g., “Those who have fallen asleep IN CHRIST.” Also, 1 Corinthians 15:18).
Paul’s description draws on sayings of Jesus from his ‘Olivet Discourse.’ On the last day, the Son of Man will “descend from heaven” accompanied by an “archangel.” The trumpet will sound, and believers will be gathered to him as he arrives “on clouds” - (Matthew 24:30-31).
There is also a verbal parallel with his Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids. The bridesmaids fell asleep while waiting for the bridegroom. They were awakened by “a shout” and the command to go out “to meet” the bridegroom as he arrived. They “rose” and “went with him” to the wedding feast. Likewise in 1 Thessalonians, the issue was the state and participation of believers who had “fallen asleep” prior to the Last Day - (Matthew 25:1-13).
DEAD RISE FIRST
So, also, when Jesus arrives, he will be accompanied by “a shout” and the voice of the “archangel.” Those who have fallen asleep will “rise” FIRST, and together with saints who are still alive at the time, they will all be caught up together “to meet the Lord and be with him forevermore.”
The Greek noun rendered “meet” or apantêsis is the same term used in Matthew for the “bridesmaids” who went out to “meet” the bridegroom. The bridesmaids did not die but “fell asleep.” But that occurred over time as the bridegroom “tarried.” Likewise, in Thessalonica, some disciples were “falling asleep” while they waited for Jesus to return.
The term “fell asleep” is metaphorical for death, and this becomes clear when Paul labels the group the “dead in Christ.” He uses the Greek adjective nekroi which refers to dead persons rather than the abstract state of death.
“We, the living, who remain to the coming of the Lord.” This clause demonstrates Paul’s belief that Christians will still be alive on the Earth at the time of the ‘Parousia’ - (1 Corinthians 15:51-52 - “We will not all sleep: but we will all be changed: and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed”).
The Greek noun often rendered “coming” is ‘Parousia,’ which means “arrival, coming, presence.” In his letters to the Thessalonians, Paul applies it in all but one instance to the future “arrival” of Jesus. Once refers to the “arrival” of the “Man of Lawlessness” though in imitation of the “arrival” of Jesus - (1 Thessalonians 2:19: 3:13: 4:15: 5:23: 2 Thessalonians 2:1: 2:8, 2 Thessalonians 2:9).
“The dead in Christ will rise FIRST.” This is the “new” information introduced by Paul in this letter. Dead believers will rise EVEN BEFORE those saints who remain alive are transformed. This knowledge is provided to comfort the Thessalonians concerning their dead brothers and sisters.
Paul describes three audible features that will occur on that day: the “shout,” the voice of an “archangel,” and the “trumpet of God.” He does not state to whom the “shout” is directed. One possibility is that it refers to Jesus summoning the dead to rise from their graves – (John 5:25 - “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”).
“Archangel” does not have a definite article or “the.” Paul does not identify a specific angel or archangel. His emphasis is on its “voice.” The reference to the “trumpet of God” parallels other scriptures that associate trumpet blasts with the “Day of the Lord” - (Isaiah 27:13, Joel 2:11, Zechariah 9:14, 1 Corinthians 15:52).
In Greek-speaking communities, the term ‘Parousia’ was often used for the “arrival” of royal dignitaries to a city. When that person drew near, the city’s leading citizens went out to “meet” him with pomp and ceremony, and then they escorted him into the city. For such “meetings,” the Greek term apantêsis was used, the same word applied to believers when they “MEET the Lord in the air.”
In this Greek society, it was illegal to bury the dead within the city’s walls. Commonly, approach roads outside the city’s walls were lined with graves. If Paul is using apantêsis and parousia with this background in mind, the picture becomes clear.
The righteous dead are raised first. Then, together with those remaining alive, they “meet” Jesus as he approaches from Heaven. After that, they will accompany him as he continues his descent to the Earth.
Those “caught up” to the clouds. This rendering can be misleading. The Greek verb harpazō means “to snatch, seize.” By itself, it includes no information regarding direction - there is no notion of upward movement in the word itself - (Matthew 11:12, 12:29, 13:19, John 6:15, 10:12, 10:28-29, Acts 8:39, 23:10, 2 Corinthians 12:2, 12:4, Jude 1:23, Revelation 12:5).
Elsewhere, “clouds” are associated with the return of the “Son of Man in glory” at the end of the age - (Matthew 26:64, Mark 14:62, Acts 1:9-11, Revelation 1:7).
After meeting the Lord, believers will remain with him “forevermore.” Precisely where this occurs is not stated, whether Jesus returns with his saints to Heaven, they accompany him as he continues his descent to the Earth, or the entire company remains suspended in midair for eternity. Paul simply does not address the question.
Thus, Paul reassured the Thessalonians regarding the participation of dead saints in the events of that final day. The dead will be resurrected first and reunited with the living. Then the entire company will meet Jesus as he descends from heaven. No true believer will be shortchanged that day. In this way, all believers will be gathered to the Lord and remain forevermore in his presence.