This article is part of the Tough Passages series.
—1 Thessalonians 4:13–18
Paul introduces this new topic by stating “We do not want you to be uninformed” in order to accentuate the following discussion (cf. 1 Cor. 10:1; also Rom. 1:13; 11:25; 1 Cor. 12:1; 2 Cor. 1:8). Paul desires the Thessalonians to be informed appropriately about “those who are asleep.”
Sleep serves as a common NT metaphor for death (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:6, 18, 20; also Matt. 27:52; Acts 7:60; 13:36). This sleep metaphor often appears in contexts in which the future resurrection of believers is discussed. Sleep is thus a particularly apt symbol. The dead in Christ have merely fallen asleep, awaiting their awakening in the coming resurrection (e.g., John 11:11; Eph. 5:14). This need not imply a lack of conscious awareness in the intermediate state between death and resurrection (e.g., Luke 16:19–31; 23:43; Phil. 1:21–23; Rev. 4:4; 7:1–17).
Paul discusses this issue in order that “you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” Some assume mistakenly that this verse implies that Christians should never grieve at all. However, even our Lord grieved the death of his friend Lazarus and wept for the pain of separation that Lazarus’s death caused his family and friends (John 11:33–36; cf. Acts 9:37–39). Paul elsewhere encourages believers to weep together amid the travails of life (Rom. 12:15; 1 Cor. 12:26). For believers, death does not have the final word, but it does cause a separation between us and those we love, which naturally produces grief.
Nevertheless, Paul encourages believers to have a different kind of grief from unbelievers—“not…as others do who have no hope” (cf. Eph. 2:12). Christians grieve while still living hopeful of the future regathering of believers at the resurrection (John 11:25–26).
Paul heralds the basis for Christian hope: Jesus “died and rose again” (cf. 1 Cor. 15:1–11; Rom. 6:1–5; 1 Thess. 5:10). Jesus’ resurrection confirms his victory over sin and death and displays the pattern of resurrection life that he will grant his followers at his return (cf. 1 Cor. 15:12–58; Phil. 3:20–21). Thus, in Jesus’ resurrection the church has confidence that God will raise their dead brothers and sisters in Christ. Indeed, these risen believers will be an integral part of his second coming.
Word From Jesus
Paul repeats a truth that he comprehends “by a word from the Lord.” Paul knows Jesus’ instructions to his disciples concerning eschatology, though possibly he has also received prophetic revelation from Jesus. Much of what follows clearly parallels Jesus’ teaching found in the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24–25; Mark 13; Luke 21; cf. also comment on 1 Thess. 1:8–10). This includes the return of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven (Matt. 24:30), the trumpet call (Matt. 24:31), the gathering of the elect from the ends of the earth and heaven (Mark 13:27), the inability to know the day of the Lord’s return (Matt. 24:42), and Jesus’ return being likened to a thief in the night (Matt. 24:43).
Key to the next few verses is Paul’s division between those Christians who die prior to Christ’s return (“those who have fallen asleep” or “the dead in Christ”) and those who are still living on earth when Jesus appears (“we who are alive” or those “left until the coming of the Lord”). Paul demonstrates that the dead in Christ are indeed raised at the Lord’s return, even prior to the still-living believers’ welcoming Christ.
Indeed, the dead in Christ are raised “first” (1 Thess. 4:16). Or, as Paul puts it in verse 15, “We who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.” The “coming [Gk. parousia] of the Lord” is a common NT phrase designating Christ’s return in order to establish his eternal kingdom and rule (cf. comment on 2 Thess. 2:1).
Order of Events
In the next two verses, Paul provides a basic order of events at Jesus’ return, emphasizing that the dead in Christ experience resurrection glory. This sequence of events follows the contours of Jesus’ own eschatological instruction (esp. Matt. 24:30–31; Mark 13:26–27; Luke 21:27).
First, the Lord “will descend from heaven.” As Jesus mentions (quoting Dan. 7:13), the Son of Man will come “on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matt. 24:30; cf. Mark 13:26; Luke 21:27). Many images in Revelation overlap here, but especially the coming from heaven of Jesus as the rider on the white horse, escorted by angelic armies, while an angel cries out in a loud voice (Rev. 19:11–21).
This appearance is accompanied by three sounds: “a cry of command,” “the voice of the archangel,” and “the sound of the trumpet of God.” Paul elsewhere describes Jesus’ being “revealed from heaven with his mighty angels” (2 Thess. 1:7; for angels, cf. Matt. 13:41, 49; 16:27; 24:31; 25:31). The sounding of a “loud trumpet” is also mentioned explicitly in Matthew 24:31 (cf. 1 Cor. 15:52). The blowing of trumpets during the eschatological return of the people of God is known in the OT (e.g., Isa. 27:13), and trumpets are featured in the book of Revelation as well (esp. chs. 8–11).