The Dead in Christ Will Rise First
B. God Has Promised That the Dead in Christ Will Rise First (4:13-18)
4:13. Paul is addressing a question in this paragraph that clearly concerned the believers in Thessalonica: the fear that those believers who died before the Rapture occurred would miss out on the Millennium. While believers grieve over lost loved ones (cf. John 11:35), they are not to sorrow as others [i.e., unbelievers] who have no hope.
Before the Fall of Adam and Eve, people were incapable of dying. God made humans to live forever in natural bodies. That all changed with the Fall. Death entered the world when Adam and Eve sinned. The human body was set to a path of birth, growth, decline, and then death.
In all of recorded history, only two people since the Fall have escaped death: Enoch and Elijah. They alone were taken alive to heaven. Even the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died. Of course, He rose bodily from the dead on the third day. The theme of 1 Thessalonians is that believers should serve God as they expectantly wait for the return of Jesus so that they might rule with Him (cf. 1:9-10).
In this section of the book Paul gives specific applications for how believers should be living and dying, in light of Christ’s soon return. Paul is not trying to teach a new doctrine to the Thessalonians. He is reminding them of a doctrine they have already been taught and already believe. Thus one should not look in this passage for a comprehensive treatment of the Rapture. Indeed, one will not find that anywhere, for the Rapture was well taught orally. Thus the epistles mention it, but they do not discuss it extensively.
This section immediately follows the section on brotherly love. The connection may be that love for departed loved ones should not cause one undue grief, as though he feared they would miss out on something to come.
The Greek word for sleep used here (koimaomai in 4:13-15) is most often used in the NT to refer to the death of believers (cf. Matt 27:52; 28:13 [of Jesus Himself], John 11:11-12; Acts 7:60; 13:36; 1 Cor 11:30; 15:6,18,51; however, 1 Cor 7:39 and 2 Peter 3:4 are unclear on the spiritual condition of the husbands and the fathers mentioned).
Christian grief should be lessened by the knowledge that one will meet his believing loved ones again very soon, possibly even today, and then they will all be together forever with the Lord (vv 14-17).
4:14. The resurrection of believers who have died before the Rapture is just as certain as the fact that Jesus died and rose again. God [the Father] will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. Jesus’ death and resurrection are not merely signs that all who believe in Him have eternal life (John 2:18-22; 20:30-31). They are also signs that He will raise all believers from the dead (cf. 11:25).
4:15-17. We who are alive and remain until the coming [parousia] of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. Here is their fear, that those believers who die before the Rapture will not be resurrected until much later, that is, until after the Millennium. Paul directly contradicts that fear. The Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. These are prophesied eschatological signs that attend the return of Messiah. This could refer to the Rapture or the Second Coming or both.
Most naturally it refers to both, for the fact that we will meet the Lord in the air, not in heaven, suggests that Jesus’ Second Coming takes seven years to complete. The Rapture and Second Coming are two phases of His return. The dead in Christ will rise first, that is, immediately before we who are alive. The word caught up (harpazœ) in the Latin Vulgate is translated with a word from which comes the word Rapture. There will be no more separations. No more death. From that point on, believers will be forever with the Lord.
4:18. Eschatology and particularly the Rapture should enable believers to comfort one another with these words (the words of vv 13-17). Eschatology is given to meet very practical needs. One of those is comforting believers in bereavement.
Believers who are now with the Lord will not miss out on anything in God’s plan. In fact, they are better off than those still alive (Phil 1:23). However, many believers seem determined to cling to this life at all costs. Thus one wonders if they think this life is better than the transition time between death and the Rapture.
Paul leaves no room for exceptions here. The reason his words are comforting is because all believers who have died will rise first. None of them will miss out on even one moment of the Millennium. Even believers who died when they were out of fellowship with God will rise first. Though some teach a partial Rapture, they do so in contradiction to Scripture (see also 5:10).
What about the death of unbelieving loved ones? Paul does not directly deal with that question here or elsewhere. However, the Lord Jesus will remove all grief (Rev 21:4). And He will give believers the grace they need now as well. Besides, even if it is a very remote possibility, believers should realize that they are not omniscient and it is always possible (except in cases of remote people groups where one could be certain a relative had never heard about Christ) that the departed loved one believed in Jesus for eternal life at some point in his life.