8. The Comfort of His Coming (4:13-18)
With verse 13, Paul begins his answer to another problem he learned about when Timothy returned from his trip to Thessalonica. It concerned questions and a certain amount of anxiety some were having with regard to their loved ones who had died. They were expecting the return of the Lord at any time, but what about those loved ones who had died since trusting Christ? From the content of verses 13-18, it is clear they were asking how would Christ’s return affect these loved ones who had since died? Would their death hinder or handicap them in any way? Will those who are alive at His coming have an advantage over those who had died?
As we look at this passage, it is also important that we understand something of the beliefs of the pagan world from which these believers had been redeemed. As verse 13 states, the pagan world had no real hope of life after death. There was an inscription in Thessalonica which read: “After death, no reviving, after the grave, no meeting again.” Writing about this lack of hope, Wiersbe writes,
A typical inscription on a grave demonstrates this fact. ‘I was not, I became, I am not, I care not.’ While some of the philosophers, such as Socrates, sought to prove happiness after death, the pagan world had no word of assurance.103
When Paul preached the doctrine of the resurrection to the Athenian philosophers, most of them mocked him (Acts 17:32). To the Greeks, being rid of the body was their great hope. Why would any man want to have his body resurrected? Furthermore, how could his body be resurrected, when the elements of the body would decay and become a part of the earth? To them the doctrine of resurrection was foolish and impossible.104
Apart from the revelation of God in Christ and in the Bible, the world today still has no assurance of life after death. All the other leaders of the various religions and philosophies of the world lie smoldering in their graves. Only one has come forth from the grave to validate His claims and prove that He is the way, the truth, and the life, and that is the person of the Lord Jesus. It was this message that Paul proclaimed to the Athenian philosophers in Acts 17:30-31 when he said:
Therefore, although God has overlooked such times of ignorance, he now commands all people everywhere to repent, 17:31 because he has set a day on which he is going to judge the world in righteousness, by a man whom he designated, having provided proof to all by raising him from the dead.
Though the following will not form the outline used in this section of the exposition, it should help to give an overview of verses 13-18. These verses consist of two basic thrusts: Revelation (vss. 13-17) and the Results or the proper Response to that revelation (vs. 18). Their ignorance about certain vital truths regarding the death of believers meant they needed divine revelation on this issue, as in all spiritual issues.
(1) The Revelation Concerning Christ’s Return (vss. 13-17): Though only three truths are covered here, there are four truths that all believers need to know and live by.
- The Resurrection of all church age believers who have died (vss. 14-16).
- The Rapture of living believers, those remaining when He comes (vs. 17).
- The Reunion of both with the Lord and with all other church age saints (vs. 17).
- The Reward of Believers at the Bema (Judgment Seat) of Christ. Though this is not mentioned here, it is spoken of in chapter 2:19-20 and specifically dealt with in other passages (see 1 Cor. 3:12f.; 2 Cor. 5:8f.).
(2) The Results or Response—Reassurance, Rest or Comfort (vs. 18).
The Purpose and Plan
4:13 Now we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest who have no hope.
Knowing something of the background of these believers we can readily understand their perplexity and their questions, but as always, it was knowing God’s truth that would answer their perplexity. Writing under inspiration and with the hope of the resurrection based on Christ’s resurrection, the Apostle wrote to remove their ignorance and comfort their hearts. Paul’s primary purpose was to comfort them in their grief as verse 18 shows us. Also note in verse 13 the “so that” clause (hina, a conjunction introducing the purpose, aim, or goal) which states the purpose of this section of verses.
The Apostle wanted to remove both their ignorance and their grief, but the solution to their grief lay in removing their ignorance which would also give hope—a hope the unbelieving world could not have. Thus, the verses that follow show that Paul’s plan or goal was threefold.
1. The first objective and desire was to remove their ignorance through giving biblical insight. The word used here is agnoeo, “to be ignorant or unaware of, to be without understanding.” This emphasis is found often in Paul’s epistles (cf. Rom. 1:13; 11:25; 1 Cor. 10:1; 12:1; 2 Cor. 1:8). Knowing the Word is fundamental to all spiritual stability.
2. This would accomplish the second objective, the giving of hope, a hope based first on the resurrection of Christ (vs. 14) and then on the truth of the rapture. This should remind us of Romans 15:4. It is through the encouragement that comes from the Scriptures that we find hope. While the truth revealed here was a mystery or unknown in the Old Testament (see 1 Cor. 15:51-52), through the revelation given to Paul, this has become a New Testament truth and what Paul later called “the blessed hope” (Tit. 2:13). It is the knowledge of God’s Word which comforts and gives us hope. This will be an important point below in The Persuasion and Proof.
3. The third objective is that this hope would then give comfort and remove their grief. The Apostle does not deny that we may grieve over the loss of loved ones (cf. Phil. 2:27), but that is not the point here. We do not sorrow for our loved ones in Christ who die as those who venture into an unknown world. Such sorrow is precluded entirely. We miss them and we may sorrow over our loss, but never over their loss. Rather, we rejoice for them because they are with the Lord (2 Cor. 5).
Note also that the Apostle is writing to those whom he called “brethren” (adelphoi), a technical term for believers, “brothers and sisters in Christ.” This, and the words “as do the rest who have no hope,” drive home a very important truth. Only the believer in Christ can know this hope and truly experience this comfort in the face of death. This is vividly illustrated when we contrast the reactions of people who know the Lord and the Word with those who do not when they are faced with the loss of their loved ones or are facing death themselves.
Finally, Paul describes those who died as “those who have fallen asleep.” Sleep is a common figure of speech for death, which, in the New Testament, is used only of the Christian who has died. But why? What does this mean? Does this refer to the soul or the body? As you might guess, some use this passage to teach soul sleep, an idea foreign to the New Testament. This will be discussed in the next point.
The Persuasion and Proof—A Preview
4:14 For if we believe that Jesus died and arose, so also we believe that God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep as Christians.
The certainty of our hope is the death and resurrection of our Lord. Christ’s resurrection marks Him out as both God’s Son and our Savior—our solution to sin and both spiritual and physical death (Rom. 1:4; 4:25–5:1).
The “if” does not imply doubt. This is what is called a first class condition in the Greek, which, from the standpoint of the author and for the sake of his argument, assumes something to be true. Many would translate this as “since,” though some would question the validity of that translation since Greek had several words for “if” (epie, epeide). Wallace, who believes the first class condion should never be translated since writes,
There is great rehetorical power in if. To translate ei as since is to turn an invitation to dialogue into a lecture. Often the idea seems to be an encouragement to respond, in which the author attempts to get his audience to come to the conclusion of the apodosis (since they already agree with him on the protasis). It thus functions as a tool of persuasion.105
A conditional sentence has two parts, the condition (the protasis) and the result (the apodosis). If the first part is true or assumed to be true for the sake of argument, so is the second part or the result. So, since these Thessalonians believed that Christ really died and rose from the dead, they should likewise believe that He will return, and when He does, He will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. The Christian’s persuasion of His death and resurrection, one based on incredible evidence, is also the proof of His coming again just as He Himself promised in John 14.
The Apostle tells us here that when Christ comes again, He will not come by Himself. He will come with those who have fallen asleep in (or through) Jesus. This statement describes the nature of death for believers. Through faith in Christ, death for the believer is only sleep and not the threat it once was before salvation in Christ.
But how will He do this? Verses 15f. will explain. But for now note that the text tells us that it is God who will bring them with Him (i.e., with Jesus Christ). God is emphatic in the Greek text and lays stress on the idea that this is nothing less than the miraculous work of God through the Son of God Himself.
Phil. 3:20-21. But our citizenship is in heaven—and we also await a savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform these humble bodies of ours into the likeness of his glorious body by means of that power by which he is able to subject all things to himself.
But what exactly does the Apostle mean by the words “have fallen asleep”? First, it is a reference to physical death, but sleep is used as a metaphor or a figure of speech. A figure of speech directly compares one thing to another that we are familiar with. Sleep beautifully portrays what death means for a believer, a figure used for death only in the New Testament.
But why? The aim of this metaphor is to suggest what death is like or means to the believer, but this must be understood in the light of all of Scripture: (a) As the sleeper does not cease to exist while his body sleeps, so the dead person continues to exist. The grave is like a bed. (b) As the immaterial part of man when asleep still functions in that he dreams, and his sub-conscious is still at work, so likewise, the believer’s soul and spirit are not only awake and enjoying the presence of God (Phil. 1:23), but are at rest. Contrast this to the picture of the rich man in Luke 16:17-31. (c) Finally, and primarily, as sleep is temporary, so also is the death of the body. This figure of speech for death anticipates resurrection.
The verb “to sleep,” koimao, is used of both natural sleep (Matt. 28:13; Luke 22:45; Acts 12:6), and of death, but only of the death of the Christian (here in vss. 13, 14, 15; Matt. 27:52; John 11:11; 1 Cor. 7:39; 11:30; 15:6, 18, 51; 2 Pet. 3:4). In verse 13 we have the present participle meaning either, “those who are lying asleep,” or “those who fall asleep from time to time,” i.e., as people die in the course of life (iterative present). In verses 14 and 15, the aorist tense is used which points either to the moment of falling asleep or simply the point or fact of dying.
It is also significant that Paul was careful not to use the word sleep with reference to the death of Christ. Undoubtedly, this is because He died that we might live and never fear death. The only time the concept of sleep is used of our Lord’s death is in the words, “the first fruits of those who are asleep.” “The difference between Jesus’ experience and that of believers is that he really endured actual separation from God for the world’s sins. Because of his real death, Christian death has been transformed into sleep.”106
But what does the clause mean, “have fallen asleep in Jesus” and particularly, the phrase, “in Jesus”? This is a somewhat debated clause. Literally, the text says, “And God those who have fallen asleep through Jesus He shall bring with Him.” The debate is over whether “through Jesus” goes with “have fallen asleep” or with “He shall bring with Him.”
Since “bring” has the preposition “with,” the sentence has a better balance if we take “through Jesus” with “have fallen asleep.”
It is possible that “through Jesus” describes “bring,” but this gives the unlikely double reference, “through Jesus God will bring them with Jesus.” Instead it describes their “falling sleep,” since through him their death is only sleep and not the threat it once was. Also Christians are those whose total existence—life and death—is in and through and for Christ (1 Cor 8:6).107
Death has been turned into sleep through Jesus who died and rose again.
But what about belief in soul sleep advocated by certain groups today? For an overview and brief refutation of this belief, see the Addendum at the end of this lesson.
Application: As we study this passage, let’s remember that the great purpose of these verses is comfort for Christians in view of the rapture of the Church and the resurrection of Believers. As we continue to live in a fallen and sin-ridden world, we need the comfort of God’s revelation regarding our future as believers in Christ. For Christians, those who believe that Jesus died and rose again, comfort from sorrow is ultimately related to what the future holds because we understand that we live in a sinful world with all that living in such a world means. Regardless, a glorious future lies ahead, and in the meantime, we are to live as sojourners, as aliens on assignment, as ambassadors of the Savior.
The Promise and Prophecy
4:15 For we tell you this by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will surely not go ahead of those who have fallen asleep. 4:16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will arise first. 4:17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be snatched up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord always.
Concerning Those Who Remain (vs. 15a)
“For” is a coordinating particle which introduces us to Paul’s explanation of how the Lord will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus. The demonstrative “this” refers to the statement that follows introduced by “that” (Greek, hoti). Thus, Paul introduces us to the reason we can have hope concerning our loved ones who have died, or fallen asleep through Christ.
The Authority for His Explanation
Notice the Apostle’s explanation begins with the words, “this we say to you by the word of the Lord.” The promise and explanation of these verses were no figment of the Apostle’s imagination or wishful thinking. While mortal man cannot know what lies beyond the grave, we do not have to wonder about death and life after death. Through the revelation of Scripture, God has revealed this to us and authenticated its reality through the gift of His Son whom He raised from death to prove that He is the resurrection and the life just as the Savior said to Martha in John 11:25-26.
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live even if he dies, 11:26 and the one who lives and believes in me will never die (i.e., will never die forever).
The resurrection was a truth revealed in the Old Testament. Old Testament saints believed in the resurrection as is evident in the exchange between Martha and Jesus regarding the death of her brother, Lazarus, in John 11. Jesus replied to Martha, “‘Your brother will come back to life again.’ Martha said, ‘I know that he will come back to life again in the resurrection at the last day.’”
But the rapture and its details as given in this passage was new revelation and part of the mystery truths given to Paul (cf. 1 Cor. 15:51-52 with Eph. 3:3f.). This is what Paul means by the clause, “by the word of the Lord.” Some have advocated that Jesus spoke the words while on earth, their substance being recorded later in such places as Matthew 24:30, 31 and John 6:39, 40; 11:25, 26. There are similarities between 1 Thessalonians 4 and the gospel accounts. These include a trumpet (Matt 24:31), a resurrection (John 11:25, 26), and a gathering of the elect (Matt 24:31), but the dissimilarities between 4:13-18 and the gospel accounts of the sayings of Jesus far outweigh the resemblances. Some of the differences between Matthew 24:30, 31 and 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17 are as follows:
1. In Matthew the Son of Man is coming on the clouds, but in 1 Thessalonians 4 believers ascend in the clouds to meet the Lord.
2. In the gospels angels gather the elect, but in 1 Thessalonians 4 the Son gathers them personally.
3. In Matthew nothing is said about resurrection, while in 1 Thessalonians 4 this is the prominent message.
4. Matthew records nothing about the order of ascent, but this is a principal truth in Thessalonians.
As Robert L. Thomas points out,
The best solution is to see “the Lord’s own word” as a direct revelation to the church through one of her prophets—Paul himself or possibly someone else. The NT prophet’s function was to instruct and console believers (cf. v. 18 with 1 Co 14:31), utilizing predictions about the future in the process (Ac 11:27-28; 21:11). Since these elements are prominent here and since 1 Co 15:51 classifies this subject as “mystery” revelation, which is a characteristic of prophetic utterances, this explanation of Paul’s external authority is quite satisfactory.108
Concerning the Lord’s Return (vss. 15b-16a)
His Return Is Imminent
Paul first addresses the issue of those who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, but in doing this, he says “we” and not simply “those.” In the Greek text, the “we” is slightly emphatic and seems to be designed to bring out an important point. Clearly, Paul included himself among those who could be alive when the Lord returns. There is a clear implication here. Paul believed the coming of the Lord and the things described here were imminent and could have occurred in his day (cf. John 21:22; 2 Cor. 5:1; Phil. 3:20; Tit. 2:13). Any other viewpoint fails to give the needed recognition to Paul’s use of the first person pronoun “we” instead of the third person, “those.”
Concerning the return of the Lord, the Apostle divided believers into two classes—the living and the dead. Because Christ’s return is imminent and yet, because no man knows when it will be, Paul sometimes included himself with: (a) the dead, with those who would experience resurrection (2 Cor. 4:14), (b) sometimes with the living, with the living who would experience transformation (here and 1 Cor. 15:51, 52), (c) and sometimes in the category of either possibility (2 Cor. 5:1-8). Because of the believer’s sure and living hope through the death and resurrection of Christ, Paul looked and hoped for the return of the Lord in his day, but he was not afraid of death (see Phil. 1:21f.; 3:21; 2 Cor. 4:16–5:8).
In Paul’s attitude, we see that which should characterize every believer who knows and rests in the truth and promises of Scripture. We should live, look for, and long for the sure coming of the Lord, which, being imminent, could come in our day. But on the other hand, we should never be afraid of death, which may very well come first because of the confident expectation of the resurrection at His coming. This is the “blessed hope.” “One of the wonderful things about the hope of His coming is that it burns brightly in the hearts of each generation of Christians regardless long His return is delayed.”109 Regarding the fact of imminency here, Thomas, in The Expositors Bible Commentary, has this to say:
Had this not been the Thessalonians’ outlook, their question regarding the dead in Christ and exclusion from the parousia would have been meaningless. They were thinking in terms of an imminent parousia, expecting to see it before death (Best, p. 183). An intervening period of messianic woes or birthpangs was not their anticipation (Best, p. 184), for such intense persecution would have meant probable martyrdom, and in that case they would have had doubts about their own participation in the parousia. Hence, Paul believed and had taught his converts that the next event on the prophetic calendar for them was their being gathered to Christ.110
The blessed hope means none of the signs connected with the Lord’s return to earth at His second advent, as mentioned in Matthew 24, are necessary before His return for the church. Such signs herald His advent to earth in the form of the Tribulation judgments or the events of Revelation 6-19, but none of these are necessary for His return for the church. His coming for the church must occur at least seven years before His advent to earth.
The word imminency refers to an event that is, so to speak, “hanging overhead; it is something that is ready to occur or could occur at any moment.” While other things may happen before the imminent event, nothing else must occur before that event happens. If something else must occur first, then that event is not imminent. Further, no specific amount of time is specified regarding when the event will happen. It may be soon or it may not be. If a certain amount of time were needed before the occurrence of an event, then it would not be imminent. So an imminent event—like the return of Christ for the church—could happen soon. It might not … but it could.
When will this be? We simply do not know. Paul obviously did not know either, but the more we see world events coming together for the conditions needed for the Tribulation (Israel’s return to Palestine, the European nations banding together, and the rise of one-world thinking in the new age mentality), the closer His return for the church must be simply because His coming for us will precede these events, but it is not dependent on them.
The word “coming” is the Greek noun parousia. It was used of the coming and arrival, or the presence of a dignitary like a king. It could look at either aspect and is sometimes translated “coming” (Matt. 24:3, 27, 37; 1 Cor. 15:23; 1 Thess. 2:19; 3:13), or “presence” (2 Cor. 10:10; Phil. 2:12), or “arrival” (NIV, NET, 1 Cor. 16:17). It has both a technical use and a non-technical sense as in 1 Corinthians 16:17, which has no eschatological implications. In 1 Corinthians 16:17, Paul uses it for the coming and arrival of Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus. Here the emphasis is on the results of their coming, i.e., their arrival and presence and their ability to meet the needs of Paul. Compare the translation of the RSV. “I rejoice at the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus, because they have made up for your absence” (RSV). But then compare the NIV translation: “I was glad when Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus arrived, because they supplied what was lacking from you” (NIV).
Parousia is one of three key words used of the Lord’s return, the others being apocalupsis, “unveiling, revelation,” and epiphania, “manifestation, appearance.” These words are used of both the rapture and the second coming of Christ, but this is no reason to assume they refer to one and the same event. A careful study of the use of these words suggests a distinction between the rapture (the return of Christ for His saints) and the second coming (the return of Christ with His saints).
To conclude that the rapture and the second coming must be one single event because the parousia is used of both of them is to commit the linguistic error of illegitimate totality transfer. This occurs when one fails to realize or accept the fact that a word may have a different meaning or use in different contexts, which leads to forcing one meaning into all the contexts. For instance, in English the word trunk means something entirely different when used of a large box in the attic than when used of an elephant’s nose or the main woody axis of a tree. Thus, when the contexts of the various eschatological passages are studied, a number of clear distinctions become apparent between the rapture and the second coming of Christ to earth. In discussing the use of the three words mentioned above and the attempt by some to make them refer to one single event, Radmacher writes:
Finally, it should be noted with respect to the Greek words used that it is not necessary to understand them as categorizing words but rather as characterizing words. It will only lead to confusion to try to make a distinction between the rapture and the Second Advent on the basis of the words alone; rather, they should be seen in their respective contexts as words that characterize both of the events.111
In 1 Thessalonians 4, parousia describes the coming and arrival of the Lord for His bride, the church, the body of Christ. But since the same word is used of His advent to earth as in Matthew 24, some, in attempting to make parousia a categorizing word, say there cannot be a period of seven years between the rapture and His advent to earth or you end up with two comings, which, they say, the New Testament does not support. Such an understanding is an illustration of the error of illigitamate totality transfer in the use of parousia.
There is plenty of biblical data to show enough dissimilarity between those passages that clearly deal with the rapture and those that deal with the second coming of Christ to earth to warrant the interpretation that they are two different events that occur at different times. One illustration of this difference can be seen in this passage itself. In verse 17, the word “caught up” (arpazo), was used of a thief who comes in secret and grabs what he wants while people are asleep. Likewise, the Lord’s coming for the church is secret and takes place while the world is spiritually asleep and indifferent to God (see 5:2). The world does not see the Lord or any aspect of this event other than the disarray that must result with the sudden removal of millions from the earth. On the other hand, His coming as described in Matthew 24 and Revelation 19 is seen by the whole world. How can we account for this difference? Let me make a suggestion!
(1) The parousia of the Lord must be understood according to the context. There is His coming for the Church, and there is His coming to earth with the church at the end of the Tribulation (Rev. 19). One is silent and unseen by the world, and the other is just the opposite. In one He comes for His bride, and in the other, He comes with His bride.
(2) The Lord comes for His bride and takes her to His Father’s house. This would be heaven. This was the Jewish custom and fits with His promise in John 14. It is at this time that the church, the bride of Christ, is presented to the Groom, the Lord Jesus, and we have the Marriage of the Lamb. This is followed by a time of examination (the Judgment or Bema Seat of Christ) and the dispensing of rewards which surely will require a considerable amount of time. When the church returns with Christ in Revelation 19:8, she is already clothed in “fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.” These represent rewards for the good works of believers and will constitute the wedding garments that will glorify Christ throughout the millennial reign of Christ.
(3) Further, as another illustration of the differences between the two events, in 1 Thessalonians 4 the Lord comes and the bride is caught up to meet Him in the air with no mention at all of a return to earth or a judgment of the earth. But in His second coming as described in Matthew 24 and Revelation 19, He comes to earth when every eye will see Him with the judgment of the earth to follow.
(4) Finally, by the promises given in 1 Thessalonians and the juxtaposition and natural chronology of chapters 4 and 5, the rapture occurs before the day of wrath. It means deliverance from the wrath of the Tribulation (1:10; 5:9). At Christ’s second coming to earth with His saints, it concludes the day of wrath (Rev. 16:1, 19; 19:15).112
His Coming Does Not Hinder Those Who Have Died
What does Paul mean by the statement, “will surely not go ahead of those who have fallen asleep”? “Go ahead” (“precede” in the NASB and NIV) is phthano, “to precede, go before.” The verb is used with an emphatic negative of denial, ou me. It means “by no means will they go before or precede.” The Apostle is simply saying that death before the return of the Lord will in no way hamper or negatively affect one’s part in the return of Christ for His church.
An Explanation of What His Return Means to Believers—Those Who Remain and Those Who Have Died:
(1) His return is personal: “The Lord Himself” (cf. John 14:1f.; Acts 1:11). “Himself” is emphatic by its position as in 3:11 and 5:23. Why? Paul wanted to fix attention on the fact that, without any intermediary agent as mentioned in Matthew 24:31, the Lord Himself will come for the church (another significant difference between the rapture and the second coming). Attention is fixed on Him in Whom “will be centered all the power and all the glory of the occasion, and Who is yet the very One Who died, v. 14. If He lost nothing by death, neither shall they who fell asleep trusting in Him.”113
(2) He descends from heaven: He comes from the right hand of the Father where He has been our Advocate to intercede on our behalf during the church age (Rom. 8:31f.; Matt. 22:44; Acts 2:33-34; Eph. 1:20; Heb. 1:13; 8:1).
(3) The attendant circumstances. The chief focus is on the fact that it is the Lord Himself who comes, but due to His personal presence, there will be other factors that are in keeping with His glorious presence. He comes with a shout of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trump of God. In the Greek text, each of the three nouns has the preposition “with” (Greek en) describing the manner of His return. Each noun also lacks the Greek article which is often present with the preposition en when specificity is in view rather than quality. Rather than specifying the voice of an archangel and the trump of God, the phrases are more qualitative and may further define the previous statement. The English translation gives the impression three things occur: a shout of command, the voice of the archangel, and the trumpet of God. Though this is much discussed and debated, each clause might be better understood as providing a further explanation of the preceding clause, or as a threefold description of one great signal from heaven as Hogg and Vine suggest, i.e., “with a shout of command in an archangel-like voice, even with the voice like the trumpet of God Himself.”114
Furthermore, “shout” is keleusma, a military noun which occurs only here in the New Testament. It was used of an order, command, specifically a stimulating cry, either that by which animals are roused and urged on by man, as horses by charioteers, hounds by hunters, etc., or that by which a signal is given to men, e.g., to rowers by the master of a ship, to soldiers by a commander (with a loud summons, a trumpet call).115
Many believe this refers to the Lord’s voice mentioned in John 5:24, 28, and is the same as the last trump of 1 Corinthians 15:52. It was at the voice of Jesus that Lazarus came forth from the grave in John 11. Whether it is His voice or not, it applies to both the living and the dead and will be the most stimulating cry we will ever hear. Hogg and Vine point out that this shout is not directly stated to be the voice of the Lord as mentioned in John 5:28, but simply that it peals forth as the Lord descends. To whom it is addressed is not stated. They think it may be the signal to the attendant hosts of heaven.116 However, that it is His voice is certainly the implication of the text and this fits with John 5:24, 28 and 11:43. As further support for this idea, we can compare Psalm 47:5 which seems to associate the voice or shout of God with a trumpet, “God has ascended with a shout, The Lord, with the sound of a trumpet.”
But what about the last trump of 1 Corinthians 15:52? In both passages (1 Thess. 4:13f. and 1 Cor. 15:52) we have the resurrection of dead believers and the transformation or change of living believers associated with a trumpet. This, as pointed out above, seems to refer to the commanding shout of the Savior, calling His people from the grave and gathering them together.
However, some have tried to associate this with the last or seventh trumpet of the Tribulation and with the trumpet of Matthew 24:31. By doing this, they attempt to put the rapture either in the Tribulation or at its end, when the Lord returns to earth. The following are some possible answers to such a proposal:
(1) 1 Thessalonians 4:15 describes the nature of the last trumpet. The emphasis is not on the time, but on its character. It is a shout of command with an archangel-like voice either heralding this event or bringing about the resurrection and the rapture of the church. This does, however, herald the end of the church age.
(2) That it cannot or should not be equated with Joel 2:1 or with Revelation 8:7f. should be clear by the obvious differences that exist between these trumpets.
Living elect on earth are gathered by Angels
Entrance into the kingdom
1 Cor. 15:52
1 Thess. 4:16
God/Christ, it is the trump of God
Gathered in air by Christ Himself, not angels
Assemble and warn of Danger
War and Invasion
Brings on the Tribulation events
But what does the Apostle mean by “the Last Trump”? Because of the adjective “last,” some seek to associate this with the seventh or last trumpet of Revelation 8 and thus place the rapture at the end of the Tribulation. But as the above comparison shows, this is a distinct signal, evidently the very voice of the Lord Himself for the church. It is not blown by angels and is not for the world.
John Eadie, a well-known scholar who wrote at the end of the 1800s wrote:
The phrase, “the last trump” (1 Cor. XV, 52), is supposed … to imply previous trumpets, at the last of which the Judge descends, while others identify it with the seventh trumpet of the Apocalypse; but these notions, the second especially, are exceedingly precarious—the phrase, “the last trump,” being apparently a popular one, and meaning the trumpet in connection with the End.117
Of course the issue is the end of what? Since this is written to believers of the church age who are waiting for His imminent return, the end is that of the church age, not of the end of the age of Israel, or of all things.
In the Old Testament, the blowing of the trumpet was used to accompany the Theophanies, the manifestations of God, as in Exodus 19:16. There it signaled the approach of the Lord at the giving of the Law. For the church this is the end and involves the Christophany, the manifestation of Christ, but at the same time, it will form the beginning of the end in that afterwards (how soon is not revealed), the Tribulation will begin which will be culminated just seven years later by the manifestation of Christ’s parousia, His presence openly revealed to the world as He descends with His church as described above.
Concerning Resurrection (vs. 16b)
The words, “the dead in Christ,” give us an alternative description of “those who are” or “have fallen asleep” of verses 13-14. “In Christ” refers to believers and shows that even death cannot undermine their position in the Lord. Though the body is dead, the believer’s soul and spirit are not only with the Lord, as other passages show us (2 Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:23), but are still secure in the Lord and kept by the power of God (1 Pet. 1:5).
The central revelation here, and one that is key to the concerns of the Thessalonians, is that those who die before the Lord returns for His church will rise first. Rather than being at a disadvantage, they will actually be raised before the living are changed. This refers, of course, to the resurrection of the body when the immaterial part, the soul and spirit, that which comes with the Lord at His return (vs. 14), will be united with the resurrected glorified body. Regarding the nature of this resurrection, Wiersbe says:
This does not mean that He will put the elements of the body together again, for resurrection is not “reconstruction.” Paul argued for the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:35ff. He pointed out that the resurrection of the human body is like the growing of a plant from a seed. The flower is not the identical seed that was planted, yet there is continuity from seed to plant. Christians shall receive glorified bodies, like the glorified body of Christ (Phil. 3:20-21; 1 Cor. 14:47-58). The dead body is the “seed” that is planted in the ground; the resurrection body is the “flower” that comes from that seed.118
Since this passage deals with the subject of resurrection, a word regarding John 5:29 is in order. John 5:29 shows us that there are two basic groups of resurrected people, the just and the unjust. The word “hour” in John 5:25 refers to an extended period of time, this present age, and likewise in verse 29 it also refers to an extended period. The resurrection of the just and unjust do not occur at the same time. The same thing is true with regard to resurrection mentioned in Daniel 12:2.
This is clear from 1 Corinthians 15:23-24, which teaches us that there is a special order to God’s resurrection program. The order is Christ first, then believers at His coming or parousia. As suggested previously, there are two phases of this coming, one that is secret experienced only by the church, and one that is seen by all the world. This is the resurrection of the just, the first resurrection (Rev. 20:5-6), but it occurs in stages. This includes (1) a resurrection before The Tribulation, that of the church (1 Thess. 4:13f.), (2) one afterward, that of Old Testament and Tribulation saints (Rev. 20:4; Dan. 12:1-2a).119 This will be followed by the resurrection of the unjust (cf. Rev. 20:11-15; Dan. 12:2b; John 5:29b). The following chart illustrates the differences in these resurrections and the judgments that accompany them. Another set of judgments mentioned in Matthew are the judgment of the sheep and goats, but this is a judgment of those who are alive at the end of the Tribulation (Matt. 25:31-46).
The Bema, Judgment Seat of Christ
OT and Tribulation Saints Judged and Rewarded
The Great White Throne Judgment
Church Age Believers
OT and Tribulation believers
Unbelievers of all time
1 Cor. 3:12-15; Rom. 14:10-12
After the Rapture
After the Tribulation
After the Millennial reign
Concerning the Rapture and Reunion (vs. 17)
Now the Apostle addresses the subject of those who will be alive at the Lord’s return. Concerning those he says:
(1) They will be snatched or caught up. The Greek word is arpazo, “to seize, carry off by force, to seize on, claim for one’s self eagerly, to snatch out or away.” As the NET Bible has translated it, it carries the idea of a sudden exercise of force, and is accurately rendered “snatch.”120 (Compare John 10:12, 28, 29; Jude 23.)
This event has been known as “the rapture,” a term derived from a Latin word meaning “to catch up.” One of the definitions of the English word is “the state of being transferred from one place to another, especially to heaven” (American Heritage Dictionary). Though the term “rapture” is never found in the Bible, this is the concept of this Greek word arpazo. Paul used this word of his own experience of being caught up into the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:2, 4). It is used of the catching up of the male-child to the throne of God or to heaven, a reference to the ascension of Christ, in Revelation 12:5. Ryrie comments in connection with these other references,
It would appear from these other occurrences of the word that Paul had in mind being taken into heaven and not just into the mid-air to turn around suddenly and return to earth. He also implies in this idea of rapture the necessary change in mortal bodies in order to fit them for immortal existence in heaven. This is stated in greater detail in 1 Corinthians 15:50-53, and while the method of this change is never revealed, it is clear that Paul believed that it is possible to have a metamorphosis without the dissolution caused by death.121
(2) They will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Here is a threefold reunion of those alive and those who are living with the Lord Himself when He returns. The clouds in the air form the place of reunion—“not simply because clouds suggested themselves as convenient vehicles for transportation through space but because clouds are a regular feature of biblical theophanies; the divine glory is revealed in clouds, …”122 The return of the Son of God is naturally involved in the glory of God; it is a glorious reunion.
(3) This reunion means meeting the Lord in the air. This brings out something more of the nature of this reunion. “Meet” is the Greek apantesis, a special word sometimes used formally of a delegation of citizens who would meet a visiting dignitary and then ceremonially escort him back into the city. It is used somewhat like this in Matthew 25:1, 6 and Acts 28:15. Because of this, some have argued that this proves the Lord returns at the end of the Tribulation. Advocates of this view contend that the church is raptured and resurrected to meet the Lord and then immediately return with Him as He continues His advent to earth. But as Bruce points out, “… there is nothing in this context which demands this interpretation; it cannot be determined from what is said here whether the Lord (with his people) continues his journey to earth or returns to heaven.”123
Regarding the idea that believers go out to meet the Lord and then escort Him back to earth, Thomas writes:
Whether this is true is debatable. Even if it were true, Christ would not necessarily be escorted back to earth immediately. Usage of the noun in the LXX as well as differing features of the present context (e.g., Christians being snatched away rather than advancing on their own to meet the visitor) is sufficient to remove this passage from the technical Hellenistic sense of the word. A meeting in the air is pointless unless the saints continue on to heaven with the Lord who has come out to meet them. Tradition stemming from Jesus’ parting instructions fixes the immediate destination following the meeting, as the Father’s house, i.e., heaven (Jn. 14:2, 3).124
Again, we would point out that in Revelation 19:8, when the church returns with the Lord to earth, she has already been clothed in fine linen, a picture of her rewards for good works.
(4) This reunion means being with the Lord forever. It will be a permanent meeting. After all, this is the main point and we dare not lose sight of this regardless of when this occurs. This is the climax of the blessing of this event. The location and time is secondary in view of the final result—ever being with our Savior in glorified bodies (Phil. 3:21).
4:18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
The call to encourage one another brings us back to the main purpose of this passage—comfort in place of grieving as those who have no hope. It is the doctrine and truth of this passage and the hope it provides that is the cure for our sorrow over the death and the departure of loved ones, at least for those who know the Lord.
In striking contrast to these words is a papyrus letter of the second century A.D. written by a woman to her bereaved friends. It runs:
Irene to Taonnophris and Philon greeting! I was as much grieved and shed as many tears over Eumoiros as I shed for Didymas. I did everything that was fitting [this refers apparently to certain rites customary at such times] and so did my whole family … But still there is nothing one can do in the face of such trouble. So I leave you to comfort yourselves. Farewell.125
Without the comfort of God through the Scripture and the resurrected Christ, how can man truly find comfort themselves? The subject of the Lord’s return for and appearing to the church is a subject of a great deal of New Testament revelation. The return of the Savior is not only something that we are to expectantly wait for (Tit. 2:13), but something on which we are to set our affection (2 Tim. 4:8). But this is not just to give comfort or reassurance in the face of death; it is to have a transforming affect on the way we live—on values, priorities, pursuits, and on moral behavior in general. We are sojourners who are here on temporary assignments as ambassadors of Christ. Since we are in the world, but not of it, our lives are to take on the character of the Lord Jesus Himself.
Titus 2:11-15 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all people. 2:12 It trains us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 2:13 as we wait for the happy fulfillment of our hope in the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. 2:14 He gave himself for us to set us free from every kind of lawlessness and to purify for himself a people who are truly his, who are eager to do good. 2:15 So communicate these things with the sort of exhortation or rebuke that carries full authority.
1 John 2:28–3:3 And now, little children, remain in him, so that whenever he appears we may have confidence and not shrink away from him in shame when he comes back. 2:29 If you know that he is righteous, you also know that everyone who practices righteousness is fathered by him. 3:1 (See what sort of love the Father has given to us: that we should be called God’s children—and indeed we are! For this reason the world does not know us: because it did not know him. 3:2 Dear friends, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet been revealed. But we know that whenever it is revealed we will be like him, because we will see him just as he is. 3:3 And everyone who has this hope focused on him purifies himself, just as Jesus is pure).
We have no guarantee that we will see tomorrow or that we will not see death. Death is a fact of life. In fact, as the author of Hebrews tells us, it is an appointment, “And just as people are appointed to die once, and then to face judgment” (Heb. 9:28). But the believer in Christ does have the guarantee that (1) he will not face the judgment of eternal separation from God, Christ having born our judgment for us (John 5:24; Rom. 8:1), (2) that he will be resurrected at the return of Christ (1 Thess. 4:16), and (3) should Christ come in his lifetime, he will be transformed into a glorious body like that of the Lord and caught up to forever be with the Lord (1 Thess. 4:17). Wiersbe tells of a quaint inscription on a gravestone in an old British cemetery not far from Windsor Castle. It read:
Pause, my friend, as you walk by;
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, so you will be.
Prepare, my friend, to follow me!
Wiersbe continues and writes, “I heard about a visitor who read that epitaph and added these lines”:
To follow you is not my intent,
Until I know which way you went!126
Jesus Christ, who said, “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6), also said, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live even if he dies” (John 11:25).
It is our prayer that if you do not know Christ as your personal Savior through faith in Him that you will come to place your trust in Him as your Savior from sin and death. If you have never trusted Christ, may we encourage you to go to our BSF home page at www.bible.org and read the section on Finding God.
A Brief Overview and Refutation of the Doctrine of Soul Sleep
Based on a misunderstanding of sleep as a metaphor for the death of believers, certain groups teach a doctrine called soul sleep. This is the belief that when a person dies, his body not only dies, but his soul is asleep in a state of unconsciousness until the resurrection when his soul is awakened and united again with his body.
Those who teach this doctrine generally use passages that speak of death as a state of sleep and use the statements of Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6, 10 to support their belief in soul sleep since in these verses, the preacher declares that the dead know nothing (vs. 5) and that there is no knowledge or wisdom in Sheol (vs. 10). In addition to Ecclesiastes, other passages used are: Daniel 12:2; Matthew 27:52; Luke 5:39; John 11:11; Acts 7:60; 13:36; 1 Corinthians 15:6, 18, 20; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-15.
Reasons Why Soul Sleep Is Not Biblical
(1) Some answer the statements of Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6, and 10 by reminding us that this book was written from the standpoint of knowledge “under the sun,” that is, from the viewpoint of the natural man or as man sees things from his natural or human perspective. Divine revelation alone can tell us of the true nature of life after death. Those who hold this view are usually not implying that Ecclesiastes is not inspired, it is, but only that it presents life as man can discern it by his own observations apart from divine revelation.
But the primary emphasis of these verses in Ecclesiastes is to provide a warning against wasting opportunities. It takes earthly time to lay up heavenly treasure, but there are no such opportunities after the grave (Sheol). The preacher in Ecclesiastes is not describing what the state of the dead is like. Rather, he is stating what it is not (the opportunities of this life no longer exist). Part of the problem here is that many have taught that Sheol always refers to the place of the soul and spirit after death. But Sheol and Hades in the New Testament do not always describe the place where the souls of men go, but may often refer to the place where their bodies go—the grave. This passage in Ecclesiastes does not favor soul sleep or even the annihilation of the wicked. Instead, it speaks of the destination of men’s bodies. The condition of the souls of men until the resurrection is not in view. Compare as an illustration, the use of Hades (the New Testament counterpart for Sheol) in Acts 2:27, “because you will not leave my soul to remain in Hades, or permit your Holy One to experience decay.”
(2) Sleep is a metaphor for physical death, a figure of speech that compares one thing with another, but it is not an explanation for the state of the soul (cf. 1 Thess 4:14 with Rev. 14:13). Sleep is simply a figure of speech which stresses that death is not the end, that it is temporary and restful.
(3) If anything, the metaphor of death as sleep suggest the consciousness of the soul after death because when people are asleep, their subconscious self is awake and active as is evident in the fact of dreams.
(4) Sleep refers to the death of the body, not to the state of the soul (cf. Acts 7:55-60; Luke 8:52-55).
- In Acts 7:55f., Stephen was given a vision of heaven and of the Lord standing to receive him into the Lord’s presence. This passage shows Stephen was confident of being with the Lord immediately after his death (cf. vs. 59).
- Acts 7:60 refers to his physical death or the death of his body only, while in verse 56 he was confident of being in Christ’s presence.
- This is further supported by Luke 8:52–55 which clarifies what Jesus meant when He said, “She is not dead but asleep.” He meant that the girl’s body was asleep. Jesus’ statement here shows the girl’s spirit was neither annihilated nor asleep but had simply departed. After Jesus took the girl by the hand “her spirit returned to her” (vss. 54–55). Note that verse 55 does not say that “her spirit was recreated” or that “her spirit was awakened.” The implication is that the girl’s spirit had only departed her body at the moment of death. Only her body was asleep. It is for such reasons as this that most scholars find that biblical references to the dead sleeping refer to the sleeping of the body, not the soul.
(5) Scripture teaches that though the body is dead (asleep), the soul is conscious and aware of its surroundings between the time of physical death and the resurrection.
- In Luke 16:19-31 both an unbeliever and a believer. are said to have died, but both are shown to be awake, conscious after death, one in torment in Hades, and the other in bliss in paradise or heaven. The Lord portrays them as able to think, talk, remember, feel, and care.
- The same is implied in Jesus’ statement to the penitent thief, “today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:40-43). Of course, this passage has been wrongly translated as Metzger points out:
A theological point is involved in the placing of a comma in Luke 23:43. According to the traditional way of understanding the passage, the repentant robber asked Jesus on the cross to remember him when Jesus entered His kingdom. To this request Jesus responded, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with Me in paradise.” In the interest of supporting the doctrine of “soul sleep” held by Jehovah’s Witnesses, the translators of the New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures have moved the comma so that the verse reads, “Truly I tell you today, You will be with me in Paradise.” But surely here the robber knew that Jesus was speaking to him that day, and so the correct punctuation is that of traditional translations.127
- In Philippians 1:20-23 death is described as “gain” because it brings the believer into the conscious presence of Christ. This definitely implies awareness of the Lord. Since the Lord is with us wherever we go now, how could death be gain if it brought us into Christ’s presence only in an unconscious state?
- In 2 Corinthians 5:1-8, (a) Paul demonstrates his desire and ambition for the rapture, the resurrection, because it means glorification and the reception of his resurrection body. (b) But he desired this during his earthly life before death that he might not be in the intermediate state without a glorified body. In our present state we groan, longing for the glorified body, yet this does not mean the intermediate state is one of unconsciousness or not better than our present state as suggested by Philippians 1:23. Why? (c) Because Paul clearly states that to be absent from the body (physical death) is to be present and at home with the Lord. These are strange words if we are with Him, but unconscious of His presence. Though this intermediate state is inferior to resurrection, it does mean an absence from present toils and being at home in the presence of the Lord.
- In Revelation 6:9-11, those slain are Tribulation saints who are killed because of their faith in Christ. But this scene occurs before the resurrection of Old Testament or Tribulation saints. They are in heaven and they are not only conscious, but aware of the battle on earth and yearning for God’s judgment to be poured out on an unbelieving and rebellious world and for God’s righteousness to be established on earth.
Putting all this together, is should be clear that soul sleep is a doctrine that has no biblical support.
105 Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1996, p. 692. For his complete discussion on the first class condition, see pp. 690-694.
112 For more on the differences between the two comings and other related issues see The Truth About the Rapture, Thomas Ice and Timothy Demy, Harvest House Publishers, The Rapture Question, John F. Walvoord, Zondervan, 1979, The Blessed hope and the Tribulation, John F. Walvoord, Zondervan, 1976, Come Quickly Lord Jesus, What You Need to Know About the Rapture, Charles C. Ryrie, Harvest House Publishers, 1996.
119 Note that Daniel 12:1-2 “predicts the resurrection of the righteous dead of OT times as well as the righteous martyrs of the Tribulation at the second coming of Christ (Rev. 20:4-6). Believers of the church age will already have been changed and raised at the Rapture. (The resurrection of the wicked does not occur at the same time, but after the Millennium; Rev. 20:5.)” (Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Ryrie Study Bible, Expanded Edition, Moody, p. 1371).