The earliest question asked about the Lord’s Coming in this Church age, of which we have any record, is the question that troubled the believers in Thessalonica around AD 50-51. It seems to have arisen as the new believers studied the OT Scriptures in the light of the gospel recently brought to them by Paul and Silas. From the gospel they knew that not only had Christ died for sinners but that He had risen from the dead and ascended to glory. Further, they knew that He was coming back to earth in glory to claim the crown refused Him at His first coming and establish His Kingdom in Jerusalem. Though the nation of Israel had rejected His Son and, thus were temporarily set aside (Rom 11:25) as the gospel went out to the nations, the Scriptures made it very clear that He still had purposes of blessing for that nation. For believers the prospect was bright – Christ was coming back to earth for the establishment of the glorious Kingdom in which they would share. But believers were dying and, suddenly they wondered. Would such miss that glorious manifestation? Of resurrection they had not the slightest doubt; that truth was an integral part of the gospel they had believed. However, from their study of Scripture, resurrection seemed to be placed subsequent to the establishment of the Kingdom (Dan 12:1-3). Thus, reason led them to understand that the believers, who died before the Lord returned, would miss the glorious inauguration of the Kingdom. Such a thought robbed His coming of its gladness, not in any way like the sorrow that death brings to unbelievers, but still, they could not rejoice as the Lord intended believers to do, in that hope without a shadow. This sober and sensible question requires not human reasoning but divine revelation to answer.
The answer, from the Lord Himself (1Thes 4:13-18), channelled through the apostle Paul, has brought comfort and joy to multitudes of believers down the years. The answer replaces ignorance with the light of Scripture, puts to rest every doubt, dispels every vestige of uncertainty, and dries every tear-stained cheek. There is no need to sorrow for believing friends who have died. Indeed, far from missing the inaugural scenes, they will enjoy a priority that places them in the forefront of the action: “The dead in Christ shall rise first.”
If the question is implicit in the wording of verse 13, the answer is explicit in verse 14. The answer is based on two indisputable facts: (a) that which to the unbeliever is death becomes, through Jesus, “sleep” (as in Matt 9:23-26 and John 11:11-14); note the expression “through (dia) Jesus” (v14). Sleep is related to the body only and the verb is always in the passive voice. As a mother tenderly rocks her child to sleep, so also Jesus puts His people to sleep. The soul “departs” to be with Christ (Phil 1:23) as the body sleeps. (b) Christ’s body was laid in a tomb but the next time unbelievers see Him is when He returns in glory. So believers in Him, in this age of gospel preaching will die and be buried and the next time unbelievers will see them will be when they come with Christ to earth in glory (v14). The verb “bring” is ago which is used eight times in the epistles: on five of these occasions it is translated “lead.” So it should be translated here. The Savior leads all the resurrected saints, their resurrected bodies patterned on His body (1Cor 15:35-47) in the setting up of His Kingdom. Loved believers who have died before the coming will not miss anything. Emphasis is placed on their presence by the expression “them also” (kai … tous). Not a single true believer from the Church age will be missing; we will all be there.
The explanation follows. Note “for” (gar); so vital is this matter that Paul assures the saints that it does not even rest on apostolic authority but carries the absolute authority of the Lord Himself. It is “a word of the Lord” (en logo kurio). First, a very natural assumption has to be ruled out: “that we who are alive, who are left unto the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep” (RSV). Any question of priority for the living believers is ruled out completely. This is made clear in the order of events introduced by the second explanatory “for” (hoti):
1. The Savior – “from heaven” (ap’ouranou). “For the Lord Himself” (hoti autos ho kurios).This can be delegated to no other. It is the Lord Himself Who calls home the Church. There is a marked absence of astronomical signs (Matt 24:29-30); there is no mention of the armies, attendant angels (Jude 14), or of the white horse and the rider with many and a flaming sword (Rev 19:11). In fact, it is the same Jesus as ascended to heaven Who descends from heaven (Acts 1:9).
2. The Shout – “with a shout.” Three prepositional phrases stand before the verb to describe the circumstances accompanying the Lord’s coming: “with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God.” There are various ways of understanding the grammar involved. However, the simplest is to take the shout as a definitive sound which is then interpreted in two different ways, possibly in two different realms. The word “shout” (en keleusmati) used only here in the NT has the thought of absolute authority. The authority of a military command; it commands obedience, instant and automatic. In the Septuagint, as pointed out by W. E. Vine, it is used of locusts who at the “word of command” march in rank (Pro 30:27). No genitive identifies the one giving the shout or to whom it is addressed. It is surely the triumphant shout of the victor over the grave, awakening all His own to eternal life; the shout that reaches all believers of this dispensation whether in heaven (those who have died) or those living on earth. It is the summons of the bridegroom to the bride.
The two phrases that follow interpret that sound in two different ways. In heaven it becomes as the “voice of archangel.” Bodies of believers would seem to be under archangelic supervision (Jude 9); and since many believers are about to be clothed with their resurrection bodies angelic powers are made aware of this. For believers on earth the final stage of earth’s pilgrimage is over. The trump of God sounds. This is why it is called “the last trump” (1Cor 15:52). The seventh trumpet in Revelation 11:15 is numbered in a series and the context shows it is not related to this trump.