Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians 4 to comfort sorrowing believers concerning others who had died. Since then, it has ministered to many. This epistle refers to different aspects of the Lord’s coming in every chapter, but it comforts saints in every age.
The sequence of teaching in the passage is important. The teaching on the coming of Christ for believers appears prior to the teaching relative to the day of the Lord (ch5). Thus, we believe that His coming for the Church precedes events of that great and terrible day, including the Great Tribulation, indicating that the church will not experience those events. Paul writes to:
Correct their Ignorance (v13)
Unanticipated events had occurred since Paul’s departure. Some had died and believers were apprehensive, not about the present state of those with Christ, but concerning their part in the coming Kingdom of Christ. Their ignorance stemmed from a lack of understanding, not negligence or unbelief, so Paul did not rebuke them, but taught them about future events.
The dead were “sleeping;” not a new expression, but having a different meaning from what the Jews or Gentiles saw in it (Deut 31:16; 2Sam 7:12; Mark 5:39). “Sleeping” was a tender expression, not only because they had no contact with the living, but because theirs was a temporary condition in view of an awakening when Christ returns. Paul uses a tense of “sleep” to indicate those who had actually died. In verse 14, he refers to some who were falling asleep among them at that time, including both in his teaching. It is clear, but must be emphasized, that “sleep” only applies to a believer’s body, not his soul. Never is it used for the unsaved; they die, for they have no hope for the future.
They were not to sorrow (or continue to sorrow) as others did who had no hope. The pagan world professed no hope for the body after death, though some believed in the immortality of the soul. This doesn’t preclude a believer’s sorrow at another’s passing. That sorrow is not forbidden, nor is it inconsistent with accepting God’s will. Believers lamented at Stephen’s death (Acts 8:2). The Lord Jesus wept at Lazarus’ tomb (John 11:33-35). These believers’ sorrow might also have been due to their concern about the future blessedness of their dead, and their possible disadvantage at His glorious coming. Paul writes to correct this mistake. In contrast to the heathen among whom they lived who had no hope, their sorrow at the loss of another believer was to be mingled with assurance that was based on the “Word of the Lord” (v15). The anticipation of a believer’s resurrection is a prospect that we encounter in every part of God’s Word (Job 19:26).
Emphasize their Confidence (v14)
“If we believe” indicates that this confidence in the resurrection of Jesus is a basis of the Christian faith, not a doubt. Those who don’t believe in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus are not Christians. It is also the assurance of the future resurrection and transformation of believers in Christ. It is “Jesus” who died and rose again. Paul is emphasizing that it was a real Man Who also passed through death and rose again. Thus “His manhood was unimpaired by death” (W. E. Vine). His experience gave evidence of what would also be theirs.
They also needed to know that “even so” (a matter of fact, not faith), those who “sleep through (more correct) Jesus” God will bring with Him. They sleep, not “in” Jesus, for the preposition means that it is because of, or by means of Jesus that they sleep. Either it indicates that because of His death and resurrection, they sleep instead of dying, or that it is Jesus who puts them to sleep. Mr. Vine says that it is to be joined with the following phrase, so that it is “God, through Jesus,” who will bring them with Him.
It is true that they will be brought “with Him” when He returns in His manifest glory to reign, but the context indicates that they will be brought with Him when He comes to receive His Church. When He comes to the air for the living, the souls and spirits of the departed ones will also come with Him to take part in the subsequent events that Paul describes in verses following. This assurance would erase their concerns about any being left behind or not being included in the future of the entire body of Christ.
Explain the Sequence (vv15-17)
Paul gives teaching based on divine authority, having received this truth directly. Those who are “the living” at the Lord’s coming and yet remaining on earth are mentioned first. Paul obviously includes himself among these, and the hope of the Lord’s return continued in his heart until the end of his life. Those living at His return would not “prevent” or “precede” those who are asleep. The sleeping ones would rise first. The coming of the Lord includes His presence with us (2:19, 3:13), and refers to a period that begins with His coming to the air for the believers and continues to His revelation and manifestation in glory to the earth.
There is no hint in this or in other passages that would support the theory of a “partial Rapture” of believers. This is the erroneous teaching that only those who meet certain criteria of faithfulness will be taken at the Rapture; the rest will be left to pass through some or all of the Tribulation. Paul always uses words that include every saint in Christ. Sidney Maxwell used to say, “I’m not concerned about going into heaven, since that was secured through the work of Christ for me. I am concerned, however, about how I will come out to go into the kingdom, since that will depend on my faithfulness to Him during this time of service.”
It is a personal coming of Christ for His own. “The Lord Himself shall descend” (4:16) so that His longing to receive His Church will finally be realized, and He will come personally, not sending any intermediary. Abraham sent his elder servant in Genesis 24 to secure a bride for Isaac, but that is a picture of the present work of the Holy Spirit for the Church. It is with “an assembling shout, with archangel’s voice and with trump of God,” (Darby). No noun in this verse has an article, so that Mr. Vine expresses it, “with a shout in the archangel’s voice, even with the voice of the trump of God.” Some, including Mr. Vine, see it as a threefold description of one great signal from heaven, rather than three distinct sounds. It is the shout of a command that expresses the quality of an archangel’s voice. The voice of command may be seen from the standpoint of the sleeping ones. The archangel’s voice may view it from a heavenly viewpoint while “trump of God” may reflect the earthly. The trump of God may link with the last trump (1Cor 15:52), and some have linked it with the different trumpet sounds of Israel’s movements through the desert, specifically, the last one calling for them to move out.
The result will be that the “dead in Christ will rise first.” They are asleep through Jesus but dead in Christ, and He watches over them as the exalted Lord now in heaven. They enjoy a perfect position. They continue to enjoy a spiritual union with Christ even after death. Alive, they were “in Christ” and they are yet “in Christ” when they have died. They will have priority, possibly so that the entire church united will rise together, to meet the Lord in the air. We will be “caught up,” which is a word that directly translates from Latin to English as “Rapture,” describing a sudden removal from one place to another. It is used for Philip in Acts 8:39, and for Paul in Acts 23:10 and in 2 Corinthians 12:2, 4, when he was “caught up” to heaven. “Rapture” is not a word in our English Bible, but it expresses the original intent of this sudden action of the Lord to catch away His people to be with Him.
His promise remains: “so shall we ever be with the Lord.” Where He is, we shall be. That day of reunion in the air will be a day of rejoicing! “We shall see Him as He is” (1John 3:2), and all the blessedness of His great salvation will be ours. Salvation will be complete when believers are bodily delivered from the presence of sin, with every capacity to enjoy His presence eternally.
Console their Hearts (v18)
Paul wrote to comfort their hearts and to erase every concern with regard to those who had died before Christ’s return. It is the “blessed hope” of Titus 2:13 that is linked with the appearing of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. His coming is without signs, so it is imminent. It is with sounds that we will hear, and they will be the last that His people will hear while here on earth. His coming is sure, it is swift, and it is securing. May these words continue to comfort the hearts of the saints in every time of sorrow.