Is the sleeping referred to in 1 Thessalonians 5:10 spiritual lethargy or death?
“For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ, Who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him” (1Thess 5:9,10, KJV)
The question arises because the word “sleep” is used in two different ways in 1 Thessalonians: “them also which sleep in Jesus” (4:14, referring to death) and “let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober” (5:6, referring to spiritual lethargy). These are actually two different words in Greek, and the one used in 5:10 is the same as that used in 5:6, which strongly indicates the reference in 5:10 is to spiritual lethargy; a conclusion strengthened by the fact that 5:10 is in the context of 5:6, rather than that of 4:14.
Ten times in his preaching and writings Paul uses the word translated “sleep” in 4:14, and each case unequivocally refers to death. If he had meant death in 5:10, it would have been the obvious word to use. Equally, since he used the other word in 5:6, it would be surprising if he used it again in 5:10, if he did not intend the same meaning as in 5:6. As for this word, the only occasion in which it is used of a dead person was when the Lord Jesus said of Jairus’ daughter, “She is not dead, but sleepeth” – where He is using the word, not as a description of death, but to denote a contrast to it.
Furthermore, in 5:10 the word translated “wake,” which stands in contrast to “sleep,” occurs 23 times in the NT and is the only occasion where it is rendered “wake.” Elsewhere it is translated either “watch” (21 times) or “be vigilant” (once). The context of each of these references confirms that the word denotes alertness. It never means “to be alive” (in contrast to being dead). In this passage, just four verses previous, it is translated “watch” (“let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober”). If the translators had used the same word in verse 10 as in verse 6, and rendered the phrase “whether we watch or sleep,” it would have clarified the meaning in verse 10 as a lack of spiritual vigilance.
Those who object to this view argue that if Paul was saying that we will live with Christ even if we are not vigilant then he would be giving license for lethargy. However, this is not so, and, if we were to follow this reasoning, we wouldn’t teach the truth of eternal security, for fear of encouraging carelessness. Paul has just been explaining why Christians should not “sleep.” It characterizes those who are in darkness (vv6-7), and it is totally out of character with our calling and hope (vv8-9). He certainly cannot be accused of saying that it does not matter whether we are vigilant or not! Rather, the statement in verse 10 is an important balance to what has gone before. Christians who had just been comforted by his words in chapter 4, and then read his warnings against lethargy, could, at this point, be apprehensive again, and ask: “We now know that saints who have died will not miss out at the Rapture, but what about us, who are still alive? If we have not been as watchful as we should, will we miss out?” Paul’s statement reassures such that there will be no “partial rapture” – our being “with Him” when He comes. It does not depend on our alertness, but on an altogether firmer foundation – Him, Who “died for us.” The ground of our hope is the death and resurrection of Christ (4:14; 5:10).