13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words. – 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 ESV
As the Thessalonian believers continued to grow up in their salvation and live their lives in a manner that was pleasing to God, Paul knew they would do so in the hope that Jesus Christ would soon return. The imminent return of Christ was a common theme in the early church and proved to be a powerful motivational message for those facing the very real threat of persecution and even death. Even Paul regularly spoke and wrote about the coming of Christ, reminding his children in the faith that the return of Christ was the ultimate goal or objective.
But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior. – 1 Corinthians 20:21 NLT
This is all the more urgent, for you know how late it is; time is running out. Wake up, for our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is almost gone; the day of salvation will soon be here. – Romans 13:11-12 NLT
Paul has already addressed the return of Christ three times in his letter to the church in Thessalonica.
…they speak of how you are looking forward to the coming of God’s Son from heaven—Jesus, whom God raised from the dead. – 1 Thessalonians 1:10 NLT
After all, what gives us hope and joy, and what will be our proud reward and crown as we stand before our Lord Jesus when he returns? It is you! – 1 Thessalonians 2:19 NLT
May he, as a result, make your hearts strong, blameless, and holy as you stand before God our Father when our Lord Jesus comes again with all his holy people. – Matthew 3:13 NLT
The return of Christ was the end-game for Paul. And he was eagerly anticipating it because Jesus had promised it.
There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am. – John 14:2-3 NLT
And Paul was not alone in his confident claims concerning the Lord’s timely return. The apostle James also saw the imminent return of Christ as a powerful motivational tool when addressing believers who were experiencing the pain and difficulties of life.
Dear brothers and sisters, be patient as you wait for the Lord’s return. Consider the farmers who patiently wait for the rains in the fall and in the spring. They eagerly look for the valuable harvest to ripen. You, too, must be patient. Take courage, for the coming of the Lord is near. – James 5:7-8 NLT
Peter, another one of the apostles, joined the chorus, reminding his readers that the Lord’s return would mark the end of all things.
The end of all things is near; therefore, be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer. – 1 Peter 4:7 NLT
And not to be left out, the author of the book of Hebrews encouraged his readers to use the reality of Christ’s return as motivation to model Christlikeness in their daily lives.
…let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near. – Hebrews 10:24-25 NLT
But when you live with eager anticipation that something is going to happen soon, but it fails to do so, disappointment and disillusionment can set in. You can start to question the validity of the promise and find yourself losing hope. And, as Paul knew, watching the deaths of their fellow believers was causing a certain amount of confusion and concern among the members of the early church. Why had they died before Jesus had come back? What was their fate?
It seems that all the talk about the imminent return of Christ had left some of the Thessalonians with the mistaken impression that all who believed would live to see it happen. But now, as time passed, some of their fellow believers were dying. And Paul attempted to provide them with clarification and further insight into all the talk about the “end of all things.” And he gets right to the point.
…now, dear brothers and sisters, we want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died so you will not grieve like people who have no hope. – 1 Thessalonians 4:13 NLT
Their grief was not just over the loss of their friends, but it also included their concern over the eternal state of those who had died. Had they not believed? Were they doomed to spend eternity in hell? Had their deaths been the result of having fallen away from the faith?
It is important to remember that the early church had very limited access to doctrine or well-informed insights into theological matters. In its infancy, the church was dependent upon Paul and others to provide them with theological training and teaching regarding such matters as the end times. Paul’s letter to the Romans was his attempt to provide a detailed doctrinal analysis of the faith, expounding upon the teachings of Jesus and the message of the Gospel so that members of the early church could have a deeper and more foundational understanding of their faith.
Paul has already told the Thessalonians that he regularly prayed “asking God to let us see you again to fill the gaps in your faith” (1 Thessalonians 3:10 NLT). And that is exactly what he is attempting to do in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.
First, he addresses the 800-pound gorilla in the room: The untimely deaths of their fellow believers.
For since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again, we also believe that when Jesus returns, God will bring back with him the believers who have died. – 1 Thessalonians 4:14 NLT
With this statement, Paul brings up another aspect of the end-time events of which they were unaware and uninformed. This section of verses is one of the primary passages used to support the doctrine of the Rapture of the church. Paul is not talking about the Second Coming of Christ, but of His return for His bride, the church. The term “rapture” is not found in the Bible, but it is derived from the Greek word Paul uses in verse 17. There, he mentions that those who are still alive when Christ returns will be “caught up together…in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” The Greek word translated as “caught up” is harpazo, and it means “to seize, to snatch away, to carry off by force.”
In the late 4th-Century, the Bible was translated from its original languages into Latin. In the Latin Vulgate, as this translation came to be known, the phrase “caught up” was translated with the word, rapturo, from which the term “Rapture” comes.
Paul was informing his readers about an event that would precede the Second Coming of Christ and usher in the rest of the end-time events. There was no need for the Thessalonians to grieve over the loss of their friends because God had a plan in place. They were not truly lost but had gone to be with Him. Their bodies had been buried, but their souls had gone to be with the Lord in heaven. When Jesus had addressed the thief on the cross, He had promised him, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43 NLT). There is no such thing as soul sleep or a holding place called Purgatory. Upon death, all believers go to be with the Lord.
And Paul assures those left behind in Thessalonica that they will one day see their deceased friends again. In fact, they will accompany Christ when He returns for His church.
…when Jesus returns, God will bring back with him the believers who have died. – 1 Thessalonians 4:14 NLT
But then Paul appears to contradict himself. He just said that the dead believers will come back with Christ, but then he states, “the believers who have died will rise from their graves” (1 Thessalonians 4:16 NLT). Well, which is it? Do they return with Jesus or will they rise from their graves? And the answer is, “Both.”
Paul is describing the resurrection of their bodies. At the Rapture, the souls of all those who have died in Christ will return with Him and be reunited with their resurrected and transformed bodies. Paul talks about the need for this in his first letter to the church in Corinth.
But someone may ask, “How will the dead be raised? What kind of bodies will they have?” What a foolish question! When you put a seed into the ground, it doesn’t grow into a plant unless it dies first. And what you put in the ground is not the plant that will grow, but only a bare seed of wheat or whatever you are planting.… It is the same way with the resurrection of the dead. Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. They are buried as natural human bodies, but they will be raised as spiritual bodies. – 1 Corinthians 35-37, 42-44 NLT
In his second letter, he provides greater detail regarding these spiritual bodies.
…we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down (that is, when we die and leave this earthly body), we will have a house in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands. – 2 Corinthians 5:1 NLT
The departed saints will return with the Lord and be reunited with their new spiritual bodies, prepared for them by God. And those who are still alive at the time of the Rapture will ascend into heaven, receiving their glorified bodies as they go. And the end result of all this? “…we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:17 ESV).
And Paul concludes by encouraging the Thessalonians to find comfort and encouragement in this new revelation regarding their lost friends and the future Rapture of the church.
Therefore encourage one another with these words. – 1 Thessalonians 4:18 ESV
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.