1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Concerning the Coming of the Lord
We come now to what seems to have been the primary theological matter at the church of Thessalonica that Paul needed to address. Again, he ordinarily handled such concerns at the beginning of a letter; in this letter he deals with theological matters towards the end. We bear in mind that from the account in Acts, it seems that Paul was not in Thessalonica very long before he was run out (Acts 17: 1-10). Because of this, he probably did not have time to give them thorough teaching on every subject of Christian doctrine. In this case, it would seem that the Thessalonian church had some holes concerning the doctrine of our Lord’s return.
The issue was about those who die before our Lord’s return. The Thessalonians obviously believed Christ would return. We may also assume that they thought he was returning very soon—in their lifetime. No doubt, this raised many speculations, just as it does today. But if the Lord was coming back very soon, then what about those who die before he comes? Do they miss out on his return? Thus, we may logically assume some of their fellowship had passed since Paul’s absence and this raised not only the question but some anxiety among them as well. Paul’s answer is that not only will those believers who “have fallen asleep” not miss the Lord’s return, they shall rise before those who are alive and will meet them in the air—what some refer to as the rapture of the Church—the sudden whisking away of believers upon his return. It is preceded with a cry of command, the voice of the archangel, and the sound of the trumpet of God.
Two points: First, all of this is predicated upon our Lord’s resurrection: “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again….” Had Jesus not been raised, he would not be returning, we would not be raised, and our souls would not go to be with him when we “fall asleep” (Luke 23:43; 2 Corinthians 5:6-8; Philippians 1:23). Indeed, the entire Christian faith is based upon our Lord’s resurrection, for if he be not raised, we are still in our sins (1 Corinthians 15:17). Second, because believers shall rise at the coming of the Lord, we do not grieve as those who have no hope. You’ll remember that the pagans mocked the resurrection of the body (Acts 17:32); they still do. We grieve over the loss of loved ones who knew the Lord, but we know that we have a glorious future with them in heaven. So rejoice, O Christian! Your future and the future of your brethren is sure. The resurrection of our Lord has secured our resurrection and eternal state. No matter when our Lord returns, we may be sure we shall all be with him.
A brief note about the phrase, “those who are asleep.” There are some who subscribe to something called “soul sleep.” It is the false teaching that believers do not go to be with the Lord when they die but “sleep” until the resurrection of the body. This is why I reference the passages above which speak of our souls going directly into the presence of the Lord upon our death—Luke 23:43 (the thief on the cross: “Today you will be with me in Paradise”), 2 Corinthians 5:6-8 (“away from the body and at home with the Lord”), and Philippians 1:23 (“My desire is to depart and be with Christ”). Our souls go to be with the Lord upon death in what theologians call the “Intermediate State”; that is, the time between our death and the resurrection of our bodies at the last day which Paul speaks about here. “Sleep” is simply a euphemistic way of speaking of death. But what we must understand is that it is his resurrection that makes even the passing of our souls into his presence possible. The Christian faith does not teach the immortality of the soul as if our souls by nature live on after we die; that is a pagan idea. You must understand that in the Christian faith, everything hinges upon the resurrection of our Lord. Our souls and bodies shall live on only because he lives on. For those who die before his return, there shall be a time when our souls and resurrected bodies are separated, but that should not concern us. My point here is that the Christian faith does not teach “soul sleep.” The good news is that upon the teaching of Scripture, when we die (fall asleep) we immediately go into the Lord’s presence awaiting the Last Day. And that’s a nice thought.