1 Thessalonians 4:13-18


Kretzmann: It seems that the Thessalonian Christians, in their excessive eagerness concerning the second coming of the Lord, had stumbled into various misunderstandings. Their solicitude for their dead, for instance, caused them to fear that the latter would occupy a position secondary to that which they themselves, who would live until the second advent of the Lord, hoped to attain. This anxious concern incidentally tended to plunge them into a grief which came dangerously near being like that of the Gentiles.
Ward: The church had obviously been sorrowing because hope had mistakenly been abandoned for recently deceased members, who, it was thought, had by their death lost the blessings of the Second Advent.
Morris: It would seem that some, at least, of the Thessalonians had understood Paul to say that all who believed would see the Parousia; but now some believers had died and they had begun to wonder about them. Did this mean that they would be at some disadvantage when the Lord came?

1 Thessalonians 4:13 Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.

"We" is Paul, Silvanus and Timothy (see 1:1). The first five words of this verse are like those at Romans 1:13; 11:25; 1 Corinthians 10:1; 12:1; 2 Corinthians 1:8. Two of our versions consider these words a litotes. TEV reads:  "We want you to know the truth."  And the JB has:  "We want you to be quite certain."  Note that they call them "brethren." 

"Those" denotes a class of people, the Christians who have passed from this life. It includes all dead Christians from Adam to the last Christian who dies. The ancient Greeks and Romans used this word euphemistically of their dead but they knew that they had no hope, not even human hope. Human hopes are mere wishes. Divine hopes (those that have to do with the Gospel) are absolute certainties. Ephesians 2:12 describes unbelievers as those  "who have no hope." 

The ancient Greeks and Romans who were not believers used "fall asleep"  euphemistically although they had no hope. Christians use it literally because they know and believe that though they die they will rise and awaken from the dead. By the way, only the dead  body sleeps. The soul does not sleep. It is consciously awake and in communion with God.

Now follows a negative purpose clause which modifies "who have no hope."  Christians should not sorrow over believers in Christ who have passed from this life. Of course they do sorrow because they miss them. But they do not sorrow as do the unbelievers.

Here "the rest of men" means "the unbelievers."  Look at Ephesians 2:12. The funeral of an unbeliever is truly a sad occasion, the saddest that a person can imagine.

1 Thessalonians 4:14 We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.

An explanatory verse. This verse is a fact condition. This kind of condition should always be translated contextually. The intended sense of the protasis is:  "If, as is the case, we believe"  etc. In fact four of our versions (TEV, NIV, JB and NEB) render it:  "We believe that Jesus"  etc. RSV has:  "For since we believe."  The point is that the first clause grows logically out of the protasis. If the protasis is true the apodosis follows logically from it.

The "we" is "we believers."  "And so" means "in the same way also."  TEV gets at the intended sense:  "those who have died believing in him."  We translate the apodosis thus:  "in the same way also God will bring with Jesus those who have died believing in Him." 

Everything depends on one's attitude toward the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. He Himself promised:  "Because I live you will live also."  John 14:19. Since Jesus conquered death God will bring the believer with Jesus to eternal life. What Jesus gained is the gain of the believer. For the believer death is merely asleep, a sleep from which we will waken again.

Morris: For the Christian death is completely without terrors.
Kretzmann: Even in death they are the Lord's.
Ward: There is a road through life--and it is Jesus. There is a road through death--and it is Jesus, John 14:6.

1 Thessalonians 4:15 According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.

Another explanatory, verse 14 explains and expands verse 13. And verse 15 explains and expands verse 14.

"We say to you" is authoritative because of "the Word of the Lord." The "Word of the Lord," the specific passage, begins with  "that we who, etc."  At Galatians 1:12 Paul tells us that he received everything by revelation from the Lord and not from people.

The idea at Acts 20:35 and in our present verse can be found nowhere else in the New Testament. Evidently they are revelations of the Lord to Paul, though they are found nowhere else. The words "we who are still alive" denotes the Christians who will still be living when Christ returns.

Lightfoot: When I say 'we' I mean those who are living, those who survive to that day.

The whole phrase means:  "We will definitely not anticipate those who are sleeping." 

Evidently the Thessalonian Christians had concluded that the living Christians would have some sort of advantage over those Christians who had died. Paul categorically denies that. By the way, the doctrines of election and of the lot of those who have fallen asleep in the Lord are nothing but good cheer and comfort. If ever in a discussion about these doctrines there is confusion, terror or dejection, a foreign element has entered the discussion which is not of the Gospel.

1 Thessalonians 4:16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.

Six of our versions render the first word with "for."  This makes it explanatory. Several versions simply omit it. Some commentators maintain that this "for" is analogical to the previous verse We agree with those who render it "for" in the sense of "let me explain further."  Paul had just said that the living Christians would not anticipate the sleeping Christians. Verse 16 makes that point clearer.

Note that Paul says "the Lord Himself."  He will descend from heaven. The attendant circumstances are denoted by three phrases.

Morris: This is the fullest description of the Parousia in the New Testament. . . . All that Paul is doing is pointing out that, far from the faithful departed missing the Parousia, they will have a prominent place.
Kretzmann: With a loud summons, with a shout of command, as a victorious captain going forth to the destruction of His enemies, with the voice of an archangel summoning the great host of the heavenly spirits, with a trumpet of God, a majestic note that will strike terror into the hearts of His enemies and cause the hearts of the believers to beat higher with exultant joy, the great King will descend from His throne.

Read John 5:24-29 at this point. When Jesus commands, all the dead will rise from their graves. The dead in Christ will rise first. On the expression "the dead in Christ"  cf. 1 Corinthians 15:18 and Revelation 14:13. On the angels and the trumpet cf. Matthew 24:31. The hosts of heaven will attend the Lord of life and death when He comes to raise them from the dead. What an awesome occasion! What beautiful Gospel! What great comfort! Here there is no gloom, no doubt, no uncertainty

1 Thessalonians 4:17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.

Paul tells us that there will be a sequence of events. But not with long periods of time between. 1 Corinthians 15:52 tells us that all of this will be "in the twinkling of an eye." 

Rienecker: The verse denotes the speedy following of the event specified upon what has gone before.

The millennialists speak of two resurrections and that there will be a "rapture" of the living Christians long before the final resurrection. In fact some years ago a bumper sticker, used by many people, read:  "In the event of rapture this car will be empty."  As if they would be taken to heaven before the final resurrection! No reputable commentary espouses these silly, unscriptural ideas.

Neither the living Christian nor the sleeping Christian will have any advantage over each other.  BOTH groups will be grasped up by the Lord on clouds into the air. This annihilates the heretical "rapture."  For "clouds" see Matthew 24:30; Mark 13:26 and Revelation 1:7.

Morris: There are doubtless many points on which we should like further information.

Well said. The Lord has told us enough about the last day of history and what will happen to living and dead believers to make them certain and comforted. There are things which pass our comprehension.

But the words "for the purpose of meeting the Lord" are very clear. As He comes down all living and sleeping believers will meet Him between earth and heaven. That is very, very clear. And very, very comforting.

The point of the passive verb is that the Lord will do everything for us and that we will be definitely once and for all separated from the unbelieving among men.

"And so" introduces the final sentence of this verse. It is the grand conclusion to verse 13-17. The "we" in the verb means all the saints from first to last. Abraham, the prophets and the Apostles have no advantage over us.

Immanuel,  "God with us," became a human being to be with us and to redeem us. From conversion into all eternity we saints shall be with Him. The living Christians are with Him by faith. The sleeping Christians have departed and are with the Lord. Philippians 1:23. In our verse we have the final "forever." It will be into eternity.

1 Thessalonians 4:18 Therefore encourage each other with these words.

The grand conclusion for the problem at Thessalonica. The JB renders this "With such thoughts as these you should comfort one another."  This present imperative is not only for the Thessalonian Christians. It is for all Christians of all ages to comfort each other "by means of these words."  And, above all, it is incumbent on the preacher to comfort his hearers often "with these words."  There is no doubt, no uncertainty, no confusion in these words. The Gospel, in all its respects, is always such.


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series A Epistle Texts, Sundays After Pentecost, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1984, pp. 88-90. Used with permission.

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