The Dead in Christ — The Unfolding of Biblical Eschatology
In 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18, Paul turns to a specifically eschatological question regarding believers who have died. He writes, “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” (v. 13). A question has arisen among the Thessalonians because one or more of their fellow believers has died since Paul left.i Based on what Paul says in this and the following verses, it appears that the Thessalonians were concerned about the position of deceased believers at the Lord’s Second Coming.ii Their question indicates that this was one topic that they did not understand fully. Apparently, Paul had taught them something about the resurrection of the dead but was forced to leave the city before teaching them as much as they needed to know.iii Paul’s basic response to their concern is to tell them that they have no reason to worry.
Paul tells the Thessalonians not to grieve over the dead like the unbelievers who have no hope. “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (4:14; cf. Acts 17:3). Paul points the Thessalonians back to the resurrection of Jesus as the foundation of their hope for the dead in Christ. Jesus was raised from the dead, and those who are in Christ will be raised from the dead as well (cf. 2 Cor. 4:14). The eschatological resurrection began with the resurrection of Jesus. Believers now have hope because they know that they too will be raised to everlasting life.
Paul continues by explaining what will happen at the Lord’s coming, “For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming (parousian) of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep” (4:15). The first question that must be addressed in connection with this verse is whether or not Paul taught here that he would definitely live until the time of the coming of Christ to raise the dead. According to some, Paul’s use of the word “we” indicates that he definitely believed he would live to see the Second Coming of Jesus and the final resurrection.iv This interpretation, however, is unlikely. First, in the immediate context of this passage, Paul indicates the possibility that he might live to see these things and the possibility that he might not. He says that Christ died for us so that whether “we are awake [alive] or asleep [dead] we might live with him” (5:10). Paul also entertains the possibility that he might die before the final resurrection in his other letters (e.g., 1 Cor. 6:14; 2 Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:20–24; 2:17).
Paul does not ever claim to know when he will die or exactly when the Second Coming of Jesus will occur. Therefore, as Witherington explains, he could not have said “we who are dead and not left around to see the parousia of the Lord….” He does not know for sure that he will be dead, “so the only category in which he can logically place himself and the Christians he writes to here is the ‘living.’”v The “we” is simply an expression of corporate solidarity.vi Essentially, all that Paul means here is that those Christians who are alive at “the coming of the Lord” will not precede those who are dead.
The word Paul uses to refer to the coming of the Lord here is parousia. As we have already seen, Paul uses this word to speak of the presence or the arrival of someone, sometimes Jesus and sometimes other individuals. In the Graeco-Roman world, the word was sometimes used to describe either the coming of a deity or the official visit of a ruler to a city. Such visits were important events, and the city would have great celebrations in honor of the visiting king.vii The important city officials and the citizens would go out of the city to meet the visiting sovereign and escort him back to the city in a glorious procession. If Paul had this imagery in mind in this context, perhaps a misunderstanding of it is one reason the Thessalonians were confused about those who had died. It is possible they believed that those who had died would not enjoy the honor of going out to meet the coming Messiah in this official parousia. If that is the case, Paul puts the concern to rest, telling the Thessalonians that those who are alive “will not precede those who have fallen asleep.” Those believers who have died will participate in this glorious event and will in fact have a place of honor.
Paul tells the Thessalonians, “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” (4:16). It is important to observe that Paul specifically describes this event in terms of Christ’s descent from heaven.viii As we have already seen, Jesus often spoke of “the coming of the Son of Man,” alluding to the prophecy of Daniel 7:13–14. Daniel 7 spoke of one like a Son of Man coming up to the Ancient of Days. In other words, Daniel 7 used the imagery of an ascent. As I have argued, Daniel’s prophecy of the Son of Man’s ascent to receive his kingdom was fulfilled in connection with the first advent of Jesus. What Paul is speaking of here, on the other hand, is Christ’s descent from heaven.
It should be recalled that when Jesus spoke of Daniel’s “coming of the Son of Man,” a coming up to the Father, he sometimes used the word parousia (e.g., Matt. 24:27; 24:37, 39) and sometimes used the word erchomai (e.g., Matt. 16:28; 24:30, 44; 26:64).ix Paul, on the other hand, uses the word parousia in this context to refer to Jesus’ descent from heaven, his coming to earth, and as we’ve already seen, he also uses the term elsewhere to refer to the presence or arrival of people other than Jesus. What all of this means is that the term parousia, by itself, is not a synonym for the Second Coming of Jesus. It is simply a word that means “presence” or “arrival” or “coming.” Whose coming is meant and the direction they are coming can only be determined from the context.
Christ’s descent from heaven is the fulfillment of the promise made to the apostles by the two men in white at the time of the ascension (Acts 1:11). In other words, at the time of Jesus’ ascension to heaven (itself part of the fulfillment of Daniel 7:13–14), there is a promise of a future coming from heaven. The ascension to heaven and the promised coming from heaven are not the same events. In 1 Thessalonians 4:16, Paul is speaking of the future coming from heaven—the Second Advent.x At the time of the Second Coming, Christ will call out a “cry of command” (4:16). Jesus’ cry of command is likely the command to the dead calling them to rise from the grave (John 5:28–29; cf. also John 11:43). At his command, “the dead in Christ will rise first.”
Paul continues, “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” (4:17). The word translated “to meet” is the word apantesin. This word was used in the Graeco-Roman world to describe the meeting of a king or other important official who has come to visit a city.xi As F. F. Bruce explains, “When a dignitary paid an official visit (parousia) to a city in Hellenistic times, the action of the leading citizens in going out to meet him and escort him back on the final stage of his journey was called the apantesin.”xii
According to Paul, after the dead in Christ are raised, those who are still alive will be caught up together with them so that all will meet the Lord in the air and then be with him forever. Paul does not explicitly say at this point where we will be with the Lord forever. Some suggest that after meeting Christ in the air, we will go with Christ into heaven.xiii However, if Paul is describing the meeting of Christians in the air with the Lord in terms of the known customs involving official visits of dignitaries and kings, then the idea is that believers will meet the coming Lord and escort him back to the earth. The Thessalonians are to encourage one another with these words (4:18).
i “Sleep” is a common euphemism for death in the Jewish and Christian literature of this time period (F.F. Bruce, 1 and 2 Thessalonians. Waco: Word Books, 1982, 95). While not stated explicitly, the death of the Thessalonian believer(s) may very well have been at the hands of those who were persecuting them.
ii Ernest Best, A Commentary on the First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1986), 180.
iii Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 216.
iv E.g., Charles A. Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians (Grand Rapids:Eerdmans, 1990), 171–72.
v Ben Witherington III, 1 and 2 Thessalonians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 134.
vi As Gregory K. Beale (1–2 Thessalonians, [Downers Grove: IVP, 2003], 140) explains, a similar concept is used throughout the Old Testament. A contemporary generation of Israel could be addressed as if they themselves had actually participated in the historical events of the past or would participate in historical events of the future, even if the individuals of that generation did not or would not participate. In Deuteronomy 4:20–31, for example, Moses speaks to the second generation of Israel after the Exodus telling them that God brought “you” out of Egypt even though it was the first generation who actually experienced the Exodus firsthand. He also tells this generation that they will experience exile if they disobey God and that they will be restored if they repent. Hundreds of years later, Israel was exiled, and many years after that, Israel was restored, but none of the individual Israelites to whom Moses spoke experienced these events firsthand. They had all died many years before the exile.
vii Green, Letters to the Thessalonians, 223; Witherington, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 91.
viii BDAG, s.v. katabaino.
ix In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus alternates the terms throughout.
x Much of the confusion on this subject is due to the fact that the word “coming” is used to describe these two different events (and other things as well). Daniel speaks of the “coming of the Son of Man” to refer to one event, while Paul and others often use the word “coming” to speak of the other event.
xi Helmut Koester, “Imperial Ideology and Paul’s Eschatology in 1 Thessalonians” in Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society, ed. Richard A. Horsley (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997), 160.
xii Bruce, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 102; cf. also Green, Letters to the Thessalonians, 226–27.
xiii E.g., John F. Walvoord, The Thessalonian Epistles (Findlay, OH: Dunham, 1955), 70.