We do not know exactly what misunderstanding the Thessalonian Christians had about the end times when Paul wrote his letter to them. It is clear enough, however, that they were afraid that those Christians who died before the return of Jesus would somehow miss our Lord’s coming or not experience all the attendant blessings. After all, Paul stresses the participation of the saints who will have died before Christ’s return throughout his eschatological (pertaining to the last things) teaching in 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18.
In today’s passage, Paul lays out part of the sequence of events that will occur when Jesus comes back to consummate His kingdom. What the Apostle says is “a word from the Lord” (v. 15). This might mean that this instruction originally came to Paul through a Christian prophet, for the old covenant prophets often prefaced their message in similar ways (e.g., Jer. 1:2; Hos. 1:1). It may also be that Paul refers to a piece of teaching Jesus gave during His earthly ministry that is not recorded in the Gospels. In any case, Paul’s preface makes it clear that his instruction on the last days comes with divine authority, and he likely added the qualifier to provide extra assurance to the concerned Thessalonians.
The Greek word translated “coming” in “the coming of the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:15) is parousia, a term often used in secular literature to refer to the visit of the emperor or another dignitary to a city. During the parousia of an official, great festivities would be held, and the residents of the city would go out to meet him. Sometimes new coins would be minted or it would begin a new era for the people. One wanted to be present at the parousia of an earthly official, so how much more will one want to be at the parousia of Christ? Thus, Paul makes it clear that those who have died in faith before the return of Jesus will be the first to meet Him. They will rise from the dead and precede those who are alive when it comes time for believers to meet their Lord at the last day.
Paul says that Christ will come with the voice of the archangel and the sounding of the trumpet (v. 16). The Apostle may have the archangel Michael in mind (see Jude 9), but that is not definite since there were many named archangels in Jewish tradition. It is fitting that the trumpet will sound, for the prophets foresaw that the trumpet would announce the day of the Lord (Joel 2:1).
Are you looking forward to the coming of the Lord, to the parousia of Christ? It is easy for us to get so caught up in our everyday activities that we forget that Jesus is coming and that He could come at any moment. Therefore, we should think regularly on His coming and all the joys it will bring. Remembering that Jesus is coming soon will also encourage us to be busy with the work of His kingdom.