By Dr. Robert E. Picirilli
Paul strongly preached that Jesus was soon to return. He considered “waiting for God’s Son from heaven” the very epitome of Christian conversion (see 1:9, 10). So the Thessalonian believers fully expected Jesus to return any moment.
While he was preaching these things in Thessalonica, Paul was forced to leave before giving detailed teaching on the subject (compare 2:I7 and 3:10). A few months passed and Jesus still had not returned. This must have troubled the Thessalonian believers.
Part of what worried them is that some of their members died during this time. The friends and family of these Christian deceased wondered what would become of them. They did not yet know there would be a resurrection of the dead. Unprepared for such things, the Thessalonian Christians were uncertain and anxious. In this passage, Paul puts their minds at ease.
Verses 13 and 14 reassure with the knowledge that the dead will return with Jesus. Paul mentions “them which are asleep” (v. 13). Specifically, this is talking about “them which sleep in Jesus” (v. 14). This has nothing to do with the strange doctrine of “soul sleep.” No, sleep in Paul’s writings is commonly a euphemism for death (see also John 11:11-14). Even so, there’s an interesting possibility in the expression “sleep in Jesus.” The “in” is the word that normally means “through” or “by.” Perhaps the point is that only those who are dead in Christ have the peace that can truly be compared to sleep. The wicked dead are certainly not at rest. Paul desires his readers be knowledgeable (“not ignorant“), encouraged (“sorrow not“), hopeful (unlike “others which have no hope”), and believing (“believing that Jesus died”).
He wants them to know they can achieve these things through the two items he stresses in verse 14:
1. Jesus died, rose, and will someday return. This is the heart of the gospel. Paul had preached it powerfully at Thessalonica. The converts there had anchored their faith in the gospel as in all places visited by Paul (See the results of his visit to Corinth in l Corinthians 15: 1-4). The Thessalonians were already assured of the truth.
2. When Jesus returns, God will bring the dead in Christ with Him. The future of the believing dead is with the Lord. This is a truth founded on His own death and resurrection. One who believes that God raised Jesus from the dead has no trouble with anxiety over the possibilities for dead believers.
The manner of the saints’ resurrection is the subject of verses 15-17. Several points are made:
1. The dead saints will suffer no disadvantage in comparison to living believers
(v. 15). “Not prevent” actually means “not get ahead of.” Those who are living when Jesus returns will not be at any special advantage over those sleeping.
2. The saints’ resurrection will be connected with the Lord’s return.Three things are said to accompany Jesus’ coming:
• A shout. I think this will be Lord commanding the dead to arise. Jesus definitely has the power to call the dead to life. He did so with Lazarus (John 11:43).
• An archangel’s voice. This is to comparable to the angel found in Revelation 10:1-6.
• Trumpet. This is comparable to the final trumpet sound in Revelation 10:7 and I Corinthians 15:52.
3. The saints’ resurrection includes the catching up of living believers (v. 17). Those who are living will also be resurrected. Paul clarifies this in I Corinthians 15:52: “We shall all be changed.” Verse 17 uses the term “caught up.” This term is forceful, almost violent. It suggests that we will be snatched away, seized. The Lord in His power dominates and we are His plunder, His booty. His coming will rescue his children from eternal death.
Notice the location: “the clouds,” and “in the air.” Scripture often associates His coming with the clouds which are a vehicle on which God rides. From here He will judge the earth. We will join Him, no longer a part of this earth’s scene.
“These words” (v. 18) refers to the entire passage. Paul intended his words here to be used to encourage believers. We really are encouraged. This assures us of the fate of loved ones who die in the faith. We can know, too, that Jesus will return for the whole church. He will come to claim His own for Himself. From then on, we will be with Him. His destiny and eternity will be ours.
Paul’s eagerness and expectancy for the Lord’s coming is very apparent here. He says “we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord” (v. 15). Obviously, that’s what Paul both expected and taught his converts to expect.
It’s easy to draw a wrong conclusion after looking at this. We know Paul’s expectancy didn’t take place, so we think we shouldn’t “expect” something that very well may not happen to us. That’s wrong. God intends believers of all ages in history to live in continual eschatological expectancy. Indeed, He has called us to be “waiting for His Son from heaven” (1:10).