1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

1 Thessalonians 4:13‑18  •  11 min. read  •  grade level: 9
Edward Cross
13. But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope;
14. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.
15. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.
16. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first:
17. Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.
18. Wherefore comfort one another with these words.
The subject of this section is “concerning them that are fallen asleep;” the object in view “so shall we ever be with the Lord;” while the way of its accomplishment is set forth in the intervening verses.
It is not uncommonly thought that the occasion of this unfolding was the excited and perverted notions that the Thessalonian saints had of the coming of the Lord, which had prevented their following in a quiet and sober manner the ordinary avocations of life. But it is not so stated by the apostle, nor does it seem necessary to seek for any other motive for him so writing to them, than the very natural and needful desire to instruct these young converts in so fundamental and important a subject of Christian truth.
It requires no great research to see, nor spiritual intelligence to understand, why the kingdom and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ loomed so largely before the minds of the first preachers of the gospel. In fact we have already seen how constantly and in different aspects the apostle dwells upon it in this epistle: and as before he speaks of living saints in connection with it, so here he shows its relation to those who were “asleep through Jesus,” and the way in which their connection with it would be brought about.
It is common in both Christian and pagan writings to use the word “sleep” as a euphemism for death. As a figure, while involving the idea of continued existence, it suggests repose and abstraction from the toil and business of life. It is of frequent use in Scripture (compare Isa. 11:22And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord; (Isaiah 11:2); Acts 7:60; 13:3660And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:60)
36For David, after he had served his own generation by the will of God, fell on sleep, and was laid unto his fathers, and saw corruption: (Acts 13:36)
; 1 Cor. 11:3030For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep. (1 Corinthians 11:30)). In this sense of severance from the affairs of this world without any superadded thought, it is also common in pagan writings. Thus Catullen, quoted by Alford, says, “Suns may set and rise again; but when the shadows fall on our brief light, we’re doomed to the long sleep of one eternal night.” No conclusion can then be drawn from this word as though it meant the sleep of the soul in an unconscious state pending its resurrection at a future day. Not only is the general use of the word contrary to such an idea, but the language of the apostle, when he expresses his fervent desire “to depart and be with Christ, which is far better,” forbids any such conclusion. Moreover, it is never said, “the soul sleeps.” It is people who sleep, not their souls.
He bids them “not to sorrow as the rest who have no hope.” In this category are included both the unbelieving Jew and the pagan world. As to the latter, the future was black darkness to them; a darkness whose “authority” was incontestable, (compare Col. 1:1313Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son: (Colossians 1:13), Eph. 4:1818Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart: (Ephesians 4:18), Acts 26:1818To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me. (Acts 26:18).) Of this their own writings bear witness; as one of the greatest of their poets sorrowfully expresses it, “once dead there is no resurrection” (Aeschylin). The greatest power within their cognizance was the power of death. The greater power of God in resurrection that annuls him that has the power of death, i.e., the devil, and delivers those “who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Heb. 2:1414Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; (Hebrews 2:14)), was not known to them. Nor was the Jew at best as yet clear on this subject. Many amongst them, and they a very influential party, “say there is no resurrection, neither angel nor spirit” (Acts 23:88For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit: but the Pharisees confess both. (Acts 23:8); Luke 20:2727Then came to him certain of the Sadducees, which deny that there is any resurrection; and they asked him, (Luke 20:27)); “they know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Matt. 22:2929Jesus answered and said unto them, Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God. (Matthew 22:29)); and for the rest, what they had was at best but a glimmer of the coming light. True, it was to be found in their Scriptures, as the first rays of the early dawn, if they only read them aright; but as yet they saw as through a glass dimly, and it could not be otherwise, seeing that life and incorruptibility are “brought to light by the gospel,” and apart from the death and the resurrection of Christ, the key of knowledge is not available to unlock the great mystery: even of the disciples themselves it is written, “as yet they knew not the Scripture, that He must rise again from among the dead” (John 20:99For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead. (John 20:9)).
He bids them “not sorrow even as the rest.” It is not that they were not to sorrow so much as the rest, They were not to sorrow in that way at all. It is not a question of the sorrow they might have in a natural way for their own loss in losing from this present scene their relatives or friends; but of sorrow on behalf of those that slept, and of the loss they thought that these would sustain in not participating in the glory of the day of the coming of the Lord. In point of fact they would lose nothing, for, as he goes on to show, the portion of all the saints, the dead as well as the living, is to “be forever with the Lord.” There was, therefore, no occasion for sorrow on that account.
The reason he gives them for this assurance is of vast moment, based as it is on the complete victory of Jesus over death and the grave. “For if Jesus died out of this scene and rose anew into [the glory of] another,” for such is the implied meaning in full of the words used here, then surely there is no remaining hindrance why God should not lead, or bring in association with Jesus and in the participation of His glory, in whatever place or form it may be revealed, those who have been laid on sleep through His instrumentality. That they had so fallen asleep was assuredly no crime for which they should be excluded from what otherwise would have been their rightly hoped for privilege; and they were not so to regard it in any sense.
Now this was in consonance with a direct word or revelation of the Lord to the apostle. It had never been revealed before—not in the Old Testament nor even during the lifetime of the Lord on earth. He had told His disciples, “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now” (John 16:1212I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. (John 16:12)). Events had not yet proceeded far enough to enable them to take in intelligently what He had yet to tell them. “To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven” (Eccl. 3:11To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: (Ecclesiastes 3:1)), and the ways of God in all departments of His government evidence alike His wisdom and that patience is a sign of power. In vain you would look in earlier times for the truth the apostle brings before us here. Now was the occasion and the necessity for its revelation. Now was the sure foundation laid in the death and resurrection of Jesus, on which it could be made known; and now for the first time, and henceforth, we are assured on this infallible testimony, that when that time comes the living saints shall have no precedence over the saints who are asleep, as regards their coming into the presence of the Lord to share the glories of His advent.
The reason for this he now proceeds to give. “Because the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven...” Mark the emphasis on “Himself.” He will not send another, He will come Himself. This day is a day for which He has long waited. This is the day of His deep joy, and of that joy increased by sharing the glory of it with His own redeemed ones. O glorious day! Once before He said, “with desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:1515And he said unto them, With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer: (Luke 22:15)). He had long waited for that day. It was the settlement of the great question of good and evil brought to an issue at the cross; here it is the result in glory, when He who had been the suffering Victim was now “to see of the travail of His soul and be satisfied.” For this day He had long waited. He shall descend in great and glorious circumstance, with an assembling shout, with archangels’ voice commanding the angelic hosts, and with trump of God—mark the crescendo, “He shall descend from heaven.” These words are all without the article, and as such they present the thought characteristically before the mind with correspondingly greater force, rather than concretely before the eye. “From heaven”: two propositions in Greek are translated “from” the one (apo) having reference merely to the place locally “from which”; the other (ek) connecting the movement with the character of the place. The former is the prep used here. He comes “from heaven.” That is the place of His power. From thence He comes. It is no question here of His advent being heavenly in its character; simply, He comes “from heaven.”
This is the first act in the drama. The second follows. “And the dead in Christ shall rise first.” While the application here is to the Christian dead, from 1 Corinthians 15:51-5751Behold, I show you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. 53For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. 54So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. 55O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? 56The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. 57But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:51‑57), we learn that the circumstances include all the holy dead up to that time, who, with others also in their several spheres, are partakers of the first resurrection, in which general expression many classes are included, (compare Rev. 20:1-41And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. 2And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years, 3And cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season. 4And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years. (Revelation 20:1‑4)). But the object of the apostle here is not to outline these various classes, but to instruct the Thessalonian saints as to the difficulties that were particularly exercising them at the time.
Next follows the third act: then we, the living who remain, shall be caught up, or raptured in clouds, as in triumph, together with them to go to meet the coming Lord in air, that is, the air; and thus they and we united shall be ever with the Lord. Other things connected with the coming of the Lord are not here under consideration. They must be looked for elsewhere. The Father’s house, the heavenly calling of the Church, the millennial reign of Christ, the administration of the Kingdom, and other subjects of vast and commanding-interest are to be found in the Scriptures that treat of them. What is set before us in this scripture is the immediate hope of the Christian, as the first act in the accomplishment of all that is to be brought about for the saints through the redemption power of Christ in His victory over death and the grave. “We shall be always with the Lord.” That is all that is said here. It is all that need be said.
The event is frequently called “The Secret Rapture” as being contrasted with those events that will usher in publicly the advent of the Lord in the power and glory of His kingdom; and in the record of it as here given it is connected solely with the grace that associates the saints who have part in it with the Lord Himself, and as we would gather from John 14:1-21Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. (John 14:1‑2), with all the joy of the Father’s house. No question of responsibility is here referred to, whether in reference to the saints, Romans 14; 2 Corinthians 5; or the judgment of the world, Acts 17:3131Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead. (Acts 17:31); “the quick or the dead,” 2 Timothy 4:11I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom; (2 Timothy 4:1); and therefore we are warranted to conclude, that it must necessarily take place before these events that publicly introduce the reign of Christ as set forth in other Scriptures.
If we look for a figure of it in the Old Testament, it would seem to be represented by the translation of Enoch before the flood; while Noah and his family represent the remnant of the nations, including Israel, who are brought through the flood, i.e., the judgments that will close up the present age and prepare for the introduction of the age to come, (cf. Jer. 25:15-38; 30:715For thus saith the Lord God of Israel unto me; Take the wine cup of this fury at my hand, and cause all the nations, to whom I send thee, to drink it. 16And they shall drink, and be moved, and be mad, because of the sword that I will send among them. 17Then took I the cup at the Lord's hand, and made all the nations to drink, unto whom the Lord had sent me: 18To wit, Jerusalem, and the cities of Judah, and the kings thereof, and the princes thereof, to make them a desolation, an astonishment, an hissing, and a curse; as it is this day; 19Pharaoh king of Egypt, and his servants, and his princes, and all his people; 20And all the mingled people, and all the kings of the land of Uz, and all the kings of the land of the Philistines, and Ashkelon, and Azzah, and Ekron, and the remnant of Ashdod, 21Edom, and Moab, and the children of Ammon, 22And all the kings of Tyrus, and all the kings of Zidon, and the kings of the isles which are beyond the sea, 23Dedan, and Tema, and Buz, and all that are in the utmost corners, 24And all the kings of Arabia, and all the kings of the mingled people that dwell in the desert, 25And all the kings of Zimri, and all the kings of Elam, and all the kings of the Medes, 26And all the kings of the north, far and near, one with another, and all the kingdoms of the world, which are upon the face of the earth: and the king of Sheshach shall drink after them. 27Therefore thou shalt say unto them, Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel; Drink ye, and be drunken, and spue, and fall, and rise no more, because of the sword which I will send among you. 28And it shall be, if they refuse to take the cup at thine hand to drink, then shalt thou say unto them, Thus saith the Lord of hosts; Ye shall certainly drink. 29For, lo, I begin to bring evil on the city which is called by my name, and should ye be utterly unpunished? Ye shall not be unpunished: for I will call for a sword upon all the inhabitants of the earth, saith the Lord of hosts. 30Therefore prophesy thou against them all these words, and say unto them, The Lord shall roar from on high, and utter his voice from his holy habitation; he shall mightily roar upon his habitation; he shall give a shout, as they that tread the grapes, against all the inhabitants of the earth. 31A noise shall come even to the ends of the earth; for the Lord hath a controversy with the nations, he will plead with all flesh; he will give them that are wicked to the sword, saith the Lord. 32Thus saith the Lord of hosts, Behold, evil shall go forth from nation to nation, and a great whirlwind shall be raised up from the coasts of the earth. 33And the slain of the Lord shall be at that day from one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth: they shall not be lamented, neither gathered, nor buried; they shall be dung upon the ground. 34Howl, ye shepherds, and cry; and wallow yourselves in the ashes, ye principal of the flock: for the days of your slaughter and of your dispersions are accomplished; and ye shall fall like a pleasant vessel. 35And the shepherds shall have no way to flee, nor the principal of the flock to escape. 36A voice of the cry of the shepherds, and an howling of the principal of the flock, shall be heard: for the Lord hath spoiled their pasture. 37And the peaceable habitations are cut down because of the fierce anger of the Lord. 38He hath forsaken his covert, as the lion: for their land is desolate because of the fierceness of the oppressor, and because of his fierce anger. (Jeremiah 25:15‑38)
7Alas! for that day is great, so that none is like it: it is even the time of Jacob's trouble; but he shall be saved out of it. (Jeremiah 30:7)
). Meanwhile “we shall be ever with the Lord,” whether in the Father’s house above, or in the glory of the Kingdom. There is therefore in respect of those who are put asleep by Jesus, no ground for grieving, but contrariwise, the apostle closes up this section by saying, “wherefore comfort one another with these words.”
“Oh, the blessed joy of meeting,
All the desert past
Oh, the wondrous words of greeting,
He shall speak at last.
He and we in that bright glory,
One deep joy shall share;
Ours to be forever with Him;
His, that we am there.”