On 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

1 Thessalonians 4:13‑18  •  11 min. read  •  grade level: 8
Having thus exhorted the saints to personal purity, and connected divine love with the quiet discharge of daily duty, so often apt to be neglected on that very plea and the vain pretension to higher ways, the Apostle now turns to their immoderate sorrow and surprise at the death of some among them. So filled were they with the expectation of the presence of the Lord, that they had not conceived the possibility of any saints thus passing away. They looked only for His coming, and drew inferences which, not being of the Lord, exposed them, as all human reasonings do, to danger. The need then was to maintain the truth, but to guard from such a misuse; but grace vouchsafed fresh and fuller light for them and for us.
“But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those that fall asleep;1 that ye be not grieved even as the rest also that have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so also those put to sleep through Jesus will God bring with Him. For this we say to you in [the] word of [the] Lord, that we, the living that remain unto the coming of the Lord, shall in no wise precede those put to sleep; because the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout of command, with archangel's voice, and with trump of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first; then we, the living that remain, shall be caught up together with them in clouds to meet [the] Lord in the air; and so shall we ever be with the Lord. So then encourage one another with these words” (ver. 13-18).
The Thessalonian saints knew, as a settled certainty, of the Lord's coming and kingdom. They were waiting for Him, the Son of God, from heaven as a constant hope, the nearest hope of their hearts. They had never taken into account that He might tarry according to the will of God who would gather fresh souls to the fellowship of His love, while letting the world ripen in iniquity and lawlessness, whether in proud unbelief or in hollow profession, till the apostasy come and the man of sin be revealed. As to all this they lacked instruction, having enjoyed the teaching of the Apostle for but a short season, and no epistle being yet written. This is the first the Apostle Paul ever wrote; and while promoting the joy and growth of faith, of nothing does he write as a more necessary help than to supply a lack, which, if not filled up by divine revelation, laid active minds open to the enemy through speculations which he would soon suggest in order to undermine the truth already known, or their souls' confidence in God.
Their grief was excessive like the rest of men, Jews, or rather heathen, that have no hope. Why such extravagant sorrow about those who, if called hence, knew God's love and salvation in the Lord Jesus? Is life eternal a vain thing? Is remission of sins, or the possession of the Holy Spirit? Surely it must be only ignorance on their part, and not that any called of God to His kingdom and glory (not to speak of the church, Christ's body) could forfeit by dying, as they imagined, their blessedness when the Lord Jesus comes. And so it was for want of knowing better that they had yielded to thoughts which had plunged them in Christ-dishonoring sorrow.
Even here, however, it is remarkable that the Apostle does not unveil the state of the separate spirit, as we see done in Luke 23:4343And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:43), Acts 7:5959And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. (Acts 7:59), 2 Cor. 5:88We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord. (2 Corinthians 5:8), and Phil. 1:2323For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better: (Philippians 1:23). He meets fully the error that death in any way destroys or detracts from the blessed hope of the Christian. He would have the saints no longer ignorant concerning those who may most truly be said to fall asleep: if they do, it is but more evidently to have the portion of Him who died and rose, as we assuredly believe; for they will rise if they meanwhile die. And is such a resurrection a loss? “Even so those also put to sleep through Jesus,” as it is here beautifully described, “will God bring with Him.” They were laid to sleep by Jesus; and, far from forgetting or even postponing their joy and blessedness, God will bring them with Jesus in that day.
But how so, since they sleep in death, and He comes from heaven in power and glory? Hereon follows a most enlightening and fresh communication. “in the word of the Lord,” which clears up the difficulty by unfolding the order of events, and thus the way by which the sleeping saints are to come with Jesus. The Thessalonian believers had fancied that the departed would miss the blissful reunion, or at least come behind the living that remain. But it is not so. “For this we say to you in [the] word of [the] Lord, that we, the living that remain unto the coming of the Lord, shall in no wise precede those put to sleep. For the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout of command, with archangel's voice, and with trump of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first; then we, the living that remain, shall be caught up together with them in clouds to meet the Lord in [the] air; and so shall we ever be with the Lord. So then encourage one another with these words.” Such is the wondrous intimation in this striking episode which brings us up parenthetically to the introductory words which assured them that the Lord would come, and the saints, including those that sleep, along with Him. Here we learn how it can be: He first descends for them, and afterward brings them with Him.
But there are details. He shall Himself descend from heaven with “a shout of command.” The word employed, being peculiar in the New Testament to this passage, cannot but have special force. Outside Scripture it is used for a general's call to his soldiers, for an admiral's to his sailors, or sometimes more generally as a cry to incite or encourage. It seems most appropriate as conveying a word of command to those in immediate relationship. Not a hint drops of a shout for the world, for men at large, to bear. It is here for His own to join Him on high. “With archangel's voice,” brings in the highest of heavenly creature glory to attend the Lord on that transcendent occasion. If angels now minister to the saints, as we know they did to Him also, how suitable to hear of “archangel's voice” when they thus gather round Him! Nor is “God's trump” silent at such a moment, when all that is of mortal man in His own shall be swallowed up of life at the presence of Christ.
Accordingly “the dead in Christ rise first.” It is no question of the first man but of the Second; and all of that family who have slept “rise first.” So unfounded was the despairing sorrow of those in Thessalonica. So far they precede the living saints, in being the earliest to experience the power of life in the Son of God. The truth is, however, that the difference in time is but just appreciable; for “then we, the living that remain, shall be caught up together with them in clouds to meet the Lord in [the] air.” The translation of all the changed saints is simultaneous. The grief of such as doubted the full blessedness of those meanwhile put to sleep was really ignorance and unbelief; for even if they could not anticipate the fresh revelation from the Lord, they ought, from their divinely given knowledge of His love and of His redemption, to have counted on His grace towards the dead saints no less than towards the living. They might have sought needed light as to the particulars from those raised up and given of the Lord to impart it. We can, however, readily conceive how haste wrought injuriously in them as in ourselves. But what an unspeakable mercy, that grace met the need to the correction of the mistake then, and to the prevention of it afterward! So is it habitually in the Epistles especially, as in all Scripture.
It is important to note that “the general resurrection” is as foreign to this part of God's word as to every other. The faithful dead, the faithful living, are alone spoken of. Not that there will not be a resurrection of unjust as well as of just. But there is no such thing in scripture as a resurrection of all men together. Of all things resurrection separates most distinctly. Till then there may be more or less mixture of the evil with the good, though it be a dishonor to the Lord and an injury to His people. But appearances deceive, and absolute separateness is not found; and God uses the trial produced by it for blessing to those whose eye is single. But at His coming the severance will be complete, at His appearing it will be manifest. Hence, the resurrection of the sleeping saints is called a resurrection out of, or from among, the dead; which could not be said of the resurrection of the wicked, for they leave no more to be raised. Thus both classes are raised separately, and the traditional idea of one general resurrection of the dead—is fictitious. Dan. 12 speaks of a resuscitation of Israel, Matt. 25 of the Lord's judgment of the nations: neither refers to the literally dead.
But the moral consequence of the error is as positively bad as the truth sanctifies. For the action of a general resurrection connects itself with a general judgment; and thus vagueness is brought in on the spirit of the believer, who loses thereby the truth of salvation as a present thing, and the consciousness of possessing eternal life in Christ, in contrast with coming into judgment. Compare Heb. 9:27, 2827And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment: 28So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation. (Hebrews 9:27‑28), and John 5:2424Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life. (John 5:24). One of the enemy's main efforts is to annul this solemn difference: he would shake, if he could, the believer's enjoyment of God's grace in Christ; he would lull to a fatal calm the unbeliever, indifferent alike to his sins and the Savior. The first resurrection of the saints, severed by at least a thousand years (Rev. 20) from that of the rest of the dead, the wicked who rise for judgment and the lake of fire, is the strongest possible disproof of the prevalent confusion: an immensely grave appeal to the conscience of the unbeliever, a most cheering solace to those who are content to suffer with Christ meanwhile.
Further, it is unquestionable that death is in no way the believer's hope, but Christ's coming, when every effort and trace of death shall be effaced from saints deceased, as well as the living Christians, who have mortality, as others, at work in them. Then shall it be swallowed up of life; for He comes to receive them to Himself, who is the resurrection and the life. Thus the believer on Him, though dead, shall live; and the living believer on Him shall never die. Death is not the Bridegroom, but merely a servant (for all things are ours) for ushering us, absent from the body, to be present with the Lord. But here it is no mere individual going after dying to Him, but His coming, the Conqueror of death, for us all, whether sleeping or waking, that we may be changed into His glorious image even in the body.
But there is another, and in itself far more precious, privilege signalized here. Thus shall we always be with Him. This last is the deepest joy of the separate state when a saint departs: it is to be with Christ, So even was it with the dying but believing robber: Christ assured him that he was to be that day with Himself in Paradise. Only such a state was but intermediate and imperfect, however blessed. It was not the body glorified; it was not all the saints gathered. At His coming all will be complete and perfect for the heavenly family; “and so shall we ever be with the Lord.” What can lack, or what be added, to such words of infinite and everlasting joy? “So then encourage one another with these words.” The Holy Spirit says on this head no more. That which is perfect shall then be come.