Believers Who Have Fallen Asleep

1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 (NLT)

The Hope of the Resurrection

13 And now, dear brothers and sisters, we want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died* so you will not grieve like people who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again, we also believe that when Jesus returns, God will bring back with him the believers who have died.

15 We tell you this directly from the Lord: We who are still living when the Lord returns will not meet him ahead of those who have died.* 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a commanding shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God. First, the believers who have died* will rise from their graves. 17 Then, together with them, we who are still alive and remain on the earth will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Then we will be with the Lord forever. 18 So encourage each other with these words.

In these words, Paul comforts the Thessalonians about those who have died in the Lord.  The final section of 1 Thessalonians, ch. 4-5, contains Paul’s exhortations and teachings for the church in Thessalonica.  The passage from 4:13-5:11 deals with the return of Christ and end time events (eschatology).

The Greek word for the second coming of Christ is parousia.  Parousia means presence or manifestation.  The term was originally used of the arrival of a king, governor or other important person.  For a visit from the king, preparations had to be made.  While serving in US European Command, I had the privilege of helping to prepare for the arrival of Pres. George W. Bush to our area of operations.  The preparation for a presidential visit is quite intensive including not only special protocol, but also security concerns.  If we go to such great trouble for a man, how much more so for the King of Kings.  This is the background for the questions asked by the church in Thessalonica.

The Thessalonians were Greeks and pagans before becoming Christians.  Paganism offered no hope for those who had died.  The concept of Greek pantheism was that those who died would go to Hades, the place of the dead, which was a sorrowful place.  In contrast, Paul’s intention is to encourage the believers.  “We would not have you ignorant, brothers and sisters, concerning those who have fallen asleep.”  Falling asleep was a common way of expressing death in Greek, Jewish, and Christian literature of the first century.

Apparently, the Thessalonians were concerned that their loved ones who had died before Christ’s return would somehow miss out on the joy of Christ’s return.  Paul comforts them by assuring them that all Christians who have died before Christ’s return will participate fully in the celebration of his second coming.  In fact, those who have died in the Lord, will precede those who are still alive (v. 16).

Death for the believer is not extinction of being as the atheist proposes, nor is it the gloom and despair of Hades, as the pagans believed.  Rather, sleep suggests a waiting like the rest of sleep and repose at the close of a hard day’s work.  This is Paul’s viewpoint.  For the believer, life continues after death (Luke 23:40-43; Acts 7:55-60; 2 Cor. 5:6-10; Phil. 1:20-24; Rev. 6:9-11).  Those who have died in Christ await the resurrection from the dead (1 Cor. 15:23).  So Paul encourages believers not to be overcome with grief because they could do nothing to avert death.  Paul does not prohibit grief (John 16:6, 20; Phil. 2:27) but calls for Christians who mourn to abandon the kind of grief typical of those who have no hope in God.

The central creed of the Christian faith, “that Jesus died and was raised to life again,” is the foundation of our hope in the face of death.  Our resurrection is guaranteed by the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15).

Lord, we thank you for the bedrock of our faith that tells us:  “But in fact, Christ has been raised from the death.  He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died.”  And because he lives, so shall we also have eternal life.  (1 Cor. 15)  Help us to live each day in the light of eternity.  Amen.




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