1 Thessalonians 4:13-15 (ESV)
The Coming of the Lord
13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.
V14, The basis of the believer’s hope is the resurrection of Christ. Just as surely as we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so we believe that those who have fallen asleep in Jesus will be raised and will participate in His coming. “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22). His resurrection is the pledge and proof of ours.
Notice the expression sleep in Jesus or “those who through Jesus sleep.” Knowing that it is merely the Lover of our souls giving sleep to the bodies of His beloved ones robs death of its terror.
Our positive assurance concerning those who have died in Christ is that God will bring them with Him. This may be understood in two ways:
1. It may mean that at the time of the Rapture, God will raise the bodies of believers and bring them back to heaven with the Lord Jesus.
2. Or it may mean that when Christ comes back to the earth to reign, God will bring back with Christ those who have died in faith. In other words, the apostle is saying, “Don’t worry that those who have died will miss out in the glory of the coming kingdom. God will bring them back with Jesus when the latter returns in power and great glory.” (This is the generally preferred meaning.)
But how can this be? Their bodies are now lying in the grave. How can they come back with Jesus? The answer is given in verses 15–17. Before Christ comes to set up His kingdom, He will return to take His own people home to be with Him in heaven. Then at a later date, He will come back with them.
This hope (v. 13) for the dead Christians was as certain as the fact of the death and resurrection of Christ. Paul says that God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. Some have inferred from this statement that departed Christians are unconscious until the Second Coming. But the Bible indicates that to be absent from our present body is to be present with the Lord Jesus (5:10; 2 Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:23). Accordingly when a Christian dies, it is the body that sleeps; the soul goes to heaven.
V15, How did Paul know this? His answer is, this we say to you by the word of the Lord. He received this as a direct revelation from the Lord. We are not told how he received it—whether by a vision, by an audible voice, or by the inward impression of the Holy Spirit. But it is definitely a truth unknown to men up to that time.
Then he goes on to explain that when Christ returns, the living saints will not have any precedence or advantage over sleeping saints. In this verse Paul speaks of himself as one who would be alive at Christ’s coming (see also 1 Cor. 15:51, 52). However, in 2 Corinthians 4:14 and 5:1, he speaks of the possibility of his being among those who will be raised. The obvious conclusion is that we should look for the Lord to come at any moment, yet realize that we may be called to reach heaven by way of death.
Paul believed that Christ could come in his lifetime, and so did the Thessalonians (see 1:10). precede those who are asleep: Evidently the Thessalonians were concerned that believers who had died would miss the glory associated with the Second Coming. Paul answers their question by affirming that actually those who were dead would go before (v. 16) those living on earth.
Do you live out your Christianity with an expectation of Christ’s return? Do you think…like Paul…Christ is coming soon? When you live this way, don’t you think you live with greater purpose and conviction?