1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Knowledge of the Rapture and its Effect on Believers
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. This passage dovetails with 1 Cor. 15. In Corinthians, we don’t have the detail of the saints being taken up, and in 1 Thessalonians we don’t have the detail of our bodies being changed. The two fit together perfectly. The truth of the rapture, which this passage teaches, if something that may at first seem to be unimportant, but in reality it has a marked impact on the believer’s outlook. Are we looking for political change in the world? Or are we looking for the return of Christ? These things have a practical affect on our lives.
The resurrection. There is a progression of understanding through scripture with regard to the resurrection. Old Testament saints knew of a resurrection from the dead in a general way, that is all (John 11:24). The resurrection was spoken of in the Old Testament, but not in great detail (see 1 Samuel 2:6; Job 14:7,14; 19:25-27;1 Psalm 16:9,10; Psalm 17:15; and Daniel 12:22). When Christ came He presented something new, that there would be a "resurrection from among the dead" (Matt. 17:9); i.e. that not all would be raised together. Christ Himself was the one who first taught this distinction; having "brought life and immortality to light through the gospel" (2 Tim. 1:10). He taught that the resurrection would have two parts; that those of faith would rise first, and then later those without faith would be raised for judgment (John 5:29). The "two resurrections" have several names:
  • The resurrection of life and the resurrection of judgment (John 5:29)
  • The resurrection of the just and the resurrection of the unjust (Acts 24:15)
  • The first resurrection [and the second death] (Rev. 20:5)
Paul adds even more detail which he got by revelation: Christ would rise first, and then those that are Christ’s at His coming would rise (1 Cor. 15:23). Paul explained that some will rise at the rapture (1 Thess. 4:13-18), but he did not explain that another phase will occur at the Appearing. We learn, by joining Rev. 20:4 and Rev. 14:13, that the tribulation martyrs will form the last phase of the first resurrection. In Rev. 20:5, a detail is added as to the space of time between the end of the first resurrection and that of the wicked dead; the space would be 1000 years, or a “millennium”. While details are successively added throughout scripture, the later details do not contradict the earlier statements. Such is the perfection of scripture!

The Sleeping Saints and the Appearing (4:13-14)

13 But we do not wish you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them that are fallen asleep, to the end that ye be not grieved even as also the rest who have no hope. v.13 Ignorance and Sorrow. There are a number of places where Paul says “I would not have you to be ignorant” (Rom. 11:25; 1 Cor. 10:1; 1 Cor. 12:1). In every case, the ignorance puts the saints in danger of believing false teaching. God’s desire is that we would know the truth, and that the truth would set us free. In this case Paul wanted to teach the saints “concerning them that are fallen asleep”, which refers to some of their number who had died. In John 11:11-13, Jesus told His disciples that “Lazarus… is fallen asleep”. The disciples interpreted Jesus’ words shallowly, because they could not accept the deeper meaning. They thought Jesus had meant “the rest of sleep”, but Jesus was using the word “sleep” as a metaphor for the death of saints, as it is often used in scripture; John 11:11; Acts 7:60; 13:36; 1 Cor. 11:30; 1 Cor. 15:6, 18, 51; 1 Thess. 4:13-15; 1 Thess. 5:10; 2 Pet. 3:4. It always refers to the state of the believer’s body, and never their soul after death. That is because scripture teaches the consciousness of the soul even in the intermediate state. (e.g. Luke 16). However, the Thessalonians had only a foggy understanding of the resurrection, and viewed it as a very distant event. By contrast, they were actively waiting for God’s Son from heaven, and the kingdom therefore was a far more imminent and certain reality in their minds. They did not anticipate that the Lord would tarry, and that some of them would die in the interim period. They did not know how to process this information. Therefore, they wrongly concluded (possibly under the influence of false teaching) that the sleeping saints were going to miss out on their portion with Christ in His kingdom! As a result, the saints were plunged into hopeless sorrow; i.e. something that should never characterize a believer, and actually dishonors Christ. Actually, they should have had more confidence in the Lord, to know that death was no impediment to blessing, even though they hadn’t been given the details yet. But ignorance, when discouragement loosens one’s grip on the shield of faith, is a chink in the Christian’s armor. This condition that ignorance had produced in the saints called forth this first of Paul’s wonderful epistles; “to the end that ye be not grieved even as also the rest who have no hope”. Those of the world sorrow when their loved ones die because of the finality of death. Never again will they see their mother, father, etc. Never again will that dead person enjoy life and relationships. All of this produces hopeless grief for the unbeliever. But for the believer who is properly instructed, they know that none of this is of for the sleeping saints.
14 For if we believe that Jesus has died and has risen again, so also God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus. v.14 With Christ at the Appearing. Paul then explains that when Jesus returns at the appearing, “God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus”. Whenever it is Christ’s coming for His saints it is the rapture, and when it is His coming with His saints it is the appearing. Here we find that those who have fallen asleep through Jesus (or, have died in faith), will not miss out on the kingdom, because God will bring them back with Jesus when He appears! The saints who have died will be part of the armies which follow the Lamb out of heaven “upon white horses” (Rev. 19:14). Along with all of Christ’s heavenly saints, they will sit on thrones and reign with Christ “a thousand years” (Rev. 20:4). The verses that follow in a parenthesis (vv.15-18) explain how the sleeping saints get to be with Christ when He comes at the appearing. But notice the basis that Paul gives for the confidence that we can have that the sleeping saints will return with Christ; “if we believe that Jesus has died and has risen again”. We can have confidence in God who raised Jesus from the dead, and in Jesus Himself who conquered death. Death was no obstacle for Christ, and therefore death is no obstacle for those he has put to sleep. A parallel passage that refers to the indwelling Spirit gives us the same confidence: “But if the Spirit of him that has raised up Jesus from among the dead dwell in you, he that has raised up Christ from among the dead shall quicken your mortal bodies also on account of his Spirit which dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11). How important then is the doctrine of the resurrection of Christ! How vitally linked to the doctrine of the resurrection of saints, and therefore to Christian joy in the face of death!
“Fallen asleep though Jesus”.

Sleep is often used to describe the death of a believer, although it is never used to describe the death of an unbeliever. The original word is ekoimethesan; "a sleep that is induced by another". In 1 Thess. 4 we learn who it is that has induced the sleep; the Lord Jesus. What a precious thought! Death is not an accident. Jesus puts His saints to sleep, and He will wake them up with His own voice (John 5:28-29)! It speaks of a sweet tenderness in our Lord's care for His own, even in death. It reminds us of the tender way in which the Lord Himself took Moses personally aside, put him to sleep, and then buried the body. "Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints" (Psa. 116:15). Scripture does not teach so-called "soul-sleep"; i.e. that a person is unconscious in the intermediate state. Both the rich man and Lazarus were conscious in the intermediate state (Luke 16:19-31). Those who teach "soul-sleep" leverage scriptures like Ecc. 9:5 which speak of the ignorance of the dead; "for the dead know nothing". That passage really speaks of ignorance as to things on earth; that which is "under the sun". Quite the opposite, unbelievers who have died are conscious in their suffering, and believers who have died are "present with the Lord".


The Resurrection and Rapture (4:15-18)

15 (For this we say to you in the word of the Lord, that “we”, the living, who remain to the coming of the Lord, are in no way to anticipate those who have fallen asleep; v.15 Paul further explains that the living saints will “in no way anticipate”, or get their blessings ahead of, the sleeping saints. Far from missing out on the blessings of coming and reigning with Christ, the sleeping saints will not be even one moment behind those of us who “remain to the coming of the Lord”. Paul begins this parenthesis by saying, “For this we say to you in the word of the Lord”. In other words, this was a direct revelation from the Lord Himself, given to the apostle Paul, most likely when he was caught up to the third heaven. This doctrine of the resurrection of the sleeping saints (vv.15-16) coupled with the rapture (v.17) was a special revelation given to Paul, which formed part of what he called “my doctrine” (2 Tim. 3:10). There are four main truths that Paul says he got by revelation: the truth of the mystery (Eph. 3:3,6), the truth of the Lord’s supper and the practical expression of the unity of that body (1 Cor. 11:23; 10:17), the truth of the first resurrection (1 Cor. 15:51), and the truth of the rapture (1 Thess. 4:15,17). Read more…. The fact that Paul, who was given to understand that he would be martyred, includes himself with “we who are alive and remain”, shows that the hope of the rapture is the any-moment expectation of the church at all times.
16 for the Lord himself, with an assembling shout, with archangel’s voice and with trump of God, shall descend from heaven; and the dead in Christ shall rise first; v.16 The Lord Descends, the Dead in Christ Rise. It is beautiful that “the Lord himself” will come for us. He wouldn’t delegate such a task to an angel. See John 14:3; “I will come again”. This is something that distinguishes the rapture from the appearing. At the appearing, the Lord sends His angels to gather out His elect (Matt. 24:31), but at the rapture, Jesus comes Himself to take us. At the appearing His feet touch the earth (Zech. 14:4), but at the rapture we meet Him in the air. There are three things that accompany the Lord’s descent. First, the “assembling shout” is what an army captain would give to gather the troops,34 and it represents the gathering together of all the saints of God. Second, the “archangel’s voice” could be referring to the actual voice of Michael, for we only read of one archangel in scripture (Jude 1:9). The angels have attended the pathway of believers on earth, and are deeply interested in the joy and glory of the Lord. Now that job is complete! It could also be that it is the Lord’s own voice speaking as an archangel; i.e. to speak “with archangelic voice” is to speak with a voice of power and victory. In this case, it is the glorious and powerful voice of the Son of God, which wakes the sleeping saints (John 5:28-29). Third, the “trump of God” is a signal for the whole redeemed company to ascend. It is called in 1 Cor. 15, “the last trumpet”. While the rapture itself is not mentioned in 1 Cor. 15, we know comparing the two chapters, the moment of the resurrection correlates with the rapture, because of this trumpet blast.5 Perhaps it is an allusion to silver trumpets that would signal the camp of Israel to march (Num. 10). Most likely it is a reference to the trumpets used in the Roman army; at the first trump they would pull down their tents, at the second trump they would put themselves in order, and at the last trump they would start marching. The last trump signals the last act of this dispensation; i.e. the rapture. But before the saints are taken up, “the dead in Christ shall rise first”. 1 Corinthians 15 speaks at length on the resurrection of those who have died, and also the glorification of the believer’s body at the same time; “we shall all be changed”. To summarize the difference between the two chapters, the transformation is given in 1 Cor. 15, and the translation is given in 1 Thess. 4. Both chapters treat the resurrection. Notice that in 1 Thessalonians it is “the dead in Christ” referring to those in the Christian position, but in 1 Cor. 15 it is “those that are Christ’s”, including all the sleeping saints, from both Old and New Testaments. But the resurrection of the dead combined with the transformation of the living puts all the saints into the same condition!6
17 then “we”, the living who remain, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air; and thus we shall be always with the Lord. v.17 Together Caught Up. The words “caught up” are are ‘harpazo’ in the Greek, translated ‘rapiemur’ in Latin, from which we get our English word ‘rapture’. This verse, 1 Thessalonians 4:7 is one of the primary passages that give us the doctrine of the rapture (see also John 14:3; 2 Thess. 2:1). Those believers who are alive when this moment comes will not be left on the earth to pass through “the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:10). This is what is meant by ‘the pre-tribulation rapture’; the rapture will precede the seventieth week of Daniel. All the saints together, the resurrected saints and the living saints, will be caught up “in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air”. It doesn’t say the Lord comes all the way to earth at the rapture; we meet Him in the air. This will be a magnificent manifestation of the power of God. The rapture is the crowning act of redemption. Not only are we delivered from the penalty of our sins (past), and from the power of sin (present), but at this coming time we will also be delivered from the presence of sin (future). We will be physically united with the Lord, and “thus we shall be always with the Lord”. We will never be separated again!
18 So encourage one another with these words.) v.18 Encouragement. These truths, of the resurrection of the sleeping saints, of our catching away to be forever with the Lord, and of our coming together with Christ when He appears, are a tremendous comfort. The saints in Thessalonica would be greatly relieved to learn these things, and they were instructed to talk about them to one another. The truth of the rapture was almost lost to the Church for hundreds of years, until the Lord gave a bright recovery in the mid-1800’s. Sadly, once again the Church is giving up the hope of the Lord’s coming, and it has had a devastating effect on her moral conduct here in this world. One thing we can do to keep this hope burning brightly in our hearts is to speak about it to one another; to “encourage one another with these words”! The saints in ages past have done a similar thing; “Then they that feared the LORD spake often one to another” (Mal. 3:16). No doubt those in Malachi were speaking to one another about the first coming of Messiah, and we also can speak to one another about the return of Christ at His second coming.
The days and months are gliding past,
Soon shall be heard the trumpet’s blast
Which wakes the sleeping saints.
The dead in Christ in glory rise,
When we with them shall reach the skies,
Where Jesus for us waits.7
O blessed, coming Saviour,
Speak, then, the joyous word,
To which our hearts responding —
“For ever with the Lord”,
For ever with Thee, Saviour —
We evermore shall be,
In deepest, fullest blessing
For ever one with Thee.8
Challenges to the Rapture. Some will try to say that 1 Thess 4:15-18 is talking about the appearing of Christ, and believers welcoming Him back to earth. They will try to say that 1 Cor. 15, 1 Thess. 4, and 2 Thess. 2 are all talking about the appearing of Christ. This is totally false. The simple proof of it is this: in the second epistle Paul addresses the fears of the saints that the day of Lord had already come. If they were to understand from the first epistle that the saints would be left until the appearing, why were they so worried? They would have been rejoicing. Instead, because they were experiencing strong persecution, they were afraid that the rapture had passed them by, and that they would see the wrath of God after all. Paul says “No, the persecution you are facing is not the Day of the Lord”. He goes on to show that the day of the Lord cannot come until the apostasy takes place, and the Antichrist is revealed, etc. But in addressing this question, Paul says “I beseech you by the coming of the Lord and by our gathering together unto Him”. To teach that Christians will go through some or all of Daniel’s seventy weeks is to deny the coming of the Lord for His saints as spelled out in 1 Thess. 4. This is the very point touched in ch.5; “For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:9).
  1. Note that Job even predated Moses! It is remarkable that he knew of resurrection.
  2. This is the principle of resurrection, although the scripture applies to the national resurrection of Israel.
  3. 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. – Kelly, W. Exposition of First Thessalonians.
  4. The word here used in the Greek meant originally, the shout raised by the chiefs, on the Greek galleys, to call the men at the time of resuming their work. In our day we mean something similar when we speak of sounding a call to assemble. – Darby, J.N. Notes on the First Epistle to the Thessalonians.
  5. This "trumpet of God" has nothing to do with the seven trumpets of Revelation. It has to do with the Church period, not with the tribulation. We need to "rightly divide the Word of Truth", or we will get these things mixed up, and think that the rapture will occur at the seventh trumpet of Rev. 11, which is really the appearing of Christ. Note that in Revelation, the 24 elders are seated on thrones in heaven before the seven trumpets are blown. This fact quickly dispenses with the notion that this "last trump" is the seven trumpet of Rev. 11.

  6. The three things in this verse: the shout, the voice, and the trumpet have been applied to the three companies that will be taken at the rapture; the assembling shout being for the sleeping Church, the archangel’s voice being for the Old Testament saints, and the trumpet of God being for the living saints! This is a nice application, but the context is really the hope of the Christ; i.e. those who are “in Christ”.
  7. Frazer, George. O LORD, our hearts are waiting. Little Flock Hymnbook #140.
  8. Frazer, George. That bright and blessed morn is near. Little Flock Hymnbook #244.