Caught Up Together
“The Lord himself shall descend from heaven … and the dead in Christ shall rise first” (1 Thessalonians 4:16).
Sometimes passages of scripture that we consider technical are actually embedded in the context of comforting exhortations. That is the case with 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Paul evidently heard that some of the brethren he had lately become acquainted with in Thessalonica had passed into the sleep of death. This naturally brought sorrow to the brethren, as it does today, the more so if the deceased was young.
The ecclesia at Thessalonica had been established only recently, during Paul’s second missionary journey. After leaving the area he went southward to Athens, then to Corinth where he stayed for 18 months (Acts 18:11). The subscription at the end of 1 Thessalonians in the common version says the epistle was written from Athens. However, Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown’s commentary says the location was “doubtless Corinth,” and McClintock and Strong’s Encyclopedia agrees, with good evidence.1 This indicates that the epistle was perhaps written not more than two years after the class had been established.
(1) McClintock and Strong, Volume 10, page 344.
Apparently, during that brief time some of the newly baptized brethren at Thessalonica had completed their course. Therefore, Paul wished to comfort the brethren there, reminding them of the heavenly reward awaiting their deceased brethren, to be secured at the return of Christ. “Wherefore comfort one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:18).
Thus, Paul referred to the second advent of Christ, and the gathering of the saints to Christ thereafter. He blended this into an exhortation in chapter five for the brethren to live in such a way as to be ready. “Let us not sleep, as do others, but let us watch and be sober” (1 Thessalonians 5:6). Paul returned to this subject again in his next epistle to them, in chapter one, saying “He shall come to be glorified in his saints” (2 Thessalonians 1:10). In chapter two, he appealed to the prophecies from Daniel 7 and Daniel 11 to explain that the return of Christ would be after the intervening development and exposure of the “man of lawlessness,” which we know as Papacy (2 Thessalonians 2:3, better versions).
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
One of the views which obscures the truth of the second presence of Christ to some Christian minds is the expectation that at the coming of Christ, all of the Lord’s people are to enter immediately into their spiritual reward. Such a view would require that none of the Lord’s people endure in the flesh following the advent of Christ, and since we are still here, the inference is made that Christ cannot be present. This runs counter to many Scriptural teachings respecting the subject.
(1) The harvest of the Jewish age was a work of many years, as Jesus and his disciples went city to city to gather in the wheat of the Jewish Age. The work continued after Jesus’ time until the burning of Jerusalem. The harvest of the Gospel Age is even greater in scope, and thus reasonably involves a work of many years gathering the fruitage of this age. Yet the Harvest ending the Gospel Age does not precede the second advent of Christ (Revelation 14:14).
(2) Christ’s return is referred to in Luke 12:36, 37 as a precursor to a feast of truth. Revelation 3:20 shows this was fulfilled to the seventh of the seven stages of the church. Thus, a full stage of the history of the Gospel age church proceeds after the return of Christ.
(3) In 2 Thessalonians 2 Paul explains to the brethren in his day that “the parousia of our Lord Jesus Christ” and “the day of Christ” had not yet come. He reasons with them that it was some distance in the future, concluding from Daniel 7 and Daniel 11 that an apostasy would come, mature, and be exposed, before the Second Advent. Had the matter been so simple as to say “If Christ had returned we would not be here,” he would have no need of the more complicated line of prophetic thought.
(4) As late as Plague Six of Revelation, which follows the Second Advent, some saints remain in the flesh. This is shown by the exhortation for the saints to keep their garments unspotted from the world, which would have no meaning unless some are still here in the flesh (Revelation 16:15).
(5) During the last plague in Exodus, the firstborn, representing the “church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven” (Hebrews 12:23), are represented as still under the blood, feasting upon the Passover lamb. Thus at the outset of the last plague, the Church is still here.
These points notwithstanding, the statements of Paul in 1 Thessalonians can be perplexing and should be considered in detail. Following is a verse by verse examination of 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18.
Verse 13 — “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.” Paul’s main point was to give hope and comfort concerning the recently deceased brethren. It was not intended as an overt lesson about prophecy, though what he says is meaningful to us about the raising of the saints.
Verse 14 — “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in [dia, through] Jesus will God bring with him.” The word “sleep” is more properly “having slept” (Marshall’s Diaglott, Kingdom Interlinear). Even this is not thoroughly precise, for the verb is in the passive voice (something which happened to them). Thus the ultra-literal Concordant Version says “ones being reposed.” Paul has the same ones in mind here as in verse 13. This text introduces the comfort of our hope for those having been “reposed” into the sleep of death in Christ.
An important word in this text is the small word “with.” What does Paul mean when he says, “them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him [Jesus]”? It does not mean that God brings them with Jesus when Jesus comes, for the saints are raised after his return. The word “bring” means brought back from death, as in Hebrews 13:20 about Jesus, “God … brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus.”
The word “with” is from the Greek word sun. It here refers to our being raised from the dead along with Jesus. Though this does not happen at the same time as the resurrection of Jesus — in fact, it is many centuries apart — it is a shared experience.
Shared experiences so often occur at the same time that we seldom use the English word “with” to refer to events far removed in time. But for the Greek word sun, we have some notable examples of this kind of use.
(1) “He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with [sun] Jesus” (2 Corinthians 4:14, NASB). This is directly parallel to 1 Thessalonians 4:14.
(2) “God … hath raised him [Jesus] from the dead. And you, being dead in your sins … hath he [God] quickened together with him” (Colossians 2:12,13). Our quickening to a new life in Christ happens “with him,” even though his quickening occurred long before.
(3) “They which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham” (Galatians 3:9). Citing this example, Moulton’s Analytical Greek Lexicon Revised, 1978 Edition, says “with, in the manner as.” This is an excellent explanation of the intent of the word in 1 Thessalonians 4:14.
The use of sun for a shared experience, although separated in time, will be important again when we come to verse 17.
Verse 15 — “For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto [eis, into] the coming [parousia, presence] of the Lord shall not prevent [precede] them which are asleep [having slept, the same word as in verse 14, and referring to the same persons].”
Paul here acknowledges that some saints live into the presence of Christ. These, of course, will need to complete their course, like all saints, and be “faithful unto death” (Revelation 2:10).2 But those who had previously fallen asleep through Jesus will not need to wait for them. Those who died long ago will thus have priority in the resurrection. We, who are later, will follow when our earthly lives are ended.
How Did Paul Know?
Paul specifies that he has this on good authority, “by the word of the Lord.” Perhaps he is drawing from Jesus’ words recorded in the Gospels. In John 14:3 Jesus said, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself, that where I am, there ye may be also.” From this Paul could understand that those who had fallen asleep would be received to Christ upon his return.
(2) The new RVIC, “Revised Version Improved and Corrected,” cites good manuscript evidence for reading 1 Corinthians 15:51,52 “We shall all sleep, but we shall not all be changed … the dead shall be raised … and we shall be changed.” The word for “sleep” is properly “fall asleep” (even more literally, “be put to sleep,” since the verb is in the passive voice). It does not mean we will all linger in the repose of death. It simply means that all of the Lord’s people will die. This affirmation of Paul in a context discussing the reward of the saints at the end of the age is very specific.
However, from Luke 12:36,37, Paul could see that those saints living at the return of Christ would have special blessings still on this side of the vail, and thus linger “into” the concluding period of the age. He could reason from the parable of the wheat and tares in Matthew 13 that, following the Second Advent, there would be considerable activity, separating wheat from tares, and thus the Gospel work would continue for an unspecified period of time after the return of the Master.
Verse 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.” Here Paul restates the essence of verse 15, and affirms that there will be a sequence in the raising of the saints. First in sequence are the dead in Christ. They precede the living members into glory.
The shout, voice, and trump are symbols that Paul may have gleaned from other Scriptures. Matthew 24:31, margin, refers to “a trumpet and a great voice” at the Lord’s return. The word shout, keleusma, appears only here in the New Testament. Perhaps Paul drew from an Old Testament episode such as Joshua’s conquest of Jericho in Joshua 6, or Numbers 23:21, or some other example (though the Septuagint does not use keleusma in these cases).
Verse 17 — “Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with [sun] them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.”
The word “then” is from the Greek word epeita, which means “afterward.” It is so rendered in the Kingdom Interlinear and in the Wilson Diaglott Interlinear. Both Rotherham and the NIV say, “after that.” The English word “then” is not inappropriate, but it is not clear, since it has a broad meaning. “Then” can mean “at that time,” “therefore,” or “afterward.” But in the Greek these words are distinct and separate: tote, ara, epeita (see examples in Matthew 24:30, 24:45, and Galatians 1:21).
When Paul referred to those who are “alive and remain,” he used the same Greek terms as in verse 15, referring to the same persons. These will be caught up together “with” the others. Here, it is important to remember the use of this word “with” in verse 14, where the saints are brought back from the dead “with” Jesus, that is, the same experience, but at a different time. The saints who linger into the parousia of Christ will share the same experience as the sleeping saints, but not at the same time. There is a sequence. The living saints join the others “afterward,” as one by one they fall asleep in death.
The saints are caught up “in clouds” (the definite article is missing), but not literal clouds, for the saints as spirit beings are not confined to literal misty locations. Clouds are used in symbol in Daniel 7:13, where “the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven” to receive his dominion, and the saints join him in his regal authority (Daniel 7:27).
It is true that the saints upon their resurrection will meet the Lord, but the rendering in the King James Version hides the real point. The Kingdom Interlinear says that they are caught up “into [a] meeting” and “into air.” The preposition in each case is eis, “into.”3 There we meet Christ and join with the saints who have preceded us. (For a more technical discussion of this verse, see the article “1 Thessalonians 4:14-17,” Beauties of the Truth, February 1999, available online at http://www.BeautiesoftheTruth.org )
Verse 18 — “Wherefore comfort one another with these words.” These verses were intended as a comfort for those bereaved of their devoted loved ones, and Paul returns to this in summation.
(3) Some point out that eis need not be universally translated “into.” In some cases it can be “unto.” Thus, it is not certain that it needs to be “into” in this case. Perusing the uses of this word listed in New Englishman’s Greek Concordance induces us to think the word “into” does fit in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. But we cannot insist on it.