World English Bible translation
4:13But we don't want you to be ignorant, brothers, concerning those who have fallen asleep, so that you don't grieve like the rest, who have no hope. 4:14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so those who have fallen asleep in Jesus will God bring with him. 4:15 For this we tell you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left to the coming of the Lord, will in no way precede those who have fallen asleep. 4:16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with God's trumpet. The dead in Christ will rise first, 4:17 then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air. So we will be with the Lord forever. 4:18 Therefore comfort one another with these words.
This section is undoubtedly a direct response to a question that the Thessalonians had voiced through Timothy. The question and the answer are both very instructive about what the apostles had been preaching on their early missionary journeys.
The problem has already arisen in the six months or so since Paul had left Thessalonica. Someone who had become a Christian while Paul was there, probably one of the earliest converts in the city, had died. What will happen to this person and their immortal soul? It is obvious by the state of the concern and the answer that the apostles give that they had been teaching that the return of Christ in glory could happen any day. To use a theological term, the return of Christ was "imminent". If one were to die before that return take place, had they missed their chance? Would only those alive be saved?
These are all reasonable questions that the early followers of Jesus had to deal with. The apostles answer these concerns very plainly. They say, those who have died will not miss the return of the Lord. Those who die before the Lord returns will lose no status. In fact, they shall be first to see the Lord.
The apostles use a specific term here in which biblical scholars are very interested. They say, "…we tell you by the word of the Lord…" The literal meaning would be "These are the very words of Christ." Did the apostles mean by this that when the Lord was walking the earth He said this to his disciples and it was passed on to them? Or was Paul expressing that the risen Christ has told him this through inspiration or vision?
The answer is not entirely clear, although the meaning to believers does not differ no matter how the question is answered. These words and images are not recorded in any other place in Biblical text, though the thoughts are certainly consistent with other texts where Jesus describes his return. What is important is that the apostles are using the word of the Lord to lend authority to their message.
What they say will happen is startling, but quite clear. The Lord will "descend from heaven" with power in very dramatic fashion. The dead in Christ will rise (be resurrected). Then we who are left alive will "…be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air." After we join Him at His return, we will be with Him forever.
It is a simple story, really. To those without faith, it would be impossible to believe. But, for those of us who have come to trust Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, it is not only credible, but also preferable. We long for His return when all that has gone before will be swept aside and a new day will begin.
The apostles write, "Therefore comfort one another with these words." For those who are in Christ, there is no greater comfort than the presence of the Lord. The early church pronounced these sentiments in a single word. "Maranatha", which means, "Come, Oh Lord".
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