SYNOPSIS – Integral to the hope of the church is the bodily resurrection of believers when Jesus arrives from heaven – 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.
The Apostle Paul’s description of the “coming” of Jesus found in his first letter to the Thessalonians was written to comfort Christians about the fate of believers who died before that glorious day. Disciples need not sorrow BECAUSE dead Christians will be raised from the dead at the very moment the Lord “arrives” from heaven; thereafter, both living and resurrected believers will “meet him” as he descends to the earth. The answer to Christian sorrow over the loss of loved ones is the future resurrection.
In the opening section of this letter, Paul praised the church for its excellent example of faith for other churches. The Thessalonians had – “Turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus, who is delivering us from the coming wrath” – The Apostle linked the exalted status of Christ to his past resurrection, a feature prominent in his letters – (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).
In the fourth chapter, questions about the status of believers that died before the parousia are dealt with – Apparently, some were concerned that fellow believers who died before the parousia might miss out on that day’s blessings. Precisely how they came to this conclusion is not addressed in the letter.
Paul reassured them – Not only will dead believers participate fully on that day, but they will also rise from the dead “first” and be reunited with believers who are still alive. Then, the entire company will ascend to “meet” Jesus in the “air” as he descends to the earth. In this way, they will be together with him forevermore. The Thessalonians are “to comfort one another” with these words.
What Paul links to the “arrival” of Jesus is the collective and bodily resurrection of the church. Precisely where believers go after meeting Jesus “in the air” is not stated, whether they accompany him to the earth as he continues his descent, or he returns to heaven with his newly raised saints. In the preceding chapter, Paul described how at his parousia Jesus would come with all his saints, so the first option is the more likely one:
(1 Thessalonians 3:12-13) – “And the Lord make you to increase and abound in love one toward another, and toward all men, even as we also do toward you; to the end he may establish your hearts unblameable in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.”
Paul bases the resurrection of Christians on the past resurrection of Jesus:
“If we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, them also that are fallen asleep in Jesus will God bring with him.”
Paul continued this subject in the next chapter. The Thessalonians were not in darkness so that day would not “overtake you as a thief”; not because they knew all the appropriate “signs” and chronologies of the “last days,” but because “you are all sons of light, and sons of the day” – (1 Thessalonians 5:1-12).
Believers live in the light of the gospel and no longer in the darkness of sin – They prepare for the end by “putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for a helmet, the hope of salvation.”
God did not appoint Christians to “wrath.” Even now, Jesus is delivering us from the coming “wrath.” Instead of “wrath,” disciples are appointed to the “obtaining of salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him.” Implicit in these statements is that salvation and deliverance are obtained through the resurrection. Paul concluded by encouraging the Thessalonians – God would sanctify them wholly:
“May your spirit and soul and body be preserved entire, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is he that calleth you, who will also do it.”
The point is not the tripartite nature of man. The preceding statement stresses how the whole person will be saved on the day when Jesus “arrives from heaven,” including the physical body.