Foundational to the hope of the church is the bodily resurrection of believers that will take place when Jesus arrives from heaven.
Paul’s description of the “coming” of Jesus in his first letter to the Thessalonians was written to comfort Christians concerning the fate of believers who die before that day. Disciples must not sorrow “like the others” BECAUSE dead Christians will be resurrected when the Lord “arrives,” and both the living and newly raised believers will “meet him” as he descends from heaven.
Thus, the answer to Christian sorrow and grief over the loss of fellow believers to death is the bodily resurrection at the end of the age. While disciples of Jesus will still grieve when other believers die, they need not do so as do nonbelievers who have no hope.
Questions about the fate of believers who die before the‘parousia’ or “arrival” of Jesus are dealt with in the fourth chapter of First Thessalonians. Apparently, some members of the congregation were concerned that dead believers might miss out on that day’s glories. Precisely how they came to that conclusion is not addressed by Paul.
But the Apostle reassured them. Not only will dead believers participate in the events of that day, but they will also rise from the dead “first” to be reunited with believers who are still alive, then, the entire company will ascend to “meet” Jesus as he descends to the earth. In this way, they will be together “with him forevermore.” And the Thessalonians are “to comfort one another” with these words.
What Paul links to the ‘parousia’ of Jesus is the collective and bodily resurrection of the saints. Precisely where believers go after meeting Jesus “in the air” is not stated, whether they will accompany him to the earth as he continues his descent or will return with him to heaven with newly raised saints. He bases the future 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 continues this subject in the next chapter. The Thessalonians are not in darkness so that day will not “overtake you as a thief,” not because they know 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 are 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.”
And God did not appoint His saints to “wrath.” Even now, Jesus is delivering them from the coming “wrath.” Instead of “wrath,” they are appointed to the “acquisition 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 his declaration is that salvation is acquired through the resurrection. Paul concludes by encouraging the Thessalonians. Certainly, God will sanctify them wholly in preparation for that day – “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 of this last statement is not the tripartite nature of man; rather, the whole person will be saved on the day when Jesus “arrives from heaven,” including the physical body.
Bodily resurrection was foundational to Paul’s gospel, and in First Thessalonians, as elsewhere, he links it to the “arrival of Jesus from heaven.” All dead saints will be raised at that time, and together with those Christians still alive, the entire body of Christ, will “meet” him when he arrives from heaven.