Death of a fellow-believer brings great sorrow for the rest of the church family. And if the church is uninformed about the hope that it has in Jesus Christ, this sorrow could overwhelm them. This was happening in the Church at Thessalonica. They were waiting for Jesus to come back soon (1 Thess. 1:9-10) but in the midst of their waiting some of them died, causing the rest of the church to be hopeless about their eternal destiny. In this passage, Paul is teaching them why they should stop grieving hopelessly (1 Thess. 1:4:13) and be encouraged in this situation (1 Thess. 4:18).
Be encouraged because Jesus died and rose again (v. 13-14): Paul acknowledges the fact that the church was “uninformed” (1 Thess. 4:13) about the hope of resurrection from the dead at the Second Coming of Jesus. Therefore, Paul begins to teach them on the subject by saying in v. 14, “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus” (NASB version).
The first part of the statement sets a condition “if we believe that Jesus died and rose again”. Christians believe that Jesus died for our sins and rose from the death on the third day. By believing this they enter in to a relationship with Jesus and the Bible refers to this relationship as being “in Jesus”.
Paul concludes in the second part of the statement, that all the believers who have died (referred to as “fallen asleep in Jesus”) will receive a bodily resurrection at the Second Coming of Jesus. It means that there is a direct relationship between the confession that ‘Jesus died (for our sins) and rose again’ and the resurrection from the dead of all those who make that confession. And the Bible makes this connection again and again (Rom. 6:5; 1 Cor. 15:22; 2 Tim. 2:11). In fact, this connection is so strong that, Paul says in 1 Cor. 15:13, 16 that if anyone denies the resurrection of the believers, he is essentially denying that Christ rose from the dead. Our hope is as sure as the resurrection of Jesus. The death and resurrection of Jesus is the reason for our hope. In the face of death, this truth is the wellspring of our encouragement today and our hope for tomorrow.
Be encouraged by the word of the resurrected Lord (v. 15-18): Many Gurus have taught about after-life but all of them have died. And that casts a shadow of doubt over their teachings. But that is not the case with Jesus because He died and rose again. That is why Paul basis his teaching on resurrection on “a word from the Lord (Jesus)” (1 Thess. 4:15). In the following verses (1 Thess. 4:15-17) Paul does not quote Jesus verbatim but draws his conclusion from the teachings of Jesus (recorded in Mk. 13; and especially Matt. 24).
With the intention to encourage the Thessalonians who believed that their dead in Christ will lose out on the opportunity to meet Jesus when he comes back, he begins to talk about the circumstances that accompany Jesus’ Second Coming. “A cry of command” from Jesus (cf. Jn. 5:25-29) which will come in the form of a “voice of the archangel” and “the sound of the trumpet of God” (1 Thess. 4:16). We see reflections of these in Jesus’ teachings in Matt. 24:30-31. But Paul puts his emphasis on the fact that when these things happen, the living believers “will not precede those who have fallen asleep” rather “the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thess. 4:15-16).
He makes this emphasis to teach the Thessalonians that contrary to their belief that their dead have lost out in some way, the dead will in fact have a ‘place of honor’ in the order of events. They will rise first and only after that they will be “caught up together” with those “who are alive” in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air (1 Thess. 4:17). It means that the living and dead believers will once again be re-united and they will be with the Lord forever. This would have been a reassuring hope for the Thessalonians, as it is for all of us who have lost loved ones or when we face our own death. And this encouragement has been flowing from the “word of the Lord” through the “words” of the apostles (1 Thess. 4:18) in to the lives of many generations of believers, sustaining them in their faith and hope.
Application: Therefore, let us be encouraged, encourage other believers and also share this word of hope with all those who are yet to believe in Jesus!