COMMENTARY ON FIRST THESSALONIANS
" 4:15 For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. 16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first." NKJV (1 Thess 4:15-16)
The coming of the Lord, or the "second" appearance of Jesus to humanity (Heb 9:28), is a pivotal aspect of Apostolic doctrine. It is not a doctrine to itself, but is an facet of the body of doctrine delivered by the Apostles (Acts 2:42). The word "doctrines" is never used in regard to the truth of God-only respecting the spurious views of men (Matt 15:9; Mk 7:7; Col 2:22; 1 Tim 4:1; Heb 13:9). When speaking of the communication of the truth of God, "doctrine," like "truth," is always used in the singular, never in the plural. This is not a mere academic observation, but helps us to gain a proper perspective of kingdom matters. The body of teaching referred to as "the Apostles doctrine," "the Gospel of Christ"(Rom 15:19), or "the Word" (Acts 16:6; 2 Tim 4:2) does not consist of a series of independent doctrines. Rather, it is a body of teaching with a single thrust and purpose, and containing vital aspects that contribute to the salvation of the soul. One of these aspects is the coming of Christ. The Gospel has not been truly preached where this is omitted. Nor, indeed, can a proper view of this great salvation be obtained where a fundamental ignorance of Christ's coming exists. That is the reason for the presence of our text. It is not a novelty, but is a clarification of this essential aspect of the Gospel which was not clear to the Thessalonians. It was essential that they have a proper view of Christ's return, for it is a cardinal point of the Gospel.
THE FACT OF THE MATTER
" 4:15 For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep." NKJV Before expounding this text, there is a practical observation that may be of value to you. This passage underscores the sensitivity of the Apostle to those with deficient spiritual understanding. He did not approach such deficiencies with threatening authority, but as a tender father. There are untold numbers of believers who are confused on the very matter explained in this text, yet their condition often is not viewed as important. Issues relating to the coming of the Lord are frequently approached as though they were optional, and even unimportant. The tone of our text confirms the seriousness of neglecting this subject.
BY THE WORD OF THE LORD. Not only are the words themselves from the Lord, the spirit in which they are delivered is from Him. This answer reflects how the Lord Jesus considers flawed views of His return. The Lord Jesus had personally taught Paul on this matter, opening it up to him. The text means it was "by the word of the Lord" to Paul himself. That word, however, was in strict concert with the words Jesus spoke while among us. The Gospels present Jesus referring to "the Son of man coming" nine times (Matt 16:28; 24:27,30,37,39; 26:64; Mk 13:26; 14:62; Lk 21:27). They record Jesus saying the Son of man will "come" four times (Matt 10:23; 16:27; 25:31; Lk 9:26). With finality Jesus declared, "I will come again" (John 14:3). "The coming of the Son of man" was a matter expounded by Christ (Matt 24:27,37,39). Thus, when Paul speaks on this subject, he is not giving a private opinion, but speaking in strict harmony with Christ's words and heart.
ALIVE AND REMAIN UNTIL. The time men have spent speculating about when Christ will return is staggering. While some attention is given to this subject in Scripture, it is always a matter of revelation, never speculation (Matt 24:30; 1 Thess 5:3; 2 Thess 2:3). The Spirit approaches this subject in such a way as to gender hope in the believer and fear in the unbeliever. In our text, great comfort is brought to the believer. Not only will there be some believers "alive" and "remaining" when Jesus returns, it may very well be the very ones to whom Paul writes. By saying "alive," he means alive "in the body" (Heb 13:3). By "remain," he means remaining "in the world" (1 Pet 5:9).
This is the language of hope, not of time and circumstance. It does not mean that Paul was convinced Jesus would return at the time of his writing. In fact, he suggested such a persuasion was not appropriate for their time (2 Thess 2:3). However, because he did not approach this subject as an earthly scholar, his hope did not exclude such a thought. Notice, the text does NOT say, "those who are alive and remain," but "WE who are alive and remain." In this way, no generation is excluded from the hope of being alive when Jesus returns.
Faith has no difficulty with this kind of language, even though the intellect wrestles with it. The thrust of the Gospel is not WHEN Jesus will return, but that He WILL. It is not whether or not we are alive when He returns, but that we will be included in the event.
THE COMING OF THE LORD. It is true that Jesus is said to have "come" in differing senses. When He entered into the world as a man, He is said to have "come" (1 John 4:2,3; 2 John 7). When He sent the Holy Spirit to His disciples, He referred to it as Himself coming (John 14:17-18). Jesus Himself appeared to Saul of Tarsus while he was en route to persecute the saints (Acts 22:8). However, there is a coming event that is specifically called "the coming of the Lord" (James 5:7-8). It will be a visible and public appearance in which "every eye shall see Him" (Rev 1:7). This is when the Lord will "appear the second time" (Heb 9:28). It is the climax of the ages, the end of time, and the conclusion of flesh and blood and temporal things.
A Polestar. "The coming of the Lord" is the polestar of the saints. A polestar is a guiding star, the center of attraction by which men assessed where they were, and could navigate to where they were going. The star that appeared to the wise men from the East was a "polestar" that eventually showed them the location of the newborn King (Matt 2:9). The coming of the Lord is a directing principle for the believer. When it shines brightly in our hearts and understanding, it helps to illuminate where we are in the walk of faith., It alerts us to where we are going, enabling us to "look up" in the persuasion that our redemption is drawing near. Hide this truth from the saints, and they will become sloppy in their lives. Sin will more easily penetrate their ranks, together with weakness and discouragement. It is not possible to "wait for His Son from heaven" (1:10) when that return is a subject of ignorance and confusion. But let Christ's return shine brightly in the understanding, and all is well!
BY NO MEANS PRECEDE. This is in reference to the resurrection, and means the "change" of the living to immortality will not take place before the bodily resurrection (1 Cor 15:52). This will be developed more fully in the next verse.
THE CLIMACTIC RETURN OF JESUS
" 16a For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God . . . " NKJV As we begin this marvelous section, note the certainty that attends the declaration. The Spirit is speaking to our hearts, addressing our faith. This is something that WILL take place, and there is no chance that it will not. It may even take place in our lifetime! The certitude of Christ's return demands that we be ready and looking forward to the event. We must not allow the corrupt teachings of men to cause us to draw back from anticipating and understanding the return of our Lord. As a matter of practical observation, it appears to me that the current penchant for [what is called] "worship" rarely evinces an earnest longing for the return of the Lord Jesus. If this assessment true, that is a most serious condition that requires immediate correction.
THE LORD HIMSELF. By saying "the Lord Himself," the text means this return will not be a spiritual one, like Jesus coming in the Person of the Holy Spirit (John 14:17-18). It will not be like Jesus coming to dwell in our hearts by faith (John 14:23; Eph 3:17). "The Lord Himself" is the Lord without any veil or covering. It is another way of saying He will return "in His glory" (Matt 25:31). It will be a visible appearance in which He will be seen "in power and great glory" (Matt 24:30). Then He will be seen "as He is," without any part of His person hidden, and without any deficiency in our perception (1 John 3:2; Rev 1:7).
This will not be a vision, like John had on the Isle of Patmos (Rev 1:12-17). "The Lord Himself" is the Lord shown openly in all of His glory and Person. This is the Lord's "appearing"(1 Tim 6:14; 2 Tim 1:10; 4:1). It is "the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ" (Tit 2:13), attended by "His own glory," the glory of the Father, and the glory of the holy angels (Luke 9:26). This is when the Father will display "He who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of lords" (1 Tim 6:15). There will be no question about who He is or why He has come!
WILL DESCEND FROM HEAVEN. This is according to the word of the holy angels who were there when He ascended into heaven. They told His disciples, "this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen Him go into heaven" (Acts 1:11). A select number of men saw Him go into heaven, but "every eye" will see Him "descend from heaven." Heaven is presently retaining Christ until the "restoration of all things," spoken by the holy prophets. This is "the regeneration" of which Jesus spoke (Matt 19:28), when everything will be "made new" (Rev 21:5). However, when that appointed time comes, He will "descend from heaven," fulfilling the word of Acts 3:20-21, when God will "send Jesus Christ, who was preached to you before, whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began." The first time Jesus entered the world, it was largely a secret. The second time, it will be a public glorified appearance "from heaven." No one will miss it!
WITH A SHOUT. While the temporal order remains, the Lord often speaks in a "still small voice" (1 Kgs 19:12). Now, men must learn to "keep silence," in order that they may hear the voice of the Lord (Isa 41:1; Hab 2:20). But this will not be the case when Jesus "descends from heaven." His voice will reverberate throughout every domain, piercing to the lowest grave, and echoing in every quadrant of "this present evil world." It will not only be a shout "with the voice of triumph" (Psa 47:1), but one that will summon the dead from their graves. As Jesus Himself declared, "the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear His voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation" (John 5:28-29). He will shout out all of the dead as surely as He did Lazarus from the sepulcher (John 11:43).
THE VOICE OF THE ARCHANGEL. Only Michael is called "the archangel" (Jude 9), which is the only other mentioning of this word. Perhaps this is the voice alluded to in Revelation 14:15. "Thrust in thy sickle, and reap: for the time is come for thee to reap; for the harvest of the earth is ripe." It doubtless has regard to the sending of "the reapers" to bring the elect together and gather the tares together (Matt 13:39-43; 24:31). The holy angels, led, as it were, by "the archangel," will accompany the Lord's return. But their accompaniment is not a mere formality, it is to accomplish the "harvest of the world." The book of the Revelation associates the voice of an angel with something being accomplished (7:2; 8:13; 9;13; 10:7; 19:17). When our Lord returns, the greatest of all accomplishments will take place.
THE TRUMPET OF GOD. This "trumpet" is "the last trumpet," also associated with the resurrection of the dead: "for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed" (1 Cor 15:52). As under the Law, the trumpet will be sounded to gather the assembly (Num 10:2-3)-this time, before the Throne of God.
THE DEAD IN CHRIST WILL RISE FIRST
" 16b . . . and the dead in Christ shall rise first." NKJV Here is a statement that has been greatly corrupted by distorted views of the return of the Lord. Some posit that there are two separate bodily resurrections, occurring at different times. This is based on one of the most ambiguous texts of all Scripture: Revelation 20:4-5. The latter part of the passage reads, "and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years. But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection." Men take this passage and correlate it with our text, affirming the righteous dead will be raised, with an interim of 1,000 years before the wicked dead are raised. Such a view, however, is attended by great difficulties. First, the Revelation text does not say the godly were raised from the dead. John saw "souls," not bodies. Second, our text has Jesus Himself returning "with a shout," together with "the voice of the archangel." These are matters associated with absolute finality, and under no circumstances can be viewed as secret, as in an undetected "rapture."
The reference to "the dead in Christ" rising "first" is in regard to the saints who are "alive and remain." It has nor reference whatsoever to the wicked dead. Such a view is a carnal imposition upon the word of the Lord. The expression "the dead in Christ shall rise first" is to be associated with those who are "alive and remain until the coming of the Lord" NOT preceding "those who are asleep." The word "precede" refers to a twofold reality. First, the change of the living from mortality to immortality will not occur before the resurrection of those who died in the Lord. Second, the living will not be joined to the Lord before those who "are asleep" are raised.
TWO DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES. Immortality is declared from two perspectives in both First Corinthians and First Thessalonians: resurrection and change. The first refers to those who have died, the second to those who remain. In both cases, only believers are being considered. This is not because they will be raised or changed separately. Rather, it is because only they will be advantaged by resurrection and change, or, as Paul put it, "attain to the resurrection from the dead" (Phil 3:11). That simply means the resurrection becomes the ultimate change for the better, and not the worst. Those who have died will be "raised." Those who are alive and remain will be "changed."
Not everyone will be raised from the grave, but everyone will undergo a change from mortality to immortality. This is precisely the point of the First Corinthian passage, as well as our text. "Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed; in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed" (1 Cor 15:51-52). That such a climactic event could occur undetected is utterly absurd. A shout from Jesus, the voice of the archangel, the piercing blast of the trumpet of God, the dead raised, and the living changed! It takes an extraordinary imagination to consider that being done in secret and under cover!
FIRST. "The dead in Christ will rise first," before those living and remaining are "changed." In this way, a significant reversal will take place. The momentary advantage will be given to those who have already departed the war zone. I say "momentary" because all of this will occur "in an instant, in the blink of an eye." NAB Thus "the first" to have the seeming advantage will be the "last" to participate in the change; while "the last" to have that advantage will be "the first" to "put on immortality." Here, then, is another fulfillment of the saying, "But many that are first shall be last; and the last first" (Mark 10:31). Here we also behold compensating rewards. Those who "are alive and remain" are spared the difficulties associated with death. Those who did experience such things will be granted the honor of rising "first." Thus everyone in Christ will be granted unique privileges, yet they will cause no division.
In all of this there is a Divine precision and consideration that is most remarkable. It is a great source of comfort to the saints to know that not a single aspect of life is overlooked in salvation. All of the injustices of life will fade into the background at the "resurrection of the just." Too, all of the seeming advantages of remaining alive will give way to the blessing of immortality when the living are "changed."
The subject of the resurrection of the dead is a critical one. Not a single time is the word "resurrection" used in the plural. A "first resurrection" is mentioned (Rev 20:5-6), but never a second. A "second death" is mentioned (Rev 2:11; 20:6,14; 21:8), but never a first. The reason is that "first" and "second" are not chronological words, but words depicting kind, type, or order. There will be "A resurrection of the dead, both of the just and the unjust" (Acts 24:15). Jesus will call forth "ALL that are in the graves" at the same "hour" (John 5:29). Our text has revealed to us what will occur to believers at that time. None, whether dead or alive, will miss the appearance of Christ, the change that will occur, or our gathering to Him.