Paul said, “I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope” (1 Thess 4:13). As we shall see, Paul is talking about a different type of grieving.
Prior to the fall of Adam and Eve, people were incapable of dying. God made us to live forever in natural bodies. That all changed with the Fall.
“In the day that you eat of it you shall die,” the Lord said (Gen 2:17). Death entered when Adam and Eve sinned. Nearly all of their offspring die as well. The human body was set on a path of birth, growth, decline, and then death.
Since the sin of our first parents, only two people in all of recorded history have escaped death: Enoch and Elijah. They were each taken alive to heaven and did not die.
Even the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died. Of course, He overcame death for us when He rose bodily from the dead on the third day.
However, very soon (even today) untold millions of people will not die, but “shall be caught up…in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thess 4:17). Until that time, how are we to grieve when a believing loved one dies?
Reminders We May Die
We all have constant reminders of death. The older we are, the more our own bodies tell us we are dying: our hair falls out, our backs hurt, our hearing worsens, our cells produce cancer, etc.
But you and I may not die. Believers who are alive at the time of the Rapture will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air as this very passage says.
Will Believing Loved Ones Who’ve Died Miss Something?
How should Christians cope with death?
Does being a Christian help us cope with the decline and death of loved ones?
In this passage Paul is dealing with a specific question: will believing loved ones who have died miss out on the Rapture and the Millennium?
First Thessalonians was written in AD 50-51, within a year or two after Paul founded the church in Thessalonica. Evidently some Christians there had died since then. The believers in Thessalonica feared that if the Rapture occurred in their day, which they thought it would, then maybe those believers who had already died would miss the Rapture and the Millennium and wouldn’t be a part of the kingdom until after the Millennium.
The theme of First Thessalonians is that we should serve God as we wait for the return of Jesus, so that we might rule with Him (1:9-10).
Paul is here in a section of the book in which he gives specific applications. How should we be living, and dying, in light of Christ’s soon return?
The Apostle Paul is not trying to teach a new doctrine to the Thessalonians. He is reminding them of a doctrine they have already been taught and already believe. Thus we should not look in this passage for a comprehensive treatment of the Rapture. Indeed, we won’t find that anywhere, for this is the clearest passage on the Rapture anywhere in the Bible.
The Greek Word for Sleep Here
Refers to the Death of Believers (v 13a)
The word sleep never refers to the death of an unbeliever in the New Testament. Compare 1 Thess 4:13-14 with John 11:11 and 1 Cor 11:30.
Sleep in 1 Thess 4:13-14 is figurative. It doesn’t imply unconsciousness, for Phil 1:21-23 shows that is not the case. So does the Mount of Transfiguration where Moses and Elijah appear.
The figure may imply cessation of conflict, fatigue, etc.
The question Paul addresses in this passage is this: How should Christians think about departed loved ones in the Lord (v 13)?
(A different word for sleep is used in Chapter 5, and in a different sense. In Chapter 5 sleep refers to moral lethargy of living believers. There is a clear play on words between this passage and the one which follows.)
Some of the believers in Thessalonica had died since Paul planted the church there and told them of Christ’s return and the Rapture. Evidently Paul had not discussed specifically the Rapture in relation to the death of actual members of that church. Clearly they all hoped the Rapture would occur in their lifetimes before any of them died. Now that some of them had died, they were grief stricken. Would these departed loved ones miss out on something?
And what if they themselves died before the Rapture (which they all did)? Would they miss out on something?
Believers Are Not to Grieve Like Unbelievers Grieve (v 13b)
One extreme is no grieving at all. I have heard some well-meaning Christians teach that we should not grieve at all. That is not what Paul says. He is comparing the way in which believers should grieve and the way unbelievers actually grieve. He is not comparing not grieving versus grieving.
The other extreme is obsessive grieving. People cut themselves, beat themselves, drink to excess, and deprive themselves of sleep. That is excluded by Paul’s teaching here. He is ruling out the type of mourning that may be common among the unsaved. While we miss the departed, it is inappropriate to lose sight of the big picture and to grieve in an ungodly manner.
A balanced position is that we aren’t to grieve like the unsaved. While it is true, as we shall see, that the believer is better off, we are not yet. We miss them and we are still in this body. We will not see them face to face again until either the Rapture occurs or until we die. So we have sadness, but Phil 4:13 still applies. We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.
Jesus wept over the death of Lazarus and all the pain He and others felt as a result (John 11:35).
We Will Meet Our Believing Loved
Ones Again Very Soon (v 14-17)
The word Rapture comes from the Latin translation of the Greek verb harpazō (translated as caught up in English in v 17). This is where the doctrine of the Rapture comes from.
There will be no more separations, no more death. From that point on, we will be forever with the Lord.
Note that 100 percent of believing loved ones who’ve died will be raptured. This passage alone shows that there is no such thing as a partial Rapture. Plus the next passage, particularly 1 Thess 5:10, shows that even believers who are morally asleep when Christ returns will be raptured. No believer will miss the Rapture or the Millennium.
Eschatology and Particularly the Rapture
Should Comfort the Believer (v 18)
Eschatology is given to us to meet very practical needs. One of those is comforting us in our bereavement.
We should take comfort in knowing that believers who’ve died are now with the Lord and they won’t miss out on anything in God’s plan.
What about the Death of Unbelieving Loved Ones?
Paul doesn’t directly deal with that question here or elsewhere.
By implication, the death of unbelieving loved ones causes us more grief. We can’t have the same degree of comfort, because we won’t meet them in the Rapture, and we won’t spend eternity with them.
How can we handle that?
First, know that God will remove the grief. Though we might not understand how, we will not grieve over unregenerate unbelievers once we have glorified bodies (see Rev 21:4).
Second, realize that the common understanding of hell is built on unbiblical sources like Dante’s Inferno, not on Scripture. Though Scripture indicates the lake of fire will involve conscious physical and emotional eternal torment, it also indicates it will be bearable. Many people’s concept of hell is in conflict with the just and loving character of God. (See Chapter 6 in my new book, The Ten Most Misunderstood Words in the Bible, for a twenty-page discussion on hell.)
Third, realize that we are rarely sure that the departed person was an unbeliever. Only in some foreign land where the gospel was never preached before loved ones died could anyone be certain that their loved ones died as unbelievers. (Even then could they really be sure no stranger brought the message at some point in the past? Or maybe their loved ones actually traveled and came to faith in another village.) They may have believed in Christ at some point and we never found out for sure. We weren’t with our loved ones every moment of their lives. While we may have a strong suspicion they never believed in Christ, it is certainly possible that they heard and believed the message of life at some point.
A friend of mine, Bob Swift, points out that we are too quick to say for sure that a given person is or was unregenerate. How do we know what that person believed as a child or teen? Might they not have come to faith in Christ then? While it may not be likely, it is certainly not impossible.
Fourth, we are to focus on other things. It is wrong to obsess about departed loved ones whom we suspect were unbelievers. While we should grieve, especially during the first year or so after the death of a loved one, we should not obsess about it. We should always live a Christ-centered life. The Rapture is one way to help us take our focus off our grief. Even in the grief resulting from the death of an unbeliever, focusing on the fact that we will forever be with the Lord, and that we will soon be leaving this sinful world, is very comforting.
What Happens to the Small Children of
Believers at the Time of the Rapture?
In light of Noah and the Ark and Lot and his wife and daughters, it seems that family members who are under the age of accountability will be raptured with their believing parent(s) as well. After the Tribulation I would expect the children to live out their natural lives in the Millennium and have a wonderful opportunity to come to faith in Christ then. This is speculation, of course. But it is highly likely to be case. It seems unlikely that God would allow the small children of believers to stay behind and go through the Tribulation as orphans. If the parents go in the Rapture, the children will most likely be caught up then as well.
The Rapture Is Something to Joyfully Expect
While this passage concerns the death of believing loved ones, it also directly tells us about our own future if we are alive at the time of the Rapture. This is a great comfort.
All committed believers who are well taught regularly look forward to the return of Christ and the Rapture. We all hope it is any day now.
The Lord, as well as Paul, taught that every believer should be watchful (grēgoreō) since the Lord’s return will be secret, like a thief in the night (cf. Matt 24:42-43; 25:13; 1 Thess 5:6, 10; see also 1 Pet 5:8; Rev 3:2). To be watchful is to live with expectancy and with desire. We should all be Gregory Christians, watchful Christians.
There is sorrow and also comfort in the death of a believer. If we focus on the Rapture and Christ’s soon return, we will be comforted and we can comfort one another. However, if we lose a Biblical mindset, we can get caught up in the hopelessness of the world and forget that we will see them again soon, that they are with the Lord now, that they happier than they have ever been, that they are much better off than we are, etc.
The Rapture is just as certain as Jesus’ death and resurrection for us.