Paul on Christian Hope in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14

Paul on Christian Hope in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14

Christ’s death and resurrection are the central events in redemptive history. Because Jesus has risen and then ascended to the Father’s right hand, so too, we will rise at his return to earth. Christ’s resurrection is the basis for our future hope. When our Lord returns to earth, so too, will those “who sleep in him,” and on that day, we shall be raised imperishable.

The Question Put to Paul by the Thessalonians

In light of the broad background of the New Testament’s teaching regarding the second advent of our Lord, we consider Paul’s teaching regarding Christian hope in verses 13-14 of 1 Thessalonians 4. Paul is addressing the question brought to him from the Thessalonians by Timothy regarding the fate of those who die before Christ returns. Since Paul had been gone from Thessalonica for but a short period of time, many have wondered about how it is that this question would arise, since it is not likely that many people in the congregation would have died during the short time span between Paul’s departure and Timothy’s return trip to the city. Perhaps some were martyred due to persecution, but this is improbable. Although many proposals have been put forth as an explanation, Gene Green wisely cautions us,

The reconstruction of greatest merit argues that at the moment of confronting the reality of death, the Thessalonians did not allow their confession to inform their reaction to this human tragedy. Alternately, they may simply have not understood fully the reality of the resurrection from the dead, especially in light of the general Gentile consensus that such things simply do not happen.[1]

Those Who Are Asleep

In verse 13, Paul tells the Thessalonians, “we do not want you to uninformed, brothers.” In the prior section of this chapter, Paul speaks of the Thessalonians as knowing certain details (i.e., 1 Thessalonians 4:1-2; 6, 9) but since he speaks here of the need to inform them (of what follows) it is likely that this matter was not fully dealt with when he had been among them previously.[2] Paul had been forced to leave after three sabbaths due to rioting because of his message. What Paul says in his response to the question is important. Specifically, Paul does not want the Thessalonians to be ignorant about “those who are asleep,” i.e., those who have died before the Lord’s return. As Greco-Roman pagans and new converts to Christianity, the very idea of the resurrection of the dead was difficult for the Thessalonians to grasp. It was common in the first century to believe in the immortality of the soul–often seen as an underworld journey, such as crossing the river Styx–but the very idea of the dead coming back to life in redeemed/resurrected bodies was completely foreign.[3]

It was also common for the ancients to speak of death as “sleep”–especially the Greeks (i.e., Homer, Sophocles). The Old Testament repeatedly speaks of people who have fallen asleep with the fathers (Genesis 47:30; Deuteronomy 31:16; 1 Kings 2:10; Job 14:12 ff.; Psalm 13:3; Jeremiah 51:39 ff.).[4] Christians could use the metaphor of sleep when discussing death because of belief in the resurrection at the end of the age, while pagans, sadly, viewed this sort of sleep as having no end–i.e., no redemption of the body.[5]

We Die “In Christ”

Unlike the Greco-Roman pagans of Paul’s day, Christians need not “grieve like people who have no hope.” There is an intermediate state, described by Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:8– “we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” Those who die in Christ immediately enter into the Lord’s presence at death. Yet, this intermediate state is temporary. Christ’s bodily resurrection guarantees the bodily resurrection of his people–the first fruits of a great harvest at the end of the age (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:20). In Ephesians 2:12, Paul reminds Christians to “remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” All eschatological (future) hope is grounded in Christ’s resurrection–his victory over death and the grave. For Paul, to deny the resurrection of the believer is to deny the resurrection of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:12-18).

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