Summary: Comfort for the bereaved.
THE RETURN OF JESUS
Jesus taught that the “day and hour” of His return is known only to His Father (Mark 13:32). However, the new believers in Thessalonica seem to have got the impression that His Coming was imminent. As a result of this misunderstanding, a question inevitably arose concerning the status of their fellow-believers who had died.
Christian preachers are in the business of imparting salvation information, and have no desire to keep their people in ignorance. Paul referred to his readers as “brethren,” and gently counselled them against the type of excesses in mourning which were more appropriate to the hopelessness of unbelief. The Apostle referred to death itself as a “sleep.”
The metaphor of sleep describes the stillness of the body after death, but it does not imply that death is a state of unconsciousness (cf. Luke 16:23; Luke 23:43). Jesus also spoke of death in terms of sleep (Mark 5:39; John 11:11-14). In both of these instances, our Lord demonstrated that death is temporary, and is followed by a resurrection.
The Christian dead, says Paul, sleep in Jesus. They will rise at His coming (1 Thessalonians 4:16), and He will bring them with Him. The paradigm for their resurrection is His resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20-23).
One of our more compact creeds states, ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.’ Just as surely as this, argues Paul, “God will bring those who sleep in Jesus with Him.” This is evidence of His triumph over death (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:54).
Paul’s use of the expression “by the word of the Lord” is puzzling. If he is quoting Jesus, it is not a saying that we know from the four Gospels. (The Apostle similarly quotes an otherwise unknown saying of Jesus in Acts 20:35.)
“We which are alive” does not imply that Paul expected to remain alive until the Coming of Jesus. The Apostle also indicates the possibility of his death (1 Thessalonians 5:10). It is a figure of speech which any one of us might use.
Death is often seen as a separation, but for the Christian it is a going home. Paul says elsewhere, “to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). When our Lord returns, neither the living nor the dead shall “prevent” or “precede” one another: it shall be a blessed reunion.
The return of Jesus will be a visible and personal event. It is “the Lord Himself” who will “descend from heaven.” This is a reversal of His ascension, in fulfilment of the prophecy given at that time (Acts 1:9-11).
It will also be a noisy public event. The Lord’s descent from heaven will be accompanied with a shout, a voice, and “a trumpet blast.” And just as Jesus called forth Lazarus from his tomb “with a loud voice” (John 11:43), so the dead in Christ shall now rise.
The dead in Christ shall rise “first” (1 Thessalonians 4:16) is momentary, and is immediately followed by what happens to “we which are alive…” (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:51-52). This is a momentous event. The Greek word which this expression translates speaks of a sudden “snatching away” - (the same verb is translated as “taking by force” in Acts 23:10.)
The “meeting” is a technical term for a deputation in Hellenistic times going out to welcome a returning dignitary. One is reminded of another occasion when a crowd met Jesus (Matthew 21:8-9). Or of the Roman Christians going out to meet the Apostle Paul on the Appian Way (Acts 28:15).
Clouds may represent the glorious presence of the Lord: whereas the meeting “in the air” is a further triumph in the enemy’s own domain (cf. Ephesians 2:2). Those who are living when the Lord returns, will be caught up in the clouds, together “with” the resurrected Christian dead - whom the Lord will have brought “with” Him. And so we shall all be forever “with” the Lord.
Remember that Paul is comforting the bereaved with these words. Now he exhorts us to similarly comfort one another. There is hope for the Christian, and for the Christian dead: a sure hope that we will be reunited at the return of the Lord - both with one another, and with Him.