The Thessalonians have been concerned over the fate of their dead. Paul here assures them, by a categorical statement, that God has planned for those Christians who have died to be resurrected as Jesus was resurrected. This inspired assurance would satisfy the queries of the Thessalonians and set their minds at rest. It should be noted that Paul is concerned primarily with the fact that the righteous dead are not forgotten, not with the chronological details of the resurrection. These facts are set forth in 1 Cor. 15:23: “Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming.” Paul wished to stress the fact that as God brought forth Christ from the grave, even so would He bring forth the sleeping saints from the graves.
Some teach that Paul is here speaking of disembodied souls, which, they assert, ascend to heaven at death and return with Jesus when He descends to this earth at the time of the second advent. But the Bible nowhere teaches that the soul of man is immortal and that it ascends to heaven at death (Matt. 10:28; Luke 16:19–31; 2 Cor. 5:2–8).
Furthermore, the interpretation is quite out of harmony with the context. Paul is not speaking of immortal souls, but of “them which are asleep” (1 Thess. 4:13), “them also which sleep in Jesus” (v. 14), “the dead in Christ” (v. 16). The “dead in Christ” rise (v. 16), not descend.
The living are described as not preceding them, with reference to being with the Lord (v. 15). All enter the kingdom together (v. 17). If the dead preceded the living and spent some time with the Lord prior to the resurrection, the apostle’s language would be quite meaningless, in fact, absurd. His comfort would be misplaced. Paul would have told the Thessalonians to dispel all their concern, for their loved ones were enjoying the bliss of heaven. But this he did not do. This he could not do. His teaching was in harmony with that of his Lord (John 14:3).
Some commentators, seeing the problems involved, freely admit that “the disembodied souls are not here spoken of” (Jamiesen, Fausset, and Brown).
In His service,
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