Who are the dead in Christ? Who is Paul talking about in 1 Thessalonians 4:16?
In 1 Thessalonians 4:16 the apostle Paul teaches, "For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first." Who are these "dead in Christ"?
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The context of the larger passage includes verses 13-18. Verse 13 begins by stating the topic, "But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope." Those who are asleep refer to Christians who had already died. They would not experience the return of Christ while still alive. As a result, some believers were unclear regarding what would happen to these believers when Christ came again.
Paul then explains that "we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep" (v. 15). Christians who have already died will have their bodies come out of the grave first.
Next, verse 17a shares, "Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air." Christians who have already died will rise to be with Christ, immediately followed by those still alive. Together, all believers will then be with the Lord.
The last part of verse 17 then notes, "so we will always be with the Lord." All believers will from that point forward be with Christ forever in a new body. First Corinthians 15:50-58 speak further about the new immortal body believers will receive.
Finally, 1 Thessalonians 4:18 concludes this section by stating, "Therefore encourage one another with these words." Prophecy is meant to produce encouragement for the believer, not fear. Paul's readers were to gain inspiration from this teaching, knowing that believers in Christ who had died were already with the Lord and would even have a new body given to them upon Christ's return at which time all believers will be united together with the Lord for eternity.
In summary, the dead in Christ are believers who have already died. However, these believers now dwell in God's presence, will one day receive a new, glorious body, and will be reunited with all believers living today at the moment of His return. Though the death of a believer produces sadness for those who remain, we can take joy in the fact that they live on with the Lord and that we who believe will one day see them again.
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