Recently we’ve received a lot of important questions on 1 Thessalonians 4:16–17, the rapture text. Here’s one from Jonathan, who listens in from New Jersey. “Hello, Pastor John! It’s fairly typical to hear Christians say of someone who has died, ‘They’re with Jesus now.’ But in 1 Thessalonians 4:16–17, it sounds like Paul is saying that Christians who have died will meet Jesus at the second coming. Do Christians go to be with the Lord when we die, or will we meet him when he comes back to earth? I guess what I’m asking is this: When a Christian dies, what comes first: seeing Jesus or being raised from the dead?”
A Long Wait?
The reason this is an excellent question is because 1 Thessalonians 4:16–17 really does sound like what Jonathan has said: believers who have died are raised from the dead, and in that sense, first meet the Lord at his coming, rather than immediately meeting him when they die.
It sounds like that, but I’m sure that’s not what Paul means there, and I’ll try to show why. I think it’s really plain from two passages of Scripture that Paul was certain when he and other believers died, they would go immediately to be with the Lord Jesus and see him in that moment.
Without a Body
First, look at 2 Corinthians 5:6–8:
We are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
Those are the two alternatives that Paul sees. I’m either here in my body — in one sense, away from being at home with the Lord — or I die and I’m at home with the Lord.
Now here’s verse 9: “So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.” Paul did not conceive of a time when the body dies and we are not at home with the Lord. To die is to lose the body temporarily and go to be at home with the Lord.
This is not his first choice. That’s one of the things we might correct at funerals. We do not want to give the impression that the disembodied at home-ness with the Lord is the first apostolic choice. His first choice is that the Lord Jesus would come before he dies and over-clothe his body with eternal life.
But he says that if we die, it is better. So, his third choice is stay here and work; his second choice is to go and be with Jesus without his body; and his first choice is “Come, Lord Jesus, and give me a new body so that I never have to be bodiless.”
The other passage is Philippians 1:22–24: “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.”
Now, those are the two possibilities for Paul, and one of them was not to die and have the soul lie in the grave sleeping. That wasn’t the choice — die and have the soul lie in the grave sleeping until the second coming. No.
The two possibilities were to go on living here, or to go to be with Christ, which is far, far better. I conclude that Paul had no doubts about being united with Christ with conscious joy by faith in this life, and it would never be interrupted by death. And when he left his body, when he was martyred, he would go to something far better than even the communion that he enjoyed with Christ here.
Who Goes First?
Now, let’s say a word about 1 Thessalonians 4. You’ve got to put on your thinking cap, because the logic of this text is so important. I think it’s clear, but it’s complicated.
“To die is to lose the body temporarily and go to be at home with the Lord.”
It goes like this: “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:14). Now, that sounds like he means to bring them with him from heaven, where, in fact, they are. In fact, there are souls in heaven. We just argued for that from 2 Corinthians 5 and Philippians 1.
“For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:15). Now that, too, might sound like we are already in our souls — body in the grave, souls with Jesus — in the presence of the Lord, and in that sense, those still on earth have not preceded them into the presence of Christ.
But here’s the problem: now comes the argument for why those who are left, who are alive, will not precede those who have died. It goes like this: “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” (1 Thessalonians 4:16).
That’s why we won’t precede them. They rise first. Then, we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together — not a first and second, but together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. “So we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:17).
The argument for why those who are alive at the Lord’s coming will not precede those who have died is that those who have died will rise first, and then we will all go together. There is no ranking: “Oh, you got to go first.” We go together to meet the Lord in the air. No first, no seconds; we are all together.
Here’s my conclusion when I put these three passages together. Precede in 1 Thessalonians 4:15 does not refer to the dead preceding the living into the presence of the Lord in heaven, which, of course, they clearly do. Paul’s just not talking about that. Rather, precede refers to preceding with a resurrection body into the glorious experience of the second coming.
“The two possibilities were to go on living here or to go to be with Christ, which is far, far better.”
Let me say that again, because that’s what the argument of verses 16 and 17 demands that precede means. We won’t precede the dead, Paul says. Precede where? Preceding them with resurrection bodies into the glorious experience of the second coming.
In other words, what Paul is saying in 1 Thessalonians 4:14–16 is that the living won’t have any advantage over the dead when it comes to the fullest enjoyment of that day — that resurrection, second-coming day, including bodily sight and enjoyment and bodily celebration of the second coming — because the dead in Christ shall rise first.
In other words, before there is any glorious gathering to meet the Lord in the air, the bodies of all believers who have died will be raised from the dead, reunited with their souls, and then the entire Christian church, the living and the resurrected, will together meet the Lord and welcome him to establish his rightful kingdom.