The Dead in Christ Shall Rise First
by Ron Daly
via Guardian of Truth XLI: 4 p. 10-11, February 20, 1997
Paul wrote in his first letter to the Thessalonians, that when the Lord descends from heaven, "the dead in Christ will rise first" (I Thessalonians 4:16).
Apparently, Paul had reason to be concerned that some of the Christians in Thessalonica were uninformed regarding the status of fellow-believers who had died. He wrote to them so that they would not grieve. He states that when the Lord descends from heaven the dead saints will not be forgotten, nor left behind. They will rise before the living are caught up to meet the Lord in the air! "For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have fallen asleep" (I Thessalonians 4:15).
The apostle is not affirming any of the doctrinally erroneous presuppositions of the premillennial heresy. His point is not that the dead saints will rise and be caught up in "the rapture," a contrived theory of premillennialists. Instead, he implicitly indicates that the dead saints will not be abandoned, but they will rise to meet the Lord together with those who remain. The following verbal phrases constitute the immediate context of Paul's words, in which actions are ascribed to the Lord and his saints: "The Lord himself ... will descend (katabesetai) from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise (anastesontai) first. Then we who are alive, who are left (perileipomenoi), will be caught up (harpagesometha) in the clouds together with them to meet (apantesin) the Lord in the air, and so we will be (esometha) with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage (parakaleite) one another with these words" (vv. 16-17). Notice the word "then" in verse 17. It translates epeita which in the present context is emphatic, and the term means "after that, in the next place." The Greek-English Lexicon of The New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Bauer, Arndt-Gingrich-Danker, 284, indicates that epeita is used "to denote succession in enumerations, together with indications of chronological sequence."
Paul's point seems to be, immediately after the dead saints rise the living saints will join them to meet the Lord in the air.
The text does not teach a partial resurrection, i.e., that some of the dead, those who are in Christ will be raised at the Lord's coming, but the wicked dead will remain in the graves for several more years. In the I Thessalonians' text Paul's primary focus is on "we who are alive" in Christ and "the dead in Christ." He is not denying a general resurrection of all the dead, he simply discusses one class of dead persons who will rise. This seems to be the category about which the Thessalonians had inquired, or at least were concerned.
Please consider that Paul does not say, "Only the dead in Christ shall rise," but he says, "The dead in Christ shall rise first." Let us ask, first in relation to what? The word "first" is a translation of proton, an adverb which in this text means "first of all, first in order." Before the living ascend to meet the Lord, the dead in Christ will be raised and both groups shall be caught up to meet the Lord in the air.
According to numerous New Testament texts when Jesus comes to judge the world, all the dead will be raised. "Do not be astonished at this: for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out those who have done good, to the resurrection of life and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation" (John 5:28-29). Peter and John caused much annoyance to the priest, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees "because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead" (Acts 4:1-2).
Paul affirmed that he was "on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead" (Acts 23:6). Paul made his defense to Felix the governor, proclaiming "that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous," and he declared that he was on trial "about the resurrection of the dead" (Acts 24:15,21). The apostle said to the people of Athens that God "has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed . . . they heard of the resurrection of the dead..." (Acts 17:31-32). "For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised..." (I Corinthians 15:52).
In his second letter to the Thessalonians, chapter 1:7-9, Paul states that when the Lord is "revealed from heaven" (the equivalent to "the Lord himself will descend from heaven" in the first letter, 4:16) vengeance will be inflicted on the wicked, but he will be glorified in the saints.
Therefore in I Thessalonians 4:13-18, Paul is not teaching a partial resurrection of some of the dead, neither is he indicating that there will be multiple resurrections of all the dead. There will be only one literal resurrection of all the dead.