How do you understand 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17? Does it tell us that the dead in Christ will rise first and that sometime afterwards, those in Christ who are still alive will be changed?


Let us notice this passage in context. We read, beginning with 1 Thessalonians 4:13:

“But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope… God will bring with Him [Jesus] those who sleep in Jesus… we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means PRECEDE those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up TOGETHER WITH THEM in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord.”

Paul addresses the same topic in 2 Thessalonians 2:1, where he speaks of “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him.” Particularly focusing on those who have fallen asleep in Christ, as well as those in Christ who will still be alive at the time of Christ’s return, he says in 1 Corinthians 15:51-52:

“Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall ALL be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”

From the foregoing, we see that those who died in Christ will be raised incorruptible. They will not be raised in a physical state and then be changed afterwards. Rather, their resurrection will be one to immortality. We also read that those true Christians who are alive when Christ returns will be changed instantly into immortality as well, and both—those who were resurrected to immortality, and those who were changed to immortality—will “be caught up” in the clouds to meet the returning Jesus Christ in the air. They will then together descend to the Mount of Olives, as other Scriptures show (Q&A).

We read that the change of those in Christ who are still alive will not PRECEDE the resurrection of Christians who died (In passing, this fact, all by itself, disproves the theory of the “secret” rapture.)  But do the Scriptures tell us that the resurrection of the Christians who fell asleep will PRECEDE the change of those Christians who are alive when Christ returns? If so, the time difference between the resurrection and the change would have to be extremely short, as we read in 1 Corinthians 15:52 that at the time of the last trumpet, ALL – the dead and those still alive—will be changed, and that in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. Lets’ read it again: “We shall not all sleep (some will still be alive when Christ returns), but we shall ALL be changed (that is, the dead will be resurrected incorruptible, and those alive in Christ will be changed to incorruptibility).” And when is all of this to occur? “… in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.”

Some commentaries propose the idea that those in Christ who died and who will be resurrected, will precede those in Christ who will be still alive when Christ returns.

For instance, Barnes’ Notes on the Bible says:

“Shall rise first – That is, before the living shall be changed. A doctrine similar to this was held by the Jews. ‘Resch Lachisch said, Those who die in the land of Israel shall rise first in the days of the Messiah.’.. It is implied in all this description, that the interval between their resurrection and the change which will occur to the living, will be brief, or that the one will rapidly succeed the other…”

Of course, that “Jewish doctrine” has no support in Scripture. All who have died in Christ will be resurrected at the same time—no matter where they died.

We also read in the People’s New Testament:

“The dead in Christ shall rise first. Before the living are gathered, all the saints who slept in Christ shall be gathered around him. In the final day, the first act is the gathering of the departed saints; the next, the gathering of the living saints.”

A similar explanation is given in Matthew Henry’s Whole Bible Commentary:

“The dead in Christ shall rise first (v. 16), before those who are found alive at Christ’s coming shall be changed; and so it appears that those who shall then be found alive shall not prevent those that are asleep…”

But is this really what the Scriptures want to tell us?

Vincent’s Word Studies prefers the concept that 1 Thessalonians 4 is “apparently not intended to include the specific details which follow. In that word the revelation was to the effect that all believers simultaneously should share the blessings of the advent. The following description of the Lord’s descent from heaven is intended to emphasize the fact that the reunion of dead and living believers will be accomplished by the Lord in person.”

Still, the Scripture says that those who died in Christ will rise FIRST.

Gill’s Exposition on the Entire the Bible states that those who died in Christ “will rise ‘first’, before the wicked, which is the first resurrection, Revelation 20:5, even a thousand years before them; the righteous will rise in the morning of the resurrection, and so will have the dominion in the morning, Psalm 49:14, even at the beginning of the thousand years, as soon as Christ will come; but the wicked will not rise till the evening of that day, or till the close of the thousand years: and this agrees with the notions of the Jews, who thought that some will rise before other…”

Of course, if by wicked, one means those who have committed the unpardonable sin, then they will not rise until after the Millennium or 1,000 years and after the Great White Throne Judgment (which may last about 100 years). That is, they will rise in a third resurrection (Q&A). But it is true that those who died in Christ will rise first, when Christ returns, and that all those who did not die in Christ, without having committed the unpardonable sin, will rise 1,000 years later, in the second resurrection of the Great White Throne Judgment period.

The Bible confirms that some will rise FIRST, and others will rise later. Notice Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:22-23: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. Then comes the end…”

Revelation 20:4-6 states:

“… then I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God… And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished. This is the FIRST resurrection. Blessed and holy is he who has part in the FIRST resurrection. Over such the second death has no power…”

Even though some reject the idea that Paul makes reference to the first resurrection in 1 Thessalonians 4:16, when speaking about those who will be resurrected FIRST (compare Jamieson, Fausset and Brown), it appears that this may be what Paul was trying to convey–that only those who died in Christ as well as those in Christ who will be alive will be raised and changed to immortality, to be caught up together to meet Christ. In other words, Paul, who was wanting to give hope, told the brethren that they did not need to sorrow, because all of those who died in Christ and all of those in Christ still alive when Christ returns, will be united again in immortality.

Note how Phillips, The New Testament in Modern English, renders the phrase in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17: “Those who have died in Christ will be the first one to rise, and then we who are still living on the earth will be swept up with them into the clouds to meet the Lord in the air….”

If, on the other hand, Paul’s intention was to convey that the dead in Christ will rise before the living Christians will be changed, then the time difference between those two events would have to be extremely short; that is, less than the time it would take for an eye to twinkle.

Lead Writer: Norbert Link

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