“Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, in the same way God will bring in union with Him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus” (1 Thess. 4:14).
Paul has been talking with the Thessalonians about what they have suffered because of their belief in Jesus. His aim in writing is to connect the Thessalonians’ hardships to the sufferings of the larger body of Christ. Finally, Paul wants the Thessalonians to see their pain and that of the wider body as participating in the person of Jesus, who suffered and rose from the dead.
Paul wants the Thessalonians to understand that what they’re going through is participation in divine life, not just worldly misfortune that would cause them to “grieve like the rest, who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13).
It is easy to forget Paul’s larger point when coming to the end of chapter four and the beginning of chapter five; easy to read about the return of Christ and reduce Paul’s comments to a wooden detailing of future events. Paul is not primarily concerned with articulating doctrines of the second coming and resurrection. He is still speaking to the Thessalonians about their union and participation in the divine dynamic in Jesus. Paul’s desire in sharing these things is not to ensure creedal integrity but to deepen their communion with the Lord and encourage them in that.
Here are these believers who are still alive, whose loved ones have been killed during persecution or have died. They’ve heard about the return of Christ and wonder what that means for those that have died. The dead won’t be “awake” and watching as Paul has counseled them (1 Thess. 5:6). Is it better to be alive when Jesus returns?
Paul’s answer is that the dead will rise, then “we who are still alive will be stolen away all at once with them in the clouds into a meeting of the Lord in the air and so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:17). No one gets preferential treatment. Whether dead or alive, we are stolen away as one body, one new man in Jesus. We died in Christ and we live with Christ. Because of our union with Jesus and each other, we will always be with the Lord. That is the main point.
After further comments about how to conduct ourselves as we watch for the Lord, Paul circles back to this: “For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with Him” (1 Thess. 5:10).
Awake or asleep, walking around or in the grave, it doesn’t matter. We are one with the Lord and will always be with Him. What a comfort! Twice Paul tells them to encourage each other with these words (1 Thess. 4:18, 5:11). This is because he is talking like a pastor, not a theologian. His aim isn’t to straighten out their eschatological timeline; it’s to counsel them in their grief and lift the burden of worrying about those they’ve lost.
There is probably connection between this passage and Paul’s comments in Romans–“Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Can affliction or anguish or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? […] For I am persuaded that not even death or life, angels or rulers, things present or things to come, hostile powers, height or depth, or any other created thing will have the power to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord!” (Rom. 8:35-39).