2 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Dr. Jeffery A. D. Weima


1. Problem addressed in 4:13-18

  • Q: What is the trouble in the text?
  • A: General answer: Grieving over fellow deceased believers  
  • Q: But why were the Thessalonian Christians grieving so intensely over their fellow believers?
  • A: Specific answer: They feared that their fellow believers who had already died would either miss out on the day of the Lord or be at a disadvantage at Christ's return compared to those believers who will still be alive when Jesus came back.
    • Evidence #1: Use of emphatic future negation (double negative) in v 15 to assert that those alive at Christ's return "will certainly not precede” believers who have died.
      • No need for Paul to be so emphatic unless there were, in fact, some in the Thessalonian church who wrongly believed that they who were still alive when Jesus comes again would precede their deceased fellow believers.
      • "[Paul's denial in 4:15] is so strong that is sounds like a denial of an opinion actually held by some people in Thessalonica" (Abraham Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians. New York: Doubleday, 2000, p. 272)
    • Evidence #2: Paul sequences the eschatological events such that deceased believers will rise "first" (v 16) and only "then” (v 17) will the next event involving living believers occur.
    • Evidence #3: The equality of deceased believers with those who are alive at Christ's return emphasized by addition of word "together" in v 17: Paul doesn't merely say "with them" but "together with them."
    • Evidence #4: The equality of deceased believers with those who are alive at Christ's return further emphasized by word order:
      • English: "we who are alive will be caught up together with them"
      • Greek: "we who are alive, together with them, will be caught up"
  • Summary:
    • Trouble in the text involves not merely a general intense grief in the face of death (common problem today).
    • Instead, the Thessalonians' confusion over how precisely the resurrection of believers coordinated with the other future events to take place at Christ's return led them to fear that their fellow church members who had already died would either miss out or be at a disadvantage at Jesus' second coming compared to themselves who were still alive (not a common problem today).

2. "the rest of men who have no hope"

  • Paul asserts that non-Christians have "no hope" in the face of death.
  • Issue: Is this hyperbole or is Paul right?
  • What is the evidence for a wide-spread sense of hopelessness in face of death in the Greco-Roman world?
    • Theocritus, writer of ancient Greek bucolic poetry during 3rd century B.C., wrote: "Hopes are for the living; without hope are the dead" (Idyll 4.42).
    • Popular grave inscription found in both Greek and Latin through-out the ancient world: "I was not, and I was, I am not, I care not." Inscription so popular that it was often simply abbreviated N F F N S N C (non fui, fui, non sum, non curo).
    • Letter of consolation written by a woman, Irene, to a couple whose son has just died: After stating that she and her family have fulfilled the customary duties in this situation, Irene attempts to comfort grieving couple by stating: "But nevertheless, one is able to do nothing against such things [i.e. death]. Therefore, comfort yourselves."
    • Seneca (ca. 4 BC - 65 AD) was a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman and advisor to Nero, refers to the deification and immortality promised by the mystery religions as "human pipe dreams" (NIDNTT 2.239).
  • Even without the kind of historical evidence cited above, Paul has a theological reason for asserting that non-Christians have no hope. Paul believes that non-Christians are "without God in the world" and that they, therefore, are those "having no hope" (Eph 2:12).
  • Christians in Thessalonica, however, in sharp contrast to "the rest of men," do have hope--not only for themselves but also for their fellow believers who have fallen asleep.

3. "the word of the Lord" (vv 15-17)

  • Text: "For this we say to you by the word of the Lord"
  • Paul has received some revelation from the Lord Jesus Christ.
  • This raises 3 questions:
      • Q1: Where did Paul receive this "word of the Lord"?
      • Q2: What in following verses constitutes "word of the Lord"?
      • Q3: What is the significance of Paul citing "word of the Lord"?

Q1: Where did Paul receive this "word of the Lord"?

  • Answer: Several possibilities
    • Agraphon: unknown saying of Jesus not recorded in gospels but passed on to Paul.
    • Paul as a prophet feels authorized to speak "a word of the Lord."
    • Paul is summarizing in his own words the general teaching of Jesus about the end times.
  • Best answer: Paul loosely paraphrases sayings of Jesus found in gospels, likely Matt 24:29-33,40-41.
    Seyoon Kim: "the several and clear echoes of Jesus' sayings in the passage seem to suggest that Paul must be conscious of the material he is using as Jesus material and therefore that with 'the word of the Lord' here Paul is referring to the word(s) of the historical Jesus" ("Jesus, Sayings of," Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1993, p 476).

Q2: What in following verses constitutes the "word of the Lord"?


  • V 15b: Paul summarizes in his own words the teaching of Jesus that is relevant to Thessalonian situation: "we ... will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep."
  • Vv 16-17a: Paul loosely cites the word of the Lord about the manner of Christ's return.
  • V 17b: Paul adds pastoral conclusion

Q3: What is the significance of Paul citing the "word of the Lord"?

  • Answer: Adds weight/authority to Paul's argument.
  • Charles Wanamaker: "By placing his assurance that the living would not have precedence over the dead at the coming of the Lord under the rubric 'a word of the Lord,' Paul attributed the highest possible authority to his assertion in v. 15b" (The Epistles to the Thessalonians. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990, p. 171).


1. "that you may not grieve like the rest":

  • Issue: Are Christians allowed to grieve for deceased believers? Is Paul claiming that in the context of death Christians should not grieve in contrast to believers who do?
      • Theological issue: What does the rest of the Bible say about death and the way in which Christians ought to face death, and how does that compare to Paul's statement here in 4:13?
  • Wrong view: No tears allowed!
    • Some commentators argue that Paul here is making an absolute prohibition: Christians are not to grieve at all for deceased believers.
      • Abraham Malherbe: "Paul's attitude toward this grief is equally straightforward: it is prohibited ... Paul is thus making an absolute prohibition" (Abraham J. Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians. New York: Doubleday, 2000, p. 264)
      • See also Lightfoot 1904: 63; Milligan 1908: 56; Best 1972: 186
    • Many contemporary Christians similarly believe that they and other believers ought not to grieve in the context of death.
    • Such thinking is based not only on 1 Thess 4:13 but on the idea that tears in the face of death is a sign of weak faith and that Christians ought instead to celebrate our victory over death made possible in Christ.
  • Tears are an expression of great love!
    • That Paul expected believers to grieve in context of death is clear from his other letters.
      • Phil 2:27: If Epaphroditus had died from his illness, Paul would have had "sorrow upon sorrow."
      • Rom 12:15: Paul commands readers to "weep with those who weep."
      • 1 Cor 15:26: Paul refers to death not positively but as "the last enemy."
    • Example of Jesus who wept over death of his friend, Lazarus.
    • No justification from 1 Thess 4:13 or elsewhere in the Bible for Christians to gloss over pain of death or glibly utter pious phrases about the deceased "being in a better place."
    • Tears and other expressions of grief are not a sign of weak faith but only of great love
    • John 11:35 "Jesus wept. So the Jews said, 'See how he loved him!'"
  • Summary: Although both non-Christians and Christians grieve at the death of loved ones, there is a critical difference: in contrast to the hopelessness that characterizes those outside the faith, believers grieve with hope.

2. Logic of verse 14

  • Logical link between two halves of this verse not explicitly stated: how does verse 14a ("For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again") logically lead to verse 14b ("so also God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep")?
  • Paul's logic, however, is clear from an understanding of his theology found elsewhere in his letters. In Paul's way of thinking (his theology), Christ's resurrection is a guarantee of believers' resurrection.
    • Rom 8:11 "And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you."
    • 1 Cor 6:14 "By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also [from the dead]."
    • 2 Cor 4:14 "because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus ..."
    • Col 1:18 "he [Jesus] is the firstborn from among the dead."
    • 1 Cor 15:12-23 "But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? ...For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive."
    • 1 Cor 15:20 "But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep."
  • Paul's logic in verse 14 is now clear
    • Christ's resurrection (v 14a) is a "firstfruit” or guarantee of believers' resurrection which means that the Thessalonians' fellow believers who have already died will be raised at Christ's return so that "God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him." (v 14b) 
    • Deceased believers will not miss out or be at a disadvantage at Christ's return!

Last modified: Tuesday, August 7, 2018, 10:34 AM