Question: "What does it mean that the dead in Christ shall rise first (1 Thessalonians 4:16)?"
Answer: In Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, he writes to commend the Thessalonians and to encourage them to excel still more (1 Thessalonians 4:1 and 10). He commends them for their faith, love, and hope (1 Thessalonians 1:3) but acknowledges that he wants them to have more knowledge regarding their hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). In that section of chapter 4, we may ask, “What does it mean that the dead in Christ shall rise first” (1 Thessalonians 4:16)?
Paul begins the section noting that he did not want the Thessalonians to be ignorant about those who had fallen asleep (i.e., died in Christ) so that they would not grieve as those who have no hope grieve (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Grief is a normal, natural response to the loss we experience when someone dies—even Jesus grieved when He saw the pain associated with Lazarus’ death (John 11:35). Paul is not suggesting the Thessalonians should not grieve at all; rather, he wants them to grieve, but not without hope. Even in grief the believer has hope, as Paul explains in the next few verses.
If we have believed in Jesus, we know that those who have died in Christ have eternal life and that they are with Him, for to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:6–8), and that He will bring them with Him when He returns (1 Thessalonians 4:14). But Paul reveals something remarkable to his readers in the next verse, and he does so affirming God’s authority on the matter: those who are alive and remain when He returns will not rise before those who have died in Christ (1 Thessalonians 4:15). After noting that key detail in the chronology, Paul explains what will actually take place: “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” (1 Thessalonians 4:16, NASB).
Paul had already explained that God would bring those who had died with Him, and now Paul says the dead in Christ will rise first. How can both be true? Paul clarifies further that those who are alive and remain would be caught up in the clouds with them to meet the Lord there (1 Thessalonians 4:17a). It is evident that the spirits of those who have died in Christ would return with Him and that their bodies would be resurrected and rise to be reunited with their spirits. Paul discusses this in simple terms in 1 Corinthians 15:52 when he says, “The dead will be raised imperishable and we [who are not yet dead when the event takes place] will be changed” (NASB).
This event is often called the rapture (after the Latin word for “caught up”), and it is a grand event that reunites loved ones. The certainty of this resurrection and the reality of eternal life is what gives us hope even in the midst of grief. That the dead in Christ shall rise first (1 Thessalonians 4:16) is simply one important chronological aspect of that event, and it shows how important those who have died in Christ are to Him. But the greatest joy and hope of the event is not simply that loved ones will be reunited, but that we shall all be together with Him (1 Thessalonians 4:17)! Because of the great joy and hope these words provide, Paul exhorts his readers to encourage one another with these words. The promise of resurrection and the details of the rapture matter, as they are expressions of exactly how God will resolve the problem of death and the separation that it brings. Because of His work, even when we are grieving, we have hope.