This passage (and the next for that matter) can either be simple to understand or difficult; the choice is ours to make. If you prefer simple, as I do, then all we need to do is to remember Paul’s purpose for writing this letter. If on the other hand, you like your texts to be hard, then forget the context and have at it…
Why did Paul write to the Thessalonians?
They were a new church that came very quickly under serious persecution, and Paul wrote to encourage them to hold onto their faith. So far, they had been able to do this, much to Paul’s relief and thanksgiving, and Paul is encouraging them to continue, even to increase their faith and good works, as I’m sure you will remember. I’m also sure that you will remember that when he mentioned the persecution they have been experiencing, that he was primarily interested in the condition of their faith, and not their physical condition; at least he hasn’t mentioned it yet. Now, he is suddenly writing about what happens when you die: Does this strike you as odd, or does it strike you as a sudden discourse on eschatology?
Here, let me put that another way: He hasn’t mentioned anything about the physical realities of a persecution in the first century up to this point, for that really isn’t his main concern, for his main concern is the condition of their faith. This is because if they keep their faith in Jesus Christ intact, they have nothing to fear even if they are killed in the persecution. Thus, this section is neither odd, nor is it a sudden discourse on eschatology; it is an encouragement to hold onto their faith, just as the rest of the letter is.
Guess what? This passage just became simple to understand.
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. (4:13)
Persecution was a violent and bloody thing; people were being killed for their faith. Even so, death has no power over us, so do not grieve like the pagans do.
For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. (4:14-15)
Jesus rose from the grave, and this confirms that we also will rise from the grave, in fact, the dead will rise first!
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. (4:16)
When the Lord returns, and that could happen at any time, He will return with those who have died before His coming.
After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. (4:17)
When Jesus returns, which may happen at any time, the dead will rise from the grave first, and then those of us who are still alive will meet Jesus in the heavens, where we will remain with Him forever.
Therefore encourage one another with these words. (4:18)
During this terrible time of persecution and death, encourage one another with this: Death has no hold on us! By the way, this verse confirms that the context is to encourage those in persecution, and is not intended as an eschatological (End Times) dissertation, because “therefore” denotes Paul’s conclusion from the evidence he has cited.
This is a message of hope and joy for all us as we go through our lives and deal with grief, sorrow, illness, and eventually with our own mortality, rather than an opportunity to jump on our hobby horse and ride off into the nearest tangent.