Contrast CATULLUS [Carmina 5.4], “When once our brief day has set, we must sleep one everlasting night.” The sepulchral inscriptions of heathen Thessalonica express the hopeless view taken as to those once dead: as AESCHYLUS writes, “Of one once dead there is no resurrection.” Whatever glimpses some heathen philosophers, had of the existence of the soul after death, they had none whatever of the body (Ac 17:18, 20, 32).
4:13–18 The Thessalonians likely expressed concern that their deceased brothers and sisters in the Lord—and those who may die before His return—will miss out on Christ’s return and the glorious future of the age to come (see v. 14 and note). Paul writes to reassure them that deceased believers will be raised to enjoy Christ’s appearing. Christ will even give deceased believers priority (see v. 16).
The subject on which they need to be informed more fully is the state of the dead, “those who fall asleep.” “Sleep” is a euphemism for death, found in both the Greek and the Jewish world. Christians took the idea over but with the understanding that death is a sleep from which the believer will some day awake to resurrection life.
In our text those sleeping are the Thessalonian believers who had died after Paul left. Evidently his readers were not sure of their fate, and this led to untold grief. Paul, therefore, wants to enlighten them on this problem so that they do not “grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope” (v. 13b). “The rest” are the unbelievers (cf. Eph. 2:3). All people have hopes and dreams, but those outside Christ have no hope in the sense that they do not have the hope of eternal life. To be without God is to be without hope (cf. Eph. 2:12). To die in Christ is to have the hope of the resurrection, and so believers, though they grieve when they lose loved ones, need not grieve in despair like “the rest.”
This hope of the resurrection is based on the resurrection of Jesus. “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” (4:14). Christian confidence in the resurrection is not the result of speculation; it is not the product of wish-fulfillment. Rather it is based on a historical event—the resurrection of Christ. Of him it is not said that he “fell asleep,” but that he died, perhaps to underscore the reality of his death.
Because the grave could not hold Christ and he rose, breaking the bonds of death, Paul assures his readers that “God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” (v. 14b). Christ’s resurrection guarantees the resurrection of those who die in him. Paul argues this at much greater length in 1 Corinthians 15.