“Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord” (1 Thes. 4:17)
In our last message we considered the resurrection of the dead in Christ – the group of believers who experience the first resurrection. We saw that man needs to experience a resurrection in all realms of His being – spirt, soul and body. Although we have already experienced the raising up of our spirit, we have yet to fully apprehend the resurrection of our souls and bodies. This entails stages of resurrection where our spirit is the first to be raised up followed by the resurrection of our souls (mind, will, emotions, desires), and ultimately the resurrection of our bodies to put on immortality.
However, as we continue to contemplate on this section of scripture, we observe that not only are there phases of the resurrection apprehended in each individual, but the resurrection is experienced by different categories of people at different stages. In other words, everyone who shall be made alive in Christ will experience the resurrection by a specific sequence, grouping and progressive arrangement according to rank and calling. The Spirit of God bids to resurrection every man in his own time and order.
In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17, Paul mentions three categories of believers who experience the resurrection: those who “sleep through Jesus” (1 Thes. 4:14), the “dead in Christ” (1 Thes. 4:16), and those who are “alive and remain” (1 Thes. 4:17).
Those who sleep through Jesus
Those who sleep through Jesus are perhaps the most straightforward group to decipher. Paul distinguishes them as those who have died a physical death. Sleep is used in parts of scripture to refer to physical death. Paul states: “we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed” (1 Cor. 15:51) to describe those who will not taste physical death. Jesus also said: “our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep… However, Jesus spoke of his death, but they thought that He was speaking about taking rest in sleep” (Joh. 11:11, 13).
But, this group is not only asleep, they have fallen asleep through Jesus. These are born again saints who have gone by the way of the grave. Despite their physical absence on the earth, Paul assures us that these have a lot in the resurrection and shall not be preceded by those who are alive and remain in apprehending to the resurrection (1 Thes. 5:15). It’s worth also noting that among those who sleep through Jesus, there would be those who are dead in Christ and those who are alive and remain.
The dead in Christ
Since we have already discussed this group in our last message, I won’t say much here. The dead in Christ are a firstfruit company of overcoming sons who have not only experienced the raising up of their spirit, but are also the first to partaken in the resurrection of their soul and body. Although they have yet to put on a spiritual body, these have been conformed to Christ’s death. They are hid with Christ in God having surrendered their soul (self-life) unto death. John saw that the souls of this group were beheaded (their Adamic nature was crucified and no longer had headship over them). This is the apprehended company of the manifested sons of God who occupy a position in the throne and in the heights of the spiritual Mount Zion. They are the 144,000 who have been appointed to first experience the fullness of the resurrection – spirit, soul and body and to be firstfruits unto creation (Rom. 8:23).
Those who are alive and remain
This brings us to the last category of saints mentioned in our opening text. In the literal reading of this verse, it would seem that Paul is simply referring to the saints who are alive on the earth at any point in time, especially since he has already mentioned those who have died. This view seems to also be supported by the fact that Paul identified himself with this group by saying “we” which are alive and remain. However, to anticipate our later discussion, I don’t believe this is why Paul classifies himself with this company.
To better understand this group, we need to consider what is meant by the words ‘alive’ and ‘remain’. The original Greek word used for ‘alive’ is ‘zao’. It means to live, be among the living, to have true life. The word has both physical and spiritual application. But, the word’s principal usage is in the spiritual sense. For example, despite His physical absence Jesus said to the disciples: “because I live (zao), ye shall live (zao) also” (Joh. 14:19). In Romans 6:11, we are encouraged to count ourselves as dead to sin but “alive (zao) unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord”. The word ‘zao’ is also associated with God – He is the “living (zao) God” (Joh. 6:69), “living (zao) water” (Joh. 7:38), “living (zao) bread” (Joh. 6:51). Thus, ‘zao’ is also the root word of ‘zoe’, which means; life, divine life or the God-kind of life.
In God’s kingdom, to be alive is to be quickened by the Spirit of God to put on His righteousness. To be alive is to be translated from spiritual death to spiritual life. Therefore, the dead are not those who no longer have a heartbeat, but those who have not been awakened to possess the divine life of Christ. Thus, Jesus said: let the dead bury their dead. The wise man also writes: “The man that wonders out of the way of understanding shall remain in the congregation of the dead” (Prov.21:16).
Every saint, no matter their level of maturity, is alive to God. This is a quality of life that is much greater than to be alive in the flesh (in a state of mortality). However, as there are degrees in the quality of life in the natural, there are also degrees of attainment in spiritual life. Thus, Paul also describes this category of believers as those who “remain”. The Greek word is ‘perileipo’ which means to leave over, remain over, or survive. The root word is ‘leipo’ which sheds more light on the meaning of the word. ‘Leipo’ means to lag, be inferior, to lack, to be wanting, to fail.
We get a true sense of the word in the story of the rich ruler who came to Jesus asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. Having heard the man testify that he had kept the commandments from his youth, Jesus said to him: “You still lack (leipo) one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor…and come, follow me” (Luk. 18:22).
The rich young ruler exemplifies the company of saints who are “alive and remain”. Though they have been awakened to the law of the Spirit of life, they have yet to attain to the fullness of God’s life by laying down their soul-life to follow the Lamb wherever He goes. To the church in Sardis the Lord declares: “be watchful, and strengthen the things which REMAIN, that are ready to die; for I have not found thy works perfect before God” (Rev. 3:2). Thus, to remain is to lack, to be wanting, and to fall short of perfection.
I believe this was why Paul counted himself among those who are alive and remain during the writing of his letter to the church at Thessalonica. Paul considered himself as having not fully reached perfection. He declares: “NOT THAT I HAVE ALREADY ATTAINED, OR AM ALREADY PERFECTED; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I DO NOT COUNT MYSELFY TO HAVE APPREHENDED; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:12-14).
And yet in all of God’s sons there is that which remains from attaining to perfection. Christ is now being raised up in His us who are pressing on and reaching forward to be conformed to His image, so that nothing remains in us that He does not completely occupy. This is the upward call of God in Christ.
However, in Paul’s account of the categories of people who experience the resurrection, there is yet another group not mentioned – the resurrection of the unjust (Acts 24:15). In the all-encompassing plan of God’s kingdom there a progressive arrangement that culminates in God being all in all (1 Cor. 15:28). The scriptures make clear that in Christ, ALL shall be made alive, “but each one in his own order” (1 Cor. 15:23). (To be continued)
To the beloved in the truth, may His peace abound to you.