What is the fate of Christians who died before the second advent of Christ Jesus? Will they participate in the parousia of their Lord and King? Paul of Tarsus addressed such questions in his first letter to the Thessalonians. He commended Christians in Thessalonica not to be distressed about their fellow comrades who died in Christ Jesus before the return of their King. Unlike those who died without Christ, those without hope (v. 13), the dead in Christ have the eschatological hope. The dead in Christ will indubitably not miss the future magnificent parousia, the glorious coming of their Sovereign Lord and King, because He will descend “with a loud command”, “with the voice of archangel” and “with the trumpet call of God”.
The dead in Christ will be resurrected to meet their Lord prior to the one living (v. 15). Together they will meet their King and be with Him forever (verse 17). A wonderful word-tree (fig.), by Jacob W. Elias, carefully captured the flow of Paul discourse in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17.
Fig. 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 word-tree (Elias 1995: 173)
There are three virtually simultaneous phrases, Paul presented, heralding the personal return of Christ Jesus. The first phrase is “en keleusmati” (with a cry or a command that must be obeyed). Paul did not clearly stated who uttered this cry. Following George Milligan it could be an archangel or more probably Christ Jesus Himself “as the principal subject of the whole sentence.”(Milligan 1908: 60)
Shadowing Milligan’s evaluation, Michael Martin expounded:
Neither the origin nor the nature of this particular command is clear. The command could be issued from Jesus to the dead to arise (cf. John 5:28–29), from Jesus to his entourage to proceed (cf. 2 Thess 1:7), or from the archangel as either a cry of announcement (like the trumpet, cf. Rev 1:10) or an order to the heavenly host.” (Martin 1995: 151)
Gene L. Green also agreed with Milligan and Martin that Paul’s epistle does not indicate who issued this keleusmati. Green, though, added God as a probable candidate (Green 2002: 224). We can, therefore, only speculate who issued this keleusmati, which herald the personal descending of the Lord and King Jesus himself.
The second phrase, heralding the personal return of Christ Jesus, is en phōnē archangelou (with the voice of archangel). Archangelou appears only here and in Jude 9. According to Craig Keener, Christ Jesus is apparently assuming the role of the chief archangel Michael who was considered Israel’s guardian angel (Keener 1993: n.p) If by Christ Jesus descending with the loud voice of archangelou meant that He assumed the role of the chief archangel, then it would be the case that He also assumed the role of God as He equally descended with the trumpet call of God (cf. Zech. 9:14).
Noticing the absence of an article (ho) before archangelou, unlike in Jude 9, it is very likely that there is no specific archangel that Paul had in mind. If this is true, then Keener’s evaluation is somewhat doubtful. Citing G. B. Winer, Milligan provided a better evaluation. En phōnē archangelou makes much more sense if it is treated in a possessive manner, namely “‘a voice such as an archangel uses,’ ‘a trumpet dedicated to God’s service’” (ibid 60).
Thus Paul might or might not have archangelou Michael in mind (Shenton 2006: 91). Whichever view one hold, it is certain that shout of command, announcing the royal parousia of Lord Jesus, meant to summon the living and the dead in Christ Jesus to meet their awaited King (Calvin 2010: 282-3). This King will return in glory and with splendor. He will be accompanied by angelic army (Luke 9:26).
The third phrase, heralding the return of the awaited King, is en salpingi theou (with a trumpet call of God). Like Old Testament assembly, the church in the wilderness (Acts 7:38), was summoned together by a loud sound of the trumpet (Exod. 19:16, 18; Isaiah 27:13; Joel 2:1; Zechariah 9:14), Paul assured the church in Thessalonica that similar to the church in wilderness, they too will be assemble together at the second advent of their Lord and King Jesus.
A cry of command, a loud voice of archangel and the trumpet blast heralding the magnificent presence of Lord Jesus give proof that the return of this King is not a secret event (Woosley 1997: 80). Christians will certainly not secretly meet their returning King. The return of the King of kings will be a day overwhelmed with joyous chatters, loudest trumpet blasts and calls. The ground will be shaking as it releases those who dead in Christ before His second coming. Death could not keep hold of their King, will not be able to keep those who dead in Christ Jesus. That day would be, as John Stott remarkably wrote, “personal, visible and glorious”(Stott 1991: 104).