Before identifying the “dead in Christ,” we should note the context in which this phrase is found. The immediate context is 1 Thessalonians 4, which deals with the question of what will happen at the return of the Lord Jesus.
“But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: 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. Wherefore comfort one another with these words.” 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18
Paul’s readers were concerned that when Christ returns, those who have died prior to then would somehow miss out. The primary purpose of this passage is to comfort those believers who have lost believing loved ones.
The message of this passage is a message of hope. Christians have hope that unbelievers do not have when they lose loved ones. There is hope beyond the grave for Christians, and part of that hope is that, at the return of Christ, those who have already died “will rise first.” After that, Christians who are still alive will be transformed. Both groups will be “caught up” and will meet the Lord in the air. Paul closes this section with an admonition to encourage others with this hope.
In this passage, Paul uses the common euphemism of sleep to refer to those who have died in Christ, i.e., believers. Paul wants to comfort his readers that those Christians who have died prior to the return of Christ will not miss out on anything. That is why he opens this section by saying, “But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope.” 1 Thessalonians 4:13
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