1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 is well-know text, although there is no real consensus on what event it describes. For many, these verses describe the Rapture, the “catching away” of believers at some point in the future. The event of the Rapture usually occurs before the Great Tribulation predicted by Daniel (Dan 9:24-27) and widely expected by many in Second Temple Period Judaism. For the record, I have strong belief in a future Rapture, balanced by a strong distaste for the silliness of most of the ideas associated with it in popular media and “pop-preaching.”
There are variations of these views which expect the Rapture during the Tribulation or near the end, or even simultaneous with the Return of Christ to establish his kingdom. Others understand Paul as describing the future resurrection of believers at the Return of Christ, or perhaps a general description of new life in Christ.
A possible hint of the meaning of this event may be the fact that Paul is answering a question about the “dead in Christ.” The standard explanation of the “dead in Christ” is that after Paul’s time in Thessalonica, some members of the church have died. The members of the church are concerned because these people did not last until the end of the age and the wonder if they will participate in the Rapture. Paul evidently had time to teach the congregation some elements of the future plan of God, but because of his short time with the church that part of his training was incomplete, leading to these sorts of questions.
I have always wondered just how many members of the congregation might have died in the relatively short time after Acts 17 and the writing of the letter. Since it is only a matter of months, I always assumed that only one or two had died, perhaps an elderly member of the congregation. While that was enough to concern those who loved those who died, the death of an elderly person would not be unusual or unexpected. I cannot imagine Paul teaching his new converts they actually had to live until the return of Jesus to participate in the resurrection!
An alternative to the standard view described here was suggested by F. F. Bruce. He thought that it was at least possible that the“dead in Christ” were actually members of the Thessalonian Church who have died as a result of persecution. Bruce made this suggestion in his 1951 Commentary on Acts (pg. 327-8), but not on his more recent commentary on Thessalonians. Karl P. Donfried picks up the suggestion in a 1985 essay and argues that it is at least plausible that the dead are in fact the victims of persecution against the church from the civil authorities. This helps explain the untimely deaths of several people in the small congregation. They ran afoul of the Thessalonican authorities who were sensitive to potential threats against Rome. (See this post for details on this background.)
Taking Bruce’s suggestion as a starting point, it is possible that Paul taught the new Christians to expect persecution, and it is also likely that he taught them to endure that persecution as both He and Jesus had endured it. The congregation did suffer, and some died as a result of this persecution. Does this mean that they have a lesser place in the coming resurrection / Rapture? Not at all, Paul says, they will in fact “rise first.” There is no need to worry that those who do not endure to the end miss the resurrection, in fact, those who die for the sake of Christ will be raised first.
If the dead in mind in 1 Thess 4 have died as a result of persecution, then their eventual resurrection is analogous with Dan 12:1-3 or Rev 20:4-6. In each case the “dead” are those who have been killed as martyrs. Paul may be assuring his congregation that “enduring persecution” includes giving one’s life (2 Tim 2:11-12). This spins the point of the rapture in a different direction than is usually present in most popular preaching. Those who are enjoy the Rapture gave their lives in some persecution. They did not die as elderly, wealthy, contented Christians, hoping God snatches them out of this world of woe. I do not deny that the Rapture includes all true believers, but it may very well be an encouragement to suffer, suffer well, and even to suffer unto death.
Bibliography: K. P. Donfried, “The Cults of Thessalonica and the Thessalonian Correspondence,” NTS 31 (1985): 336-56. Reprinted in Paul, Thessalonians and Early Christianity (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2002).