Question: “Sleep” seems to be a key word in 1 Thessalonians:4:13-17. What does “sleep” mean in that context?
Response: The term is actually “which sleep in Jesus” (v. 14). “Sleep” is often used to signify “death”: “the maid is not dead, but sleepeth” (Matthew:9:24); “Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him.” [They thought that he had meant “taking rest” in sleep.]
“Then said Jesus unto them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead’” (John:11:11-14). Sleep is only necessary for bodies, which tire, but not for souls and spirits. Therefore, “sleep” can only refer to the body that is in the grave awaiting the resurrection. Although the body is dead, the thinking person who once lived in that body is still conscious but now freed from bodily limitations and constraints. The phrase “asleep in Jesus” refers to believers who have died trusting in Christ and are now secure in Him for all eternity.
The rich man’s body lay in the grave, but his “soul and spirit” (1 Thessalonians:5:23; Hebrews:4:12) were conscious in hell and in torment (Luke:16:19-31). The Christian’s soul and spirit, when separated from the body through death, go immediately into the presence of the Lord (2 Corinthians:5:8); “…having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better” (Philippians:1:23-24).
Unquestionably, Paul is expressing the desire for his soul and spirit to depart the flesh of his body in order to be with Christ in heaven. And just as obviously, he expects to be conscious in the presence of his Lord. To be “with Christ” could hardly mean anything to someone who was unconscious!
Nor could Paul possibly consider an unconscious state of “soul sleep” to be “far better” than remaining alive to serve Christ and the church! The statement “them which also sleep in Jesus will God bring with him” (1 Thessalonians:4:14) refers to the souls and spirits of believers in Christ whose bodies have been “asleep” in the grave. These souls and spirits have been present with Him in heaven in that “far better” state of “absent from the body, present with the Lord.” Paul declares that the souls and spirits of those who died with faith in Christ are reunited with their resurrected bodies, which are raised to life at the Rapture—then caught up to heaven with those in Christ who have not died but are likewise transformed into Christ’s image at that glorious moment.