Dead Time: The Dead in Christ will Rise First
There are two main ideas to address here. There is an agreement among many scholars that those who are the dead in Christ in Thessalonica were probably not simply those who were elderly, rather most likely the emphasis is that it included Thessalonian martyrs.
They expected relief from suffering, but were concerned that the Day of the Lord had passed and still no relief. Why did they imagine the Day came and went? There were actually two events which could have caused them to think this.
Eye-witness historian Josephus tells us that between 39-41 AD Caligula demanded that his statue be placed in the temple...an act that nearly started a war. This sounded like the man of sin. Then somewhere between 48-52AD there was such a riot in the temple that nearly 30,000 people perished, which could appear as a temple judgement. These events had similar associations with the prophecies of Jesus so they were probably quite concerned that they still were suffering persecution.
Secondly, did you know that Paul preached that the resurrection was near in his lifetime? In Acts 24:15 he said, "And have hope toward God, which they themselves also allow, that there shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust." Translators, for theological reasons instead of translation reasons, avoid translating this accurately. The words "shall be" come from the Greek Strongs #3195 méllō – properly, at the very point of acting; ready, "about to happen." (Helps Word Studies; Analytical Greek Lexicon, p. 262; Arndt, p. 500; Thayer, p. 396).
Paul uses this same word tense méllō, in 2 Timothy 4:1, "I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who (is about to) judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom."
Again in a similar context in Mt. 16:27-28, "For the Son of Man is [about] to come in the glory of His Father with His angels..."
What does it mean that the dead in Christ will rise first at his coming in which Paul said was near? Keep in mind that until this point, the righteous dead old covenant saints are still in Hades.
Acts 2:29,34, “Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day...For David is not ascended into the heavens..." (KJV)
Notice that while Christ ascended, David has still not ascended into the heavens at the time of Peter's message.
We think the Law was fulfilled by Jesus on the cross, but Jesus made plain that not one jot or tittle would pass away from the Law and Prophets until ALL things are fulfilled. Jesus made it obsolete by cutting a new covenant, but the old was fading away until everything in it was fulfilled. Pause and let that sink into your heart. Hebrews 8:13, "By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear." (cf. Deuteronomy 32 for verses in the Law the apostles quoted as still being fulfilled in their day.)
This is why Jesus said in Luke 21:20-24:
“But WHEN YOU (disciples) SEE JERUSALEM surrounded by armies, then recognize that her desolation is near. “Then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those who are in the midst of the city must leave, and those who are in the country must not enter the city; because these are DAYS OF VENGEANCE, SO THAT ALL THINGS WHICH ARE WRITTEN WILL BE FULFILLED. “Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days; for there will be great distress upon the land and wrath to this people; and they will fall by the edge of the sword, and will be led captive into all the nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled under foot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
Jesus died at Passover, but before the Law could cease, the Day of Atonement process had to be fulfilled both spiritually and in the earth (just like Passover and Pentecost). In his Incarnation he brought humanity representatively with him to the cross and so too in his ascension but atonement was not complete until the Day of Atonement when Jesus came in clouds of glory and judged Jerusalem and the entire idea and system of works religion.
While I don’t have space to explore this further here it is an infinitely important and often ignored point. In the OT, the high priest would go into the Holy of Holies and apply the blood to the mercy seat, but the Day of Atonement process wasn’t totally complete until he came out and pronounced the decision that it was accepted and then blessed the people. This is why the Law was still in operation after the cross... the new had come, forgiveness was being declared through Christ, BUT according to Leviticus 9:22-24 it was only AFTER the atonement was made within the Holy of Holies that the High Priest CAME OUT and blessed the people. Only then did fire come down on the altar and the bright glory cloud of God appeared. Jesus had to fulfill this in order for the Law to cease. (For more on this see Why It is Finished was Finished in AD 70)
That means the resurrection, which was a promise within the Law and Prophets, had to happen at this time. The prophet Daniel places the resurrection squarely in the time of the "fourth kingdom" which all scholars agree is the Roman Empire. There is no hint, ever, of a supposed "revived" Roman Empire. Rather,
“At that time Michael, the great prince who protects YOUR people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. (Which Jesus quotes for THEIR generation). But at that time YOUR people (Jews)—everyone whose name is found written in the book (the believing remnant-144,000 symbolically)—will be delivered. Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will AWAKE: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever (how could risen righteous Jews lead others to righteousness if this is the end of the world or a future millennial kingdom where all are already saved?). (Daniel 12:1-3 NIV)
While Jesus was undeniably raised physically, this resurrection of those in Hades was to take place when the power of the holy people (Judah) was completely shattered (70AD- Mt. 21:43). Daniel continues...
And one said to the man clothed in linen, who was above the waters of the river, “How long shall the fulfillment of these wonders be? Then I heard the man clothed in linen, who was above the waters of the river, when he held up his right hand and his left hand to heaven, and swore by Him who lives forever, that it shall be for a time, times, and half a time; (Rome's conquering of Jerusalem took 3 1/2 years) and when the power of the holy people has been completely shattered, ALL these things shall be FINISHED. (Daniel 12:6-7 NKJV)
This only makes sense if we understand this was a spiritual resurrection. At that time, Jesus would gather all the righteous dead from Sheol/Hades and spiritually bring them into the presence of the Lord. The dead in Christ would rise first, gathered into the Holy of Holies at the end of the period of Law. If this is not true, then we are still under the Law since every part had to be fulfilled before it could cease according to the words of our Savior. If this isn't so, then the angel broke his oath and so did Jesus.
As a side note, we like to think that when Jesus was on the cross and said, "it is finished", he meant every single thing, rather than simply his sufferings.
We forget that he also said in John 17:4, "I have glorified You on the earth. I have finished the work which You have given Me to do." This was before the cross. So Jesus finished his work given to do as our apostle sent-one to reveal the Father first. Then he also finished his work as the Lamb sacrificed.
Yet he had not finished his work as High Priest (Dan. 12:7; Luke 21:22). After sitting on his throne, he would be putting all things of the old Jewish order under his feet. The angel (and Jesus, Peter and Paul) said it would not be finished until the end of the Jewish Tribulation when their authority/kingdom/power was completely shattered (Mt 21:43). All the Law had to be fulfilled, as the old temple was destroyed and then Jesus stepped out of the eternal temple to bless from the New Covenant of righteousness and raise up spiritually those who had died out of Hades into his presence.
For a fascinating article on the resurrection: http://www.ecclesia.org/truth/dead.htm