Readers of the blog know I have been reading through the letters to the Thessalonians. These letters are written after Paul’s brief stay in the city, having been chased out by rioters protesting the spread of the Gospel. These letters are probably best known for their references to various events that will occur in the end times.
The information provided in these letters address the specific concerns that the Thessalonians have about the end times. As we read them we have to remember that we are only seeing one half of the conversation. We don’t have a full picture of what misconceptions these new believers had. Complicating things further, Paul’s responses provide summarized pieces of information that are meant to help the Thessalonians remember the details that he had already imparted (1 Thess 5:1-2; 2 Thess 2:5-6).
In the first letter, after expressing his joy regarding the firm faith of the new, persecuted believers, Paul addresses the concern that Timothy brought to his attention. It seems that the Thessalonians are concerned about the fate of loved ones who are in Christ but have died. What will happen to them when Christ returns? Paul explains that both those who are alive and those who have died will all meet Christ at His coming and be with Him forever (1 Thess 4:13-18).
Another concern is addressed in the second letter. Here Paul informs the Thessalonians that the coming of the Lord has not come yet. It seems that misinformation was being spread that the day of the Lord was upon them (2 Thess 2:1-12). Between the two letters the challenge facing the young church seems to have shifted from worrying about dead believers who will miss a future event, to a concern that living believers had missed a recently past event.
In this post, we will make some observations and ask some questions based on what Paul writes in these letters.
Does Jesus gather the elect in one major event or two?
Paul describes an event in chapter 4 of the first letter, which many consider the same event described in 1 Cor 15:50-57. This event is often called the rapture. Paul describes another event in chapter 5 and chapters 1 and 2 of the second letter. This event is called the the day of the Lord, and has several events that will precede it, including the apostasy and the revelation of the Antichrist, who Christ will slay at His coming. The question is does Paul describe two separate events (a rapture and the 2nd coming) or are these all descriptions of the same event (the 2nd coming).
Some see the rapture and the second coming as two distinct events. In some views the rapture is separated from the second coming by seven years. This seven year period is known as the tribulation. Because the rapture occurs before the tribulation it is called the pre-tribulation rapture view (PreTrib). Others see the gathering of the elect and Christ’s return as two parts of a single event known as the second coming. The gathering of the elect is done immediately prior to Jesus triumphant return to vanquish the wicked. Since this occurs at the end of the tribulation it is called the post-tribulation rapture view (PostTrib). Those holding to this view would point to the similarities of the events in the Thessalonian letters to the event described in Matthew 24 in which some are taken and some are left. This is specifically stated to occur after the tribulation. The gathered elect would join Jesus in the clouds and then ride back to earth with their victorious savior.
|1 Thess 4:13-18||1 Cor 15:23-26,50-57||Matt 24:29-31; 25:31-33|
|description of event||coming of the Lord||at his coming||the Son of Man coming|
|Lord descends from heaven||–||–|
|in the clouds||–||in the clouds, with power & glory|
|with a command||–||–|
|with voice of archangel||–||–|
|sound of God’s trumpet||at the last trumpet||send angels with loud trumpet call|
|–||–||sun & moon darkened, stars fall from heaven|
|purpose||gather the dead and then the living||the resurrection of the dead and the gathering of the living||gather the elect|
|–||given imperishable bodies||–|
||in the clouds||–||–|
|prior event||–||–||after the tribulation|
|subsequent event||–||the end, then delivers the kingdom after destroying enemies||Son sits on his throne and separates people into sheep & goats|
In reading chapters 4 and 5 of the first letter, many see the use of the phrase “now concerning” (5:1 see also 4:9) as an indication that Paul has shifted topics. The main emphasis is still on the end times, but Paul has moved from talking about the rapture to a separate event; the second coming. However, others see the topic shift as moving from the fate of the dead in Christ at the second coming to the need for the living to remain alert and ready for Jesus’ return. The two sections (4:13-18 and 5:1-11) both end with similar reminders that we, both the dead and living, will be with the Lord forever at his coming and that we should encourage each other with this truth. Does the similar ending intend to communicate that this is one event?
What is the wrath from which believers will be spared?
For people everywhere report how you … wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus our deliverer from the coming wrath (1 Thess 1:9-10).
Paul at both the beginning and end of the first letter (5:9) reminds the readers that they are not “destined for wrath“. The question is what is this wrath from which those who are in Christ will be spared?
Is this wrath, mentioned by Paul, referring to the seven year period of tribulation that will bring great suffering? Some understand it in this way, based on passages like Daniel 8:19 and Rev. 6:16, and then infer that all believers will be removed in a rapture event before God’s wrath is poured out during this time (PreTrib). How does this encourage believers who are already being persecuted for their faith?
However, this wrath may refer to the final judgement in which the wrath of God will be poured out on unbelievers, as it does in John 3:36. In the second letter, Paul describes the Lord coming from heaven with his mighty angels to be glorified in his saints and to eternally destroy those who rejected him as well as the “lawless one”, commonly referred to as the Antichrist (2 Thes 1:5-12, 2:8). If this is what wrath refers to, then we can’t presume anything about the timing of the rapture from these passages.
In either case, Jesus tells us that there will be elect people who are alive during the tribulation which He will come to gather (Matt 24:21-25, 31).
Is the gathering of the elect “imminent”?
The Thessalonians were concerned about the coming of the Lord. They expected it to occur in their life time. After all they assumed that all believers were going to be alive when the Lord returned. This belief led to their distress over the fate of those who died. What would happen to them? At a later time, they were also misled into thinking that the day of the Lord had come. That could not have occurred unless they thought that the coming of the Lord was imminent.
Those who see two separate events (PreTrib) argue that there cannot be any events or signs that must precede the rapture, otherwise it could not be imminent. Others (PostTrib) argue that the Thessalonians lived in a time of persecution. First century believers may have thought they were living during the tribulation era. Furthermore, they were living at a time when the Temple still stood in Jerusalem. The Antichrist foretold by Daniel, described by Jesus (Matt 24:15), and given as a sign that must precede “the coming of our Lord and our being gathered” (2 Thess 2:1-5) could arrive in the city and desecrate the Temple at any time and thus be imminent.
To whom will the day of the Lord come like a thief in the night?
Now on the topic of times and seasons … you have no need for anything to be written to you. For you know quite well that the day of the Lord will come in the same way as a thief in the night. (1 Thess 5:1-2)
Related to the questions on imminency, is the idea that the day of the Lord coming like a thief in the night. This image was used by Jesus during the Olivet Discourse (Matt 24:42-44), after describing his return to gather the elect after the tribulation. Prior to the day of the Lord people will be thinking that they are living in a time of peace and security (Matt 24:36-41; 1 Thess 5:1-4) and this unexpected event will come upon them.
It is clear, from both passages that the coming of the Lord will overtake the unsuspecting unbelievers. But Paul tells us that the day will not overtake believers in the same way (5:4). How are we to understand Paul’s words here?
One question to wrestle with is the meaning of the term the day of the Lord. In the letters to the Thessalonians this appears to refer to the coming of Christ (1 Thess 5:2; 2 Thess 2:2). As we saw, some see the coming of Christ as two events (a rapture and second coming/day of the Lord) and others see it as one event. Those who understand Christ’s coming as two separate events go on to infer that the day of the Lord will not overtake believers because they will have already been gathered at the rapture and not be here. Others seeing Jesus return as one event would argue that believers will not be caught unprepared, only unbelievers will. Jesus’ disciples, while not knowing the exact timing, will not be unaware because they are alert and watching for the signs that would precede it. Signs that Paul enumerates in the second letter (2 Thess 2:1-12).
Do signs precede the gathering of the elect?
The second letter opens with Paul praising the Thessalonians for their enduring faith in the midst of persecution. He also reminds them that their suffering should help them have assurance that they are going to be part of God’s kingdom. Paul then describes the wrath that God will justly pour out on the wicked at Christ’s coming. In the second chapter, Paul moves to directly address the Thessalonians concern; that the day of the Lord had come. In addressing their concerns, Paul tells them that the day of the Lord has not come yet, and we can be sure of this because certain signs must precede that event.
Now regarding the arrival of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to be with him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, not to be easily shaken from your composure or disturbed by any kind of spirit or message or letter allegedly from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not arrive until … (2 Thess 2:1-3)
Paul starts off the section mentioning the “arrival of our Lord … and our being gathered to be with him”. In describing “our gathering”, is Paul describing the rapture event here? Reading the passage it seems that this description is used to refer to the day of the Lord, a day that has not come and will not come until certain signs occur. But if that is the case it would seem that the rapture and second coming are one event, here referred to as the day of the Lord, that will not occur without prior signs.
Or, in this passage, is Paul describing only the second coming, which will occur seven years after the rapture of all believers? Jesus, himself, describes a gathering of the elect after the tribulation (Matt 24:29-31). Is that what Paul is referring to here when he mentions “our gathering”? And, if Paul is referring to a gathering of the elect at the second coming, separate from the rapture, then why does he refer to it as our gathering when neither he nor the Thessalonians would take part in it?
It seems that the Thessalonian’s concerns are rooted in thinking that Christ had come to gather the elect and they were left behind. But were they afraid they had missed the rapture and now faced living through the tribulation? Or, were they worried that Christ had come to establish his kingdom in which they were not going to have a part?
Who is the restrainer holding back the Antichrist?
Surely you recall that I used to tell you these things while I was still with you. And so you know what holds him back, so that he will be revealed in his own time. However, the one who holds him back will do so until he is taken out of the way (2 Thess 2:5-7)
Among the signs that will precede the day of the Lord is the revelation of the “lawless one”. Something that will not occur until the restrainer is removed. Unfortunately, we are given very little information in this letter about “the restrainer”. Apparently the Thessalonians were told in greater detail who or what the restrainer was and Paul was just reminding them of what he had already taught them. We are only left to speculate about this restrainer.
The questions posed here are based on readings and observations in Paul’s two letters to the Thessalonians. However answering them must be done in light of numerous other passages which come into play when one is trying to understand the future events described in the Scriptures.