The followers of William Miller were undoubtedly sincere in their devotion to Jesus when on a set day in 1844 they donned white robes and stood on a hill waiting for Jesus to take them up to heaven. But they definitely were lacking in their understanding of the Scriptures. This was also the case with the Thessalonian believers. Their zeal was praiseworthy. So was their longing to be with Jesus. But they retreated from their responsibilities because they had the idea that the second coming of Jesus was an any-moment certainty instead of an any-moment possibility. This revealed a serious misunderstanding of what Paul had taught them about Jesus’ return.
In addition, they lacked knowledge about two other important details associated with the second coming. First, they were afraid that the believers who had died were not going to share fully in the blessings that would be experienced by living believers. Second, many interpreted their trials as an indication that they had entered that terrible endtime period of divine judgment and wrath called “the day of the Lord” in the Old Testament.
To inform and correct them, the apostle proceeded to affirm three important features of the Lord’s return. First, at His coming for the church, the dead and the living will receive their glorified bodies. Together they will meet the Lord in the air (1 Th. 4:13-18). Second, the rapture will occur suddenly and unexpectedly without warning signs (1 Th. 5:1-11). Third, because believers are indwelt by the Spirit, they must be removed from the earth before the horrors of “the day of the Lord” can begin (2 Th. 2:1-12).
The Rapture: A Selective Resurrection And Transformation (1 Th. 4:13-18). To give the Thessalonian believers assurance about those who had died recently and to correct some misconceptions, Paul described three distinct events that will occur at Christ’s return: (1) believers who died as Christians will be resurrected; (2) living believers will be transformed; and (3) both groups will be caught up together to meet the Lord in the air.
I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord (1 Th. 4:13-17).
The words are so clear they need little explanation, but let me make three observations. First, by using the first personal plural pronoun in “we who are alive,” the apostle left open the possibility that the rapture might occur during his own lifetime. But he never said he would surely live until the rapture. In fact, he always acknowledged the possibility that he might die, and he did so with calm confidence, even with anticipation (Phil. 1:19-26; 2 Tim. 4:6-18). In this he was a model for believers in every subsequent generation. We are to live with the expectation that Jesus might come at any moment, but we must also acknowledge that He may not return until after we have died. And it doesn’t really matter. The resurrected and the transformed will share equally in the blessings of Christ’s return.
Second, Paul mentioned three sounds that will accompany our Lord’s descent: the shout (lit. “cry of command”), the voice of an archangel (perhaps a signal of the end of God’s program for the church and the resumption of His unique relationship with Israel), and the trumpet of God (probably like the trumpet sound the Israelites heard at Mt. Sinai as described in Exodus 19). Some Bible students insist that only believers will hear these sounds. Maybe so. But we can’t be sure. Coming simultaneously with our Lord’s descent, they will not give anyone time to prepare. If heard by the unsaved as well as believers, they certainly would add a startling element to this clearly supernatural event. This would make it more difficult for God’s enemies to come up with a plausible explanation of the disappearance of millions of people.
Third, while the dead in Christ will receive their new bodies before those who are still alive, the difference in time is like the blinking of an eye. A man who knew the end of his life was near had a twinkle in his eye when he said, “Brother, I have been expecting the Lord to take me to heaven without dying, but it looks like He’ll take me through death. Maybe you’ll live until the day He comes, but if you do, you’ll have nothing on me. I’ll get my new body a split-second ahead of you because ‘the dead in Christ will rise first.’” He was right, but the time element—like the blink of an eye— does not speak of the advantage of those who died as much as it does of the oneness of all believers from Pentecost to the rapture. We will be caught up “together” to meet Jesus. What a rendezvous!
The Rapture: An Unannounced Surprise (1 Th. 5:1-12). Having assured the Thessalonian believers about the good future for Christians who die before the second coming, Paul addressed their mistaken idea that the Lord’s return could not be long delayed. They saw their trials and persecution as signs of its nearness. Some of them were so sure of its immediacy that they quit their jobs. Paul therefore took great pains to teach them that their tribulation was not necessarily a sign of the nearness of the rapture. He wanted them to know that the rapture will be sudden and unannounced; that it will, in fact, catch many people by surprise.
Concerning the times [the date] and the seasons [the signs indicating its nearness], brethren, you have no need that I should write to you. For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they say, “Peace and safety!” then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness (1 Th. 5:1-5).
Like A Thief In The Night. Paul said that the Thessalonians should have known (apparently from what he had told them) that a “day of the Lord” (no article in the Greek) will come stealthily, “like a thief in the night.” When nonbelievers are quite comfortable, thinking things are under control, a “day of the Lord” will suddenly “overtake” them, and they “will not escape.” It is clear that Paul was referring to the rapture because this is what the Thessalonians were expecting. But for unbelievers, the rapture will be an unpleasant and unexpected event.
The fact that Paul referred to it as a “day of the Lord” requires a bit of explanation. This term, according to excellent scholars like Leon Morris, has a rather complex usage in the Old Testament. Sometimes (usually with the article the) it denotes the outpouring of God’s wrath in passages that bring together into one picture an impending judgment in the near future and the final endtime judgment that will prepare the way for the establishment of God’s kingdom.
For example, in Isaiah 13 “the day of the LORD” refers to Babylon’s imminent defeat by the Medes (vv.1-5,17-18), but it also depicts judgments that go far beyond that event (vv.6-16,19-22). The “day of the LORD” has a slightly different connotation in Ezekiel 13:5; 30:3; Joel 1:15; 2:1,11,31; 3:14; Amos 5:18,20; Obadiah 15; Zephaniah 1:7,14; Malachi 4:5. These passages indicate that the “day of the LORD” is a time of divine intervention in judgment, but without a clear endtime scenario.
In Zechariah 14:1, it has still another connotation. The term “day of the LORD” covers a time period that extends from the war of Armageddon into the golden age, the millennium of Revelation 20. This complex usage of the term in the Old Testament made it possible for Paul to be completely accurate in referring to the rapture as a “day of the Lord.” Ray Stedman made this astute observation:
Actually, the phrase “day of the Lord” refers to any period of time when God acts directly and unmistakably in human affairs. It may be in blessing, as in the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, or it may be in judgment. Or it may be that the same event will be a judgment for some people and a blessing for others.
Because a “day of the Lord” comes stealthily as “a thief in the night” when the nonbelievers are saying, “Peace and safety,” it will catch them unprepared for what will follow—utter chaos. Land vehicles of all kinds will suddenly be without drivers. Many planes will be without pilots. Machines everywhere will be without operators. Key men and women in the worlds of government, industry, finance, education, and entertainment will not be in their positions. Valuable properties and billions of dollars will be ownerless and up for grabs. It’s also possible that children who have not reached the age of accountability will be among those who are raptured.
Do you remember the crime and violence that accompanied the last California earthquake ? Just think about what will happen in the wake of this worldwide upheaval! Strong leadership with dictatorial power will be required to bring things under control. The stage will be set for the rise of the Antichrist and the unleashing of the frightful judgments portrayed in Revelation 5–19.
In emphasizing the unexpected nature of the rapture, Paul reiterated what Jesus had said earlier:
As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be also in the days of the Son of Man: They ate, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. . . . Even so will it be in the day when the Son of Man is revealed (Lk. 17:26-27,30).
Note the pattern: life as usual with warnings unheeded, an unanticipated removal of God’s people, and an unleashing of God’s judgment.
A Welcome Surprise. The element of unexpectedness will hold true for believers, but not necessarily the unpreparedness. It should be and can be a welcome surprise. Paul said:
You, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness (1 Th. 5:4-5).
As believers who live in the light, we know this event will occur so we can anticipate it. But since we do not know just when it will take place, we will find it a welcome surprise. To illustrate, imagine a husband and father leaving for an overseas assignment and saying to his family, “I don’t know how long I will be away, but I will be back as soon as possible.” His wife and children take him at his word and expect his return. But when he returns he decides it would be fun to walk into his house without a telephone call. It would be a welcome surprise! His return would have no resemblance to the stealthy visit of a thief in the night. But if one of the teens has rebelled against his mother’s authority and gotten himself into trouble, the sudden appearance of his father would be a mixed blessing. He would be glad Dad is back, but he would have some dread of a private meeting with him. He knows he wouldn’t be beaten to within an inch of his life or be disowned, but a sense of shame and the anticipated hurt he expects to see on his father’s face would make him apprehensive. That’s how it will be when Jesus comes for His own. First John 2:28 warns about the possibility of being “ashamed before Him at His coming.”
Having made it clear that the rapture will not be preceded by signs and that it therefore will catch many unprepared, Paul issued an admonition and a promise to believers:
Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation. For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him (1 Th. 5:6-10).
The exhortation tells us how to live so that the Lord’s return will be a welcome surprise, untarnished by any regret or shame. The promise that God did not appoint us to wrath but to deliverance is often taken as a reference to our eternal destiny. This is a possible interpretation. But coming as it does after Paul’s contrast between what the rapture means for believers and what it means for non-Christians, it seems best to view it as a promise of deliverance from the divine wrath that is going to fall on those who are left behind. If this is what Paul had in mind, the rapture will be not only an unannounced surprise, it will also be a gracious deliverance from the most frightful timespan of all history. Let’s test the validity of this concept.
The Rapture: A Gracious Deliverance (2 Th. 2:1- 12). The question “Will the church go through the great tribulation?” has been vigorously debated by Christian scholars, and it cannot be settled by appeal to any one passage of Scripture. But all must agree that 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 speaks to this issue more directly than any other chapter in the Bible. In it Paul corrected a misconception that some Thessalonian believers had gathered from questionable sources— that they had entered the frightening endtime “day of the Lord” of Old Testament prophecy.
Paul assured them that they had not entered this fearful endtime judgment era. He did so by calling their attention to two closely related events that must occur before the coming of this “day of the Lord”:
Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God (2 Th. 2:3-4).
The setting of this double-barreled event—the falling away and the revealing of the man of sin—appears in the Old Testament book of Daniel, a remarkable document written in the sixth century BC. The prophet predicted that in the endtimes a powerful world leader he called “the prince who is to come” (9:26) will “confirm a covenant with many [Israel] for one week [a 7-year timespan]; but in the middle of the week he will bring an end to sacrifice and offering. And on the wing of abominations shall be one who makes desolate” (v.27). The leaders of Israel will apparently trust this man and make an agreement with him, but he will break it and reveal his true nature as a treacherous and cruel enemy of their nation.
The Thessalonian believers needed to be reminded of truths Paul had taught them while he was with them. In the first place, the frightful endtime “day of the Lord” will be preceded by two closely related events: “the falling away” and the revealing of the “man of sin.” Second, someone who restrains must be taken out of the way before these events can take place.
The Falling Away. Paul wrote, “Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first” (2 Th. 2:3). Unfortunately, the rendering “falling away” has led some to see the apostle as referring to apostasy in the church. But to do this is to ignore the context. This term is so closely tied to the revealing of “the man of sin&rdqu o; that these two events have a causal relationship. It is through this “falling away” that the man of sin is revealed. Besides, the Greek word apostasia denotes a departure with hostile overtones. The NIV translators correctly rendered the word “rebellion.” This meaning is borne out as we look at the endtime person Paul called the “man of sin” and the “son of perdition.”
The Revealed Tyrant. This evil person who is revealed in or through “the rebellion” is the coming world ruler to whom we were introduced in Daniel 9. He appears again in Daniel 11:36-45, where he is portrayed as initiating an all-out rebellion against God:
Then the king shall do according to his own will: he shall exalt and magnify himself above every god, shall speak blasphemies against the God of gods, and shall prosper till the wrath has been accomplished (v.36).
This same man is called the “beast rising up out of the sea” in Revelation 13:1, where the rebellion against God led by him and his henchman is graphically described. He first appears as a hero and receives the voluntary worship of multitudes. Once accepted by mankind, he begins to blaspheme the true God and “make war with the saints.” His righthand man, the “beast coming up out of the earth,” who is called the “false prophet” in Revelation 19:20, will perform supernatural feats, demand that all people worship the beast, and kill those who refuse.
All of this ties in perfectly with Paul’s depiction of him a s one who “opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God” (2 Th. 2:4). He is the Antichrist, the most cruel tyrant of all history. And the dreadful “day of the Lord,” which the Thessalonian believers thought they had entered, will not begin until he is in his place of power. Therefore, the Thessalonians could be sure they were not in the great tribulation.
The Remarkable Restrainer. After portraying the characteristics and actions of the coming Antichrist, Paul reminded his readers in 2 Thessalonians 2:6-8 that when he was with them he had told them about a restraining influence and a personal restrainer that were holding back the powers of evil:
Now you know what is restraining, that he may be revealed in his own time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only He who now restrains will do so until He is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed.
It is important to note that the phrase “what is restraining” is neuter in the Greek, while the expression “He who restrains” is masculine. Bible students have not been able to reach a consensus as to the identity of the restrainer. Some have said the restrainer is God, who does so through His providential control of all things. But will God and His providence be taken out of the way when Antichrist comes to power?
Others have said that the restrainer was the Roman Emperor and his government. But the Roman Empire came to an end without the Antichrist making his appearance. Some have even conjectured that the restrainer is Michael, the archangel mentioned in Daniel 12:1 as standing up for the Israelites in the endtimes.
All this uncertainty, however, seems quite unnecessary. To whom was Jesus speaking when He said, “You are the salt of the earth”? (Mt. 5:13). The answer is obvious—His people. Who are His people in this age? Those who make up His body, the church. Who empowers believers for this task? The Holy Spirit, who indwells every believer and equips all who yield to Him. The restrainer is therefore the Holy Spirit as He works through the born-again people who constitute the body of Christ.
This is not a new teaching as some imply. Biblical scholar Robert L. Thomas points out that according to the well-known exegete Henry Alford (1810-1871), this view has deep roots in church history. Notice that the text does not say that the Holy Spirit will be taken away—it says “out of the way.” His special ministry in the church, which began 50 days after Christ’s resurrection (Acts 2), will terminate at the rapture. He will continue to function on the earth, but in a manner similar to that of the Old Testament era. This will open the way for Satan to launch his all-out effort to disrupt God’s program for Israel and mankind.
The devil and his henchmen undoubtedly will offer clever explanations for the disappearance of believers. This will delude many, including all who during the church age deliberately and hatefully rejected the gospel (2 Th. 2:8-12). But this satanic rebellion and deception cannot begin until the proper time (v.6) and will end suddenly in God’s own time—at the return of Christ in glory to destroy His enemies “with the breath of His mouth” (v.8).
The identity of the restrainer in 2 Thessalonians 2 gives us a strong basis for believing that the church will be removed before the great tribulation begins.
The Rapture: Harbinger Of A New Day (2 Th. 1:1- 12). The coming of Jesus for the church will usher in a terrible time for those left on earth. But the time of trouble wil l be brief and purposeful. Revelation 13:5 tells us that Antichrist will be in power for only 42 months. And during this brief period of tribulation an unnumbered multitude will turn to Jesus and the nation of Israel will be prepared to welcome Him as Messiah when He returns to rule the earth in righteousness (Zech.12:10-14; Mt. 23:38-39).
From the beginning of the church until now, believers have known that vindication will come ultimately. But during the great tribulation, believers will know that it will be soon. A young man who grew up in Uganda told a group of us how his father was executed because he refused to deny Christ. He and thousands like him all over the world have seen cruel anti-God leaders seemingly get away with bar baric atrocities. Even when forced out of office, most of these tyrants have been able to find sanctuary in another country where they continue a lavish lifestyle. Sometimes persecuted people see in this world the outworking of the principle that people reap what they have sown. But for the most part it is only through the exercise of faith that they can live with the assurance that in the end God’s justice will prevail. And as they keep trusting the Lord, they become stronger in their faith and devotion.
This was the situation for believers in first-century Thessalonica. Paul could not give them a guarantee that they would soon be delivered from their oppressors. He could only praise the Lord for the way they were handling their affliction and remind them of what God would do.
It is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These will be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes, in that Day, to be glorified in His saints and to be admired among all those who believe (2 Th. 1:6-10).
The Appearing. At the appearing (Gk. apokalypsei) of Jesus Christ, the unbelieving enemies of God will be repaid and the believing members of His family will be rewarded. But we must wait in patience, not knowing when it will take place. Tribulation saints (those who turn to Jesus after the rapture) will know that our Lord’s glorious appearing is just around the corner.
Paul declared that when this day comes, the Lord will be “revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire” (2 Th. 1:7-8). The presence of the powerful angels fits perfectly with the words of Jesus:
Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened . . . . Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, . . . and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And He will send His angels (Mt. 24:29-31).
Paul here presents the glorious appearing of Jesus as the climax of a whole series of events that will begin with the rapture.
The Retribution. Paul said that when Jesus returns in blazing fire with His powerful angels, He will take “vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Th. 1:8). Let it be noted that the Greek word translated “vengeance” has absolutely no connotation of vindictiveness. It is a compound word that denotes “unwavering justice.” It is the dispensing of perfect justice on the wrongdoer— nothing more, nothing less. This righteous judgment will be dispensed to both those who do not know God because they have rejected His revelation of Himself in nature and conscience (as in Rom. 1:18-32) and to those who have rejected the gospel, which, according to Leon Morris, is “disobedience to a royal invitation.”
Their punishment, which is meted out in perfect justice, will be “everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Th. 1:9). To understand “eternal destruction,” it will help us to consider its opposite—“eternal life,” a present possession of every believer (Jn. 5:24). Eternal life is more than unending existence—it is a spiritual quality of life derived from our relationship with God through Jesus Christ (Jn. 17:3). Eternal destruction is existence away “from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Th. 1:9). It is continuance as a conscious being separated in varying degrees from everything that makes life significant and worthwhile.
To the extent that people have wanted freedom from God and resented His interfering with their lives, they will experience the abject emptiness, dreary loneliness, and soul-chilling terror of God-forsakenness. For a human being created in the image of God and designed to worship and serve Him, separation from His presence and the glory of His power is indeed everlasting destruction—it is utter ruin.
The Reward. The appearing of Jesus Christ will be a wonderful event for believers. Paul said that when He comes He will “be glorified in His saints and . . . be admired among all those who believe” (2 Th. 1:10). Note the expression, “to be glorified in His saints.” The Lord will be glorious; we will be glorious. Glory will radiate from Him to us, and back from us to Him. In the presence of the angels, this will bring honor and praise to Him.
For believers, another purpose of His appearance is “to be admired among all those who believe.” The idea is that of marveling at the wonder of it all—the wonder of His person, the wonder of our own glorification, the wonder of our new environment. The apostle’s assuring words to the Thessalonians that they would share in all of this because they believed the gospel are applicable to all those who have placed their trust in Jesus Christ!
• In God’s withholding from us the date of the rapture, we see God’s love and wisdom. It would not be good for us, and its value as an incentive to godliness would be minimized.
• In His promise of rapture before wrath, we see His mercy to His undeserving people.
• In His program of tribulation for Israel and the unsaved Gentile world, we see His holy wrath coupled with His concern for the salvation of both groups.
• In the weaknesses of the Thessalonian believers, we see our own weakness.
• In the Thessalonians’ eagerness for the Lord’s return, we see one of the reasons suffering has value.