Monday, September 26, 2016

1 Thessalonians and the Rapture (Part 2)

The Close Relationship between 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 and 4:13-18

We have mentioned previously that both Bible Presbyterians and Dispensationalists understand 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 to refer to the secret rapture of the New Testament church. In order to defend the Pretribulation Rapture theory, Bible Presbyterians must insist that Paul begins with a different subject matter in 1 Thessalonians 5:1ff. In fact, the uninspired chapter division has reinforced the erroneous impression that Paul’s discourse regarding the “Day of the Lord” in 1 Thessalonians 5:1ff. is somehow separated from the events discussed in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. The implication is that 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 refers to the rapture (also known as the “Day of Christ” according to dispensational terminology), and 1 Thessalonians 5:1ff. discusses the “Day of the Lord.”

Pretribulationists have generally agreed that the “coming of the Lord” in 1 Thessalonians 4:15 and the “Day of the Lord” in 1 Thessalonians 5:2 are two separate events. The secret rapture, according to Dispensationalists, will remove the Church from the “Day of the Lord.”

Most dispensationalists understand the “Day of the Lord” to refer to events beginning with the Great Tribulation and ending with the future Millennium. Dr John Walvoord describes his understanding of the “Day of the Lord,”

“The future Great Tribulation is called “the Day of the Lord”, for in it Israel will experience anguish and mourning (Isa. 2:10-21; Amos 8:10; Zeph. 1:7-18). The Lord’s anger will be demonstrated in “the Day of the Lord” when Christ returns and destroys enemy nations (Isa. 24:21) – including Edom (Isa. 34:8-9; Obad.) – at the Battle of Armageddon (Zech. 14:1-5). It will be a time of darkness (Isa. 24:23; Amos 5:18, 20; 8:9). “The Day of the Lord” also includes the blessings of the Millennium, as seen in Zechariah 3 and Zechariah 14, in which Israel will be restored, cleansed, and comforted (Isa. 61:2; Amos 9:11; Mic. 4:6-7; 5:10-14).”[1]

Dr Jeffrey Khoo agrees with Walvoord that “the Day of the Lord” refers to the Great Tribulation and the millennial reign of Christ on earth. According to Dr Khoo,

“The “day of the Lord” refers to the whole period of end-time wrath upon unbelievers during the Great Tribulation of 7 years (Isa 13:9-13; Zech 14:1-5) which leads to the millennial reign of Christ on earth (Isa 12:1-6; 14:3; Zech 14:8-11) and ending with the final fiery destruction of this present heaven and earth (2 Pet 3:10, Rev 20:7-9).”[2]

Did Paul begin with a radically different subject matter in 1 Thessalonians 5:1ff.? Is it correct to interpret the “coming of the Lord” in 1 Thessalonians 4:15 and the “Day of the Lord” in 1 Thessalonians 5:2 as two separate events? If, however, the “coming of the Lord” and the “Day of the Lord” describe the same event – that is, the Parousia of Christ – the Pretribulation Rapture theory is inevitably destroyed.

Some have argued that the “But” in 1 Thessalonians 5:1 demonstrates the beginning of a new subject which is differentiated from the Parousia in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-18. Although the Greek particle connecting chapters four and five (δέ) implies a shift in thought, there is an intimate relationship between 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 and 4:13-18. Robert Gundry explains:

“The usual meaning of the Greek particle connecting chapters four and five (δέ) contains a mixture of a continuative sense and a slightly adversative sense. In other words, the particle implies a shift in thought, but not without close connection with the foregoing thought. Sometimes the adversative sense drops out altogether. Therefore, it is wrong to claim that the “But” (“Now” in NASB) of 5:1 proves the beginning of a new thought in full contrast to and differentiation from the Parousia described in 4:15-18. Nor does the shift from the pronoun “we” in 4:16ff. to the pronoun “they” in 5:1ff. imply a full contrast, for Paul uses the pronoun “you” in 5:1-5a in writing to the Christians more times than he uses “we” in 4:14-18. And in 5:5b-11 he again uses “we,” more times than in 4:14-18. Hence, an entire shift in subject matter is not to be inferred from the usage of the pronouns. The appearance of “they” in chapter five is accounted for by the bringing into view of the wicked and their relationship to the Parousia. However, the saved also bear a relationship to that day. Therefore Paul retains the “you” and “we.’”[3]

That Day should not Overtake the Church

Pretribulationists would have us believe that the Church will be raptured prior to the “Day of the Lord.” The problem with this view becomes evident when we study 1 Thessalonians 5:1ff.

Paul writes, “For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober (1 Thess. 5:2-6).”

Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to “watch and be sober.” He reminds the brethren that, unlike unbelievers who are in darkness, “that day” should not overtake them as a thief (verse 4). “That day” obviously refers to the “Day of the Lord” in verse 2. “That day” when “sudden destruction” and wrath comes upon the wicked is the same day believers ought to watch for and be sober.

If Paul is a Pretribulationist, this passage of Scripture makes no sense. According to Dr Jeffrey Khoo, the church will be raptured prior to the “Day of the Lord.” The Church includes those Thessalonian believers Paul wrote to in 1 Thessalonians. If, indeed, the Thessalonians are to be raptured prior to the “Day of the Lord,” why would Paul exhort them to “watch and be sober?” Again, if the Thessalonians are to be secretly caught up with the Lord during the Pretribulation rapture, why is it necessary for Paul to remind the Thessalonians that “that day” – which is the “Day of the Lord” – should not overtake them like a thief?

If the Pretribulation Rapture theory is true, the Thessalonian believers will be resurrected and given glorified bodies before the “Day of the Lord.” Surely there is no need to watch and be sober, for they will be with the Lord forever. They will loose the ability to sin, and their glorification will be finally completed. I believe Dr Khoo will concur with me that glorified saints are inherently sober and watchful.

George Eldon Ladd elaborates further:

“Believers are to “watch” with reference to the day of the Lord. It will be a day of surprise only for the world; Christian will be prepared for it, for they will not be asleep. The day of the Lord will for the Church mean salvation; for the world it will mean wrath (vv. 8 and 9). Certainly this language suggests that the day of the Lord whose coming Paul warns about in chapter five is the same as the parousia of Christ for the Rapture and the resurrection; otherwise the exhortation has no point. If the Rapture has already taken place before the day of the Lord, then Paul could not say, “But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief” (vs. 4), for “that day,” the day of the Lord, will not overtake believers at all; they will be in heaven, raptured. According to pretribulationism, they do not need to “watch and be sober” for the day of the Lord but for the day of Christ; but this passage is concerned not with the day of Christ, but with the day of the Lord. Surely Paul’s warning to believers to be prepared for the day of the Lord means that they will see that day but will not be surprised and dismayed by it. The warning is without point unless believers are to see that day; and if so, the day of Christ and the day of the Lord are synonymous.”[4]

1 Thessalonians 5:9 and the Rapture

Some Pretribulationists have argued that since the church is saved from the wrath of God, and given that the Great Tribulation is the wrath of God, the Church is apparently delivered from this Great Tribulation. Pretribulationists rely heavily upon this argument for their pretribulation rapture theory. On face value, their reasoning seems logical. One of the “proof-texts” used in their paralogism is 1 Thessalonians 5:9. This verse says, “For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thess. 5:9).” Commenting on this verse, Dr Khoo writes:

“The Christian has been spared from the wrath of God to come (cf. Rev 6:17, 11:18, 15:1,16). It is not the Christian’s duty nor destination to face God’s wrath since he has already been saved by the perfect redemptive work of Christ (Rom 5:9). It is important to know that the terms “wrath” and “salvation” here are opposites. The verse is clearly not talking about a both-and, but either-or situation. If you are under wrath, you are not saved, and if you are saved, you are not under wrath (John 3:36). This certainly argues against the posttribulational rapture view.”[5]

1 Thessalonians 5:9 contrasts the concept of “wrath” and “salvation.” It is true that God has not appointed Christians to His wrath, but this does not exempt the Christian from the wrath of men, the wrath of the Antichrist, and the wrath of the Devil. Furthermore, the “wrath” mentioned in 1 Thessalonians 5:9 is clearly eternal wrath, that is, eternal perdition. This is supported by the understanding that 1 Thessalonians 5:9b describes “salvation” from God’s judgment, and not simply salvation from the Great Tribulation. 1 Thessalonians 5:9 contrasts eternal wrath with eternal salvation. Surely Dr Khoo must understand this, for he writes: “It is not the Christian’s duty nor destination to face God’s wrath since he has already been saved by the perfect redemptive work of Christ (Rom 5:9).”[6] This salvation “by the perfect redemptive work of Christ” is eternal salvation, and comprises of election, regeneration, justification, sanctification and glorification. Obviously, 1 Thessalonians 5:9 is not describing the salvation of Christians from the Great Tribulation. To impose the concept of a pretribulation rapture into the meaning of 1 Thessalonians 5:9 is eisegesis. Dr Jeffrey Khoo has yet to explain why 1 Thessalonians 5:9 “argues against the posttribulational rapture view.”[7]

If, indeed, the exegete insists that 1 Thessalonians 5:9 describes the deliverance of Christians from the Great Tribulation, he cannot escape the entrapment of even more nagging exegetical problems. According to 1 Thessalonians 5:9b, the reason for the Christian’s deliverance is his salvation in Jesus Christ. It cannot be overemphasized that the tribulation saints are likewise saved by the redemption of Christ. If the Church must be exempted from the wrath of God in the Great Tribulation according to 1 Thessalonians 5:9a, how can we justify the pretribulationist’s belief that tribulation saints are left behind to suffer the wrath of God during the Great Tribulation? Is it not true that tribulation saints are also redeemed by Christ’s atoning death?

Must the Church be raptured in order for her to be protected from the Great Tribulation? The fact is: presence does not necessitate participation. The Church can be on earth throughout the Great Tribulation and yet be divinely protected from God’s wrath. Israel was in Egypt when God sent the ten plagues. God did not rapture Israel prior to sending His wrath against the Egyptians. Israel was divinely protected from God’s wrath during the entire period. But the pretribulationists would have us believe that the pretribulation rapture of the Church is a certainty. The reason, which has been repeated ad nauseam, is that God has not appointed the Christians to wrath. I believe 1 Thessalonians 5:9 is one of the most misunderstood verses of the Bible, and it is probably due to popular, dispensational eisegesis.

The phrase - “For God hath not appointed us to wrath” - has almost become a mantra. Then let the pretribulationist answer why the tribulation saints are left on earth for the “wrath” of God. A pertinent question for the Bible Presbyterians would be, “Are not the tribulation saints also part of the Church?”

Summary on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11

This passage of Scripture is most consistent with a post-tribulation rapture, not pretribulationism. The language and words of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 do not suggest a silent or secret rapture, but a glorious return of our Lord which is visible and audible to all the inhabitants of the earth. The disciples of Jesus were taught that, “this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven (Acts 1:11).” As our Lord ascended visibly to the right hand of the Father, so shall He return a second time, for “the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God (1Thess. 4:16).”

The Second Coming of Christ is one unified sequence of events. The rapture and the Second Coming are not separated by 7 years of the Great Tribulation. Christians will be raptured when Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead, “and he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left (Matt. 25:33).” The Greek word apantesis which is translated as “meet” in verse 1 Thessalonians 17 is consistent with the post-tribulational view: Christians will be caught up to meet Jesus Christ, and will subsequently return to earth with Him.

D. Michael Martin explains the difficulties involved in reconciling this passage with Pretribulationism:

“We must note that our present passage does not seem to present the event depicted in vv. 16–17 as one preceding and separate from the parousia, the day of the Lord (cf. 5:4–9). First, in v. 15 Paul explicitly termed the event he was describing the “coming” (parousia) of the Lord and linked the same term with final judgment (2 Thess 2:8; cf. 1 Thess 2:19). Since Paul did not predict two parousias, then the one event must encompass both the gathering of the church and final judgment. Second, v. 17 does not require the removal of the church from the world. It is in fact open-ended, describing nothing beyond the gathering of the church other than the fact of continuing in the presence of the Lord. Finally, vv. 15–17 seem to be cast in language and images depicting the arrival of a grand dignitary. The heralds announce his coming. The crowds surge out of their city to meet him and celebrate his arrival. At this point such a dignitary would not take the crowd with him and leave. Rather, the crowd would escort him into the city. In other words, the most likely way to complete the scenario Paul painted is by assuming that after assembling his people Christ would not leave but would proceed with his parousia. What our passage depicts is not the removal of the church but the early stages of the day of the Lord.”[8]


[1] John F. Walvoord, End Times: Understanding Today’s World Events in Biblical Prophecy (Nashville, Tennessee: Word Publishing, 1998), 149-150.
[2] Khoo, 1 Thessalonians, 32. Also see Jeffrey Khoo, Fundamentals of the Christian Faith: A Reformed and Premillennial Study of Christian Basics (Singapore: Far Eastern Bible College Press, 2005), 133.
[3] Robert H. Gundry, The Church and the Tribulation: A Biblical Examination of Post-Tribulationism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1973), 105. The reader would benefit greatly from reading Gundry’s discussion of “The Day of the Lord” in chapter six of his book.
[4] George Eldon Ladd, The Blessed Hope: A Biblical Study of the Second Advent and the Rapture (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1956), 93.
[5] Khoo, 1 Thessalonians, 37.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Martin, 1, 2 Thessalonians, 154.

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