Wednesday, September 28, 2016

2 Thessalonians and the Rapture (Part 1)

2 Thessalonians 1:4-10

The second epistle to the Thessalonians opens with an encouragement from the Apostle Paul. He commended the Thessalonian Christians for their “faith and patience” amidst their “persecutions and tribulations (2 Thess. 1:4).” In verses 5 to 8, Paul urged the Thessalonians to be patient because when the Lord comes (apokalypsei), “the world will see a radical reversal. The afflictors of the church will reap affliction from the Lord, and those afflicted for the sake of the Lord will reap rest in his marvelous presence. Persecution by the wicked demonstrates not only that the wicked deserve punishment but also that the church is on the side of good. If this were not so, the world would not persecute them. Thus God is right when he counts the church “worthy of the kingdom.” At the same time the perseverance of the church (their response to persecution) is also evidence of their genuine faith. Thus their willingness to suffer for the kingdom is evidence that God is right to declare the church worthy of the kingdom.”[1]

Paul emphasized the fact that Christians will eventually find relief from their persecution when the Lord returns (ἀποκάλυψις) to judge the wicked, and punish them “with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord (2 Thess. 1:9).” Christians, on the other hand, will be awarded with rest.

It is clear that this relief from persecution is not pretribulational. Paul did not tell the Thessalonians to look forward to a rapture that will take the Church out of the persecutions and sufferings she encounters. Contrariwise, the Church was urged to persevere until the Lord is “revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Thess. 1:7-8).”

2 Thessalonians 1:4-10 presents an immense problem for the pretribulational understanding of the rapture. Gundry writes, “The resultant difficulty for pretribulationism is that Paul places the release of Christians from persecution at the posttribulational return of Christ to judge unbelievers, whereas according to pretribulationism this release will occur seven years earlier.”[2]

Charles Wanamaker agrees that the rewarding of the saints and the punishment of the wicked takes place at the end of the existing age. He notes:

“The apocalyptic significance of v. 7a is confirmed by v. 7b. It depicts the end of the existing order at the appearing of the Lord Jesus on the day of Judgment. God’s decisive act of repaying the enemies of Christ’s people with affliction and rewarding the faithful for their endurance of affliction will occur ἐν τῇ ἀποκαλύψει τοῦ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ ἀπ᾽ οὐρανοῦ μετ᾽ ἀγγέλων δυνάμεως αὐτοῦ (v. 7b) ἐν πυρὶ φλογός (v. 8a) (“at the revealing of the Lord Jesus from heaven with the angels of his power [or might] in flaming fire”).”[3]

At the ‘revelation’ (ἀποκάλυψις), the Lord will judge the living and the dead, and relegate the wicked to everlasting punishment. This is the final judgment at the end of the existing age. It is apparent that 2 Thessalonians 1:4-10 does not describe a secret coming prior to the Great Tribulation.

The Apokalypsis

Another difficulty with the Pretribulational view is encountered when one considers the Greek word used in verse 7 (apokalypsei). The pretribulationalist will agree that the “revelation” (ἀποκάλυψις) of our Lord is a posttribulational event. They believe that this “revelation” of Christ refers to His Second Coming with His saints 7 years after the pretribulation rapture. The ‘revelation’ is obviously a public, glorious return; it can hardly be a secret occurrence.

In order to escape the thrust of this entire passage (i.e. 2 Thess. 1:4-10), the pretribulationist may broaden the meaning of “revelation” (apokalypsei) to include the Great Tribulation as well as the secret rapture. It is, however, unimaginable how a pretribulation rapture can be read into this passage of Scripture when we consider the meaning of apokalypsei.

We discussed previously that the Second Coming of our Lord is referred to as his “revelation” (apokalypsei) in 2 Thessalonians 1:7. Elsewhere in the New Testament, it is called his parousia or epiphaneia.

Michael Martin explains the biblical meaning of the term “revelation,”

“The Lord’s arrival on that day is here termed his “revelation” (apokalypsei). The word indicates the disclosing of something previously hidden and is most often used in the New Testament of the revealing of God’s will or nature (1 Cor 14:26; Gal 1:12, 16). It is only used here in the Thessalonian correspondence. Elsewhere the Lord’s arrival was termed his parousia or epiphaneia (cf. 2:8).”[4]

Commenting on 2 Thessalonians 1:7, Wanamaker likewise understands that the parousia of Christ and the revelation (ἀποκάλυψις) mentioned in verse 7 are one and the same event:

“The parousia or coming of Christ is revelatory in that the Lord Jesus is currently hidden in heaven, and therefore those who persecute the readers are in (willful) ignorance about him (cf. v. 9). As a result they have no idea about the danger confronting them in the impending judgment (see vv. 9f.). The parousia of the Lord Jesus will come as an unexpected and frightening turn of events for them. On the other hand, for the oppressed it will vindicate their steadfastness. Paul’s intention may have been to provide his readers with the power to withstand their oppressors through esoteric knowledge of the coming reversal.”[5]

There is really no biblical basis to allocate the word parousia to a secret coming of Christ, and the word revelation to a visible coming. According to 2 Thessalonians 1:4-10, His revelation will bring immediate destruction to the wicked. At the same time, a much awaited rest will be awarded to His saints. His Church will obviously still be on terra firma when He comes again; she is not raptured prior to the Great Tribulation.

Robert Gundry gives us a summary of the exegetical problems associated with the unnecessary distinction between the terms parousia and apokalypsis:

“Three main terms appear in the NT for the second coming: “revelation” (ἀποκάλυψις), “appearing” (ἐπιφάνεια), and “coming” or “presence” (παρουσία, parousia). Almost all contemporary pretribulationists acknowledge that the three terms are used indiscriminately for what they regard as the two phases of Jesus’ return. Ἀποκάλυψις appears in 1 Corinthians 1:7 and 1 Peter 1:7, 13; 4:13 concerning the hope of believers in the present age. And παρουσία appears in Matthew 24:3, 27, 37, 39 and 2 Thessalonians 2:8 concerning the posttribulational advent. Thus, the distinction which used to be made between the pretribulational Parousia and the posttribulational revelation breaks down.”[6]

Considering the aforementioned reasons, it is, therefore, ludicrous to contrive a two-phased coming of our Lord Jesus when one studies 2 Thessalonians 1:4-10. Where can we find in this passage a secret, hidden coming of Jesus prior to the Great Tribulation to rescue His saints?

Vern Poythress concludes,

“In short, the consignment of non-Christians to hell is simultaneous with the relief of Christians in the rapture. There is no intermediate stage of tribulation between the two events. Therefore the rapture of the saints and the open appearing of Christ take place together. 2 Thessalonians 1 is in tension at this point with pretribulational and midtribulational premillennialism.”[7]

2 Thessalonians 2:1-12

2 Thessalonians 2:1-3 in the NIV reads:

“Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us, saying that the day of the Lord has already come. Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction.”

Paul begins the second chapter of the epistle with these words, “Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him (2 Thess. 2:1, NIV).” Here, Paul once again discusses the parousia (παρουσία) of Christ. The parousia and the gathering (rapture) of Christians are referred to as one event. This is clear from the usage of the single article which connects the coming of Christ and the gathering of Christians. Commenting on 2 Thessalonians 2:1, Leon Morris explains that “the use of the single article shows that the coming of the Lord . . . and the gathering of the saints are closely connected. Indeed, they are two parts of one great event.”[8]

This understanding is consistent with Paul’s teaching in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 that the parousia of Christ (1 Thess. 4:15) is accompanied by the simultaneous rapture and resurrection of Christians. It must also be emphasized that the parousia in 2 Thessalonians 2:1 is the same term used in 1 Thessalonians 4:15. 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12, therefore, must be studied in conjunction with 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.

We shall begin to see the difficulties encountered by the pretribulationist in this passage. The inseparable events of the parousia and the gathering of saints are apparently placed after the great religious apostasy (verse 3) and the appearance of the Antichrist (verse 8). These events (i.e. the apostasy and the Antichrist’s unveiling), according to the pretribulationist, occur during the Great Tribulation. The posttribulational motif in this passage is hard to ignore.

In view of the preceding chapter (2 Thess. 1) and Paul’s discourse on Christ’s posttribulational advent, it is reasonable to understand the parousia (2 Thess. 2:1) as one and the same event discussed in 2 Thessalonians 1:4-10. It is highly unlikely that Paul suddenly turns his attention from a posttribulational advent of Christ to a secret pretribulational coming which is not mentioned in the first chapter of this epistle.

Robert Gundry elucidates further:

“In [2 Thess.] 2:1 Paul mentions “our gathering” second in order to the Parousia. In the light of the immediately preceding description of the posttribulational advent, it seems natural to regard the Parousia as a reference to that event rather than a sudden switch to a pretribulational Parousia unmentioned in the first chapter and unsupported in 1 Thessalonians. Several verses later (2:8) the Parousia again refers to the posttribulational advent of Christ. If then the context of 2:1 leads us to regard the Parousia there as posttribulational, it is singularly strange that “our gathering together to Him” should be connected with it and mentioned second in order - unless the rapture, too, is posttribulational.”[9]

The aforementioned evidence gives us a hint that the parousia and the gathering of Christians mentioned in 2 Thessalonians 2:1 is a posttribulational event.

The Thessalonian Problem

In 2 Thessalonians 2:1ff., Paul was required to correct certain doctrinal aberrations held by the Thessalonians “concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him.” The doctrinal error Paul corrected in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 was a belief that “the day of the Lord has already come (2 Thess. 2:2, NIV).” The Greek verb translated “has come” (ἐνέστηκεν) is in the perfect tense. This means that the action of the verb has happened in the past, although it has lasting results in the present. Leon Morris agrees with this understanding:

“The content of the particular report was “that the day of the Lord has already come” . . . . Some commentators hold the meaning to be that the day of the Lord was on the very point of occurring. The verb, however, does not mean “to be at hand” but rather “to be present.’”[10]

Thus, the Thessalonian problem was not a misunderstanding that the Day of the Lord was at hand or imminent. Their error was to believe that they were already at the early stages of the Day of the Lord. Michael Martin elaborates on this doctrinal error that had affected the Thessalonian church,

“The false teaching is identified in v. 2. Somehow the church had heard that “the day of the Lord has already come.” The day of the Lord in Scripture is a fairly flexible concept. The title could signify a specific event of judgment at the end of time or a complex of events that may somewhat extend its temporal scope. In this passage, however, Paul used “the day” of a climactic point of eschatological judgment concurrent with the “splendor of the coming” of the Lord Jesus (v. 8). The “rebellion” and the revelation of the “man of lawlessness” (v. 3) are presented as preliminary.”[11]

A proper understanding of the Thessalonian error will allow us to glean much precious information regarding Paul’s understanding of the eschaton. Paul wrote, “Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction (1 Thess. 2:3, NIV).” The Thessalonians had misunderstood that the Day of the Lord will include the Great Tribulation. Furthermore, the Thessalonians even believed that they had already entered the Great Tribulation. Paul corrected their misinterpretation by stating that “that day will not come (2 Thess. 2:3)” unless the apostasy takes place and the Antichrist is revealed. These two prominent events must precede the Day of the Lord (ἡμέρα τοῦ κυρίου, also known as the Day of Christ in the KJV).[12] This means that the Day of the Lord does not include the Great Tribulation.
Thus, the Day of the Lord begins with the revelation of Jesus Christ at His parousia. This contradicts the Bible Presbyterian understanding that the Day of the Lord includes the Great Tribulation.[13] Our conclusion is devastating to the pretribulation rapture theory. George Eldon Ladd writes:

“If this “day of the Lord” is to be identified with the glorious Revelation of Christ at the end of the Tribulation, then Paul’s argument in this prophecy has omitted its most important point, namely, that the Rapture is the first event which will take place; and since the Rapture had not taken place and the Thessalonian Christians were still on earth, it was impossible that the Day of the Lord had come. Such things as the apostasy and the appearance of the Man of Lawlessness could have only an academic interest for the Thessalonians if they were to be caught up from the earth before these events took place. . . . Paul’s failure at this point to assert that the Rapture of the Church would be the first in this succession of events would be a surrender of his strongest argument to settle the Thessalonian problem. The day of the Lord could not possibly have come, for the Rapture had not taken place. Why did he not simply assert this to be true? He does not do so; there is no affirmation of a pretribulation rapture here.”[14]

Apparently, the Thessalonians had also misunderstood that the Second Coming was in the immediate future. This would explain why some of them had given up their secular employment in fanatical excitement and wild anticipation of the parousia (2 Thess. 2:2, 3:6-14). Unfortunately - for pretribulationism - Paul did not teach an imminent or any-moment return of Christ. He was convinced that two conspicuous events must take place prior to the Day of the Lord, namely, a religious apostasy and the revealing of the Antichrist. In fact, the parousia of Christ is coupled with the destruction of the man of lawlessness. “And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming. (2 Thess. 2:8, NIV).” This statement implies a close temporal association between the unveiling of the Antichrist and the parousia, that is, the Antichrist will be revealed shortly before the Second Coming.

Rapture or Apostasy?

Few scholars, for example E. Schuyler English and Kenneth S. Wuest, have proposed that “the rebellion” (ἀποστασία) in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 means departure, and that it refers to the rapture itself. If English and Wuest are correct, this would place the rapture prior to the unveiling of the Antichrist. This would serve to squeeze the concept of a pretribulation rapture into 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12.

Robert Gundry, in his book The Church and the Tribulation: A Biblical Examination of Post-Tribulationism, argues ably against this understanding of ἀποστασία.[15] Is Gundry the only scholar who rejects this understanding of ἀποστασία? The fact is: the majority of scholars, both Reformed and Dispensational, believe that ἀποστασία means a religious apostasy in 2 Thessalonians 2:3. According to Gundry, “NT Lexicons uniformly give ἀποστασία the special senses of religious apostasy and political rebellion – BAG, Kittel, Cremer, Abbott-Smith, Thayer, and others. No wonder also that scholarly commentators on 2 Thessalonians interpret ἀποστασία as bearing this meaning – Alford, Ellicott, Moffatt, F. F. Bruce, Frame, Milligan, Morris, and others.”[16]

Charles A. Wanamaker, in his commentary The Epistles to the Thessalonians, rejects the understanding that ἀποστασία means a departure or rapture:

“Although ἀποστασία, signifying the state of apostasy or rebellion, was used in both a political and religious sense, the latter dominates in the Greek Bible (cf. LXX Jos. 22:22, 2 Ch. 29:19; 33:19; Je. 2:19; 1 Macc. 2:15; and in the NT see Acts 21:21; see also the use of the cognate verb ἀφίστανται in Lk. 8:13; 1 Tim. 4:1; Heb. 3:12). In the apocalyptic context of 2 Thessalonians 2, the rebellion referred to is a religious one directed against God.”[17]

In either case, whether ἀποστασία refers to a political or religious rebellion, it cannot be made to denote a pretribulation rapture. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament agrees with the understanding that ἀποστασία refers to a religious apostasy in 2 Thessalonians 2:3:

“In 2 Th. 2:3 ἀποστασία is used in the absol. sense as an event of the last days alongside or prior to (?) the appearance of the ἄνθρωπος τῆς ἀνομίας. Here a Jewish tradition is adopted which speaks of complete apostasy from God and His Torah shortly before the appearance of the Messiah. This is applied to the apostasy of Christians from their faith to error and unrighteousness (v. 11f.) in the last days (Mt. 24:11 f.).”[18]

The reader might be curious to know whether Dallas Theological Seminary, the bulwark of dispensationalism and pretribulationism, understands the word ἀποστασία as referring to the rapture. Professor Thomas Constable of Dallas Theological Seminary, in the popular The Bible Knowledge Commentary, observes:

“Some interpreters have taken this “departure” as a reference to the Rapture of the church (e.g., E. Schuyler English, Rethinking the Rapture, New York: Loizeaux Brothers, 1954, pp. 67-71), but this is not too probable. D. Edmond Hiebert refutes this view that apostasia here refers to the Rapture (The Thessalonian Epistles, p. 306). Some scholars believe that this apostasy (called by Paul “the” apostasy) will consist of people turning from God’s truth to worship the Antichrist, who will set himself up in God’s temple and claim to be God (v. 4).”[19]

Therefore, both dispensational and non-dispensational exegetes understand the word ἀποστασία as referring to a religious apostasy prior to the unveiling of the Antichrist. According to Paul’s epistle, the parousia (παρουσία) of Christ follows two prominent events in history – the apostasy and the appearance of the Antichrist. Our Lord’s second coming is most certainly not any-moment or imminent. It apparently requires much more than some tenuous exegetical gymnastics to overcome the insurmountable barrier of a posttribulational understanding in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12.

[1] D. Michael Martin, 1, 2 Thessalonians: The New American Commentary (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1995), 206.
[2] Robert H. Gundry, The Church and the Tribulation: A Biblical Examination of Post-Tribulationism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1973), 113.
[3] Charles A. Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians: The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1990), 225.
[4] Martin, 1, 2 Thessalonians, 209.
[5] Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians, 225-226.
[6] Gundry, The Church and the Tribulation, 158. Chapter 13 of Gundry’s book gives a concise discussion of the terms “revelation,” “appearing,”, and “parousia.”
[7] Vern S. Poythress, “2 Thessalonians 1 Supports Amillennialism,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 37, no. 4 (1994): 532. In his excellent paper, Poythress elucidates that 2 Thessalonians chapter 1 is in tension with both Premillennialism and Postmillennialism.
[8] Leon Morris, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians: New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1991), 213.
[9] Gundry, The Church and the Tribulation, 113-114.
[10] Morris, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians, 216.
[11] Martin, 1, 2 Thessalonians, 227.
[12] See Oswald T. Allis, Prophecy and the Church (Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1969; reprint, Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), 189. Some dispensationalists have attempted to distinguish between “the day of Christ” and the “day of the Lord.” Oswald Allis writes: “Scofield has attempted to draw a distinction between the “day of Christ” and the “day of the Lord,” making the one refer to the rapture, the other to the revelation. But the words used by Paul to refer to it seem to indicate quite clearly that no such difference exists. Paul would hardly put the two words together, “day of our Lord Jesus (Christ)” as he does in 1 Cor. i. 8, 2 Cor. i. 14 (cf. 1 Cor. v 5), if there were an important difference between the “day of the Lord” and “the day of Christ” (Phil. i. 10, ii. 16) or “of Jesus Christ” (Phil. i. 6). Darby apparently drew no distinction between the two. If there were an important difference, the words “as ye see the day approaching” (Heb. x. 25) would be dangerously ambiguous. They clearly suggest that there will be signs of its approach. Yet the writer does not say “the day of the Lord” or “the day of Christ” but simply “the day,” as if there were only one day which could be called “the day.’”
[13] Jeffrey Khoo, 1 Thessalonians: A Verse-by-Verse Commentary (Singapore: Far Eastern Bible College, n.d.), 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.
[14] 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), 74-75.
[15] See Gundry, The Church and the Tribulation, 114-118.
[16] Ibid., 115-116.
[17] Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians, 244.
[18] Gerhard Kittel & Gerhard Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 1, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964), 513.
[19] Thomas L. Constable, “2 Thessalonians” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary : An Exposition of the Scriptures by Dallas Seminary Faculty, eds. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983), 718. Dr Constable was at that time the Professor of Bible Exposition at Dallas Theological Seminary.

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