Wednesday, October 12, 2016

2 Thessalonians and the Rapture (Part 2) - Imminence and "Literal" Hermeneutics

The Doctrine of Imminence

Is it true that Christ’s Second Coming will occur at any moment? According to Pretribulationists, one of the reasons why the rapture must occur prior to the Great Tribulation is because Christ’s parousia is allegedly imminent. Gundry defines the pretribulationist’s doctrine of imminence as follow:

“By common consent imminence means that so far as we know no predicted event will necessarily precede the coming of Christ. The concept incorporates three essential elements: suddenness, unexpectedness or incalculability, and a possibility of occurrence at any moment.”[1]

In our previous discussion of 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12, we have seen that the rapture cannot happen until the religious apostasy and the revelation of the Antichrist have occurred. But these are not the only reasons why the parousia cannot be imminent. In fact, a perusal of the New Testament will inform the perceptive reader that there must be a necessary delay before the rapture can take place.

The first century Christians did not believe in the doctrine of imminence. The apostles and the early disciples knew that the Great Commission would incur an indeterminate period of delay prior to the parousia (Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8; 22:21). In fact, Jesus taught that “this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come (Matt. 24:14).” The Lord did not indicate that he would rapture the apostles and the disciples prior to the fulfillment of the Great Commission. The rapture was not an “any-moment” event for the disciples.

The Apostle Paul himself did not believe in the doctrine of imminence. When he was in the custody of the chief captain, “the Lord stood by him, and said, Be of good cheer, Paul: for as thou hast testified of me in Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also at Rome (Acts 23:11; cf. Acts 27:24).” Paul could not have thought of an imminent rapture prior to his witness in Rome and before Caesar.

The Apostle Peter, likewise, did not hold to an imminent rapture theory. On account of Christ’s prophecy of his martyrdom (John 21:18-19; 2 Pet. 1:14), Peter would not have expected an “any-moment” rapture. Peter’s predicted death in old age would require a substantial amount of delay.

Christ’s prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem (Luke 21:20-38) must also be fulfilled before His parousia. The autographs of many New Testament epistles were written prior to the destruction of Jerusalem at AD70. The original readers of these epistles would most certainly anticipate the impending devastation of Jerusalem, not the any-moment rapture. For “Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled (Luke 21:24).”

Therefore, Peter, Paul and the first century Christians did not even imagine an imminent return of Christ, definitely not prior to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. It is, indeed, strange that the pretribulationist insists on an “any-moment” rapture of the Church despite all the New Testament evidence against it.

Even stranger still is this: Why do the Bible Presbyterians jump onto the dispensationalist’s bandwagon of pretribulationism?

A Further Example of Bible Presbyterian ‘Literal’ Hermeneutics

The Gospels teach that Christ will gather His elect (i.e. rapture) from the four winds “after the tribulation” (cf. Matt. 24:29-31, Mark 13:24-27, Luke 21:25-28).[2] For the purpose of discussing the issue of pretribulationism, we shall examine Matthew 24:29-31 very briefly. The reader is reminded to pay attention to a parallel terminology used in several apocalyptic passages of Scripture: the trumpet.

According to Matthew 24:31, the Son of Man will “send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” Bible Presbyterians and Dispensationalists agree that the phrase “immediately after the tribulation (Matt. 24:29)” refers to events occurring immediately after the Seventieth Week of Daniel. Pretribulationists generally understand that this gathering of the “elect from the four winds” (Matt. 24:31) includes Tribulation saints, that is, Christians converted during the Great Tribulation. It is interesting to note that Bible Presbyterians are divided as to whether Old Testament saints are included here. Some Bible Presbyterians believe that Old Testament saints are “raptured” before the Great Tribulation together with the New Testament saints. Those that adhere consistently to the distinction between Israel and the Church will claim that Old Testament saints are to be raptured after “the time of Jacob’s trouble (Jer. 30:7).”[3] This is the view of Louis A. Barbieri, Jr.[4]

In his commentary on Matthew 24:29-31, Barbieri wrote:

Immediately following the distress of that period, the Lord will return. His return will be accompanied by unusual displays in the heavens (v. 29; cf. Isa. 13:10; 34:4; Joel 2:31; 3:15-16) and by the appearing of His “sign” in the sky (Matt. 24:30). The appearance of the sign will cause all the nations to mourn (cf. Rev. 1:7), probably because they will realize the time of their judgment has come. . . . Whatever the sign, it will be visible for all to see, for the Lord will return on the clouds . . . with power and great glory (cf. Dan. 7:13). He will then send His angels forth to regather His elect from the four winds, which relates to the earth (cf. Mark 13:27), from one end of the heavens to the other. This involves the gathering of those who will have become believers during the Seventieth Week of Daniel and who will have been scattered into various parts of the world because of persecution (cf. Matt. 24:16). This gathering will probably also involve all Old Testament saints, whose resurrection will occur at this time, so that they may share in Messiah’s kingdom (Dan. 12:2-3, 13).”[5]

It is important to note that at the “great sound of a trumpet,” the elect are gathered from the four winds. We shall compare the occurrence of the word “trumpet” with another New Testament passage in Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians.

In 1 Corinthians 15:51-52, Paul expounded to the Corinthian believers: “Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”

Pretribulationists believe that 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 as well as 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 refer to the rapture. Commenting on 1 Corinthians 15:50-57, Jeffrey Khoo writes:

“There will be a rapture; a sudden catching up of saints to meet the Lord in the air (cf. 1 Thess 4:13-17). This will happen in “a moment.” . . . In an atomic second, “in the twinkling of an eye,” at the sound of the last trumpet (cf. Rev 11:15-19?) we shall all be changed and shall put on an incorruptible body.”[6]

Both of these passages (i.e. 1 Cor. 15:51-52, and 1 Thess. 4:15-17) mention a “trump” or trumpet, but 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 describes it as the “last trump.” A literal understanding of the expression “last trump” would mean the last trumpet in a series of trumpets. Some midtribulationists, for example Dr Timothy Tow, equate this trumpet with the seventh trumpet in Rev. 11:15-19. Dr Tow admits:

“In regard to the Rapture of Saints I followed Dr. [Oliver] Buswell in its occurrence at the sounding of the last and seventh trumpet (1 Cor 15:52; Rev 11:15-18).”[7]

Dr Jeffrey Khoo’s commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:50-57 bears an uncanny resemblance to common dispensational expositions on the passage.[8] We shall now refer to a Dallas Theological Seminary professor’s commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:51-52. David Lowery writes:

“Paul had revealed the same truth to the Thessalonians (1 Thes. 4:15-17). The Rapture of the church was a mystery (mystērion) in that it had not been known in the Old Testament but now was revealed. (Cf. other “mysteries”— now revealed truths—in Matt. 13:11; Luke 8:10; Rom. 11:25; 16:25; 1 Cor. 4:1; Eph. 1:9; 3:3-4, 9; 5:32; Col. 1:26-27; 2:2; 4:3; 2 Thes. 2:7; 1 Tim. 3:9, 16; Rev. 1:20; 10:7; 17:5.) The dead in Christ will first be raised, and then the living will be instantaneously transformed. The trumpet, as in the Old Testament, signaled the appearance of God (cf. Ex. 19:16). It is the last blast for the church because this appearance shall never end (cf. 1 Cor. 13:12).”[9]

We recall that 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 refers to the pretribulation rapture according to Bible Presbyterians and Dispensationalists. The pretribulation rapture is supposed to occur at the “last trump (1 Cor. 15:52).” Since this is the “last blast” or “last trumpet”, and this occurs before the Seventieth Week of Daniel (i.e. before the Great Tribulation) according to Pretribulationists, the trumpet sounding in Matthew 24:31 after the Great Tribulation contradicts a literal understanding of the word “last.”

How can there be another trumpet being blown in the posttribulational period (i.e. in Matt. 24:31), especially after the last trumpet was sounded in 1 Corinthians 15:52? All language in Scripture will loose its meaning if “last” does not mean last. God could have used the phraseology “the penultimate trump” in 1 Corinthians 15:52. This would allow an actual last trump after the Great Tribulation in Matthew 24:31.[10]

Is it not remarkable that Dispensational Premillennialists, who insist on a consistently literal interpretation of Scripture, understand the “last trump” (1 Cor. 15:52) as not being the last? This inconsistency occurs in both Pretribulationism and Midtribulationism.

Bible Presbyterians can avoid this inconsistency by saying that the “last trump” in 1 Corinthians 15:52 refers to a last trumpet with several blasts from the same trumpet at different periods of time. This “last” trumpet may indeed be the same trumpet being blown in Matthew 24:31. In other words, the last trumpet is sounded in 1 Corinthians 15:52, and subsequently sounded again in Matthew 24:31. But 1 Corinthians 15:52 states that “at the last trump,” “the trumpet shall sound,” implying that this is the last blast of the trumpet of God, and not merely a trumpet used for a series of blasts.

Another solution might be to suggest that the last blast or sounding of the trumpet is actually of seven years or three-and-a-half years duration, depending on whether one is pretribulational or midtribulational. But the dead are raised immediately with the last trumpet sounding, at “the twinkling of an eye.” This resurrection of the dead cannot occur over a seven years period or any prolonged duration of time. The last blast is clearly a quick final blowing of the trumpet in 1 Corinthians 15:52.

Finally, Bible Presbyterians can understand Matthew 24:31 as depicting the rapture, and not the visible Second Coming of Christ. But the verse before it obviously describes a visible Coming of Christ, “And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory (Matt. 24:30, emphasis mine).” A literal interpretation of Matthew 24:30 does not allow a secret rapture in this verse.

In his defense of the posttribulational view, Robert Gundry writes:

“Posttribulationists equate the rapture with the gathering of the elect by angels at the sound of a trumpet (Matt. 24:31). The Lukan parallel supports the equation, for there Jesus says, “But when these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28). The posttribulational view gains further support from parallel terminology in Paul’s Thessalonian discussion of the Church’s rapture, where we read of a trumpet, clouds, and a gathering of believers just as in the Olivet Discourse (1 Thess. 4:16, 17; 2 Thess. 2:1).”[11]

Kim Riddlebarger explains that “the trumpet call of God was an important theme in Paul’s writings, for the trumpet will announce the long-expected day of resurrection.”[12] If the exegete understands the term “trumpet” as a parallel terminology in apocalyptic literature, and that it forms an essential key in understanding prophetic passages, the consistent literalist will inevitably arrive at a posttribulational view of the rapture.

In conclusion, the Scriptures, and especially the Apostle Paul, do not divide the Second Coming of Christ into a secret coming and a subsequent visible coming. There is only one Second Coming of Christ. In his book Prophecy and the Church, Oswald T. Allis aptly summarizes the issue at hand:

“The question which confronts us is this. If the distinction between the rapture and the appearing is of as great moment as Dispensationalists assert, how are we to explain Paul’s failure to distinguish clearly between them? And the failure of other writers, Peter, James, and John, to do the same? Paul was a logician. He was able to draw sharp distinctions. If he had wanted, or regarded it important, to distinguish between these events, he could have done so very easily. Why did he use language which Dispensationalists must admit to be confusing? [Charles] Feinberg recently made the following surprising statement regarding the three words we have been discussing [namely, “revelation” (ἀποκάλυψις), “appearing” (ἐπιφάνεια), and “coming” (παρουσία)]: “We conclude, then, that from a study of the Greek words themselves the distinctions between the coming of the Lord for His saints and with His saints is not to be gleaned.” Such an admission raises the question whether the distinction itself is valid. If the distinction is of importance, Paul’s ambiguous language is, we say it reverently, inexcusable. If the distinction is negligible, accuracy of statement would be quite unnecessary. We conclude, therefore, that the language of the New Testament and especially of Paul not merely fails to prove the distinction insisted on by Dispensationalists but rather by its very ambiguity indicates clearly and unmistakably that no such distinction exists.”[13]

 References


[1] Robert H. Gundry, The Church and the Tribulation: A Biblical Examination of Post-Tribulationism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1973), 29. Gundry provides us with a detailed critique of the doctrine of imminence in chapter 3 of his book.
[2] This is especially true if one rejects the Preterist’s understanding of the Olivet Discourse. See Gundry’s book The Church and the Tribulation: A Biblical Examination of Post-Tribulationism for a discussion of the immense problems of pretribulationism. Given the fact that Gundry is a premillennial scholar, the book is both accessible and irenic for dispensationalist readers. Gundry discusses the Olivet Discourse in pp. 129-139. Also see 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).
[3] The “time of Jacob’s trouble” refers to the Great Tribulation according to Dispensationalists. See Oswald T. Allis, Prophecy and the Church (Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1969; reprint, Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), 209. Allis wrote: “Jeremiah xxx. 7 speaks of a day which is called “the time of Jacob’s trouble.” It is described as “great,” so that there is “none like it.” It is difficult to see in this verse any definite reference to the great tribulation. “Great” may be used in the sense of “long” (great in length); and this is favored by the word “time” which follows. This prophecy was probably uttered before the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar. There is no reason for believing that it refers exclusively to a brief period of three and a half years which are still wholly future.”
[4] Louis A. Barbieri, Jr. is the former Dean of Students and Assistant Professor of Bible Exposition, Dallas Theological Seminary (1976-1986).
[5] Louis A. Barbieri, Jr., “Matthew,” 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), 78.
[6] Jeffrey Khoo, First Corinthians (Singapore: Far Eastern Bible College, n.d.), 60. These are printed course notes used in Far Eastern Bible College. Available from http://www.febc.edu.sg/assets/pdfs/studyresource/FirstCor.pdf; Internet; accessed 12 April 2006.
[7] Timothy Tow, The Story of My Bible-Presbyterian Faith (Singapore: Far Eastern Bible College Press, 1999), 15. Dr Tow is the Principal and Lecturer in Systematic Theology in Far Eastern Bible College.
[8] See Khoo, First Corinthians, 60
[9] David K. Lowery, “1 Corinthians,” 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), 545-546. David K. Lowery was at that time the Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary.
[10] Vern Poythress dedicates an entire chapter of his book Understanding Dispensationalists to discuss this issue of “the last trumpet.” See Vern S. Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists, 2d. ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co, 1987), 71-77. I am indebted to Poythress for some profitable insights.
[11] Gundry, The Church and the Tribulation, 135.
[12] Kim Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Co, 2003), 176.
[13] Allis, Prophecy and the Church, 184-185, quoting Charles Lee Feinberg, Premillennialism or Amillennialism? (Winona Lake, IN: BMH, 1980), 207. Feinberg is a noted dispensationalist scholar.

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