The Rapture in Two-Part Harmony
Vol: 27 Issue: 25 Saturday, August 25, 2018
In the days of the Apostle Paul, the city of Thessalonica was the largest city in Macedonia, boasting a population of nearly 200,000 people –a megapolis of the ancient world.
The majority of its inhabitants were Greek, although there was a mixture of ethnic groups, including Jews.
Paul’s letters to the Church at Thessalonica are accepted as authentic by virtually all New Testament scholars. The book was quoted by name by early Church Fathers including Iraneus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian and Polycarp.
The first epistle is divided into three parts or themes. In the first part, Paul reiterates his relationship with the Thessalonians, gives thanks to God for them, and outlines the evidence that the Thessalonians were truly saved, in contrast to what the Judaizers were saying about them.
“For they themselves shew of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; And to wait for His Son from heaven, Whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come.” (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10)
In the second part, Paul defends his credentials as an Apostle and the legitimacy of the Thessalonians’s conversion and his urgent desire to see them again.
“For yourselves, brethren, know our entrance in unto you, that it was not in vain: But even after that we had suffered before, and were shamefully entreated, as ye know, at Philippi, we were bold in our God to speak unto you the gospel of God with much contention.” (1 Thessalonians 2:1-2)
“But we, brethren, being taken from you for a short time in presence, not in heart, endeavoured the more abundantly to see your face with great desire. Wherefore we would have come unto you, even I Paul, once and again; but Satan hindered us.” (1 Thessalonians 2:17-18)
The third major theme of the epistle is the imminent return of the Lord for His church at the Rapture. It is a source of endless fascination to me to read the various polemics arguing against the Rapture on the grounds that it was a nineteenth-century invention of J.N. Darby or Margaret MacDonald or C.I. Schofield.
Other scholars, such as my friend Grant Jeffrey, have long since proved that the Rapture doctrine was taught by the early Church as far back as 373 AD when he discovered an ancient text authored by Ephraem the Syrian, a prominent Byzantine theologian.
In On the Last Times, the Antichrist, and the End of the World, Ephraem wrote:
“For all the saints and elect of God are gathered, prior to the tribulation that is to come, and are taken to the Lord lest they see the confusion that is to overwhelm the world because of our sins.”
The most fascinating aspect of Grant’s discovery is the effort to discredit it by opponents of a pre-Trib Rapture by denying Ephraem’s authenticity, called the discovery “pseudo-Ephraem.”
This argument says that Ephraem didn’t write it, somebody else did. Is that even a relevant argument?
I was at Grant’s house visiting shortly after he made his discovery in 1995 and Grant showed me a book in his collection published in the 1600’s in which Ephraem’s teaching on the Rapture was quoted by a French theologian.
So denying Ephraem’s authorship is meaningless to the issue at hand, (which was whether the Rapture had been taught prior to the 1800’s.)
Personally, I’ve never understood how there could be a controversy. Whether pseudo-Ephraem or just plain Ephraem — or Darby, Schofield, MacDonald — they are largely irrelevant — since the Apostle Paul taught of an imminent Rapture in his FIRST epistle to the Thessalonians.
The controversy is about whether or not some subsequent interpreter confirmed what God told Paul, and it extends until what Paul actually wrote doesn’t seem to matter.
But Paul not only outlined the Rapture in detail, he fully expected to witness it himself.
“For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with Him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent (or precede) them which are asleep. For the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.” (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17)
But the verses about the Rapture don’t actually complete the third theme of Paul’s first epistle to Thessolonica.
Paul addresses questions concerning his credentials as an Apostle, confirms that the Thessalonians are truly saved, and reveals the details of the Rapture.
The Thessalonians, like many in the Church today, missed the point of Paul’s first Epistle. The point was that the Lord’s return should be a source of great comfort, not a source of contention.
“For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ, Who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him. Wherefore comfort yourselves together, and edify one another, even as also ye do.” (1 Thessalonians 5:9-11)
The message is as clear as it can possibly be. As clear as this message is, some have trouble understanding it, even today. Paul says that Lord will appear in the air, the dead in Christ will rise, those still living will rise right after, and we will then spend eternity with the Lord.
Paul says the purpose of this revelation was to comfort believers facing hard times. What completes the theme is Paul’s exhortation at the end.
“Wherefore comfort one another with these words.” (1 Thessalonians 4:18)
Paul’s Second Letter to the Thessalonians had but one primary purpose, as specifically outlined in Chapter Two. It was to correct the doctrinal errors that an apparently forged letter from Paul had created about the Day of the Lord.
The Thessalonians feared that the Day of the Lord had come and gone and they had been left behind.
“Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto Him, That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand.” (2 Thessalonians 2:1-2)
The phrase, “our gathering together” is translated from the Greek, episunagoge, which means “a complete collection; especially a Christian meeting: assembling, gathering together.” It is used but one other time, in Hebrews 10:25 exhorting believers to meet for worship.
As we go on, let’s ask and answer some questions from the text of Scripture.
First question: “What is Paul beseeching the Thessalonians about?” Answer: “That they not be shaken by a letter that said they had been left behind.”
The primary theme of 2nd Thessalonians is therefore, the coming of our Lord and our gathering together, or collecting, unto Him. Paul begins by offering two reasons why the Thessalonians should not be afraid that they had been left behind.
“Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition.” (2Thessalonians 2:3)
So, what is the first reason why the Thessalonians should know that they had not missed the event Paul had described in his last letter? Because the day would not come until there came “a falling away first.”
The translation “a falling away” should actually be rendered, “THE falling away” namely, the specific falling away of which Paul warned them of “when I was yet with you.” (2 Thessalonians 2:5)
The “falling away” is the great apostasia, meaning, “a defection from the truth.”
The second reason why the Thessalonians should not be afraid that they had been left behind was because the man of sin, or the son of perdition, had not yet been revealed. The man of sin is, of course, the antichrist.
The man of sin can’t be revealed until after the great apostasia because it is through the apostasiathat the man of sin is revealed. Without the apostasia, the antichrist couldn’t get a foothold because the population would not be prepared to buy what he will be selling.
But what else does this passage teach us? The Rapture couldn’t have happened because the antichrist had not been revealed. What does that mean? It HAS to mean that the Rapture comes first and then later, the antichrist is revealed.
I have heard all kinds of clever and imaginative explanations for why these verses don’t mean what they say they mean, but none of them ever actually take on the verses themselves.
They just go out and find others from elsewhere that seem contradictory but I’ve never heard anyone adequately dispute these two simple points – which is probably the reason Paul raised them.
One can come up with verses that seemingly put the Church in the Tribulation, or verses that seemingly dispute the meaning of “the wrath of God” and verses that question who the Restrainer is, or dispute the meaning of the Day of Christ, and so on.
But Paul says that there are two things that must come after “our gathering together unto Him” – the great apostasia, and the revelation of the son of perdition. So if the Thessalonians don’t perceive a great apostasy, followed by the revealing of the antichrist, then it means they didn’t miss the Rapture.
Let’s reverse this equation and take another look at what Paul is saying from that angle.
Paul is saying that if the Thessalonians DO perceive a great falling away and they DO recognize “the man of sin, the son of perdition,” then YES, they missed the Rapture.
Turned back around, he’s saying that because the man of sin hasn’t been revealed, the Rapture has not happened. Why? Because the Rapture comes first. Not because Darby, MacDonald, Schofield or even Ephraem the Syrian invented the doctrine after the fact.
But because the doctrine was already well-established in the first century by the Apostle Paul!
“For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.” (2 Timothy 4:3-4)
The first reference to a pre-Trib Rapture comes from the Bible. It is not a cunningly devised fable, but is a doctrine made known to us by eyewitnesses of His Majesty (2 Peter 1:16).
It wasn’t turned into a cunningly devised fable until after the great apostasia first kicked off at the end of the nineteenth century with the “Age of Enlightenment.”
The Great Apostasia is Part One and it is pretty much fully developed. As for Part Two, the revelation of the antichrist, well, THAT looks like it’s fulfillment is just around the corner. And according to the Apostle Paul, we won’t be here for Part Two.
“Wherefore, comfort one another with these words.” (1 Thessalonians 4:18)