The Day of the Lord
In a final note on our mini introduction, we look at the phrase The Day of the Lord and at some familiar but confusing passages from Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians.
13Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. 14We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18Therefore encourage each other with these words. (1 Th 4: 13:18)
It is beyond dispute that this passage refers to the Second Coming and the rapture. It speaks of the coming of the Lord, not the day of the Lord. It also answers the concern as to the fate of those that have already died. There is some issue of “tense” in verse 14, but I believe it means that those who have died are already in heaven, just not with a resurrected body. Others believe they are sleeping until the bodily resurrection. No matter, they are/will be with Christ (if they were saved by faith). If we look at another passage:
We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. (2 Cor. 5:8)
We see that Paul seems to teach that there is a way to be with the Lord while without a body, which argues that the dead saints are not sleeping but in heaven. For at the end of the age, all the saints will have resurrected bodies, and so if the dead saints are presently "sleeping" until the final judgment, that would imply at no time would they be "away from the body and at home with the Lord."
That is a secondary issue. Most importantly, there is not much contention among the different eschatologies (except for full preterism, which we are not addressing) that Paul is writing in 1 Th. 4 of the Second Coming. When we look into the next chapter of 1 Thessalonians, things get dicey.
1Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, 2for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3While people are saying, "Peace and safety," destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. 4But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. (1 Th. 5:1-4)
This is tough. The common evangelical interpretation is that the rapture (with or without the visible Second Coming) comes like a thief in the night, that is, without warning. That may be a correct interpretation. It is a natural one in the sense that everyone agrees 1 Th. 4 is about the Second Coming, so it is reasonable to assume that 1 Th. 5 is speaking of the same event.
But maybe not. There are some issues. They are:
- Paul writes of the day of the Lord coming like a thief in the night. Is the day of the Lord synonymous with the Second Coming? Hold that thought for now.
- Dispensational Premillennialists who interpret this as speaking of the rapture, also argue that the signs of the times (especially the establishment of Israel) indicate the end is near. How can pinpointing Christ’s return to this generation be consistent with "a thief in the night" metaphor?
- Is Paul misleading them (because he erroneously believes the Second Coming is imminent)? He writes “this day should [not] surprise you like a thief.” He did not write: "Should it occur in our lifetime, and I don’t know that it will, it should not surprise you." His writing seems to go beyond hoping for the event to prophetic certainty.
The key to this is in the meaning of the day of the Lord.
Let us now turn to 2 Thessalonians:
1Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers, 2not 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. 3Don'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. 4He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God's temple, proclaiming himself to be God. 5Don't you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things? 6And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. 7For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. 8And 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. 9The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, 10and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. 11For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie 12and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness. (2 Th. 2: 1-12).
I would suggest that there are two self consistent exegeses:
If 1 Th. 4 and 5 refer to the Second Coming, and 1 Th. 5 uses the phrase day of the Lord, then it would seem that 2 Th. 2 also refers to the second Coming. This is the common evangelical position.
Alternatively, if 1 Th. 4 refers to the Second Coming, and 1 Th. 5 refers to something else, then 2 Th. 2 would also refer to that something else, the so called day of the Lord.
So in the first view, 2 Th. 2 also refers to the Second Coming. Mathison points out but a few of the problems with this interpretation. I will paraphrase his points:146
- If is referring to the Second Coming, how could the Thessalonians be worried that it had already occurred, given that Paul taught them in 1 Thessalonians that it was associated with the rapture and resurrection? Did they think that everyone in their community was “left behind?” Did they think Paul himself was left behind? Or were they thinking of some other event, and wondering if it had occurred (as had apparently been reported in a counterfeit epistle.)
- If Paul is trying to reassure them that the Second Coming has not yet occurred, why would he do so by telling them “the man of lawlessness has not been revealed and is being held back?” Such a scenario is not consistent with any view of what the earth would be like had the Second Coming occurred. Would he not appeal to more obvious rebuttals, such as: hey I’m still here, and all of you are still here, let’s get real people.
- All of this passage refers to something that has not yet happened, but is categorically about to happen. It is not hoped that it will happen, as in we hope Christ returns today, but Paul is talking about something that definitely will happen soon. So it is hard to imagine he is speaking of the Second Coming, unless once again we assume he mislead the Thessalonians. He spoke of the man of lawlessness (a man, not Satan) who was being restrained now, and about the power already at work.
The second view suffers none of these problems. It does have the following presupposition:
In the first epistle, Paul is answering two concerns from the Thessalonians. The first is what will happen to those who have already died? This is answered in 1 Th. 4. The second concern is: When is the day of the Lord? This unspecified event is addressed in 1 Th. 5 and later in 2 Th. 2, when there is another question raised, one of a false report that it had already occurred.
For preterists, the answer seems obvious (although that doesn't make it right.) The day of the Lord refers to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70., an event we discussed last time. This is an event that is underestimated in terms of its awfulness, it significance, and its role in redemptive history. The man of lawlessness (he doesn’t have to be identified as the antichrist, although he might be, if there is such a man) who was already alive at the time would then be Caesar Nero.
Note that this view, which brings coherency to these passages from 1st and 2nd Thessalonians, is also consistent with other occurrences of the phrase day of the Lord which clearly are associated with God's wrath. (Is. 2:12, 13:6, 13:9; Jer. 46:10; Ezek. 13:5, 30:3; Joel 1:15, 2:1; 2:11, 2:31; Amos 5:18, 520; Ob 1:15; Zeph. 1:7, 1:14; Zech 14:1; Mal. 4:5; Acts 2:20) It is something we should dread, not something, like the Second Coming, that we should look forward to.
Tomorrow we will look at the dating of Revelation.
146 Mathison, Postmillennialism, pp.228-233.