Does Paul Teach a “Pre-Tribulation Rapture” in His Epistles? (Part 1/2)

With movies like Thief in the Night (1972), Distant Thunder (1978), Image of the Beast (1981), The Prodigal Planet (1983) or the more recent Left Behind: The Movie (2005) series, as well as the many books written about the Lord’s return, they have presented a scenario to readers in which there are two comings of the Lord: one secret coming, called “the Rapture,” and one public coming, called “the Second Coming.”  However, even though this idea that there are “two comings” is popular within the church today, it actually only goes back to the thirteenth century, A.D., and those who embrace this teaching use biblical references, like I Thessalonians 4-5, to support their teaching.  Therefore, my question, and hopefully yours as well, is whether or not the context of this passage actually supports their derived interpretation?

WHAT IS “CONTEXT”?

The term “context” refers to that which goes along with the text that we are examining.  The immediate context would refer to those words, phrases and sentences which come immediately before and after the text that we are examining.  However, there are other contexts that we often have to keep in mind as well, such as the historical context (What was going on in history at that time?).

WHAT WAS THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT?

The believers in Jesus, Jews and non-Jews alike, were being persecuted by Rome.  As a result, there were many believers who were concerned that if they were to die as martyrs before the Lord returned to set up His Kingdom that they would miss out on His millennial reign.  Therefore, Paul wrote this passage to comfort them that they would not miss out on it.

Understanding this, we can better understand the focus of the passage, which is on the resurrection of the dead.   He writes,

But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that you sorrow not, even as others which have no hope.  For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which asleep 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 them which are asleep.  (I Thessalonians 4:13-15)

As we can see, Paul is comparing the Lord’s own bodily resurrection with the resurrection that those believers who died being faithful to Him will experience at His return.  However, in contrast to this, there are ministers, Bible teachers, and TV evangelists who are teaching that “the rapture” and “the resurrection of the dead” are two different events, but this violates the clear context of what Paul is saying here.   By his comparison, Paul is clearly identifying the event he’s about to describe as “the resurrection of the dead,” and not as a separate event.

THE SECOND COMING & RESURRECTION OF THE DEAD

Then Paul writes the following:

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.  Wherefore comfort one another with these words.  (I Thessalonians 4:16-18)

Obviously, as we can see, this event happens at the time of the Lord’s return.  So in his description here, we see that “the dead in Christ” will rise first, and then “we which are alive and REMAIN shall be together” with those believers “in the clouds to the meet the Lord in the air.”  This word “remain” here is important because the believers at this time are being tortured and martyred for their faith.  They are undergoing tribulation in their lives. So the context of this verse written by Paul is one of suffering and martyrdom, not one in which God is promising an escape from suffering and martyrdom, as taught by the “pre-trib preachers.”  Therefore, this is NOT a promise to keep the people in Thessalonica from experiencing tribulation and martyrdom because they are already experiencing it.  Therefore, to use this verse to say that God is promising to keep us from the persecution and suffering of the 7-year tribulation period is to take this passage out of context.

SO WHAT IS THE “BLESSED HOPE”?

So what is the “blessed hope,” and what is the promise given that we are to “comfort one another with these words”?  Is it the comfort that we will be resurrected before the tribulation and our martyrdom?  No, because that would violate the historical and textual context of the passage.  These believers are already undergoing martyrdom, they are already in tribulation, so how could that be the “blessed hope” or the promise?  Instead, the promise, or the “blessed hope,” is that “the dead in Christ [Messiah]” will not miss out on the coming Millennial reign of Messiah. They will be there, and they will experience it.  That is the promise or “blessed hope” we see Paul giving here.  This is the promise we are to comfort one another with, even today.

It is important to remember when interpreting any text, including the Bible, that it CANNOT mean anything differently today than it did when it was written.  And clearly to impose a “Pre-Tribulation Rapture” scenario on this passage is a clear violation of this basic principle.

THE LORD’S RETURN & THE RESURRECTION = “THE DAY OF THE LORD”?

An interesting thing about those who teach a “Pre-Tribulation Rapture” is that they don’t continue reading into chapter 5 of I Thessalonians.  For in the very next two verses after the alleged “Pre-Tribulation Rapture” passage, Paul writes,

But of the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I write unto you.  For yourselves know perfectly that THE DAY OF THE LORD so comes as A THIEF IN THE NIGHT.  (I Thessalonians 5:1-2; Emphasis Mine)

By stating this, Paul is saying here that “of the times and the seasons” in which the Lord will return and the resurrection of the dead will happen, he does not need to teach them anymore about that because they know perfectly well that “THE DAY OF THE LORD” will come as “A THIEF IN THE NIGHT.”  Paul here is identifying the Lord’s return and the resurrection of the dead believers, as well as the catching up of the true believers who are still alive during this time of persecution and tribulation, to be “THE DAY OF THE LORD.”

The term “THE DAY OF THE LORD” is very specific in the Bible, and it is used to designate a time when God’s judgment is poured out on people who are living in disobedience and rebellion to Him and to His commandments.  And Paul says that this time of judgment will catch people unprepared, like “a thief in the night.”  He then writes,

For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then SUDDEN DESTRUCTION comes upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and THEY SHALL NOT ESCAPE. (I Thessalonians 5:3; Emphasis Mine)

This time of judgment is going to catch the majority of the world unprepared.  They won’t see it coming, nor will they be ready for it.  Instead, the destruction will be sudden, and they shall NOT escape.  This also goes along with what Yeshua (Jesus) teaches about the day of His return as well.

And as it was in the days of Noah, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man.  They did eat, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, and the flood came, and destroyed them all. (Luke 17:26-27)

Notice that like Paul describes, the flood in the days of Noah caught people totally unprepared.  They were living their life the same as any other day, until the flood came, but by the time they realized what was happening, it was too late, and they were all destroyed.  The same thing happened in the days of Lot with Sodom and Gomorrah.

Likewise also as it was in the days of Lot; they did eat, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they builded; but the same day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven, and destroyed them all.  Even thus shall it be in the day when the Son of man is revealed [i.e., He returns]. (Luke 17: 28-30)

Again, we see the same thing:  the people of these two cities were living their life completely oblivious to the judgment that was coming until it was too late, and then they were all destroyed.

“THE DAY OF THE LORD” – A DAY OF NO ESCAPE?

As we can see, in every example that Yeshua (Jesus) gave, as well as in Paul’s statement, there is no opportunity for anyone to get saved once the flood happens or the fire and brimstone fell from heaven.  So the question I have is if “the rapture” (i.e., the resurrection of the dead) happens before the seven year tribulation or even in the middle of it, then there’s time for people to get saved after it happens, but this violates the clear pattern here.

But what will happen on that day?  In the following Old Testament Scriptures, it provides us with a fuller sense of what events will happen on that day.

THE LORD RETURNS FIRST GOES JORDAN

In Isaiah 63, we find the following prophecy:

Who is this that comes from Edom (now Jordan), with dyed garments from Bozrah? This that is glorious in His apparel, traveling in the greatness of His strength?  I that speak in righteousness, mighty to save.  Wherefore are You red in your apparel, and Your garments like him that treads the winefat? I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with Me; for I will tread them in Mine anger, and trample them in My fury; and their blood shall be SPRINKLED upon My garments, and I will stain ALL of My raiment. For the day of vengeance is in Mine heart, and the year of My redeemed is come. And I looked, and there was none to help; and I wondered that there was none to uphold: therefore Mine own arm brought salvation to Me; and My fury, it upheld Me. And I will tread down the people in Mine anger, and make them drunk in My fury, and I will bring down their strength to the earth. (Isaiah 63:1-6)

We know that this prophecy is about Yeshua (Jesus), because He is “glorious in His apparel,” He speaks “in righteousness” and is “mighty to save.”  But in the Second Coming, Jesus is coming to bring the wrath of God and judgment against the nations.  He’s not coming back as “the Lamb of God,” but as “the Lion of the Tribe of Judah.”  He’s coming back as a Mighty Warrior, who is going to kill many of Israel’s enemies in battle.

It is believed that after the Anti-Christ and his forces attack Jerusalem, that there will be many people who will escape to Jordan, specifically to Petra.  And then some of the military will pursue them, and as they are attempting to attack the people there, Yeshua (Jesus) will return and defeat the military forces coming against His people, Israel, who are there in hiding.

But we also see, in the passage above, the word translated as “SPRINKLED” in the King James is the Hebrew word Nazah [H5137], which means “to spurt, to gush, to squirt, to spatter.” So as Yeshua (Jesus) is doing battle with these military forces, beginning in Bozrah in Jordan and making His way back towards Jerusalem, their blood is going to “spurt, gush, squirt, and spatter” all over His clothes until He “will stain ALL of My raiment.”

HE WILL THEN RETURN TO HEAVEN TO GET US TO JOIN HIM IN THE BATTLE

Then at some point in His movement towards Jerusalem, He will return to heaven, get us and then lead the way back into battle.  And it is at this point in the battle that the Apostle John prophetically sees Him:

And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and He that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He does make war.  His eyes were a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns; and He had a name written, that no man knew, but He Himself. And He was clothed with a vesture DIPPED in blood: and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies which were in heaven followed Him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean. And out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should smite the nations: and He shall rule them with a rod of iron: and He treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. And He has on His vesture and on His thigh a name written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS. (Revelation 19:11-16; Emphasis Mine)

In this passage in Revelation, the word translated as “dipped” is the Greek word bapto [G911], which means “to immerse” or “to dye by dipping.”  After doing battle in Bozrah and then heading back to Jerusalem, He then returns to heaven, gets us, and as John saw, His clothes were covered in blood, and when we put Isaiah 63 with Revelation 19 together, we can see the actual order of events and understand where the blood came from.

And then after coming to get us, He then leads the armies of heaven and us into battle.  In the last chapter from the book of Isaiah, we gain another perspective of this same event:

For behold, the LORD will come in fire and His chariots like the whirlwind, to render His anger with fury, and His rebuke with flames of fire. For the LORD will execute judgment by fire and by His sword on all flesh, and those slain by the LORD will be many. Those who sanctify and purify themselves to go to the gardens, following one in the center, who eat swine’s flesh, detestable things, and
mice, shall come to an end altogether,” declares the LORD.  (Isaiah 66:15-17)

So not only will the LORD be coming with some of His armies on white horses, but others, apparently, will be coming riding in flaming chariots, much like the one that took Elijah into heaven. And just as we described in the earlier Isaiah 63 passage, Yeshua (Jesus) will be coming to “execute judgment by fire and by His sword on all flesh,” and we are told here that “those slain by the LORD will be many.”

Our Warrior-King is coming! And what I found interesting is how God describes who will be slain here by them going “to the gardens, following one in the center,” which may have reference to some pagan or idol worship, but also by what things they eat: “swine’s flesh, detestable things, and mice,” all things forbidden by God in His commandments.

THE FINAL BATTLE WILL BE AROUND JERUSALEM

And this final battle will be there in and around Jerusalem. And just like in the day that Joshua son of Nun fought and the sun remained in its position until the battle was completed (Joshua 10:7:12-14), so the sun will do so again with our New Testament “Joshua” (”Jesus” is the Greek form of “Joshua”), for as we read in the last chapter of the book of Zechariah:

Then shall the LORD go forth, and fight against those nations, as when He fought in the day of battle. And His feet shall shall stand in that day upon the Mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall cleave (or split) in the midst thereof toward the east and toward the west, and there shall be a very great valley; and half of the mountain shall remove to the north, and half of it toward the south.  And you shall flee to the valley of the mountains; for the valley of the mountains shall reach unto Azal: yes, you shall flee, like as you fled from before the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah: and the LORD my God shall come, and all the saints with You. And it shall come to pass in that day, that the light shall not be clear, nor dark: but it shall be one day which shall be known to the LORD, nor day, nor night; but it shall come to pass, that at evening time it shall be light…and the LORD shall be KING over all the earth: in that day shall there be ONE LORD, and His name ONE. (Zechariah 14:3-7, 9; Emphasis Mine)

ARE WE PREPARING FOR OUR COMING WARRIOR-KING?

Are we ready for our coming Warrior-King, for this coming war, and for His Kingdom which shall be established for one thousand years afterwards? And after this war, when the Lord will set up and establish His Kingdom here on earth, we are told that –

from one new moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, shall ALL FLESH come to worship before Me, says the LORD. (Isaiah 66:23).

Notice that God does not say here, “All Israel,” or “All Jews,” but “All Flesh,” so this means both Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews) will be required to do this.  Also, in Zechariah 14, “all the families of the earth” will be required to come up to “Jerusalem to worship the King, the LORD of Hosts” during the Feast of Tabernacles, and any families that do not do this will be punished with drought or no rain (Zechariah 14:16-21).

Are we talking about this? Are we preparing for it? Are we learning what’s involved in this? It doesn’t seem like the dominant American church is taking any part of this seriously, but instead we are ignoring it all, and just going around like the Lord’s return isn’t for a long time yet, and not just around the corner,  and we’re just on with “business as usual.”   Clearly, we are not taking God or His Word very seriously.

BUT FOR THOSE OF US WHO ARE PREPARING AND WATCHING –

However, for those of us who are watching and paying attention, and striving to faithfully serve the Lord in our lives, the Lord’s return will not catch us unprepared, like “a thief in the night,” but instead, he says,

But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day should overtake you as a thief.  You are all the children of light, and the children of 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.  For they that sleep sleep in the night; and they that are drunken are drunken in the night. (I Thessalonians 5:4-7)

Here Paul, like Yeshua (Jesus) had done earlier (Matthew 24:44), he tells us to “keep watch” of the signs of the Lord’s return, and we are to “be sober,” and not drunken with wine or anything else that the world has to offer us to dull our spiritual senses.

But let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for a helmet, the hope of salvation.  But God has 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 you do.  (I Thessalonians 5:8-11)

And part of what we need to do to “keep watch and be sober” is to put on our “breastplate of faith and love,” and to put on our heads, “a helmet, the hope of salvation.”

WHAT DOES PAUL MEAN HERE BY “WRATH”?

However, Paul says, “God has not appointed us to wrath.”  Those who endorse a Pre-Tribulation rapture try to connect the word “wrath” here with the tribulation period by reading selections like the following:

And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains; and said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that [continue to] sits on the throne, and from the WRATH of the Lamb: For the great day of his WRATH is come; and who shall be able to stand? (Revelation 6:15-17)

Therefore, they argue, if God’s “wrath” is being poured out during the seven-year tribulation period, and Paul says, “God has not appointed us to wrath,” then the believer has to be removed before the beginning of the tribulation period, and therefore, a “Pre-Tribulation Rapture.”  The problem with this interpretation of this verse is that beyond the use of the word “wrath,” there is nothing in the context of I Thessalonians 5 to connect Paul’s discussion here with the Tribulation period described in the book of Revelation.  And one shared word is not enough textual evidence to logically derive the meaning given to in I Thessalonians 5:9-10 by the Pre-Tribulation teachers and supporters.

LET’S PUT THE WORD BACK INTO CONTEXT

However, to truly understand the intent of Paul’s statement in this statement, let’s look at the whole passage:

But God has 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. (I Thessalonians 5:9-10)

With the clause “whether we wake or sleep,” Paul is indicating that he is still discussing the Lord’s return and the resurrection of the dead; he has not changed topics to discuss another event called “the 7-year Tribulation.”  Also, in this same passage, the word “wrath” and “salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ” are set up as opposites.

Therefore, if “salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ,” as Paul states, results in us living “together with Him,” then the “wrath” being spoken here would result in the opposite effect, “separation from Him,” or what is popularly known as “Hell,” or the ultimate separation being “the Lake of Fire and Brimstone.”  However, there’s no indication here that the word “wrath” makes any reference to the 7-year Tribulation, except if one purposely imposes that meaning onto the text.

CONCLUSION

Consequently, then, there is no textual evidence in I Thessalonians 4:13-5:11 to indicate a secret Pre- or even Mid-Tribulation “rapture,” as opposed to the public Second Coming which Yeshua (Jesus) and His disciples repeatedly taught throughout the New Testament.  The dominant American church would be doing people a greater service by teaching people how to prepare for the coming persecution during the tribulation period.  This way, if they are prepared for persecution during the tribulation, and the Lord comes before or in the middle of the tribulation, then great, but if He doesn’t return then, which is what, I believe, the evidence indicates, then people will be prepared for what is ahead.  But oftentimes, people who believe that they will not be here for the tribulation, or will face persecution, are not taking the time to prepare for those things at all, and if I am right, then they will be caught totally off-guard and unprepared for what they will need to face.

Therefore, I believe the use of this portion of Scripture to support such a teaching as a “secret rapture” or “secret coming of the Lord” is clearly based on individuals taking things out of context and imposing their own meanings into the text.  This is a violation of several of the rules of how any text, including the Bible, should be handled and interpreted.

In part 2 of this study, I want to examine 2 Thessalonians 2, and not only examine what more Paul has to tell us regarding “the Day of the Lord,” but also what advice he gives us on how we should stand in that day.

 

 

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