Predicting the Rapture? (2 Thessalonians 2:1)

In 2 Thessalonians 2 Paul addresses a misunderstanding about the return of the Lord and “our gathering” to him (2:1). The church is unsettled and alarmed over a report appearing to come from Paul himself claiming the Day of the Lord had already happened. It is possible this rumor refers to Caligula’s order to erect an image of himself in the Temple in Jerusalem, but this is not at all certain.

Simpsons Rapture

Whatever the case, their concern is no small thing. To be unsettled is the verb σαλεύω and is often used literally to described an earthquake or the movement of the sea. Here it is figurative for the disturbance that the Thessalonians are experiencing. They are not only shaken but also “alarmed” (θροέω).  This is rare word in biblical literature, although in classical Greek it has connotation of being frightened or “crying out in surprise. The only place the word appears in the New Testament is in the Olivet Discourse (Matt 24:6/Mark 13:7).  In a very similar context to 2 Thessalonians, Jesus warns the disciples not to be alarmed by “wars and rumors of wars” or other alleged “signs” the end is near.

The word for the coming of the Lord is παρουσία, the most common word for the return of Christ. The noun simply means “presence” or “arrival” and is used in a variety of ways. It can refer to the arrival of a human (Paul in 2 Cor 7:6), but it is also used for the visit of a person of high ranking, such as a king (3 Macc 3:17). This use usually included flattery, tributes, delicacies, transportation, and gifts of golden wreaths or money. If a god was active in history helping a human that presence of the god is called a παρουσία. Josephus uses the word to describe God’s presence in helping Israel (Antiq. 3.80). The word is used often in connection with sacred events where the presence of a god is assumed.

Paul uses this word not only to refer to the presence of Jesus, but also of the Man of Lawlessness (the Anti-Christ and has his own anti-parousia). The word can be stretched to cover all of the events associated with the eschatological age, similar to the “day of the Lord” in the Hebrew Bible. The second word, “gathering” is ἐπισυναγωγή, is quite rare in the New Testament, used only here and in Hebrews 10:25 where it refers to the gathering together of believers for worship. It is likely Paul is referring to the Rapture, using similar terminology to 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.

There are a number of Old Testament passages that teach that Israel will be re-gathered prior to the Messianic kingdom. For example, in Isa 43:4-7 God gathers the children of Zion from the east, west, north, and south, a clear reference to Jews living in the Diaspora. When the eschatological age begins, God will gather his elect (the chosen) from the four winds and bring them back to Zion. (Compare this to LXX Isa 52:12, God is the “gatherer of Israel.” See also Isa 56:8; Jer 31:8. Ezek 20:34; 34:16, Ps 106:47.)

This noun is used in the Second Temple Period for the gathering of Israel at the beginning of the eschatological age. In 2 Macc 2:7 the secret place where the Ark is hidden will not be revealed until “God gathers his people again” (using the verb συνάγω and the noun ἐπισυναγωγή). The word also appears in T.Naph 8:3 where it describes the gathering of the righteous out of the nations at the beginning of the eschatological age. Similarly, T.Ash 7:7 the Lord will gather Israel on account of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Homer RaptureThe idea of Israel being re-gathered is the point of Jesus’ words in Matt 23:37 / Luke 13:34. Jesus contrasts God’s desire to gather Israel together under his wings with their rejection of him as the Messiah. A bit later in the Gospels Jesus uses the noun to describe the gather of the elect from the four winds when Messiah judges the world (Matt 24:31). In fact, in Matthew there is a loud trumpet call that draws the elect from the four corners of the world. The parallel is not precise, however, since Jesus is referring to the gathering of Jews in dispersion together just prior to the establishment of the kingdom. Paul is addressing a Gentile congregation

It is better, therefore, to see Paul’s use of the word as an extension of the Jewish idea of a gathering together prior to the coming of Messiah. Prior to the Day of the Lord there will be a “gathering” (described more fully in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). Even though Paul’s description of this gathering is unique in Jewish literature, he is using apocalyptic imagery to describe the “end of the age.”

One application of this line of thinking should be to de-emphasize the tendency among (mostly conservative) Christians to predict the date of the Rapture or to claim that a given even fulfills prophecy, or to declare some world figure is the antichrist. Although there is an attraction to these sorts of religious conspiracy theories, both Jesus and Paul would say “do not be alarmed” at these non-signs of the end.

What Kind of Kingdom?

When N. T. Wright describes “Kingdom of God” in The Challenge of Jesus, he seems to be defending against two separate views he considers inadequate.  Frequently denies that Jewish expectations were looking for the “end of space and time,” which seems to mean “the end of the world.”  He has in mind here the distinctly American view of the end times found in traditional Dispensationalism (especially through Left Behind type fiction). Wright usually uses words like “lurid” to describe these apocalyptic fantasies. Essentially, most Dispensationalists have argued Jesus came to offer the kingdom promised in the Hebrew Bible to the Jewish people. Whether they know it or not, most Dispensationalists understand Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet and they understand the prophecies for a future kingdom more or less like many in the Second Temple period did.

rapture 1992


But Wright also wants to describe Jesus’ preaching of the Kingdom as fairly radical in a Second Temple Jewish context. This means he must avoid the rather bland descriptions of the Kingdom as simply “doing good” or “loving your neighbor” popular in liberal Christianity. For Wright, Jesus’ preaching of the Kingdom does refer to the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible, although how the prophecies are fulfilled are quite different than in pre-millennialism.

I think both sides have a cause to be annoyed at Wright’s characterization of their positions. For example, while Left Behind is one representation of Dispensational thinking, it is a fantasy story not a reasonable presentation of a theological position. To me, judging Dispensationalism by Left Behind is life judging Catholicism by the movie Dogma. This is a straw-man argument at best and an ad hominem argument at worst. Wright regularly points out people in the Second Temple period expected a “real kingdom in this world” not the end of the world. This is exactly what Dispensational writers have said about Jewish messianic hopes. It disappoints me that wild speculation in bad fiction is used to judge a theological system.

On the second front, Wright is correct to chastise protestant liberal interpretations of the Kingdom as “bland.” Most of these descriptions of the Kingdom are certainly not what Jesus meant. Nor would Jesus have been understood if he tried to present a Kingdom which was based on the “Golden Rule” alone. There are far too many political and social issues which have to be dismissed if Jesus was just telling us to be nice to each other. What is more, why kill someone who was encouraging us to love one another? What harm could Jesus have done if that was all he really taught? No, there is something more in the teaching of Jesus, something which was a challenge to the worldview of the people who heard him teach and watched him “act out” the Kingdom of God.

Wright is certainly correct when he states that Jesus was offering a critique of his contemporaries from within, “his summons was not to abandon Judaism and try something else, but to be the true, returned-from-exile people of the one true God” (Challenge of Jesus, 52). Jesus is presenting himself as the voice of Isaiah 40-55 – calling his people out of exile to meet their messiah and to enjoy a renewed relationship with their God.

A major question to be resolved is “did Jesus think he was going to come back after the ascension?” If he did, what did he image he would be doing “when the Son of Man comes in all his glory, and all his angels with him” (Matt 25:31)?  If Jesus intended apocalyptic elements in his preaching of the Kingdom of God at the end of his life, perhaps there were there when he appeared in Galilee, announcing that the Kingdom of God was near.

I think there is room at the exegetical table for pre-millennialists.

Top Five 1-2 Thessalonians Commentaries

Introduction.  There are less special problems when approaching the letters to the Thessalonians than with other Pauline letters. Authorship of 1 Thess is rarely doubted, although 2 Thess is sometimes thought to be written by later writer with a decidedly apocalyptic world view. Another issue which is usually covered in the introductions to these letters is the possibility that the order ought to be reversed. It is well known that the Pauline letters collection is not chronological, but according to size (longest to shortest). Since 2 Thess is shorter and far more apocalyptic, it has been suggested that the order has been reversed when the letters were collected into a “Pauline canon.”

Unfortunately many evangelicals who study 1-2 Thessalonians move too quickly 4:13-5:11. This section concerns eschatology and is the primary text for the Rapture the relationship of this event to the Second coming. There is far more in this letters than “end times” and there is nothing in them that will help predict the end of the world or anything like that. Twice Paul says his purpose is to comfort the church and to encourage them to comfort one another. I believe that these books teach a “Rapture” of some kind, but I would like to find another word for it to separate my belief from the weirdness popular today.

There are two other books which will be very helpful for students of 1-2 Thessalonians.  Karl Donfried and Johannes Beutler edited a collection of essays on methodological issues produced by the SNTS Thessalonian Correspondence Seminar, The Thessalonians Debate (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2000).  The main thrust of these essays is the current popularity of rhetorical analysis of Paul’s letters, a method which has been particularly fruitful for reading Thessalonians.  There are two articles in the collection by Frank Hughes, the scholar who should  be considered an early pioneer of this method.  Donfried’s Paul, Thessalonians, and Early Christianity (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2002) is collection of essays from a variety of sources (journals and festschrifts) written as early as 1974. This is a very useful book since it covers many of the historical and “background” issues commentaries often treat only briefly.

Abraham J. Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians (New Jersey: Doubleday, 2000). Malherbe’s commentary is a detailed exegetical commentary that takes seriously forms of ancient letter writing. He presents Paul as a model letter-writer who follows the standard forms of letter writing in the Greco-Roman world. He illustrates this throughout the commentary by citing other letters that have similar rhetorical style or vocabulary to 1 Thess. His knowledge of this literature is encyclopedic, yet it is not too distracting to the reader interested in Paul’s meaning these letters. This is true even in discussion the “rapture” in 1 Thess 4:17, where he illustrates the use of the word harpazo in non-biblical Greek by Cicero and Seneca. I find his comments on this apocalyptic section excellent, since he works very hard to show how the Rapture (whatever it is) was intended as a consolation for the church, not a scare-tactic to keep the behaving properly. This is a very readable expert-level commentary, with Greek appearing in transliteration.

Charles A. Wanamaker, 1 & 2 Thessalonians (NIGTC; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1996). This was a textbook for a class on Exegesis of Pauline Epistles when I was in seminary. Like Malherbe, Wanamaker makes full use of rhetoric studies to unpack Paul’s argument in the letters. He is guided by Malherbe’s earlier work on rhetoric, Malherbe’s commentary then interacts with Wanamaker’s. His seven page essay on the rhetorical analysis of the letters is a good introduction for those who are new to this approach to Paul’s letters. The body of the commentary is based on the Greek text with no transliteration and all citations are in-text. This is true for the NIGTC in general and makes for a challenging read. Like Malherbe there are numerous comparisons to other Greco-Roman letters, although Wanamaker does not quote them at length.

F. F. Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians (WBC; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982). It seems strange to say that this commentary is now thirty years old! Bruce is always worth reading, and this early entry in the Word series is an exceptional commentary on the Greek text of the Thessalonian letters. Bruce is an efficient exegete. He comments on the Greek text of these letters briefly yet there is always a depth of understanding. Since Bruce wrote before the explosion of rhetorical studies on Thessalonians, the commentary itself is not concerned with “forms” or style of argument. A particular highlight of this commentary is Bruce’s nine-page excursus on the Antichrist in the context of his commentary on 2 Thess 2:1-12.

Leon Morris, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Revised Edition (NICNT; Grand Rapids, Mich.: 1991); 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Revised Edition (Tyndale; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1984); 1 and 2 Thessalonians (Word Biblical Themes; Dallas: Word, 1989). I suppose this should count as cheating on my own rule of “only Five Commentaries,” but all three of these books are from Morris are worth reading. The Tyndale commentary is a revision of Morris’s 1956 commentary in the Tyndale series. Morris covers both books in a mere 152 pages, but does a good job highlighting what is important for reading and understanding the text of these letters. The commentary is based on the English text with Greek appearing in transliteration. The NICNT is also a revision of an earlier volume from the early 1960s. This is definitely the “first off the shelf” commentary. The newer commentary updates the bibliography and interacts with Ernest Best’s work on Thessalonians. The main body of the commentary is based on the English text, Greek and other details are in the notes. It is also worth seeking out Morris’s contribution to the Word Biblical Themes series written in 1989. This is little book is a biblical theology, drawing out several key themes of importance in the letters. I find his comments on the eschatology of 1-2 Thessalonians refreshing, and judging from the underlining in my copy of the book, I have stolen learned a great deal from Morris.

Greg Beale, 1-2 Thessalonians (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2003). This commentary is in the IVP New Testament Commentary series and is intended for pastors and teachers. The body of the commentary is based on the English, with occasional key Greek words appearing in transliteration. All citations are in-text; he interacts with a range of scholarship although it is weighted towards evangelical commentators. Beale treats more technical details in a footnote-like section at the bottom of the page. With respect to eschatology, Beale has a chart summarizing his belief that Paul is commenting on the Olivet Discourse (Matt 24) in his eschatological section (p. 137).

Conclusion. I cheated a bit on this one by including three by Morris and adding the Donfried books in the introduction.  But I did leave off a few very handy commentaries to at appear to obey my own rules – what did I miss?  Let me know what you have found useful in your preaching and teaching.

Index for the Top Five Commentary Series


Introduction to Series on Commentaries

On Using Commentaries 

Matthew        Mark        Luke        John        Acts
Romans        1 Corinthians         2 Corinthians
Galatians         Ephesians        Philippians        Colossians
1-2 Thessalonians        Pastoral Epistles         Philemon
Hebrews        James         1 Peter         2 Peter & Jude 
Letters of John         Revelation

Conclusion:  Last Thoughts on New Testament Commentaries

Who are the “Dead in Christ” in 1 Thessalonians 4:13?

1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 is well-know text, although there is no real consensus on what event it  describes.  For many, these verses describe the Rapture, the “catching away” of believers at some point in the future.  The event of the Rapture usually occurs before the Great Tribulation predicted by Daniel (Dan 9:24-27) and widely expected by many in Second Temple Period Judaism. For the record, I have strong belief in a future Rapture, balanced by a strong distaste for the silliness of most of the ideas associated with it in popular media and “pop-preaching.”

There are variations of these views which expect the Rapture during the Tribulation or near the end, or even simultaneous with the Return of Christ to establish his kingdom.  Others understand Paul as describing the future resurrection of believers at the Return of Christ, or perhaps a general description of new life in Christ.

A possible hint of the meaning of this event may be the fact that Paul is answering a question about the “dead in Christ.”  The standard explanation of the “dead in Christ” is that after Paul’s time in Thessalonica, some members of the church have died.  The members of the church are concerned because these people did not last until the end of the age and the wonder if they will participate in the Rapture.  Paul evidently had time to teach the congregation some elements of the future plan of God, but because of his short time with the church that part of his training was incomplete, leading to these sorts of questions.

I have always wondered just how many members of the congregation might have died in the relatively short time after Acts 17 and the writing of the letter.  Since it is only a matter of months, I always assumed that only one or two had died, perhaps an elderly member of the congregation.  While that was enough to concern those who loved those who died, the death of an elderly person would not be unusual or unexpected.  I cannot imagine Paul teaching his new converts they actually had to live until the return of Jesus to participate in the resurrection!

An alternative to the standard view described here was suggested by F. F. Bruce.  He thought that it was at least possible that the“dead in Christ” were actually members of the Thessalonian Church who have died as a result of persecution.  Bruce made this suggestion in his 1951 Commentary on Acts (pg. 327-8), but not on his more recent commentary on Thessalonians.  Karl P. Donfried picks up the suggestion in a 1985 essay and argues that it is at least plausible that the dead are in fact the victims of persecution against the church from the civil authorities.  This helps explain the untimely deaths of several people in the small congregation.  They ran afoul of the Thessalonican authorities who were sensitive to potential threats against Rome.  (See this post for details on this background.)

Taking Bruce’s suggestion as a starting point, it is possible that Paul taught the new Christians to expect persecution, and it is also likely that he taught them to endure that persecution as both He and Jesus had endured it.  The congregation did suffer, and some died as a result of this persecution.  Does this mean that they have a lesser place in the coming resurrection / Rapture?  Not at all, Paul says, they will in fact “rise first.”  There is no need to worry that those who do not endure to the end miss the resurrection, in fact, those who die for the sake of Christ will be raised first.

If the dead in mind in 1 Thess 4 have died as a result of persecution, then their eventual resurrection is analogous with Dan 12:1-3 or Rev 20:4-6.  In each case the “dead” are those who have been killed as martyrs.  Paul may be assuring his congregation that “enduring persecution” includes giving one’s life (2 Tim 2:11-12).  This spins the point of the rapture in a different direction than is usually present in most popular preaching.  Those who are enjoy the Rapture gave their lives in some persecution.  They did not die as elderly, wealthy, contented Christians, hoping God snatches them out of this world of woe.  I do not deny that the Rapture includes all true believers, but it may very well be an encouragement to suffer, suffer well, and even to suffer unto death.

Bibliography: K. P. Donfried, “The Cults of Thessalonica and the Thessalonian Correspondence,” NTS 31 (1985):  336-56.  Reprinted in Paul, Thessalonians and Early Christianity (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2002).

The Parable of the Thief in the Night – Matthew 24:42-44

After is conflict in the Temple, Jesus goes to the Mount of Olives and answers some questions about the end of the age.  Over the next few posts I will make some comments on the parables in Matthew 24-25, hopefully setting them more clearly in the world of the Second Temple.

This parable is often mis-applied to the Rapture of the church.  Likely as not this is a result of the use of verses 40-41 in the popular and oft-covered “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” by Larry Norman.  Two people are working in a field, one gets raptured and the other is left behind to the horrors of the Tribulation.  To my shame, I have played that song a hundred times and used it to illustrate the rapture. Sadly, Larry got this one mixed up.  Not that I am anti Larry Norman, nor am I anti-rapture, but this sort of muddled thinking about the Thief in the Night metaphor was popular in the late 1960’s, and it clearly is alive and well today.

This parable is consistent with the rest of Jesus’ parables of judgment.  Jesus is talking about the harvest of the day of the Lord, when people will be separated into the prepared and unprepared, the righteous and the wicked, those who are “in the kingdom” and “those who are not in the Kingdom.”

Jesus begins this short parable with two commands are in this paragraph: Watch and be ready.  The reason is that there is no one who knows when the Son of Man will come in judgment.  This is obvious from 24:36-38.  No one in the days of Noah knew the judgment of the flood was coming until the flood came.  They lived normal lives oblivious to the coming judgment.  The image of the “days of Noah” does not mean that the world will be wicked before the return of the Lord, but rather that people will be totally unaware of the coming judgment.  Noah was ready, he knew the judgment was coming and he prepared for it.  The rest of the world was unaware until it was too late.

The parable of the thief in the night makes this clear.  If the owner of the house knows a thief is coming, he stays awake to catch him (probably prepared with a weapon to defend his property!)  An unusual element of this mini-parable is that Jesus is represented by the Thief.  It is the thief that is coming suddenly and without warning, but the householder knows that he is coming sometime in the night so he is prepared.  The person who is unaware the thief is coming goes to be and is robbed.

Notice the householder is “awake” – a regular metaphor for spiritual alertness.  Those who will be “in the kingdom” are spiritual awake and alert, aware that the judgment is near.  The opposite of this would be people who are asleep, dreaming that they are awake.  My guess that in any American church of significant size, there are a good many people who are asleep, spiritually, dreaming that they are right with God and ready to meet the Son of Man.  Like an unprepared householder, they are in for a surprise on that glorious day!