“Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him…. Don’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…. whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming” (2 Thessalonians 1-8, NIV).
Around 50 AD the Apostle Paul conducted his second missionary journey, traveling through Macedonia which is modern-day Greece. Due to some troubles caused by local Thessalonian citizens, Paul was forced to escape from the city of Thessalonica under the cover of night.
Paul moved on to Athens and then Corinth where he remained for about a year and a half. While at Corinth and possibly due to his abbreviated visit to Thessalonica, Paul wrote two letters to the church at Thessalonica. Included in these two letters were descriptions about the Second Coming of Christ and the fate of those who die before Christ’s return.
In his first letter to the Thessalonians Paul explained that the dead in Christ (those who die before the Second Coming) are not forgotten by God when they die. Paul said that when Christ comes to gather his people, the dead in Christ AND those who are alive shall be caught away–or raptured–to meet the Lord in the air (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).
Apparently some had twisted Paul’s teaching about the Rapture to mean hat “the day of the Lord” had already come. Perhaps, because of their severe persecution and this false teaching the Thessalonians believed they had missed the Rapture and had entered into the time of God’s wrath and judgment, the time we now call the Tribulation or Great Tribulation (from Revelation 7:14 and spoken of by Jesus in Matthew 24:21, 29).
In 1 Thessalonians Paul was certain that the day and time of the coming apocalypse was inconsequential for the Thessalonians to know (vs. 5:1-2). But, because of the false teaching it was incumbent upon Paul to provide some clarity about “the day of the Lord.”
In these verses Paul assured the Thessalonians that none of this apocalyptic palaver about missing the Rapture was so because certain events on Earth must precede the Second Coming of Christ–specifically, a great falling away or rebellion against God and the revealing of the man of lawlessness, whom we now call the Antichrist. Furthermore, these events could only happen once what was restraining this uprising of inimitable evil on Earth was taken out of the way (vs. 7).
When Paul’s eschatological descriptions from 1 Thessalonians and 2 Thessalonians are considered together, it’s clear that the main event is the Rapture. He adds that the restraining work of God through the “Church” by the presence of the Holy Spirit dwelling among God’s people will cease at some point, which will allow the Antichrist to rise to power and mount world domination for a period of time. Ultimately, Jesus returns in great power and glory to overthrow this great evil and set up His earthly kingdom.
Now, whether the Rapture is a separate event from the Second Coming and when the Rapture takes place–before the Tribulation, after the Tribulation or in the middle of the Tribulation–are matters open to modern theological debate. Nevertheless, at the end of time Christ will return to gather His people and this gathering will come unexpectedly and will be preceded or accompanied by a time of great tribulation in a final effort by God to redeem lost souls.
Regardless of how these end-time events unfold, the essential message of Paul’s eschatology is clear. Christians should endure the difficulties of this present world as though it will be a long time before Jesus returns but live with the hope and expectancy that He could return at any time.
He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. (Revelation 22:20, NIV)