Questions about the Second Coming

Posted: March 14, 2016 in 2 Thessalonians, Route 66, Uncategorized

Route 66: 2 Thessalonians, “Questions about the Second Coming”

Have you ever gotten confused about the end times?  Have you heard preachers say “We’re living in the last days” so often that you’ve wondered if anyone really knows what the last days are?  You’re not alone.  Christians have had questions about the return of Christ from (literally) the last moments prior to Jesus’ ascent to heaven (Acts 1:6).

The questions are natural, and obviously no one can promise ­all of the answers.  When speaking to the disciples about the end times, even Jesus said that not even He knew the precise moment of His return (Mk 13:32).  But that’s not to say there aren’t any answers to the questions we have.  The Bible does provide answers, and it gives us some specific signs for which to watch in regards to the end.  Paul apparently made a habit of teaching eschatology (end times theology) to the churches he planted.  He gave some answers in his first letter to the Thessalonians, and he cleared up some confusion while giving more answers in his second.

BACKGROUND:
The author is, of course, Paul.  More precisely, the author(s) are exactly the same as they were in the 1st letter to the Thessalonians: Paul, Silvanus (Silas), and Timothy.  The first person plural is used throughout the letter, although Paul personally signs off in his own handwriting at the end (3:17).  All in all, it’s most likely his voice throughout, with him writing on behalf of the other two men with him.

Paul’s authorship was accepted extremely early within the church, and the Fathers referred to him numerous times in regards to 2 Thessalonians.  That said, his authorship has come under question in the last 100 years or so – but the objections are nonsense.  In the views of critics, 1-2 Thessalonians are simultaneously far too similar and far too different to have the same author.  They are extremely similar in wording (almost mirrors of each other at some points); they are dissimilar in teaching.  The complaint is that the eschatology of the two letters seem to contradict one another, and that the (supposedly) unknown author of 2 Thessalonians used the eschatology of Revelation, but the outline and wording of 1 Thessalonians as a guide for writing.

With all due respect, the objections are downright silly. (1) If 1-2 Thessalonians were indeed written by the same author only months apart, then it is only natural to expect certain things (introductions, greetings, etc.) to sound exactly the same. (2) When reading the body of 2 Thessalonians, it was plainly written to clear up some confusion, so the development in eschatology is not contradictory at all…it’s expected.  (3) The parallels with Revelation are no problem, even though Revelation is written over 40 years later.  The same Holy Spirit who inspired 2 Thessalonians inspired Revelation.  Besides, some of these same things were mentioned by Jesus in His Olivet Discourse, so there’s not even a human need to wait until Revelation was written.  (4) The weight of tradition is extraordinarily heavy.  Pauline authorship was virtually unquestioned for 1900 years.  Seemingly the only reason to question it now is if a critic disagrees with the conclusion that Pauline authorship of 2 Thessalonians provides – most likely in regards to how well it fits in with a Pre-Tribulational view of the rapture of the church.

In any case, we will accept that Paul is the actual, historical author of 2 Thessalonians, and he wrote (via dictation using an amanuensis/scribe) on behalf of Silas, Timothy, and himself. J

As to when he wrote it, it seems to be an obvious follow up to the letter known as 1 Thessalonians, and was likely penned within just a few months of the 1st letter.  Remember that 1 Thessalonians was written in the middle of Paul’s 2nd missionary journey. He had received the Macedonian call, travelled to Philippi & was jailed & miraculously freed.  He then travelled to Thessalonica, where Jews eventually stirred up trouble & he was forced to leave.  He then went to Berea, where the Jews followed as well.  After a brief stop in Athens, Paul eventually gets to Corinth, where he spent 1½ years.  (All of this can be found in Acts 17-19.)  Throughout Paul’s travels, Silas & Timothy were able to travel back & forth to some of the churches they were forced to leave, and bring news as to what was going on. 

It was in the very early 50’s (perhaps even 50AD) that Timothy first brought back news from Thessalonica, which served as the opportunity for Paul’s first letter to them.  The news of the Thessalonians’ faith had spread far & wide, but Paul had heard accounts of persecution, and he had wanted to know if their faith stood firm.  Timothy reported that it did, and Paul rejoiced!  Paul exhorted the church to continue to walk in such a way as to be ready for Jesus, for the call of Jesus could come at any time.  They (and we) have a joyful expectation of seeing Jesus face-to-face, whether it be through the resurrection of our bodies, or the rapture of the church.

Apparently that first letter caused a bit of stir back in Thessalonica.  With all of the troubles that the churched endured in their persecution, they started to wonder if perhaps they had missed out.  Had the Great Tribulation already begun?  Did Jesus come with the rapture, and they got left behind?  What was going on?  Thus Paul wrote to them again, assuring them that they hadn’t missed anything.  Jesus would come in glory to judge those who were persecuting the church, but His coming would be preceded by definite signs.  Thus the church did not need to be anxious – instead, they were to live as witnesses of Jesus in the world as they awaited the day of Jesus’ return.

THEME
It is the idea of Jesus’ return that weaves its way throughout the letter.  Jesus’ glorious second coming gives us hope during tribulation.  Jesus’ second coming has signs of which can be expected.  Jesus’ second coming gives us motivation to live for Him today while we have the opportunity.  (Which, by the way, works out to be a rather nice outline for the book. J)

People often get confused about the 2nd coming of Christ, in that they don’t know how it fits together with the rapture – or if there is any difference between them at all.  It needs to be said up-front that this is an area of disagreement within the church – even among Bible-believing orthodox Christians.  There are some genuine Jesus-loving Christians who would argue that the rapture and 2nd coming of Jesus are two events that happen concurrently.  They believe that the church will go through the events of the Great Tribulation, and will be raptured to heaven at the very moment that Jesus descends from heaven as He judges the people of earth.

Many other scholars (with whom I personally agree) believe the Bible teaches otherwise.  When taking the plainest interpretation of the Biblical text, it seems that the rapture and 2nd coming of Jesus are not concurrent, but consecutive events.  It is all wrapped up together generally speaking in “the Day of the Lord,” but they do not happen at the same time.  In the rapture, Jesus comes for the church – in the 2nd Coming, Jesus comes with His church.  In the rapture, Jesus blows the trumpet of God – in the 2nd Coming, Jesus comes after the angels blow the trumpets of judgment.  In the rapture, Jesus takes His church away from the wrath of God being poured out on the world – in the 2nd Coming, Jesus comes after God’s wrath has been poured out on the world.  And the list could go on.  There is a specific purpose to the rapture, one that is diluted away to be without meaning if the church is raptured at the same moment as Jesus’ return, and it ceases to be our blessed hope & just fades into the background.

That’s not to say that the ideas can’t get confused.  They do – and that seems to be the primary reason for Paul’s 2nd letter.  The Thessalonians were confused on which was which, and Paul needed to bring clarity to them.  There were some in Thessalonica who also started to take the rapture for granted, and they got lazy just waiting for it to come – which defeats the purpose for which Jesus has left us in the world in the first place.

GENERAL OUTLINE
2 Thessalonians is one of the shorter letters of Paul, and the traditional division of 3 chapters actually works out nicely.

  • The Promise of Christ’s Return (1)
  • The Signs of Christ’s Return (2)
  • Living until Christ’s Return (3)

 

The Promise of Christ’s Return
Greeting (1:1-2)
The letter opens with a standard greeting from Paul – with the majority of manuscripts using exactly the same words as did the opening greeting from 1 Thessalonians (which is one of the reasons critics attack the book).  Verse-wise, it takes up 2 verses in 2 Thessalonians, whereas it’s only 1 verse in 1 Thessalonians.  Why the difference?  Who knows?  Keep in mind that verse numbers (and chapter breaks) are not inspired.  They were not standardized until the 16th century, and even today there are some variations in different languages.

Obviously the important thing is not the verse numbers, but the content.  As before, “Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy” write in love to the church at Thessalonica, not asserting any apostolic authority, but just writing in the grace of God.  Again, the church finds its origins in both God the Father & the Lord Jesus Christ.  They find grace and peace in both God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  This is a strong argument for the deity of Jesus.  Paul never hesitates to put the Son on the same level as the Father, and for good reason.  We have one God, and the Father and Son are different Persons, but they (along with the Holy Spirit) are that one God.

  • Trinitarian theology is often mysterious, but it is wonderful.  A God that is beyond our capability to comprehend is a God that is infinite.  A God that is infinite is a God who created us; not the other way around.

The Vengeance and Glory of God (1:3-10)
Paul starts by giving thanks for the church, but he does so for what many might consider would be an unusual reason: their faith in persecution.  No one wishes for persecution, and we quite often pray for churches to be free from persecution, but there is no doubt that churches that endure it are often refined.  God uses trials and persecution to purify His people.  Just like steel that has undergone heat is tempered, so do trials temper the people of God. 

That is, if we endure them.  Trials cause some people to call away.  Jesus taught of this during the parable of the soils.  The same seed of the gospel (the word of God) was cast on different soils, and three out of the four were unproductive.  One of the failed three was specifically said to fail because of tribulation.  Matthew 13:20–21, "(20) But he who received the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; (21) yet he has no root in himself, but endures only for a while. For when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles." There are some who seem to receive the gospel.  Perhaps they walk forward at a crusade or join a church & seem to have faith in Christ.  Yet despite temporary appearances, there has been no inward change.  When trials & persecution comes along, they fall away.  Their faith was proven to be shallow & ultimately worthless.

That’s not the kind of faith we want – and that’s not the kind of faith the Thessalonians had.  How did Paul know?  Because they persevered!  Their endurance was evidence of their salvation.  That’s why Paul could give thanks for them in the midst of their persecution.  Even though their situation was undesirable, their faith was unshakable…and that caused Paul to rejoice!

  • Again, persecution is not something that we wish for, but it can certainly be beneficial in the long run.  Through persecution and tribulation, the faith of the true believers in Christ shines forth, while the shallow faith of false converts becomes plain to see.  Although no one wants to discover a false conversion, isn’t that really a good thing?  Far better to know that someone is NOT saved now, than to continue unto death under a false assurance.  Better to know the need to be saved, rather to blindly believe you’re OK.  At least that way, there is still time for the problem to be addressed.  Just because someone started out as a false convert doesn’t mean they need to continue as one.  Anyone can put their faith in Christ and be saved!

Of course the good news for the Christians who endured their tribulation was their faith was secure.  They were “counted worthy of the kingdom of God,” (1:5).  But their salvation was not the only thing they could be sure of.  They could also be assured of the righteous judgment of God.  God would “repay with tribulation” (1:6) those who brought tribulation to the church.  When would it take place?  At the second coming of Christ.  Paul describes it in-depth: 2 Thessalonians 1:7–10, "(7) and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, (8) in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. (9) These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, (10) when He comes, in that Day, to be glorified in His saints and to be admired among all those who believe, because our testimony among you was believed."

Notice how the 2nd Coming is described: (1) Jesus will be revealed to all the world as He comes with His angels.  This is a common picture throughout the Old Testament prophets, as well as the book of Revelation.  Not only will the church accompany Jesus upon His return, so will His angels.  Every eye will see Him, and all peoples everywhere will know that Jesus is the Lord.  (2) Jesus will come in power & take vengeance upon the enemies of God.  For all those who believe that God looks over sin & lets everyone go to heaven, no matter what they believed – the Bible teaches exactly the opposite.  The Lord Jesus Himself will demonstrate His vengeance, and it will be fierce!  (3) That vengeance leads to everlasting destruction/punishment.  Again, not everyone goes to heaven…some will face everlasting hell.  No one has to face hell, but many people will.  (4) The 2nd Coming will bring honor and glory to Jesus.  In that day, Jesus will be seen as He truly is – the way He has always been.  Thankfully, we’ve been given the opportunity to believe Him right now & to be counted as one of His saints; not one of His enemies.

Prayer for the Church (1:11-12)
Paul’s prayer is that all the Thessalonians would know that they are the saints of God.  Their faith as a whole had been proven genuine – but Paul couldn’t speak for each & every one of them individually.  His desire (like every good pastor) was that everyone among the church body would be a true disciple of the Lord Jesus, having active abiding faith in Christ, and would thus be counted “worthy of this calling” (1:11).  He prayed that the Lord Jesus would be glorified in this young church & they would continue to abide in Him (1:12).

Faith is never something to take for granted!  It’s not a matter of being afraid to lose our salvation; it’s simply a matter of our life with Christ.  Notice in vss. 11-12, Paul doesn’t pray that the Thessalonians might stay saved; he prays that they would continue to “fulfill all the good pleasure of His goodness” and that Jesus & the church would be glorified in one another.  The danger isn’t losing salvation; it’s missing out on the Christian life.  That’s what happens when we take our faith for granted.  Instead of walking as witnesses of Jesus among the world, we start just living among the world with perhaps a bit of Jesus on the side.  That’s not what God desires for us.  His desire for us is far better!

The Signs of Christ’s Return
Apostasy and Antichrist (2:1-12)
In a sense, all of that was the introduction.  It’s in chapter 2 that Paul really gets to the meat of the matter.  This is the reason he (and the others) wrote to the church.  Through their correspondence, Paul learned that the Thessalonians had become “shaken in mind or troubled,” thinking that the “day of Christ had come.” (2:3)  In the previous letter, Paul had written how Jesus will come for the church in the rapture.  Earlier, they seemed to have feared for some of their church family who had already died & they worried that perhaps they missed out on the promise of Christ.  Not so!  Jesus will come, blow His trumpet, and the dead in Christ will be raised first, with those who are alive following milliseconds afterwards (1 Ths 4:16-17).  No one will miss out on the promise & comfort of Christ – everyone who has faith in Him during earthly life has the promise of being with Him in eternal life.  Along these same lines, Paul went on to write about the timing of it all, how the rapture is imminent – meaning that it can take place at any time.  And it is something we ought to expect.  Why?  Because God will one day pour out His wrath upon the world, and as believers in Jesus, we will not face the wrath of God.  1 Thessalonians 5:9–10, "(9) For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, (10) who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him."

That ought to be a great comfort to us – but it ended up causing a bit of confusion on the part of the Thessalonians.  After all, they were in the middle of experiencing quite a bit of tribulation at the time.  They began to wonder if they had entered THE tribulation – the Great Tribulation, as Jesus taught in the Olivet Discourse (Mt 24).  Paul needed to assure them that this wasn’t it.  All of us face tribulation at some point, but only certain people will face the Great Tribulation.  That time is unique – it is specific to (yet unknown) generation.  It is so bad, that it’s severity will distinguish it from all other trial faced through history.  Matthew 24:21–22, "(21) For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. (22) And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened." This could not refer to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD, because it didn’t threaten the population of the entire world.  Nor could it refer to the Holocaust of WWII, for the same reason.  We’ve all seen bad times before, but when the Great Tribulation comes, there will be no mistaking it!

That’s what Paul reminded the Thessalonians of.  What they endured was bad, but it wasn’t “The Great Tribulation-bad.”  That hadn’t yet happened, thus they hadn’t yet missed the rapture either.  God promised to save us from wrath, and the Great Tribulation is the day of His wrath – thus the rapture has to come first.

So how could the Thessalonians know that the tribulation they faced wasn’t the Great Tribulation?  Because none of the signs had taken place.  Remember that the rapture is imminent; but the 2nd Coming is not.  Between the Olivet Discourse, the teaching here in 2 Thessalonians, the book of Revelation (not to mention a great deal of the OT prophets), there are all kinds of signs that precede the 2nd Coming of Christ (also known as the Day of the Lord).  The rapture can happen at any moment; the Day of the Lord will come precisely according to God’s prophesied plans.

One of the signs is seen in the person of Antichrist, described by Paul as “the man of sin…the son of perdition.” (2:3)  That man will reveal himself for who he is before the world will realize that they have entered the days of the Great Tribulation.  How will he do it?  Apparently, he will already be in the world, working among the world, and then one day he will demand to be worshipped as God while sitting in the Jerusalem temple (2:4).  This seems to be same event described by Jesus as the “abomination of desolation” (Mt 24:15), and what John describes in the book of Revelation as the false prophet causing an image of Antichrist to be worshipped (Rev 13:15).  In other words, it’s not something that is going to be easily mistaken.  Daniel prophesied a preview of this event when he wrote of the Syrian general Antiochus Epiphanes defiling the Jerusalem temple with the sacrifice of a pig & worship of the pagan god Zeus (Dan 11:31).  That took place in 167BC, and it serves as a template of what Jesus later taught & what Paul & John each wrote. 

The point?  It will be obvious!  That’s not something that will be easily mistaken!  Thus the Thessalonians hadn’t missed it…and neither have we.  (FYI, this is one reason we look for a new temple to be built in Jerusalem.  Whether it happens before or after the rapture, we do not know – but a new temple is required in order for it to be defiled.  That’s something that will most definitely happen in the future.)

In any case, Paul had taught the Thessalonians these things (2:5).  He hadn’t shied away from teaching Biblical prophecy; they just needed a simple reminder.  In the meantime, none of these things had yet taken place, because there was something (or Someone) at work: “He who restrains.” (2:7)  Someone was holding all of it back, and Paul writes that one day this one will be taken away (2:7).  It’s only at that time that the “lawless one will be revealed.” (2:8)  The obvious question is: who?  Who is the Restrainer?  Scholars debate this, but it would most likely seem to be a reference to the Holy Spirit – or at least, the presence of the Holy Spirit within the church.

Remember that when people come to faith in Christ today, we are immediately indwelled by the Holy Spirit.  He seals us for our salvation, and His presence in our lives is immediate.  (We are still to ask for His filling & empowerment – but that’s a different issue.)  Today, Christians are individually & corporately the temple of the Holy Spirit.  What happens when the church is removed via the rapture?  The Holy Spirit is removed.  Of course since God is omnipresent, there is no way that the Holy Spirit simply disappears from existence, but His indwelling work among the church would then be complete, and that aspect of His ministry could be removed from the earth.  Thus His restraining work ends.  It’s at that moment that the Great Tribulation begins in earnest, the lawless one is revealed, the abomination of desolation takes place, and after all of that (and only after all of that) will Jesus come in power and glory.

Again, the Thessalonians hadn’t missed anything.  They could be assured that God’s plan was all underway, and that it would come to pass exactly as the Scriptures had revealed.  Some people would be lost to Satan, given over to a strong delusion (2:11), but it wouldn’t be the believers in Christ.  They (we) are secure in Him.

Thanks and Blessing (2:13-17)
Paul prayed for the church at the end of chapter 1, and he basically did so again at the end of chapter 2.  The Thessalonians had not been given over to a strong delusion; they had been “beloved by the Lord” (2:13).  God chose them, sanctified them (set them apart), called them, and promised to give them glory in the Lord Jesus Christ (2:13-14).  The work of God among them was evident & complete!  Paul’s simple desire for them was for them to endure in action & doctrine, and to be comforted & established by God.

It’s a wonderful thing to know that we’re saved, is it not?  When we read of future prophecy, it shouldn’t frighten us or cause us to go look for hidden conspiracies around the world; it ought to cause us to rejoice in Jesus!  We know what is going to happen to the world, and guess what?  We’re saved from it!  Our salvation is in Christ, and He will not only preserve us until the end, but He will remove us from this world before the wrath of God comes upon it.  We don’t have to go looking under rocks for Antichrist; our hope and glory is in the Lord Jesus Christ!

Living until Christ’s Return
Request for prayer and obedience (3:1-5)
Paul begins to wrap things up at this point, and he asks for prayer.  Remember that he was still in the process of one of his missionary journeys.  The Lord had much more work ahead for him to do, and Paul, Silas, and Timothy all wanted to be faithful in the task.  They wanted the “word of the Lord” to continue to go forth & they needed deliverance from the enemies that surrounded them (3:1-2).  At the same time as they asked for prayer, they in essence also prayed for the Thessalonians, knowing God’s faithful work among them (3:3).  As God worked within the Thessalonians, Paul exhorted the Thessalonians to be faithful to God, walking in obedience.

  • Remember, we’re not saved through obedience, but people who are truly saved are obedient.  We don’t obey God out of obligation, but out of joy.  We seek to please our Heavenly Father.  Why?  Because we love Him!

Dealing with laziness (3:6-15)
There was one issue of correction that Paul needed to address before he closed.  Along with the news of theological confusion came some news of laziness.  He never directly addresses the reason behind it, but considering the context of the 2nd Coming throughout the letter, it’s not difficult to imagine.  Some people, when told of the rapture, simply give up.  They stop working, stop planning ahead, stop everything, and just wait on Jesus.  The cycle has been repeated often – even within American history.  The Millerites in 1843 sold everything they owned & waited on a hilltop for the rapture.  More recently, people set dates for the rapture in 1988 & 2011 & 2015.  All of them have been wrong, and they all encourage the wrong behavior.  We need to live as if we’re seeing Jesus tonight & prepare as if it’ll be another 100 years.  We want no regrets.  We certainly don’t want to get flippant about sin…after all, we could see Jesus at any moment!  At the same time, we don’t want to quit our jobs & stop preparing for our children & grandchildren, under the assumption that we won’t have any.

The Thessalonians had an issue with laziness.  Some people weren’t working, and they took advantage of the labors of others in order to eat from day to day.  It seems likely that they were waiting for Jesus’ return & didn’t think they needed to plant seed in their own vegetable garden (or whatnot).  That wasn’t the example that Paul set for them (3:8), and that wasn’t what he expected them to do.  His rule of thumb was simple: “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.” (3:10)  If someone in the church wasn’t willing to sweat in labor, then they shouldn’t expect to receive the benevolence of the church.  It’s one thing for someone to go through a tough time – everyone experiences financial trouble from time to time.  It’s another thing to expect the local church to subsidize your life if you’re unwilling to work.  Those, Paul commanded to get off the couch & go work (3:12) – and if they didn’t, the church was to part company from them (3:14).  It wasn’t a matter of being an enemy; it was just a loving admonishment (3:15).

Close (3:16-18)
Paul concludes with a benediction of peace.  The Thessalonians had experienced much trial – what they needed was the peace of God, granted from the “Lord of peace” (3:16).  Of course, that is exactly the promise we have from God when we turn our anxieties over to Him in prayer & thanksgiving.  He gives us the peace that passes understanding (Phil 4:6-7).

He ends with a personal sign-off, and a prayer for grace.

Conclusion:
Were the Thessalonians troubled?  Yes.  Did they experience tribulation?  Yes.  But it wasn’t THE Tribulation, and they had not missed the blessed hope of Jesus in the rapture.  They could indeed be assured that Jesus was coming.  He would come in power and glory to judge those who troubled them.  But they themselves would be saved from that day of wrath.  They had assured faith in Christ, and they would be with Jesus before any of the wrath of God was poured out on the world.  God had given the signs of what was to come, and it hadn’t happened yet.

Jesus IS coming back, and praise God!  We will be first-hand witnesses of His 2nd Coming, because we will be right there beside Him.  What an awesome day it will be, though terrible for the enemies of God.

On that day, every eye will see Jesus…the question is on which side will we be?  Will we be counted as one of His saints, or as one of His enemies?  For those who have faith in Christ, we have the certain assurance of our salvation, all through the work of His grace.

The key is not to take that grace for granted.  Don’t get lazy & don’t give up.  Maybe that applies to your work situation – but maybe it applies to something different.  Have you found yourself satisfied with your own salvation, but no one else’s?  You might know that you’re going to heaven, but what about your neighbor?  What about your family?  Don’t be lazy!  Don’t take your faith for granted.  We may have an hour – we may have a decade or more.  Let us not waste a minute.  Let us strive to glorify our Lord with every opportunity He gives us!

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