Pretribulation Rapture Signpost #6: Panic
By Jonathan C. Brentner
No, you have not taken a wrong turn on our journey toward establishing a biblical basis for the pretribulation rapture. The word “panic,” our next signpost, confirms that the Thessalonian saints expected the Lord to come for them before the start of the day of the Lord.
First, let’s back up a bit and set the stage for Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians. With the ink scarcely dry on the parchment of the apostle’s first letter to them, false teachers forged a message to these new believers telling them the day of the Lord had already begun. As we saw in a previous post, the day of the Lord in the book of Thessalonians equals the tribulation, which John wrote about in Revelation 6-16.
It’s unclear how the saints in Thessalonica received this false message; Paul lists a variety of methods whereby it could have happened (2 Thess. 2:2). The text simply tells us that someone claiming to be Paul or one of his missionary team told the church that the day of the Lord had already begun, which also signified that God’s wrath upon the unbelieving world had also started.
The response of these new believers to this fake news reveals much about their expectation as to where they believed they would be at the start of this day we know as the tribulation.
The Thessalonians Panicked
The news panicked the Thessalonian saints in no small way and caused Paul to quickly pen a second letter assuring them that the day of the Lord had not yet begun.
Paul began his response to the errant memo by reminding his readers of the rapture, “Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus and our being gathered to him…” (2 Thess. 2:1). These words sum up the apostle’s message in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and bring to mind his promise in the following chapter (5:9-10). It was Paul’s way of reassuring them that nothing had changed regarding their expectation of Jesus’ appearing to take them home before the start of the day of the Lord.
After restating the ultimate hope of his readers, the apostle addressed their frayed nerves by telling them “not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed” (2 Thess. 2:2). “The verb shaken denotes a rocking motion, a shaking up and down, like a building shaken by an earthquake…” To be “alarmed” signifies a feeling of “fright” with its usage here conveying a “state of alarm, of nervous excitement.” The news that the day of the Lord had begun had visibly rattled the Thessalonians similar to the shaking during an earthquake.
The Thessalonian saints did not expect to hear that the day of the Lord had begun. They believed the Lord would have come for them before it started just as Paul had promised them in his first letter (5:9-10).
If Paul had hold told these believers they would endure all of or even a part of the wrath of the day of the Lord, i.e. the judgments the apostle John would later described decades later in Revelation 6-16, they would have expected to hear such news. While certainly not the most comforting news that could have come their way, they would have anticipated hearing it at some point and not responded with such great trepidation.
If they had anticipated the start of the day of the Lord in their lifetime, that would have meant Jesus’ appearing to take them home was that much closer (1 Thess. 4:17). Their response of sheer panic tells us they did not foresee hearing a report to the effect that this day had already begun.
John Walvoord explains the significance of their expectation:
“If the Thessalonians had been taught posttribulationism, the beginning of the day of the Lord would have been evidence to them that the Rapture was drawing near and should have caused rejoicing. Instead of this, the beginning of the day of the Lord apparently created a panic in their midst, with the implication that before the false teachers had come they understood they would not enter this period.”
The Thessalonians saints panicked because they believed they would no longer be earthbound at the start of the day of the Lord. They expected the rapture to occur before the devastating start to the day of the Lord that Paul described in 1 Thessalonians 5:2-3.
What Their Panic Tells Us?
I believe that the panic of the Thessalonians confirms our convictions regarding a pretribulation rapture in a number of ways.
First, it tells us they expected conditions during the day of the Lord wrath to be horrific. Paul described their current experience as that of enduring “persecutions” and “afflictions” due to the Jewish opposition to their faith (2 Thess. 1:4). Yet, despite their dreadful circumstances at the time, the message that the day of the Lord had begun put these believers in a state of panic. They dreaded the prospect of life during the tribulation.
Many equate the future seven year tribulation with the persecution Jesus referred to in the upper room (John 16:32-33). The response of the Thessalonians negates such a comparison. Although experiencing harsh persecution at the time, they considered the day of the Lord wrath to be far worse. The thought of enduring the tribulation, or even its beginning, caused these suffering saints to literally tremble.
Second, their response demonstrates they regarded 1 Thessalonians 5:9 as an assurance they would miss the wrath of the day of the Lord. Why else would the news of its arrival have put them in a state of panic? They had no doubts about their future resurrection from the dead and eternity in heaven; this was foundational to the message of the Gospel they had welcomed when the apostle preached to them. They dreaded being alive at the start of the day of the Lord.
Paul’s promise was that of missing the wrath of this day, which was focus of 1 Thessalonians 5:1-8. The words of verses 9-10 assured them they would miss this terrible time in history. This explains why they panicked at the news that the day of the Lord, or the tribulation, had begun.
Third, their reaction to the fake news confirms they did not expect to be on earth at the start of the tribulation. 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 tells us that along with their reception of the Gospel came a focus on waiting for Jesus’ appearing. Like Paul, they believed He could return in their lifetime (1 Thess. 4:17). The news that this day had begun shattered their anticipation of seeing Jesus first; it turned their hope into dread and anxiety.
Fourth, if the true expectation of Paul’s readers was the start of the tribulation rather than the Lord’s appearing, this would have been the time for the apostle to tell them, and us, that believers would endure this time of God’s fury during this seven year period of time or perhaps a portion of it. If such was the case, he might have responded by telling them that although this day had not yet stared, those in Christ could expect to see the time when it would suddenly surprise the world with great devastation and loss of life.
But Paul does not do that. Instead he reminds the Thessalonians of the rapture and calms their troubled minds by assuring them the day of the Lord had not yet started. After that, he provided evidence to back up his assertion, which we will examine under our next signpost.
The apostle’s response confirms the initial anticipation of the Thessalonians who believed the rapture would happen before the onset of the day of the Lord or well before the judgments of Revelation 6-16 (see 1 Thess. 5:9-10).
Satan’s plan in immediately attacking the pretribulation rapture backfired in a big way. Paul’s letter correcting his errant message confirms that 1 Thessalonians 5:9-10 is a promise that all believers will miss the sudden destruction that will mark the beginning of the day of the Lord (5:3).
2 Thessalonians 2:1-3 signifies a pretribulation rapture, one that will occur before the sudden and devastating events of the day of the Lord begin just as the Lord, through the apostle Paul, promises us:
For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. (1 Thessalonians 5:9-10).
The above verses assure us that Jesus will come for His church before the start of the tribulation. As Paul said in his first letter, the “sudden destruction” of the start of the day of the Lord will come upon “them” rather than his readers (1 Thess. 5:3). The devastating start to the day of the Lord will surprise unbelieving world, not those of us in Christ.
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