The Eschatology of 1 & 2 Thessalonians

The Eschatology of 1 and 2 Thessalonians is not presented systematically, but is instead delivered in statements organized around concerns that Paul had for the Thessalonian Church or specific questions that the Thessalonian Church apparently raised to the Apostle Paul.  The eschatological topics covered in the two epistles to the Thessalonians fall into six general categories:  The Salvation of Believers, The Rapture, The Coming Wrath, The Tribulation and Revelation of the Man of Lawlessness and The Revelation of Christ.

The Salvation of Believers

Paul comments in 1 Thess. 1:9-10 on how the salvation of believers is inherently eschatological in nature; the Thessalonian Christians turned from serving idols to serving God, and also turned to awaiting the return of Christ.  This anticipation of the second coming is part-and-parcel with salvation.

Paul writes how the salvation is a “call” in 1 Thess 2:12.  The verb καλέω is used here in its technical sense, talking of the idea of an effectual call, not just a simple invitation.  The call in 2:12 is a call “into His (God’s) own kingdom and glory”.  The noun βασιλεία is used here, in combination with δόξα, to refer to the future kingdom of God (In the epistles, the “kingdom of God” is most frequently referring to as the eschatological kingdom of God).

Not only is salvation a “call”, but in 1 Thess. 5:9 Paul writes how believers are “not destined for wrath, but for obtaining salvation”. The verb ἔθετο looks to the sovereign purpose of God; the salvation is appointed by God and the believers are, in no way, appointed for wrath.  In this verse, περιποίησιν (translated “obtain”) most likely carries a passive sense.  The normative usage of the verb seems to depict an act of God in purchasing or setting apart a peculiar people for himself.  Also, the ὀργὴν with which περιποίησιν is contrasted is most certainly a sovereign work of God; the contrast is only meaningful if both verbs are rendered in the same sense (“objects of wrath” and “objects of his purchase”).

The ultimate salvation of believers is a time of reward, as Paul informs the Thessalonian Church in 1 Thess. 2:19.  He writes how at that time there will be a “crown of glory” at that time; the phrase στέφανος καυχήσεως here is talking about the reward to be received in the presence of the Lord when he comes to examine his servants.  The reward to be received is apparently the salvation of the Thessalonians themselves, but the phraseology here is suggestive of eschatological reward.

Paul also writes regarding the preservation of believers.  In 1 Thess. 3:12-13, Paul writes how the Lord will cause the Thessalonians to have an increase in love for one another, but also Paul prays that Christ “may establish your hearts without blame in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints”.  It seems that the coming (παρουσία) is talking about the events after the arrival and the context places no emphasis on the time of the arrival.  The language here (ἔμπροσθεν τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ πατρὸς ἡμῶν), also seems to hint at a time in the future when the believer will be called upon to stand before the Father for examination.  The idea of a coming examination of believers is hinted at again in 1 Thess. 5:23.

The Rapture

The Rapture is given distinct treatment in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17.  Paul writes several important truths to the Thessalonians regarding this mysterious event so that they will not be “uninformed” (4:13).  It seems that the Thessalonian church was confused about how and when the dead would partake in the coming of Christ.  The death and resurrection of Christ was a pivotal truth for belief in the resurrection of the dead; Jesus’ death and resurrection changes Christians’ death into sleep, simply because their death is like the temporary nature of his death, soon to be overcome in the same way as his resurrection.

Paul then writes about the coming of the Lord. παρουσία here (4:15), as in 2:19 and 3:3, refers to the actual moment of Christ’s return and not the events that follow his arrival.  Paul writes that those who are dead will participate in the glory of the 2nd coming before those who are alive; the living will not precede (φθάσωμεν) those being dead (κοιμηθέντας).

4:16-17 then deal with the specific details of the rapture.  The rapture occurs with the descent of Christ from heaven, the call to assembly, the rising of the dead, the rising of the living, the meeting in the air and the ascent to heaven.  In 4:16, the shout of the archangel (κελεύσματι ἐν φωνῇ ἀρχαγγέλου) is not directed to the angels, but instead towards the dead in 4:16 and the living in 4:17.  This is the command for both parties (living and dead) to come to assembly.  Likewise, the trumpet is also an instrument of calling to assembly (also in 1 Corinthians 15:52).

4:17 records that after the rising of the dead, the living who remain will be forcibly and suddenly seized (ἁρπαγησόμεθα); violently snatched away. Though they meet Christ in the air, the raptured saints will be carried up into the ‘space’ between heaven and earth, for the purpose of meeting (suggested by the preposition εἰς in conjunction with ἀπάντησιν) the descending Lord where they will go with him back to heaven.  The reasons one should suggest a heavenly destination as opposed to an earthly destination are that the passage only says that the Lord will descend to the air as opposed to the earth, the judgment of those in Christ in 3:13 will take place before the Father (which necessitates the believers’ going to heaven before returning with Christ), and the general direction of the resurrection since 4:14 is heavenward, with little to suggest a sudden change of direction.

The Coming Wrath

Paul is very clear on the fact that there is a coming divine wrath.  In 1 Thess 1:10, he passively mentions the nearness of the coming wrath.  In this verse, it seems that the wrath was near (as opposed to immanent) for Paul used ἔρχομαι instead of μέλλω to describe it, which suggests nearness as opposed to immanence.  The wrath was coming, and yet already arrived (in part, though not fully recognized nor manifest).  Who then are the recipients of this wrath?

In 1 Thess. 2:16, Paul comments about unbelievers (specifically unbelieving Jews), that “wrath has come upon them to the utmost”.  The phrase is slightly confusing, but not unintelligible.  The term ὀργὴ (wrath) carries a strong eschatological force that is unlikely to be satisfied by a singular instance of punishment.  In conjunction with the aorist tense of ἔφθασεν, it seems that a series of punishments in the past, or a specific past event is not likely to be the meaning.  Instead, ὀργὴ is likely talking about eschatological wrath here.  How then is it said to “have come”?

The force of ἔφθασεν (“has come”) seems to be talking about how the wrath of God has come upon the Jews, but only in a potential sense with the full extent of the outworking of that wrath to yet be experienced.  The passage does not have a prophetic coloring and does not seem to be a prophetic perfect.  The similar φθάνω ἐπί construction to Matthew 12:28 and Luke 11:20 points to the presence of the wrath in a manner similar to the presence of the kingdom of God; the wrath is “already but not yet” here (much like the kingdom).

This then makes sense of how Paul mentioned, in passing, that a characteristic of unbelievers is that they grieve the dead in a state of hopelessness (1 Thess. 4:13). Though Christians face the future in the hope of the resurrection and rapture at the initial coming of the Lord (when he comes for his people), the unbelievers face a horrid future.  In 2 Thess. 1:6-9, Paul informs the Thessalonians that God will repay their afflicters with affliction; a dealing out of retribution that ends in eternal destruction and removal of the unbelievers from the presence of the Lord and their removal form the glory of his power.

There are two categories of people who receive this affliction.  In 2 Thess. 1:8, the ones who do not know God (τοῖς μὴ εἰδόσιν θεὸν) are the Gentiles who have no knowledge of the gospel and the ones that do not obey the gospel (τοῖς μὴ ὑπακούουσιν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ) are the Jews that reject the gospel.  Their destruction (ὄλεθρον) is not annihilation, but is instead must be referring to the separation from the Lord and absence from all his positive blessings/general providence.  When the temporal adjective αἰώνιον is added, one cannot have annihilation since annihilation is, be its nature, instantaneous.  This destruction is a continuing destruction that endures constantly over an everlasting period of time, not just a simple instance of annihilation.  This affliction is utterly unfathomably horrific.  In 1:9,the phrase ἀπὸ προσώπου carries an ablative force, as it also does in the following clause (ἀπὸ τῆς δόξης τῆς ἰσχύος αὐτοῦ); eternal destruction entails both a separation from Christ’s presence and power.  Not only are the unbelievers removed from Christ’s presence but they are removed from his power; his positive blessing and general providence.  All the miniscule and infinitesimal joys/blessings that they participated in due to general providence are gone forever; never again will they take a cool breeze for granted, never again will they passively receive kindness from a stranger, never again will they endure pain knowing that it will eventually subside, never again will they be able to distract themselves from their own sorrow with entertainment or intoxication.  The unbeliever and atheist who cried out on earth that God had not given them “enough evidence” for belief will spend eternity in endless shame and full recognition that they ignored millions of daily providences that continually testified univocally against their willing unbelief and suppression of truth, incinerating any pretense of excusable theognostic innocence.

The Tribulation and Revelation of the Man of Lawlessness

It appears that the Thessalonians thought that the “day of the Lord” had already arrived, and this period is addressed by Paul in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12.  The day of the Lord (ἡ ἡμέρα τοῦ Χριστοῦ) in 2 Thess 2:2 refers to the seven year tribulation and the following millennium because it seems that the readers associated their current sufferings with the initial phase of the tribulation.  The παρουσίας (“day of the Lord”) here is different than the παρουσίας in 2:1, for in 2:1 the παρουσίας is qualified by the noun ἐπισυναγωγῆς, which indicates that it’s strictly referring to the coming of Christ for the rapture of his church, though this even marks the beginning of “the day of the Lord”.

2 Thess 2:1-2 suggests that the παρουσίας had not arrived. Paul warned the church at Thessalonica to not be “not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed” by a spirit (πνεύματος), a word (λόγου) or a letter (ἐπιστολῆς) “as if from us”.  The word and letter seem obvious (teaching and epistle), but what is meant by “a spirit”?  Seeing that the Thessalonians experienced prophecy (1 Thessalonians 5:19-20) and the word is used in 1 Corinthians 14:12 is used as a broad designation of spiritual gifts, it seems reasonable that it would appear to be some prophetic utterance.  Also, δι᾽ ἡμῶν likely relates to spirit, word and letter, for all 3 would have to authentically come from Paul (or the apostles) to hold any authority.  So what will the coming παρουσίας (i.e. tribulation) look like then?

A large part of the παρουσίας (i.e. tribulation) is the revelation of the “man of lawlessness”.  This whole period of the final unveiling of this mysterious individual will be preceded by two things.  First, there is an event known as “the apostasy”, mentioned in 2:3.  The word “first” (πρῶτον) here is actually referring to the first event in a series of events; a temporal sequence.  The apostasy mentioned here (ἡ ἀποστασία) is most likely a future abandonment of God by professing Christians.  Secondly, 2:7-8 comment that “the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains will do so until he is taken out of the way.  Then that lawless one will be revealed…”  This restraining (and cessation of restraint) is concurrent with the apostasy mentioned in 2:3.

In 2:7, the mystery (μυστήριον) of lawlessness (ἀνομίας) is not referring exclusively to the mystery of sin or the violation of the law, but instead refers more specifically to the “man of lawlessness” and Satan’s ultimate plan.  The restrainer in 2:7 is the Holy Spirit, and γένηται in 2:7 is most sensibly rendered “come to be” as opposed to “taken out of the way”, since the Spirit can voluntarily withdraw his restraining influence at the pre-appointed time of the Father.  2:6 definitely suggests that the “man of lawlessness” has an appointed time when he will be revealed.

Once there is “the apostasy” and the restrainer steps aside, the “man of lawlessness” will be revealed and begin his work.  Who is this “man of lawlessness”?  He will likely be a future historical figure whose identity cannot be specifically defined at the moment.  ἄνθρωπος is often combined with θεός to refer to a prophet of God in the LXX, but ἄνθρωπος and ἁμαρτία here suggests a false prophet.  The NT speaks frequently of a coming false prophet (Matt 24:11, 24; Mark 13:22; Rev 16:3; 19:20; 20:10), who is likely this same individual.

He is also likely a Jewish person, based on his actions and how he establishes himself. In 2 Thess. 2:4, the idea of πάντα λεγόμενον θεὸν ἢ σέβασμα is that he sets himself up against any god, whether true or false.  The temple of God (τὸν ναὸν τοῦ θεοῦ) is the Jewish temple, shown by the use of the definite article (the temple) and the connection of Daniel 11:36-37 with its relation to Matthew 24:15 necessitates the actual Jewish temple (this should not be surprising as Ezekiel 37:26 points to a future rebuilding of the temple, making the reality of this idea a definite possibility).  The “man of lawlessness” sets himself in the temple, and the verb ἀποδεικνύντα carries the idea of “exhibiting” in 2:4, as in “the appointment to office” rather than the idea of “showing off” or “ascending to the throne”.  The “man of lawlessness” appoints himself to a position that he has no legal right to hold.  This would be unlikely of a non-Jew, since the appeal of the temple is primarily to the Jews. He also arrives with “all power and signs and false wonders”. The power, signs and lying wonders (δυνάμει καὶ σημείοις καὶ τέρασιν ψεύδους) are actual, genuine manifestations of supernatural ability that are performed by the power of Satan for the purpose of deception.  The normal meaning of “signs and wonders” in the N.T. is one of supernatural events.  Likewise, ἐνέργεια is always related to supernatural events in the N.T.  His usage of lying signs and wonders in 2:9 suggests false establishment via Jewish criteria as a prophet of God.

This “man of lawlessness” is a workman of Satan (2:9) and is the powerful delusion in 2:11, sent by God “so that they will believe what is false, in order that they all may be judged”.  The word describing the delusion in 2:11 is ἐνέργειαν, which always has to do with supernatural events (as in 2:9) and likely means “strong” or “powerful” as in “supernaturally powerful”. “The lie” (τῷ ψεύδει) is the false claims of man of lawlessness for himself, and the deception is sent upon the unbelievers because they “did not receive the love of the truth” (2:10).  ἀληθείας here leads to salvation (σῴζω), hence ἀληθείας here most likely is used synonymously with “the gospel”. In understanding that ἀληθείας refers to the gospel, the phrase τὴν ἀγάπην τῆς ἀληθείας likely is a synonymous phrase for something along the lines of “love for the gospel” (leading to saving faith and obedience).

The Revelation of Christ

Although the tribulation will be a time of horrible apostasy and false worship based on a Satanic deception, the time will be finished by the final victory of Christ over the Devil and his workmen.  Paul writes to the church in Thessalonica, commenting in 1 Thess 5:2-3 on how in the middle of the tribulation, while things appear to be going well, “destruction will come upon them suddenly like labor pains upon a woman with child, and they will not escape”. Here “the day of the Lord” is referring to a period of time that begins with intense suffering that preludes the personal return of Christ (but also includes it), and this period is characterized by “the wrath to come” in 1 Thess. 1:10 and 5:9.

In 2 Thess 1:5-10, Paul notes how “the day of the Lord” will be a time when God will repay the ones afflicting the Thessalonians with affliction (1:6), a time of rest for believers (1:7), a time of “dealing out retribution” (1:8) and a time when Christ comes “to be glorified in His saints” (1:10).  Regarding those verses, the “rest” in 1:7 (ἄνεσιν) is from affliction and suffering, the “flaming fire” (ἐν πυρὶ φλογός) of Christ in 1:8 refers to the glory of Christ being revealed, and the phrase τοῖς ἁγίοις αὐτοῦ in 1:10 refers only to redeemed men simply because of the contrast with the men mentioned in verses 6-8.

In 2 Thess 6:12, Paul writes more about this coming “day of the Lord”.  Paul describes the “man of lawlessness” as one whom “the Lord will slay with the breath of His mouth and bring to an end by the appearance of His coming” in 2:8. The verb καταργήσει carries the idea of “render inoperative” or “immobilize”, but not the idea of annihilation.  The Lord will overthrow the “man of lawlessness”; he will receive a judgment, like all other men. Also, the phrase τῷ πνεύματι τοῦ στόματος αὐτοῦ refers to the “breath” of the mouth of Christ, not the “Holy Spirit”.  The breath of God is spoken of as a destructive force in the Old Testament (2 Samuel 22:16; Job 4:9; Psalm 18:15), and it fits with the metaphor here.  The contrast is that the man of lawlessness sets himself up to appear as God, but is so utterly inferior to God that his global power and Satanic abilities are overthrown by the simple blast of Christ’s breath.  The final battle will be settled with Christ triumphing quickly, decisively, and effortlessly.

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