Apparently many still believe that the church which is Christ's body will remain on earth while the Great Tribulation is taking place, that is, broadly speaking during the Seventieth Seven of Daniel's prophecy. This subject was discussed at length in this periodical some seven years ago and fairly well thrashed out; but there is one aspect that has never seemed satisfactory to me and, as even wider issues hang on it, I am taking the risk of arousing controversy by examining it once again. The Seventieth Seven is the period of man's greatest general wickedness and the supreme outpouring of God's indignation of wrath (orgE). The question is: if the church which is Christ's body is on earth during that period or any part of it, will it undergo that wrath?
Here, apparently, I am somewhat to blame for failing to make myself fully clear in the paper that actually started controversy on this point: "The Prophetic Programme" (Vol. 17, pp. 62—70). Yet at the time I certainly thought I had made my position perfectly plain. I wrote (p. 67: "Let us get this plain. God's wrath cannot come into operation so long as Romans 5 and 2. Corinthians 5 remain present truth; so, when the period of His wrath begins, grace must and will have ceased to reign. Either, then, we must first have been removed; or somehow much of Paul's Evangel must have been withdrawn while some of those who will have received it and believed it, God's celestial people, still remained on earth." Anyone who is not satisfied as to the truth of this should refer to the original.
Nevertheless, some appear to think that this misrepresents their position, though I am utterly unable to understand how. It may be a general misunderstanding, due to confusion between wrath, orgE and tribulation, or affliction, thlipsis. Certainly, there seems to be a tendency to accuse of cowardice those who are expecting to escape the Great Tribulation. It has been pointed out very cogently that throughout history God's saints have from time to time suffered most terrible tribulations. All can agree that it ill becomes us in these days of fairly general physical ease to shrink from the idea of suffering such tribulations ourselves. This sentiment can only be applauded. Yet-the fact remains that it is no more than sentiment and that it completely obscures the issue; so it is hard to avoid the conclusion that with some writers of a century ago this confusion was deliberate. Their effort was certainly successful, for the Great Tribulation is, except for Israel, relatively a minor part of Prophecy. The essential issue is not tribulation, however great, but something far more fearful: God's wrath.
One is greatly handicapped in this study by the lack of any clearly thought-out timetable of events by those who deny that 1. Thess. 4:13—17 will be fulfilled before any of the prophecies concerning Israel begin to be fulfilled. I am aware that I am inviting a charge of misrepresentation if I attempt to repair their omission, but the position in these studies is so unsatisfactory that they cannot be left as they are. Someone must make the attempt; and if the result is mistaken, the blame must rest on those who cannot or will not express themselves plainly. So I will concentrate on this issue and start with Mr. E. A. Larsen's paper in Vol 16, p. 51. Here the argument is quite typical, He proves (to his own satisfaction) that there is some association between 1. Thess. 4:13—17 and the Day of the Lord, "the most forceful connection" between them. So we come to his conviction, dearly stated at last: "Personally, I am persuaded that the Body of Christ will be here in that Day" (p. 53). He goes on to say: "The argument that has been extracted from 1. Thess. 5:9 that 'God has not appointed us to wrath' is about as superficial and flimsy as anything could be. Noah and his family were not appointed to wrath, but they had to live through it. The saints of Israel in Rev. 3:10 are not appointed to wrath and they will be kept out of the hour of temptation that is to come upon all the earth, "but they will have to live here and go through it." This is very remarkable! How anyone is to be "kept out of it" and yet "go through it" is more than I can imagine. Mr. Larsen changes the subject to "suffering"; but that will not do at all. It is the same old confusion. The issue is not a matter of exemption from suffering, but exemption from wrath.
Others believe that the moment of rescue for all will be one great Event, "the Parousia," with (according to some) "the epiphaneia" and "the apokalupsis" coincident with it. This view I have dealt with at considerable length in Vol. 16, pp. 54—61. Nobody ever attempts to prove it. The assertion is boldly made, and that is deemed sufficient.
However, this theory of one great Parousia is at least intelligible—if only all its exponents would stand by it unwaveringly and face the consequences. Yet it is far from dear that they do. Some seem to hold that we shall be snatched away early in the period of God's wrath and that the arrival of the Rescuer for Israel is to take place at the end of the period. If so, there are two "parousias" after all, and, one might well ask, if two, why not more? Yet here I am still under the same great handicap: nobody seems to have cared to go beyond hinting at this idea. I cannot find it clearly set out anywhere. In this subject there has been far too much hinting and suggesting, and far too little reasoned investigation.
I cannot see how we can be on earth at all during any part of the period of God's wrath; for if we are, how can we escape it? And if we cannot escape it, the idea of the reign of grace, an integral part of Paul's Evangel, can in such circumstances be no better than a grisly jest. The full extent of the reign of grace may perhaps be still an open question; yet the fact that it applies to all of God's people at the present time is unquestionable. Moreover, there is no room at all for doubt that Israel's casting-away is world-conciliation (Rom. 11:5). So long as Israel's casting-away remains in force, world-conciliation must remain in force also. What puzzles me is how this can possibly apply during a period in which the full force of God's wrath is unleashed on the whole earth.
Even if this difficulty could be got round, the fact would remain that while some escape does exist for the faithful of Israel during the days of wrath (Matt. 24:15—22), nothing whatever is said anywhere about any sort of escape for those who are members of Christ's body, for whom grace reigns. The only possible explanation of this fact is that they will no longer be on earth when the period of God's wrath begins, It is for those who think otherwise to justify their position. I am wholly unable to imagine how they could set about it, just as I am unable to imagine how we could remain on earth then and yet not undergo God's wrath; and I have yet to find anyone who believes that we will, who has attempted any solution of the problem. One thing is plain enough to me: if the apocalyptic terrors were (somehow) to start at this instant, we would be the first to bear the brunt of them; and the greatest of these horrors would not be starvation or beheading; it would be the wrath of God accompanying them, the one thing that would permit them to manifest themselves.
So I make one appeal to those who place 1. Thess. 4:13-17 with the great final "parousia" they visualize to make their position and the inevitable consequences thereof crystal clear. It is no use saying that we are wrong, or suggesting that our feelings about the Great Tribulation are actuated by mere cowardice. That sort of thing gets us nowhere.
Admittedly, it would have been much more convenient for us if Scripture had declared plainly, one way or the other, precisely when 1. Thess. 4:13—17 will be fulfilled. The silence of Scripture counts as much against one view as it does against the other. We have to take these things as we find them and accept the solution of the problem that squares with the facts and, above all, to avoid appeals to emotion rather than to fact, for nothing is gained by emotionalism. Some ask, for instance, why we should expect to escape the Great Tribulation, considering that tribulation is our lot on earth? Apart from the obvious retort, "Why should we expect to have to endure it?" the best answer is: "Look at the context of Matt. 24:21 and Rev. 7:14—Daniel's prophecy, the Holy Place in the Temple, flight on a sabbath, the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel. What right have we to try to put ourselves into such circumstances, which specifically belong to Israel, and not to us at all?" For the point is simply this: ought we to seek anything at all that rightly belongs to others? If we are not to covet Israel's blessings, why should we covet their afflictions?
The Thessalonians were alarmed; but their alarm was not at the terrors of the Day of the Lord but at its supposed presence, for that meant that the Lord's promises to them had failed. Hence the Apostle Paul concentrated on the point that the Day of the Lord was not present, that certain things which had not yet taken place were to happen first (2. Thess. 2:1—5). What makes courage under martyrdom possible is hope. To show calm courage in the fact of utter, hopeless despair, when even conviction that God has kept faith has gone, is probably too much to ask of any man. How could Paul urge courage and endurance on men who were correctly assured that God had failed them? He certainly did not make any such attempt. He reproved them, not for lack of courage, but for lack of faith—a reproof so gentle, yet so persuasive: "Do you not remember that, still being with you, I told you these things?" The Thessalonians had, in some measure at least, lost faith. Yet they proved that they were true saints by not losing moral as well, by not lapsing into heathen darkness as so many do in our day. Because of this, God could and did help them in Paul's reassurance that God's promises to them had not failed, that the Day of the Lord was not present. And this reassurance is for us as well. Whatever else may happen to us, we shall not while on earth see the Day of the Lord or, for that matter, the fulfilment of any of the prophecies that belong to or are concerned with it and with Israel. Yet so many lose faith. They carelessly assume that 1. Thess 4:13—17 coincides with the Day of the Lord; though what Paul says in 2. Thess. 2:1—5 is plain enough, if only we would believe it in simplicity.
Dr. Bullinger has met with severe criticism for declaring that deferring the fulfilment of 1. Thess. 4:13—17 till after the resumption of God's dealings with Israel "takes all the blessedness out of it" ("How to Enjoy the Bible" p. 246). It certainly does, and out of 2. Cor. 5:19 too. This last is the point that both he and his critics missed, and it is the crucial point. The fact that his claim is made out to mean merely salvation from persecution and distress only shows how weak is the case against him. When the hour of judgment on the whole world strikes Rom. 11:15 and 2. Cor. 5:19 will go out of commission. To suggest a prophetic scheme that implies that they will still be in force while God's judgments and wrath come into force is simply to propound what is a contradiction in terms. Dr. Bullinger was right in this, however faulty was some of the reasoning that led to his conclusion.
The full extent of the reign of grace may perhaps be still an open question, yet the fact that it applies to all of God's people at the present time is unquestionable. Moreover, there is no doubt at all that Israel's casting away is world-conciliation (Rom. 11:15). So long as Israel remains cast away, world-conciliation must remain as well.
Of the question whether the rescue (1. Thess. 1:10) is from or out of indignation (Vol. 16, p. 60), there is one thing further to be said, If we look closely, we will see that the Greek reads "iEsoun ton ruomenon Emas," "Jesus, the One rescuing us." The most natural way to understand this is to suppose that it means something going on now, not a rescue that is to take place wholly in the future, in the then far future. Paul could perfectly well have written, "who will be rescuing," as in 2. Cor. 1:10, if that was what he meant (see also Rom. 7:24). In Col. 1:13 he announces that the Father rescues us out of the authority of the darkness. We are out of the indignation, once and for all. But that must not be made to mean that we are out of tribulation, sorrows or trials. Note, too, that what Jesus rescues us out of or from is not "the coming indignation." It is not the coming or the indignation that is in view, but "the indignation—that which is coming," to render it freely. As to whether there will be any Gentile believers left on earth during the Seventieth Seven, Scripture is silent. My own opinion is that there will be none; because all Gentiles who will come to believe will naturally seek to be proselytes of Israel, and no doubt the faithful of Israel will be glad to receive them as proselytes.
Perhaps it might help to list some of the occurrences of erchomenos, coming. The first is in the words of John the Baptist (Matt. 3:11), "Yet the One coming after me is stronger than I, Whose sandals I am not competent to bear." Next (Matt. 11:3), "Art Thou the coming One, or may we be hoping for a different One?" The next is Matt. 21:9, "Blessed is the One coming in (the) Lord's name." Matt. 23:29 is the same. The reader will readily perceive that all these are associated in some way with Prophecy. The first in Mark is an exception (6:31), but the other two tell the same story. The former (11:9) is paralleled by Luke 19:38 and also by the previous account of an entry into Jerusalem in John 12:13. The latter (11:10) is peculiar to Mark, but the prophetic atmosphere is the same. This applies also to Luke 7:19, 20; 13:35; 19:38; John 1:15, 27; 3:31; 6:14; 11:27; 1. Thess. 1:10; Heb. 10:37; Rev. 1:4; 4:8.
But what of the others? The question becomes easier to answer when we observe that all these occurrences of the verb are Middle in form; whereas the other participle of the verb coming, elthOn, and its grammatical variants, is Active in form. It is hard to convey this distinction in English; but we can achieve some understanding of it if we observe that elthOn means, simply, coming, whereas erchomenos has the force of coming of one's own accord or account, coming of one's own volition. That is the force in Matt. 3:11 and the others listed above. It is not only about One Who is going to come, but of One Who has determined to come, to come entirely freely and deliberately, and not under any sort of persuasion or compulsion. This distinction comes out very noticeably in the first two occurrences of elthOn, Matt. 2:8, 9, strongly contrasted though they are. Not even Herod had the audacity to claim that he would be coming to worship the Lord Jesus voluntarily. In the other, the star simply came; in itself it had no choice in the matter. In the third (Matt. 2:11), the entry into the house was what was in view, without any question of special purpose or effort, so we have just the ordinary plain form of the verb, elthontes. Similarly, the question of Joseph's own volition does not arise in the fourth, Matt. 2:23.
So we reach the first exception to the prophetic context of the form erchomenos, already noticed, Mark 6:31. Here the suggestion is purposeful coming; but the corresponding going away (here and Mark 6:33 only) has not that force. They did not particularly want to go away, in the sense that the many who were coming evidently wanted to come. In Luke 6:47 the sense is, "Everyone coming to Me by choice and hearing My words and doing them." A good paraphraser would certainly try to convey this idea, and it is a measure of the failure of the New English Bible that its paraphrase so often neglects such opportunities. In Luke 13:14 the sense is: "Choose to come on the six days to get cured, and not on the day of the Sabbath." In Luke 15:21 the elder son was plainly determined to come, he did not just happen to do so. Luke 16:21 suggests the eagerness of the dogs to do their horrible act, and 18:5 the woman's eager persistence. Simon's coming was plainly purposeful in 23:26. In John 6:35 the coming is by deliberate choice, as in Luke 6:47. In Acts 5:15, there is plain indication that there was no question of Peter simply happening to pass by. Similarly, in Rom. 15:29 Paul's coming was to be of his own choice. So also in 1. Cor. 4:18. In 2. Cor. 11:4, one coming on his own account is proclaiming another Jesus. The delicacy of Paul's request in 2. Tim. 4:13 is hidden in most versions. for the meaning is, "when you come on your own account." It was in no sense an order to come, by Paul. The idea is much the same in 3. John 3. The coming of the brethren obviously was of their own choice. At first glance, the final occurrence (Rev.7:14) may seem anomalous; but this, I suggest, is only a superficial appearance. They are coming of their own accord out of the Great Tribulation because they have gone of their own accord into it.
This last may seem startling at first; yet it can readily be put to the test by examining the occurrences of thlipsis, affliction or tribulation. The first, Matt. 13:21, speaks of tribulation or persecution coming because of the Word. Surrender the Word, and the tribulation or persecution disappear. The tribulation and troubles in Matt. 24:9 are "because of My name." Obviously, the Great Tribulation is against the faithful of Israel. The testimony of Mark is similar. By choosing to be faithful they were choosing tribulation also. Though the affliction of the woman in John 16:21 is not necessarily voluntary, it is here an illustration of the affliction of the believers in the Lord Jesus which are avoided simply by not believing, see also v. 33. The affliction in Egypt and Canaan, however, was involuntary (Acts 7:11), but that does not apply to the four other occurrences in Acts, and this is so for most of the remaining occurrences.
We reach the conclusion, then, that when the Middle Voice form erchomai is used of the coming of the Lord Jesus, it is in connection with His promised coming to Israel and is an act which He will carry out on His own account, of His own volition. In accord with this is the closing testimony of Scripture (Rev. 22:20). If in the face of all this anyone should still insist on confusing parousia, presence, with the word erchomai, he will be solely responsible for the darkness and confusion of mind which must certainly follow. The plain truth is: the Lord Jesus will not be coming for us, but for Israel. Instead, we shall first be going to Him to meet Him in the air.
As I pass in mental review the many books and pamphlets I have seen on what is so loosely called "the Second Coming," I am impressed by the lack of clearness or the lack of candour of most of them. I do not suggest that either fault is deliberate; it is simply the natural consequence of starting with a ready-made solution instead of approaching the problem as a whole with a completely open mind. For instance, it is so easy to declare, as Mr. Larsen did, that there is no change of subject at 1. Thess. 5:1. Admittedly, the word de, yet, does not always mean more than a minor change of subject; nevertheless, more frequently it undoubtedly introduces a considerable change. Just how considerable the change may be is determined by the context, not by interpreting the context on the assumption that there is no change of subject.
The examples of a complete change of subject in this epistle are 1. Thess. 2:17; 3:13; 4:9, 13; 5:4, 8, 12, 14, 23. The change is comparatively slight in 3:3, 6, 11; 4:10; 5:3; though, even so, some might question their slightness. The cases where there is no change of subject at all are easily enumerated: there are none! And why should there be any? The grammars define de as an adversative connective. The Apostle Paul was a highly educated man, and he could write Greek better than many of us can write English. If he had wished, he could easily have said instead:
In spite of this, "the times and the eras" seem still to trouble some. It has been suggested that here the Greek means "these times and these eras," that is to say, particular times and eras of which Paul had been writing. By way of illustration Col. 3:8 is adduced, for here the literal Greek has to be rendered "all these," the details of them being listed at once. As here it does not refer to what precedes it, there is no reason why the suggested" these" in 1. Thess. 5:1 should have to do so. We should not forget, either, that there is no rule of Greek compelling us to render "the" by "these," but only English idiom in certain types of context. Because we must sometimes say "these" it does not follow at all that we must always or even generally do so.
Let us, then, re-examine "tOn chronOn kai tOn kairOn" in 1. Thess. 5:1. If for the sake of argument we assume that it means "these times and these seasons," we naturally have to ask ourselves "What times and what seasons?" A glance at any concordance of the Greek will show that neither word occurs before in this epistle, and seasons only once, in the singular, in 2:17. Plainly, then, it cannot apply to anything previously written in the epistle, and certainly not to the previous six verses. These verses do contain words with an element of time in them: first or before-most in v. 16, at the same time and always in v. 17; but it would be an absurd flight of fancy to connect them with "the times and the seasons." As already pointed out, 1. Thess. 4:13-17 is concerned with one single event, so the double plural of this expression cannot possibly apply to it. There are words connected with time in what follows: day and night in vv. 2, 4, 5, 7, 8; and that is all. Obviously, neither of these can follow the precedent set in Co1. 3:8; so what is said about it (referred to above) is irrelevant.
The plural form of the word chronos, times, occurs in eleven or perhaps twelve passages, of which the first three (or four), all in Luke's Gospel (8:27, 29; 20:9; 23:8) are irrelevant to our present purpose. Of the rest, we will be examining Acts 1:7; 3:21; we are considering 1. Thess. 5:1; Acts 17:30 speaks of God "condoning the times of ignorance"; Rom. 16:25; 2. Tim. 1:9; Titus 1:2 all speak of "times eonian." Finally, 1. Peter 1:20 says "yet manifested on last of the times."
Here I must urge every reader to study all these and then ask himself candidly One question: In the face of them, how can H the times" in 1. Thess. 5:1 by any possibility refer to One single event? If the answer is "No," and it is hard to see what else it can be, how can they possibly refer to 1. Thess. 4:13-17, which certainly is one single event? Of course they cannot! And I must add that the opinion of translators, paraphrasers and commentators, no matter how eminent, is worthless in opposition to these unquestionable facts.
So we reach the inescapable conclusion that apart from 1. Thess. 5:1 itself there is nothing whatever about "times and seasons" in the epistle; so we have no choice but to turn back to the only possible place to which to turn back: Acts 1:7, and accept the consequences.
Some twenty years ago I would have objected on "dispensational" grounds to this proceeding; and I am inclined to think that the repugnance to it shown by many has dispensational theory as its driving power. Yet, surely, by this time we ought to have managed to shake off such obsessions by the sheer force of the knowledge that there are no dispensational boundaries whatever in Acts. The account covers the period between Pentecost and Paul's arrival in Rome, the two subsequent years being just mentioned. He evangelized the Thessalonians about half way through this period, about half the aforesaid twenty years. Is it, therefore, so very surprising if he referred back to a most important event that occurred so short a time before? No dramatic change outside the Acts account itself had occurred in the intervening period. The events recorded in the first half of Acts were at least as important for Paul's converts as they are for us. Why, then, assume that they were in a state of blank ignorance of them?
Actually, it is we ourselves who, generally, are in such a state. Few of us are "accurately aware" or what Paul taught in 1. Thess. 5:1, 2, otherwise we would not find ourselves in any difficulty about it. We flatter our conceit in persuading ourselves that we are more enlightened than the Thessalonians, though, in truth, they had knowledge which we can acquire, in some measure, only by careful and painstaking research into the written Word.
For us the problem can be reduced to one question: When will the prophecy of 1. Thess. 4:13-17 be fulfilled? To this three answers have been given: that it will never be fulfilled, that it will be fulfilled first, before any other event prophesied in Scripture; that it will be fulfilled some time during the series of events indicated in the great prophecy of the Lord Jesus in Matthew 24.
We can dismiss the first off hand; so the choice lies between the other two. Contrary to what many people seem to think, 1. Thess. 4:13-17 is not a completely isolated statement, even though it is specially described as a "Lord's word," for the whole of the previous matter in the epistle works up to it. To show this it is only necessary to cite 1:3, 9; 2:12 and the general tone of the rest. The core of the epistle is from 4:9 to 5:11 and is in two corresponding sections. Each section is in three parts, each begins with "Now" (de) see 4:9, 10, 13 and 5:1, 3, 4. Each member of the second three is in plain contrast with its opposite member of the first three. The first section of three closes with practical advice: "So that, be consoling one another with these words" (4:18). The second section closes similarly (5:11). Lastly, the epistle ends with general admonition (5:12-22) and a benediction (23-28). This analysis calls for most careful examination. If it had received this generally, much nonsense about the epistle would never have been written.
No time is specified for the fulfilment of 1. Thess. 4:13-17, no indication of any sort is given which might help to place it within the time-framework of any other prophecy. The contrast with what is said in 1. Thess. 5:1-10 is so extreme that we can safely affirm that 1. Thess. 4:13-17 must take place before the Day of the Lord. Apart from this there is nothing to indicate when it is to take place. So far as this epistle tells us, it might occur at any moment (but see Vol. 14, pp. 186-192; 16:101-109). Precisely when it will occur is known only to God; but the prophecy, read in the light of 1. Thess. 1:10, indicates most plainly that there is no reason known to us at this present time why it' might not now be fulfilled at any moment and that we ought to be waiting for its fulfilment in the same way as the Thessalonians were, as discussed in Vol. 22, pp. 252-261. The first of the papers noted above demonstrates that the writers of the Greek Scriptures realized that a considerable time lay ahead before the coming of the Lord Jesus for Israel. Many place 1. Thess. 4 : 13-17 simultaneously, or nearly so, with this coming. If they are correct, it is very hard to see how the Thessalonians could properly have been "waiting" for something which they ought to have known could not possibly occur for a long time to come.
I cannot believe that they were doing anything so foolish, and so wrong. I am convinced that the next event for them, and for us, in Prophecy is the fulfilment of 1. Thess. 4:13-17.
Many objections have been made to this; all are based on deductions from other parts of Scripture.
First, it is alleged that the word parousia, presence in 4:15 links this prophecy with the others in which the word occurs. This implies that there is only one parousia. The point has been argued, exhaustively in Vol. 16, pp. 55-59 and more recently in Vol. 21, pp. 268-276; and until some attempt is made to refute them, nothing more remains to be said.
Second, it is asserted that Acts 3:21 stands in the way of the fulfilment of 1. Thess. 4:13-17 until such time as the Lord Jesus leaves the heavens. What is not explained is why anyone should want to set these two Scriptures against one another. We are bound to affirm that 1. Thess. 4:13-17 is not a part of the "restoration-times of all things. . ." of Acts 3:21; but nobody has shown or can show any sufficient reason why the act of leaving heaven should not result in the fulfilment of 1. Thess. 4:13-17, on the one hand, and the start of the restoration-times on the other. Paul simply announces one single event that will follow the Lord's leaving heaven; Acts 3:21 a whole series of other events. It is not as if this series were one single event. That point is very carefully guarded by the plural times, which cover the period from the moment when God begins to deal with His enemies till He has finished. To suggest that 1. Thess. 4:13-17 begins these times is to contradict Acts 3:21. All the confusion about this springs from one thing: mixing what belongs to Israel with what belongs to us. The great change that marks the resumption of God's dealings with Israel—the Lord leaving heaven—also marks the cessation of our direct concern with earthly matters and our removal to the Lord's presence.
Third, it is suggested that 1. Tim. 4:1 somehow links us to "the apostasy" in 2. Thess. 2:3. The paper "What is Apostasy?" in our August, 1962, issue makes it plain that this idea is somewhat far-fetched. If 1. Tim. 4:1 is to be called "the apostasy" also, why not 1. Tim. 6:5 and 2. Tim. 2:19? Actually apostasia occurs only twice, in Acts 21:21 and 2. Thess. 2:3, and the former has no "the." No! "The Apostasy" in 2. Thess. 2:3 is something very special indeed; and the detailing of the events that accompany it clearly shows that it has nothing to do with ourselves. Paul was telling the Thessalonians about something that they, and we, are not to experience on earth.
R.B.W. Last updated 22.3.2006