Vol. 20 New Series August, 1958 No. 4
THE INTERPRETATION OF THE THESSALONIAN EPISTLES

According to the Apostle Paul, the Thessalonians had turned back to God from their idols to serve God living and true, and to wait for His Son from the heavens.

The man who questioned whether Barnabas was an apostle of the same rank, and in the same sense, as Paul has now cast doubt on this statement. He asserts that the Day of the Lord was their hope. He tells us that 1. Thess. 5:1-11 "definitely asserts that the saints will not be taken up before the Day of the Lord" (to quote his exact words), and adds, correctly this time: "And there will be signs in the heavens manifested before that day starts (Acts 2:19, 20), and those signs will take place after the tribulation (Matt. 24:29)," that is, the Great Tribulation.

If, then, his assertion that the Day of the Lord was their hope is correct, only two alternatives are possible. Either 1. Thess. 1:10 is incorrect, or God's Son from the heavens will come to the saints before the Great Tribulation and remain with them throughout its course, in which case the prophecy that the Son of Mankind will come after the Tribulation (Matt. 24:29, 30) is itself incorrect. Either alternative, then, involves contradicting a clear statement of Scripture.

No doubt the reply would be that the Thessalonians, and we ourselves, could perfectly well be waiting for God's Son even if we knew that many years would have to pass first.

Assuming that these intervening events were going to be comparatively quiet and trivial, it might, perhaps, be possible to wait, literally wait, for some great event which would succeed them; but in this case they are not. They are the most terrible the world will ever know, so tremendous that all past history fades into insignificance beside them. Men's hearts will be failing them for fear. In such circumstances men do not wait for something in the distant future: the menace of the present, the terror of what may happen in the next moment, these fill their thoughts to the exclusion of everything else. The oblivion of sleep or unconsciousness; even death itself, are the only relief one can wait fot in such an extremity. I know, for I experienced something of the horrors of them in the (First World War. Those who have not shared such an experience have no right to pronounce on this matter. In the light of what I have found for myself nothing can ever shake my conviction that when the terrible events which will precede the Day of the Lord begin, nobody will be able to wait for anything but what is apparently immediately ahead, and certainly not for something which may-be anything from seven to fifty years away. It is altogether contrary to human nature. If a series of events lies ahead, one can actually wait only for the first of the series. Moreover, if the Lord Jesus were to be present on earth during the Great Tribulation, that would contradict Matt. 24:23-28.

The only reasonable explanation of the behaviour of the Thessalonians is that they were expecting to escape altogether the wrath of God and the Great Tribulation and felt disillusioned when their expectation was apparently failing. And who shall blame them?

If the Thessalonians had been waiting for the Great Tribulation as the preliminary to the Day of the Lord, it would have been ridiculous for them to be so disconcerted when they appeared to be starting to get what they were waiting for, when some of their beloved ones were being put to repose through Jesus. But they were not. They were waiting for God's Son, not for tribulation or wrath; and Paul's whole purpose in writing to them his first epistle was to make it plain that though some would fall asleep, those who were to remain until the presence of the Lord would not outstrip them. So far from showing that the Thessalonians were waiting for events far ahead, 1. Thess. 4:13 proves that they were taken by surprise because some of their number had died already. We are told now that Paul "had not made it clear that the dead would be raised to share in the blessed hope," but that hardly covers the facts. It is plain that what had disturbed them was that there were any dead at all in their community.

Reassured about this, and now clear that what some in our day call "the any-moment theory" was incorrect, a few of them apparently started to wait for events instead of God's Son and to hear that their troubles meant that the Day of the Lord was already present; so Paul corrects this by telling them what will precede it; not because they will have to endure these preceding events, but to show them that their present sufferings formed no part of them.

But what about the exhortations to watch?

The verb grEgoreO occurs some 23 times in the Greek Scriptures. It implies a state of active wakefulness and, significantly, its first occurrence is in Matt. 24:42. Here the sign of the Son of Mankind will be appearing in heaven, and then will come about His presence. The disciples were warned, just before, that no one is aware of the day and the hour; but days are short times, and it is very evident from the context that those who are to see the day will be able to perceive that it is not far off, and certainly not too far for them to be on the watch for it constantly.

When we come to 1. Thess. 5:6, 10 we find no such urgent call to watch as a matter of vital importance. Being of the day, we may not be drowsing. On the contrary, we may be watching and sober. In the second reference, "whether we may be watching, or be drowsing; at the same time, together with Him, we should be living." We should be watching because such watchfulness is our proper posture, just as drowsing is altogether improper for us. And nothing is indicated as something to be watched for. It simply amounts to this: alertness and watchfulness are signs that we are the sort of people we ought to be, not an imperative necessity as in Matthew 24. There is nothing even remotely approaching any threat to us in 1. Thess. 5:4-11; but simply a setting-out of what we ought to do because of what our Lord Jesus Christ has done for us. It is all in accord with pure reigning grace.

The word "sober," nEPhaleos, occurs only in 1. Tim. 3:2, 11 and Titus 2:2; and its verb nEphO in 1. Thess. 5:6, 8; 2. Tim. 4:5; 1. Peter 1:13; 4: 7; 5:8. Apart from the last three, they are entirely Pauline words. The association of grEgoreO and katheudO (drowse), found here, occurs elsewhere only in Matthew 25 and 26 and in the parallel passages in Mark 13 and 14; but in these there is a definite command to watch (Matt. 24:42; 25:13; 26:38, 41; Mark 13:35, 37; 14:34, 38). This command occurs else where only in Acts 20:31 and 1. Cor. 16:13. The atmosphere of urgency in all these is very different from that of 1. Thess. 5:6, 10. The second of these two supplies the answer. Our "living, at the same time, together with Him" is not dependent on whether we are watching or drowsing. We are to watch and not to drowse because we ought to wish to do so; and do it, not because we shall lose our inheritance if we fail as the faithless of Israel will, but because it is our Lord's wish.

Why is this watchfulness impressed on us? An experience of a friend of mine may illustrate the point. Many years ago he was staying at a house lit by gas only, so by each bed was a table with a candle and matches. One night he dreamed that he had set his bedclothes on fire. In great distress he searched for the fire and, failing to find it, lit his candle to see where it was! Then he awoke completely—and laughed so much at the foolishness of his drowsy act that it was some time before he could get to sleep again. The story gave his hosts great merriment next morning.

Paul's intention here is plain. If we drowse and fail to keep our wits about is, as sons of the day should, we shall commit similar foolishness. And so many of us do drowse; and that is why the darkness cheats them of the enlightenment they ought to be enjoying, so that they become not only victims of false teachings, but exponents and propagators of them. It is distressing, even appalling, to find how fre quently one is forced to counter false doctrine in these pages. Although I do my best to remedy it chiefly by setting out the truth in its stead, nevertheless it ought not to exist to be countered, and would not if all our brethren were wide awake, for they would then counter it for themselves. Our duty is to be wide-awake and to be sober; and it is significant that Paul's exhortations to soberness occur in his last epistles in the canon. The context of Peter's exhortations to soberness shows that he has the closing days of this eon particularly in mind. The growing lack of soberness in the world suggests that these days are not far off.

We conclude, then, that watching for some coming event is not the theme of 1. Thess. 5:4-10. They were told, and so are we, that "we" may be watching and sober because we "are Sons of light and sons of day." It is "they" over whom extermination is standing who are in danger of "a night thief" and who "may by no means escape."

The passage does not say that the Thessalonians will never experience the Day of the Lord. If they have already met their Lord they certainly will, but it will be for them from the standpoint above the earthly scene. For them it will indeed be day, and the horrors which it will bring to those in darkness will certainly not overtake those who are "not of night nor yet of darkness." The day when it dawns will be a day of vindication for their Lord, and will justify fully all they suffered and worked for on earth during man's day.

Their permanent state of waiting for God's Son (anamenO, 1. Thess. 1:10, the only occurrence in the Greek Scriptures) should be ours until we meet Him. We have no sign of any sort to watch for, as those have to whom Matt. 24:30, 33, 43 is addressed. Nor will there be when our great moment comes for us. In 1. Thess. 4:13-17 there is no indication that there will be anything for us to see or hear till the trumpet sounds and we find ourselves snatched away to meet the Lord in the air; and, once more, there is a most notable absence of any hint of time. It is really rather amusing to find those who insist on placing this somewhere within the times and seasons of Prophecy accusing us, who refuse such additions, of adding to Scripture when we point out that such times are conspicuously absent.

The critic already referred to writes of 1. Thess. 1:10:


The "all" here is quite charming—as if the fact were of absolutely no moment! But the significant point is that this same person is writing about "The Coming of the Lord Jesus, Christ in the Thessalonian Epistles." Note: the coming. And yet of the six passages he discusses, the word "come" (erchomai) is to be found in only one. This is 2. Thess. 1:4-10; and the tenth verse does refer to the Lord's coming, yet our critic dismisses it thus:
And this of the only passage in the two epistles which does explicitly mention the Lord's coming. Could perversity go further? So obsessed is he with his pet idea that it is parousia, not erchomai, which means coming that he cannot even trouble himself to consult a concordance of the Greek.

This stupid contempt for concordance leads him into a "howler" at the very start. He has written, very properly, of people's beliefs:


And then, discussing the first of his six passages, he produces, the "howler," thus of Matthew 24:
The italics are my own, and I would draw special attention to the words thus marked, for that is the very thing our critic has failed to do. The word "wrath" in 1. Thess. 1:10 is orgE and the word "vial" is phialE; and not once, not even once, does Scripture speak of "vials of wrath." The dosest to a coincidence of these two words is where, after the last of the vials, and the succeeding earthquake, we read of Babylon being given the cup of the wine of the fury of God's wrath (Rev. 16:19). Nowhere at all are we, or the Thessalonians, associated with the vials.

Nor is this all of the critic's inaccuracies. Revelation 15 does not "see the saints on the sea of glass, "but" those who come off conquerers" (or "gaining conquest" as Rotherham puts it) "out of the wild beast and out of his image and out of the number of his name." That these are "saints" is not disputed, but the point is that this passage does not say so, and our critic ought not to pretend that it does simply in order to make out somehow that these are the church which is Christ's body.

We are, it is to be hoped, agreed that wrath and tribulation are not the same thing; but we should not on that account assume that the Great Tribulation and the wrath of God are separated in time. Nor is it correct to assert that "the Great Tribulation is man's wrath." If this should be so, since "except those days were lopped off no flesh at all would be saved," man's wrath would involve man's wholesale suicide. The fact is, we are not told a great deal about either, so we ought not to@ draw on imagination to fill in the gaps.

The true objection to the idea of the church which is Christ's body going through the Great Tribulation is ,not that the tribulation itseIi is God's wrath, but that it occurs during a period characterized by the extreme of man's rebellion and God's judgment. This critic's grotesque superficiality is shown by a further remark he makes about what he calls "the Jewish remnant":


Has he never heard that Israel are under the Law and we are not? We do not lie under the doom of a rejected and broken covenant, for the simple reason that we are not and never have been in such covenant relationship. That makes all the difference. And where are we told that Christ has borne wrath for Israel? Certainly this assertion was not "severely tested beforehand." The reader who turns up Rom. 5:9 will have the truth of the matter before him:
This sentiment permeates those portions of the epistles addressed personally to the Thessalonians. After the first reference to judgment (1. Thess. 5:1-7) Paul refers them to their armour, ending with" the helmet, the expectation of salvation, seeing that God did not appoint us to wrath." After the next (2. Thess. 1:6-10) Paul prays for them, having pointed out that ease instead of affliction is to be their lot. After the third (2. Thess. 2:3-12) Paul adds:
This leaves no room for the Thessalonians to share the judgments.

Of the sealing of twelve thousand of each of Israel's tribes in Revelation 7 we are told in an assertion of masterly audacity:


A more perfect example of the technique of conveying a lie by stating part of the truth in a wholly false setting would be difficult to find anywhere. Who would imagine from this that nowhere at all in the book is "the church which is Christ's body" mentioned either, or even "the church" by itself? The seven churches of Asia, and each church of the seven by name, are referred to, and so are "the churches" in the closing message (22:16); but of "the church" itself there is nothing at all. Yet the critic finds it! According to him, Rev. 7:9-17 is "the first view of the Church in glory"; 8:1, "silence in heaven at the presentation of the Church." The man-child of Rev. 12 becomes "the revived state of the Church during the great tribulation"; 14:14-16 "the taking up of the Church"; 15:1-4, "the Church in glory"; 19:1-9, "the Church in Heaven"; 19:11-21, "the Lord descends with the Church glorified"; 20:4-6, "the Church enthroned." Even "Christ is seen coming forth on the white horse with the armies of heaven (the Church)." Could irreverent folly go further?

As a matter of fact, Israel is mentioned in Rev. 2:14 and 21:12 as well as in 7:4; so even in this our critic cannot be bothered to be accurate! But even if Israel had been mentioned only once, what would it have proved? That the Revelation has very little to do with Israel? But neither James, 1. and 2. Peter or Jude use the name even once, and Hebrews only three times, as many as the Revelation itself does. The word "church" is not to be found either in 2. Timothy or Titus. What does that prove? Nor is "church" to be found anywhere in Matthew 24 and 25. Is that another "striking testimony"? If not, why not? Actually, in the four Gospels" church" occurs only three times, in Matthew (16: 18 and 18: 17 twice). If the church which is Christ's body is to suffer the terrors described in the Revelation, why was He so careful to conceal the fact; and Paul also?

But there is a word which is found all over the Revelation and occurs in it more often than in Acts and all the epistles together: gE, land or earth. The book is a prophecy of God's conquest of the earth. We, whose calling and destiny are among the celestials, are right outside its scope. Another most conspicuous characteristic of the book is its pronounced Hebrew character, not only in its linguistic peculiarities but also in its use of the Hebrew Scriptures. This stands out conspicuously in the letters to the Seven Churches, and it is extraordinary that any rational person could ever have associated them in any way with the Evangel of the uncircumcision. Their atmosphere is completely different from that of Paul's Epistles, as a comparison with the letter to the church at Ephesus with Ephesians or what is said in Acts about the church at Ephesus will show. The fact that Ephesians may have been a circular letter to several other churches as well makes no difference to the point. Further, the four animals are like the cherubim, and the rest of the imagery of the visions is completely of the Hebrew Scriptures and utterly foreign to Paul's Epistles. On the other hand, many of Paul's key-words are absent from Revelation; and where any do appear the context is notably different, as a concordant study of such words as chara (joy), charis (grace),eirEnE (peace), dikaios (righteous), dikaiosunE (righteousness) and others will show beyond any doubt.

For a very full treatment of this matter, the student should consult Dr. Bullinger's book "The Apocalypse or The Day of the Lord," in which he devotes ninety seven pages to it with full references.

There is a rather pleasing story of a small boy who, as small boys often do, developed a great interest in collecting moths. Someone told him he ought to study a book on the subject, so he saved his money and went to a book shop to buy one. He purchased an attractive looking book and took it home; but when he examined it he was disgusted to discover that in spite of its attractive title, "Hints to Mothers" there was not a word about moths in it. It was all about rearing babies! Important, no doubt, but not what the poor little fellow wanted. Our critic is in much the same position in looking for the body of Christ in the book of Revelation. It is all about something quite different! No doubt the prominence of the seven churches in the first three chapters confused him as the accidental resemblance of words con fused the little boy, but this time inexcusably. If the little boy's book had been all about moths and for "moth-ers," there would have been no room in it for babies; and, similarly, if the Revelation had been all about the church which is Christ's body and a sort of unnecessary supplement to Paul's Epistles, there would have been no room in it for the earthly matters which do not concern the body, or for Israel, whom they do concern. It is a difficult enough book as it is; with the body forced into its pages, it becomes sheer chaos. All this is only another form of the relentless campaign against Israel. to rob them of their birthright and nullify God's promises to them. That it is also a campaign against our selves, to overthrow Paul and rob us of our celestial standing, does not seem to matter to these men, as the quotation given further on will show with horrid plainness to those who have eyes to see.

The reason for the abject failure of all these criticisms is plain: having found that Scripture does not say what he wants it to say, our critic has filled up the deficiencies from his traditions. If we are honest, we have got to admit that neither of the Thessalonian Epistles gives us a complete picture of the events it prophesies. To fill in the outlines, we have got to relate them to other Scriptures, to the rest of Paul's Epistles where they refer to Christ's body, to Daniel and the Revelation where they refer to the Day of the Lord .and the man of sin, because the latter belong to Hebrew Prophecy and have nothing to do with the body. Force it to oe present on earth with the man of sin and in the seventieth seven, and you at once introduce into Paul's Evangel and the :secrets which crown it matters which are wholly discordant with them. To those not interested in either, that does not matter. Our critic, asking whether the Secret of Eph. 3:6-12 was revealed only to Paul, dismisses it in twelve lines in his booklet, thus:


Not one of these assertions is true as it stands. It is impossible to discuss any subject rationally with one who is so inaccurate and irrational. The word secret or mystery is not to be found in Galatians. Gal. 1:23 says "evangelizing the faith." There were twelve apostles again when Barnabas led Paul to them in Acts 9:27 (Acts 6:2). Eph. 3:5 does not say "by the Spirit" but "in spirit."

In another irreverent guess, we are informed of 1. Thess. 5:1-11 that the Thessalonians "knew the times and seasons." As this matter is widely misunderstood, it should be pointed out in addition to what is written on p. 88 that 1. Thess. 4:13-17 is one instantaneous event; so even if they had known when it was to take place (and they certainly did not) it could not have been properly described plurally as "the times and the seasons." This expression must refer back to Acts 1:7 which itself is an echo of Matt. 24:36. Those two passages are very solemn and very definite; yet we are intended to suppose that in the short time between Pentecost and Paul's visit to Thessalonica the information had leaked out, though it had been reserved by the Father and withheld by the Lord Jesus from His disciples.

Lastly, 2. Thess. 1:4-10 crops up again. We are now told that:


Certain words in this quotation, which I have put in italics, are not in the original, as Paul left it, at all. They are added in order to give the sense required-that the whole thing will occur "when the tribulators are recompensed with tribulation," to quote its author's rather odd words. He has got to make out somehow that the" ease" does not start till the "unveiling"; only, unfortunately for him, Paul omits this. Incidentally, the word comfort, parakaleO, is not to be found in this passage, in which there is nothing to force us to conclude that either affliction or ease is not to start till the unveiling. Indeed," ease" (anesis) or "rest" are wholly inappropriate words to describe anyone's experiences at the instant of 2. Thess. 1:7-10, as already pointed out (p. 86). The other four occurrences of the word (Acts 24:23; 2. Cor. 2:13, 7:5, 8:13) bear this out.

I take my stand on the solid ground that no prophetic event of any sort is ever forecast as preceding the fulfilment of 1. Thess. 4:13-17. There is no room for any such event in the Apostle Paul's teaching.

One can never be absolutely certain of not misunderstanding Scripture; but when one encounters opposition so wildly inaccurate as in the foregoing quotations, moderate confidence. is fully justified. I am terming the author of them "critic" because he has deliberately challenged my teaching on this subject and also on the apostles. I believe he is utterly mistaken; but I would blame him all the more if he should turn out to be right after all, because I can hardly imagine a worse offence against truth than creating prejudice by defending it with arguments so faulty and assertions so inaccurate.

POSTSCRIPT.
Since the foregoing was completed, a friend has shown a copy to my critic, with instructive results.

The critic calls the third paragraph a "nonsensical idea." He seems, somehow, to be unable to grasp the fact that it is impossible to be waiting for an event which is known to be a long time ahead. A woman at a railway station is waiting for the train bringing her long-absent husband back to her. A friend sees her and asks: "When do you expect him?" If she replied: "Not for at least a week," the friend would rightly regard her as having gone crazy.

The critic asserts that my fourth paragraph assumes that "the saints will be in the same state of terror as the worldling." But "terror" does not come into the argument. However free from fear the saint may be in such circumstances, the fact remains that if he knows that a whole series of tremendous events must occur before God's Son can arrive, he will be waiting for them. Nobody, however well-intentioned, can possibly be waiting for anything but the next occurrence in a known programme; particularly when he is aware that many years must pass before the long-desired climax can come. 1. Thess. 4:13-17 plainly means that some were in danger of sorrowing as those who have no expectation over some of their number who were reposing. It is perfectly obvious that they thought that something had gone amiss with God's plans for them; and it is plain from the fifth chapter that they had had at least a lurking fear that, after all, they would have to endure through the Great Tribulation up to the start of the Day of the Lord. If anyone thinks that my reading of the situation is mistaken, it is for him to offer a better explanation of what was troubling some of the Thessalonians. The following is characteristic of this critic :


The complete answer is that, as a matter of fact, not one of those Thessalonians was destined to be on earth till the start of the Day of the Lord. Therefore, if 1. Thess. 5 implies this (which it certainly does not) it is untrue. We should note, too, that nothing is said about them or anyone else being taken up "before the destruction came," still less "immediately" before. He regards me as a false teacher because I insist that 1. Thess. 4:13-17 will occur before any of the events of Hebrew Prophecy can, but this critic considers himself entitled to assume that it will occur before "the destruction." What destruction, by the way? For some fourteen chapters the Revelation is full of accounts of destruction.

The critic shows no sign of having studied anything beyond the first two pages of the article. It was evidently more than he could face.

R. B. WITHERS Last updated 12.10.2005