Rather reluctantly I must comment on a few further points. There is some truth in Mr. Larsen's claim that there is no change of subject at 1. Thess. 5:1, for Prophecy is the theme from 4:13 to 5:11. Yet look again at the opening words, found elsewhere together only at Acts 1:7, which reads: "It is not for you to know times or eras." The latter is: "Now concerning the times and the eras." Obviously this should be interpreted by the former, not by the quite, different matter which precedes it. If this knowledge were not for the Eleven, it could hardly be for a Gentile Church. Also Paul goes on at once to another new subject, the Day of the lord, and day contrasted with night and darkness.
Mr. Larsen says of Paul's lay-out of the epistles: "Had he left the subject with the end of ch. 4 it would have been utterly unfinished. A most vital aspect of it, namely, as to WHAT TIME the rapture would take place, relative to the Day of the Lord, would have been left completely in the dark." But it is quite plain that neither ch. 5 nor the Second Epistle say one single thing about what time "the rapture" would take place. They do not even tell us that much about the Day of the Lord! Do let us be realistic.
As for v. 4, the critical mind must perceive the oddity in the idea of a day being in any way as a thief in the night. We should note the contrast between 'you' in vv. 1, 2 and 'they' and 'them' in v. 3. For the latter, the whole thing comes as an inescapable surprise and frightful shock. For the former there is no surprise at all. Plainly, what is 'night' for 'them' is 'day' for 'you'; and Paul is most concerned here for those for whom it is day. The thief is" in the night." He disturbs only those who are of night and of darkness. So when the day reaches those whom Paul addresses—if it be correct that it does so—there will be no question of them being appointed unto wrath; they will be living at the same time together with our Lord Jesus Christ. So we, sons of light and sons of day, ought to be watching and sober—to be sober, putting on as cuirass faith and love, and as helmet expectation of salvation; to watch and not to drowse. What, then, are we to watch for? Surely, the day—the day which will dawn with the Lord's shout of command, the day which will be as a night thief for those of night and darkness.
Why, then, are we told anything about this? Because if we know what is going to happen during the wrath which we shall not share, we ought to be able to understand better the glory we shall share and to avoid the error quoted in 2 Thess. 2:2; which arose from ignorance and perhaps some unbelief. There is, by the way, no reason to look on 1. Thess. 4:13-17 as in any way a part of Hebrew prophecy, or even connected with it apart from the fact that it removes the barrier to the resumption of God's covenant purposes. So long as a Gentile elect people remains on earth, it must remain an insurmountable barrier to God's plans for His covenant people Israel. This prophecy bears the same relation to Prophecy as a whole as pressing the trigger of a gun does to the flight of its projectile. The finger's movement is no part of the projectile's.
Some may raise their eyebrows over the suggestion above that the Day of the Lord might affect us even when we are taken away from this earth. Such surprise is really an infection from current theological tradition, the strange idea that the future life will be "outside history" and even outside time. A report of the World Council of Churches about "the Second Coming" says that "some believe that it will be within history, others that it will be outside history." If this latter expression has any meaning at all, which is very doubtful, it can only be a woolly-minded way of saying that "the Second Coming" will never occur at all on earth. An event which is outside history or outside time is simply a contradiction in terms. It would be better for Christians not to talk at all than to utter such meaningless noises. If our resurrection life is to be wholly cut-off from our present life. and even timeless, so that all continuity with it disappears, we may well wonder whether either life has any significance at all. Let us avoid all talk about ideas which are contrary not only to God's revelation in Scripture but to human experience as well.
As regards 2 Thessalonians 2, I am quite mystified by what has been written. According to v. 2 some had become convinced that the beginning of the Day of the Lord was, already present although 1. Thess. 4:13-17 had not been fulfilled. They were alarmed, and Paul was worried about it all. But if the beginning of the Day of the Lord was in actual fact scheduled to precede this fulfilment; the alarm and worry would be pointless, for the end of all their troubles was in, sight. But if this fulfilment actually was to come first, as I contend, their alarm was understandable, for the prophecy had apparently failed; and Paul's worry understandable likewise, for he could see that his first epistle had not been believed. So it is quite reasonable, on this latter view, that Paul should prove that the Day of the Lord had not arrived by disclosing further particulars about it. It is less easy to see why he did not then say plainly when 1. Thess. 4:13-17 would take place. I can only suggest that the Thessalonians were in no doubt that it would precede the start of the Day of the Lord; and that their consequent alarm was because Paul had apparently misled them.
If there is to be only one single parousia of the Lord Jesus Christ, when is it to occur? Matthew 24 and 1. Thess. 2 indicate at some point during the Day of the Lord (not before it), but there is no room for 1. Thess. 4:13-17 then. I cannot surrender the plain and inescapable fact that neither Paul nor anyone else places any event whatever before the fulfilment of 1. Thess. 4:13-17. Having studied every argument to I which I have access about this, I am now more firmly convinced than ever that every attempt to find some prophetic event which must, or even may, occur before this one has failed completely. The only natural way to interpret this "word of the Lord" is to take it as being what it is: a fresh and separate revelation specially given. It is no use talking as if it fitted into the framework of Matthew 24, or Revelation or Hebrew Prophecy; for if so, one must ask where and how? I wrote 'event' deliberately above, because the prophecies of 1. Tim. 4:1; 2 Tim. 3:1-5; 2 Peter 3:3-4 are not prophecies of events, but of processes or conditions or developments. If it be true that their fulfilment is as yet incomplete, this simply means that the stage is not yet set for the fulfilment of 1. Thess. 4:13-17, not that some other event must take place first. Apart from this possibility, there is no reason knowable to us why it should not happen at any time. The fact that Paul wrote no specific statement that this fulfilment will not be preceded by other events makes no difference, because neither he nor anyone else writes any statement to the contrary. Whether we like it or no, we have no choice but to accept the silences of scripture with the same reverent attention as its declarations.
Moreover, I find it impossible to understand how anyone can so read 1. Thess. 5:2-3 and 2 Thess. 2:3-12 as to fit 1. Thess. 4:13-17 into them. Why could not Paul do his own fitting? Surely if he had. meant us to do it, he could at least have given some hint of his intention? As I see the matter, the first two are as distinct from the third as the Equator is from the North Pole. They do fit into the general scheme of Prophecy, the third does not fit into it at all. It does fit with the general scheme, provided we accept it as an undated! prophecy the fulfilment of which will trigger-off the fulfilment of the rest. It does fit perfectly into something, into Paul's Epistles—nothing else. And surely by this time we have achieved some understanding of the special position of Paul's Epistles? At some moment unrevealed and wholly incalculable by us, heaven will cease to receive the Lord Jesus 'Christ. The effect on us will be His descent and our snatching away. The effect on Israel and the world will be the start of the promised "times of restitution, &c." (see p. 61). It does not say the completion of these times. Paul's Evangel, and those who receive it, belong to an interlude in God's terrestrial purposes; which could, for all we are told to the contrary, have gone on without any alteration being needed if Paul and his Evangel had never existed. Hebrew prophecy takes no account of him. Purely as an illustration, the notion may perhaps be likened to a film director inserting an episode into his film. When the episode ends, the main action continues .exactly as it would have done, as if the episode did not exist. But for this to occur, the episode must end definitely before the main action is resumed. The ending of the episode does not thereby become a part of the main action.
It is very necessary to point out that what was upsetting the Thessalonians was not Paul's prophecy of 1. Thess. 4:13-17, but the perversion of it quoted in 2 Thess. 2:2. And may I point out once again that in this promise itself there is no reference whatever to the terrors of Matthew 24?
Furthermore, I must request my readers not to attribute to me ideas which I do not hold, such as an expectation of the imminent return of the Lord Jesus. This idea does not follow in any sort of way from the teaching that no event of Prophecy is scheduled to precede the fulfilment of 1. Thess. 4:13-17. Many people have had the temerity to superimpose the idea of imminence. That is their responsibility, not mine. If, so far as We are aware, the fulfilment of the promise can occur very soon; that emphatically does not mean that it must occur very soon. I have always understood that the Plymouth Brethren claimed that their witness did not derive in any way from 'tongues' or the teaching of the Irvingites; but I feel that they ought to have an opportunity to defend their teachings themselves. Certainly they had to struggle against every sort of hindrance and misrepresentation; and we owe them more than we can say.
I would be distressed, but not at all shaken, if I were soon to find myself utterly alone in this matter. I am old enough to remember the time when nearly every educated person held that the elements could not be transmuted or their atoms split. Now all educated persons are aware that this is an error. It may be that in those days a very small minority surmised the truth. The point is: the fact that it is the truth is wholly unaffected by whether it is, or was, believed by all or by none. The astonishing thing is that so few seem able to perceive so obvious a thing as this.
A point worth making is that placing the fulfilment of 1. Thess. 4:13-17 within the Day of the Lord is, in a measure, doing the very thing characteristic of the false prophets; namely, fixing a date for it, even if only approximately. My contention is that it is not to occur at any foretold date or within any foretold period; for with the latter, the beginning of the period would indicate its imminence. We attempt to define the time of our Lord's descent and shout only at our great peril. Nothing in Scripture is left more uncertain than this date. If this uncertainty were to prove unsettling, the blame would rest on Scripture itself. On the other hand, once the Day of the Lord has dawned, an approximate timing of the prophetic programme will have become possible; and towards the moment of the parousia of the Son of Mankind the state of restlessness envisaged by Jowett will naturally occur. But there is no cause and no excuse for such restlessness now, except among those who insist on listening to false prophets.
The thought that some notice of the supreme event for ourselves ought to be expected does not commend itself to me. The Pauline Church has suffered many vicissitudes, not one single event of which has been notified beforehand or made the subject of any prophecy. And, indeed, why should we need, or expect, notice of our impending release from, mortality and translation to glory? As with miracle, so with prophecy, the heavens are silent now. Yet the one exception, the promise of 1. Thess. 4:13-17, is being virtually rejected because no time-tag was pinned to it by Paul. Surely, instead of feeling like this, we ought to be supremely grateful that there does exist one exception, one light in the darkness of earth's immediate future. For us the silence is incomplete because we have that word of the Lord and await His shout. The way this prophecy is introduced indicates its special importance. To relegate it to an undefined or to an unimportant place is to reject it in practise. I claim that its fulfilment coincides with the end of the silence of God and the reign of grace, the removal of the long-standing barrier to God's wrath and to the resumption of Israel's proper place in His purposes. Our continual presence on this earth totally bars these; our removal will remove, the barrier, but whether any interval will elapse before the wrath begins is not disclosed. There is no room for our hope within the Day of the Lord; because, when that begins, the removal of the silence and the barrier will already have taken place, as all the prophecies about it imply. This removal process is not going to happen twice. In saying all this, I am not going one hair's breadth beyond the plain words of Acts 3:21 and Rom. 11:25-27, as I have already explained on pp. 61, 105, 109, 151 and 153. As for my remarks about Acts 3:21 on p. 61; it should be borne in mind that when heaven ceases. to receive Jesus Christ the 'times of restoration' therein spoken of will start at once, whether 1. Thess. 4:13-17 is fulfilled before the Day of the Lord begins, or after. We must not set one against the other.
Since no direct scriptural support exists for either view of the time of fulfilment of 1. Thess. 4:13-17; we have no choice but to use the reason God has given us. We ought to accept things as they are, to avoid appealing to wishful thinking, to prejudice, and above all to reading our own ideas into the words of Scripture. The side which can best accomplish this must in the long run prevail.
R. B. WITHERS. Last updated 14.4.2006