I’m continually mindful that we often read presuppositions into the biblical text especially when convinced of a particular position. I think it’s just natural to do that. My shifting views on eschatology that is causing me to re-examine portions of Scripture with fresh eyes continues to affirm this.
As I indicated in my posts on the book of Revelation, this has struck me so powerfully how much I presumed a dispensational premillennial reading of Scripture. This then gets imposed onto key proof-texts that those of the dispensational stripe promote as proof of this system. In terms of eschatology, that primarily means a pre-tribulational rapture of the church followed by a seven year great tribulation before Christ renders final judgment.
Now I get that when determining if certain passages mean one thing or the other, it’s easy to be influenced by well-studied commentators with persuasive arguments especially if it concurs with a position you are already warm to. It does take a bit of honesty to recognize where they or YOU could have blind spots or want to hold on to a position or just be plain wrong.
But I’ve also discovered in the midst of doctrinal shifts and re-examining of positions, that sometimes you get hit with passages that you’re not even looking at to persuade you of one position or the other. They just further affirm that you weren’t crazy to change your mind.
And so it was, as I was reading through 1 Thessalonians with no angle or inquiries other than to just let the text speak into my life for fuel and comfort, that a particular proof-texted passage just jumped out at me. After a few readings, it became so obvious how it was yet another instance of a dispensational perspective being imposed on the text.
Now, I have concluded for a while that 1 Thess. 4:13-18, does not reference a pre-tribulational rapture and that Paul’s use of “caught up” references the custom of that day to go out and meet a visitor and accompany them into the arrival destination. As I’ve delved into this topic, it’s become clearer to me that Christ will come back once and it won’t be a quiet affair. The rapture spoken of here correlates to 2 Thess. 1:7-8; 2:1 and Rev. 1:7 when Christ returns to judge the world and set everything right.
But in this particular reading, it was 1 Thess. 5:1-11 that really convinced me;
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. 2 For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. 4 But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. 5 For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. 6 So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9 For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.
So why do I think that a seven year tribulation is being imposed on the text?
First, Paul’s use of the day of the Lord is consistent with OT prophecy indication of one day when final judgement would be rendered. He’s already set the premise of what he is referring to – THAT day. Some scholars, like Craig Blaising, make an impressive argument that day doesn’t necessarily mean one day and really means a seven year tribulation period. But I’m not convinced, especially where it is used elsewhere to refer to a specific time of judgement. This correlates to Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians in the first two chapters where he is telling the church that there will come a day when Christ returns to put an end to all Satan’s work (see 2 Thess. 1:5 – 2:12).
Second, Paul draws a contrast between the people of light and the people of darkness in vv. 4-8. This is a contrast between believers and unbelievers. It would be a stretch to insist that this is within a seven year period, especially since he is writing to the church in the present of that time. If there was some future period, why would Paul be using this contrast for them?
Third, we need to consider what he means by being saved from the day of wrath. He has already set the context for what he is referring to – the day of the Lord. Saved from wrath are obviously those who are not the people of darkness. The people of darkness are the unbelievers on whom the wrath will be poured. But God’s people will be spared. Rather than seeing this as people taken out of the way for a tribulation, these are God’s people who will be spared from this judgment of THAT day of judgment.
Isn’t this exactly what we see in Rev. 20:11-15? You really have to twist this passage like a pretzel to bend it to mean a seven year period. Not only that, in 2 Thess. 2, Paul makes clear that the Lord’s coming will not happen unless a “tribulation” comes first. So how can it be that he is referring to some secret first coming for the church in 1 Thess. 1:4:13-18 in which they will be spared from tribulation and then in his next letter indicate that they will not see Jesus until after a tribulation?
In order to make the claim that Paul is referring to a seven year tribulation period, you pretty much have to bring that presupposition into the text. I am more convinced than ever that the tribulation spoken of in the book of Revelation is the period between the first and second advent of Christ, in which Satan wars against Christ’s church with an increased intensity. I also think it’s an insult to the persecuted saints of the present and past to deny the experience of great tribulation. If being thrown in lion’s dens, burned at the stake for proclaiming God’s word and burned out of your home by terrorists and killed for your faith is not tribulation, I don’t know what is.
Why do I think this matter? Because if Christians believe the church will be spared from the trouble of some specified period, there will be a lesser inclination to bind together than if we absorb Jesus’ words to his bride – “in this world you will have trouble.” And one needs only to open their computer and get on-line to know that there is a whole lot of trouble brewing.