This is part 2 of a multi-part series of posts responding to Justin Taylor & John Piper’s article “9 Reasons We Can Be Confident Christians Won’t Be Raptured Before the Tribulation.” You can read the introduction to the series and read all nine reasons here.
Today I want to begin responding to their second and (the first half of their) third points. They both hinge on the same issue. Here they are:
- The wording of 2 Thessalonians 1:5-7, when read carefully, shows that Paul expects to attain rest from suffering at the same time and in the same event that he expects the unbelievers to receive punishment, namely, at the revelation of Jesus with mighty angels in flaming fire. This revelation is not the pre-tribulational rapture but the glorious second coming. Which means that Paul did not expect an event at which he and the other believers would be given rest seven years before the glorious appearing of Christ in flaming fire. Vengeance on unbelievers and rest for the persecuted church come on the same day in the same event.
- The wording of 2 Thessalonians 2:1-2suggests that the “assembling to meet him” is the same as “the day of the Lord” about which they are confused. But the assembling is the “rapture” and “the day of the Lord” is the glorious second coming. They appear to be one event.
Here are the texts in question, with additional verses for the sake of the discussion:
2 Thessalonians 1:5-10 “…that you may be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you also suffer; 6 since it is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, 7 and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, 8 in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, 10 when He comes, in that Day, to be glorified in His saints and to be admired among all those who believe, because our testimony among you was believed.
2 Thessalonians 2:1-4 Now, brethren, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, we ask you,2 not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as if from us, as though the day of Christ had come. 3 Let no one deceive you by any means; for [that Day will not come] unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, 4 who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God.
In both of these points, Piper and Taylor (from here on out I’ll just say “Taylor”) assert that the rapture and the second coming are simultaneous, one and the same event. This is, of course, the issue in question, because if they are the same event, then the “catching up” of believers Paul describes in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 cannot happen before the trouble (tribulation) which precedes his final appearing and descent to earth.
Here’s a short version of the answer I’m about to write out in detail—Taylor’s argument could be diagrammed this way:
- The Rapture=The Day of the Lord, and…
- The Day of the Lord=Second coming, so…
- Therefore the Rapture = The Second Coming
This is not the case, for the simple reason that we must define the phrase “Day of the Lord” the way Paul evidently did—by using the definition supplied in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, the Day of the Lord is a whole series of events, which lead up to and climax in the appearing of God. But it is not, simply and only, the appearing itself. (In other words, we can see that #2 is incorrect, and therefore we can question the correctness of #1, and thus also #3.)
Here’s the long version:
Let’s look at the second passage Taylor mentions first (Point #3). In 2 Thessalonians 2, Paul is comforting the church, who is troubled that “the day of the Lord had come.” The verb he uses for “had come” (in the NKJV) is a verb which means “is present” (enesteken). This is why ESV translates it “has come” and NIV has “has already come.” This is the same word Paul uses in Romans 8:38 for “things present” verses “things to come.” To bring out the nuance of the word, we might translate this, “the day of the Lord is here,” or “The day of the Lord is present.”
So the thing troubling the Thessalonians church was that, in Paul’s absence, someone had taught them that they had entered into the time period they knew as “the Day of the Lord.” Right here I think we run in to a problem with Taylor’s way of reading the verse. He says, “the day of the Lord is the glorious second coming.” In other words, Taylor believes that when Paul writes “the day of the Lord” he is referring to a single event—the moment when Christ appears in the sky in order to descend and set up his kingdom. But can we be sure that this is actually Paul’s the definition for “the day of the Lord”?
I would say no, for two reasons.
First, we can discern what Paul meant by using this phrase by looking at his prior teaching on the subject. We know Paul had taught the church about this “Day” because he explicitly refers to it in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11. If you read that passage, he tells the church that they already know how the Day begins—it starts like labor pains for a pregnant woman. This is a reference to Isaiah 13:8, in which the Day of the Lord is likened to the pains of labor. In other words, when Paul used the term “day of the Lord” for the Thessalonians, he hadn’t made it up himself, or made up a definition. Instead, he was using a term which already had a long history of use and definition in the Old Testament (as evidenced by his use of Isaiah’s writing).
For details on what the Old Testament says about this time period, see this post and this post. Suffice it to say that the Old Testament is clear that this time period includes a whole series of events (armies mustering, battles, geo-political upheaval, a powerful ruler who takes center stage, divine judgments being poured out) and finally culminates with the appearing of the Lord himself. The Apostles picked this up in the New Testament and explained that this appearing of the Lord was the appearing of Jesus Christ himself. But the entire series of events was referred to as one unified occurrence known as “the Day of the Lord.”
Second, we can see from the context 2 Thessalonians 2 that this “Day of the Lord” must be a series of events (or better yet, a single complex of many events), rather than one singular event, because the church was afraid that they had entered into it. If they had been taught that the Day of the Lord was one singular event (the appearing of Christ in the sky to descend), they would not have been troubled that it had come, they would have rejoiced! Or, if someone did tell them it had come, all they would have had to do was check the sky: No Jesus up there, no Day of the Lord.
Instead, after hearing from Paul about the time period known as “the Day of the Lord,” someone had come and troubled them with the thought that that time was currently underway. It “was present” and they were in it! Paul’s answer is to tell them that they can know they are not currently living in the Day of the Lord since there are discernible realities that will mark that time off. He lists two: the “falling away” (which comes “first” of the two things he lists) and the revealing of “the man of sin.” This seems to be his shorthand way of referring to the things just explained above, that the Day of the Lord includes a series of recognizable events.
Now, notice verse 3. In the NKJV the words “that day will not come” are in italics, because they are not in the Greek text, but supplied by the translators because the sentence is incomplete in English if it is translated without those words. But the words we supply to finish Paul’s thought bear directly on our question of whether the rapture and second coming are one event. Since Paul didn’t write that part of the sentence himself, the simplest thing to assume is that he expected us to use the next closest verb to figure out what he was referring to. That verb is the “is present” from verse 2. This means that he meant us to understand verse three as something like, “that Day is not present unless” the two things he mentions are also happening. So he does not seem to be saying, as it may sound in some translations, that those two things must happen before the Day of the Lord comes, but (to reiterate) that those realities will mark the time period of the Day of the Lord.
So, no, we do not see from 2 Thessalonians 2:1-2 that the day of the Lord is the same as the “assembling to meet him,” otherwise known as the Rapture. Instead, Paul refers to the Rapture because he had taught them to expect it before the Day of the Lord, and then immediately moves to address the troubling teaching that they were in the time period the “assembling” was supposed to rescue them from.
It is worth spending all that time on the third point, since it makes understanding Taylor’s second point much easier.
That’s where we’ll focus in the next post.