A couple months ago Justin Taylor, a blogger I respect and appreciate, posted an article with this title: 9 Reasons We Can Be Confident Christians Won’t Be Raptured Before the Tribulation. It was basically a distillation of a slightly longer article by another pastor I respect, John Piper, (Titled Definitions and Observations concerning the second coming of Christ). Taylor, true to his word, gives nine reasons (from Piper) why Christians should expect to go through the Tribulation (in some form) and then be raptured simultaneously with the appearing of Jesus Christ in the sky, to immediately return to the earth together with him. Since this directly applies to the current series of teachings we’re working through on Monday nights, and since these two men are intelligent and astute readers of scripture, I thought it would be good to respond to some of the most serious points of difference others in the Church have with how we at Calvary Chapel tend to see the scripture’s teachings on end-times events. As I said at the beginning of our studies on the end times, great Christians–whom we love and admire, with whom we co-labor in the mission of witnessing to Christ in our generation, and with whom we will spend eternity in the Kingdom of God–differ on how to understand these things. So this discussion is “in house” and “among family members” who are committed to each other. Nevertheless, the best families can provide contexts for vigorous debates about important ideas. So here we go.
Here are the nine points from Taylor and Piper. (I’ll respond to the first one in this post, and the rest in a series of future posts.)
1. The word for “meeting” the Lord in the air in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 (apantesin) is used in two other places in the New Testament: Matthew 25:6 and Acts 28:15. In both places it refers to a meeting in which people go out to meet a dignitary and then accompany him in to the place from which they came out. One of these,Matthew 25:6, is even a parable of the second coming and so a strong argument that this is the sense of the meeting here in 1 Thess. 4:17—that we rise to meet the Lord in the air and then welcome him to earth as king.
2. 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.
3. The wording of 2 Thessalonians 2:1-2 suggests 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.
Supporting this is the reference to “gathering” the elect in Matthew 24:31. Here there is a gathering (same word) but it is clearly a post-tribulational context. So there is no need to see the gathering and the day of the Lord in 2 Thessalonians as separate events.
4. If Paul were a pre-tribulationist why did he not simply say in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 that the Christians don’t need to worry that the day of the Lord is here because all the Christians are still here? Instead he talks just the way you would expect a post-tribulational person to do. He tells them that they should not think that the day of the Lord is here because the apostasy and the man of lawlessness have not appeared. . . .
5. When you read Matthew 24 or Mark 13 or Luke 21, which are Jesus’ descriptions of the end times, there is no mention of a rapture removing believers from the events of the end. A normal reading gives no impression of a departure. On the contrary, he talks as if the believing listeners and then the readers would or could experience the things he mentions. See Mt. 24:4, 9, 15, 23, 25f, 33, etc.
6. Going through tribulation, even when it is appointed by God, is not contrary to Biblical teaching. See especially 1 Peter 4:17; 2 Thessalonians 1:3-10; Hebrews 12:3-11. But even so, Revelation 9:4 suggests that the saints will be in some measure protected in the time of distress by the seal of God.
7. The commands to “watch” do not lose their meaning if the second coming is not an any-moment one. See Matt. 25:1-13 where all ten maidens are asleep when the Lord returns. Yet the lesson at the end of the parable is, “Watch!” The point is that watching is not gazing up for an any-moment-return of the Lord; it is the moral vigilance that keeps you ready at all times doing your duty—the wise maidens had full lanterns! They were watchful!
Nor does the teaching that the second coming will be unexpected lose its force if post-tribulationism is true. See Luke 12:46 where the point is that if a servant gets drunk thinking that his master is delayed and will not catch him-that very servant will be surprised and taken off guard. But as 1 Thess. 5:1-5 says, “You (believers) are not in darkness for that day to surprise you like a thief.” We still teach that great moral vigilance and watchfulness is necessary lest we be lulled asleep and fall prey to the deceits of the last days and be overtaken in the judgment.
8. The strongest pre-tribulational text, Rev. 3:10, is open to another interpretation without any twisting. It says, “Because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial which is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell upon the earth.” But to “be kept for the hour of testing” is not necessarily to be taken out of the world during this hour, and thus spared suffering. Compare Gal. 1:4 and Jesus’ prayer for his disciples in John 17:15where to “keep from” does not mean physical removal. And notice the inevitability of martyrdom in Rev. 6:9-11. The promise is to be guarded from the hour in the sense of being guarded from the demoralizing forces of that hour.
9. The second coming does not lose its moral power in post-tribulationism. New Testament moral incentive is not that we should fear being caught doing evil, but that we should so love the appearing of the Lord that we want to be pure as the Lord is pure, for whom we hope, as 1 John 3:1-3 says.
There you have it. Let’s look at the first point today:
1. The word for “meeting” the Lord in the air in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 (apantesin) is used in two other places in the New Testament: Matthew 25:6 and Acts 28:15. In both places it refers to a meeting in which people go out to meet a dignitary and then accompany him in to the place from which they came out. One of these, Matthew 25:6, is even a parable of the second coming and so a strong argument that this is the sense of the meeting here in 1 Thess. 4:17—that we rise to meet the Lord in the air and then welcome him to earth as king.
This is a common way to understand Paul’s wording in 1 Thessalonians 4:17.
Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. (NKJV)
And it is true, both the other passages Taylor and Piper mention do refer to this “go out and meet to turn around and come back” type of event. But there are several things we can say here.
- A commenter on the original post at Taylor’s blog makes this point: “This sample size [the two occurrences Piper lists from the New Testament] is far, far too limited. The word “apantesin” is used over 20x in the LXX [The Septuagint, an ancient translation of the Old Testament in to Greek) and has a much more general usage simply to “meet” someone, and on most of these occasions they definitely did not accompany that person or group back to where they came from. ” In other words, we shouldn’t draw too much from the other two uses of the word in the New Testament, since we see from the Old Testament that people (including translators) around the time of Christ saw the word as having a broad meaning (like our English word “meet”), rather than a narrow, technical one. What we do in cases like this, where looking at all the uses of the word doesn’t give us a definitive sense of what part of the word’s meaning is being used in a certain verse, is to let the immediate context be our main guide to the meaning of the word. In other words, we keep reading 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:10 to see what Paul might mean with this word for “meet.”
- Reading this way immediately shows us that the people Paul refers to in 4:17 are not going out to meet anyone. They are being forcefully snatched away (the meaning of the word translated “caught up”) by the one whom they are going to meet. So we already have a reason to see that this mention of the word for “meet” probably points to something very different than the other two New Testament uses of the word. This is not a procession of people going to meet a visiting dignitary, but something else.
- New Testament scholar Craig Blaising helps us complete our thoughts here. “The phrase ‘to meet the Lord,’ eis apantesin kyriou [in the Greek], as many have pointed out, was used of a welcoming delegation coming out of a city to receive and accompany an arriving dignitary. The assembling of the saints around the coming Lord surely carries this connotation, but with certain differences. First, it is not actually a delegation that meets him but the whole company of saints, whose previously dead now resurrected and this alive at his coming. Second, they do not ‘go out’ to meet him at their own discretion, but they are ‘snatched up’ by the Lord, who has descended apparently for this very purpose of rapturing them. Third, the text says nothing about their accompanying him on the completion of descent; rather, Paul concludes his description of the event with the assembly in heaven, encouraged by the fact that ‘we will always be with the Lord.’ In other words, while the notions of greeting and accompanying an arriving dignitary are not absent from the image being conveyed here, there is another image at work complicating and dominating the overall saints from death (this is further developed in 1 Corinthians 15), and with them he snatches up living saints, who were described in 1:10 as waiting for him to come from heaven and deliver them from the wrath to come. He raptures them to deliver them from a coming wrath. Once the wrath is completed, we may assume on the basis of the other image that the whole assembly would then accompany him in the completion of his expected return.” (from the book Three Views on the Rapture, (2010) p. 28)
- In his discussion of the passage, Blaising quotes another scholar, who writes: “Apart from the possible connotation that apantesin [‘meet’] might have for a return to earth, the rest of the imagery (the clouds and being caught up to the Lord) are indicative of an assumption to heaven of the people who belong to Christ. That Paul adds his own definitive statement concerning the significance of this meeting in the clause kai houtos pantote sun kurio esometha (‘and thus we will always be with the Lord’) suggests that both dead and living Christians will return to heaven with the Lord, not only to enjoy continuous fellowship with him, but also in terms of 1:10, to be saved from the coming wrath of God” (Charles A. Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians).
To sum it all up, the theme of 1 Thessalonians 4:17 is not a triumphant delegation, but a deliverance, a rescue of certain people who then see their rescuer, and those who came with him, in a personal meeting. That is the contextual meaning of the word translated “meet” in this passage. So it does not seem that it can be used to argue that the event Paul describes here must happen simultaneously with the appearing of Christ to reign on the earth (at the end of the tribulation period).