The End Times According to Paul (Pt 1)
I often hear from people that prophecy isn’t that important or relevant. Aren’t there more important topics we should be studying? What is the use of studying prophecy anyway? I think a number of people are burned out and perhaps jaded because of all the hype, sensationalism, and failed predictions over the past number of years (including yesterday’s supposed rapture event).
So, let me share with you five reasons that God gave us so much prophecy in Scripture. Here are five encouragements that come from the study of biblical prophecy.
- We can have great confidence that God’s promises to us will always be fulfilled as we see his faithfulness in fulfilling past prophecies.
- We will know what to expect so that we won’t be caught off-guard should we live during the times of fulfillment.
- We will not be deceived by those who make false claims regarding the future because we know what the Bible tells us.
- We can have hope from studying prophecy, which will enable us to persevere in difficult times.
- We can be assured that God is in complete control of the future. He is sovereign and will fulfill all of His purposes.
So, don’t despise prophecy. Don’t get bored with end times. Don’t become jaded about the return of Christ. Allow the study of prophecy to give you assurance, hope, peace, and motivate you to godly living and evangelism.
1 & 2 Thessalonians were the first two letters were written by the apostle Paul. About 30% of the teaching of these two books is related to future events and the return of Christ. He wrote these letters in response to questions and concerns raised by the believers in Thessalonica.
Paul had started this church on his second missionary journey (Acts 17). It seems that he spent a few months there teaching the new converts and organizing the church before being driven from the city. We learn from these epistles, and from the book of Acts, that the church in Thessalonica was undergoing intense persecution, both from the Jewish leadership and from their own countrymen.
The beginning of the passage we are looking at today addresses the concerns these believers had about the death of fellow believers. Apparently, a number had died—whether from persecution or from natural causes, we aren’t told—and those in the church there wondered what would happen to these folks. Was there hope for them? Would they be resurrected? When would this happen? They had many concerns over this.
So, Paul seeks to reassure them of our future hope and informs them what will happen when Jesus returns.
1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore comfort one another with these words.
Paul says that his teaching here is “by the word of the Lord.” What does that mean? Well, it means one of two things. Either this was a “prophetic word” that Paul had received from the Lord, or this was something that Jesus had taught. Either way, Paul is giving us Jesus’ own words about this.
A day is coming, Paul says, when Jesus himself will descend from heaven. What will that day be like? In what manner will he return? Paul gives us a glimpse: with a shout! With the voice of an archangel! With a blast from the trumpet of God! Does that sound like a quiet event? Does that sound like a secret event? No. It’s very noisy and very public.
At that time, the bodies of those who have died in Christ will rise first—the bodies of deceased believers will be resurrected. Then, those believers who are alive at that time will be caught up together with the resurrected dead in the clouds where they will meet the Lord.
Hope in Grief
Earlier in verse 13, Paul had said that though we grieve for our believing loved ones who have died—parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, children—we don’t grieve as others who have no hope. Christians have hope in death. We look forward to the resurrection.
I’ve been to a few funerals in my time. The ones that have been for Christians—those who had a strong testimony of faith—were hopeful and joyous occasions, even in the midst of sadness and grief. We have a great hope—an eternal hope.
But what hope does an atheist have? Not much. Below is part of a recent blog post from an atheist. Notice his uncontrollable fear of death and the hopelessness he feels:
For the last four years, I’ve been experiencing this feeling of dread and utter hopelessness when faced with the fact that when I die, there’s a good chance that I–my consciousness–will possibly not exist anymore. Every personal victory, thought and memory I have will completely cease to be. This feeling washes over me in waves and when it hits, I can’t help but cry uncontrollably and fight to catch my breath.
I’m sure that many can identify with his uncontrollable fear of death. Many people around us fear death—and for good reason. One reason so many fear death, and why death seems so unnatural to us, is because we are eternal beings. The Bible says that God has put eternity in the hearts of man (Ecclesiastes 3:11). We know that we were made for more; instinctively, we know that this is not all there is, that death is somehow unnatural, an intruder. That’s why men have invented all sorts of religions and philosophies to try to ease their fear of death.
But as believers, we have the true message of hope to share with others—the hope of resurrection, the hope of eternal life, the gospel of Christ. We need no longer fear death.
That’s why Paul can say, “comfort one another with these words.” This message of Christ’s return and our future resurrection are to bring comfort to the living—to you and me—because we know that our dead loved ones will one day be raised, and we will be reunited with them.
This event, the catching away of believers from earth, has been called the rapture. The word rapture is not found in the Bible, rather that term is taken from a word in the Latin translation used in verse 17 for the phrase “caught up.” The rapture is the catching up of believers from the earth to meet the Lord in the air.
The fact of the rapture is not really debated—after all it’s clearly laid out in this passage (and others). The question that is debated is when this event will take place. As we work through these passages, I believe that you’ll begin to see a clear picture emerge that will answer this question.
What Is the Day of the Lord?
Now, let me remind you that the chapter divisions and verse numbers were added to the Bible about 1,000 years later. While these divisions help us look up passages, they are sometimes unfortunate, because often the breaks are in the most unhelpful places. This is one of those cases, because chapter 5 continues Paul’s discussion of the coming of the Lord.
1 Thessalonians 5:1–3 1 Now as to the times and the epochs, brethren, you have no need of anything to be written to you. 2 For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. 3 While they are saying, “Peace and safety!” then destruction will come upon them suddenly like labor pains upon a woman with child, and they will not escape.
Paul calls the coming of the Lord to raise dead believers’ bodies and rapture living believers, the Day of the Lord. He’s continuing to discuss the same event he introduced at the end of chapter 4. He says that the Thessalonian believers knew very well that the Day of the Lord would come just like a thief in the night. Paul had previously taught them about the coming Day of the Lord.
But before we move on in this passage, we’ve got to answer the question, what is the Day of the Lord? A key principle of Bible interpretation is to interpret Scripture with other Scripture—to look up related passages on a topic to help us understand.
As it turns out, the Day of the Lord is the most prophesied event in all of Scripture. The phrase “the Day of the Lord” appears about twenty-one times in the Old Testament and six times in the New Testament. But if you add together all the synonyms such as “that day,” “the Day of Christ,” and “the Day of God,” there are over 100 references to the Day of the Lord. With so much written about the Day of the Lord in the Bible, it is crucial that we understand what the Day of the Lord is all about, and when this day will occur.
There are many passages in the Old Testament that give us a vivid description of the Day of the Lord. Let’s look at just two of them.
Isaiah 13:6–13 Wail, for the day of the LORD is near! It will come as destruction from the Almighty… Behold, the day of the LORD is coming, cruel, with fury and burning anger, to make the land a desolation; and He will exterminate its sinners from it… I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity… Therefore I shall make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken from its place at the fury of the LORD of hosts in the day of His burning anger.
Zephaniah 1:14–18 Near is the great day of the LORD, near and coming very quickly; listen, the day of the LORD! In it the warrior cries out bitterly. A day of wrath is that day, a day of trouble and distress, a day of destruction and desolation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet and battle cry, against the fortified cities and the high corner towers. And I will bring distress on men, so that they will walk like the blind, because they have sinned against the LORD; and their blood will be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung. Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to deliver them on the day of the LORD’s wrath; And all the earth will be devoured In the fire of His jealousy, for He will make a complete end, indeed a terrifying one, of all the inhabitants of the earth.
From these descriptions, and many other passages, it is clear that the Day of the Lord is a time when God’s patience will be over and his divine wrath will be poured out on wicked mankind. It’s not a single day, but rather a time period of God’s judgment on earth when the wicked are recompensed for their evil.
But the wonderful thing for us believers, is that the Day of the Lord is not a day that we need fear. All who are in Christ, all who have repented of their sin and rebellion and placed their faith in Jesus, will be spared from the wrath of God, because Jesus took the punishment for us—he averted God’s wrath from us by dying in our place, as our substitute.
Here are just a few wonderful promises from the Word of God that give us hope and security:
Romans 5:9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.
Romans 8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
1 Thessalonians 1:10 . . . to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.
1 Thessalonians 5:9 For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ
Hallelujah! We are not destined for God’s wrath. Believers can look forward to the Day of the Lord, but unbelievers will be in fear and dread when it comes.
What Will the Day of the Lord Be Like?
1 Thessalonians 5:3–5 3 While they are saying, “Peace and safety!” then destruction will come upon them suddenly like labor pains upon a woman with child, and they will not escape. 4 But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day would overtake you like a thief; 5 for you are all sons of light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness.
Paul says that the Day of the Lord will bring sudden destruction on the unbelieving. He likens it to two events—a thief that comes at night, and a woman in labor pains. The the day of God’s wrath will come unexpectedly (like a thief who breaks in at night) on the unbelieving world and will be inescapable or irreversible (like a woman whose labor pains have started)—there’s no going back!
Notice also that Paul says that this day will come when they are saying “Peace and safety.” It will come suddenly upon them when all seems to be going well.
You’ve all probably heard the phrase, “Jesus is coming like a thief in the night.” Well, that’s true, but it will be that way only for unbelievers. Paul says that the day won’t overtake believers like a thief. Why not? Because we are sons of light. We are not in darkness. He has told us the things that are coming upon the world, so we need to be ready and waiting and watching.
So, what have we learned so far about the Day of the Lord? The Day of the Lord is . . .
- The day when Jesus comes on the clouds with angels and trumpet blast.
- The day when dead believers will be resurrected.
- The day when living believers will be caught up with newly resurrected believers to meet the Lord in the air.
- The day when God begins to pour out his wrath upon the wicked.
Paul concludes this section with commands to be sober and watchful.
1 Thessalonians 5:6–11 6 So then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober. 7 For those who sleep do their sleeping at night, and those who get drunk get drunk at night. 8 But since we are of the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation. 9 For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,10 who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with Him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing.
Paul says, we are of the day, not of the night. So be awake, be alert. Don’t get drunk, but be sober; be watchful. Put on the breastplate of faith and love and the helmet of the hope of your salvation. Because God has not destined us to experience his wrath, but to be delivered, to be saved, through Christ. Christian—that is your hope!
Don’t act like unbelievers, Paul is saying. Don’t act like those who are destined for wrath act. Be different. Live up to your calling. Live in the light not in the darkness.
And in the midst of your suffering and persecution, and when friends and loved ones die, encourage one another with these truths; build up one another.
Ultimately, knowing and understanding prophecy should drive us to faith and love and hope and encouragement and edification . . . and thankfulness that we have been delivered from the wrath of God because of what Christ has done on our behalf. That is the gospel!
Share the good news with someone this week. Tell them that they don’t have to fear death; they don’t have to face God’s wrath. Because God himself came to earth to save us from his wrath.