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The Promise of the Rapture in Thessalonians

Written by Prof Johan Malan.

Scripture references are from the New King James Version, unless otherwise noted.

Paul offers a very clear teaching on the rapture in his two epistles to the Thessalonians. This is an important theme in biblical prophecy and one that needs to be properly understood. The following is the most basic statement on the rapture:

“But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. 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 by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 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. Therefore comfort one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:13-18).

A number of very clear and literal statements are made in this passage:

  • The first resurrection only applies to those who died in Christ, and will occur at the rapture. Deceased believers will rise from their graves with immortal, glorified bodies. It is a plainly stated fact in Scripture that the second resurrection for unbelievers will only occur after the millennial reign of Christ (Rev. 20:5-6).
  • The deceased believers (composed of spirit and soul) will accompany the Lord Jesus when He descends from heaven. This is a clear assertion that Christians who die go to heaven after death and not to Paradise in the lower parts of the earth, as was the case with Old Testament believers (cf. Phil. 1:23). Paradise is now in heaven (2 Cor. 12:4) since, after the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, believers no longer had to be kept in a special place where they awaited the fulfilment of the promise on the Messiah (cf. Heb. 11:39-40; the atoning death of the Lamb of God fulfilled all the shadowy sacrifices that were brought for Old Testaments believers – Heb. 10:1-18).
  • The resurrection itself will occur on earth where the departed saints will receive their glorified bodies (cf. Phil. 3:20-21). They will return to the places where they were buried to receive their glorified bodies there.
  • Immediately after the resurrection, all living saints will be transformed from mortality to immortality in the twinkling of an eye (1 Cor. 15:51-52). The members of the body of Christ will then be united into a single group of glorified, living people, save for those who will still be added during the seven years of tribulation.
  • Following their translation to immortality the united group of believers will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air, where they will be physically united with their Bridegroom who is also the Head of the church. He will “be admired among all those who believe” (2 Thess. 1:10).
  • This meeting will definitely not occur on earth, hence it does not form part of Christ’s second coming when He will set foot on the Mount of Olives and every eye will see Him. During the rapture Christ comes in secret, like a thief in the night (1 Thess. 5:2). Only the believers will see Him – the other people on earth will not see Him at the rapture, but will only be struck by the sudden absence of true Christians. Nominal believers and backsliders will be left behind.
  • The translated church of Christ will return with Him to heaven to the mansions which He has prepared for them (John 14:2-3). From that moment onwards they will always be with the Lord. They will be co-heirs of His kingdom (Rom. 8:17), return with Him to the earth after seven years (Col. 3:4; Zech. 14:4-5), and also rule with Him as kings (Rev. 5:9-10; 20:6).

It is important to understand the promise on the rapture and to always live in the light of this blessed hope. It will help you to prepare for the life to come, and to correctly determine your priorities in life, lest secular objectives should become so important that they cloud your expectation on the coming of the Lord Jesus (Tit. 2:11-13). Prof. Walvoord says:

“Understanding the rapture doctrine is not only a theological issue but also a very practical one. The early church, obviously, was looking for the coming of Christ any time. This is what the Thessalonians were taught, and this is what they believed. Early Christians were characterised as loving His appearing (2 Tim. 4:8), meaning that they not only loved the Saviour but also the prospect of seeing Him face to face in all His glory and being joined to Him forever. A neglect of the rapture doctrine leads to a neglect of this marvellous hope which is intended to be a guiding star to Christian life and testimony and its future expectation and hope” (Walvoord, 1995:258-259).

Timing of the rapture

Paul gave the Thessalonians no indication of the duration of the church dispensation and the approximate time for the rapture, other than saying that the rapture would directly precede the period referred to as “the day of the Lord”. During his visit to the congregation Paul probably taught extensively on the day of the Lord, which will be a time of the outpouring of divine wrath upon a wicked and unbelieving world. There are many Old Testament passages in which details are given on this ominous time of judgement (cf. Isa. 13:9-13; 24:1-23; Joel 2:11, 31; Zeph. 1:14-16). Believers were admonished to prepare themselves spiritually to be worthy to escape the coming judgements (cf. Luke 21:36).

Paul impressed it on the hearts of the congregation “to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:10). Later in the epistle he again confirmed the promise of escape from judgements: “For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:9). The wrath of God would only befall the unbelievers.

It is obvious that not only the congregation, but also the apostle himself, had a short-term expectation of the coming of the Lord – even within their own lifetime. Paul included himself with those who would still be alive when Christ comes: “... then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up ...” This is an important characteristic of the Christian life: we should all expect the imminent coming of Christ as that is a strong motivation for personal holiness, and also for correctly prioritising our objectives in order to ensure that we are doing works that have value for eternity. Without this expectation believers could become overly involved with short-term, secular objectives, even to the point of losing sight of eternity, and such a disposition is bound to marginalise their spiritual calling and obligations.

Deception

After Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, doctrinal error had crept in and clouded believers’ understanding of the pretribulation rapture. Christians were increasingly persecuted by officials of the Roman Empire, who enforced their pagan institutions and views on the young Christian congregations. The newly converted believers concluded that the day of the Lord had indeed come unnoticed, like a thief in the night, and that Paul’s assertion that they would escape the wrath of God was not true. Apart from false prophecies that were proclaimed to this effect in the church, a forged letter was also circulated, allegedly from Paul, in which it was stated that believers would have to pass through the sufferings of the Lord’s day. Paul wrote his second epistle to them to reconfirm the sequence of end-time events, including a pretribulation rapture.

2 Thessalonians 2 is a highly significant chapter in Christian eschatology. Thomas Constable (1983:717) says: “This section of verses (2 Thess. 2:1-12) contains truths found nowhere else in the Bible. It is key to understanding future events and it is central to this epistle.” In the first five verses Paul says:

“Now, brethren, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him [the rapture], we ask you, 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 [the tribulation period] had come. Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away [the departure] comes first, and the man of sin is revealed [the Antichrist], the son of perdition, 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. Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things?” (2 Thess. 2:1-5).

The departure

Paul’s second epistle to the Thessalonians is particularly relevant to us today since many Christians in the end-time fall victim to the same errors of wrongly interpreting the prophetic word. False, extra-biblical prophecies are proliferating, and despite the stern warning in Revelation 22:18-19, many people allow themselves to be influenced by the deceptive teachings of self-appointed prophets who allegedly received their messages directly from God. Apart from these “prophets” there are also theologians and pastors who wrongly interpret biblical prophecies by allegorising or spiritualising them, or by regarding end-time prophecies as already fulfilled during historical times (preterism). In this way they reject biblical warnings about the end-time outpouring of God’s wrath during the coming day of the Lord.

Furthermore, there are misleading translations of certain words in the original languages of the Bible, which may fundamentally change the basic meaning of a particular scripture. One such word occurs in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 – the Greek word apostasia. The noun apostasia only means “departure”. If departure from the truth is stated or implied, the derived or secondary meaning of a spiritual and moral “falling away” or “apostasy” is in order, but then the rest of the sentence should indicate that the word is used in this context.

Apostasia is derived from the verb aphistemi, which means “to depart” or “to remove”, and can obviously be used in many different contexts. Paul admonishes the Hebrew believers: “Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God” (Heb. 3:12; emphasis mine). With regard to end-time apostasy he says: “Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith” (1 Tim. 4:1; emphasis mine).

In both cases the context of “depart” is clearly stated, but “apostatising” is definitely not inherent in the meaning of aphistemi itself. This fact is clearly demonstrated by other applications of the same term. In the following scripture, aphistemi is used in quite the opposite context than “apostatising”: “Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity” (2 Tim. 2:19).

In 2 Thessalonians 2:3 it is not stated from where to where, or from what condition to what other condition, the departure (apostasia) takes place. However, the context of this action is clearly stated in the preceding two verses: “Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to Him [the rapture], we ask you, brothers, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us, saying that the day of the Lord [the tribulation period] has already come” (NIV rendering).

A marked increase in the persecution of Christians gave rise to the wrong idea and unfounded rumours that there would not, as promised by Paul, be a departure of believers before the outpouring of divine wrath. Many of the Thessalonian believers espoused the idea that they were already in the day of the Lord, so the promise of a pretribulation rapture as previously preached by Paul and also explained in his first epistle (1:10; 5:9), was suddenly very seriously questioned. They tended to accept the new viewpoint that Christians would not be caught up and removed from the scene of impending divine judgements.

In 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4, Paul confirmed that the day of the Lord (the time of judgement) would only start after the departure (apostasia), at which time the Antichrist will arise and declare himself to be God in the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem. The message was clear: the first century suffering of the Thessalonians was not part of the day of the Lord, the Roman Empire or its Caesar was not the Antichrist, and consequently the promise of a departure (rapture) before divine wrath still stood. The persecution suffered by those Christians was not the result of God’s judgements but forthcoming from the evil and hostile world in which they lived.

In verses 5 to 8, Paul reiterated that the very presence of the church on earth is restraining the revelation of the Antichrist: “... he who now restrains will do so until he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed.” This plain statement should solve the controversy around the escape. However, continued eschatological deception emerging from a wrong interpretation of apostasia compels us to further probe the meaning of this word in both Greek and English in order to gain greater clarity on this matter.

There are still those who proclaim a mid- or post-tribulation rapture based upon the assumption that the church will first find itself in the midst of the apocalyptic falling away, see the Antichrist and also be persecuted by him, before the Lord will snatch us away towards the middle or close to the end of the tribulation period. Instead of expecting a sudden departure to heaven, such people entertain an Antichrist expectation and now resort to various strategies to survive during a smaller or bigger part of the coming tribulation period.

Supporting arguments

Dr. House (1995:261-296) indicates that prior to the King James Version of 1611, in which apostasia is rendered “falling away”, there were seven English Bibles in which this term was correctly translated as “departing first”. Among them were the Wycliffe Bible of 1384, the Tyndale Bible of 1526, en the Geneva Bible of 1608. Because of the strong impact and wide acceptance of the KJV, virtually all English lexica subsequently attached the meaning of a spiritual and moral falling away, or even rebellion, to the word apostasy. But these meanings were based only upon selected applications of apostasia. Dr. House (1995:272-274) says:

“There can be little question that the noun apostasia has been translated generally as carrying a non-spatial meaning, usually defection, rebellion, falling away, or revolt in extra-biblical literature. Also in the LXX (Septuagint), the noun regularly refers either to a revolt against a government or defection from faith in Yahweh. The lexica provide additional proof for these meanings. If one merely counted the times apostasia is used with these meanings, or wholly relied on the lexica, then the case would be closed on the rapture view. However, such an approach would not yield a fully developed understanding of the word. There can be no question that the verb form allows the idea of spatial departure and is used that way many times in the LXX, in fact more times than the ideas of defection or revolt combined. ... The noun apostasia used in the sense of a spatial departure ... was also understood to have this meaning in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 by the fourth-century translator Jerome, where in his text he translates he apostasia as the Latin discessio, meaning departure. ... The key is that it does not inherently carry the meaning of defection or revolt. It does so only because of the contexts in which it is found. ... There are two major contextual factors that favour the understanding of apostasia as the rapture. The first is that the rapture of the church is the primary doctrinal view which Paul develops in 1 Thessalonians, and also in 2 Thessalonians, where he tries to correct some false teaching and provide the Thessalonians with some hope. The second consideration supporting this view is the antithetical parallel between the apostasia and the man of sin in 2:3 to the restrainer and the man of sin in verses 6 and 7.”

The relationship between the departure (apostasia) and the revelation of the man of sin in 2 Thess. 2:3, is confirmed in 2 Thess. 2:6-7 where the spatial removal of the one who restrains is followed by the revelation of the lawless one (the Antichrist).

Gordon Lewis (1968:218, as quoted by House, 1995:269) says: “The verb [for apostasia] may mean to remove spatially. There is little reason then to deny that the noun can mean such a spatial removal or departure. Since the noun is used only one other time in the New Testament of apostasy from Moses (Acts 21:21), we can hardly conclude that its Biblical meaning is necessarily determined. The verb is used 15 times in the New Testament. Of these 15, only three have anything to do with departure from the faith (Luke 8:13; 1 Tim. 4:1; Heb. 3:12). The word is used for departing from iniquity (2 Tim. 2:19), from ungodly men (1 Tim. 6:5), from the temple (Luke 2:37), from the body (2 Cor. 12:8), and from persons (Acts 12:10; Luke 4:13).”

Another scholar who defends the rapture view in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 is Dr. Paul Feinberg (1995:297-311). In his article he explains why a pretribulation rapture best explains the problems and issues in this important passage.

In the Amplified Bible (NT, p. 322) the possibility is recognised that apostasia may also be translated as referring to the rapture: “A possible rendering of apostasia is departure [of the church]”.

A matter of semantics

The controversy around the term apostasia is mainly a semantic one which arose from the way in which meaning was ascribed to the English version of this word. The noun apostasy was derived from a contextual use of the Greek apostasia, by taking one of the contexts in which the word was used to determine its primary meaning in English, rather than only translating the root meaning of the noun itself. Of course, English-speaking people are free to coin a new word, but then they can no longer use the adapted meaning of the English apostasy (departing from the truth, falling away, or rebellion) as an equivalent for the Greek apostasia (departure).

The same type of problem was encountered when translating the Greek word martus (a witness; i.e. someone who testifies or gives evidence). The context of the early witnesses of Christ as people who were persecuted and killed for their faith, was taken into account when determining the meaning of the English word martyr. But this implication of being witnesses for Christ is not at all reflected by the Greek word martus, which only means to be a witness. As a result, we are now faced with an inconsistent way of translating this word in the KJV and NKJV. In Acts 22:20 and Revelation 2:13, martus is translated as martyr, but in Acts 1:8, 22 and 22:15 the same word is rendered witnesses. The NIV and RSV prefer “witness” to “martyr” in Revelation 2:13, which is more correct. Of course, nobody would deny that Antipas was a martyr for his faith, but this idea is definitely not contained in the word martus – martyrdom is stated elsewhere in the sentence.

Why not follow the same approach with apostasia and aphistemi? If the context is clearly stated, e.g. “depart from the faith” (1 Tim. 4:1) and “departing from the living God” (Heb. 3:12), then “falling away”, “apostasy”, or “rebellion” may be in order. But such contextualising is not done in 2 Thessalonians 2:3; therefore “departure” would be the correct translation in this case. The contextualising of “departure” appears in the preceding two verses, which clearly suggests that Paul refers to the departure, escape, or rapture of the church – “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him”. The day of the Lord had not yet come, and the promise stands firm that He will deliver us from the wrath to come.

The falling away of the last days

The fact that the Bible indeed foretells great apostasy for the last days is one of the reasons why the forced exegesis of apostasia in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 is challenged by so few people. Many believers are inclined to merely look for signs of apostasy, rather than realising that the “departure” of true believers, which is not a falling away in itself, will result in the greatest apostasy of all time on earth. The departure of the withholder will allow the Antichrist to be revealed and introduce unprecedented apostasy and wickedness. But even before the departure, deception and apostasy will greatly increase.

Consider the following eight scenarios describing end-time apostasy, of which only the last one refers to the tribulation period after the departure of the church and the revelation of the man of sin:

Increased deception driven by evil spirits: “Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy” (1 Tim. 4:1-2). The more people move away from the sound doctrine of the Bible under the influence of false teachers, the easier they become victims to deceiving spirits.

False prophets, signs and wonders: The Lord Jesus said: “Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, I am the Christ [the Anointed of God], and will deceive many. ... For false christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders, so as to deceive, if possible, even the elect” (Matt. 24:4-5, 24). Many of these false prophets will deny the deity of Jesus Christ, as well as the great significance of His atoning death (cf. 2 Pet. 2:1-2).

The rejection of the Bible’s message to satisfy modern people’s inclination towards positive thinking: “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables” (2 Tim. 4:3-4). In the last days there will be a proliferation of false teachers who proclaim a message which is socially acceptable, and that will make them very popular. The following are some of the fables which they proclaim: God is a God of love who will not judge anybody; there is no devil or hell, neither will there be an Antichrist or a great tribulation; believers are not destined to suffer for their faith since they have been commissioned to establish a kingdom on earth and live in great wealth; and in terms of the doctrine of universalism it is taught that all people on earth will be saved and go to heaven, including the followers of the non-Christian religions.

Followers of mammon: The last of the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3, which is typical of the end-time church, is rebuked because of their spiritual bankruptcy which had been caused by the prosperity gospel: “So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. Because you say, I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing; and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:16-17). They served the god of Money and he lured them away from the true God (Matt. 6:24; cf. 1 Tim. 6:3-12).

A moral and spiritual falling away: “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold” (Matt. 24:12; NIV). End-time societies will greatly lapse into immoral lifestyles, promoted by modern forms of entertainment through mass media such as the TV and Internet. Because of this, they will loose touch with Jesus Christ and consequently grow cold in their love for Him. Some churches will forsake their first love (Jesus Christ) and become completely estranged from Him. To such churches He says: “I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (Rev. 2:4).

Self-love at the expense of love for God: “But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away!” (2 Tim. 3:1-5). Narcissism and licentiousness lead to the abandoning of the spiritual and moral standard of the Bible, and therefore to a mere form of godliness among church members who have fallen prey to this end-time spirit of unbridled human liberties which widely opens the door to sin.

Spiritual and moral polarisation: “He who is unjust, let him be unjust still; he who is filthy, let him be filthy still; he who is righteous, let him be righteous still; he who is holy, let him be holy still” (Rev. 22:11). End-time society will, spiritually and morally, polarise into extreme and incompatible groups. A minority of true believers will completely distance themselves from the general trend of worldliness and humanistic values.

A spiritual black-out at the departure of the true church: “Let no one deceive you in any way, for that day [the day of the Lord, or the tribulation period] will not come except the departure [of the true church] occurs first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition” (2 Thess. 2:3; paraphrased). A falling away towards wickedness and apostasy, far greater than the apostatising that will occur in the last days prior to the rapture, will manifest after the true church, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, has been taken away from the world in the twinkling of an eye. Immense spiritual darkness will prevail after the light of the world and the salt of the earth (cf. Matt. 5:13-14; Phil. 2:15) have suddenly been taken away. During this time, virtually the whole world will follow the Antichrist and openly worship him as Messiah and God (Rev. 13:3-4). They will accept his number, through which they will become part of his new world order with all its political, religious and economic institutions (Rev. 13:16-18). But the deceived masses will pay a very high price of eternal doom for accepting Satan’s false messiah who will initially reveal himself as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14-15; Rev. 14:9-11).

In view of all the prophecies on the day of the Lord which will be fulfilled in the end-time, we have every reason to keep on watching and praying to be worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to be in the wonderful presence of the Lord Jesus (Luke 21:36). It is an inspiring thought that there will be a “departure” (apostasia) for us before the man of sin is revealed. The Lord Jesus will destroy this impostor by the brightness of His coming when He returns as King of kings to the earth, seven years later at the end of the tribulation, to judge His enemies and reveal His kingdom in glory (2 Thess. 2:8; Zech. 14:4-5; Rev. 19:11-16).

A clear sign

A final argument in favour of rendering apostasia in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 “departing” is the fact that Paul gave a specific and very obvious reason why the Thessalonians were not yet in the day of the Lord (the tribulation period). He reiterated that “that day” would not come before the departure. In so doing he merely reconfirmed the pre-tribulation rapture. If he meant falling away (the English “apostasy”) he would have made a very vague and debatable statement, which he did not intend doing.

Apostasy is a long process which really pervades the entire church dispensation – it already occurred in the early churches (cf. Acts 20:29-30). We know that apostasy will increase in the end-time, but even that knowledge does not enable us to draw a line to indicate when it began. The really great and unprecedented apostasy which is described in 2 Thessalonians 2 (the rise of the man of sin, and the desecration of the temple when the Antichrist declares himself to be God) will only occur after the apastasia of 2 Thessalonians 2:3 and will be the direct consequence of physically removing the body of Christ from the earth. The withholder must first be taken out of the way before the man of sin can be revealed and have the opportunity of introducing his extreme blasphemy and satanic signs and wonders.

References

Constable, Thomas L., 1983 : 2 Thessalonians, pp. 713-725. In: Walvoord, John F. & Zuck, Roy B. (eds.) “The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament”. Victor Books.

Feinberg, Paul D., 1995 : 2 Thessalonians 2 and the Rapture, pp. 297-311. In: Ice, T. & Demy, T., 1995: “When the Trumpet Sounds”. Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers.

House, H. Wayne, 1995 : Apostasia in 2 Thessalonians 2:3: Apostasy or Rapture?, pp. 261-296. In: Ice, T. & Demy, T., 1995: “When the Trumpet Sounds”. Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers.

Lewis, Gordon L., 1968 : Biblical Evidence for Pretribulationalism. Bibliotheca Sacra, Vol. 125. No. 499, p. 218.

Walvoord, John F., 1995 : 1 Thessalonians 4: A Central Rapture Passage, pp. 251-259. In: Ice, T. & Demy, T., 1995: “When the Trumpet Sounds”. Eugene Oregon: Harvest House Publishers.
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