As stated already in the January 2010 article (“First Thessalonians 2 and the Rapture”), the Apostle Paul expressed pastoral concern for the wellbeing of the church. Specifically, Paul regarded the church as his “hope or joy or crown of exultation,” and indicated his pastoral priority for the spiritual wellbeing of the church “in the presence of our Lord Jesus at His coming.” Paul expressed this same attitude again in 1 Thessalonians 3:13.
Anticipating the Coming of the Lord Jesus
With regard to the coming of the Lord Jesus, it was Paul’s desire “that He may establish your hearts without blame in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints.” Paul expressed pastoral concern that the believers would be prepared to give a blameless account of their lives to God, and therefore would be ready for the coming of the Lord Jesus. The reason for his concern is that all Christians will appear before the judgment seat (bhma) of Christ (cf. 2 Cor 5:10).
It is noteworthy that the coming of the Lord Jesus referenced in both 1 Thessalonians 2:19 and 3:13 is imminent, which is evidence of a pretribulational rapture. If the midtribulational view that the church will experience half of the seven-year tribulation before the rapture is correct; or the pre-wrath rapture view that the church will experience three-quarters of the tribulation; or even the posttribulational view, as noted in a new book that Baker Books released addressing historic premillennialism1 (which is essentially posttribulationalism); then the longing expressed in 1 Thessalonians 2:19 and 3:13 would be different. The longing would be for the appearance of the Antichrist, because then Christ will return at the end of the tribulation.2 However, nothing is stated to occur prior to the rapture. Events may occur prior to the rapture, but there are not any prophesied events that must occur. It is different for the second coming of the Lord Jesus to earth, because a multitude of prophesied events must occur (cf. Rev 6—19). Jesus even said that there are signs to indicate His return to earth, and yet there are no such indications for the rapture. It is obvious that Scripture is referring to distinctions between the rapture and Christ’s earthly coming; that is, once for the church to rapture her3 to heaven, and then at the end of the tribulation with His glorified saints to rule and reign. In 1 Thessalonians 2:19 and 3:13, the expectation is an imminent return of Jesus Christ.
Difficulties will manifest in interpretation, if these two passages are interpreted as Christ’s coming after the wrath of the seven-year tribulation. The primary difficulty would be disregard for the contextual emphasis upon the bhma of Christ for believers. The judgment that Paul referenced in 1 Thessalonians 2:19 and 3:13 will occur “in the presence of our Lord Jesus at His coming” and “before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints.” The function of the improper preposition, emprostJen (“before,” “in the presence of,” “in the face of”4), is adverbial.5 As Jelf noted, “The original force however of the cases may in most of the combinations with a preposition be discerned. The preposition often either brings out the original force of the case yet more emphatically, or modifies it. . . .”6 The force of emprostJen is local, which provides the notion of place and time, and would therefore lose its local force if it were “regarded as casual.”7 The local force of emprostJen indicates “appearing before a judge” (Matt 25:32; 27:11; Luke 21:36; 2 Cor 5:10; cf. the contrast in 1 Thess 1:3; 3:9; 1 John 3:19).8
In 1 Thessalonians 2:19, the Lord Jesus is identified as the Judge at the place and time of the bhma, and there is not a contradiction in 1 Thessalonians 3:13 by indicating judgment by “our God and Father.” The unity of the Father and the Son at the place and time of the bhma is a mutual judgeship, as stated in verse 11: “Now may our God and Father Himself and Jesus our Lord direct our way to you.” Only God knows the time of the bhma, but the place of the judgment is revealed to be with the Father on His heavenly throne (Rev 3:21; cf. Rom 8:34; Eph 1:20; Col 3:1; Heb 1:3; 10:12; Rev 4—5) and will occur “at the coming of our Lord Jesus.” The place of judgment is unmistakable, and therefore the time of the judgment cannot follow the wrath of the seven-year tribulation, because the bhma will have already occurred in heaven. The coming of the Lord Jesus in both 1 Thessalonians 2:19 and 3:13 must anticipate Paul’s words in chapter 4 with regard to Christ’s return “in the clouds.” Both these verses, therefore, have reference to the bhma and not the return of Christ to earth. The coming of Christ in the air at the rapture is not His arrival to judge and reign upon the earth.
Two Prophecies and the Doctrine of Imminency
With regard to the doctrine of imminency, questions arise occasionally concerning the statement in John 21:18 (“Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go.”). The Johannine statement is a reference to Peter’s death. The question that arises is with regard to the possibility for Scripture to teach an imminent return of Christ, and yet Jesus said Peter would die in old age. According to church tradition,9 John 21:18 may be a prediction of how Peter died because he was crucified downward as a consequence of his confession of unworthiness to die similarly to his Lord and Savior. Certainly, the ancient tradition indicates an amazing transformation in the life of Peter, which is a marvelous argument for the historicity that the resurrection actually occurred. For instance, Peter was an absolute coward before “one of the slaves of the high priest,” even cursing that he did not know the Lord Jesus (Matt 26:69-75; John 18:25-27). But when the opportunity arrived for him to appear before the Roman leaders, his response was with boldness that he was not worthy to die in the same manner as the Lord Jesus, and therefore was crucified downward at his own request. The only manner in which one can explain the transformation of the cowardly disciples10 into a bold and courageous group is that Jesus truly did rise from the grave. People do foolish things in their lives for things that they believe to be true, but when people know that something is false, they are not bold and courageous for a lie (such actions are contrary to human nature, and therefore remarkable evidence with regard to the historicity of the resurrection of Christ). Nevertheless, these remarkable truths are a digression from the primary issue with regard to the prophecy that Peter would die in old age.
Before answering the question of John 21:18, it is also prudent to mention Acts 23:11, which states, “But on the night immediately following, the Lord stood at his side and said, ‘Take courage; for as you have solemnly witnessed to My cause at Jerusalem, so you must witness at Rome also.’” Not only was there a prophecy with regard to Peter, but also for the Apostle Paul. God said that Peter would die in old age, and in Acts 23:11, there is the prophecy that Paul would visit Rome. The question arises with regard to reconciling the notion that Christ may return imminently, yet there were prophesied events in the history of the early church to occur. Peter was to experience old age, and Paul was to visit Rome before the Lord could return.
It is possible that the Johannine prophecy with regard to Peter could have been fulfilled shortly after Christ’s ascension if Peter had been confined. For instance, Peter could have undergone confinement in prison, which would satisfy the language of the prophecy that he had grown old in prison by being confined. With regard to the promise to Paul, it seems assumed that unless the Lord returned, this would occur. If the Lord returned, then Paul would not visit Rome, but if the Lord delayed, then indeed Paul would be able to visit Rome. John 21:18 and Acts 23:11 are not two texts that argue against the imminent return of Jesus Christ, but the texts would be consistent with contemporary expression. For instance, in writing this article, I have told the editor that it will be received on Monday . . . unless. The editor will receive this article on Monday, unless the Lord Jesus returns. It would appear that these two biblical texts were spoken in the same manner; that is, the prophecies in John and Acts stated that unless the Lord would return in the first century, this is what would occur for both Peter and Paul. The practice of speaking in this manner is quite common. For example, a group of believers has been told, “See you in a couple days for Bible study, Lord willing,” which would be consistent with the spoken intent of John 21:18 and Acts 23:11. Therefore, these texts do not contradict the doctrine of imminency with regard to the coming of the Lord Jesus.
Perseverance until the Lord Returns
Paul also expressed pastoral concern in 1 Thessalonians 3:5, “that the tempter might have tempted you, and our labor would be in vain.” Verse 5 is typically understood in two different manners. Some interpret Paul as expressing fear that the Thessalonians would actually apostatize from the faith, which would result in their loss of salvation. However, it is simply incongruent with the doctrine of justification by grace through faith in Christ alone to affirm such an interpretation. One cannot locate biblical evidence in context that would affirm that a regenerate believer could lose his or her salvation.11 “For
I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:6). Christians are not saved as a result of the flesh or self will (Eph 2:8-10; Tit 3:5). Those who are in Christ experience that eternal relationship (John 17:3) as a result of the sovereign outworking of God. Salvation is not of “yourselves” or the “result of works” (Eph 2:8-9), which means there is no possibility of losing one’s salvation (justification). The teaching of Scripture is once justified, always justified. Certainly, believers may sadly lose their sanctification, but justification is not something that is ever lost. It is beyond this author’s comprehension to understood how one may experience eternal life and then receive eternal damnation as a result of works or self. If salvation (justification) is eternal, then it cannot be lost.
The motivation for Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 3:5 was fear that the labor of the Christians would be in vain in the sense of a impediment in their spiritual life, that is, a setback in their spiritual growth, but not actually losing their salvation. Paul’s concern was that sometimes there are setbacks in the life of a true believer. Sometimes true believers do indeed backslide, and they must repent inevitably and persevere in faith. According to Scripture, the setbacks are never permanent, and if ever such would be the experience of one who professes faith in Christ, the biblical revelation would teach, “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19).
Sadly, a true believer may experience a setback in spiritual growth. True believers sometimes drift from God, as the writer of Hebrews said in chapter 2 of his epistle. There can be restoration to fellowship, but there are spiritual scars that often follow. Paul’s fear was that the difficulties the church was experiencing would overwhelm them to the point of a setback, and then there would be spiritual scars that would develop as a consequence. Therefore, the closing words of 1 Thessalonians 3 would be an exhortation to persevere in faith—despite the circumstances—because all believers will stand before God for judgment and evaluation of works accomplished in the service of the Lord. As heavenly citizens who will yet face the heavenly Authority at the rapture of the church, both 1 Thessalonians 2:19 and 3:13 provide good motivation to examine one’s life with an eternal perspective.
Paul expressed his desire for the church at Thessalonica specifically and for the church throughout the ages generally to preserve in faithfulness to the Lord Jesus Christ. Prior to Christ’s return to earth for judgment and to establish His kingdom, there will be the seven-year tribulation, and prior to that prophesied event will be the rapture of the church and appearance before the judgment seat “in the presence of our Lord Jesus” and “our God and Father.” The contextual emphasis indicates the place of the bhma is heaven, which is consistent with the doctrine of the pretribulational rapture. Although only God knows the timing of the rapture, the church may live with an imminent expectation of the return of Christ “in the clouds” of heaven to rapture His beloved elect from the earth. With such a hope for the present, may every believer yearn for the work of the Holy Spirit in establishing his or her heart “without blame in holiness . . . at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints.”
1 Craig L. Blomberg and Sung Wook Chung, eds., A Case for Historic Premillennialism: An Alternative to “Left Behind” Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009).
2 In recognition of this truth, posttribulationist Bob Gundry titled his book correctly (to be consistent with his belief) as First the Antichrist (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997).
3 The feminine pronoun “her” is used with regard to the church because the Greek word, ekklhsia, is a feminine noun. The grammatical gender, of course, should not be confused with sexual gender (i.e. femininity as opposed to masculinity, or vice-versa).
4 William D. Mounce, The Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993) 184.
5 Herbert Weir Smyth, A Greek Grammar for College (New York: American Book Company, 1920) 366.
6 William Edward Jelf, A Grammar of the Greek Language, 3rd ed., 2 vols. (Oxford and London: John Henry and James Parker, 1861) 2:283.
8 William F. Bauer, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd ed., rev. F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979) 257.
9 According to church historian Eusebius, the Apostle Peter “was crucified with his head downward, having requested of himself to suffer in this way” (Ecclesiastical History, trans. Christian Frederick Cruse [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1994] 3.1).
10 John was the only disciple to have been an eyewitness of the crucifixion (John 19:17-37).
11 It would be better to state, “once justified, always justified,” in contrast to “once saved, always saved,” because salvation may be regarded biblically as past (justification), present (sanctification), and future (glorification). It is the experience of one’s sanctification that may change, but justification is and glorification will be unalterable by the very power and decree of God.