First Thessalonians 5:1-11 is the second of three primary eschatological passages in the letters to the Thessalonians. The first, of course, was 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. The next principal passage will be in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12, which addresses issues relating to the rapture of the church. The consideration of 1 Thessalonians 4 in the previous two articles addressed the invalid attempts to merge the rapture and the second coming into a single event, and demonstrated that the comfort of that passage will be the reunion of the deceased and living saints in Christ at the pretribulational rapture. First Thessalonians 5:1-11 provides a different focus with emphasis upon the Day of the Lord, and this passage also has relevance for the doctrine of the rapture.
Distinguishing the Coming of Lord Jesus
Scripture does not employ the actual language “first coming” and “second coming,” but this does not imply that the doctrinal terminology is unbiblical. The Bible, for example, does not use the term “Trinity,” nor in a solitary verse does it state that God is three equally eternal Persons, who are the same substance but distinct in subsistence. Biblical theology is the systematic formulation of the doctrinal (propositional) statements of Scripture. Therefore, simply because the specific language that modern readers of Scripture desire—such as “first coming” and “second coming”—is not employed does not mean that the teaching represented in the doctrinal and theological classifications is not explicit.
It is often questioned why Scripture does not categorically state that Christ will return once in the rapture,
followed by His return to the earth at least seven years later. To answer that question, one may also consider the first and second comings of Messiah. The Old Testament certainly prophesied that Christ would suffer on behalf of His people, that is, to give His life as a substitute, and that Messiah would rule and reign upon the earth. In reading the New Testament, it is evident that there will be two comings of Messiah. However, if one were to talk with the biblical scholars of Jesus’ time (and the general populace), the notion of a first coming to suffer followed by a second coming to reign seemed preposterous. Even the disciples struggled with the concept.
Acts 1:6 records the disciples’ question to the Lord with regard to the kingdom. Believing correctly that Jesus is the Messiah, the disciples expected Him to “restore the kingdom to Israel.” The disciples struggled to think in terms of Messiah leaving for any period of time and then returning to establish the Davidic (millennial) kingdom.1 With the vantage of hindsight, it is evident that an intercalation (i.e. the introduction of an unseen time element) between the first and second comings is occurring.2 The time element between the first and second comings establishes a biblical precedent that what may appear to be an indication of only one future event may actually require two separate events. Not only is the intercalation true between the first coming of Christ to suffer, and His second coming to rule and reign, but also with regard to the rapture and the second coming.
A Different Emphasis in 1 Thessalonians 5
Whereas the emphasis of 1 Thessalonians 4 is upon the awe and hope associated with the coming of the Lord, the focus of 1 Thessalonians 5 is somewhat gloomy. The change in emphasis is evident in the two Greek words, peri de (“but [Now] concerning [as]”), that begin the chapter.3 Whenever the Apostle Paul used these words in 1 Corinthians and 1 Thessalonians, it was to introduce a new subject.4 Therefore, the Greek preposition and conjunction in 1 Thessalonians 5:1 indicates a transition from the emphasis upon the rapture in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Now, the emphasis of verses 1-11 in 1 Thessalonians 5 is judgment. For instance, one reads, “For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night.”
Paul indicated that the Thessalonian believers were quite knowledgeable with regard to the Day of the Lord, but such language may not be as familiar to modern readers. It behooves the reader to seek definition and explanation of this Old Testament event by consulting three Old Testament passages. The Day of the Lord is a well-developed prophetic concept in the Old Testament prophetical books. Since this concept was known well, it was only prudent for Paul to address the rapture first, since this is a distinct New Testament doctrine. There are references to the second coming in the Old Testament, but none with regard to the rapture, which was the source of confusion. The church was well acquainted with Old Testament history, and then Paul introduced a mystery teaching, which was something that was not mysterious in the sense of being some kind of esoteric teaching, or some pagan, occultic teaching—not a mystery in that sense—but a mystery in the sense that it was not revealed in the Old Testament, and therefore was a source of confusion.
With regard to the Day of the Lord, however, the early church was quite familiar. Isaiah 13:9-11 reads:
(9) 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.
(10) For the stars of heaven and their constellations
Will not flash forth their light;
The sun will be dark when it rises
And the moon will not shed its light.
(11) Thus I will punish the world for its evil
And the wicked for their iniquity;
I will also put an end to the arrogance of the proud
And abase the haughtiness of the ruthless.
The prophet Isaiah revealed that the Day of the Lord would be a time of very specific judgment that God will bring upon the earth for the wickedness of humanity. Of course, the language used in verse 10 is also language that is prevalent in the Book of Revelation. The same type of language is also very dominant in Matthew 24—25, the Olivet Discourse.
Zephaniah 1:14-17 reads:
(14) 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.
(15) 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,
(16) A day of trumpet and battle cry
Against the fortified cities
And the high corner towers.
(17) 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.
The focus in Zephaniah is again upon the fact that the Day of the Lord is a judgment that God will instigate against the wicked. There is also the idea in the Old Testament that the Day of the Lord is not only a judgment on the wicked nations and depraved humanity, but also a judgment upon unbelieving Israel.
Zephaniah 1:14 states specifically, “Near is the great day of the LORD,” which is a combination of near and far elements in the warnings regarding the Day of the Lord. In some of the prophecies, there is a more immediate judgment of the exile that God will accomplish; but in other prophecies, there is the warning of an end-time judgment, with the more immediate exile as something of a preview. The easy manner in which to think of these near and far judgments is that of types and antitypes.
Types and Antitypes
There are certain types that are specified in the Bible, like Abraham offering his son, Isaac, which is a type of the Father offering His Son, the Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Abraham and Isaac are the type, whereas the antitype—the non-type—is the Father and Jesus Christ. Hebrews is filled with explaining all sorts of types and shadows, and how they all pointed to Jesus Christ, the antitype. Just as there are types and antitypes with regard to individuals, so there are with regard to events, such as the judgment passages of the Day of the Lord. Zephaniah provided a preview of some kind of a near fulfillment, but there will also be a complete fulfillment in the future, in a prophetic time.
A type gap is when an Old Testament prophet described an event, person, or institution (“type”), and progressive revelation in the New Testament indicates the prophetic significance of this event, person, or institution (“antitype”).
A time gap is when an Old Testament prophet spoke with regard to two different events, which are separated by a wide space of time, as thought they were one event. Generally, the two different events, separated by the time gap, have reference to the first coming and second coming of Messiah. The Old Testament prophets were unaware of such gaps when they were inspired with the prophecy (1 Pet 1:10-12), in order that the prophet communicated a message for his own day in addition to a future time.5
The manner in which one may distinguish the near and far fulfillment is to answer whether everything prophesied was fulfilled historically and literally. If an event was fulfilled entirely in the past, one should not expect any future fulfillment; however, if there are things stated that did not occur in the historical timeframe, then that leads one to conclude that such events are yet future, because God said that He will fulfill all His Word (Matt 5:17-18). Often connected with the judgment passages is blessing associated with it, and therefore, the Day of the Lord ultimately manifests the omnibenevolence and omnipotence of God. It is a curious thing about those who reject a premillennial understanding of the Bible, because they will interpret the judgment upon Israel very literally. God has judged Israel in such a mindset, and He has fulfilled those prophecies, but then the blessings that are so connected with the judgment are spiritualized (i.e. the blessings now refer to blessings in Jesus Christ and the blessings of heaven). However, the judgments are literal, and so will the blessings be literal. When the Word of God reveals specific details with regard to judgment for Israel, it almost always addresses blessings associated with the judgment that have not been fulfilled. Consequently, one should conclude that God will fulfill His word completely and literally, and one should expect that a prophecy is still future if it has not been historically fulfilled in its entirety.
In the Old Testament prophecies, there are references to a near fulfillment, and then sometimes a far fulfillment. Amos 5:18-20 reads:
(18) Alas, you who are longing for the day of the LORD,
For what purpose will the day of the LORD be to you?
It will be darkness and not light;
(19) As when a man flees from a lion
And a bear meets him,
Or goes home, leans his hand against the wall
And a snake bites him.
(20) Will not the day of the LORD be darkness in stead of light, Even gloom with no brightness in it?
In these verses, there is another reference to the future Day of the Lord—a time of great judgment that God will bring—the Day of the Lord being something that awaits the conclusion of the end times in establishing the millennial kingdom. Verses 23-24 are interesting within the same chapter of Amos 5.
(23) “Take away from Me the noise of your songs;
I will not even listen to the sound of your harps.
(24) “But let justice roll down like waters
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Amos prophesied a judgment upon the nations and upon Israel, but then also, there is the reference to justice and righteousness being established throughout the earth following that judgment. There is a brief reference to the millennial kingdom as something that is future.
The Day of the Lord was a well-known concept, and would be understood as a time of tremendous judgment that God would bring not only upon Israel, but also upon the nations for their wickedness. Some comment and teach that the Day of the Lord should be associated with the tribulation period—the entire seven years of judgment—but then also say that the Day of the Lord should include the millennium. The Day of the Lord is simply the tribulation period. Whenever prophecies reference the millennium, the language is always “in that day”; therefore, “that day” seems to be generic language which could refer to either times of judgment, the tribulation, or the millennium. Conversely, the Day of the Lord seems to refer very specifically to the time of judgment that God will bring upon Israel and the nations. The Day of the Lord should be defined primarily as an Old Testament term referring to the seven years of tribulation. Moreover, the term is never used in reference to the millennial kingdom, but “that day” is an Old Testament term that may reference either the tribulation or millennium.
Of course, when Scripture uses the idea of the Day of the Lord, it is not speaking of a twenty-four hour period, a calendar day. For example, in 2 Thessalonians 2:2, Paul wrote, “that you not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.” The idea in the Greek (enesthken) is that the Day of the Lord has already come. The Greek is in the perfect tense, which would literally mean “has already come and continues,” which demonstrates that a day can be longer than just simply twenty-four hours, and so it is with the Day of the Lord.
Posttribulationalists disagree that the Day of the Lord is longer than a calendar day, for they believe that it is the second coming. However, such an understanding does not adequately consider the Greek perfect tense, because the indication is that the Day of the Lord comes and then continues. Sometimes in life one day leads into another, especially if one is busy, but biblically, the Day of the Lord should be something regarded as a longer framework of time that would include the prophesied judgments of the Bible. Of course, in the creation account of Genesis, the word “day” means something entirely different, because there it uses morning and evening, day one and day two, so that the reader knows that those are not longer than twenty-four hour periods, and therefore revealing that creation occurred in six twenty-four hour days.6
The Day of the Lord as a Night Thief
According to 1 Thessalonians 5:1-2, the church was not uninformed with regard to the prophecies of the Day of the Lord. Their confusion was concerning the rapture, as it was a new teaching, that is, something not known from the Old Testament. Additional instruction was not needed regarding the Day of the Lord, because the believers knew “full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night.” Conversely, when the unbelievers will be saying, “‘Peace and safety!’ then destruction will come upon them suddenly like labor pains upon a woman with child, and they will not escape” (5:3).
It is noteworthy that Matthew, in his gospel (Matt 24:8), referred to the same period and called it “birth pangs.” Even in Jewish commentaries, this concept of birth pains preceding the time of Messiah’s return is established. Relying upon extra-biblical sources, Raphael Patai devoted an entire chapter to “The Pangs of Time.”
The pangs of the Messianic times are imagined as heavenly as well as earthly sources and expressions. From Above, awesome cosmic cataclysms will be visited upon the earth. . . . All this will lead to internal decay, demoralization, and even apostasy. Things will come to such a head that people will despair of Redemption. This will last seven years. And then, unexpectedly, the Messiah will come.
Because of this gloomy picture of the beginning of the Messianic era, which by Talmudic times was firmly believed in, some sages expressed the wish not to see the Messiah. . . . In any case, both the people and its religious leaders continued to hope for the coming of the Messiah.7
The Jewish understanding of the birth pangs associated with the Day of the Lord and Messianic era is certainly consistent with the sequence of the Book of Revelation and the eschatological discourses in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 24 // Mark 13 // Luke 17).8
In 1 Thessalonians 5:4-11, the characteristics of the Day of the Lord are described, with focus upon the fact that believers are well informed with regard to that period. Its coming is compared to a thief in the night. No one knows when a thief will come, but when a thief does come, then it becomes patently obvious, and so Paul used that language with regard to the unbelievers’ surprise. The Jewish tradition is that the Messiah will come in the middle of the night, in the same manner as the Destroyer came to the Egyptians.9 There are some early traditions that relate the coming of Christ to the midnight of Easter, which does not seem accurate. However, the midnight hour is evident in passages such as Psalm 119:62 and Matthew 25:1-13 (of course, midnight occurs at different times throughout the world). Comparing the Book of Revelation and other Old Testament prophecies, it would seem that the Day of the Lord begins with the opening of the first seal of Revelation. The rapture will precede the tribulation, and then the Day of the Lord may be regarded as coming in an unexpected manner.
For the second coming to occur and the establishment of the millennium, there are specific events that must occur. Consequently, it is not possible to say that the rapture is the same as the second coming, or that the Day of the Lord (as posttribulationists believe) is the second coming, because it would not occur as a thief in the night. One would know how to count to the very end of the seven-year tribulation, and expect the second coming. The fact that Paul used language of unexpectedness, in relation to his teaching of the rapture in 1 Thessalonians 4, supports pretribulational doctrine that the rapture will precede this period.
According to 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, those who enter the tribulation will know that the period has come (cf. Rev 6:12-17), which would eliminate any kind of false teaching such as the idea that the Day of the Lord was being experienced by the Thessalonians. The false teaching being circulated among the church at Thessalonica was that they had somehow missed the rapture of 1 Thessalonians 4, and were now experiencing the Day of the Lord. Paul said the period is a time of judgment—a well-established fact of the Old Testament—and when it does occur, it will be obvious. The Day of the Lord will occur when people are saying, “peace and safety.” The unexpected beginning of the period would seem to parallel the first half of the tribulation from Daniel 9:24-27, and the emphasis therein upon the signing of a peace treaty with Israel. Even in the current time, there is continual discussion regarding peace in the Middle East, and demands for a two state solution in “Palestine.”
Scripture prophesies that Israel will become “a cup that causes reeling” to all the world (Zech 12:2), which indicates a focus upon Israel, and a type of individual coming and enforcing peace upon them. Ezekiel referred to the false peace treaty as a “covenant with death” (28:18), because it is not Messiah providing peace for them, but rather, they will have been deceived by Antichrist. The Book of Revelation also pictures the first three and a half years of the tribulation as relatively peaceful in Israel. It is not until halfway through that period that Antichrist breaks his covenant with the Jewish people, and then they understand who he is and flee for their lives. First Thessalonians 5:3 is stating that those people who enter the tribulation—the people that are saying peace and safety—are the ones who are also going to experience the judgment of God: “they will not escape.” They will experience God’s due wrath and judgment, which leads into another teaching of 1 Thessalonians 5.
Not Destined for Wrath
Verse 9 reads, “For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The concept of wrath is a term that whenever used, is reserved strictly for divine punishment upon those for whom there is no longer any hope of salvation. The wrath of the tribulation is punishment for wickedness, and so it will be expended upon the wicked. First Thessalonians 1:9-10 already expressed the teaching here in 1 Thessalonians 5:9. In comparing the two parallel statements, the teaching is that God has not appointed the church unto receiving His wrath. According to these texts, God has said very clearly that He has not appointed the church unto receiving His wrath, but unto salvation. Such a statement would support a pretribulational understanding of these things, because the wrath is the entire period of the tribulation, and it is not God’s purpose to take the church through that period.
The rapture is not a reward for faithfulness, but correlates with God’s plans for Israel in relation to the kingdom. The tribulation is a period that is prophesied for Israel. It is a judgment upon them for things in the past, and a time of purging the rebel from among Israel in preparation for Messiah’s return. It is evident from this text and others that the church will not experience the tribulation. Of course, not all details are answered here in this first letter to the Thessalonians, but will be explained more fully in 2 Thessalonians 2, which does provide a very specific rapture statement.
The emphasis of 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 is upon the suddenness of the Day of the Lord, which is a well-developed Old Testament teaching. The Day of the Lord is not only a time judgment upon the earth for the wickedness of humanity, but also will be a time of purging the rebel within Israel in preparation for the messianic kingdom. The Day of the Lord is the same as the seven-year tribulation, or Daniel’s seventieth week. Although the church may benefit from persecution (and much of the church throughout the world is experiencing tribulations), it is not God’s purpose to have the church enter this period of wrath and judgment. God’s purpose for the church is distinct from Israel, and therefore, the rapture of the church will precede the tribulation. It is a wonderful privilege to possess God’s revelation of the future, and certainly worth a lifetime of study, in addition to all the truths of Scripture. The church has a responsibility in this world until the time of the rapture, and should be diligent in service of the Lord by His grace and for His glory. The instruction to pray for the true peace of Jerusalem is always binding (Ps 122:6), yet believers know that it will be the return of the Lord to establish His kingdom of righteousness that will culminate in real peace being experienced throughout the world. (388)
1 In Matthew 24:1-2, the thinking of the disciples was based upon Zechariah 14, wherein verses 1–2 describe Jerusalem’s deliverance, verses 3–8 prophesy the destruction of Jerusalem’s enemies by Messiah, and verses 9–11 record the establishment of the kingdom. Therefore, the disciples thought the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem would culminate in the reign of Messiah. In the Olivet Discourse, however, Jesus warned against thinking that the destruction of Jerusalem and cataclysmic events would signify the end (Matt 24:6). He warned the disciples with regard to deception concerning false messiahs, wars, and other events.
2 All amillennialists and some premillennialists and postmillennialists believe the kingdom of God was inaugurated (initiated) at the first coming of Christ. It is noteworthy that the prophecies concerning the Roman Empire in Daniel 2 and 7 were fulfilled precisely at the time of the first coming of Christ, but the prophecy concerning the final destruction of that Empire has never been fulfilled. For instance, Rome did not fall as a result of Christianity, but fell primarily due to corruption that decayed the empire internally. The influence of the Roman Empire—the legs and toes of the image of Daniel 2—continued for several centuries after the first coming of Christ. Moreover, in the year 408, it was the Visigoths with Alaric in command who besieged Rome and defeated it. However, in reading Daniel 2:35, it is evident that all effects of the fourth kingdom and the preceding kingdoms are destroyed and disappear at the second coming of Christ, so that it is said “the wind carried them away so that not a trace of them was found.”
3 The practice is distinct to Paul, although some seek to apply the act to other biblical authors, such as in Matthew 24:36, but this is incorrect.
4 James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) 611; Margaret M. Mitchell, “Concerning PERI DE in 1 Corinthians,” Novum Testamentum 31 (1989): 229-56; Huub van de Sandt and Jürgen Zangenberg, eds., Matthew, James, and Didache: Three Related Documents in Their Jewish and Christian Setting (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2008) 157.
5 Sometimes there is even a combination of a type gap and time gap. In this double reference, the Old Testament prophet would speak of two similar events, people, or institutions (type), although they are widely separated from the antitype in time. The first event is a prefiguring of a later event. For example, the invasion of locusts in Joel 1-3 is the type, and the invasion of human armies in Matthew 24:15-22 is the antitype.
6 For more information on this subject, see chapter 4 in The Genesis Factor, which is offered by the bookstore of Midnight Call Ministries.
7 Raphael Patai, The Messiah Texts (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1979) 95-96.
8 Ron J. Bigalke Jr., “A Comparison of the Synoptic Eschatological Discourses and Revelation 6—20,” Chafer Theological Seminary Journal 13 (Spring 2008): 68-70.
9 Clemens Leonhard, The Jewish Pesach and the Origins of the Christian Easter: Open Questions in Current Research (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2006) 417.