Deliverance Before Divine Wrath

Johan Malan, Mossel Bay, South Africa (April 2014)

The theme of Paul’s two letters to the Thessalonians is the physical deliverance of true Christians before the outpouring of divine wrath during the end-time tribulation period, as well as the spiritual preparedness which is necessary for our meeting with the heavenly Bridegroom. From these events it is obvious why we should have a hopeful future expectation and engage ourselves in preparing for Christ’s imminent coming. We should have a clear understanding of future events as that would prevent us from being deceived into entertaining an Antichrist expectation which emanates from the erroneous view that the rapture will only occur after the appearing of the Antichrist.

It is important to correctly interpret the statements made by Paul and also to refrain from changing the chronological order in which they will be fulfilled, as only then a clear pattern of end-time events would emerge. In this article we will firstly explain concepts related to the wrath of God, after which the promise of escape before the outpouring of wrath will be discussed; subsequently, the serious consequences of wrong teachings on eschatology will be reviewed.

The day of the Lord

In his letter to this church, Paul frequently refers to the end-time outpouring of God’s wrath upon the wicked, and describes it as:

·      “the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:10; 5:9) when divine wrath will be poured out upon a Christ rejecting world;

·      “the day of the Lord” (1 Thess. 5:2) when He will enter into judgement with the unbelievers;

·      “sudden destruction” (1 Thess. 5:3) which will follow after the revelation of the Antichrist, who will perpetrate his deception and reign of terror to unprecedented heights; and

·      “the day of Christ” (2 Thess. 2:2) when He will be the Judge who will pour out God’s judgements upon an unrepentant world. The sinners on earth will be well aware of His role as Judge (Rev. 6:16-17).

It is clearly stated that during his visit to Thessalonica, Paul intensively instructed the congregation on eschatology (cf. 2 Thess. 2:5). They were therefore edified on the serious nature of the coming judgements.

In his teachings on the day of the Lord, Paul would certainly have referred to important Old Testament pronouncements on this subject. Isaiah says: “Behold, the day of the Lord comes, cruel with both wrath and fierce anger, to lay the land desolate; and He will destroy its sinners from it” (Isa. 13:9 ff.; cf. Isa. 24:1-23). Joel says: “For the day of the Lord is great and very terrible; who can endure it? ... The sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood, before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord” (Joel 2:11, 31).

In His Olivet Discourse the Lord Jesus refers to this time as the “great tribulation” and adds that humanity would not be able to survive these days unless they were shortened (Matt. 24:21-22). He also confirms the fact that His public coming when every eye shall see Him, will follow directly after the dark days of the great tribulation (Matt. 24:29-30; Luke 21:25-27). In the book of Revelation, John describes the time of judgements as “the wrath of the Lamb” and “the great day of His wrath” (Rev. 6:16-17).

God the Father did not only send Jesus to the world as Saviour but also appointed Him as Judge over all people (Acts 17:30-31). His wrath will be poured out upon all people who did not repent to God. The church in Thessalonica was constructively informed on this subject.

Sudden coming of the day of the Lord

Although there are many prophecies on the end-time tribulation that will be fulfilled during the revelation of Christ, this time will nevertheless dawn suddenly and unexpectedly: “For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they say, ‘Peace and safety!’ then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labour pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape” (1 Thess. 5:2-3). To the non-Christian world, there will be no escape by means of the rapture as they will pursue a false, manmade peace in the form of a new world order which is based upon globalism and international reconciliation. They will not at all be inclined to receive Christ as Prince of Peace but will instead openly reject Him (cf. Ps. 2:2-3).

However, Christians are not destined for the judgements of God; consequently, to them the day of the Lord’s end-time revelations will start at the rapture when He will suddenly come as a thief in the night to take them away. He says: “Behold, I am coming as a thief. Blessed is he who watches, and keeps his garments” (Rev. 16:15). At His secret coming the world at large will not see Him as He will meet His bride in the air and then take them along to heaven. These are the saved people who lived holy, kept their spiritual garments from being stained by sin, and waited on the Lord. They are not the subjects of God’s wrath, and because of that they will be taken away before the beginning of the day of the Lord’s judgements on earth.

The sudden absence of the true church indwelt by the Holy Spirit that made Christ’s light to shine on earth, will offer the Antichrist the opportunity to take over the world without resistance and to subject all people to his reign of terror. During that time, Christ will break the seals of God’s judgements in heaven, which explains the fact that the tribulation on earth will be accompanied by divine judgements.

The escape

The Thessalonians committed themselves “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. 1:9-10). What a prospect! The Lord Jesus paid the penalty for our sins; He was resurrected from the dead; and ascended into heaven from where He will return to take us away:

“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. 4:16-18).

This statement ties up with the promise in Luke 21:36, where we are admonished to be ready for Christ’s coming: “Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

We will meet the Lord in the air when He comes as a thief in the night to catch us away, and then return with Him to heaven. Our places will suddenly be empty on earth: “I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left” (Luke 17:34 ff.). If we heed the signs of the times and actively expect the coming of the heavenly Bridegroom, we will not be caught unawares: “But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this day should overtake you as a thief” (1 Thess. 5:4).

During the rapture Christ will only appear “to those who eagerly wait for Him” (Heb. 9:28). Paul often confirms this promise: “For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:9). The congregation is frequently encouraged to be blameless in holiness at the coming of the heavenly Bridegroom (1 Thess. 4:7-8; 5:23-24).

False teachings denounced

After Paul departed from Thessalonica, false teachings on events related to Christ’s second coming were introduced to the congregation. Various groups of people stated that, contrary to what Paul had taught, there would not be a pretribulation rapture but that the church was destined to pass through the tribulation. Members of the congregation were receptive to these ideas, particularly in the light of an intensified campaign by the Roman Empire to persecute Christians. Panic and fear prevailed in the congregation. After Paul was informed on this state of affairs, he wrote a second letter to this church to denounce the deceptive teachings. In his letter he reaffirmed the promise on a pretribulation rapture by emphasising that they were not yet in the day of the Lord:

“Now, brethren, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him [the catching away], 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 time of judgements on earth] had come” (2 Thess. 2:1-2).

There were three different sources from which these false teachings originated. Firstly, there were false prophets who claimed that they had a gift of prophecy. According to them, the Holy Spirit revealed to them that the day of the Lord had already started and that there would be no escape for believers. Secondly, false teachings were proclaimed by various persons who openly alleged that Paul was in error by promising an escape to believers before the judgements. Thirdly, there were even fake letters in circulation that were written in the name of Paul, in which he supposedly informed the congregation that the day of the Lord was already underway and that they were indeed destined to pass through the tribulation period. Paul exposed these false teachings by submitting further evidence of the believers’ escape before the judgements:

“Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, 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? And now you know what is restraining, that he may be revealed in his own time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only He who now restrains will do so until He is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His coming. The coming of the lawless one is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders, and with all unrighteous deception among those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this reason God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie, that they all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness” (2 Thess. 2:3-12).

In this scripture passage, Paul gives various reasons to explain why the day of the Lord’s wrath had not yet taken effect, and further explains what will happen after the church of Christ has been removed:

·         He begins by warning the church against spiritual deception: “Let no one deceive you by any means.” During his missionary journeys, Paul also warned other congregations against false teaching that often originated from among themselves (Acts 20:29-30). Any message or opinion which is expressed should first be tested in the light of Scripture (Acts 17:11).

·         He then continues to state that at the beginning of the day of the Lord and the subsequent revelation of the Antichrist as the man of sin, there will first be a “falling away” (literally a “departure”). The Greek word used in this scripture passage is “apostasia” which merely means “depart”, and therefore needs to be further qualified in the context in which it is used. When people would “depart” from the faith, spiritual apostasy will indeed prevail. But the word “depart” in this passage refers to the departure of Christians before the revelation of the Antichrist. This meaning is confirmed in a footnote in the Amplified Bible: “A possible rendering of apostasia is ‘departure [of the church]’.” This event will be followed by large-scale deception on earth, as well as the revelation of the Antichrist, since those who proclaimed the truth will suddenly be gone. For a more complete exposition of the meaning and implications of “apostasia” in this passage, read the article: “Great falling away after the departure of the church” (http://www.bibleguidance.co.za/Engarticles/Departure.htm).

·         In the light of this statement it was evident that the emperor in Rome could not, as was presumed by the Christians, have been the Antichrist; consequently, the views of the congregation regarding the identity of the Antichrist were unfounded. Furthermore, the emperor did not declare himself to be God in the temple in Jerusalem; hence he could only have been one of the many forerunners of the end-time Antichrist (cf. 1 John 2:28).

·         Paul again confirms the truth of a pretribulation rapture. He reminds the congregation that the restrainer must first be removed before the Antichrist can be revealed. The restrainer is the true church of Christ, who are the temple of the Holy Spirit. They are the light of a dark world (Phil. 2:15) and represent the kingdom of God on earth during the church dispensation. But when they are taken out of the way, great spiritual darkness will prevail on earth, thus allowing the lawless one (the Antichrist) to be revealed without opposition. Only then the day of the Lord’s judgements for the sinners will be initiated.

·      While the Antichrist will be performing great signs and wonders through the power of Satan (something which the emperor in Rome did not do), divine judgements will also be poured out upon the world. There is no possibility that the judgements of God will be poured out on earth during the church age since this is the age of grace – not of judgements. Although the early church suffered greatly at the hands of evil people, these sufferings were not the consequence of God’s wrath. Because of this fact, their suffering could not be ascribed to the day of the Lord.

·      The Antichrist was not one or other historical leader who appeared on and subsequently vanished from the world scene. His person and actions are determined for the end-time, and that is the reason why he will be a living person on earth when Christ will return at the end of the great tribulation, set foot on the Mount of Olives, and wage war against His enemies (2 Thess. 2:8; cf. Zech. 14:1-13; Rev. 19:19-21). Together with the Antichrist, all people will be judged who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness (2 Thess. 2:12).

The promises of the Lord are firm and unchangeable: the Antichrist cannot be revealed before the restrainer has been removed, and that will only happen at the end of the church dispensation. That will be the beginning of the unprecedented dark time in world history, which is described as the great and terrible day of the Lord. The inhabitants of the earth will know that the wrath of the Lamb is poured out upon them, and that will cause them to react in a number of different ways. Some of them will flee to the mountains in an effort to evade the wrath of the Lamb, but they will still refuse to repent (Rev. 6:16-17; 9:20-21). Many of them will even blaspheme God because of His plagues (Rev. 16:11, 21). However, there will also be those who will confess their mistakes and sins, and then turn to Christ for salvation. Although they will be fiercely persecuted by the Antichrist, they will remain faithful and persevere on the way of the Lord, even when they are faced by martyrdom (Rev. 6:9-11; 7:9-17; 12:11; 20:4).

Paul’s testimony about the Thessalonians is that they received a completely new life in Christ after turning away from idols to serve the living and true God, while waiting for His Son from heaven to deliver us from the wrath to come (1 Thess. 1:9-10). Their values and way of living were to be completely different from those of the depraved world, and so should ours be because we have an upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Our lives should be aimed at the expansion of Christ’s kingdom and also focused on our union with Him when He comes again. These ideals demand that we are blameless in holiness in our body, soul and spirit. We are not, like the world, ignorant on God’s promises and will therefore not be affected by God’s judgements.

The judgements of the day of the Lord will come upon all those who indulged in the Antichrist’s culture of sin, he being “the man of sin” and “the son of perdition” (2 Thess. 2:3). This deceiver will be destroyed by Christ Himself, and He will also judge the followers of the Antichrist who participated in his rebellion against the kingdom of heaven. Those who did not receive Christ as Saviour to become members of His kingdom will be the subjects of His wrath during the coming tribulation period. Right now, however, they still have the opportunity to pass from the darkness of sin and unrighteousness to the marvellous light of God’s kingdom.