No one would ever accuse the Apostle Paul of neglecting the Great Commission; I cannot think of anyone else who worked harder to take the Gospel to a lost world. Would he agree with those today who say that the preaching of the cross excludes teaching about prophecy or the signs of the last days?
Would he emphasize the benefits of the Gospel for this life only and ignore our hope of imperishable bodies, our future reign with Christ, and the unbounding joy of heaven? I don’t think so.
If the apostle were alive today, I believe his excitement would bubble over as he viewed all the current signs pointing to the nearness of the tribulation and hence to Jesus’ imminent return for us.
We already see evidence of such enthusiasm for Jesus’ appearing in many of the epistles he penned.
- Paul believed our future resurrection was a key aspect of our saving hope: Notice what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:19, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” In other words, if our hope as believers does not extend beyond the grave, then our faith is worthless and we are “to be pitied.”
Does this sound like someone who ignored the topics of Jesus’ return and heaven in his proclamation of the Gospel? I don’t think so. It sounds much more like someone who accentuated these things in all his preaching because he believed that without them our faith would be futile.
In Romans 8:23-24 we see this identical emphasis: “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.”
Notice the last statement; Paul says “we were saved” with a forward look to the time the Lord would complete our “adoption” into God’s family and redeem our bodies, which happens at the time Jesus appears to take us home (see 1 Cor. 15:50-55).
Paul believed that our anticipation of a bodily resurrection, or imperishable body if we are alive at the time of the rapture, was the ultimate hope of the Gospel.
- Paul taught his new converts to watch for Jesus’ appearing: Notice the wording of 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10, “For they themselves [believers in the surrounding area] report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.”
When the Thessalonian believers responded with saving faith to the preaching of Paul, they did two things: First, they put aside their idols and worshipped the true and living God; and second, they started waiting for Jesus’ return from heaven. How would they have known to immediately begin watching for Jesus’ appearing if this had not been a part of Paul’s initial proclamation of the Gospel?
- Paul gave his new converts in-depth training in prophecy: The book of Acts tells us that the Jews in Thessalonica ended Paul’s stay in the city much earlier than he would have liked (Acts 17:1-10). While it’s likely his stay lasted more than the three weeks mentioned in this passage, the Jews forcibly and suddenly cut short his time in the city.
Despite his early departure, the books he wrote to the Thessalonians reveal that he gave them much instruction about future things. After writing about the rapture of the church, Paul said this: “Now concerning the times and seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you” (1 Thess. 5:1). In others words, the apostle had already instructed them in these things and did not need to go into more detail about the season of the Lord’s return.
The Thessalonians also knew all about the Old Testament prophetic concept of the day of the Lord: “For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thess. 5:2). The phrase “fully aware” depicts some detailed teaching on the matter, does it not? Paul gave his new converts much instruction regarding the last days before he left the city.
Furthermore, the Thessalonian saints knew enough about end-time events to become panic-stricken when false teachers told them that the “day of the Lord” had already started (2 Thess. 2:1-2). This is over forty years before John wrote the book of Revelation, so what they knew about the tribulation, or the day of the Lord, came from Paul’s teaching on this matter from books such as Isaiah, Zephaniah, and Joel. How else would they have known so much about it so as to be totally overcome by fright at the thought that the day of the Lord had already started?
By the time of Paul’s departure from Thessalonica, his new converts in the city knew more about eschatology than many believers today.
- Paul assumed his converts were waiting for Jesus’ appearing: In Philippians 3:20-21 Paul wrote this, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him to subject all things to himself.”
The word the apostle used for “await” in the verse denotes an “intense anticipation” or an “excited expectation” of a future event.[i] The term implies a heartfelt longing for what is expected.
What we see from this passage is that the apostle assumed his readers were waiting and watching for Jesus’ appearing or what we refer to today as the rapture (see also Titus 2:11-13; 1 Cor. 1:7; 1 Thess. 1:8-10). He did not command the recipients of his letters to eagerly watch for Jesus’ appearing; he assumed they were already doing so.
I believe that for Paul, obedience to the Great Commission meant proclaiming all aspects of the Gospel, including our glorious hope of a new physical body, the Lord’s return, our eternal life on the New Earth and New Jerusalem.
Please understand that I take Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:18-20 quite seriously. My point is not to discredit anyone who takes part in this effort. As we see the time of Jesus’ return rapidly approaching, I am increasingly burdened for those who do not yet know the Savior.
In the process of making new disciples, however, I believe we must include our hope of Jesus’ imminent return and teach them to obey Jesus’ command to watch for His return (Matt. 24:44, 25:13). A sound biblical assurance of salvation should look beyond this uncertain world to what Jesus promises us in the life to come. This is the exciting future tense of the Gospel, which I believe Paul emphasized in his preaching.
Is not our future with Jesus our hope as we get out of bed in the morning to confront the daunting challenges of our day? I can’t imagine facing this tumultuous world apart from the certainty of Jesus’ soon return and a joyous eternity that I know will far exceed all my expectations.
Why limit our hope to this life when we have the wonders of a new earth fully restored to the way God originally intended it and a glorious city, the New Jerusalem, in our future?
Website: Our Journey Home
[i] Colin Brown, editor, Dictionary of New Testament Theology Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1969) p. 244.