Pretribulation Rapture Signpost #4: Expectations
My wife and I walked into the restaurant with high expectations. Someone had told us this was the best place in the area for Italian food. Maybe it was an off night, but we left unsatisfied with what we ordered that evening. As I look back, I wonder if our anticipation of a really great Italian dinner contributed to our disappointment with the meal.
Expectations have a powerful influence on us. The wrong ones, such as what we will see with Paul’s new converts in Thessalonica, lead to much disappointment and even grief.
On the other hand, we can learn a lot from the expectations of these early believers, even if misplaced. As we will see, they reveal an important truth regarding the timing of the rapture.
The Unnecessary Grief of the Thessalonians
When Paul and his missionary team came to Thessalonica during his second missionary journey, many Gentiles and Jews put their faith in Christ. After a short time, however, the Jews in the city became “jealous” of Paul’s success, formed a mob, and forced him to leave the city (see Acts 17:1-10).
As the Jews from Thessalonica continued to harass Paul and his team (Acts 17:13-15), Paul became concerned for the welfare of the believers there. In order to check on their well-being, he sent Timothy back to the city (1 Thess. 3:1-2). The younger protégé of Paul apparently had a lower profile on the missionary team that allowed him to reenter Thessalonica without rekindling another riot.
Timothy brought back “good news” regarding the “faith and love” of these young saints (see I Thess. 3:6). He also shared a particular concern regarding their hope; they grieved unnecessarily for those who had recently died in their church.
Paul does not tell us why some of their members died so soon after he left the city. All we know is that they continued to sorrow for them as “others do who have no hope” (4:13).
Was the apostle forbidding grief? Definitely not! Jesus wept moments before He rose his close friend Lazarus from the dead (John 11:35). Acts 20:37-38 tells us there was “much weeping on the part of all” as Paul said goodbye to the Ephesian elders. Sadness is both a natural and necessary human emotion in response to grief; Paul is not forbidding such sorrow.
What was so unnecessary about their grief that it caught Paul’s attention?
It’s quite unlikely the sorrow resulted from any ignorance regarding the future bodily resurrection of all those in Christ. The apostle who later wrote, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19), would not have failed to make sure his new converts understood the absolute certainty of the future resurrection of all those who die in Christ.
The Thessalonians could not have missed the promise of eternal life, which was a basic aspect of Jesus’ teaching (John 3:15; 10:27-28; 11:17-27) and central to the proclamation of the Gospel.
In Paul’s answer to their lingering grief, he addressed a different misunderstanding.
Paul’s response tells us the lingering sorrow of the Thessalonian believers stemmed from a misguided belief regarding the rapture. They believed that those in Christ who died before it occurred would miss out on the event or be at a distinct disadvantage.
To correct their false assumption, the apostle highlights the prominent place that the dead in Christ will have during the rapture.
Paul first reveals that when Jesus appears, He “will bring with him” those who have died in Christ (v. 14). In other words, “Those loved ones whose loss you continue to mourn are already with Jesus and will be with Him when He appears. They will not miss out on the rapture; they will have a front row seat!”
Second, he tells his readers this, “For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.”
Notice the apostle’s emphasis on the role of the “dead in Christ” during Jesus’ appearing. Not only will they be with Jesus when He comes, they will receive their glorified bodies before those alive at the time. Far from missing out on the excitement of the rapture, the dead in Christ will participate in it before anyone else.
Paul completes the picture of the rapture with the taking up of living believers, “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (4:17). We know from 1 Corinthians 15:50-53 that this is the time when we who are alive at the time of the rapture receive our immortal bodies.
The apostle’s remedy to the ongoing grief of the Thessalonians consisted of assuring them that the dead in Christ would not miss out on the rapture but rather have a prominent place in it. If the eventual resurrection of the dead in Christ had been the issue with the unnecessary grief, Paul’s answer would have been much different.
A Probable Scenario
What might have caused the Thessalonian saints to think their loved ones would miss the rapture? Here is a probable scenario:
We know Paul’s preaching resulted in converts who not only turned from idols to serve the “living and true God,” but also ones who waited for Jesus’ return (1 Thess. 1:9-10). This and the fact that they did not need further instruction regarding the “times and seasons” of the rapture tells us the apostle must have spent considerable time instructing the Thessalonian saints in future things.
They also picked up Paul’s expectation that he would be alive at the time of the rapture as he indicated in a couple places in his writing (1 Thess. 4:17; 1 Cor. 15:52). If the apostle expected to be alive, then why would they have had a different expectation?
However, the apostle apparently did not mention the fate of departed believers during Jesus’ return for His church. Perhaps the Lord had not yet revealed that detail to him or possibly the Jews forced him to leave the city before he had a chance to thoroughly cover this aspect of the rapture.
When some believers in the new church died, those left behind grieved, thinking their departed loved ones would miss out on the excitement of Jesus’ return for his church. To address their concern, Paul assured them that they would not miss out on it. In fact, they would participate in it moments before the living saints.
What Does this Tell Us?
“What’s the big deal?” you might ask. “Does this tell us anything significant?” Oh yes, let me explain!
First, the grief of the Thessalonians tells us they expected the rapture to happen very soon, before they died. If not, why would they have grieved thinking their loved ones had missed out on it? After listening to Paul teach on future things, they believed Jesus would come for them during their lifetime.
Second, Paul’s expectation that he might be alive to meet the Lord in the air also tells us he believed the Lord’s return could happen at any moment. His anticipation of being alive at the time of the rapture helps us understand the expectation of the Thessalonians as well; they likely mimicked the apostle’s expectation.
If Paul had taught them the rapture would happen after the revealing of the antichrist, for example, he would not have had the same anticipation of being alive at the time of the rapture. Given his elevated status as an apostle, it’s doubtful he would have survived even a short time under the antichrist’s reign of terror.
Third, the apostle’s response to the sorrow of his recent converts tells us that issue was not a matter of their doubting the resurrection of their loved ones. Instead, it tells us that the problem was with undue expectations regarding the rapture in that they all expected to be alive at the time.
Only a pretribulation rapture fits with the expectations of both the Thessalonians and the apostle Paul; they both expected it to occur in their lifetime.
Both Paul and the Thessalonians expected to see Jesus rather than seven years of tribulation. They intently watched for the event Paul described in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17, the rapture of the church.
The encouragement of verse 18 consists of knowing that the dead in Christ would not miss out on the rapture. Furthermore, it comforts us knowing that our expectation is Jesus’ appearing to take us home..
What’s your expectation? Do you anticipate the Lord’s appearing at any moment, within your lifetime?
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