A news story about a burglar in Rochelle Park, New Jersey, recently caught my attention. In the process of robbing a home, the thief woke up the couple who lived there. Not wanting the owners to catch him, the robber climbed out a window and fled from the scene of the crime.
The thief had previously arranged with the Lyft car service to provide a vehicle for him a block away from the home he intended to rob. Sticking with his escape plan, he ran down the street and quickly hopped into the backseat of a car. Unfortunately for him, he soon discovered he had gotten into a police car, which made his ensuing arrest rather easy.
In 1 Thessalonians 5:2, Paul compares the arrival of the day of the Lord to the surprise of discovering a intruder in one’s home, “For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” He likely had a more competent thief in mind than the bungling burglar in New Jersey.
Can the surprise arrival of the day of the Lord really help us in our journey to establish biblical evidence for a pretribulation rapture? Yes, it can. As we will see, this signpost is rather significant.
Before going any further with this signpost, we must clarify what Paul means by “day of the Lord.”
Most premillennialists agree that the day of the Lord includes God’s judgments upon the earth before Jesus returns to earth as well as the signs of the second coming itself and Jesus’ millennial reign. Remember, premillennialism is the first signpost for our journey and the basis for our entire discussion about the pretribulation rapture.
There’s also general agreement that the “wrath” Paul refers to in 1 Thessalonians 5:9 pertains to the judgments of God during the “day of the Lord” rather than hell. In this verse the apostle writes, “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The context tells us this “wrath” refers to judgments pertaining to the day of the Lord. The apostle is not writing about hell.
The word for “salvation” (5:9) in the Greek denotes “deliverance” or “preservation from” an undesirable fate. The Lord, through the apostle, promises the Thessalonian saints they will not see the wrath of the day of the Lord; the Lord will deliver them from it via the rapture, which he described in the preceding verses, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.
However, not all premillennialists agree on whether or not this wrath equates to the entire seven-year tribulation.
Many, like me, believe all the judgments of Revelation 6-16 fit under the umbrella of the day of the Lord wrath Paul describes in 1 Thessalonians 5. If this is the case, the rapture must occur before the seven- year tribulation begins.
Those who believe the rapture happens midway through the tribulation do not include the seal judgments of Revelation 6 as part of the day of the Lord wrath. They describe themselves as midtribulationists since they assert the rapture occurs sometime after the calamities of Revelation 6. Some in this camp also identify themselves as “pre-wrath.”
Many variations exist among those who hold to a posttribulational rapture viewpoint, or the belief that Jesus comes for His church late in the tribulation or simultaneous with the second coming. Some posttribulationists assert that only the bowl judgments of Revelation 16 constitute the wrath of God and thus place the rapture before that chapter. We have already examined why the rapture and second coming cannot be the same event in a previous post.
Why is this so important? If we can establish that all of Revelation 6-16 fits within the period Paul refers to as the day of the Lord wrath, this confirms the rapture must occur sometime before Revelation 6.
So what does it mean if the Old Testament day of the Lord wrath includes all of the tribulation as described in Revelation 6-16? It tells us the rapture must occur before Revelation 6 and the seal judgments.
It’s important to keep in mind that the apostle John wrote the book of Revelation almost 45 years after Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians. So when writing about this future time of God’s fury on the earth, the apostle just had the words of the Old Testament prophets and those of Jesus as from in Matthew 24.
So to settle the matter of what to include under the umbrella of the wrath mentioned in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-10, we will compare the similarities of Revelation 6-16 with Old Testament references to what happens at the onset of the day of the Lord.
- Old Testament passages point to a prolonged period of wrath. The term “day of the Lord” comes from the Old Testament where this day begins with severe judgments and a tremendous loss of life that extend over an extended period of time.
The descriptions of this time in passages such as Zephaniah 1:14-18, Joel 1:15- 2:11, Daniel 7:19-27, Jeremiah 30:5-7, Amos 5:18-20, Isaiah 13:9-13, and Isaiah 24 portray horrific conditions with a great loss of life on the earth. These passages portray a more prolonged period of devastation rather than just a rapid series of events.
In referring to Old Testament depictions of this time of God’s fury upon the earth, Dwight Pentecost, well-known author and former professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, sums up why we place all of the tribulation within the day of the Lord:
“This judgment includes not only the specific judgments upon Israel and the nations at the end of the tribulation that are associated with the Second Advent, but, from a consideration of the passages themselves, includes judgments that extend over a period of time prior to the second advent. Thus, it is concluded that the Day of the Lord will include the time of the tribulation.[i]”
- The seal judgments signify God’s wrath. Those who seek to delay the rapture until somewhere in the middle of the tribulation, or toward its end, believe the day of the Lord wrath starts with the onset of the trumpet judgments described in Revelation 8-9, during them, or even some time after them.
There are several problems with this viewpoint:
First, the severity of the seals argues for their inclusion under the banner of the day of the Lord wrath. The fourth seal results in the death of one fourth of the world’s population (Rev. 6:7-8). How can one regard calamities and wars that lead to the death of well over one billion people as not signifying God’s wrath? This sounds strikingly similar to the Isaiah 13:9-12 description of the day of the Lord.
Second, the description of the sixth seal resembles passages that describe day of the Lord conditions. In Revelation 6:12-13 we read this, “When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale.” This fits rather well with how the prophets of old depicted the day of the Lord (see Amos 5:18-20; Joel 2:30-31).
Third, those living at the time of the sixth seal identify the conditions as God’s wrath, “calling to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?’” (Rev. 6:16-17).
- The surprise beginning of the day. Just like discovering such an intruder in one’s home in the middle of the night, the onset of the day of the Lord will surprise all those living at the time. 1 Thessalonians 5:3 states, “While people are saying, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains, and they will not escape.”
Where in the book of Revelation would people most likely believe they live in a time characterized by “peace and security?” Where would the onset of the judgments of the day of the Lord most likely surprise people like a burglar in their home at midnight? The only time that fits with this scenario is before the initial judgments described Revelation 6:1-8 that bring widespread destruction to the earth.
If our deliverance from this wrath must come before it starts, the rapture must occur sometime before the judgments of Revelation 6. Otherwise, the devastating start to the day of the Lord will not surprise people. No one will be saying “peace and security” after the seals of Revelation 6. No one will be surprised by further destruction and death as they will be once the seal judgments begin.
The Bottom Line
I realize this sounds technical, and you may be ready to throw up your hands in despair. Even if this does not describe your current level of frustration, here’s the bottom line:
The Lord promises us this in 1 Thessalonians 1:9, “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:9). The context confirms that this “wrath” belongs to the day of the Lord rather than hell. The rapture must thus occur before this awful time.
When we compare Old Testament passages regarding the day of the Lord wrath with the judgments described in Revelation 6-16, we find much similarity in terms of duration, devastation, and loss of life.
Furthermore, once the seal judgments begin, all further additional catastrophes will not surprise people in the same way that they will at first. People will not be saying “peace and security” with the world in chaos and turmoil once the seal judgments commence.
So what does the “surprise” signpost tell us? It reveals that believers will miss the sudden destruction that will mark the beginning of the day of the Lord (1 Thess. 5:3). It signifies that our deliverance via the rapture must occur before the first seal of Revelation 6. If surprise devastation of 1 Thessalonians 5:3 happens before the first seal, the church will miss that as well.
I believe this constitutes the strongest argument for the pretribulation rapture. If believers must miss all the wrath of the day of the Lord, it signifies we will miss the entire tribulation rather than just a portion of it. This tells us the rapture must take place before the tribulation starts!
You may be thinking I am just speculating about these things. Do we have any proof that the saints in Thessalonica actually believed they would miss the onset of the day of the Lord on the earth? Did they view Paul’s promise in 1 Thessalonians 5:9 as an assurance that they would miss the day of the Lord rather than hell itself? Were they anticipating the rapture rather than the day of the Lord?
The short answer to all these questions is yes! As we will see in the next couple signposts, 2 Thessalonians 2 confirms this understanding of 1 Thessalonians 5:9. They were watching and waiting for the Lord’s appearing, which they believed would happen first.
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[i] J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1958), p. 230.