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A View from the Altar / A square peg the size of Gibraltar
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A square peg the size of Gibraltar

It’s generally believed that Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians were among his first epistles.  Ordinarily I would say the Bible is the Word of God period, so I typically avoid arguments based on which letter of Paul was written first.  If that sort of argument appeals to you, see the writings of Cornelius Stam.  I’m making an exception in this case, however, because I’m writing to rebut the claim that premillennial eschatology is a latecoming innovation alien to the true faith.  Not so, says I.

In the very first chapter, Paul describes the conversion of the Thessalonians as turning from idols to wait for the Son from heaven.  Wait for the Son?  From heaven?  As if he were coming back… back here?  And they were told to do this in the first century?  Worse, they were apparently told this as part of Paul’s evangelistic appeal?  And that reference to the “wrath to come” would pass for an unspecific allusion to general judgment except for the larger context presented in chapter 5 where it’s explained as the wrath which will fall at Christ’s return.  If postmillennialism were a little round hole, 1 Th 1:9-10 would be a square peg the size of Gibraltar.

In the fourth chapter the text shifts from premillennialism being implied to some of its key teachings being outlined and explained.  Here’s the text:

1 Th 4:13 But I would not have you to be ignorant , brethren, concerning them which are asleep , that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again , even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. 15 For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep . 16 For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: 17 Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. 18 Wherefore comfort one another with these words.

The key elements in the text are the Lord’s appearing with the Christian dead and for the living saints.  Remember, the purpose of the text was to comfort the believers concerning dead loved ones, and the solace was, “Don’t worry, Christ is bringing these people back with him when he comes.”  There’s nothing controversial in that bare statement.  The controversy arises in what goes along with it.  It says that when these believers return with Jesus, “we which are alive and remain” unto the coming of the Lord “shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air.”

Okay, now we’ve got controversy.  There are among our brethren those who view this doctrine as a depraved and embarrassing superstition.  My reply to them is, “Why should it be incredible with you that God should raise the dead?” (Ac 26:8)  And if God can raise the dead, it’s surely less of a miracle to transform the living and hoist them aloft.  There’s no hint in the passage that there’s anything allegorical about it.  God intends to raise the Christian dead and transform the living believers at the return of Christ.  Hal Lindsey had nothing to do with this.  It’s just what the passage says.

The next sentence begins with “but,” connecting it to the foregoing, and he responds to the obvious question, “When will this occur?”  His answer is that Christ will return “as a thief in the night,” meaning it’ll come as a sneak attack upon people who are saying, “peace and safety!”  Upon Christ’s return, those who are caught unaware will suffer “sudden destruction” which he connects with Christ’s description in the Olivet Discourse, “like the labor pains of a pregnant woman.”  (Compare Matt 24:8 NASB)

Believers are distinguished from others on the basis of their awareness that this is coming.  “You are not in darkness that that day should overtake you as a thief.”  There will be those in darkness who perish in darkness, but “God has not appointed us to wrath,” meaning the wrath just described in the context, “but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ.”  That’s a deliverance that follows the usual premillennial order: Christ returns with the Christian dead to retrieve living believers to be with him “in the air,” and then the wrath of God falls upon everyone else.

It doesn’t take a bunch of interpretative sleight-of-hand to derive the premillennial view of the end times from this passage.  It’s there on the surface telling us that Christ is returning with the Christian dead; he will transform the living believer, then pour out wrath upon the unbelievers who never saw it coming. That’s not the plot of an exaggerated end time novel by Salem Kirban.  It’s just New Testament truth plainly stated on the pages of God’s Word.

otherbrothersteve@gmail.com

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