Paul had lots of nice things to say to the Christians of Philippi. And, since he was talking to faithful Christians who had already repented, his mention of the “day of Christ Jesus” is full of hope and joy – as compared to the warnings of Jesus prior to His crucifixion and resurrection to an unrepentant Israel.
Philippians 1:4-11 – “In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
“It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart; for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.
“And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God.”
When Paul writes to Thessalonica, he seems to be answering a question they had about Jesus’ parousia and the resurrection to come with it – and he makes it clear that there is still a strong element of warning to those who do not believe:
I Thessalonians 4:13-5:11 – “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words.
“Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety,’ destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.
“But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.”
Paul echoes the image of the pregnant woman Christ used in illustrating the suddenness of the day to come. The image also calls to mind His warning in Luke to the women who wept as He trudged to Calvary.
He confirms Jesus’ words that the day will come like a thief in the night – unexpectedly – but to those who belong to the day would be watching.
Paul’s answer seems to be that there is an order to the resurrection: the dead will be raised before the living ascend, but they will be caught up (raptured?) together to meet Him in the air – right after the trumpet call Jesus described in Matthew 24.
Is this a literal description? Is it accurate? Poetic? Apocryphal language? The best description available given the limitation of language? All of the above?
In the letter we number as second, Paul again seems to be answering questions. This answer brings more questions to my mind:
II Thessalonians 2:1-15 – “Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us, saying that the day of the Lord has already come. Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for (that day will not come) until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.
“Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things? And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming. The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.
“But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.”
What understanding did the Thessalonians have of the parousia that made them wonder if it had already happened? If it is an earth-shattering, sky-darkening, once-in-a-creation event, how could they have thought it was all over?
Who answers the description of the “man of lawlessness” and who was holding back his power and why?
Does God really send powerful delusions so unbelieving people will believe a lie? Like the Old Testament “lie” that there’s a huge army when it’s really just a few Israelites with lanterns, clay pots and horns?
Did God choose some he loved from the beginning of time to be saved? Or just from the beginning of the ministry of the gospel?
Paul talks to Timothy about the last days. The “last days” – wherever they’re mentioned – seem consistently to precede “the day of Christ.” Other descriptions are more cataclysmic than this one – but if this were the only one, I can understand why some folks think we must be living in the “last days”:
II Timothy 3:1-5 – “But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God – having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them.”
Are we in the last days?
I don’t believe so. It’s a little arrogant to think that our little span of eternity is somehow worse than any previous one, or picked out to be specially treated because of the herculean efforts of Christians against such wickedness to force God’s hand in their lifetimes. I also think it’s too late to be living in the last days. That dubious distinction belongs to the pioneers of the faith in the first century.
We live in the era ushered in by the coming of the kingdom. We live in the kingdom age. Oh, it’s not here in it’s fulness; believers don’t have incorruptible bodies (yet); and a lot of other things are yet to come. But we haven’t been left behind, either.
Death has been conquered, once and for all. He’s out of a job. Now Christ and His angels gather believers home – and exact justice upon those who will not believe.
Stick with me now. Hear me out.
Almost all of the current interpretations of eschatological scripture are right about some things and wrong about some others. That kind of thing happens when you mismatch scriptures or insist on only one method of interpretation or wrest old words into new meanings to fit your own perception.
The one and only value that I can attach to this interpretation is that it satisfies Occam’s Razor. It’s the simplest explanation that fits all of the available facts. So I prefer it.
If you declare that all prophecy was fulfilled at the revealing of Jesus when the temple was destroyed and that this life is “eternally” blessed by His presence through His Spirit, you take all of the power out of the anticipation (or dread) of real eternal life.
If you insist that all prophecy is yet to be fulfilled in the future – probably in our own time – but only foreshadowed by the events of AD 70, you imply that the “in this generation” imminence that Jesus and His followers identified with the coming of His kingdom was a cosmic fib.
If you insist that all prophecy was simply metaphorical, apocryphal language you preserve is poetry but destroy its power to warn and encourage for all generations.
If you panhandle your interpretation of prophecy uncaring whether you destroy the faith of others or to make a few bucks or to advance some political agenda, you are of all people the most pitiful.
But if you accept that God reveals what He wishes to reveal, trust His mercy and righteousness to do so adequately, praise His Lordship of heaven and earth and space and time – that’s the attitude that inspires me to live out my hope, my faith, my love to others.
I could be wrong about this. As I’ve said before, I’d be happy for God to prove me wrong in His own way and His own time.
Because He has a much more exciting imagination than mine!