Since my seminary days, I have heard people say the church should endure at least a part of the tribulation because of its need for persecution. But is more suffering really what is next for us? Are we to expect persecution or perhaps greater oppression in case of many believers worldwide? Or, are we to expect Jesus’ appearing to take us to His Father’s house (John 14:2-3)?
I firmly believe it is the latter. While the multitudes that come to Christ during the tribulation will certainly experience intense persecution, this time will be primarily one of God pouring out His wrath to punish humanity for its great wickedness and to bring Israel to repentance in recognition of their true Messiah.
The church at Thessalonica illustrates the difference between an anticipation of tribulation conditions versus that of the rapture. Acts 17 reveals that the believers there faced intense Jewish persecution. These Jews not only forced Paul and Silas to leave the city, but pursued them to Berea, agitated resistance to the Gospel there, and again forced the missionaries to leave the city (17:1-15). The faithful in Thessalonica faced much persecution.
As such, is there anything these saints can teach us about our future expectation?
To understand their mindset, let’s start with the promise Paul made to these believers In 1 Thessalonians 5:9, “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The context tells us that this “wrath” is not a reference to hell, but rather to the judgments of God associated with the “day of the Lord” (see 1 Thess. 5:2-3).
The “day of the Lord” is an Old Testament designation primarily of the terrible conditions that will exist on the earth before the Lord’s Second Coming. The prophets saw this as a time of intense worldwide judgments followed by Lord’s return and the millennium. All these events fit under the usage of the “day of the Lord.”
Revelation 6-16 adds many specifics to the wrath of God associated with this still future day of the Lord. During the fourth seal one fourth of the world’s population perishes (Rev. 6:7-8). The deaths of well over one billion people certainly fit under the category of God’s wrath, does it not? Though some try, it’s rather difficult to escape the conclusion that all the seal judgments are a part of the “day of the Lord” wrath. The descriptions of these judgments in Revelation 6 paint a horrific picture of life on earth during this time.
Back to the persecuted believers in Thessalonica; how might they react to news that the tribulation had already begun? 2 Thessalonians tells us how they responded to an errant message telling them just that.
The Thessalonian Saints Panic!
With the ink scarcely dry on Paul’s first letter to the church, someone claiming the authority of the apostle sent the believers in Thessalonica a message that put them into a total panic. The message simply stated that the “day of the Lord,” or what we refer to as the tribulation, had already started.
Because the Thessalonians became so panicked at the news, Paul quickly penned another letter telling them “not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter from seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come” (2 Thess. 2:2). “The verb shaken denotes a rocking motion, a shaking up and down, like a building shaken by an earthquake . . .”[i] To be “alarmed” signifies a feeling of “fright” with its usage here conveying a “state of alarm, of nervous excitement.”[ii]
The news that the tribulation had begun rattled the Thessalonians both physically and emotionally. Instead of relying on the encouragement Paul previously offered them in his previous letter, they dreaded the thought of what might come next and “freaked out” as some might call it today.
My point is this: these believers already experiencing great persecution reacted so negatively to the news that the tribulation had already started that Paul needed to immediately write another letter to reassure them and explain why the day of the Lord had not yet begun.
What Does the Fear of the Thessalonians Tell Us?
I believe we learn several things from the fright of the Thessalonian saints.
First, they took Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 5:9 as a promise Jesus would come for them before start of the “day of the Lord.” At the very least, they believed the rapture would occur before the most severe judgments of the tribulation that might fall under God’s wrath. As I explained earlier, it’s difficult not to include that all the judgments of Revelation 6-16 do not fall under the Old Testament depictions of this time.
Second, they were watching for Jesus, not the onset of the tribulation (see 1 Thess. 1:10). They did not expect the tribulation to begin until after they were safely with the Savior. I believe this should be our expectation as well. Nowhere in the New Testament do we see believers looking for the tribulation; however, we do see them waiting for Jesus’ appearing (Phil. 3:20-21; Titus 2:11-14; 1 Cor. 1:7; Rom. 8:23-25; James 5:8-9; 1 Pet. 1:13).
Third, a church undergoing severe persecution went into a total panic at the thought they had entered the tribulation period. They saw a significant difference between their current persecution and what they might expect during the tribulation. They believed they could endure persecution, but not so much the day of the Lord wrath preceding the Second Coming.
The response of the Thessalonian believers tells us that the tribulation is much more about God’s wrath than persecution.
The saints in Thessalonica saw clearly saw this distinction and they eager watched for Jesus, not more persecution or God’s wrath. Should we not follow their example?
I believe all these things argue strongly for a pretribulation rapture. God has not destined us for His coming wrath on the earth, but for deliverance before the tribulation even begins!
[i] Hiebert, D Edmond, The Thessalonian Epistles (Chicago: Moody Press, 1971), p. 301.
[ii] Ibid., p. 302