the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
Pett's Commentary on the Bible Pett's Commentary
- 1 Thessalonians
by Peter Pett
These letters were among the earliest of the letters of Paul, and were written to the new church of Thessalonika, the capital city of the Roman province of Macedonia, successfully established by Paul and Silas (Silvanus) as described in Acts 17:1-9 amidst much tribulation. The church included in it some Jews, a great multitude of ‘devout Greeks’ (Greeks attracted to the synagogue by its high moral teaching, but who were ‘God-fearers’ and did not wish to become full proselytes), and a number of the ‘chief women’, possibly wives of important officials, but they seem to have had some kind of authority of their own (Acts 17:4 compare Acts 13:50). It also included many who had been totally caught up in idolatry (1 Thessalonians 1:9).
The occasion of the first letter was that Timothy had just arrived bringing the good news of the perseverance of the Thessalonians amidst persecution, of their goodwill towards Paul and their longing to see him again, and of certain questions about which they were troubled to do with the second coming. He also brought news of some calumnies which were being laid against Paul by the inevitable false teachers who fed on Paul’s success. These Paul deals with.
What is the place of 1 Thessalonians 4:13 to 1 Thessalonians 5:11 with relation to the final judgment? Is there anything that has to occur before the ‘taking away’ or ‘rapture’ (from the Latin) can take place. What will follow it? In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 Paul did not see any of these questions as needing to be answered. He does not actually say that it could occur at any moment, and readiness for His coming is not mentioned. That is dealt with briefly in chapter 5 with regard to coming judgment which could occur at any moment (like a thief in the night). ‘For God appointed us, not to wrath but to the obtaining of salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Thessalonians 5:9) only has a time reference to those who read their own meaning into the idea of wrath, whereas as we saw in the commentary ‘wrath’ can apply to the whole church age (Romans 1:18 onwards), as well as signalling the final judgment. Thus the verse is stating a basic principle similar to that in John 5:29 ‘and shall come forth, those who have done good to the resurrection of life and those who have done ill to the resurrection of judgment’ and again with John 3:36, ‘he who believes on the Son has eternal life, but he who obeys not the Son shall not see life but the wrath of God abides on him.’
The basic message of the Bible and of the New Testament is that the end will come with deliverance for God’s people and judgment for those who have rejected Him, resurrection for the former, eternal destruction (Isaiah 66:24) and everlasting contempt for the latter (Daniel 12:4). But in the Old Testament there is no direct idea of a heavenly kingdom. ‘Shining as the stars’ might mean that to us, but to them it simply indicated glory. The impression in Isaiah 6:19 is of being raised to live again on earth.
These ideas are elsewhere expressed in many ways but the central message is clear. However, in the time of the Moses and the prophets there was no clear understanding of the possibility of a future, heavenly, spiritual existence. Men thought in practical terms of serving under God in this life. Men lived on in their sons. Rewards came on earth. There are only two clear references to resurrection (Isaiah 26:19; Daniel 12:2-3), and neither of these give any indication of a heaven to come, just as Hell is depicted as being in a valley outside Jerusalem (Isaiah 66:24). The impression in Isaiah 26:19 is of being resurrected to live again on this earth. There are, of course, references in the Psalms to the certainty of the godly that they have a future ‘with God’ but no detail is supplied.
Thus when we interpret prophetic pronouncements we must do so in this light. Philosophical ideas of a spiritual life beyond the grave would have been meaningless to the people in Old Testament days, with no background to enlighten them, and they are not found in the prophets. Spiritual ideas there are, but they are linked to this life.
So when the prophets wanted to depict heavenly realities they had to do so in earthly terms. They spoke in terms of restoration of the land to Israel as the kingdom of God, although it was as an everlasting kingdom (Micah 4:7-8; Obadiah 1:21; Daniel 2:44; Daniel 7:14; Daniel 7:18; Daniel 7:27; Isaiah 9:7; Psalms 145:11-13; Psalms 146:10; Psalms 45:6; Exodus 19:6; Ezekiel 37:22-24), to Jerusalem the holy city as being the centre of God’s presence (Zechariah 2:10; Zechariah 8:3; Micah 4:2; Joel 3:17; Isaiah 52:1), although His throne was in the heavens (Psalms 103:19), to a new priesthood which was better than the old (Ezekiel 48:11), of judgment on the wicked as being in terms of defeat and physical destruction (Zephaniah 3:8; Isaiah 66:24). They had no other terms to use that would have been understood.
The New Testament writers saw this clearly and reinterpreted these in terms of heavenly realities. This is the central theme in the teaching of Jesus about the Kingly Rule of God; in Paul, openly expressed in Galatians 4:21-31; in the letter to the Hebrews (all the way through but see especially Hebrews 12:18-28) and in Revelation, especially see Revelation 20-22. All is transferred to the heavenly realm.
God’s wrath may continually be revealed on this earth (Romans 1:18) but in the end it reaches its climax at the Judgement. And that Judgment is revealed in many ways. It is like a king summoning the world to judgment (Matthew 25:31-46) but the issues are eternal (Matthew 25:46). It is like a lord or king calling his servants to account (Matthew 22:1-14; Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 12:41-48 and often). Note that the rewards to the righteous and the condemnation of the unrighteous occur at around the same time. It is described as coming in ‘flaming fire’ (2 Thessalonians 1:8 compare Hebrews 10:27). It is described in terms of the heavens passing away and the earth being burned up, which is the day of the Lord (2 Peter 3:10). It is described as a time of devastating earthly tumult (Revelation 6:12-17), which is the great day of His wrath. It is described as great hail (Revelation 11:19; Revelation 16:21). It is described as a reaper reaping a deadly harvest (Revelation 14:14-20). It is described as a last great battle in which there is no fighting. Everyone is killed with the Judge’s one sword (Revelation 19:11-21). It is described as being called before a great white throne of justice (Revelation 20:11-15).
It is strange how those who want to literalise this ignore the realities. How can the above all be reconciled literally? How can the world survive for a moment the falling of the stars to the earth (Revelation 6:13)?
In the text I have deliberately avoided controversy about the complicated issues connected with the second coming. They are not necessary to the exegesis of 1 Thessalonians. They arise simply because of an attempt to fit 1 Thessalonians into an overall system. Now, however, we will consider some of them in view of the importance of the verses to so many views. In doing this my aim is simply to make readers think for themselves (which to their credit all would want them to do). I acknowledge gladly the sincerity and genuine spirituality of those who hold the differing views on this subject. Happily the days when such views produced great heat (in the wrong sense) are mainly behind us. While they are considered important, they are also rightly considered secondary to the great central truths themselves.
Jesus Himself will decide whether He comes before any tribulation, during it, or after it. Or whether there will be such tribulation, and whether He will bother with a Millennial kingdom, or has already ruled over it. What He wants us to do is be ready for His coming. And when He judges us it will not be on the basis of whether we got our interpretation right, but whether what we learned produced within us the determination to worship Him and serve Him more faithfully. We can simply consider the outskirts of His ways. No one will have got it completely right.
The first problem in studying the second coming teachings is that, with many, certain ideas and phrases have come to be looked on as sacrosanct and certain, without detailed consideration being given to their full truth. They are assumed to be correct and the case built around them. And yet strangely those ideas are nowhere clearly stated in the letters of Peter, John or Paul. This is indeed odd if they are so certain. One cannot imagine a modern futurist writer writing about the second coming and not at some time mentioning ‘The Great Tribulation’ and, if he believed in it, the ‘pre-tribulation rapture’, to say nothing of the Millennium. Yet Paul has written about ‘the rapture’ in this letter and yet made no mention of any of these things, indeed the Millennium is not mentioned anywhere in the New Testament outside Revelation (where the interpretation is debatable), and many would argue that the so-called ‘Great Tribulation’ is also unmentioned. There are verses which are interpreted by some as referring to the latter, but they certainly do not do so in any way that leaves large numbers of interpreters convinced.
It is fine to refer to what Paul had already taught them, but how are we to know what it was. And why in that great letter where he revealed his central doctrine to the Roman church does he say so little about the second coming?
We will therefore ask ourselves a number of questions.
Will There Be a Seven Year Great Tribulation?
It must be stated at once that the New Testament makes clear again and again, as all would agree, that Christians will go through tribulation, that some were doing so even when Paul wrote to them (as we have seen in Thessalonians) and that for some their tribulation would become intense. We must also agree that it says that the world will also go through tribulation, and that some of that will occur towards the end, for the trend is for things to get worse even when they appear to be getting better (1 Timothy 3:1-5), but note 1 Timothy 3:6 which relates it to Paul’s time as well. But that is a very different thing from the unique seven year period held by many.
Let us then consider first the question of ‘The Great Tribulation’ as held by many today. This is seen as a period of especially great tribulation which will either precede or follow the rapture and be over a seven year period. But the question is, is this period actually mentioned in Scripture at all?
The phrase appears three times in the New Testament and not at all in the Old. The first mention is in Matthew 24:21, (thlipsis megale), see also Mark 13:19 which omits ‘great’. It is without the definite article. ‘Then shall be great tribulation such as has not been seen from the beginning of the world until now, no, nor ever shall be.’ But the question is, when? The parallel in Luke 21:20-24 tells us quite plainly. It is before and during the destruction of Jerusalem, followed by the scattering of the Jews into all nations, so that Jerusalem is trodden down of the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. And this occurred in 70 AD and after.
That tribulation was great indeed and is described by Luke as ‘wrath upon this people’. But relatively few would deny that Luke is speaking of the period around 70 AD. What, however, the believers in ‘The Great Tribulation’ argue is that Luke is referring to words not mentioned by Matthew and Mark, and vice versa, and that Matthew’s ‘great tribulation’ refers to the end times. (Yet even then it must be seen as local for it is clear from the text that it can be avoided by fleeing).
However, let us consider the facts. In Matthew 24:16 we have the words ‘then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let him that is on the housetop not go down to take out the things that are in his house, and let him that is in the field not return back to take his cloak. But woe to them that are with child and to those who give suck in those days.’ Then in Matthew 24:29 reference is made to sun, moon and stars and the effects on them, finishing with ‘and the powers of the heavens will be shaken’.
Comparison with Luke 21:21; Luke 21:23-24 a and Luke 21:26 b will demonstrate very similar words, any differences accounted for by translation from the Aramaic, summarising and an attempt to make the ideas clear to Gentile readers. And the opening and closing phrases are exactly the same.
It is certainly beyond what in my view is an acceptable method of interpretation to think that what lies between these identical phrases refers to two totally different occasions, and that Matthew omitted the important event of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, which Jesus had promised to describe, while Luke omitted an equally important later destruction of Jerusalem. It is so incredible that it is impossible. This is especially so as both writers began the discourse with Jesus’ reference to the question about the destruction of Jerusalem and are answering the same question! Readers must judge for themselves, but it seems to me that only people determined to prove a theory could argue for such a method of interpretation. Why on earth should Luke omit such important teaching about the end times? Thus we conclude that this great tribulation occurred in 70 AD and in what preceded and followed.
The second mention of ‘great tribulation’ is in Revelation 2:22 where the false teachers and their adherents in the church of Thyatira are threatened with great tribulation (thlipsis megale) unless they repent. Now quite apart from the question of the dating of these false teachers and what is to happen to them, (whether they were first century teachers or latter day teachers), there are no grounds at all for relating this ‘great tribulation’, which will come on them as a punishment, to any particular period of time elsewhere. It is mentioned as being their punishment. And the phrase is without the article.
The third mention of great tribulation is in Revelation 7:14. There John was dealing with the multitude which no one could number out of all nations, who were seen in Heaven following the narrative about the sealing of ‘the twelve tribes of Israel’. It is said of them, (translating over-literally) ‘these are the coming ones out of the tribulation, the great one, (tes thilpsis tes megales) and they washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’
The exegesis of this verse in context, considering all possible views, would take a great deal of time. Reference can be made for my view at Revelation . But apart from the assumptions of particular views the question as to when this event took place is not apparent from the text and must therefore depend on other references in Scripture. It could refer to the 1st century or to the 21st century AD. They are simply coming out of ‘the great tribulation’. The definite article on ‘great tribulation’ here can either be seen as referring back to the ‘great tribulation’ of Revelation 2:22 (‘the great tribulation that I spoke of in Revelation 2:22 ’), or more probably to the fact of the more general tribulation mentioned elsewhere in the Revelation which is also certainly great. But the timing of this is totally based on one’s particular interpretation of the book.
The order of the words (‘great’ following ‘tribulation’) is the same as in Revelation 2:22 (and in Matthew 24:0), and therefore it does not necessarily have special significance here. And relation to a time period will very much depend on our view of the Book of Revelation as a whole. But while the general meaning of the Book of Revelation is clear in terms of heavenly effects on earthly life, some detailed interpretations very much depend on the interpretation of a few key phrases which seem innocuous in themselves and yet are given a meaning far beyond what is obvious. In other words they can depend on inferences which are doubtfully used to support a particular position which are not openly apparent, and which can be interpreted widely differently.
So in this all too brief survey we conclude that reference to great tribulation itself tells us little about when such tribulation was to take place, apart from the first which would be around 70 AD. There is in context no reason for referring any of these verses to the last seven years of the age. It would be different if a convincing case could be otherwise made from elsewhere.
But from where do people then get the idea of a seven year Great Tribulation? And why do they refer it to the end of the church age? The first part of the answer given would refer us to the Book of Daniel. There in chapter 9 is a prophetic passage, the interpretation of which is actually widely varied, from which comes the idea of a period of seven years, argued by some to refer to a period at the end of the church age. This passage actually includes desolations, but in it no mention is made of tribulation as such. Furthermore these desolations are only in the last part of the seven years. (I do not want to make too much of this last point for many would agree that ‘The Seven Year Great Tribulation’ is a misnomer and that it should rather be ‘The Seven Year period at the end of the age in which the Tribulation occurs at some point’. I mention it only because of some people’s misconceptions).
Now this seven year period in Daniel follows the cutting off of Messiah the Prince and the destruction of city and sanctuary by ‘the people of the coming prince’. But who is the ‘coming prince’? For a fuller treatment we would refer readers to The Seventy Weeks of Daniel’ found on . Suffice to say here that large numbers refer ‘the people of the coming prince’ either to Titus and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD or to the prince who will come in the last days, the Antichrist. But, while I hesitate to suggest this so firmly in view of the weight and scholarship supporting these views, this is due to exegesis which is in my view a little careless and results from fitting history into a particular view rather than asking what the book itself says.
In fact if we look at it in the light of the Book of Daniel alone, ignoring fulfilment, ‘the people of the coming prince’ can only mean the Jews. Why?
1) Because the term for Prince (nagid) is a term only used of Jewish princes in Daniel (using ‘Jewish’ loosely) and almost totally restricted to these in the remainder of the Old Testament. See the article referred to above.
2) Because when Daniel refers to foreign kings he does so in terms of the king and not their people. Why did he not say, ‘the king/war leader who will come’ as usual?
3) Because a coming prince has already been mentioned in the passage (verse 25).
4) Because the obvious reason in context for the phrase ‘the people of the coming prince’ in the passage is because the prince who came is now not with them because He has been cut off.
5) Because mention of ‘the people of --’ as the subject only occurs in Daniel of the Jews, in Daniel 7:27.
Thus if language means anything, everything points to ‘the people of the prince who will come’ as being the Jews.
At first sight this may seem unacceptable. It may be asked whether the Jews would destroy their own city and temple. But then we can also ask, would they have cut off their own Messiah?
But the fact is that on careful reading it fits the situation perfectly. When the Jews cut off their Messiah the Prince this did lead them on to behaviour that brought about the destruction of the city and the temple. And Jesus Himself said it would happen. What they had done to Him itself guaranteed the destruction of the city and the temple. That was why the end of the sixty ninth seven occurred at that point.
But it actually goes further than that because the remarkable fact is that the Jews were directly responsible for contributing to the destruction of city and temple in actuality, for they did actually cause much of the destruction in the city by fighting each other even while the Roman army was approaching, and it was claimed by some that they also set alight the temple to prevent sacrilege at the end. And in view of their fanaticism that was quite possible.
The story of their battles with each other, and the slaughter that took place as Jew fought Jew, including the insane destruction of food supplies to prevent others getting them, is almost incredible for a city about to be besieged, and would have been seen as totally unbelievable had it not been for the evidence of someone who was there and knew eyewitnesses.
But even more is it true that Josephus, the Jewish historian who was involved in the action, does actually speak of them as ‘destroying Jerusalem’ by their activities, activities which contributed to and finally brought about the final completion of the destruction by the Romans. For example he says, ‘the sedition destroyed the city’. So that was how some Jews saw it.
And as we have said above Jesus Himself made clear that Jerusalem would be destroyed because of the rejection of Him by the Jews. Thus in every way they did bring about the destruction of their own city and temple. And that is Daniel’s point, that Messiah’s people, who had rejected Him and cut Him off, then proceeded to do the same with the holy city and the Temple.
Furthermore the most natural reading of the Hebrew would make the subject of the sentence ‘he (it) will confirm covenant for one seven’ refer back to ‘the people’ (of the coming prince), the Jews, for ‘the people’ is a singular noun and would take a singular verb, and in Hebrew ‘he/it’ would naturally refer back to the subject of the previous phrase. And when we consider that ‘covenant’ in Daniel elsewhere always refers to the covenant with God, and that here it is ‘confirmed’ or ‘made to prevail’, this is final confirmation of the fact if language means anything.
Thus having breached the covenant by what they had done to their Messiah, holy city and Temple, at some stage they will reconfirm the covenant.
This would mean that the seventieth seven of Daniel did not point to an Antichrist, and a tribulation period following the cessation of sacrifice at his instigation, but to a conversion of the Jews back to ‘the covenant’, (by confirming the covenant by accepting Jesus Christ), and to a backsliding by some half way through the seven as they again rejected true worship (put in Old Testament terms). This would not necessarily lead to tribulation, but it does explain the desolator as being God’s judgment on their behaviour. But while desolations are mentioned those are different from the usual idea of ‘tribulation’ found in the New Testament which was more personal, and they apply here to the people of the coming Prince. And this desolation is by ‘a desolator’, a deliberately vague description. Desolations were to be a regular feature of the coming age, as they have been of all their history because of their unbelief.
This being so the only place that we can now look to for specific reference to a ‘Tribulation period’ is Daniel 12:1. This follows invasion activities in Egypt and North Africa and is prior to the resurrection of the righteous. Thus we are justified in placing it in the final days of the age. But it certainly includes true believers for they are the ones ‘written in the book’.
This whole description may well fit in with the idea of the backsliding of the Jews mentioned in Daniel 9:0, referred to again in Daniel 12:11, with it being followed by them persecuting Jewish Christians, but that is by no means certain, for the ‘trouble’ surely has in mind the approaching triumphant king of the south. So, while the fact that there will be an intense ‘time of trouble’ (whatever that means, and in the context of Daniel 9:0 it means desolation by a desolator) at the end of the age, probably in and around Palestine, is certain, no length of time is suggested for it, nor is the trouble described. All it tells us is that there will be severe troubles at the end of the age, of a kind not defined and the length of which is not described.
Indeed there is here an interesting contrast between Daniel and Matthew. Here in Daniel it is noteworthy that the reference to the awfulness of this time says ‘never once since there was a nation to that same time’. Thus it has in view no future because it is immediately prior to the resurrection. This is in direct contrast with that in Matthew 24:21 which say ‘no, nor ever shall be’ and therefore does foresee a future, in which there will be trouble, but not as great as this. Both are deliberate exaggerations (how do you measure the intensity of different types of suffering?) simply indicating the intensity and awfulness of the Trouble.
What then does this leave us with? Certainly with a totally different picture from the usual one held by many of ‘The Great Tribulation’. The period of trouble in Daniel, though intense, is limited to a smallish area. There are desolations. But there is no Seven Year Great Tribulation in mind. And the only reference to a final ‘trouble’ is possibly in Daniel 12:1 which is severe but limited, and more thought of in terms of desolation.
Of course in the Old Testament there are large numbers of references of warfare and tumult connected to Judah and Jerusalem, and some of those are related to the end times, but none are so specific as to suggest a period called ‘The Great Tribulation’. And Israel is at this present time experiencing such warfare and such enmity.
So no Great Seven Year Tribulation is mentioned in the Bible. And indeed to find the passages which are usually used to detail The Great Tribulation we have to go back to the Book of Revelation. But while that book does describe tribulation for Christians, and for unbelievers, it does not speak of a seven year tribulation period, nor is there any certainty that the main tribulations described in detail are at the end of the age. There are good reasons for applying them to the church through the ages. ‘Overcoming’, as in the first three chapters where it refers to Christians, is mentioned all through the book. It is the final battle with Antichrist, and the final judgments at the time of the second coming, that are at the end of the age, and they are clearly not to be taken too literally. (See above and for more detail my commentary on Revelation .
Does anyone really believe that Jesus Christ is going to come with a sword and fight Satan, presumably also with a sword, on almost equal terms? That Satan could battle with Jesus at the cross was because Jesus had become man and had submerged His Godhood, but to suggest that he could battle with Him in any meaningful way when He is King of Kings is incredible, and it is noteworthy that in Revelation 19:0 there is no mention of actual battle. Satan, as it were, faces up to Jesus Christ, and total annihilation of his forces results without battle, all slain with the one sword. The picture is a vivid portrayal of the fact of the destruction of Satan and Antichrist and their supporters, given in earthly terms, not a literal portrayal of how it will be done.
Indeed this brings us to another major point, and that is that the usual picture of ‘The Great Tribulation’ given by many of those who teach it is of a worldwide event, mainly again based on the Book of Revelation. But when John thought of ‘the world’ it meant the Roman world and its near neighbours as known to the New Testament writers, and that tended to mean the Near and Middle East, (including Iraq and Iran), North Africa, Turkey, Greece and Italy, with other countries peripheral. Old Testament prophecies of troubles also relate to these areas. That most of this has been, and is, a troubled area is without question. And in most of those areas there is tribulation for Christians today and much desolation. They could indeed say that they are going through ‘great tribulation’ and have done for a long time. But it is not worldwide as we would see it today. While America is a major nation today it was not even a twinkle in the eye in New Testament days.
So we have no hesitation in saying that the period of ‘The Seven Year Great Tribulation’ as described by many is in our view mainly the figment of wrong interpretation, except possibly in general terms for those in Palestine (compare Revelation 11:0).
Will Christians go through the Seven Years of Daniel (in which there is no hint of tribulation, and no desolation in the first half)? Our answer to this question is, why not? Indeed in our view the confirming of covenant by the Jews with ‘many’ requires it.
But the reply to such a suggestion as this is often that it cannot be so because if the ‘rapture’ is to take place at the end of the seven years, it will mean that it cannot be at ‘any moment’? (This does, of course, assume that everyone knows for certain the meaning of Daniel 9:0, and are right).
Our counter-reply is simple. The New Testament clearly constantly holds in tension the idea of the imminence of Christ’s return and what must happen before it takes place. There was in theory much that had to happen before it in Paul’s day. The Gospel had to be preached among all nations; Jerusalem had to be destroyed and the Jews scattered, followed by the times of the Gentiles; Messiahs had to arise. Furthermore, in the view of many tribulationists, after the scattering the Jews had to return to Palestine and restore Jerusalem, and there had to be a build up of tension and trouble, for none of these things could happen too quickly. How then could Christ’s coming be seen as imminent?
The answer, of course, is based on the element of interpretation in it all and the recognition of lack of constant up-to-date knowledge. To Paul the Gospel had gone out into ‘the whole world’ (Romans 1:8; Acts 2:5); whether Jerusalem had been destroyed or not was news that would take months to filter through to most places, thus it might have happened unknown to them; antichrists and Messiahs can depend upon definition; and so on. Furthermore interpretations were not so certain that their fulfilment could be dogmatically required in a specific way. Desolations were taking place of which news kept arriving, tribulation for the people of God and for dwellers on earth happened continually in one place or another (and still does), the antichrists appeared continually (1 John 2:18), Satan’s attacks were constantly seen, many Jews did ‘confirm covenant’ with their Messiah by becoming Christians, some did then revert back to Judaism. And as news filtered through it was often exaggerated.
So there was never any time when it could dogmatically be said ‘Jesus Christ cannot come because such and such a Scripture has not been fulfilled’. We may lay down what we think has to happen in the future. Many others will differ. They will say that it has happened (even of the seventieth seven of Daniel), or that our interpretation is wrong. And none of us can be so certain that we are right that we can say that everyone else is wrong. For many interpretations are on the basis of nuances, or of translation in a particular way, or on how we view particular passages, so that no one is going to be fully right. That is why, on the basis of Scripture, the imminence of Christ’s return has been held in all centuries. It was believed because He said it . That was the one certainty. They recognised that there may be doubts about other things but not about that.
In other words it is only because of ‘dogmatic’ interpretations and schemes (I use the words in the best possible manner, I too have dogmatic interpretations and schemes, they are inherent in trying to understand the subject) that we can say ‘this cannot happen because of that’. But those who are wise will put the certainty that ‘Christ’s coming is imminent’ before the certainty of their other interpretations on passages about which widely different interpretations are made and others are uncertain.
Furthermore we may argue that Paul was certainly right on the doctrines God guided him to put in Scripture form, but we cannot assume from that that he had such an encyclopaedic knowledge of all possible doctrines of Scripture that he knew all that there was to know about all subjects and was right on everything he said whenever he spoke. He too had to read and learn.
We can compare Peter in Galatians 2:11 and Acts 10:14, where Peter was wrong both times. I would certainly hesitate to say that Paul had a fully worked out scheme regarding end of the age events which would put every Scripture in its rightful place, even if that were possible. I doubt whether he had the time to put one together. And to one who was anticipating for quite a long time that he would be alive at the coming of Christ, and knew constant tribulation, things would look very different, and Scriptures would have different emphases. (And there was no Book of Revelation).
The claim for Paul must be that when he wrote, or specifically taught, God so guided his mind, as He did all the Apostles (John 14:17; John 14:26; John 15:26; John 16:13), that what he actually put down in words was free from error, even though if asked he might not have known about all its ramifications. It is not that he was omniscient and all-knowing and had it all fitted together in one huge scenario. He had no difficulty with paradoxes.
We all have an awareness of certain things that we believe must happen before Christ returns. But we should certainly not say therefore that Christ cannot return at any moment. There is always the possibility that our interpretations may be wrong. So we hold both positions in tension, because He told us to.
Will There Be a Millennium?
To the question of whether there will be, or has been since the time of John, a period of ‘a thousand years’ when Jesus Christ reigns, or reigned, the answer must be yes because John said so. But that is a very different thing from believing in a Millennium (Revelation 20:1-11). What John’s vision meant by the ‘thousand years’ is very much open to question. In my commentary on Revelation I argue against it speaking of a Millennium yet to come. To me Revelation 20:0 is a summary of what has gone before. Indeed it is thought provoking to recognise that the Millennium as conceived by many is not clearly mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament. Most who believe in it would point back to Old Testament Scriptures. But there can be no doubt that the prophets had to speak of spiritual activities and events in terms of their own thought forms. How they are to be interpreted in the light of the New Testament is a totally different question, as we have seen above.
I must admit that, even though the population of the world may have been decimated by world events, the idea that the whole population of the world will go up to Jerusalem at the Feast of Tabernacles in order to ensure rain, and that the whole of Judah will be such that all its pots are holy for the purpose of seething sacrifices, is unlikely (Zechariah 14:16-17; Zechariah 14:21). Indeed I can see no way in which men taught by the New Testament could offer literal animal sacrifices. Even less can I see the whole world coming to Jerusalem week by week and month by month (Isaiah 66:23-24). The logistics are huge.
Animal sacrifices were ordained at a time when they were a recognised method of worship among nations, which God took and transformed in His own purposes. He utilised them as a copy and shadow of heavenly things (Hebrews 8:5). But now God has replaced them with the greatest of all sacrifices, the only one that in the end meant anything (Romans 3:25). Thus all other sacrifices have been done away with (Hebrews 9:23-28; Hebrews 10:1-9; Hebrews 10:11-12; Hebrews 10:26; Hebrews 11:18-24; Hebrews 11:28; Hebrews 13:10-16). Note especially God’s word on what today constitutes proper sacrifices (Hebrews 13:15-16). Others may want the old unsatisfactory ways back, but I do not believe that God does. So those who do see them as coming back have to make them mean something totally different from what they did mean. They would not be the Old Testament sacrifices, which are clearly defined in Leviticus), at all.
My view is that all these Old Testament Scriptures were pictures and symbols, using the thought forms of the time, intended to portray more wonderful ideas and to be interpreted using the method developed by the writer of the Hebrews, just as the sacrifices were. Indeed I believe the same method was used by John in Revelation in chapters 20-21 where he proclaimed heavenly realities in terms of Old Testament pictures. See again my commentary on Revelation
So I see no difficulty in accepting that 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 as an imminent event was written to people going through tribulation, without the question of whether they needed to go through ‘the Tribulation’ raising its head. I doubt very much whether they were aware of the problem. The idea that somehow Paul had taught them a fully thought out scheme that he never actually put down plainly on parchment, or referred to plainly in his letters, and that we can somehow reformulate it from hints, seems to me very doubtful indeed. My view is that he felt he had more important things to spend his time on, at a time when New Testament doctrine was being formulated, than building up an involved scheme of second coming teaching.
That he knew the central ideas is clear. That he had had revealed to him further ideas is also clear. But that he formulated them into a scheme which he taught to others I doubt. I am not by that decrying those who study such schemes. I have studied them in some depth myself. But then I do not have the huge responsibility of formulating an overall foundation of doctrine, with limited facilities, for an infant church from the Old Testament Scriptures, nor fortunately do I need to. Paul had no library, no pocket Bible. He even managed without a computer. His task was immense. And he fitted his studies in with evangelising almost the whole of Europe and Asia Minor as well. Even he was limited by hours in the day.