The Eschatological Epistles:
1st and 3rd Thessalonians
by Chuck Missler Paul’s two epistles to the believers in Thessalonica are the two most important eschatological epistles in the New Testament. (“Eschatology” is the study of the last things, or end-time prophecy.) What is astonishing is that these two epistles remind their recipients of things which they were taught by Paul during the first few weeks he was with them . Paul taught them all about the “End Times” during their initial indoctrination into the faith: the Rapture, the Antichrist, the Great Tribulation, and the Second Coming!
(Since Paul’s second letter to them was in response to a forgery that was apparently in circulation, so we have indulged in a bit of whimsy by calling it “3rd Thessalonians.”)
Thessalonica was the capital of Macedonia Secunda. It was founded in 315 B.C. by Cassander, son-in-law of Philip of Macedon and one of Alexander’s four key generals, who named it after his wife Thessalonike, the half-sister of Alexander the Great.
It was a strategic location: it had a natural harbor at the head of the Thermaic Gulf, and it was situated on Via Egnatia , the main route between Rome and the East. Thessalonica was almost made the capital of the world; at this time it was the second most important city in Greece. It was the most populous town of Macedonia, and was practically the capital of Greece, Illyricum, and Macedonia. (Perhaps 200,000 lived there in Paul’s day.) Cicero was in exile here in 58 B.C.
Antony and Octavius (the future Augustus) were here after their victory at Philippi. In gratitude for their cooperation in the struggle against Cassius and Brutus, Thessalonica was made a free city like Athens. No Roman soldiers were stationed in it; government was in the hands of a people’s assembly, from whom the “Apolitarchs” (magistrates) were chosen. Kingdom preaching would make them fearful of losing their privileges of “free” status.
After founding the church at Thessalonica, Paul had gone to Corinth for two years,1 and he writes both of his Thessalonian letters from there, perhaps within only a matter of months of visiting them.
Timothy had been left in Philippi, and joins Paul in Berea and travels with him to Athens. Paul sent him back to Thessalonica. This first letter of Paul’s was in response to Timothy’s report upon rejoining Paul in Corinth.2
This letter is among the earliest New Testament documents, written less than 20 years after Christ’s resurrection. (Some believe the letter to the Galatians was written before Acts 15.) Every chapter has references to the Second Coming.
The most famous declaration in this letter is on the “Rapture” 3 (so called from the Latin Vulgate, rapiemur; the Greek is arpazw harpazo: to seize, carry off by force; to claim for one’s self eagerly; to snatch out or away).
Paul’s second letter apparently followed his first by not many months. The Thessalonians were really upset. It was in response to, among other things, a letter “as if from Paul,” apparently a forgery, 4 and so Paul wrote to settle their unrest, which concerned the same issues that plague most prophecy discussions today.
Persecutions had begun. Pliny, the Elder, wrote:
It was in Thessalonica that the first Gentiles were killed in the Roman Empire. The local Roman governor in that part of the country said that every Christian had to bow before a statue of Augustus Caesar. He had been deified and statues of Caesar were erected everywhere. Christians who didn’t obey the edict were persecuted.
Until then, most of the persecution of Christians had come from the Jewish leadership, but now Rome had gotten into the act. It was in Thessalonica that they dreamed up the procedure of offering a cask of wine on the altar to Venus or Caesar, and then publicly taking it out to the marketplace, sprinkling all the vegetables, meat, and other goods, announcing that it had been dedicated to the god. Anyone who bought or ate any of it thereby worshiped a false god. Christians, who stopped buying in the marketplace as a witness, immediately became marked. The first crucifixions, the first burnings, and the first great persecutions of Christians then began.
Prompted by, among other things, the circulation of a spurious letter, apparently an intentional forgery as if from Paul, the Thessalonians began to fear that they were already in the Day of Lord.
Day of the Lord 5
This is the traditional Jewish expression for the day when God would intervene in history to destroy His enemies and establish His Kingdom. 6 In that Day, Christ will rule with a rod of iron over the entire earth7 and will administer absolute justice.8 (See our recent briefing package, Thy Kingdom Come).
So why were they upset? They apparently thought that the Great Tribulation had begun. Why would that have upset them if they were destined to be raptured after the tribulation? They would be excited that their redemption was drawing near. However, they had been taught by Paul – and he reconfirms this in his letter we know as 2nd Thessalonians – that they were to be raptured before the Great Tribulation. They were upset because they thought it had now started and they either had been mistaught or they had missed it!
Chapter 2 is the heart of this epistle. It is one of the most important prophetic passages in the New Testament. It deals with an eschatological error from the belief that the Day of the Lord was already present and many other aspects of the Great Tribulation. Paul warns them (and us, too) against deception. Two events must occur before . Two verbs, emphatic by position, serve to distinguish the two events.
First: an apostasia ; falling away; the deliberate abandonment of a formerly professed position or view; a defection; a rejection of a former allegiance.9 The word was used to denote a political or military rebellion. 10 In the Septuagint, it is used to describe a rebellion against God.
Second: the “Restrainer” had to be removed. A key issue is the identity of “the Restrainer.” A careful exegesis of the Greek text makes it clear that Paul was referring to the Holy Spirit as He indwells the believer in this unique period we call “the Church.”
(This is too complex to detail in this brief article. It is more a matter of ecclesiology – the mystical Body of Christ-than eschatology. We invite you to explore it our expositional commentary on I & II Thessalonians, now available in MP3 CD-ROM format.)
The Rapture is not a doctrine to argue about: it is a doctrine to live . Some believe He is coming after the Tribulation. Some believe that He is coming before; some believe He is coming during. How does your interpretation affect your life? Does it do anything for you? If your view has no effect on your life, then you might reconsider what you really believe.