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The Apostle Paul on the Return of Jesus

A common principle in biblical interpretation is to use the more clear passages of Scripture to help interpret the less clear passages. I think most of us would agree that the Book of Revelation is symbolic and often difficult to understand, so let’s first take a look at what Jesus and Paul (under the influence of the Holy Spirit) had to say. In last week’s post we examined what Jesus taught about his second coming and the events leading up to it, so we now turn to what Paul said in his writings.

What Happens When Christ Returns: Dead are Raised and Living Faithful Are Transformed

1 Corinthians 15 and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11 are two key places where Paul describes  the return of Jesus. Both passages tell us that a trumpet will sound (1 Corinthians 15:52; 1 Thessalonians 4:16); this is a common way of announcing when an important person was arriving.This would seem to indicate that  Jesus’s second coming will be one that can be seen by all and will not happen in secret (also see Titus 2:13 and 2 Thessalonians 1:7 on the public nature of his return). Both of these passages then go on to tell us what will happen to the living and the dead.

Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 that the dead will be raised imperishable and those who are living will be transformed (also see Philippians 3:20-21). This is a good reminder that our goal is not to be a disembodied soul but rather to have a resurrected body which, like Jesus after his resurrection, seems to have some continuity with this body but also is different. 

In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 Paul unpacks a bit more what will happen, as it seems some people believed that those who were already dead might miss out on Jesus’s return. Therefore, he notes that the dead in Christ will rise first (1 Thessalonians 4:16) and then  “we who are alive, who are left, will be caught together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thesslonians 4:17). The imagery used here about meeting in the air comes from a custom of the time in which people would send out a delegation outside of a city to receive a dignitary arriving in the town (think of Jesus’s triumphant entry). Those that would meet this dignitary would then proceed into town with him, and so Paul tells us that both the dead and the living faithful will come with Jesus when he returns to earth.

Therefore, we know the dead will be raised and the living will be transformed to accompany Jesus on his return to earth and then to presumably be with him forever on the new earth. Of course, we should note that this is only true for those who are in Christ, as there is wrath to come upon those who do not believe in Jesus.

When Christ Will Return: Like a Thief in the Night, But After the Man of Lawlessness Is Revealed

Paul talks about all of this happening in the “twinkling of an eye” (1 Corinthians 15:51), so it seems to happen instantaneously. Can we look to signs about when this might happen? In 1 Thessalonians 5:2, Paul says that Jesus will come like a thief comes in the night - when we least expect it. In fact, he writes that people will be saying that there is “peace and security” and then it will suddenly happen (1 Thessalonians 5:3). The thrust of Paul’s teaching in 1 Thessalonians 5:4-11, as we saw in Jesus’s words in Matthew 24-25, is that we should be ready for this to happen at any moment.

Since some in Thessalonica appear to have thought they had missed Jesus’s return (as it seems someone was saying that Paul said that; see 2 Thessalonians 2:2), Paul also notes in 2 Thessalonians 2 that  a “man of lawlessness” will be revealed (2 Thessalonians 2:3) before Christ’s return. According to Paul, this figure “opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God” (2 Thessalonians 2:4). The note about the temple leads some to think this requires the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem, but something to keep in mind is that the church is now called the temple of God, so this could also indicate this figure puts himself at the center of the church and essentially causes people to look to him instead of God (it could also be metaphorical language drawing upon the imagery from the Old Testament). When we go back to Jesus’s words in the Olivet Discourse, we hear about false messiahs who seek to lead the faithful astray, so it would seem this is a person who could emerge from within the church and lead to a falling away of those who profess faith (the rebellion in 2 Thessalonians appears to be a falling away). However, one should note that there are not many details given of this figure by which one could seek to identify him. Paul does not call this figure the antichrist, but it seems that this is the same figure we will see in Revelation. 

Paul told the Thessalonians that this figure had not yet been revealed, as “he who restrains it will do so until he is out of the way.” While there have been a number of different theories about the identity of the one offering restraint, it seems best to note that this is no sort of God-ordained means; we are not to focus as much on who/what is restraining as the fact that there is something stopping the forces of evil at this moment. This comment about restraining is a reminder that this is all according to God’s timeline (God always does things at just the right time - see Galatians 4:4; 1 TImothy 2:6; Titus 1:3; Romans 5:6). He is holding things back for a time so things are not as bad as they could be and, as Paul notes in Romans 11:12 and 25, so that the full number of both Jews and Gentiles whom He is calling will come to believe in Jesus. 

You also see this teaching about wickedness in 2 Timothy 3:1-5 noting that “in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.” We are reminded that things will get worse at the end, but that does not mean that the time before that is fine; 2 Thessalonians 2:7 tells us that the mystery of lawlessness is at work, just not fully able to work. Therefore, Paul says that the end will come in a time of peace and security and that there will be a great rebellion at the end.

Remember: God Wins and We Need To Be Ready

Paul uses these teachings to encourage us to remember that while wickedness will come, God will win. In 2 Thessalonians 2:8 Paul says, “then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming.” Let us cling to that hope in dark days - whether they are the darkest days at the end or the dark days that precede that, and help us to be ready for his return. 

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