With all the recent news of sensational scenarios that could occur because of the "Y2K computer bug" and the coming of a new millennium, it's little wonder that many Christians believe the coming of the Lord will take place in 2000 AD. In fact, in spite of the Lord's emphatic statement in Mark 13:32 that "no one knows the day or the hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father," some Christians have actually made predictions as to the very day of the Lord's return! The fact of the matter is, we don't know the date of the Lord's return. It may be in 2000 AD--but it may not! It may or may not be in the immediate future, but it is imminent.
Does that sound like a contradiction? It isn't, because "imminent" is not the same as "immediate." What does the word "imminent" mean, anyway? Many people get the words "imminent," "immanent" and "eminent" confused. Can you use all three of these similar sounding words in a sentence? How about this: "The imminent coming of the eminent scholar will result in his immanent presence!" "Eminent," of course, describes a position of prominence or superiority. Immanent has to do with what is nearby and within the limits of conscious reality--as distinguished from transcendent. And "imminent" describes something that could occur at any moment. But imminent is not the same as immediate. An event which is immediate is about to happen, but an event which is imminent may be about to happen.
The Return of ChristWhat does the Bible teach about the return of the Lord? Is it imminent or immediate? The books of 1 and 2 Thessalonians make it clear that the return of the Lord for His church is imminent--but not necessarily immediate.
The apostle Paul visited the city of Thessalonica on his second missionary journey, and in only a few short weeks a church was founded (Acts 17). After Paul and his team moved on and arrived in Athens, Timothy returned to Thessalonica to see how the young church was doing. Paul anxiously awaited Timothy's report because he was concerned about how the fledgling church at Thessalonica would stand up under persecution. When Timothy rejoined the missionary team he brought good news--the Thessalonian Christians were standing firm in the faith (1 Thessalonians 3:1-8)!
Along with the good news, Timothy mentioned that the Thessalonian believers were concerned about Christians who die before the return of the Lord. In his relatively short time with the new church, Paul had explained the essentials of the faith, including the truths about the Lord's second coming. These talks to the new converts would certainly have included the subjects of the Tribulation, the Kingdom, and the Day of the Lord. After all, these subjects were predicted by the Old Testament prophets, and these future events had been discussed by the Lord in His Olivet discourse. The Thessalonian believers were good students of the Word and had digested these truths with thankfulness, but apparently the subject of Christians who die before the return of the Lord had either not been covered or had been misunderstood. In any case, one of the reasons why Paul wrote the epistle of 1 Thessalonians was to clear up this question: "For we do not want you to be uninformed about those who fall asleep, or to grieve as do the rest of men, who have no hope" (4:13).
Probably the Thessalonian believers had been expecting an immediate return of the Lord, so the question about Christians who die before the Lord's return had not surfaced previously in their minds. Although the apostle Paul had not predicted the immediate return of Christ when he gave his "eschatology" lectures to the Thessalonians, he would have presented the concept of the imminent return of the Lord. In fact, we get a hint of that when Paul reminded them of their conversion: "....you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God" (1:9), and added in verse 10 "....and to wait for His Son from heaven--Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come..." It certainly sounds like the apostle Paul had presented the truth of the Lord's return as an imminent reality.
The Wrath to ComeAlthough Paul could be referring to God's "coming wrath" (1:10) in reference to His judgment of sinners at the end of the age, more than likely he was specifically thinking of the wrath of the Tribulation period, which he had surely discussed with the Thessalonian believers when the church was established. In 1 Thessalonians 5:9 Paul said that "God has not destined us for wrath..." Since the context of that verse (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11) describes events associated with the Day of the Lord, most likely the "wrath" mentioned in verse 9 is the judgment of the Tribulation period, which is a part of the Day of the Lord. (The future Day of the Lord in both Old and New Testament prophecies refers to the reign of Christ on this earth and the Tribulation judgments that precede His return to set up that glorious Kingdom. In this paper, future eschatological events are capitalized for easy recognition.)
So part of the package of our salvation is that Christians will not have to go through the Tribulation period of God's judgment wrath on this earth. In other words, Paul's teaching to the Thessalonians was that the Lord's coming could come at any time. No prophecies had to be fulfilled--about the Tribulation or any other event associated with the Day of the Lord--before the Thessalonians could see the Lord come again. But the Thessalonians had the concept of imminence confused with the idea of immediacy. In fact, because of their idea of the immediate return of the Lord, some of the Thessalonian believers decided they didn't need to work any more and had quit their jobs. As a result, they had to sponge off the other believers! Paul exhorted these disorderly free-loaders to "lead a quiet life, attend to your own business and work with your hands...so that you will not be dependent on anybody." (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12).
The Rapture of ChristiansEvidently the Thessalonian believers were concerned that the death of believers before the return of the Lord might cause them to lose out on all opportunities to share in the glorious reign of Christ. Would these believers miss out on all the blessings associated with the coming of the Lord? The Thessalonian Christians knew that their fellow-believers would be safely asleep in Jesus, but when would they be resurrected? In order to answer this question, the apostle Paul laid out before them (and us) the whole eschatological chronology of the second coming of Christ. In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11, Paul taught that the Rapture of the Church will occur first. (The term "rapture" is derived from a Latin word meaning "caught up." See 1 Thessalonians 4:17). At this event believers who have died in Christ will be resurrected first, then Christians who are alive will be caught up and join them in the air to meet the Lord. Notice that the concept of imminence is intrinsic to the way that Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, discussed this topic. He included himself in the company of those who would be alive at the time of the return of Christ for His church--the time we refer to as "the Rapture." Notice that he did not say "we who have fallen asleep" but rather "those who have fallen asleep" (v14). He did not say "those who are alive" but rather "we who are still alive" in verse 15. Again, in verse 17, he also spoke of "we who are still alive" (v17). So although Paul never said that the coming of the Lord was immediately before them, it certainly was imminent--it could be expected at any time, even in Paul's lifetime. Paul concluded this first stage of his eschatological layout with the exhortation of verse 18, "Therefore comfort [encourage] one another with these words." The Rapture of the church is a comforting doctrine regardless of its chronological position in future end-time events. The fact that it is imminent and precedes the wrath of the Tribulation period is very comforting. The coming of the Lord for His own could be at any time--not necessarily immediate, but certainly imminent.
In chapter 5 the apostle Paul further emphasized the imminence of the Rapture by encouraging the Thessalonian believers with the truth that they were sons of light and not sons of night and darkness (5:5). Unbelievers are in darkness, and therefore the beginning of the Day of the Lord (the Tribulation) will overtake them like a "thief in the night." The Tribulation will not overtake Christians because they are of the day and not part of the night. Believers will not see the wrath of the Tribulation (5:9) because they will be "caught up" from this earth before the coming of night. Again the doctrine of imminence is intrinsic to Paul's argument. The Thessalonian believers were exhorted to wake up and be alert, because the coming of the Lord could be at any moment (5:6).
The Day of the LordNot long after Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians he received word that a further misunderstanding had taken place in the minds of the Christians there. Therefore 2 Thessalonians was written soon after the first letter. Apparently some of the Thessalonian believers were encountering significant persecution, so they thought that the end-time Day of the Lord events had already begun (2 Thessalonians 1:4). This misunderstanding was fostered either by a false prophetic utterance or teaching, or a letter which purported to be from the apostle Paul (2:2). Paul refuted this incorrect teaching by reminding his readers that the Day of the Lord could not have begun because: 1) their "gathering unto Christ" (2:1) had not yet taken place, and 2) the rebellious apostasy of antichrist had not yet started (2:3). In other words, the Rapture of the Church must precede the events prophesied for the Day of the Lord. Although they should expect trials and tribulations because lawlessness was already at work (2:7), the Tribulation predicted by the Lord in His Olivet discourse (Matthew 24:21,29) had not yet begun. Why? Because "the Restrainer" (2:7) was still present. Most likely "the Restrainer" is the Holy Spirit, who indwells the Church and is "taken out of the way" when the Church is taken up from this earth. In any case, all the prophetic events associated with the Day of the Lord occur after Christians are "gathered unto Christ," and the Restrainer is taken away. No unfulfilled prophecy stands between the Lord's return for His Church today. Therefore the Rapture is imminent.
Whether or not the apostle Paul used eschatological charts in his lectures, we can't say. We know that he didn't send inspired charts along with his letters to the various churches--otherwise we'd have them in our Bibles! It would be nice to have inspired eschatological charts to study, but even without charts it's easy to see what the Word says about the Lord's sure coming for us. It may not be immediately before us in 2000 AD, but it is certainly imminent.
The Responsibility of SaintsIn the meantime, what are we to do while "we wait for the Lord from heaven"? 2 Thessalonians 3:13 is directed to us, just as it was to the Thessalonians: "Do not grow weary of doing good." We don't have to look too far to find out what "not tiring of doing good" means. Scattered throughout these two short letters are a number of "doing good" exhortations. For example, 1 Thessalonians 5:11-18 gives us a list of ideas for encouraging one another and building each other up: tell people when you appreciate their spirit and their Christian service (v11); don't criticize your faithful leaders, but rather look for ways to assist them, and don't forget to thank them for all their hard work (v12-13); try to get along well with everyone--in the spirit of peace (v13); admonish the unruly--this also is part of "doing good" (v14--see also 2 Thessalonians 3:15); encourage Christians who are afraid--maybe because of illness, loneliness or the death of a loved one (v14); support the faith of weak Christians with prayer, love, and encouraging words of Scripture (v14); think of ways to be patient--even in trying situations (v14); don't try to get even--repay evil with kindness (v15); be joyful always--even when you're not happy (v16); pray continuously (v17); always be thankful--don't take God's grace and love for granted (v18). What a "do good" list! And remember the bottom line is to "love one another." (1 Thessalonians 3:12 and 4:9) The fact that our Lord's coming is imminent should motivate us to follow these exhortations. He couldcome today! Maranatha!