Paul wrote some encouraging words to the Thessalonians in 1 Thessalonians 1:10-
And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come.
The believers that made the Thessalonian church were converts to Judaism long before meeting Paul, and became not only faithful Jews but also gloriously saved “Messianic Jews” after meeting Paul. Long before meeting Paul they “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thess. 1:9).
How do we know that these conversions from pagan idolatry did not take place after meeting Paul, as one might assume? We know because in 1 Thessalonians 1 Paul is speaking about his “entry point” with them (1 Thess. 1:9), and this entry is recorded for us in divine writ in Acts 17. In Acts 17, we are told by Luke that Paul entered the synagogue (where Jews worship) on the Sabbath (the day Jews worship) and there he persuaded the Jewish worshipers that “this Jesus, whom I preach to you, is Christ” (v. 3). Many of the Jews, of course, rejected Jesus as Christ because Jesus did not set up a Kingdom, as promised. Paul “reasoned with them out of the scriptures” (v. 2). These scriptures were of the Old Testament, for 1 Thessalonians is the first written of all New Testament scriptures. From the Old Testament Paul sought to persuade them that the Messiah (i.e., the Christ) was supposed to “have suffered, and risen from the dead” (v. 3). Among those who were persuaded and believed were “devout Greeks” (v. 4).
These now-believing devout Greeks followed Paul in believing Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. No doubt, Paul later persuaded them that God was saving individuals outside of the law of Moses (Acts 13:38-39), and that their individual salvation was being offered as a gift.
But these were Jewish Greeks, make no mistake. They worshiped on the Sabbath, they were interested in Messianic (i.e., Jewish) issues, and they were described as devout. To what or whom were they devout? The context leaves no doubt: they were devout to the “living and true God,” the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Being Jews (a converted Gentile is no longer Gentile, but Jew, just like one who converts from the Catholic faith to the Baptist faith is Baptist), Paul speaks to them concerning many things that are Jewish in nature, such as the coming Messianic Kingdom. This coming Kingdom, by the way, is the only Kingdom of which the Bible speaks.
What is the wrath to come?
Due to the very Jewish nature of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, we have to consider the options when we interpret the wrath to come.
As a pretribulational premillennialist, I desperately want to use 1 Thessalonians 1:10 as proof of the pre-tribulational rapture. As a textualist, however, I don’t think that we should be so quick to do so.
To interpret the phrase, we need to use one of the cardinal rules of interpretation: let scripture interpret scripture. Conveniently, Paul gives a very similar statement in 1 Thessalonians 5:9–
For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ
Here again, the question is, which wrath? However, in chapter 5 we have much more context than in chapter 1. In 1 Thessalonians 5:2-3 we learn that the context is the day of the Lord and that this day is a day of sudden destruction–
For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night.For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape.
It is this wrath, the sudden destruction of the “day of the Lord” that is in context of the wrath to which the Thessalonians are not appointed.
What is the day of the Lord?
If we take the day of the Lord in a general sense, as generally taught by many (even dispensational) theologians, then the day of the Lord is simply the Tribulation. But, as students who “have no need to be ashamed,” we get our interpretation from scripture, not theology books.
What saith scripture? Let’s consider Joel 2:31–
The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, Before the great and the terrible day of the Lord come.
This simple verse simply helps us know that the tribulation itself cannot be the day of the Lord. Why? Because we know that the sun does not turn to darkness nor the moon to blood until after the tribulation. In fact, scripture explicitly tell us this is true.
Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken: And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven…
Could scripture be more clear?
- The sun turns to darkness before the day of the Lord (Joel 2:31).
- The sun turns to darkness after the tribulation of those days (Matt. 24:29).
- Then (at the day of the Lord) the Son of man will appear (Matt. 24:30).
While there is much more we could pursue on this topic, it would take a prophecy conference to do so. Quiet simply, the only conclusion one can make is that the Day of the Lord is the return of Jesus Christ to judge and establish His kingdom. The wrath of the judgment on the day of the Second Coming is the wrath in view both in 1 Thessalonians 1:10 and 5:9.
Why would Paul say this?
Now we wonder why Paul, who would teach about the rapture in chapter 4, would teach about being saved from “judgment day” in chapters 1 and 5. Could this be proof of a post-tribulational rapture? No, not at all. Such a conclusion would be a non-sequitor false conclusion.
But we can conclude that Paul was talking to Messianic Jews about Messianic issues. His audience, the Thessalonians, are in the “congregation of the righteous” mentioned in Psalm 1:5. They will not be like the ungodly that “the wind driveth away” (Ps. 1:4), for they have “been delivered from the wrath to come.”
Things that are similar…
One of the most important Bible lessons is that things that are similar are not the same. While you and I in the Body of Christ will be raptured before the tribulation, the “wrath to come” in 1 Thessalonians 1:10 is not talking about this rescue. Rather, it is talking about the salvation of Israel in the day of the Lord. By using this verse as a defense of a pre-tribulational rapture (a common error I’ve made myself many times), we bring confusion into our theological position and find that the textual support for our theological conclusion is not strong enough to avoid scrutiny.
In summary, the wrath to come (1 Thess. 1:10) is the Day of the Lord judgment, and is a reference to the nation of Israel, which shall be saved from this wrath. As much as we would like this to be a confirmation of a pre-tribulational rapture, the preponderance of evidence does not support such an argument. Our pre-trib positions must come from other passages.