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I am certainly an advocate of the Pretribulation rapture. However, in recent years I’ve become convinced that much of our argumentation for the pretribulational timing of the rapture is poor, at best. This includes some of the arguments I have personally used in times past.
Recently I studied again the rapture passage, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. As I studied it, I became more and more convinced that the timing of the rapture can be argued from this passage alone. It cannot be proven from this passage alone, for such would take an explicit declaration within the text itself, which the text does not contain. However, a strong argument can be given from this passage alone.
Here are three arguments that I see within the passage.
The ignorance of the Thessalonians themselves
Paul says, I would not have you to be ignorant (v. 13), and then proceeds to give information about the present and future position of the dead in Christ (v. 16). The Thessalonians, however, were not uneducated in the things of the Word of God. Earlier, Paul had said to them, ye need not that I write unto you (v. 9) about loving one another. Why didn’t he need to write? For ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another (v. 9). Since 1 Thessalonians is the first of the Pauline writings, this teaching from God, by necessity, came from the Hebrew scriptures. In fact, the Thessalonians had been taught out of the scriptures (Acts 17:2) when Paul first met them in the synagogue. The Thessalonians had the Hebrew scriptures and were not ignorant of them. Since the Hebrew scriptures are filled with information about the Second Coming of Christ, their ignorance must come from a lack of information, not a lack of available information.
And what does Paul have information about that is not already included in the Hebrew scriptures? His information comes to Paul by revelation and is related to the age of Grace. All other information in the Bible, prior to Paul, was written about God’s prophetic program. Paul was given information about God’s mystery program. This mystery program included the rapture of the church. The reason the Thessalonians could not simply learn about it from the Hebrew scriptures is because it wasn’t there! The mystery program was…a mystery. Colossians 1:26 tells us that the mystery had been hid from ages and from generations. The ignorance of the Thessalonians about the rapture, therefore, proves that the rapture is about the mystery program, thus about the church, and thus must conclude prior to the resumption of the prophetic plan.
Paul’s change of tone
When Paul speaks of the Second Coming, he does so with an ominous tone, speaking of wrath, judgment, the need for righteousness, the coming of the son of perdition, and more. Yet in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 he has bookends around the revealed information. In verse 13 he speaks of hope in the face of grief. In verse 18 he speaks of comfort with the information given.
Certainly this change of tone is not enough to “seal the deal” with a pretribulational argument, but it should certainly be taken into account.
The source of the information
Paul notes in verse 15 that the information about the rapture comes by the word of the Lord. This is a phrase that is used hundreds of times in the scripture, and tells the reader that the information comes by a direct revelation of God. This is related to our first point, that exclusively Pauline information is always exclusively church information. Since the church age ends prior to the last seven years of the postponed-yet-decreed 490 years that have been decreed for Israel (Dan. 9:24-27), then the rapture is, by necessity, pretribulational.
For those not certain that the church age ends prior to the seven years of Daniel 9, one only needs to be reminded that the church is “neither Jew nor Greek” but the seven years are determined upon thy people (Dan. 9:24). God cannot deal with thy people (Israel) while He is in an age of not dealing with people on a national basis (such as the church age).
None of these arguments are sufficient in themselves. These three arguments could (and should) join with many other arguments. In the end, the timing of the rapture is not textual, but theological. That is, there is no single passage of scripture that, on its own, proves the timing of the rapture. A pretribulational argument is built on conclusions drawn from whole of prophetic scripture, and is therefore a theological argument. We should take care that we argue theology with care, with an open mind, and with an open Bible.