Nov 21, 2014

Is the Rapture in 2 Thessalonians 2:3?

J. B. Hixson

Dr. J. B. Hixson
Not By Works Ministries

The Apostle Paul visited Thessalonica during his second missionary journey, accompanied by Silas. They spent about three months ministering to the Thessalonians and sharing the Gospel with them during the winter of 50-51 AD. A few months later, while still on this missionary journey, during the summer of 51 AD, Paul wrote two letters to the Thessalonians from Corinth (Acts 18). Evidently, one of the issues Paul addressed while he was ministering in Thessalonica was the issue of suffering, tribulation, and affliction (1 Thess. 3:1-4). Paul reminded the Thessalonians that suffering was inevitable, and they should continue to trust the Lord in good times and bad.

In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul warned them that there was an even greater tribulation coming in the future that would plague the whole world. He was referring to the prophetic wrath of the Lord that would be poured out on earth during the 70th week of Daniel (Dan. 9:24-27; Zeph. 1:14-18; Matt. 24-25; Rev. 6-18). But Paul assured them that they would not have to fear this great and terrible Day of the Lord because God had not appointed them to wrath (1 Thess. 5:9).

Paul further encouraged them that they should "wait for [God's] Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come" (1 Thess. 1:10).

Another issue Paul addressed in 1 Thessalonians was the fact that some of those in the church had died. It is likely that some of them may have been martyred in the midst of the persecution of that day. The Thessalonians evidently had questions about their loved ones who had passed on. So Paul writes, "But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep [i.e. died], lest you sorrow as others who have no hope" (1 Thess. 4:13).

He explained that when the Lord returns to rescue believers from the great Day of the Lord's Wrath, He will first resurrect the bodies of those believers who had already died, give them their permanent glorified bodies, and then reunite them in the air with those believers who are still living and are "caught up" to meet the Lord (1 Thess. 4:13-18). This is an event called "the Rapture," based on the Greek word harpazo in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, which is translated in the Latin version of the NT as raptus (thus the term "rapture" in English).

The Greek term harpazo means "to take away by force, to snatch away, to transport hastily." It is used in Acts 8:39 to describe Philip being "snatched away" (NASB) after coming up out of the water following the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch.

The Rapture of the Church is a great promise, the "blessed hope" (Titus 2:13), that all believers of the church age will be snatched away to meet the Lord in the sky someday.

In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul once again addresses the return of the Lord to rescue His bride, the Church. In 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12, the context is the "coming of the Lord" and our "gathering together to Him" (2:1). This language is almost identical to the language Paul used in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 when discussing the Rapture.

Evidently, since Paul's visit to Thessalonica and subsequent first letter, the Thessalonians had faced increased persecution. This was very disturbing to them. To make matters worse, some were erroneously suggesting that this persecution was, in fact, the prophetic wrath of God being poured out (2 Thess. 2:2-3). Some believers in Thessalonica actually thought they were already experiencing the Day of the Lord! And this was very scary to them.

Paul writes to reassure them that this cannot possibly be the case because two important events have not happened yet (2:3). First, the apostasia (translated "falling away" in the NKJV) must take place, and second the identity of the antichrist (referred to as the "man of sin" in the NKJV) must be revealed.


The Apostasia

The word apostasia means simply "departure." As with all words, context must determine the precise meaning. In some cases, apostasia means spiritual departure (i.e. falling away or departing from the faith). And in other cases, apostasia means physical departure (i.e. moving from point A to point B).

The question at hand is: What does Paul mean by the word apostasia? How is he using this term? Let's look a little deeper at this important word apostasia.

In the first century, we see apostasia used by the historian, Josephus, in a political sense (Jos. Vit., 43) to signify a rebellion against civil authority. However, the term was also used during this time to describe a fever departing from an ill person, and a boat departing from a dock.

The term apostasia is used in the Old Testament (LXX) mostly of departing from or rebelling against the Law of Moses (2 Chron. 29:19; 33:19; Jer. 2:19).

In the New Testament, the verb form of the word, aphistemi, is used fifteen times, while the noun, apostasia, is used only twice. There is no difference between the basic meaning of the noun and verb. They both mean departure (or depart in the case of the verb).

In the NT, sometimes it refers to departure from religious teachings. For example, in Acts 21:21 Paul is accused of teaching "all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake [apostasia] Moses" (see also Luke 8:13; 1 Tim. 4:1; and Heb. 3:12 where aphistemi is used). Aphistemi is also used of rebellion against civil authority (Acts 5:37-38). Yet, the verb form aphistemi is used most often of physical departure (Luke 2:37; 4:13; 13:27; Acts 12:10; 15:38; 19:9; 22:29; 2 Cor. 12:8; 2 Tim. 2:19).

So it is clear that the Greek term apostasia can mean both spiritual departure and physical departure. How is it used in 2 Thessalonians 2:3? We must look at the context. Is there anything in the immediate context to suggest that Paul is referring to a spiritual falling away—an "apostasy" the way we normally use the word in English. Not that I can find! But there is, in fact, much contextual evidence in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 that Paul has a physical departure in mind.

In the first place, we see reference to physical movement in 2:1 when the Lord "comes" in the sky (1 Thess. 4:13-18) and believers are "gathered together to Him." In the second place, Paul refers to the "restrainer" being "taken out of the way" (2:7). He also speaks of the "coming" (or arrival) of the antichrist on the world scene (2:9). So there is a lot of physical movement going on in this passage.

Moreover, in light of Paul's teaching about the Rapture in his first letter to the Thessalonians, and his insistence twice in that letter that the Thessalonians need not fear being left on earth during the outpouring of God's prophetic wrath (1 Thess. 1:10; 5:9), it seems natural to conclude that in his second letter he would remind them again that they cannot be in the Day of the Lord yet because the "departure" (i.e. the rescue from earth to heaven—the Rapture!) has not happened yet.

So here is how I summarize/paraphrase 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12:

My Thessalonian brethren—concerning the Lord's coming to rescue us from the Day of the Lord's wrath, which I have already told you about in my first letter, I ask you not to be worried or shaken in your faith. I realize that some false teachers are suggesting that the Day of the Lord has already begun and that you are about to face the full force of God's wrath on earth.

But don't believe it! Don't be deceived. Remember, as I said before, the Day of the Lord will not begin until after you depart from this earth! And not only that, but before the Day of the Lord can begin, the man of sin—the antichrist—must be unveiled first.

Since neither of these things has happened—the departure and the revelation of the antichrist—you cannot possibly be in the Day of the Lord. So fear not! And be aware that when the antichrist does come, after you have all been rescued from this present evil age (Gal. 1:4), he will bring terrible deception and lying wonders on the earth and many will perish because they never believed the Gospel.

In light of all the evidence: exegetical, lexical, contextual, and theological, I think it is best to take the word apostasia in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 as a reference to a physical departure, namely the Rapture. This view is shared by such notable scholars as Tommy Ice, Tim LaHaye, J. Dwight Pentecost, Kenneth Wuest, Allen MacRae, E. Schuyler English, Stanley Ellison, H. Wayne House, and others.