I heard it taught recently from 2 Thess 2: 1–12 that Christians will pass through the great tribulation and witness the appearance of the antichrist, because there is no secret rapture to precede the coming of the Lord. Is this true?
It is very sad to hear of this sort of public teaching—instruction that is defective both morally and doctrinally. Let’s look at the moral effect of this teaching first.
If the “revelation of the Lord Jesus” and “our gathering together to him” (2 Thess. 1: 7; 2: 1) are one and the same event then certain other events must take place first, namely the apostasy and the revelation of the man of sin (see v3). If this is so, then I will look for these preceding events, rather than the Lord Himself. When Paul wrote his first letter to the Thessalonians, he reminded them of their conversion in these words: “ye turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to await … (1 Thess. 1: 9, 10). To await what? The apostasy? The man of sin? No! To “await his Son from the heavens” (v10, my emphasis). They were awaiting a Person, not an event. The moral effect of the error before us is to take the eye off Christ and fix it on world events and whether or not they are the fulfilment of prophecy. Again, we read “for our commonwealth has its existence in [the] heavens, from which also we await the Lord Jesus Christ [as] Saviour” (Phil. 3: 20). We await a Person. Prophetic events take place on earth but the Christian does not belong here and should not be occupied with such things (see Col. 3: 1–4 etc.). If he does, then the absence of such events will make him think “My lord delays to come” (Luke 12: 45).
This brings us to the doctrine. The day of the Lord (see 1 Thess. 5: 2; 2 Thess. 2: 2) is an expression introduced in the OT prophets and describes the time of God’s anger (see Lam. 2: 22) and wrath (see Ez. 7: 19; Zeph. 1: 18) when He arises in righteous fury to terrify the earth (see Is. 2: 12–21). Perusal of the Scriptures that contain the expression show that it is not exactly the revelation of the Lord, although that is included. Neither is it God acting providentially or through men, but His direct intervention when He executes His vengeance in regard to Israel (Is. 34: 8) and the nations (Ob. 1: 15). It has nothing directly to do with the members of the Church. This fact can be seen from the Thessalonian epistles alone.
Referring again to 1 Thess. 1: 10, the Apostle speaks of “Jesus, our deliverer from the coming wrath”. If the Lord is to deliver His own from wrath, then they cannot experience it. Hence in speaking later of the day of the Lord (1 Thess. 5: 1–11), he contrasts Christian believers with the rest of men and says that “God has not set us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (v9). What is this salvation? It is what is referred to in Rom. 13: 11 “for now [is] our salvation nearer than when we believed”. It is salvation’s final phase. Our souls have been saved (see 1 Pet. 1: 9), we experience spiritual salvation daily (see Phil. 2: 12) but we await “the redemption of our body” (Rom. 8: 23; see also Eph. 4: 30). Hence when Paul speaks of the coming of the Lord in Phil. 3: 20, he not only says that “we await the Lord Jesus Christ”, that is a Person, but that we await Him “[as] Saviour” (my emphasis)—not as Judge.
Now the conversion of the Thessalonians had cost them much in the way of tribulation and the Apostle had told them that this would happen (1 Thess. 1: 6; 3: 4). However, it appears that this had increased to such an intensity that they were misled by some into thinking that the day of the Lord had actually arrived (see 2 Thess. 2: 2). This gave rise to the Apostle’s second epistle. The tribulations that they were experiencing were “a manifest token of the righteous judgment of God, to the end that ye should be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for the sake of which ye also suffer” (2 Thess. 1: 5). This was in keeping with what Paul had previously taught, namely that the path to glory is through suffering (see Acts 14: 22). However, it was not the great tribulation of Matt. 24: 21. The day of the Lord could not come until the events detailed in 2 Thess. 2: 3–7 took place first. The commencement of that day, detailed in Rev. 6–16 and expressed in the symbols of the seven seals, seven trumpets and seven bowls of wrath, clearly precedes the revelation of the Lord in glory in Rev. 19. What lever does the Apostle use to allay the fears of the Thessalonians and to put their troubled minds at rest? “Now we beg you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to him” (2 Thess. 2: 1—my emphasis). If our gathering to Him and His revelation are one event, then what Paul pleads here can have no effect, because it is irrelevant. Hence we are gathered to Him before the day of the Lord commences and thus before He is revealed from heaven, proving that the coming of the Lord is not a single event.