What does Acts 2:17-18 mean?
Tasmania’s electrical power shortage has reached crisis levels. 30% of the power usually comes from Victoria by cable, but the cable has been broken since December 2015. 60% of the power usually comes from hydro-electric systems, but dam levels are at a record low capacity of 14% and falling. An old gas-fired power station has been brought back into operation and temporary diesel generators acquired. And major manufacturers have cut production to conserve power.
After Jesus died and rose again, He told His apostles to wait in Jerusalem for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit (Jn. 14:16; Acts 1:4, 5, 8). When the Holy Spirit came on the day of Pentecost, the church era commenced replacing the era of the law of Moses. In this post we look at the meaning of a passage from Joel, quoted by Peter as an explanation to the Jews.
“In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants (slaves), both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18NIV).
We will see from this passage that God now empowers all His followers with the Holy Spirit.
Context of Acts 2
Luke wrote the books of Luke and Acts in the Bible. Acts, written about AD 63, is a selective history of the first 30 years of the church. It describes the church in Jerusalem (Ch 1-7), in Judea and Samaria (8:1 – 9:31), and elsewhere in the Roman Empire (9:32 – 28:31). It was written for Theophilus who was probably Luke’s patron (Lk. 1:3-4; Acts 1:1). The main theme of the book is to describe the spread of Christianity from Jerusalem across the Roman Empire and to indicate the major challenges to this.
After His resurrection, the Lord Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to His followers, so they could be His witnesses (1:3-8). Then the Lord ascended into the sky and the disciples were promised that He would return in a similar manner (1:9-11). While they waited in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit, Matthias was chosen to replace Judas (1:12-26).
On the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came and indwelt the disciples (2:1-13) and Peter addressed the crowd of Jews and Jewish proselytes who were in Jerusalem (1:14-41). As a result of Peter’s message about 3,000 people came to faith in Christ and joined the infant church. Then Luke summarized the activities of this pioneer church (2:42-47).
Peter’s message on the day of Pentecost included:
– an explanation of recent events (v.14-21)
– the gospel of Jesus Christ; His death, resurrection and exaltation (v.22-36)
– an exhortation to repentance and baptism (v. 37-40).
Peter explained what happened on the Day of Pentecost by saying they weren’t drunk and quoting from the prophet Joel (Joel 2:28-32).
Context of Joel
Joel was a prophet of God to Judah prior to the Jewish exile (his book is difficult to date more precisely). The key phrase of the book is “the day of the Lord”, found five times (Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14). It’s a time when the wicked are judged and the repentant are saved (Joel 3:15-16).
Up to 2:18 Joel addresses the desolation that would come on Judah. After that the repentant are promised deliverance. The book is structured as follows:
– Plague of locusts (Ch 1). This probably also symbolized the Lord’s army on the day of the Lord.
– An army is approaching (2:1-11)
– Call to repentance (2:12-17)
– They are promised material prosperity (2:18-27)
– They are promised an outpouring of God’s Spirit (2:28-29)
– Wonders in the heavens and earth (2:30-32)
– Judgement of the Gentile nations (3:1-16a)
– Promises restoration and blessing for the Jews (3:16b-21).
The people of Judah had turned away from the Lord (Joel 2:12-14). They had broken their covenant with the Lord. Consequently, the locust plague and drought was God’s judgement. Joel urges Judah to repent, but when they continually resist, God’s judgement is inevitable. Those who repented were promised prosperity, restoration, and an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
The Old Testament Jewish prophets had two main messages about the future: God’s judgement (the “day of the Lord”) and God’s blessing—the Messiah will come and lead their nation. The passage quoted by Peter on the day of Pentecost mentioned God’s blessing (Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2:17-18) and God’s judgment (Joel 2:30-32; Acts 2:19-21).
Joel 2: 28-29
“And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days” (Joel 2:28-29).
As the context is “afterward”, these verses may apply after the day of the Lord. So after God punishes the rebellious, He rewards repentant Jews with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
In Old Testament times, the Holy Spirit is generally among the community of Israel, but not in the individuals (Is. 63:11). Instead, the Holy Spirit only came upon particular people for particular tasks. For example:
– The Holy Spirit empowered Joseph (Gen. 41:38), Moses and Joshua.
– The Holy Spirit empowered craftsman (Ex. 31:2-5) and Gideon and Samson (Jud. 6:34; 14:6)
– The Holy Spirit empowered prophets (Ezek. 11:5; Mic. 3:8; Zech. 7:12; Acts 28:25)
– 70 elders prophesied when the Spirit of the Lord came on them (Num. 11:24-30).
– The Spirit of the Lord came on David and departed from Saul (1 Sam. 16:13-14).
When the task was accomplished, the Holy Spirit would leave the person. David said, “Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me” (Ps. 51:11). So, in Old Testament times the empowering of individuals by the Holy Spirit was selective and temporary.
Joel 2:28-29 predicts a change where the Holy Spirit will be poured out on all kinds of people. Instead of selected individuals, God says it will regardless of gender (“sons and daughters”, age (old and young), or social class (includes slaves) and maybe race (includes Gentile slaves). The example given is prophesy which was a message from God enabled by the Holy Spirit. This is different to the rest of the Old Testament because it indicates the Holy Spirit coming on people in general and not only particular individuals. Instead, it’s similar to the promised new covenant, which included “I will put my Spirit in you” (Ezek. 36:26-27).
Of course, the Holy Spirit’s current role of indwelling believers and abiding with them “forever” is also a great contrast to the Old Testament situation (Jn. 14:16).
Joel 2: 30-32
On the day of Pentecost, Peter also quoted from, “I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the Lord has said, even among the survivors whom the Lord calls” (Joel 2:30-32).
The day of the Lord is the time of judgment associated with the blessing given in Joel 2:28-29.
What did Joel 2:28-32 mean then?
Joel was given a revelation of a future time when a period of judgment (v.30-32) is followed by a time of blessing (v.28-29). Wonders in the heavens and on earth precede the judgment (day of the Lord). As judgment was often associated war, the meaning to the Israelites of that time could be that they will by invaded by an enemy, but God would deliver the faithful who would be empowered by the Holy Spirit. As afterwards “all people” have faith in God, it seems as though all the unfaithful people are destroyed in the judgment. Or it could mean that Israel is physically delivered from God’s judgment and its enemies destroyed. When the prophecy was given their enemies were the Phoenicians, Philistines, Egyptians and Edomites (Joel 3:4, 19).
The phrase “all people” (Strongs #3605, #1320) could mean every person, people from all categories in society, or all nations. As the context is “Your sons and daughters”, “Your old men” and “Your young men”, it probably means every Israelite. To call “on the name of the Lord” meant to trust and respond to God the Father (Mt. 7:21; Jn. 6:29). It shows God’s mercy in offering a way of escape to those facing judgment. They will survive the day of the Lord.
The principle of Joel 2:28-29 is that in future God will empower all the faithful Israelites with the Holy Spirit.
What does Joel 2:28-32 mean now?
With the benefit of additional revelation in the New Testament and the benefit of hindsight, we can understand more about Joel’s prophecy.
The law of double reference helps to understand some of these Old Testament prophecies—some of them had both an immediate partial fulfilment and a distant complete fulfilment. Some of the Jewish prophecies about the “day of the Lord” were partially fulfilled when Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonians in 586 B.C and by the Romans in AD 70. But John also prophesised about the day of the Lord in AD 95 (Rev. Ch. 6-20). So the final day of the Lord is yet to come. It’s associated with Christ’s second advent.
What about times of blessing? It’s difficult to identify periods when Israel has been blessed since Joel’s time. The only clear application of Joel’s prophecy to times of blessing is that made on the day of Pentecost by Peter, which is the subject of this post. Soon after this Peter said that the promised time of blessing was still future (Acts 3:21). It’s associated with Christ’s millennial kingdom.
So we understand that Joel 2:28-32 is a prophecy about events associated with Christ’s second coming and His millennial kingdom.
When Peter quoted from Joel, he changed the introduction from “And afterward”, to “In the last days”. As he is speaking to Jews and it was before the New Testament was written, they would have understood the “last days” from the Old Testament where it can mean the coming tribulation or the Millennial kingdom (Dt. 4:30; Isa. 2:2; Dan. 10:14; Hos. 3:5; Mic. 4:1).
Peter also added “God says” to the quotation to emphasise that these were the words of God written by the prophet Joel. This is like a prophet saying “The word of the Lord came to me, saying” (Jer. 1:4).
Peter changed the word “dreadful” to “glorious” when describing the day of the Lord (Joel. 2:31; Acts 2:20). The reason for this maybe that He was associating this occasion with Christ’s second coming (Ti. 2:13).
Peter also added “and they will prophesy” at the end of v.18. This phrase is repeated from the previous verse for emphasis. Also he stopped half way through Joel 2:32 omitting, “for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the Lord has said, even among the survivors whom the Lord calls”. This could be so he could finish the quote with “And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” to indicate what his audience needed to do when they were convicted of their sin (Rom. 10:13). In this context, they are spiritually saved from God’s judgment. And “the Lord” is Jesus Christ. Also, he didn’t want to make the application to deliverance from an army.
There is another difference between what happened on the day of Pentecost and Joel’s prophecy. The spiritual gift that occurred on the day of Pentecost was speaking in other languages, while Joel referred to prophecy. So the emphasis is on the Holy Spirit who gives the gift, not on the particular spiritual gift.
With the benefit of additional revelation in the New Testament and the benefit of hindsight, we can understand more about Peter’s sermon. He was announcing to the Jews that what they saw on the day of Pentecost was a fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy. But this is only a partial fulfilment because John also prophesised about the day of the Lord in AD 95 (Rev. Ch. 6-20). Also, the Holy Spirit was poured out on believers, not “on all people”. Also, there were no wonders in the heavens on the day of Pentecost (Mt. 24:29; Acts 2:19-20). Although some argue they were fulfilled at the crucifixion or figuratively on the day of Pentecost. So the final day of the Lord is yet to come. This is associated with Christ’s second advent and His millennial kingdom.
Peter was announcing to the Jews that through Jesus Christ, God had now brought in the promised new covenant. This meant that the Holy Spirit will be poured out on all kinds of people regardless of gender (“sons and daughters”, age (old and young), or social class (includes slaves) and maybe race (includes Gentile slaves). The example given is prophesy which was enabled by the Holy Spirit. Updating the principle from Joel 2:28-29 to the day of Pentecost gives: God now empowers all His followers with the Holy Spirit.
Who were “all people” who received the Holy Spirit? It wasn’t every Israelite. Afterwards, Peter preached, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children (Jews) and for all who are far off (Gentiles)—for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:38-39). So, on the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit was given to those who repented and were baptized. Although they were mainly Jews, Gentiles weren’t excluded. They were people of every gender, age and social class.
It was also a fulfilment of Christ’s promises to send the Holy Spirit (Lk. 24:49; Jn. 7:37-39; 14:16-26; 15:26 – 16:15; Acts 1:3-5; 2:33).
What does Acts 2:17-18 mean?
It meant that from that time onwards, all those who accepted God’s gift of salvation through Christ would receive the Holy Spirit. This was the new era of the church age which replaced the era when the Israelites lived under the Law of Moses. It doesn’t mean that all will prophesy. Instead the New Testament teaches that each believer will have at least one spiritual gift.
Today, we are still in the church era, and the Holy Spirit still indwells all believers. But the church’s foundation was laid almost 2,000 years ago. It is founded on Christ’s completed work (1 Cor. 3:11) as taught by the apostles and New Testament prophets (Eph. 2:20; 3:5). This work was completed in the first century AD and we have a record of this foundation in the New Testament. So, in this sense, we no longer have apostles or prophets in the church today because these gifts are no longer required now the church’s foundation has been laid.
Peter was pointing out a similarity between what happened on the day of Pentecost and events associated with the second coming of Christ. This involved the activity of the Holy Spirit.
What doesn’t it mean today?
Be careful of using Acts 2:17-18 to over-ride other verses in the New Testament. For example, it doesn’t mean that:
– every Christian has the gift of prophecy regardless of gender, age, or social class and maybe race, or
– every Christian can prophesy (or preach or teach) at a church meeting regardless of gender, age, or social class and maybe race.
Instead, prophecy was used to illustrate the fact that every Christian is indwelt by the Holy Spirit regardless of gender, age, or social class and maybe race.
There are similar messages to this in other New Testament Scriptures. For example, when the household of Cornelius accepted the gospel message, “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles” (Acts 10:45). Now Gentiles could be God’s people who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit.
Also, in the church people of various genders, ages, social classes and races are empowered by the Holy Spirit:
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
“Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Col. 3:11).
Quotation from the Old Testament
According to Fruchtenbaum, Peter’s quotation in Acts 2 of Joel 2 is a literal fulfilment of an application from the Old Testament.
“Virtually nothing that happened in Acts 2 is predicted in Joel 2. Joel was speaking of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the nation of Israel in the last days. However, there was one point of similarity, an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, resulting in unusual manifestations. Acts 2 does not change or reinterpret Joel 2, nor does it deny that Joel 2 will have a literal fulfilment when the Holy Spirit will be poured out on the whole nation of Israel. It is simply applying it to a New Testament event because of one point of similarity.”
We have seen that Acts 2:17-18 shows that Joel’s prophecy (Joel 2:28-29) had a partial fulfilment on the day of Pentecost, but the complete fulfilment is still future. The thing they had in common was the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Since the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit indwells all believers. But in a coming day after the wicked have been judged, everyone will be empowered by the Holy Spirit as prophesised by Joel.
The fact that God now empowers all His followers with the Holy Spirit is a challenge and an encouragement. Do you have this power in your life? If the answer is yes, does the presence of the Holy Spirit encourage you to live for Jesus Christ?
Fruchtenbaum A.G (1992) “Israelology: The missing link in Systematic theology”, p. 844-845
Written, March 2016
The Day of the Lord. Part 1: The past
The Bible teaches that God rules over everything—He’s the Boss. He is also holy, good, loving and just. Yet we live in a world where there is much suffering and evil and God’s justice and His other attributes are not evident to all. People ask, if there is a God, “Why doesn’t He do something about it?”. Well, He will.
In this article we will look at a major topic of Scripture that few Christians understand—“the day of the Lord”. This phrase occurs at least 20 times in the Bible between Isaiah and Revelation; it’s always in a prophetic passage that addresses the future.
Old Testament Prophecies
God made promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their descendants. These were physical and spiritual blessings which God will always keep. They included things such as prominence, prosperity and the promised land. However, whether the Jews experienced these promises at a particular time depended on their obedience to God’s laws. When they obeyed, they would prosper “in the land He has given you” (Deut. 28:1-14). When they disobeyed they would be punished and driven out of the promised land (Deut. 28:15-68; 29:1-29). If they turned back to the Lord, then the blessings would resume and they would return to the promised land (Deut. 30:1-20).
According to Scripture, after Abraham’s time there were two categories of people: Jews (God’s chosen people) and Gentiles (those who were not Jews). The 17 books on prophecy in the Old Testament are addressed to the Jews. The phrase the “day of the Lord” occurs in the prophetic books between Amos (which was written earlier than Isaiah) and Malachi (see timeline). In this period the Babylonians attacked Jerusalem in about 586 BC and the Jews were captured and scattered to other nations.
The themes addressed by the Jewish prophets (Isaiah to Malachi) that are relevant to our topic include:
- The sin and failure of God’s chosen people
- A call to repentance
- God’s judgement on them if they didn’t repent, which included captivity and being dispersed among other nations
- God’s judgement on the surrounding nations
- The coming Messiah and His rejection and power and glory. They didn’t realize that there would be two comings of Christ with the church period between these comings.
- The restoration of God’s chosen people, which included returning to the promised land
- The Messiah’s universal reign
Let’s look at what some of the passages that mention the “day of the Lord” say:
“Wail, for the day of the LORD is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty” (Isa. 13:6).
“See, the day of the LORD is coming—a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger—to make the land desolate and destroy the sinners within it” (Isa. 13:9).
“For the day is near, the day of the LORD is near—a day of clouds, a time of doom for the nations (Ezek. 30:3).
“The LORD thunders at the head of His army; His forces are beyond number, and mighty is the army that obeys His command. The day of the LORD is great; it is dreadful. Who can endure it?” (Joel 2:11).
“I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD” (Joel 2:30-31).
“The great day of the LORD is near—near and coming quickly. The cry on the day of the LORD is bitter, the Mighty Warrior shouts His battle cry. That day will be a day of wrath—a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness—a day of trumpet and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the corner towers. I will bring distress on all people and they will grope about like those who are blind, because they have sinned against the LORD. Their blood will be poured out like dust and their entrails like dung. Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath. In the fire of His jealousy the whole world will be consumed, for He will make a sudden end of all who live in the earth” (Zeph. 1:14-18).
The “day of the Lord” refers to any time when God puts down evil and rebellion. In these cases it was referring to immediate judgements (such as their captivity in Babylon) and those that had not yet been fulfilled (which we will look at in Part 2 of this series). In particular it refers to a time of persecution and trials for the Jews—Jeremiah called it a time of trouble for Jacob (or Jacob’s trouble; Jer. 30:7).
The law of double reference helps to understand some of these Old Testament prophecies—some of them had both an immediate partial fulfilment and a distant complete fulfilment. Some of the Jewish prophecies about the “day of the Lord” were fulfilled when Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. It happened like they said. This was a “day of the Lord” for the Jews. But Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi prophesied about the “day of the Lord” after the captivity (see the Old Testament timeline).
The Old Testament Jewish prophets had two main messages about the future: God’s judgement (the “day of the Lord”) and God’s blessing—the Messiah will come and lead their nation.
The Fall of Jerusalem
Now we move ahead by over 400 years in time (see timeline). In the week before His death, the Lord prophesied about great tribulation (“pressure” or suffering or distress) (Mt 24:21-22) and the return of the Lord to the earth in great power (v.29-31) that is associated with the day of the Lord.
“As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of His disciples said to Him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” (Mk. 13:1). Apparently, Herod’s Temple was ten stories high and adorned with gold, silver, and other precious items. But Jesus predicted that is would be reduced to rubble, with not one stone left on another: “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down” (Mk. 13:2).
Furthermore, “When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment in fulfilment of all that has been written. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Lk. 21:20-24).
In AD 70, it happened like He said—the ungodly Jews were scattered. The sign of this was armies of the Roman Empire around Jerusalem. According to the Bible, Jerusalem will remain under Gentile control until the Lord returns to the earth.
Some of the Jewish and Christ’s prophecies about the “day of the Lord” were fulfilled when Jerusalem was conquered by the Romans in AD 70. This was a “day of the Lord” for the Jews. However, it is clear from the Lord’s Olivet discourse (Mt 24, 25; Mk 13; Lk 21), that at this time there were still unfulfilled prophecies about the “day of the Lord”. Similar prophecies are also given in 1&2 Thessalonians and Revelation, which was written after AD70 (see timeline).
The day of Pentecost
The day of Pentecost is an example of the law of double reference.
“In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Act 2:17-21).
Here Paul applies a prophecy of Joel (Joel 2:28-32) to the day of Pentecost. Joel’s prophecy was given to Jews and “Your sons and daughters”, which meant that the prophecy applied to descendants of the Jews. We will see in Part 2 of this series that the complete fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy is when the Lord returns to the earth in great power and glory (v.30-31; 19-20) and the faithful of that time will be rescued to go into the Millennium (v.32; v.21). The gift of the Holy Spirit will be given to all the faithful, not just the chosen few as was the case in Joel’s time—they will receive prophetic messages; which will be revealed by dreams and visions (v.28-29; v.17-18).
How does this apply to the day of Pentecost? Well, those who were “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4), were all Jews (Acts 2:22). The Holy Spirit indwelt all believers on that day, not just the chosen few as had been the case beforehand. Also, they were given prophetic messages (God had used dreams and visions to bring messages to the Old Testament prophets). So, on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was active, as He will be in the Millennium.
After the day of Pentecost, there were three categories of people: Jews, Gentiles and the Church: “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God” (1 Cor. 10:32). The promises given to the Jews are primarily earthly, and those given to the church are primarily heavenly. When interpreting Scripture, we need to be careful to note who is being addressed: the Jews or the Church.
The “day of the Lord” is a theme that is particularly applied to the Jews and their enemies in the prophetic Scriptures from Amos and Isaiah to Revelation. The “day of the Lord” is a period of time when God intervenes in the world, primarily for judgement. Some of the prophecies concerning the “day of the Lord” concerned the Jewish captivity in Babylon and the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans. As these prophecies all came true, there is no reason to doubt that the remaining prophecies about the “day of the Lord” will also come true. This gives us confidence in the prophetic Scriptures yet to be fulfilled.
Written, May 2007
See the other article in this series:
– The Day of the Lord. Part 2: The future
A Look At First Thessalonians. Part 5: The Rapture And The Day Of The Lord
In this Series we have seen that Paul visited Thessalonica and in response to his preaching a church was established. Because he was unable to visit them for some time, he wrote a letter to encourage these new believers. In chapter 4 Paul told them how to live to please God. They were to avoid sexual immorality and excel in holiness and brotherly love. In this part we will look at the Second Coming, a major theme mentioned in each chapter (1 Th. 1:9-10; 2:19; 3:13; 4:17; 5:23). The Thessalonians knew of the Second Coming as part of the gospel message. In fact, some were so sure it would be soon that they gave up their jobs to prepare for it (1 Th. 5:14; 2 Th. 3:6-12). Further teaching was needed on this topic.
Death Is Like Sleep
“We do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in Him” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 NIV).
The Thessalonians who were expecting the Lord to return any day (1 Th. 1:10) must have been worried about those who had already died. Would they see their loved ones before the final resurrection at the end of time (Jn. 11:24)? Also Paul had probably taught them that Christ was coming back to reign and that Christians would reign with Him (Rev. 20:6). Would those who had already died miss this? Paul wrote this passage to allay their fears.
He used “asleep” three times to describe the state of the believer after death (13,14,15). When someone is “asleep” or resting, we can have contact with them again after they wake. This metaphor teaches us that death is not the end; as waking follows sleep, resurrection follows death. Paul said they were “asleep in Jesus” (4:14), meaning they were in His care. The soul and spirit don’t sleep in death, as they are “at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8).
When a believer dies, there is sorrow but not despair, because there is the hope of heaven and reunion (4:13). The basis of our hope is the resurrection of the Lord (4:14). Paul wrote elsewhere: “Since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:21-22). Because Christ rose, so will all believers who have died. We are assured of this because God will bring them with Jesus (4:14). When will this be? When Jesus returns in power and glory. The dead won’t miss the glory of the coming kingdom.
A Period Of Time
The “coming” of the Lord “down from heaven” (4:15-16) is derived from the word parousia. It means both “arrival” or “coming” and “presence with.” It is the opposite of absence. In the Bible, parousia is associated with: the Rapture, when Christ returns for all true believers (1 Th. 4:15); the Judgment Seat of Christ, when rewards are given to believers for service (1 Th. 2:19; 5:23); and the appearing, when Christ returns to earth in great power and glory (1 Th. 3:13; 2 Th. 2:8). The Second Coming (or “presence”) of the Lord will be a series of events that occurs over a period of time, not all at once.
This sequence of future events can be inferred from The Revelation: the Church on earth (Rev. 2-3); the Rapture, that is Christ’s return to take all believers (dead and alive) home to be with Him; the Church in heaven (Rev. 4-5); the Tribulation on earth (Rev. 6-18); the appearing, that is Christ’s return to earth in great power (Rev. 19); the Millennium, a 1,000 year kingdom (Rev. 20); and the new heaven and new earth, a new eternal universe (Rev. 21-22).
When we think of the Lord’s coming, we should think of a period of time, not an isolated event. For example, Christ’s first coming to earth (“presence”) was over a period of 33 years; that’s how long He was physically present on earth. In fact, one of His names is “Immanuel – which means ‘God with us’” (Mt. 1:23).
“According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever” (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17).
The Rapture (4:15) was a new revelation, referred to as a mystery or truth previously unknown (1 Cor. 15:51). Two categories of Christians are mentioned – those living and the dead. The bodies of the dead will not be left behind at the Rapture. The sequence of events is in four steps. First is the Lord’s return, when Jesus will come down from heaven with a loud command, the voice of the archangel and the trumpet call of God. The command is probably addressed to the dead (Jn. 5:28-29; 11:43). Second is the resurrection of the dead, when the “dead in Christ” will rise first, with God recreating from the remains of dust the bodies of all who have died. Third is the transformation of the living believers who will be “caught up” (rapturo in Latin) together with the dead. Fourth is the reunion, when we will meet the Lord in the air to be with Him forever. Jesus summarized the Rapture this way: “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with Me that you also may be where I am” (Jn. 14:3).
The truth of resurrection was not the mystery, since it appeared in the Old Testament; the change of the living believers at the Lord’s return was the mystery. Paul described this sudden change: “We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality” (1 Cor. 15:51-53).
Paul also wrote that “our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables Him to bring everything under His control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body” (Phil. 3:20-21). When He returns, our bodies will be transformed to be like His resurrection body – suited to heaven, not subject to sickness, decay or death, and free from sin and its effects. This is called the “redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23). The Bible doesn’t say whether it will be a secret or a public event. Because it takes place in a flash, some say it won’t be seen by unbelievers. Others say it will be heard. Paul’s answer to their concerns was this: When the Lord returns, your loved ones who have died will not miss His appearing or the Millennium.
The Day Of The Lord
“About times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape” (1 Thessalonians 5:1-4).
The “day of the Lord” is not a 24- hour period. In the New Testament, it refers to God’s future time of judgment of the world (Acts 2:20; 1 Th. 5:2; 2 Pet. 3:10). It will be characterized by gloom, darkness and destruction. The sun moon and stars will be darkened (Mt. 24:29; Rev. 6:12). There will be judgments on God’s enemies as described by the seals, trumpets and bowls in the Revelation. The “day of the Lord” is used to describe events in the Tribulation, the appearing and the final destruction of the heavens and earth with fire.
The “day of the Lord” will be a time of judgment of unbelievers; note the words “them” and “they” (5:3). Paul gives three characteristics of that time: it will be unexpected, destructive and inevitable.
First, Jesus said it will be unexpected: “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all. It was the same in the days of Lot. People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all. It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed” (Lk. 17:26-30). Life will go on as usual until God removes His people, and then His judgment will come on the earth.
Second, He also said it will be destructive, and described it as follows: “For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now – and never to be equaled again” (Mt. 24:21). The great distress only ends when the Lord comes in great power and glory (Mt. 24:29-31).
Third, it will be inevitable, like the labor preceding birth. Once it starts a woman can’t change her mind, and birth follows soon after. Paul said the world cannot escape God’s terrible judgments.
Salvation Instead Of Suffering
“But you … are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness” (1 Thessalonians 5:4-5).
Paul said that there is a way of escape. The words “you,” “we” and “us” (5:4,5,9,10) tell us that Christians will not go through these judgments. Paul contrasted two groups: Unbelievers are in darkness and night, while believers are in light and day. In Scripture, “light” represents what is good and true, while “darkness” represents what is evil and false (Acts 26:18; 2 Cor. 6:14; 1 Jn. 1:5-7). He said that only those in darkness will experience these judgments. “For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with Him” (1 Th. 5:9-10).
Verses 9-10 tell us that instead of suffering judgment, believers will receive salvation; they will be with Christ where there is no sin. Other verses also show that Christians will not experience the suffering described in the “day of the Lord” or the Tribulation (Rom. 5:9; 1 Th. 1:10; 2 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 3:10). Instead, we will be raptured, that is taken away as Noah was taken away from destruction of the flood and Lot from the destruction of Sodom.
Living In View Of The Second Coming
“Let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet” (1 Thessalonians 5:6-8).
Paul urged believers to live consistently as children of the day and of the light, alert and self-controlled. We should be expecting Christ’s return at any moment, living for Him and not being lazy, careless, distracted, self-indulgent, or living in sinful behavior. We should also be sober, seeking to further the kingdom of God instead of our own entertainment, being self-controlled and not losing control of our behavior.
He then said believers should exercise faith, love and hope like armor that protects us from losing control. Faith involves depending on God. Our love for the Lord and for each other can help us live for God today. And Christ’s return is our hope. The prospect of heaven helps us live for God today.
Paul’s passages on the Rapture and the day of the Lord have similar conclusions: “Encourage one another with these words” (1 Th. 4:18). “Encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing” (1 Th. 5:11).
Lessons For Us
The second coming of the Lord is a series of events over a period of time. The Rapture will be a great reunion of believers both dead and alive. Like the first century Christians, we should expect it to occur at any moment. Are we encouraging each other as we eagerly wait for it?
Published, May 2009
See the next article in this series: Living as a Christian
Also see summary of 1 Thessalonians: Encouragement for tough times