May 21, 2022 - Latter-day Prophecy in Paul

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Today we’re going to take a look at what the apostle Paul has to say about the latter days. Paul is not exactly our go-to source for teaching on the latter days. We normally go to the book of Revelation, or to Jesus’ teachings on the Mount of Olives. What does Paul have to add to our Biblical picture of what the future has in store for us? What was Paul teaching early believers about the return of Christ and the events leading up to it? If we had only Paul as our source, what would we know about the latter days? Let’s take a look and see.


Paul’s attention to the return of the Messiah is found mostly in his letters to Thessalonica, where he refers to Christ’s coming (he uses the word parousia) 6 out of the 7 times he uses the word (the 7th time is in 1 Corinthians 15:23). In his latest letters (to Timothy and Titus), Paul prefers the term epiphaneia or “appearance” of Christ (a term that he uses 5 times). We can’t tell if Paul’s belief that Christ was coming soon grows any stronger or weaker with time. Paul makes no reference to the Messiah’s return in Galatians, his earliest letter, while he refers to it 3 times in his final letter, 2nd Timothy, although by now Paul knows that he will die before Christ returns.


Paul tells the Philippians, “The Lord is near.” (Philippians 4:5) Paul says in both 1 Corinthians 7:26-31 and Romans 13:11 that time is very short. Paul is so convinced that the time left is short that he tells the Corinthians that “in view of the present distress,” those who have wives “should live as though they had none,” and those who weep or rejoice or make purchases should live as though they did not do so. Don’t get too attached to this world, because it will soon pass away. Yes, we need love, we need to deal with our feelings, we need earthly goods, but none of these should distract us from what little time we have left to do God’s work.


Paul speaks frequently of the “day of the Lord,” when the dead will rise, the living will be transformed in an atom of time and rise to meet the Lord in the air, and all will be rewarded according to what they have done. And Paul closes his first letter to the Corinthians with the prayer: Maranatha! (“Come, our Lord!”)


The day of the Lord will be a day of judgment. Paul says it’s the day when God will judge the secrets of human hearts by the Messiah Jesus (Romans 2:16). “Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart.” (1 Corinthians 4:5) Paul tells us that even believers will get to share in the judgment: “Know yet not that we shall judge angels?” (1 Corinthians 6:3)


In 1 Corinthians 15:24-28, Paul teaches that Christ will “subdue all rule and authority and power,” and then deliver the kingdom to God the Father. Paul says that all things will be subjected to the authority of Christ, and then Christ submits them all to God the Father, “so that God may be all in all.” Some see this passage as evidence that Christ is of lower rank than God. But not necessarily, if Christ is truly God in the flesh, and if there is truly only one God. God submits the entire world to the rule of Christ, and Christ makes it clear that his power and God’s are one.


Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:10, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that everyone may receive according to what they have done in the body, whether good or bad.” So how do we reconcile salvation by grace with what Paul says in this verse about judgment by our works? Salvation by grace is not inconsistent with rewards for deeds we have done, nor is it inconsistent with condemnation of sinners who have refused to believe.


Paul is the only apostle who gives us clear teaching about the event known as the “Rapture” (the snatching). We find that teaching in Paul’s first letter to Thessalonica (4:13-18), where Paul comforts those who have lost loved ones in the short time since Paul and Silas left town. Paul has heard that believers are afraid whether their dead loved ones will miss out on the return of the Messiah. Paul reassures them, No, your loved ones will not miss out on the return of Christ. Jesus will bring with him those who have died when he returns. Paul says that his teaching in this passage is “the word of the Lord,” presumably teaching from Jesus that did not make it into our Gospels (except maybe his words about those who will be taken and those who will be left behind).


Paul tells the Thessalonians that “the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then, we who are alive who remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.”


Here we see the Rapture from the perspective of those who are alive at the time. Those who have died in Christ will not go through the Rapture; they will suddenly be met by those who are still alive. Paul says this will happen in an “atom” of time. 1 Corinthians 15:51-52: “Behold, I show you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment [the Greek word here is atomos], in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.”


So here is where those who are alive when Christ returns are suddenly transformed into the same kind of imperishable bodies with which the dead are resurrected. As Paul tells the Corinthians, “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, neither does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” Instead, we are transformed. What is mortal is swallowed up by life. And it happens instantly, in an “atom” of time, whether we rise from the grave, or whether we are snatched out of lives that are still in progress to meet the Lord in the air.


When a Roman official came to a city, the citizens would go out and meet him and accompany him back. That’s what seems to happen when believers rise to meet Christ in the air. But some believe this snatching up of the saints will happen before the great time of tribulation. They believe we will be evacuated to spare us from that awful time. But why evacuate believers at this point? Revelation 7 predicts that more souls will turn to Christ during the great tribulation than anyone can count. Plus, look at the signals that Paul connects to the Rapture: it happens when the Lord himself descends with a shout and the sound of God’s trumpet. Whether we believe in a pre- or post-tribulation Rapture, neither position should be considered doctrine.


We wish we had it all mapped out for us chronologically. The Thessalonians did, too. They wanted to know “times and seasons.” But Paul says he can’t give them the timeline they want. Paul compares the coming of Christ to the unpredictability of a thief. Paul echoes the words of Jesus himself, as well as Peter (2 Peter 3:10) and John (Revelation 16:15); all 4 say the Lord will come like a thief. Just as Jesus predicts that his return will be as abrupt as Noah’s flood or the destruction of Sodom, Paul warns, “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.”


In his second letter to them, Paul tells the Thessalonians that God will repay their tormentors with flaming fire when Jesus returns. Paul predicts that those who reject the Gospel will suffer the penalty of “eternal destruction, away from the face of the Lord.” Here is one of the few sources for this teaching other than the words of Jesus and Revelation’s lake of fire. Your suffering, Paul says, cannot compare with the eternal torment your tormentors will suffer.


In chapter 2 of this letter, Paul warns them, Don’t believe the rumors that the day of Christ is already here. It can’t happen unless an apostasia comes first, and then comes the “Man of Lawlessness,” the “son of perdition.” Paul does not call this man the Antichrist, but he’s the same character. Paul says this man will “oppose and exalt himself above all that is called God, so that he will sit down in God’s temple and claim to be God.” The Roman emperor Caligula came close to fulfilling this description only 10 years before Paul writes this letter when Caligula tried to set up his statue in the Temple. Paul warns that someone will finally succeed in doing so. Paul reminds his audience that he already taught them all this when he was with them.


Revelation calls this Man of Lawlessness the “Beast.” In his epistles, John calls him the Antichrist, which means “instead of (or in place of) Christ.” In 95 AD, the earliest Christian book, the DidachÄ“, calls this man the “World Deceiver.” Paul and the rest of the early Church clearly believe that a great world dictator would appear in the latter days before Christ returns.


Paul says the “mystery of lawlessness” is already at work, but something is restraining a repeat of that horrible near-disaster when Caligula tried to defile the Temple. What’s he talking about? What else but the Spirit of God holds back the great falling away? And who else is the Spirit of God holding back from taking over the world, other than Satan and his chosen leader?


Revelation 20 says that Satan is bound at the beginning of the 1000 year reign of Christ. So is Satan bound now, or not? It depends on how you look at it. Yes, if Satan is bound, it looks like a long chain, but who knows how bad it might get if God turns him loose? Paul seems to teach that Satan is bound right now, and will be until God is ready to release the Lawless One.


When the Lawless One comes, Paul says that Jesus will slay him with the breath of his mouth (as the Messiah does to his opponents in Isaiah 11:4). But the Lawless One comes with great supernatural occurrences that will deceive all those who refuse to embrace the truth. Why does Paul say that God will send a strong delusion on people and allow this guy to deceive them? God does not do this to people who are truly willing to believe.


In 2 Timothy 3:1-17, Paul gives us some latter-day trends to watch for as the world moves into its final days. While much of what Paul says in this passage may be a description of what 1st century Ephesus was like at that time, and much of what he says has come true more than once through history, these words sound an awful lot like they were written about us here in the early 21st century. In 1 Timothy 4:1, Paul predicts there will be a falling away from the faith. Here in 2 Timothy 3, Paul predicts a complete breakdown in morality and the social order. Let’s take a look at some of the specific details Paul predicts about life in the latter days.


Paul writes, “In the last days will come perilous times” or “times of stress.” Did he ever hit that nail right on the head! The word uses here is chalepoi, Matthew’s adjective for the demoniacs who were “violent, dangerous, or savage.” So Paul predicts that the latter days will be a time of unprecedented pressure. People in today’s world are stressed out. One could argue that there is possibly more stress in the world today than at any time before in history.


Another latter-day trend we can look for is that people will be “lovers of self”. Ours is the “me-first” generation. We are a generation that wants unlimited freedom to do whatever we please, a generation that worships civil liberties. We are a generation that has never learned self-denial. We have never learned the reflex of thinking of the needs of others first. We are a generation that is preoccupied with self-gratification, grabbing as much of our piece of the pie as we can grab. Coupled with this, we are told that people in the last days will be lovers of money. There will be a latter-day trend toward increasing materialism and runaway consumption.


Another trend in the latter days is that people will be lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God. In that respect, our age is not necessarily unique; life in ancient Rome in Paul’s day had become a moral swamp. But when we look at the insane appetite for drugs and illicit sex we have today, we see an age much like the world Paul predicts, a civilization adrift from God, vainly trying to fill that hole in their hearts that only Christ can fill.


People in the latter days will become proud, arrogant, and swollen with conceit. People will think they’re so great, they are invincible, and so they’ll feel free to mock God with unprecedented boldness (a society with no fear of God).


People will be “haters of good.” Increasingly we hear Christian values like sexual purity, honesty, and the sanctity of life being despised by today’s molders of public opinion. Vice becomes today’s virtue, and vice versa. Today, even preaching the Christian message itself can sometimes qualify as a hate crime. People will not only ignore God, but will show an unprecedented vile, bitter contempt for God.


Not surprisingly, people in that day will also be “ungrateful.” A society that has rejected God will have no concept of anyone higher than themselves to be thankful to. They will think the world owes them all they’ve been blessed with. People will be “disobedient to parents.” They will be “incorrigible,” incapable of being reconciled with others. How many jails and juvenile detention centers are overflowing with hardened rebellious souls who have never learned how to cooperate with society?


People will be “inhuman.” The term “without natural affection” that Paul uses in verse 3 means “absence of family affection.” It was the classic word used to describe those who would abort their children or abandon their newborns to die in the gutters of ancient Rome. Paul warns us, that trend will reassert itself in the latter days: the willingness of a society to take innocent human life on a mass scale in the name of love. And all of it will be equally inhuman.


Paul predicts that people in the latter days will be “without self-control,” given over to violence and self-indulgence. They will also be savage or brutal (literally “untamed,” the same word Paul used earlier). Imagine jungle warfare on inner-city streets becoming the norm. We are told that people will be reckless, rash, thoughtless, stopping at nothing to gain their own ends. People will be treacherous. They will give away secrets and betray one another. It will be an age where people will be unable to trust their neighbors, a society out of control.


As for those who claim to believe in God in those days, we are told they will hold to the outward form of faith, but deny the power thereof. Certainly our present day is not unique in this regard. But it’s hard not to see the huge decline of the church in Europe and America as part of the great falling away from the faith predicted here by Paul.


Times of stress – love of self – runaway consumption – the insane appetite for pleasure – unprecedented mocking of God – youth gone wild – savagery – the cheapening of human life – these are the trends that will shape the last days of our planet. Yes, it sounds like a disturbing forecast. It sounds too much like us for comfort! But none of these trends is a guarantee that we are living in the last days. Chest pains are not always a sign of heart trouble. But they ARE cause for concern.


What we see happening in our world looks an awful lot like what Paul describes in his predictions to Timothy. And that’s exactly where we’re headed. We have no idea whether that means we are in the last days or not. But these latter-day trends appear to be stronger than at any other time in history up till now.


What can we do about the future that Paul predicts? First, we need to recognize the warning signs all around us. Second, if we have never done so before, we need to make sure that we have been put right with God. None of us can save ourselves by our own goodness. Christ is the only One who can put us right with God as we seek to get ready for what could be the final days of time as we know it on this earth. And if we are alive at that time, we will want to be prepared to resist the Man of Lawlessness, and be ready to meet the Lord in the air!


As we continue in our series on Latter-day Prophecy, next time we’ll be taking a look at the predictions of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah made a number of predictions about Iron Age Judah that proved true. Isaiah also makes remarkable predictions that were fulfilled in the coming of Jesus. But Isaiah makes still other predictions about the distant future about events that are still ahead of us. Isaiah talks a lot about Zion. Sometimes he’s obviously talking about the Zion of his own day, but sometimes he’s talking about a future Zion. How should we understand what Isaiah says about Zion? Join us as we look at Latter-day Prophecy in Isaiah next time on Biblical Words and World!