|A262 : by Tony Garland |
What does Paul mean by “that Day”?1
There is considerably confusion among Christians concerning passages which refer to a future "day" associated with the arrival of Christ. This confusion is mainly caused by assuming that all references to a future "day" involving Christ must either refer to His return for the Church at the Rapture or His final return in judgment at the Second Coming. However, Scripture reveals a third situation in which Christ is said to come which, unfortunately, many erroneously conflate with the Rapture. This "coming" occurs after the Rapture and before the physical Second Coming.2 This is His arrival as a thief, ushering in the "Day of the Lord" upon an unsuspecting world (Mat. 24:36-39, 42-44; Mark 13:35-37; Luke 12:38-40; 21:34-36; 1Th. 5:2-4; 2Pe 3:4-11; Rev. 3:3; 16:15). This period is also referred to as the Tribulation and culminates in His physical arrival at the Second Coming. The Scripture treats the Second Coming of Christ as two phases in a longer sequence spanning the entire Tribulation period. Initially, He comes as a thief upon an unsuspecting and relatively tranquil world—introducing the traumatic and disruptive judgments associated with the Day of the Lord. He isn't physically present yet, but His hand is stretched out actively in judgment (as when the Lamb opens the seals from the scroll in Revelation 6). Then, at the tail end of the Tribulation—as the judgments reach their climax—He arrives physically at the Second Coming. Many make the mistake of interpreting the thief-coming passages as the Rapture when they actually describe the negative repercussions of His sudden judgments falling upon an unbelieving world.
The day of the Lord comes as a thief in the night, but this is for the unbelieving world, the unregenerate. During the day of the Lord, . . . Christ will return in wrath (1Th. 5:2,1Th. 5:4; 2Pe. 3:10). Jesus Christ will not come for His bride from heaven as a thief in the night especially in wrath (1Th. 1:10).3
In His Olivet Discourse Jesus gave detailed answers concerning the temple, His coming, and the end of the age. Then, in Matt 24:36, He declared: “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” Here Jesus is referring to the events of the Day of the Lord that culminate in His personal return to earth. Thus, this is an explicit statement that the Son does not know the day or the hour concerning the Day of the Lord's arrival, but the Father alone does. [emphasis mine]4
I believe this is what Paul is referring to by the phrase "that Day" in 2 Thessalonians 2:3.
How should the phrase, “the falling away” be understood?
- The closest reference in the immediate context is the day of Christ (KJV, NKJV) or day of the Lord (ESV, NASU,5 HCSB, NET) of the previous verse (2Th. 2:2).6
- The day of the Christ (KJV, NKJV) in this passage cannot mean His arrival at the Rapture or final return in judgment as either of these events would have been obvious to the Thessalonians if it had already occurred. Whatever that day refers to, the Thessalonians thought it had already come (2Th. 2:2).
- Paul is writing to comfort the Thessalonian church which was troubled by faulty teaching suggesting that the difficulties they were experiencing were an indication that the day of the Lord had already arrived.
- Earlier, in his first letter to the Thessalonian church, Paul addressed this same subject: explaining that believers will not find themselves in the day of the Lord, which comes upon an unsuspecting world as a thief in the night (1Th. 5:2), But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this day should overtake you as a thief (1Th. 5:4). Notice too that Paul uses a similar phrase in 1 Thessalonians 5:4 to the phrase supplied by the translators of 2 Thessalonians 2:3 (“this day” vs. “that day”).
You asked whether the falling away refers to a physical (rather than spiritual) departure.
The Greek term rendered “falling away” is the noun ἀποστασία [apostasia] rendered by more recent translations as falling away (KJV, NKJV), rebellion (ESV, NIV, NET), and apostasy (NASU, HCSB). Some early translations, however, rendered it as departure, although a physical departure was not necessarily in view. But, a physical departure could be the meaning Paul intended within this passage. This is what Thomas Ice, and others, have argued:
The first seven English translations of apostasia all rendered the noun as either “departure” or “departing.” They are as follows: Wycliffe Bible (1384); Tyndale Bible (1526); Coverdale Bible (1535); Cranmer Bible (1539); Breeches Bible (1576); Beza Bible (1583); Geneva Bible (1608). This supports the notion that the word truly means “departure.” In fact, Jerome's Latin translation, known as the Vulgate from around the time of A.D. 400, renders apostasia with the word discessia, meaning ‘departure.’ Why was the King James Version the first to depart from the established translation of “departure”? Theodore Beza, the Swiss reformer was the first to translate apostasia and create a new word, rather than translate it as others had done. The translators of the King James Version were the first to introduce the new rendering of apostasia as “falling away.” Most English translators have followed the KJV and Beza in departing from translating apostasia as “departure.” No good reason was ever given. . . . Kenneth Wuest, a Greek scholar from Moody Bible Institute, added the following contextual support to taking apostasia as a physical departure: “But the hee apostasia of which Paul is speaking precedes the revelation of Antichrist in his true identity, and is to katechon—that which holds back his revelation (2Th. 2:6). The hee apostasia, therefore, cannot be either a general apostasy in Christendom which does precede the coming of Antichrist, nor can it be the particular apostasy which is the result of his activities in making himself the alone object of worship. Furthermore, that which holds back his revelation (2Th. 2:3) is vitally connected with hoo katechoon (2Th. 2:7), He who holds back the same event. The latter is, in my opinion, the Holy Spirit and His activities in the Church. All of which means that I am driven to the inescapable conclusion that the hee apostasia (2Th. 2:3) refers to the Rapture of the Church which precedes the Day of the Lord, and holds back the revelation of the Man of Sin who ushers in the world-aspect of that period.”7
For additional background on why Dr. Ice and others believe this to be a better understanding of what Paul intended than spiritual apostasy, see his article, The “Departure” in 2 Thessalonians 2:3a.
My own view is that Paul may have had the physical departure of the Church in view. Most arguments I've seen against this possibility seem to be motivated more by an opposition to the concept of a pretribulational Rapture than convincing analysis of the Greek term or context.
The sequence of prophetic events.
A reading of most English translations gives the sense of three events in sequence:
However, in light of passages which teach that the Day of the Lord arrives as a thief (without warning—an imminent event), some interpreters have suggested that subtleties in the Greek construction of this passage conveys a different sense. They suggest Paul is assuring the Thessalonian Church that the Day of the Lord could not have come because the apostasia and revealing of the man of sin which characterize the beginning of that Day had not yet happened. In other words: the Day of the Lord would begin with the apostasia and revealing of the Antichrist. These interpreters note that if the Antichrist must be revealed prior to the Day of the Lord, then the thief-coming has at least one precondition and the Day of the Lord would no longer be imminent.
- The falling away—either a wide-spread apostasy or the departure of the Church at the Rapture.8
- The man of sin (the Antichrist) is revealed.
- That day, the Day of the Lord, arrives—ushering in the Tribulation.
Robert Thomas offers the following translation of the passage which attempts to capture the subtlety of the relation of first to the events described:
The day of the Lord is not present unless first in sequence within that day the apostasy comes, and following the apostasy’s beginning, the revealing of the man of lawlessness occurs.9
Rather than the two events preceding the day of the Lord as has so often been suggested, these are happenings that comprise conspicuous stages within that day after it has begun. By observing the non-occurrence of these, the Thessalonian readers could rest assured that the day whose leading events will be so characterized was not yet present. Assigning these criteria to 2 Thess 2:3 frees Paul from the accusation of contradicting himself. In 1 Thess 5:2 he wrote that the day of the Lord will come as a thief. If that day has precursors as 2 Thess 2:3 is often alleged to teach, it could hardly come as a thief. Thieves come without advance notice or precursors. Neither does the day of the Lord have any prior signals before it arrives.10
The NET Bible rendering of the passage appears to allow this understanding:
Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not arrive until the rebellion comes and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction.11
- That Day refers to the Day of the Lord—which comes as a thief upon an unsuspecting world.
- The apostasia could possibly refer to the physical departure of the Church at the rapture, or it may be a wide-spread spiritual defection from the faith.
- The Antichrist appears to be revealed at the commencement of the Day of the Lord—probably by the signing of the covenant with many in Israel, which is likely to be a public event, and which Scripture indicates introduces the final seven of Daniel’s seventy sevens (Daniel 9:27).12
|1.||The phrase that Day will not come is not found in the original Greek, but supplied by most translators to help clarify what Paul intends to communicate.|
|2.||It is my belief that Scripture teaches a pretribulational Rapture and that believers will not be present to experience the judgments associated with the Day of the Lord (1Th. 5:2-5).|
|4.||Ref-0164, Michael J. Vlack, The Trinity and Eschatology, 24/2 (Fall 2013), 199-215, p. 207|
|5.||NASU = New American Standard Bible, 1995 update.|
|6.||The alternate rendering, Christ vs. Lord, is due to a textual variation in Greek manuscripts.|
|7.||Ref-0181, Thomas Ice, The Rapture in 2 Thessalonians 2:3, March 2004, p. 4|
|8.||Even if apostasia does not refer to the physical departure of the Church, I still see the Church as the most realistic candidate for the identity of the restrainer (2Th. 2:6-7) which is removed prior to the revealing of the lawless one (2Th. 2:8), the man of sin, who is the son of perdition (2Th. 2:3)—the Antichrist.|
|9.||Ref-0164, Thomas, Robert L., Imminence in the NT, Especially Paul's Thessalonian Epistles, Vol. 13 No. 2, Fall 2002, pp. 212-213|
|10.||Ref-0164, Thomas, Robert L., Imminence in the NT, Especially Paul's Thessalonian Epistles, Vol. 13 No. 2, Fall 2002, p. 213|
|11.||Ref-0316, 2Th. 2:3|
|12.||We can infer that the revealing of the Antichrist will be by a public event since Paul says the Antichrist’s apparent absence indicated to the Thessalonian Church that they were not already in the Day of the Lord.|
|Ref-0164||Richard L. Mayhue, ed., The Master's Seminary Journal (Sun Valley, CA: Master's Seminary). [www.mastersem.edu].|
|Ref-0181||Tim LaHaye, ed., Pre-Trib Perspectives (Dallas, TX: Pre-Trib Research Center, n.d.). [www.pre-trib.org].|
|Ref-0316||New English Translation : NET Bible. 1998 (electronic edition.). Dallas, TX: Biblical Studies Press.|
|Ref-1216||David Olander, The Greatness of the Rapture (Ft. Worth, TX: Tyndale Seminary Press, 2009). ISBN:978-0-9814791-6-3b.|