Paul and Imminence
Jesus’ teaching on imminence is exceedingly clear: “…the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Matthew 24:44; Luke 12:40). (See Part 1 of this series.) His statements on the topic should be sufficient to convince any of us. But what did Paul believe and teach on the subject?
Before we look at Paul’s teaching on the topic, bear in mind that those who deny the doctrine of imminency, try to reason it away by saying that we can die at any moment. They say that Paul was looking forward to death and not the Rapture. While it is true that Paul teaches us not to fear death, and that “absence from the body is to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8), he encourages believers to look for the Lord’s return rather than their own death.
To the Corinthians Paul writes: “… eagerly waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will also confirm you to the end, that you may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1:7-8). Was Paul mocking them by telling them to wait for something that was not going to happen in their lifetime? Was he using the Lord’s return as a false threat? Obviously not. The soon return of the Lord was very real to Paul, and to all believers of that time.
In teaching on marriage Paul says: “…the time is short, so that from now on even those who have wives should be as though they had none… For the form of this world is passing away.” (1 Corinthians 7:29-31). In the light of the imminency of the Lord’s return, even legitimate pursuits should be set aside. Remember, Paul is not mistaken since the very principle of imminence means Jesus comes at any moment, and an “an unexpected time.” While Paul was addressing the believers of his day, he is also speaking to all believers of all time, and this truth does not change: The time is short, the Lord is at the door.
Paul also reminds the Corinthians: “Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed – in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed”. (1 Corinthians 15:51-52). Pay attention to the “we” in the above quote. He does not say “they,” meaning those in the distant future, but “we,” meaning himself and those alive at that time. Evidently Paul genuinely expected that some, or all, of those alive at that time would be raptured (even though some may die) before that great day.
To the church in Rome he says: “And do this, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light.” (Romans 13:11-12). Once again notice the words “we” and not “they.” By our “salvation” Paul is clearly meaning the final consummation of our salvation – the transformation of the body. This cannot mean death and can only mean the resurrection which is concurrent with the Rapture (1 Corinthians 15:51-54; 1 Thessalonians 4:14-18). Once again, Paul is emphatic that the rapture is imminent and that he was expecting it in his lifetime. Furthermore his reference to the night being far spent and the day being at hand is a reference to the “Day of the Lord” which was soon to arrive.
He reminds the Philippians of the same truth: “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.” (Philippians 3:20-21). Remember, death does not transform our body, the Rapture / Resurrection does, and again he writes of “our” and “we” and not “their” or “them.”
But also note that we are not urged to eagerly wait for death or for the Antichrist, but for the Lord Jesus Christ. Our focus is to be on Jesus. It just cannot be more simple or clear: “The Lord is at hand.” (Philippians 4:5). Just as with the statements of Jesus, it takes a lot of twisting of Scripture and mental gymnastics to make this verse mean anything but “The Lord is at hand”!
One of the clearest statements that shows that believers of the first century believed that the Lord could return literally at any moment lies in the fact that the Thessalonians had been deceived into believing that the Lord had come and that they had been left behind (2Thessalonians 2:1-2ff). If they had been taught that the Lord would not, and could not, come at any moment, they would not have been deceived. But they were deceived exactly because they believed what Paul had taught them: “…to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” (1 Thessalonians 1:10).
Paul therefore says to them: “But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you. For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they say, “Peace and safety!” then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober… For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thessalonians 5:1-9). Notice how Paul uses the same reference that Jesus did to the thief coming at an unexpected time (Matthew 24:36-44; Luke 12:35-40). There is absolutely no warrant to link the “night” in this passage to the Tribulation. Only by reading a preconceived idea into the text can you come to that conclusion. The point is obvious: The thief comes at an unexpected time, and the middle of the night is the most unexpected time because people are sleeping. So the Thessalonians (and we) should not be spiritually asleep but sober since the Lord’s return is at the door.
While we do not fear death, we do not have our hope set on dying! We indeed long to be in His presence, but death is not our hope – the resurrection is. (Acts 23:6; 24:15; 26:6; 1Cor 15:19; 1Thes 2:19; 1Tim 1;1; 1 Pet 1:3; 13; 1 John 3:3;). It is against this background that Paul writes to Titus: “Looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).
Let me say again, we have no Scripture to look for the Antichrist, the Tribulation or any other event or sign – we are to look for, and expect, our blessed hope – the return of the Lord Jesus Christ. He should be our focus. Paul and the Lord Jesus’ message is exactly the same: Be ready, He is coming soon – when we least expect Him!