If you’ve played “telephone,” you know the routine. A message is whispered down the line, person to person; eventually, the last person in line reveals what he or she heard. Usually what the last person reports differs radically from what had been sent by the first person, the message having been distorted in the continued process of listening and repeating.
Communication can be tricky, and what is heard and repeated is not always what was said in the first place.
Evidently, that’s what happened in Thessalonica. Paul had written his warm and personal first letter to teach, encourage, and strengthen the believers there. Perhaps the most powerful message of Paul’s letter was his teaching about the Second Coming. Paul wanted to comfort those who had lost loved ones and to give all of them hope. Jesus would soon return, and they should be ready.
Like the game of “telephone,” however, many of the Thessalonians heard the wrong message. Or they may have received false information from outsiders who, because of ignorance or selfish motives, had twisted the truth. Thinking Paul was stating that Jesus would come at any minute, they stopped working and started watching. The increased persecution of the church made this interpretation of Paul’s words more plausible. Surely this is the Day of the Lord, many must have thought.
The Thessalonian believers thought they had entered the Great Tribulation period, and ever since that time people who have gone through persecutions and tribulations have believed that they were in the Great Tribulation period. For example, during World War II at the time of the blitz in Britain, some of the British ministers who were conservative in their faith came to the conclusion that they had entered the Great Tribulation and that the church was going to go through it.
Commentator, author and radio host Dr. J Vernon McGee tells this story:
“A good friend of mine, a preacher from England, believes that the church will go through the Tribulation. In fact, he believes the church is in it right now. He is living in California now, and one day we were having lunch together with a mutual friend who was a layman, who had bought us big T-bone steaks. The subject of the church and the Tribulation came up, and he insisted that the church was in the Great Tribulation. To confirm his argument he said, “McGee, if you had been in Great Britain during the blitz, and night after night had gone down into the subways with your people, the members of your church, and practically every night one person would have a nervous breakdown because of the strain, and would have to be taken the next day to the country, you would share my belief.” I said to him, “If I had been in Great Britain, and in the blitz as you were, I am convinced that I would have thought as you did, Boy, this is the Great Tribulation! But after the war was over if I had come to the United States and was having lunch with a couple of friends and was eating a T-bone steak, I think I would pinch myself and ask myself, Is this really the Great Tribulation period? If this is the Tribulation, let’s have more of it since it will mean more T-bone steaks.” He looked at me and said in that British disdainful voice, “McGee, you are being ridiculous!” So I told him that I didn’t think I was being ridiculous; I thought he was being ridiculous.”
The description of the Tribulation in the Bible is much worse than anything that happened during World War II. This period has been so clearly identified by Christ that there is no reason for getting panicked or misled. Christ said that there is coming tribulation which will lead to “…such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be” (Matt. 24:21). Nothing like it has taken place before, and nothing like it will ever take place afterward.
While 1 Thessalonians emphasized the return of Christ for His church in what we call the “Rapture,” 2 Thessalonians emphasizes the return of Christ to the earth the second time, when He returns in judgment and sets up His Kingdom here upon this earth. This is called the Day of the Lord. You see, at the Rapture, the emphasis is not upon His coming to earth, because He doesn’t come to the earth. He makes it clear that “we shall be caught up to meet the Lord in the air” (see 1Thess. 4:17). “Caught up” is the Greek word harpazo, meaning “to snatch away.” We shall be snatched away or raptured to meet Christ in the air. However, the Day of the Lord is when He returns to the earth to set up His Kingdom. In the time gap between these two events will be the Great Tribulation period.
Upon learning of this miscommunication and misunderstanding, Paul wrote quickly, instructing further about the Second Coming and the Day of the Lord.
As you read 2 Thessalonians, think of how the first-century believers in that Greek city must have received Paul’s message and how they probably changed their behavior. And consider what you should do to be ready for Christ’s return—it’s closer now than ever before!
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Bruce B. Barton et al., Life Application Bible Commentary – 1 & 2 Thessalonians, (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1999), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, Under: “2 Thessalonians”.
J. Vernon McGee, Thru The Bible with J. Vernon McGee, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1983), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, Under: “2 THESSALONIANS”.