Paul and the Olivet Discourse, Part 1: 1 Thessalonians

Paul, the Olivet Discourse and the book of Revelation. 

Paul’ prophetic teaching, excluding references to Jesus’ first coming and Pentecost.

PART 1:  1 Thessalonians

Paul wrote this first letter to the Believers at Thessalonica around 52 AD. Mark and Luke had not yet written their gospels. John did not record the Olivet Discourse, or anything related to eschatology in his gospel. So, Paul must have obtained his knowledge of the Olivet Discourse from the Gospel of Matthew. Which requires that Matthew was written earlier. I might be suggested that Paul learned this from some other unknown text, or by word of mouth, or even by direct revelation from God. The information fits the text of Matthew, so these are unnecessary distractions at best.

In this letter, Paul mentions the persecution of Believers as fulfillment of Jesus words in the Olivet Discourse.  Jesus did say similar things on other occasions, but since Paul’s knowledge of the Olivet Discourse is frequently displayed in his writings, it should be considered the main source.

2:2      …but after we had already suffered and been treated abusively in Philippi, as you know, we had the boldness in our God to speak to you the gospel of God amid much opposition. 

2:14-16 For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you also endured the same sufferings at the hands of your own countrymen, even as they did from the Jews, 15 who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out. They are not pleasing to God, but hostile to all people, 16 hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved; with the result that they always reach the limit of their sins. But wrath has come upon them fully.

3:3-5  … so that no one would be disturbed by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we have been destined for this. For even when we were with you, we kept telling you in advance that we were going to suffer affliction; and so it happened, as you knowFor this reason, when I could no longer endure it, I also sent to find out about your faith, for fear that the tempter might have tempted you, and our labor would be for nothing.

Opposition to the gospel and persecution of Believers had happened at Philippi and at Thessalonica by 52 AD. The source of this persecution was mainly from the Jews who opposed Jesus and the Gospel, not the Romans. Sometimes the opposition came from Believing Jews, sometimes called ‘Judiazers’,  or Ebionites who insisted the Gentiles become Jews when the come to Jesus.  Paul reminded the Thessalonians that they knew ‘we have been destined for this’ (persecution) because Paul had previously told them this when he was with them. This is a direct reference to Jesus’ teaching, particularly the Olivet Discourse.  

1:10.     …and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is, Jesus who rescues us from the wrath to come.

This ‘wrath to come’ is not the wrath of the Gentiles against the Jews, which would soon wipe out Jerusalem and those Jews who opposed the Gospel. This is about the Wrath of God, carried out by Jesus, when He returns. This might have been derived from the Olivet Discourse, but Matthew 24 does not say it like this. I believe this is about the 7 vials of God’s Wrath described in Revelation 16. This not significant evidence that Paul knew the content of Revelation, but it would be consistent if he did.

2:12      … so that you would walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory.

2:19    For who is our hope, or joy or crown of pride, in the presence of our Lord Jesus at His coming? Or is it not indeed you?

Paul is referring to the literal coming Kingdom of God, not the spiritual kingdom that had been growing since Pentecost. This glory we are to receive he will later describe in 1 Corinthians 15. It is not a feature of the Olivet discourse but is described by Jesus elsewhere in Matthew.

3:13.   … so that He may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints.

The word ‘saint’ here is misleading. It literally means ‘holy ones’, which can be translated as ‘saints’, but here it is referring to holy angels. Paul is referring to Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, where Jesus talks plainly about the role of the Angels in the Harvest at the end of the age. This is the same event which is usually called ‘the Rapture’  by many Christians. I would prefer the more Biblical term: ‘the Harvest’.  There is no place in the Bible that supports the belief that Believers from Heaven accompany Jesus at His Return. Some might make the argument that this is referring to the 144,000 in Revelation. That would be a highly selective group, certainly not ‘all the saints’.

 5:23      Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

Many Christians enthusiastically anticipate the Rapture. Some out of love for Jesus, some out of the fear of dying, and others hoping for relief from a variety of things, ill health, financial hardship, failures in relationships, even loneliness after the loss of family or friends.  

In 1 Peter 1:13 Peter teaches us to look forward to the ‘grace’ we will receive when Jesus’ returns.  That relates to Paul’s prayer in 1 Thessalonians 5:23. Paul is praying for the believers to be ‘without blame’ at Jesus’ Return. This is a high standard. It is more than just being ready to leave behind this life and its mixture of joy and misery. It is about being ‘thoroughly sanctified’, ie. completely holy. We are so used to the ‘just as I am’ way of presenting ourselves to God, but Paul is echoing Jesus’ Olivet Discourse when he prays for a high degree of preparation for Jesus’ coming. Those preaching the Pre-Trib Rapture have generally failed to make this clear. It is more than just having a ‘clean conscience’ or being ‘right with God’ at the moment. We are prepared for Jesus’ return, only when we are completely holy in spirit, soul, and body. This does not describe most Christians most of the time. Many of us will need grace from Jesus to overlook our unholiness when He finds us thinking we are ready, but we are not really holy. 

The next passage to consider is extraordinary. One of the details does not appear anywhere else in Scripture.   

4:13-18   But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as indeed the rest of mankind do, who have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose from the dead, so also God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus.

 15 For we say this to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first17 Then we who are alive, who remain, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore, comfort one another with these words.

Jesus’ teaching in the Olivet discourse about the involvement of angels is clearly present here. But Paul introduces some new details about the Harvest. Where did this information come from?

In verse 4:14, “God will bring with Him” should be “God will resurrect the dead Believers through Jesus”. That is what the Greek says. It does not mean that the dead come from Heaven along with Jesus, without having been resurrected first.

In 4:16, the language ‘caught up’ is archaic. But the Greek is worse. It is literally ‘snatched away, as in ‘grabbed and carried off’. It reminds me of a soldier on a horse who rides by someone and grabs them and throws them up behind him on the horse and carries them off. This is the description of the ‘Rapture’ of the saints. In a year or two, Paul will write 1  Corinthians to the Church at Corinth and add more details to this description.  

‘And another angel came out of the temple, calling out with a loud voice to Him who sat on the cloud, “Put in your sickle and reap, for the hour to reap has come, because the harvest of the earth is ripe.’  Revelation 14:15 NASB

Paul says the Jesus will come ‘with a shout’. But it is not Jesus shouting. Jesus is the One sitting on the cloud, waiting for a signal, to commence the Harvest. The signal is the ‘loud voice’ of ‘another angel’.   Paul goes on to say this shout is that of an Archangel. But John did not write ‘archangel.’ This could be Paul’s interpretation of the text, but only if he had read it, as I am suggesting. Paul met John at the Council of Jerusalem, just before his ministry at Thessalonica began. That is when I think Paul would have read the book of Revelation. I also think they discussed the prophecy and John’s experience. This might be how Paul knew it was an archangel, it could have been a detail added by John in person. Of course, all of this is dependent on the Revelation being written in AD 41, not AD 68 or AD 95 as is normally assumed.  

5:1-9   Now as to the periods and times, brothers and sisters, you have no need of anything to be written to you. For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord is coming just like a thief in the nightWhile they are saying, “Peace and safety!” then sudden destruction will come upon them like labor pains upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness, so that the day would overtake you like a thief; for you are all sons of light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness; so then, let’s not sleep as others do, but let’s be alert and soberFor those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who are drunk, get drunk at night. But since we are of the day, let’s be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with Him.

Paul returns to the Olivet Discourse in 5:2 with the references to Jesus’ return being like ‘a thief in the night’ and the time of destruction coming like ‘labor pains’. Even the following exhortations to be alert and sober are directly from the Olivet Discourse.

In 5:4, Paul draws a conclusion from the Olivet Discourse that is often overlooked. He says that as believers, we are not in the darkness that prevents the rest of the world from knowing that the Jesus is approaching. Jesus will come ‘like a thief in the night’ to everyone, but not Believers. Because they are alert and sober, they will not be surprised or ’caught off guard.’ Believing that Jesus will return is enough to make us sensitive to events and trends that Jesus foretold. Those who reject the thought of Jesus’ return, or any future divine judgment will be those who are caught by surprise. When the signs of Jesus return begin, you would have to be in denial not to notice. Jesus implied that many who are unprepared will understand what is happening and be terrified because they had rejected Him and now their doom is approaching.  

Much of this letter to the Believers at Thessalonica is based on Jesus’ prophecies, and much of it specifically from the Olivet Discourse. We must consider the possibility that Paul’s teachings of prophecy, when his content goes further than the teaching of Jesus recorded in Matthew, indicates that he had access to the book of Revelation, and to John, before he wrote any of the letters we have in our New Testaments today.