A Special Study by Gareth L. Reese
Excerpted from 1 & 2 Thessalonians: A Critical & Exegetical Commentary
(Moberly, MO: Scripture Exposition Books LLC, 2020)
Download a printable PDF of this Special Study
THE DAY OF THE LORD
The exact meaning of the key eschatological topics which form the core of 2 Thessalonians 2 has been the subject of scholarly debate for centuries. As a result, readers who pick up commentaries on 2 Thessalonians will encounter an almost bewildering number of conflicting explanations offered for these key topics. Soon, many readers will begin to despair of ever understanding Biblical eschatology, and as a consequence decide to just dismiss any study of the whole matter.
It is vital to read Bible books like 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and to attempt to grasp the essence of what God is telling us in these books. To encourage further study, it seems appropriate to conduct a special study of each of the key eschatological topics in the order they are introduced in 2 Thessalonians 2, namely, (1) the day of the Lord, (2) the rebellion (or apostasy), (3) the man of lawlessness, and (4) the restrainer.
The expression “day of the LORD” (Hebrew, yom YHWH) occurs as far back as the 8th century BC in the writings of the prophet Amos (Amos 5:18,20), and then as later prophets appeared, we find the expression used more and more. This expression is used to signify a dramatic intervention of God in history. Some prophetic passages which employ this expression are a warning of coming judgment against peoples or nations who are Israel’s enemies. Some warn of coming judgment against unfaithful Israelites. Some picture God’s intervention to save and bless His faithful people. As the prophets issued their warnings of God’s intervention, they spoke of the stars and constellations going dark (Isaiah 13:9,10), or of the sun and moon not giving their light (Joel 3:14).
To avoid taking God’s sacred name (YHWH) in vain (a behavior one of the Ten Commandments prohibited, Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 5:11), the Old Testament folk would substitute the Hebrew word “Lord” (adonai) for the sacred name when reading the Scriptures. When the LXX was produced, the “day of the LORD” (yom YHWH) in the Old Testament became hēmera kuriou, which is the same spelling for “day of the Lord” we find in the Greek New Testament.
In the Old Testament
In the years between the time of Amos and the coming of Jesus into the world, both near-term historical events and future eschatological events were described as a “day of the Lord.”
- The “day of the Lord” prophecy in Amos 5:18,20 found fulfillment in the Assyrian captivity (722 BC).
- Isaiah 13:6 was fulfilled in the Babylonian exile (605-586 BC).
- Ezekiel 30:3 was a prediction of the Babylonian defeat of Egypt (568 BC).
- Obadiah, using the language “day of the Lord,” predicted doom on Edom because the Edomites participated in the plunder of the city of Jerusalem (586 BC). They would be “cut off forever” (verse 10) and “become as though they had not existed” (verse 16), the prophet predicted. That prophecy began to be fulfilled in 582 BC when the Babylonians destroyed Edom. The Edomites who were left continued to be active enemies of the Jews. In 126 BC they were subdued by John Hyrcanus, one of the Maccabean rulers. Soon after the Holy Land was conquered by the Romans in 63 BC, they placed an Edomite named Antipater (the father of Herod the Great) in control of Judah. That began the last phase of the Edomites. With the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, they disappeared from history, just as Obadiah said they would.
- Joel, another Old Testament prophet, used “day of the Lord” language to designate a divinely-sent locust plague (Joel 1:15), and he anticipated an event far into the future when he spoke of “the great and awesome day of the Lord” (Joel 2:31). He described how before that day came, God would “grant wonders in the sky above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke. The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon into blood.”
- Malachi (4:5,6) predicted that God would “send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. ‘He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse’.”
In the New Testament
Jesus spoke about a future “day” when men would be judged. At the close of His Sermon on the Mount, He described how many would say to Him on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?” In response, Jesus says He "will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:22,23). During His ministry, when certain cities rejected Him and His message, he warned them, “It will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city” (Matthew 10:15). Likewise, He warned Capernaum that “it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you" (Matthew 11:24).
In his first recorded sermon on the day of Pentecost, Peter (Acts 2:16-21) referred to the prediction in Joel 2:28-32. He said that what was happening on that day was a partial fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy. When Joel spoke of God pouring out His Spirit on all flesh, it was a prediction of the beginning of the church age (“the last days”), and when he spoke of blood and fire and vapor of smoke, Joel was predicting the great and terrible day of the Lord that would bring the church age to a close.
In Jesus’ eschatological discourse (Matthew 24,25), He spoke both about the coming destruction of Jerusalem by armies (Matthew 24:4-35, Luke 21:20) and about His own second coming (Matthew 24:29-25:41). While the destruction of Jerusalem would occur within “this generation” of those who were then listening to Jesus (Matthew 24:34), the day and hour of His second coming was known only to His Father in heaven (Matthew 24:36). He used the word parousia to describe His future second coming (Matthew 24:37,39). As He spoke about this future second coming, Jesus described the cosmological changes (Matthew 24:29) that would occur when He becomes visible in the sky, and how he would come on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory (Matthew 24:30). He tells how with a great trumpet blast He will send His angels to gather the elect together (Matthew 24:31). The sermon includes glimpses of the final judgment that will occur when He comes again (Matthew 24:50,51; 25:31-46).
After Jesus’ earthly ministry was completed, prophecies of a future day of the Lord are found in the New Testament Scriptures. In his sermon on Mars Hill, Paul declared that “having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:30‑31).
In 1 Thessalonians 5, “day of the Lord” encompasses several significant events. Verse 1 ties chapter 5 together with 4:13-18. Those verses have pictured the coming (parousia) of Christ, the resurrection of the dead in Christ, the rapture of all the redeemed to meet the Lord as He comes on the clouds of heaven, and the promise that the redeemed would from then on always be with the Lord. Verses 3 and 9 of chapter 5 indicate that the day of the Lord will be a day of destruction and wrath upon those who have been living in (spiritual) darkness. For them, the coming of the “day of the Lord” will be as unexpected “as a thief in the night.” But “the day of the Lord” will not take by surprise those who “are sons of light and of the day.” After all, sons of light have been living in the light of God’s revelation which guides them not only in how to live in this world, but also to expect that the Lord will return just as He said He would. For the sons of light, whether they be awake or sleeping (i.e., living on earth or are among the dead in Christ), the day of the Lord will be a day of salvation. They will live together with Christ (verse 10).
2 Thessalonians 2 adds more details about the coming of the “day of the Lord.” Verse 1 indicates that the parousia of Christ and the rapture of the saints are events that occur when that day comes. Verse 3 indicates some momentous things that are to happen before the day of the Lord comes. There will be a rebellion (or apostasy), the removal of a restraint that hitherto kept the man of lawlessness from appearing, and with the restraint gone there will be the coming of the man of lawlessness onto the scene of history. Once the man of lawlessness has his parousia, then Jesus also has His parousia, at which time He will destroy man of lawlessness. This occurs at the beginning of the day of the Lord (verse 8). Verse 12 indicates that when the day of the Lord occurs, those who have been deceived by the man of lawlessness will be judged.
By the time Peter wrote his letters in the mid-60s AD, scoffers were derisively asking, “Where is the promised coming (parousia) of the Lord?” (2 Peter 3:4). Peter responds that what may seem a long time to men is not a long time to God. To a Being who is eternal, what is a thousand years to men is like a day. Peter then confidently affirms the day of the Lord will come. Peter thus makes the same connection between the parousia and the day of the Lord that was made in the Thessalonian letters. In verse 10, in language already familiar from 1 Thessalonians 5:4, Peter says “the day of the Lord will come like a thief.” In 2 Peter 3:7 Peter writes that by the word of God “the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.” In verse 13 (NIV), Peter adds that “in keeping with His promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.” The renovation of the universe is thus declared to be something that occurs on the day of the Lord. Peter also connects the judgment and the sending of ungodly men to their destruction following the judgment to this same day. Verse 14 alludes to the final judgment when Peter urges his Christian readers to “be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless.” Peter’s language about what happens to those who are found to be spotless and blameless (“salvation”) and what happens to the ungodly (“destruction”) indicates that what follows the judgment on the day of the Lord is heaven for the godly and hell for the ungodly.
There are no other passages in the New Testament which use the precise language “day of the Lord,” but there are passages that have similar and evidently synonymous expressions. Since Jesus is both Lord and Christ, we may conclude that “day of Christ” (Philippians 1:10; 2:16), “day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6), “day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:8), and “day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:5; 2:14) all have reference to the same end-of-time event as does “day of the Lord.” Perhaps the wording of these verses is intended to signify that Christ Himself will be the prominent actor when that day dawns.
Based on the passages above, a summary of events connected with the great and terrible “day of the Lord” includes the following: just before the day of the Lord arrives there will occur a rebellion, a restraint being withdrawn, and the coming of the man of lawlessness. The man of lawlessness and his activities will be brought to an abrupt end at the moment Jesus first becomes visible at the time of His coming (parousia). Great cosmological changes occur when the Lord returns, including the renovation of the earth by fire. The resurrection of the dead in Christ and the rapture happen at the parousia. Angels gather the elect. The final judgment occurs at the parousia, with the wicked being sentenced to Hell while the righteous are welcomed into heaven. With all these events happening on the day of the Lord, it becomes obvious we should think of a period of time (maybe as long as weeks or months as man reckons time) rather than a twenty-four-hour day.
 For example, see Isaiah 13:6-9; 34;8-12; Jeremiah 46:9-12; Ezekiel 30:1-9; Obadiah 15-18; Zephaniah 2:1-15; 14:1-21; Joel 1:1-2:27; Malachi 3:13-4:6.
 Jesus explained that this prophecy about Elijah was fulfilled in John the Baptist and his ministry (Matthew 11:14).
 History tells us it was Roman armies that destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70.
 The Thessalonians are not among those living in darkness. The Christians at Thessalonica are addressed by the second person plural pronoun “you, brethren,” whereas those living in darkness who are thinking to themselves that all is peace and safety are referred to by the third person plural pronoun “they” and “them”.
Proponents of a pre-, mid-, or post-tribulation rapture struggle to match their systems to what is written in Thessalonians. Some attempt to make the “day of the Lord” include the great tribulation by finding reference to the tribulation in the words “destruction” and “wrath.” However, the fact that destruction and wrath are said to come on those who live in spiritual darkness makes it difficult to see in these two words any reference to the great tribulation (Revelation 7:14) which precedes the final judgment. Rather, it is better to take “destruction” and “wrath” as references to the eternal punishment which follows the judgment.
 When verse 4 says the day of the Lord will not overtake the Thessalonians like a thief in the night, it would be reading into the text more than is permissible to affirm that this statement means the Thessalonians will not be involved in the day of the Lord because they have already been raptured before the day of the Lord begins. Verse 9 indicates they are involved in what happens on the day of the Lord. Eschatological schemes that treat the parousia and rapture as preceding the day of the Lord cannot be harmonized with what is written in 1 Thessalonians 5.
 For more details, see Special Study #2 concerning this apostasia (an apostasy or a rebellion) in Reese, 1 & 2 Thessalonians (Moberly, MO: SEB LLC, 2020).
 For more details, see Special Study #4 concerning the restrainer in Reese, 1 & 2 Thessalonians (Moberly, MO: SEB LLC, 2020).
 For more details, see Special Study #3 concerning the man of lawlessness in Reese, 1 & 2 Thessalonians (Moberly, MO: SEB LLC, 2020).
 Proponents of premillennial views tend to give these verses a slightly different interpretation. It is common among these proponents to find the word parousia used to refer to a coming of Jesus before the great tribulation begins, and to use the word “revelation” to refer to a coming after the tribulation. This “revelation” coming of Jesus is then presented as being followed by the millennium, which closes with the final judgment. Early in the 20th century, this common premillennial view on the day of the Lord was made popular by a footnote in The Scofield Reference Bible. "The day of Jehovah (called, also, 'that day’ and the 'great day') is that lengthened period of time beginning with the return of the Lord in glory [revelation coming], and ending [1000 years later] with the purgation of the heavens and the earth by fire preparatory to the new heavens and the new earth (Isaiah 65:17‑19; 66:22; 2 Peter 3:18; Revelation 21:1)." (C.I. Scofield, ed., The Scofield Reference Bible [New York: Oxford University Press, 1917], p.1349 n.1.) In harmony with this eschatological scenario, the expression “day of Christ” came to be attached to the parousia and rapture, while the expression “day of the Lord” (yom YHWH) came to be attached to the long period of time from the “revelation” of Christ to the final judgment.
If we have grasped correctly what is written in the Thessalonian letters, this premillennial scenario is flawed, since both letters associate the rapture with the ‘day of the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:15-5:2, and 2 Thessalonians 2:1-2), and also seem to connect the “revelation” of Christ with His parousia. (Compare 2 Thessalonians 1:7 [“when the Lord will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels”] with 2 Thessalonians 2:1,2 [“Now we request you, brethren, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, that you not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.”]). Furthermore, the Thessalonian letters connect the final judgment with the parousia.