Were Paul and James false prophets?

By Bill Brenner

Deuteronomy 18:21-22 is clear that a false prophet should be rejected. In 1 Thessalonians 4:15, Paul infers that at least some of his audience will still be living at the Rapture. James does the same in 5:7. The Rapture did not occur while those people lived. Should we reject Paul and James as false prophets?

Paul's words have certainly continued to prompt a great deal of active discussion. We affirm that Paul himself expected to be alive at the Lord's second coming, along with the majority of others to whom he was writing. It was their expectation that Christ's return was close at hand, as it remains today for many Christians. "Those who are alive and remain [Paul and his readers]" are clearly distinguished from "those who are asleep [the dead in Christ]." This is similar to 1 Corinthians 15:51: "We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed."

Reading 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 in context, we see that the passage is speaking a message of comfort for friends and relatives of those who die in the Lord. We can weep for our own loss, and still rejoice in their gain, unlike those who have no hope for a better life after death. Christians see Christ's second coming as strength against a fear of death or excessive sorrow for those who die because we know that we shall someday be with them forever in the Lord's presence. Therefore, we can support one another in such times without becoming weak. We can take comfort even at the thought of being in the judgment seat of God, unlike unbelievers who will face only eternal damnation. Those who belong to Christ have been purified, made worthy to worship Him and magnify His Holy name. In verse 15 Paul indicates that he is sharing a direct revelation made to himself by the Lord. This is not Paul's opinion about the last things, nor is it coming from tradition. There are many other instances of such revelations made to Paul (1 Corinthians 11:23; Galatians 1:11-12). He writes about those who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, and it seems clear that Paul expected this to happen soon.

Some suggest that Paul may have changed his opinion about this, first teaching about the immediateness of Christ's return, and later abandoning it as he approached finishing his race and service to the Lord. However, it appears that in Paul's Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, written just a short time after his first, Paul mentioned a series of events that would occur before the Lord's second coming (2 Thessalonians 2:1-3):
Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come. Don't let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction.
So from this, it appears that Paul did NOT actually expect Christ's immediate return but explained to the Thessalonians that the timing of the second coming was beyond his knowledge (1 Thessalonians 5:1-2).

Paul and James wrote as members of the Christian body using a common expression referring to Christians who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord. They did not intend to express divinely inspired confidence that they would actually be alive on that day. John Chrysostom said that Paul wrote "not of himself, but of Christians who would be alive at the day of judgment." Calvin and others shared this view. Remember that the time of Christ's coming was not revealed and could occur at any time (Matthew 24:36; Acts 1:7). It would be natural for the early church to be completely preoccupied with the possibility that the event could take place in their lifetimes, and they were to be always ready, always in expectation of His return. This thought gave them unity and brought them close in their worship and day-to-day living. Yet this was not something taught as a certainty of being alive on judgment day. In fact, they knew that the dead would be glorified before they would be. Christians are not to take comfort in riches and material things, laying up treasure on earth in the last days. Living in luxury and self-indulgence would only be as a fattened calf before the day of slaughter. So Paul tells followers to "Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and late rains. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand." (James 5:7-8). James warns them that the Judge is standing at the door (v9) and tells them to focus on the steadfastness of Job and the compassion and mercy of the Lord (v10-11).

So, as you read these verses from Paul and James, keep in mind that Christ Himself said that no one knows the timing of Christ's return, not even the Son. It makes perfect sense that they could not have intended us to believe that if it did not happen in their lifetime that we should mark them as false prophets. The verses are not prophecy, but description of how the Christian community should think and act regarding what was to come and what it would be like when this actually took place for believers who would be alive at the time. There is no scriptural reason at all to attempt to apply the verse from Deuteronomy to the Apostles to suggest they were false prophets.

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TagsEnd-Times  |  Jesus-Christ

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Published 11-12-13