Here is the previous installment in the article series, The Second Coming Does Not Begin with Armageddon:
Today, I am posting Part 2 below:
The Day of the Lord’s Wrath Begins Before Armageddon
Recently, I wrote an article entitled, “Matthew 24:30–31 Is Not Describing the Battle of Armageddon in Revelation 19:11–21.” I identified important differences between the two passages, arguing that the battle of Armageddon is not the event that begins the second coming (the parousia). It is a deep-seated assumption among many pretrib and posttrib interpreters that Matt 24:30–31 is a parallel passage to Rev 19:11–21.
I want to expand on this by following a particular line of evidence, concerning the relationship between Armageddon and the day of the Lord’s wrath. Certainly, no one disagrees that the battle of Armageddon is part of God’s wrath. But it is important to recognize that Armageddon concludes God’s wrath. The biblical writers connected the beginning of the second coming with the beginning of the day of the Lord’s wrath (e.g. 1 Thess 4–5; 2 Thess 2:1–3; Matt 24:29–31). And the rapture initiates the second coming; thus, the same day that the rapture occurs will be the same day that the day of the Lord’s wrath will begin. In the following, I will give some reasons why the second coming begins before the battle of Armageddon with respect to the day of the Lord’s wrath.
The apostle Paul links the return of Christ with the day of the Lord’s wrath (1 Thess 4:13–5:9). What I want to highlight from Paul’s teaching is that he says that when Christ returns to pour out his wrath upon the wicked, his return will be like a thief, and it will occur suddenly like a woman in labor pangs:
“For you know quite well that the day of the Lord will come in the same way as a thief in the night. Now when they are saying, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction comes on them, like labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will surely not escape” (1 Thess 5:2–3).
If the battle Armageddon begins the second coming, then Paul’s teaching makes no sense. Before Armageddon occurs, the world will have been pummeled by the devastating day of the Lord trumpets and bowls judgments. The wicked will clearly know that the judgments are from God (see Rev 6:14–17; 9:20–21; 11:3–19; 14:6–11; 16:9–11, 21; 17:14 cf. Luke 21:25–28). By the time the divine trumpets and bowls have been poured out, the battle of Armageddon will not be a surprise! It climaxes with God’s wrath, not initiates it. Paul clearly teaches that the wrath of God will not begin until the second coming of Christ, which will catch the wicked off guard as a thief with sudden destruction as a woman in hard labor. Therefore, Armageddon cannot be considered the beginning of the second coming.
Jesus taught the exact same point that sudden destruction will occur when the second coming begins, using the illustrations of Noah and the flood, one take and one left, the thief in the night, the master of the household, the ten virgins, and the talents (Matt 24:37–25:30; cf. Luke 17:28–30).
Peter also draws the “thief” motif from Jesus’s Olivet Discourse illustrating the sudden destruction when the parousia begins (2 Pet 3:10–12). Jesus, Paul, and Peter are consistent in their message that the second coming of Christ will begin like a thief catching the wicked off guard in their oblivious state.
Since the battle of Armageddon occurs at the end of God’s wrath, the second coming does not begin with Armageddon, because that would remove the surprise element—the whole point of invoking the thief metaphor! The resurrection and rapture, followed by the trumpets and bowls judgments, will occur at a much earlier point than the climax of God’s wrath at the battle of Armageddon.
It may be objected that Rev 16:14–16 indicates that the second coming begins with the battle of Armageddon:
“For they are the spirits of the demons performing signs who go out to the kings of the earth to bring them together for the battle that will take place on the great day of God, the All-Powerful. (Look ! I will come like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays alert and does not lose his clothes so that he will not have to walk around naked and his shameful condition be seen.) Now the spirits gathered the kings and their armies to the place that is called Armageddon in Hebrew.”
There are good reasons, however, that this understanding of this passage is not correct. Just before the sixth bowl concludes there is an editorial exhortation: “(Look! I will come like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays alert and does not lose his clothes so that he will not have to walk around naked and his shameful condition be seen)” (Rev 16:15). Even in the midst of this apocalyptic portrayal there is a warning to be spiritually prepared to avoid God’s wrath. The book of Revelation warns us before (Rev 1:7), during (Rev 16:15), and after (Rev 22:12, 20) the narrative. This parenthetical exhortation in Rev 16:15 is not intended to give a temporal indicator to when the Lord will return, as is often interpreted. It does not mean that his parousia has not occurred up to this point with the church still on earth. Nor does it mean that his parousia will begin at Armageddon. It is a mistake therefore to read into the expression, “I come like a thief,” as meaning that he has not returned yet. The parousia as outlined previously begins between the sixth seal and seventh seal. The trumpet judgments follow after the opening of the seventh seal, and the bowl judgments begin at the sounding of the seventh trumpet. This takes us up to the sixth bowl for the preparation of the battle of Armageddon. As noted earlier, it makes no sense to say that Jesus is coming back as a “thief” after the world just experienced his previous earth-destroying judgments. Accordingly, translators, such as the New English Translation cited above, recognize this verse as an aside, and thereby place parentheses around the statement. In a study note, the New English Translation comments: “These lines are parenthetical, forming an aside to the narrative. The speaker here is the Lord Jesus Christ himself rather than the narrator.” This is not a unique instance in the book of Revelation for there are three other warnings of Jesus coming soon that do not indicate a timing indicator (Rev 1:7; 22:12, 20).
So then how should we understand this parenthetical statement that seems to be arbitrarily placed at this point? The exhortation is immediately followed by the reference to the battle of Armageddon (v. 16). And since Armageddon occurs near the end of the culmination of God’s wrath, the likely meaning is that the warning represents the unified complex-whole of the day of the Lord’s wrath. This is consistent as we saw with Jesus and Paul’s use of the thief imagery representing the whole of God’s wrath, but in their case there is an emphasis on the inception of wrath (Matt 24:43–44; 1 Thess 5:2–5; cf. 2 Pet 3:10). In short, it is unintelligible to think that Rev 16:15 only intends to apply the thief warning to Armageddon but not to the previous trumpet and bowl judgments. And we must remember, when we speak of the return of Christ, it does not refer to an instantaneous simple event, instead, it encompasses the unified complex-whole of his return.
Next, the meaning of “I will come like a thief!” is followed by a qualification, “one who stays alert and does not lose his clothes so that he will not have to walk around naked and his shameful condition be seen” (cf. Rev 3:18). What is the implication of this statement? There are basically three interpretations. (1) It means that the one who does not stay alert is seen to be a false believer, who will be found on the receiving end of God’s wrath. (2) It refers to a believer who was not spiritually alert; nevertheless, this person will be delivered before the day of the Lord’s wrath in a shameful condition. (3) It refers to a believer who loses their salvation because they lose their faith and will be judged as an unbeliever along with the rest of the wicked. This latter interpretation will point out that this warning is not meaningful if there is not the possibility of losing one’s salvation.
The question of whether believers can lose their salvation is not going to be determined by this single verse. My theological conviction is that Scripture consistently teaches the perseverance of the saints. I do not think it is a sound argument to conclude that the warning is not meaningful if there is not the possibility of losing one’s salvation. I take this warning, as I do with other similar warnings in the Bible, as a means by which God perseveres his people by warning them to be spiritual vigilant. This warning is similar to Luke 21:36: “But stay alert at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that must happen, and to stand before the Son of Man.” Also Matt 24:25: “Remember, I have told you ahead of time.” God’s sovereign grace will persevere believers, but it is our responsibility to be praying that we may have strength to escape all these things that must happen.
The second interpretation above also contains a deficiency, which sees the faithless “believer” who will not be spiritually alert to be, nevertheless, delivered before the day of the Lord’s wrath. However, the thrust of the book of Revelation is on those who will have victory through faith. Revelation does not entertain lukewarm Christians as victorious, “So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of my mouth!” (Rev 3:16). In the parable of the ten virgins, there are only two groups: wise and foolish virgins. All five wise virgins were spiritually alert when the bridegroom arrived (Matt 25:1–13). Jesus is going to refine his bride through the great tribulation so that he comes to a blameless people (Rev 14:12). So to answer the question above, the false believer is the one who will lose his clothes and walk around naked and in a shameful condition. Being in a naked and shameful condition, therefore, indicates the person who will be exposed in the day of the Lord’s wrath. Faith is the true mark of a believer. But a person with a veneer of Christianity will find themselves thief-exposed in the midst of the Lord’s wrath.
In summary, this parenthetical warning within the apocalyptic narrative teaches us that those who are not spiritually watchful for the Lord will find themselves shamefully on the wrong side. Hearing the book of Revelation read to them (Rev 1:3), John’s original audience would construe this warning—not as some clue to the timing for the parousia—but as a warning against idolatry, lest they experience the consequences of God’s wrath. But those who are spiritually watchful for the Lord’s return will find themselves fighting alongside the divine alliance: “[The kings of the world] will make war with the Lamb, but the Lamb will conquer them, because he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those accompanying the Lamb are the called, chosen, and faithful” (Rev 17:14).
 There are good reasons to think that Armageddon occurs in proximity to the seventh bowl judgment, the most devastating judgment pictured in the book of Revelation (see Kurschner, Antichrist Before the Day of the Lord, 158–64).
 Mounce, Revelation, 300–301.