The Day of the Lord
Summary: Knowing what happens on the day of the Lord is a key to understanding the biblical end times. It includes the Lord Jesus returning as a thief in the night at his second coming, the rapture of the church, God’s wrath and the battle of Armageddon.
(All scriptures are from the “New International Version,” © 2011)
Because there are several conflicting interpretations of Biblical end-times prophecies, it might be helpful to examine the most significant period of the end-times: the day of the Lord. While the phrase, “day of the Lord,” was sometimes used in the Old Testament for cataclysmic times in history, in the greatest sense it applies to a period in the end times. We’ll discover the Bible clearly describes the events of that end-times period and its relationship to the other key periods.
Let’s begin with a New Testament passage written by the apostle Paul:
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Th 4:13–18)
● Day of the Lord trait (identified in the next verse, 1 Th 5:1): includes the Lord’s coming down from heaven with a loud command, voice of archangel, trumpet call of God, the “catching away” of the saints
Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. (1 Th 5:1–3)
● Day of the Lord traits: unexpected like a thief in the night (also 2 Pet 3:10); destruction occurs suddenly like labor pains
People will be focusing on “peace and safety,” not anticipating sudden destruction. Jesus also referred to his coming as a thief in the night (Mt 24:42-44; Rev 3:3; 16:15). Notice the destruction will be like labor pains, not the same as the beginning of birth pains, which lead up to labor pains.
But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. (1 Th 5:4-11)
Notice the analogies of light and day, which are references to believers who are “awake” — probably meaning they’re spiritually alert and aware of what God is doing. They won’t be surprised by the Lord returning like a thief, but will be expecting him based on everything else that’s happening; that is, the Lord’s return will not be surprising or imminent, though they won’t know the actual time of his return.
And there is the familiar line we love to quote: “For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath.” This statement and its context associate God’s wrath with the day of the Lord.
● Day of the Lord trait: includes God’s wrath
It’s important to see that not all divine judgment falls in the day of the Lord. The Genesis flood was a clear example of God’s judgment “raining” down on mankind, but that was not the day of the Lord. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is another example. Also, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness.” (Romans 1:18) The verb form is present tense — “is being revealed.” So, every expression of God’s judgment or wrath is not part of the day of the Lord.
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. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God. (2 Th 2:1–4)
● Day of the Lord trait: preceded by specific events — the rebellion occurs, the man of lawlessness is revealed, and he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.
The phrase “day of the Lord” appears frequently in both the Old and New Testaments. It’s an important term and is synonymous with the day of Christ, the day of Jesus Christ and the day of the Lord’s vengeance. Let’s consider traits revealed by other scriptures.
● Day of the Lord traits:
- will come like destruction from the Almighty (Isa 13:6; Joel 1:15)
- terror will seize people, they’ll writhe like a woman in labor (Isa 14:7-8; same analogy as 1 Th 5:1–3)
- people hide from the Lord (Isa 2:10-19)
- dreadful and cruel day, Lord’s wrath and fierce anger (Isa 13:9, 13; Mal 4:5; Joel 2:11, 31; Zeph 1:18; 2:2-3)
- Lord returns with his army (Joel 2:11)
- world’s armies gathered at Armageddon (Rev 16:16)
- earth severely shaken, mountains & islands moved (Isa 2:21; 13:13; Rev 6:14)
- sun and moon darkened, moon turned red (Isa 13:10; Amos 5:18, 20; Rev 6:12; 16:10); also occurs before that day (Joel 2:30-31)
- widespread death and destruction, unavoidable danger, people seem rare, doom for the nations (Isa 13:12; Amos 5:19-20; Eze 30:3)
- people’s wealth won’t help them (Eze 7:19; Zeph 1:18)
- heavens will disappear with a roar and fire; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare (2 Pet 3:10-12; Zeph 1:18; 3:8). (Note: this will occur at the end of the day of the Lord, when the existing heavens and earth are replaced with new ones; Rev 21:1)
In the Old Testament, “day” is from the Hebrew word yom, which primarily means “daytime.” In practice, yom refers to various intervals of time, including a 24-hour day and extended periods. The Greek word used in the New Testament is hemera, which is also used for various intervals of time. On the basis of the words used, then, we see that the day of the Lord does not have to be a 24-hour period. It could be a longer period, such as several weeks or many years. It likely will last 1000 years (see Rev 20:1-15)
Nowhere does the Bible state that the Great Tribulation is the same as the day of the Lord. The Greek word translated “tribulation” is thlipsis, a general word translated many ways in the Bible, such as trouble, distress, suffering, hardship, persecution, affliction and trials. The Greek phrase megas thlipsis — “great distress” or “great tribulation” — appears only in Matthew 24:21, Mark 13:19, Luke 21:23, and Revelation 7:14, and the context of none of these verses uses the phrase, “the day of the Lord.” The New Testament doesn’t apply the individual word thlipsis to the day of the Lord. In Revelation, thlipsis appears only in Chapters 1 and 2, plus 6:14, and these verses are not about the day of the Lord. Therefore, nothing in the Greek text requires that the Great Tribulation be the same as the day of the Lord.
If we look at Matthew 24, we see a fairly clear sequence that also indicates the great tribulation and day of the Lord are not the same. Jesus begins by warning of deception, wars and famines, then identifies these as “the beginning of birth pains” (24:4-8). He refers to the abomination standing in the holy place (24:15), which the King James Version calls the “abomination of desolation.” He warns people to escape the city immediately when they see the abomination and explains how severe the suffering will be, calling it megas thlipsis — “great distress” or “great tribulation” (24:21).
Immediately after the distress, there will be a cosmic disturbance (24:29). Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky and people will mourn (24:30 — this occurs on the day of the Lord). Then the “elect” meet the Lord in the clouds (24:30-31 — this also occurs on the day of the Lord). So the sequence is as follows:
- Beginning of Birth Pains
- Great Tribulation (including the Abomination)
- Cosmic Disturbance
- Day of the Lord
Luke 21:23 is a parallel verse to Matthew 24:21: “There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people.” Which land and whose wrath? Verses 20 and 24 of that chapter refer to Jerusalem, so the land is Israel, but verse 21 does not give any clues about whose wrath comes against the people.
The Greek word translated “wrath” in Luke 21:23 is translated “anger” in other verses. Several verses attribute this Greek word for anger or wrath to man (see Eph 4:31; Col 3:8). Some Bibles translate the word as “wrath” when God is the source and “anger” when man is the source. In Luke 21:23, the translators apparently believed God was the source and translated it “wrath.” This is simply a matter of opinion, because the text does not identify God as the source. So the “wrath against this people” could be from men; that is, man’s wrath or anger against Israelis.
Why would men be expressing wrath or anger against Israel? Probably because it continues to exist, refuses to give up so-called “occupied” lands, refuses to set up an autonomous Palestinian state and builds a temple on the holy mount. So the wrath in Luke 21:23 is more likely to be from men, rather than God. All of this means we cannot use Luke 21 to prove that the Great Tribulation is the time of God’s wrath!
Matthew 24:21 gives us another clue: “For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now — and never to be equaled again.” Wouldn’t God’s wrath in Revelation 16 fit that description? As stated earlier, the New Testament does not apply thlipsis (distress) to either the day of the Lord or to God’s wrath. In fact, in the New Testament, it only describes the hardship, persecution and distress suffered by God’s people, both Jew and Christian. Since Christians will not suffer God’s wrath but they do suffer thlipsis, their distress cannot be God’s wrath. Therefore, the great thlipsis (distress or tribulation) in Matthew 24 and Luke 21 cannot be God’s wrath!
We can say, then, that Christians and Jews will be (already are) recipients of distress (thlipsis), but the unregenerate world will be (already is) the recipient of God’s wrath. In this sense, Matthew 24 may describe the worst thlipsis or great tribulation in all of human history, but does not compare with the sheer human misery resulting from God’s wrath during the day of the Lord.
My opinion is that the Great Tribulation is a period of man’s anger against God’s people, both Jew and Christian. The day of the Lord is a period of God’s anger against the inhabitants of the earth; that is, sinful mankind. These are two separate periods, and nowhere does the Bible declare them to be the same.