The Eschatological Harvest

and the Man of Sin


Kurt M. Simmons


In his second epistle to the Thessalonians, Paul mentions a “gathering” of the saints unto the Lord at his coming:

“Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him, that ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand.”  (II Thess. 2:1)                           

In this article we will attempt to identify what this eschatological “gathering” was and how it was accomplished.                                                                                   

Old Testament Origins

Most, if not all, of the sacred feasts of the Jews had redemptive and eschatological significance, looking forward to the time when man would be loosed from the bondage of sin and death and receive his heavenly inheritance.  Among these, the Jubilee was perhaps foremost.  Every fifty years, on the Day of Atonement, the Jews were commanded to sound trumpets throughout the land and every man who was indebted or under bondage was freed to return to his paternal possession and family.  (Lev. 25:10, 11; cf. Lev. 16) A man’s paternity was his family’s ancestral land, granted in the original enumeration of the congregation of Israel.  (Num. 26:1-53)  The paternity represented a man’s portion in Israel, which, in turn, was a type of his heavenly inheritance.  Hence, the Jubilee became a common theme in Israel’s history.  For example, before the captivity Isaiah prophesied that God would gather the people back to the land of Israel in the manner of the Jubilee:   

“In that day the Lord with his sore and great and strong sword shall punish leviathan the piercing serpent, even leviathan that crooked serpent; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea…And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall beat off from the channel of the river unto the stream of Egypt and ye shall be gathered one by one, O ye children of Israel.  And it shall come to pass in that day, that the great trumpet shall be blown, and they shall come which were ready to perish in the land of Assyria, and the outcasts in the land of Egypt, and shall worship the Lord in the holy mount at Jerusalem.”  (Isa. 27:12, 13; emphasis added.)                    

Leviathan was the world civil power opposing the people of God, bringing the scourge of captivity and death, here Assyria and Babylon.  However, these powers would not prevail forever; God would remember his covenant people and swallow up death in victory, and wipe all tears from his people’s face.  (Isa. 25:8)  Assyria and Babylon would be destroyed and the people would return from captivity into the land.  But this is not the whole story; Isaiah’s prophecy had a Messianic dimension, a plenior sensus (fuller sense) that belied fulfillment in the return from captivity, looking beyond to the salvation of the Messiah, when sin and death would be defeated and man restored to the presence of God.  Thus, Paul appropriates Isaiah’s language to describe the resurrection (I Cor. 15:54) and Jesus used it in his Olivet Discourse to describe the gathering of the saints into the heavenly kingdom:

“Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken: And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.  And he shall send his angels with a great sound of trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”  (Matt. 24:29-31)                              

Figurative Use to Describe Eschatological Harvest

The word “gather” both here (Matt. 24:31) and in II Thessalonians is from the Greek “episunago.”  The root of this word (sunago) occurs in several passages where it is used figuratively in an agricultural context, describing the eschatological gathering of God’s people.  Thus, John the Baptist said “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire: whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather (sunadzei) his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”  (Matt. 3:11, 12)

Similarly, in the parable of the wheat and the tares, Jesus used the term, saying, “and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather (sunagagete) the wheat into my barn.”  (Matt. 13:30; cf. 40, 41)

The “burning up” of the chaff and tares occurred in the destruction of the Jewish state and polity in A.D. 70 as prophesied by the Lord.  (Matt. 23-25; Mk. 14:62; Lk. 23:27-31; cf. Zech. 14:1-3; Mal. 3:2; 4:1-5)  But, what about the eschatological gathering of the saints, to what did this refer?  It cannot point to preaching the gospel and gathering believers into the church, for sowing the seed of the kingdom refers to preaching and the harvest to the end of the age.  (Matt. 13:36-43; cf. 1-23) Hence, something else must be in view.  We would suggest that the eschatological gathering pointed to the harvest of the saints by martyrdom in the persecution under Nero and the Jews.  This is readily seen in the imagery of Revelation chapter fourteen.

Revelation Fourteen and the Harvest of the Earth

Revelation chapter fourteen portrays the harvest of the earth.  In Revelation, the “earth” is set in contradistinction to the “sea.”  The earth is a symbol for Palestine and, by extension, Jewry; the sea is a symbol for the Mediterranean world and the Gentiles.  Those from the Jews who obey the gospel are portrayed as a remnant, numbering one hundred forty and four thousand.  (Rev. 14:1-4)  These were “sealed” by obedience to the gospel during a time of political stability in Palestine, depicted by four angels holding back the four winds of heaven.[1]  (Rev. 7:1-8)  The hundred forty and four thousand are called “first fruits” to God and the Lamb, pointing to the fact they were first generation believers from the Jews.  (Rev. 14:4; cf. Rom. 8:23; Eph. 1:12; Jam. 1:18)  The period of political stability was followed by the “great tribulation.” (Rev. 7:14)  The great tribulation had two facets: The first pointed to the persecution of the church under Nero and the Jews, the second to the judgments that would overtake the Jews in the war with Rome; both are portrayed in Revelation fourteen.  The persecution of the church under Nero and the beast is portrayed by the harvest of wheat, the war with Rome by the vintage of grapes.   

After warning against succumbing to the inquisitorial power of the beast and false prophet (vv. 9, 10), we read: “Here is the patience of the saints…And I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Write, Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them.”  (Rev. 14:12, 13)  The assurance of blessing and rest after their trials and martyrdom is followed by the image of Christ reaping the earth with a sickle:  “And I looked, and behold a white cloud, and upon the cloud one sat like unto the Son of man, having on his head a golden crown, and in his hand a sharp sickle.  And another angel came out of the temple, crying with a loud voice to him that sat on the cloud, Thrust in thy sickle, and reap: for the harvest of the earth is ripe.”  (vv.14, 15)  

The marginal rendering of the term “ripe” is “dried,” reflecting the fact that this is a harvest of wheat or grain.  Wheat is the first grain to be harvested in spring and therefore made up the "first fruits."  (Ex. 34:22)  Those being reaped are the hundred forty and four thousand, dying in martyrdom under the inquisition in Palestine led by Annas, Caiaphas, and other leaders of the Jews.  This is in contrast to the vintage of grapes tread in the winepress of the wrath of God, portraying the destruction of the Jews and Jerusalem in the war with Rome.  (vv. 17-20)  These are depicted in the same chapter inasmuch as they chronologically overlapped.  The persecution under Nero occurred A.D. 64-68, the war with Rome A.D. 67-70. The harvest of saints by martyrdom is the eschatological gathering alluded to by St. Paul in II Thessalonians.  Indeed, the phrase being “gathered” to one’s people in death was common in the Old Testament.  It is used of Abraham (Gen. 25:8), Isaac (Gen. 35:29), Jacob, (Gen. 49:29, 33), and Aaron (Num. 20:26), among others.  Thus, when Paul speaks of being gathered unto Christ at his coming, he employs a usage common among the Jews.   

The Eschatological Harvest and the Man of Sin

The discussion above is corroborated by the context of II Thessalonians.  A cursory reading of II Thess. 2:1-12 will show that the church in Thessalonica was alarmed that the day of the Lord was immediately upon them.  But Paul admonishes them not to be “troubled” or “shaken in mind” for the time of their gathering unto the Lord was not yet at hand.  First there would be a “falling away,” pointing to the full and final rejection of Christ by the Jews, manifested in the persecution of the church and a turning back to Judaism from the gospel.  The book of Hebrews, written some years later, indicates that his process was then underway when it alluded to the temptation to forsake the church’s wonted time of assembly and turn back to Judaism.  (Heb. 10:23ff)  However, the day of national reckoning could be seen approaching and the writer could say “For yet it is a very, very little while, and he that shall come will come, and will not tarry.”  (Heb. 10:37)  James testifies of similar conditions in Judea and states “the coming of the Lord draweth nigh” and was even at the very door.  (Jam. 5:8, 9)

The persecution that would mark the full and final rejection of Christ by the Jews would arise under one Paul refers to as the “man of sin” and “son of perdition.”  (II Thess. 2:3)  This individual would oppose and exalt himself above all that is called God or worshipped, arrogating to himself divinity, usurping the very throne of God in his heart (referred to figuratively as “sitting in the temple of God;” cf. Ezek. 28:1, 2).  This refers to Nero Caesar and his war against Christ and the church.  However, Paul reminds his readers that there was then something preventing Nero’s and the Jews’ persecution:  “And now ye know what withholdeth that he might be revealed in his time.  For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way.  And then shall that wicked be revealed, whom the Lord shall consumed with the spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of his coming.”  (II Thess. 2:7, 8)   

Paul refers here to Claudius Caesar.  Claudius reigned from A.D. 41-54.  While he ruled, Claudius provided a time of political stability throughout the empire, preventing persecution of the church, even banishing the Jews from Rome for rioting against the Christians.  (Acts 18:2; Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars, Claudius, XXV, 4.) Numerous church fathers and prominent writers agree.  Commenting upon II Thessalonians, St. Chrysostom (A.D. 347 to 407) states,  

"’For the mystery of lawlessness doth already work.’" He speaks here of Nero... But he did not also wish to point him out plainly: and this not from cowardice, but instructing us not to bring upon ourselves unnecessary enmities, when there is nothing to call for it.”[2]

Augustine (A.D. 354-430) states:

“Some think that these words refer to the Roman empire, and that the apostle Paul did not wish to write more explicitly, lest he should incur a charge of calumny against the Roman empire, in wishing ill to it when men hoped that it was to be everlasting.  So in the words: ‘For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work’ he referred to Nero, whose deeds already seemed to be as those of Antichrist.”[3]                    

The late Canon of Westminster, F.W. Farrar, wrote:  

St. Paul, when he wrote from Corinth to the Thessalonians, had indeed seen in the fabric of Roman polity, and in Claudius, its reigning representative, the “check” and the “checker” which must be removed before the coming of the Lord.”[4]   


As long as Claudius was at the head of Rome, the Jews were prevented to openly persecute the church.  However, Claudius was taken out of the way when he was poisoned by his wife, Agrippina, Nero’s mother.  This brought Nero to the throne, opening the way for the Jews back into imperial favor; Nero’s wife, Poppaea, was a Jewish proselyte.  The antichristian movement (“mystery of iniquity”) that had thus been hidden and repressed under Claudius was loosed and revealed under Nero.  Then would the saints in Rome, Asia, and Palestine be gathered to Christ in martyrdom.  

The Same as the “Rapture?”

We saw earlier how allusions to the Day of Atonement and the Jubilee were used in connection with the gathering of the saints unto Christ.  St. Paul uses similar language to describe the resurrection and “rapture”:

“For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.  For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.”  (I Thess. 4:15-17)                              

The question becomes whether these passages describe the same event?  Is the “catching up” to meet the Lord referred to in I Thess. 4:17 the same event as the “gathering” unto the Lord at his coming referred to in II Thess. 2:1?  Although gathering unto the Lord and being caught up to meet him in the air are similar concepts and use similar terms, we believe the better view is that the two passages describe different events.    II Thess. 2:1-12 deals with the eschatological gathering of the saints by martyrdom preceding the resurrection, I Thess. 4:15-17 deals with the catching up of living saints after the resurrection.  Hence, the two passage clearly speak to different circumstances.

In I Thess. 4:15-17, the issue is whether those who perished in the Lord are lost forever.  Paul assures his readers that they had not perished, but would be resurrected on the last day.  Then, as those alive at Christ’s coming in turn experience physical death themselves, they would be caught up in the air to meet the Lord and be reunited with their loved ones in heaven.  “For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”  (II Cor. 5:1)  This explains the similarity of language in I and II Thessalonians: both describe the same process of being gathered unto Christ by physical death, albeit at different times under different circumstances.  Whether before or after the eschaton, both would be gathered home to Jesus in heaven.


The eschatological harvest spoke to the saints being gathered unto Christ by martyrdom under Nero, the “man of sin.”  This time of gathering was restrained while Claudius was upon the throne, but when he was taken out of the way, Nero would ascend the throne and embrace a policy of persecution toward the church.  Those alive at Christ’s return would be reunited with their loved ones after the eschaton, being caught up to meet the Lord in they air at the time of their own physical demise.

[1] The period of political stability answers to the binding of the dragon (Rome) in the bottomless pit and points to the protection of the church by Claudius Caesar’s enforcement of the religio licita, prohibiting the Jews to persecute the church.

[2] St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on II Thess., Nicene-Post Nicene Fathers,  Vol. XXIII; emphasis added.

[3] Augustine, City of God, XX, xix; cf., Irenaeus, Against Heresies, V, xxv-xxviii; Lactanius, Divine Inst. VII, xxv; emphasis added.

[4] F.W. Farrar, The Early Days of Christianity (1891, Columbian Publishing Co, NY), p. 13; cf. The Life and Work of St. Paul, Excursus XIX, (1879, Cassell and Co. ed), p. 726.

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