Read 2 Thessalonians 2
I was a little surprised to read that this passage is considered to be one of the most obscure and difficult to interpret, of all of Paul’s writings. Well, that’s encouraging; let’s give it a go.
How much do you know about Jesus’ return? Some people are preoccupied with it and they study all the details and make up me other details. Others ignore it altogether thinking that it is too complicated and too dependent on different people’s speculation. Maybe we think this is a topic for nutcases only. Sane, level-headed Presbyterians don’t get into this stuff!
I want you to notice something. Look at:
2 Thess 2:5 Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things?
Paul had been in Thessalonica for only a few months. The gospel came with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction (1 Thess 1:5). A number of people were converted. But persecution was never far away. In the few months that he was there, Paul instructed and trained the new converts and then he was forced to leave. He knew that they would be persecuted. He had to build into them as much Christian maturity as he possibly could. He had to do as much as he could, in just a few months, to grow them towards Christ-likeness. He didn’t really have time for idle speculation about unimportant topics, and yet he used to tell them about Jesus return. Apparently, this was part of Paul’s discipling for new Christians. This was foundational. This is what you teach new Christians. Why is this important?
Last week, we looked at what this chapter says about false teaching but we didn’t look at this particular example of false teaching. Somebody was teaching – and attributing it to Paul – that Jesus had already returned. Paul encouraged the Thessalonians to not be led astray and unsettled but to hold onto the truth. To help them, he repeated some of the teaching that he had already given them.
It wasn’t possible that Jesus had already come because there was a sequence of events that had to happen first, and they hadn’t.
2 Thess 2:3 …that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed…
This seems to be the sequence:
- The secret power of lawlessness is already at work (v.7)
That would have been no surprise to the Thessalonians. They knew there was rebellion and lawlessness abroad. They were already experiencing persecution from people opposed to the gospel. Clearly, there was a spirit of rebellion; a spirit of defiance against God.
We would say the same, wouldn’t we? There is an anti-God spirit at work in the world. People mock God. There is a force of evil that causes people to disobey God and to rebel against God.
- But it is currently being held back. (v.6)
- At the proper time, that restraint will be removed (v.6, 7)
Think about that. It seems pretty bad now but a day is coming when evil will be unleashed. Can you imagine living in a world where the powers of evil are set free to do their terrible work? Imagine evil being rampant in our community.
And are you not grateful that God, at the moment, anyway, is holding back those forces? But how far away is it?
- The man of lawlessness will be revealed (v.3, 8)
The spirit of lawlessness is already at work in the world but, one day, it will be manifested in an evil person. How evil?
- He will oppose and exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshipped. (v.4)
He will not be a false Messiah claiming to be the way to salvation; he will claim to be God Himself. He will exalt Himself over God and urge people to worship him. In fact,.
- He will work in accordance with how Satan works. (v.9)
He is not Satan. He is a separate being from Satan himself but he certainly will work in a satanic way. He will be Satan’s agent.
- He will use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie. (v.9)
The lie is that he is to be worshipped; that he is exalted above God; that he is God.
V.9 talks about his “coming”, his “parousia”, the same word that is used of Jesus’ “coming” in v.8.
He uses signs and wonders, great displays of power – just like Jesus. One scholar has said, “Christ worked miracles by God’s power and the Jews attributed them to Satan; Antichrist will work miracles by satanic power; and many will worship him as God.” (Hubbard in Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, p.56)
That quote used the term “Antichrist” to refer to this same person. 2 Thessalonians is the only place where he is called “the man of lawlessness” or “the man of sin” but many other passages talk about this same person – in Daniel, in John’s letters, in Revelation, in particular. It is John who refers to this person as “Antichrist”. Same person; different titles.
v.10 also says that he will use all the ways that wickedness deceives those who are perishing.
- Many people will be fooled by the miracles and the claim to be God. (vv.10-12)
They will perish because, as we saw last week, they refused to love the truth, instead delighting in wickedness.
- Jesus will return. (v.3, 8)
- The Antichrist (the man of lawlessness) will be overthrown by the breath of Jesus’ mouth and destroyed by the splendour of His coming. (v.8)
This evil imposter will have his day of glory, leading many astray but then he will be utterly destroyed. He is no god. He is only an arrogant opponent of God. When the real Son of God comes on the clouds accompanied by all His angels, this man of lawlessness will be overthrown and destroyed. In v.3, Paul had talked about him being doomed to destruction.
Why is all this important? Why did Paul include this in his discipling 101 course? And should we? Do young Christians in our age also need to know about this?
In a crazy, up-side-down, confusing world, like the Thessalonians’ and like ours, there are two reasons why all Christians need to know this?
Firstly, we need to be forewarned.
When this happens, many people are going to be deceived. Jesus once said, “…false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. See I have told you ahead of time.” (Mt 24:24-26) He was talking about multiple false messiahs and false prophets, not this one antichrist but if they could deceive even the elect – even God’s chosen people – how much more powerful will be the deception of the antichrist? Even Christians will be in danger of being deceived.
If you doubt that, ask yourself if you are ever tempted by evil – and ever give in to temptation – now. Sometimes I love wickedness more than I love the truth. If I can fail now, when the power of lawlessness is being held back, how can I possibly be confident that I will be strong when evil is at its peak?
One safeguard is to be forewarned so that when it happens I recognise it. Jesus’ comment “See, I have told you ahead of time” seems to suggest, “You have been warned. Be alert; be watchful.” I don’t know when this is going to happen but if it was in your lifetime would you recognise it and stand firm?
But we also need to note what Paul said next. People will perish because they choose sin, but… See how v.13 starts with “but”. There is a contrast. People will perish but… we give thanks because God loves you and has chosen you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. They had believed the gospel; they had been born again by the power of God. God had redeemed them and called them so that they might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
God’s plan was that they be saved but they had to stand firm and hold fast to the truth and God would encourage them and strengthen them. Christians do need to be alert and do need to stand firm but we are not on our own and we will not be buffeted by forces too great for us to withstand. God loves us. If we are Christians – and that is the crucial question – God has chosen us; God’s plan is that we be saved and we share in Christ’s glory. He will encourage our hearts and strengthen us in every good deed and word.
With this unleashing of evil there is bound to be persecution of Christians. Someone who declares himself to be God and demands worship is not going to tolerate Christians worshipping Jesus. Rampant evil is going to oppose good. It will be a tough time for Christians – the time the Bible calls the Tribulation – a time of suffering and testing. But God… But God loves us; He has called us to be part of His Kingdom; He will not abandon us; He will be our strength. And, if we persevere, we will be saved. Forewarned is forearmed. When Jesus talked about the end of the world, His message was invariably, be alert.
The second reason for teaching this is that Christians need to know that God wins. The Thessalonian Christians were already suffering and, one day, even worse is to come. It might look hopeless. Do we look at our crazy world and wonder where on earth it is heading, and why doesn’t God intervene and do something? How long, O Lord?
But we know the end of the story: God wins! The man of lawlessness swill be destroyed. Satan will be cast into the fire. Christians need to know that. It is worth holding on – it is worth suffering for a period – because God wins. And doesn’t it sound like a magnificent and dramatic victory. Jesus overcomes this man of lawlessness by the breath of His mouth and destroys him by the splendour of His coming. I am not quite sure what it means to say that Jesus overcomes him by the breath of His mouth. Maybe it means that Jesus just has to speak. This man of great satanic power is defeated by a word from Jesus. In Revelation 1:16, Jesus is described as having a 2-edged sword coming out of His mouth. I don’t know.
There are things in this passage that are difficult. What is holding the power of evil back currently. I have assumed it is God but we are not told that. Paul said that the Thessalonians already knew so, unfortunately, we are not told. If this man of lawlessness is going to set himself up in God’s temple, where is that temple? Is there going to be a new temple built in Jerusalem or does it actually mean the church? Might he be a church leader? Will he be an actual individual man? I don’t know.
But we do know that a time of rebellion is coming and we need to stand firm. And we do know that Jesus will return victorious and His people, who stay faithful, will be saved. That is why it needs to be taught to new Christians.