2 Thessalonians 2 (Listen)
The Man of Lawlessness
2:1 Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers,1 2 not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. 3 Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness2 is revealed, the son of destruction,3 4 who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. 5 Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? 6 And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. 7 For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. 8 And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming. 9 The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, 10 and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. 11 Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, 12 in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
13 But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits4 to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. 14 To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15 So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.
16 Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, 17 comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.
Standing Firm amidst Deception (II Thessalonians 2)
Emmanuel Bishopston and Westbury, 2 December 2018
The full text is provided in lieu of an audio recording.
If you knew for a fact that Christ would return and the world come to an end next Saturday, how would you spend this week?
It’s actually quite hard to imagine, isn’t it? How could we know that such an earth-shattering event would definitely happen next Saturday? But bear with me. If you knew for a fact that Christ would return and the world come to an end next Saturday, what would you do this week?
Would you go to work for money that you could never spend? Clean a house that’s about to be swept away? Study for an exam you’ll never take? Would you rush around your family and friends pleading with them to get ready to meet Jesus? Really? Or would we simply sit paralysed with fear and excitement?
And what if by this time next week, nothing had happened after all. What if Jesus had not returned, and the world had not come to an end? How would you feel then?
All down the centuries, Christians have speculated about the end times. And sometimes they have even fixed on a particular date. Let me tell you about the Millerites. William Miller was a farmer and Baptist lay preacher from New York State. In 1822 he became convinced from Daniel 8:14 that Christ would return sometime in the year starting on 21 March 1843. From the 1830s he started telling people his theory. At first, they were sceptical, but as the years passed, getting closer and closer to 1843, more and more people came to share his convictions. By the early 1840s, tracts and magazines were being published in vast number. All over the United States thousands upon thousands of people came to believe that Christ would return very soon. Their energies were completely absorbed by speculation on the end times. When the year passed without any Second Coming, Miller and his associates went back to their Bibles. They tried to build more Scripture into their theories. And then in late September 1844, one theory suddenly caught hold and spread like wildfire among the thousands of Millerite followers. There had indeed been a misinterpretation; the real date was 22 October 1844. Just a few weeks away. And so the Millerites waited. And waited. And waited.
What happened next is known as the Great Disappointment. We can smile, but here’s how one follower, Henry Emmons, described it:
I waited all Tuesday [October 22] and dear Jesus did not come; I waited all the forenoon of Wednesday, and was well in body as I ever was, but after 12 o’clock I began to feel faint, and before dark I needed someone to help me up to my chamber, as my natural strength was leaving me very fast, and I lay prostrate for 2 days without any pain – sick with disappointment.
Poor man. The Millerites were very sincere, but they were also completely mistaken. William Miller’s reading of Daniel 8:14 was a total distraction.
As I said, movements such as these have popped up at various points throughout Christian history, and the very first one seems to have taken root in Thessalonica in the early 50s AD. Did you notice those opening verses of our reading from II Thessalonians chapter 2 [1-2]? We are in the middle of a mini-series on the letter of II Thessalonians and last week we saw that Paul is writing with his associates to a new little church founded just a few months before in Thessalonica, the capital of Macedonia.
Paul has been boasting about this church because they have kept going under hostility and persecution. But now he’s also very worried for them. By some means or other this little group of brand-new persecuted Christians have got the idea that he (Paul) thinks the day of the Lord has already come. We can’t be sure what, exactly, they thought. Perhaps it was that Jesus had literally returned somewhere else and that they had missed out. If that were the case, Paul could simply have said, ‘I assure you, he hasn’t come yet!’. But he doesn’t say that. So it is more likely they thought that it was the end times that had come and that the day of Christ’s return was imminent, just about to happen, like next Saturday. Whatever it is, Paul knows that this idea can be really unhelpful. He doesn’t want them to be unsettled or alarmed. So he say, v. 3, don’t let anyone deceive you in any way about the day of the Lord.
Now, what follows in the first half of this chapter is one of the hardest passages of the New Testament to understand. It’s difficult for a number of reasons. One is that Paul is quite worked up. He’s dictating very fast and either he is missing words out or his poor scribe can’t quite keep up. You can see that very obviously in the little brackets around the additional text of v. 3. The translator has had to add them in. Paul’s also referring back to teachings he already gave the Thessalonians when he was with them in person. Look at v. 5. And now you know… They know, because they heard it from him a few months ago, but we don’t know! And then who is this ‘man of lawlessness’ or ‘lawless one’ Paul keeps on referring to? More obscure still, who or what is this thing or person which holds the power of lawlessness back in v. 7. This is prophecy, and prophecy only becomes really clear after the event. Perhaps most puzzling of all is how this fits with Paul’s other teaching in I Thessalonians 5, and how it fits Jesus’s teaching. Aren’t we taught there that we can’t know when Jesus will return? ‘You know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night’ (I Thess 5:2). So what’s Paul doing giving us a road-map to the end? How can it be that we don’t know the day or the hour if we are also given signs that have to happen first? In desperation, one or two commentators have even suggested that I and II Thessalonians can’t be written by the same person!
I hope we can make some progress on some of those puzzles this [morning/afternoon]. The key is not to let speculation about what is obscure get in the way of our taking to heart what is clear. And there is lots here that is very clear and very precious. What is clear is the heading to this chapter in v. 1. The coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him. Paul insists, as indeed the whole New Testament insists, that one day Jesus will come again and we will be gathered to him. And this chapter really unpacks those two big ideas. So, in vv. 2-12 Paul points out that the coming of the Lord Jesus will be the ultimate proof that Jesus is effortlessly supreme over all evil. And then in vv. 13-17 our being gathered to him will be the ultimate proof that God is totally committed to the salvation of all who believe. Jesus is effortlessly supreme over all evil and God is totally committed to the salvation of all who believe. Let’s look at those two main points in turn.
First, Jesus is effortlessly supreme over all evil. The evil in this passage is focused on a person, the man of lawlessness, or the lawless one, as he’s called. And Paul talks about this person as if he is an incarnation of evil, as if rebellion against God has taken human form. [vv. 3, 6, 8]. Three times he talks about him being revealed. That’s a word which is usually used of Jesus, who came in human form but who was revealed in power to be the Son of God. We had it last week in ch. 1 v. 7. It’s the word, apocalypse. Paul calls this man of lawlessness who will be revealed the son of destruction – end of v. 3 translated literally. This is a human person who both causes destruction and is doomed to destruction. And in v. 9-10 he says that this Son of Destruction will perform all sorts of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders to deceive people. In short, this person is the exact reverse of Jesus, the Son of God. He is the Anti-Christ.
But, who is he? Well, look at v. 4.  Paul uses language here which reminds us of a number of ancient rulers. The anti-Christ sounds a bit like the Greek King Antiochus Epiphanes, who proclaimed himself to be a revelation of God (that’s the epiphanes bit– the epiphany). He persecuted the Jews and in 169BC desecrated the Jewish Temple, triggering the Maccabean Revolt. He sounds a bit like the Roman Emperor Gaius Caligula who in 40AD resolved to set up a statue of himself in the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem and turn the temple into an imperial shrine. Luckily, Caligula was assassinated just in time. But all these people came and went. And more have come and gone. As John tells us, even now many antichrists have come but THE antichrist is still to come (I John 2:18). The principle of evil personified (that’s the power of lawlessness) still has to reach its culmination in the incarnation of the Son of Satan. And then the end will come.
Right now though, something or someone is holding him back. V. 6-7. We really don’t know what Paul is referring to here. But we can still see what he means. The evil in the world is like the sea in a storm, crashing against the sea walls. And as those of us on dry land get close, inevitably we get splashed. But we mustn’t confuse all those ways in which our lives are splashed by evil with the cataclysmic events of the end, when the defences crumble, the cliffs themselves fall into the sea and pure evil floods across the land.
Yet Jesus is effortlessly supreme over all this. Look how v. 8 continues. If you are being persecuted as these Thessalonians were being persecuted, evil feels very real. The hatred, the beatings, the confiscation of property, betrayal by friends, poverty, injury, exclusion, the fear of death. It’s very real. But no matter how real the evil feels, in the presence of Jesus it is nothing. It’s like a wisp of smoke which a mere breath puffs away into thin air. It doesn’t even have the substance of smoke. Evil is a shadow in the face of the light. Just as the anti-Christ is the perfect opposite of Christ, so darkness is the perfect opposite of light. But darkness is nothing in the face of light. It has no resisting power whatsoever. Evil personified will be overthrown by the breath of Jesus’s mouth, and the dark places will vanish in the splendour, the brightness, of his coming.
It’s not just that Jesus is more powerful than all evil. Even the evil that happens takes place within the purposes of God. Did you notice v. 11? Back in vv. 9 and 10 we are told about the lawless one, the Son of Destruction, whose miraculous signs deceive those who are perishing. But then in v. 11 Paul says that God sends them this powerful delusion. Where evil deceives even that cannot escape God’s plan. It makes his judgment clear. Think about it like this. When we come face-to-face with extreme evil it exposes who we truly are. It exposes whether we are followers of the truth which is in Jesus Christ or not. And you might think that extreme evil is easy to spot and easy to reject, but it isn’t. Evil is deceitful, it captures the imagination, it creates a person worthy of worship. It appears as an angel of light. The crowds loved Hitler, they really did. And only a minority within the German Church saw that he was another anti-christ. So the evil sorts you out, it exposes who you really are, and what you really stand for. And in that it fulfils the judgment of God.
Jesus is effortlessly supreme over all evil. And I don’t know about you, but if I were a first century Thessalonian I am not sure I’d be feeling quite as comforted by that truth as I thought I would be. Here I am struggling to keep my head above water as the waves of persecution roll over me, and Paul says, ‘you ain’t seen nothing yet!’ Thanks, Paul. Paul says that Jesus is effortlessly supreme over all evil and I cheered because I thought I was against evil too. But if extreme evil is so great that it can deceive even good ordinary people, where do I stand? How secure am I?
We have to take the deceitfulness of evil seriously. Our culture says that to do well in life you have to have an important job, a beautiful house, expensive holidays and lovely things. And it all looks so good. Like a whirlpool it knocks us off our feet and sucks us in. But Jesus says, don’t be deceived, watch out for all sorts of greed, a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. Luke 12:15. Our culture says that to live well you need to fulfil your sexual desires. And it all sounds so affirming and inclusive. But Paul says don’t be deceived. Run as fast as you can from sexual immorality; when you do wrong in this area of your life you sin against your own body. I Corinthians 6:18. Evil is deceitful. And yes, it’s great that Jesus is supreme over all that, but when it comes to the Judgment of God, which underlies everything, where do I stand?
That’s why verses 13 to 17 are so precious. [v. 13 …saved]. That is our second great truth. God is totally committed to the salvation of all who believe. Do you notice how often God is the subject of the verbs in vv. 13 and 14? God loved you, God chose you, God called you, God will save you,. These are past decisions by God. So it’s not that God will save us from evil if are good enough and if we have enough faith. Our personal holiness or the strength of our convictions are not the reason for God’s saving us. If that were true, what hope would have in the face of persecution, evil and deception? No, Paul is very careful and very clear here. We are saved by God through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth, v. 13. They are how God saves us, not why God saves us. If you like, our faith and the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives are the lifeboat, but Jesus is the captain. When we feel as if we are drowning in a sea of evil and deception, he is our rescuer. Of course, we need the lifeboat. We need faith and godliness. But when we are drowning he is the one who brings it to us, who drags us on board, so that we might be brought safely to dry land.
Do you see what a comfort this is to the Thessalonians and to us? When we are struggling with the sin and the confusion and the injustice around us, when we are getting caught up in all that, sucked into all that, we can know that however bad it is – even if we come face to face with evil personified – Jesus has triumphed, he is supreme over all evil, AND God is totally committed to our salvation.
Vv. 15-17 sketch in what a Christian life lived in response to God’s commitment to us looks like. So, v. 15. Stand firm and hold on. It’s what you do on a lifeboat! You may still be splashed by evil, more than splashed, even drenched to the skin at times until you fear for your sanity, your faith and your life, but those waves are crashing over a lifeboat which is headed home, steered by a captain who never lost a soul yet. So stand firm and hold on. And notice that here is the answer to our fears about deception. What are we to hold onto? We are to hold onto the teachings passed down to us by the apostles. You see, back in v.2 the Thessalonians had been misled by some hearsay report or forged letter or prophecy supposedly from Paul which was not authentic. It led them astray. It led them to pin their hopes on a lie. Here, Paul says, hold onto the authentic teaching; teaching that you heard directly from me or that you can be sure I wrote. So the holding firm that we do in the face of evil is above all a holding firm to Scripture. We dare not set up anything else against that.
And this Christian life lived holding firm onto God’s commitment to us flows out from teaching into experience and practical living. Vv. 16-17. What a wonderful prayer! Paul prays in the light of God’s love for them, in the light of his promise of unfailing encouragement and a hope that is genuinely secure, that that would be true in their experience as well. He wants them not just to know it but to feel it! Don’t you long not only to know that your hope is secure but to feel it too? He prays that their hearts would be encouraged and that they would be strong in every good deed and word. In short, that they would be filled with love, and joy, and peace, and hope and all those other blessings of a life restored by Christ, doing and speaking only what is good. A life filled by the Spirit and getting on with authentic Christian living. Even in a dark and painful world.
And you know, I think that’s the clue to our puzzle about whether we can know when the Lord Jesus will return. Different illnesses require different medicines, but their object is always the same – to restore us to full health. If your spiritual weakness is to think that Jesus will never come back, that you can put off following him, you need to hear that he might, at any time, so that you do not grow complacent in your Christian life. When the master returns, don’t be caught sleeping. That’s the conclusion Jesus draws in Mark 13, or that Paul draws in I Thessalonians 5. The return of Christ will be a surprise above all for those who ignore him, not for those who are looking for his coming.
But if your spiritual temptation is to get caught up in idle speculation about the end times, if this distracts you from your Christian calling, you need to know that the end is not yet. You need to devote yourself to the apostle’s teaching and to the good deeds and words which flow from faith in the God who is saving you. The medicines are different, but the healthy Christian is the same.
Christ will return and we will be gathered to him. Sunday by Sunday, and above all on this Advent Sunday, we gather to celebrate the eternal encouragement and good hope that that gives us. In a way, our gathering today is a pre-enactment, a dress rehearsal, for that great day when Christ gives us the ultimate proof that has triumphed, and we have been saved. So we say, Come, Lord Jesus, Come!