PAUL'S SECOND LETTER TO THE THESSALONIANS
THE PRECURSOR TO THE RETURN OF CHRIST
2 Thess. 2:1-17
Too often when we study about the second coming of Christ, we get bogged down either by all the details surrounding the second coming or by all the different theories about the second coming. One of the problems is that many times when we study Revelation or Matt. 24, we fail to see the context in which these passages are written. It is hard to read Matt. 24 and not see in some way or other that it has to do with the Fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Revelation to some degree or another has to refer to the persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire. First John 2:18 deals with the emergence of false teachers during John's last days. Is there any one passage which just specifically deals with the return of Christ and yet is not attached to some other historical event, such as, the Fall of Jerusalem? Second Thessalonians two is just that passage. It discusses the return of Christ completely divorced from any other historical event. As such, it gives us the truest picture of what will happen before the Lord returns.
THE OCCASION (2:1-2)
Something is definitely disturbing the Christians in Thessalonica. Somebody has claimed that the day of the Lord has already come, that they right now are living in that day. Now it is easy for the Thessalonians to believe this because of all the persecutions that they are enduring. The Jews are hounding them, using even the civil authorities to persecute them (Acts 17). Just how disturbed are the Thessalonians? The word translated "shaken" usually refers to the shaking of the earth (Heb. 12:26), as an earthquake.
By what authority are these troublemakers making these claims? "By spirit, message, or letter as if from us." "By spirit": someone most likely stood up in church and said the Holy Spirit had informed him that they were already living in the Day of the Lord. "By message": some written word. Maybe referring to some weird interpretation of 1 Thessalonians. "By letter as if from us": they claimed that Paul had secretly sent them a private letter giving them this knowledge; a forgery.
Why would the Thessalonian Christians be concerned about living during the Day of the Lord? First Thess. 5:1-11 explains the reason. It is day of great trauma and stress. As bad as their tribulations are at the present moment, they definitely are going to get a lot worse if they are living during the Day of the Lord.
FIRST REASON FOR COMFORT: THE DAY OF THE LORD HAS NOT COME (2:3-7)
Here Paul wishes to give the reasons the Thessalonians should not be disturbed. First of all, note what Paul does NOT say. He does NOT say that they have no need to worry because they will NOT suffer tribulation because they will be raptured first. If that were the truth, then Paul could have relieved them of their fears immediately. Rather he gives them THE unmistakable sign that the Day of the Lord has NOT come, that is, the sequence of events which leads up to and includes the coming of Christ. Once THIS ONE MAJOR EVENT/PERSON has emerged, then you can know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Day of the Lord has come and that Christ is about to return. Paul quite clearly and categorically claims that the Day of the Lord will not come until (1) the apostasy comes first and (2) the Man of Lawlessness is revealed. Only after these 2 events/persons have arrived on the scene will you know for sure the Day of the Lord is here and that Christ is about to return.
First, the apostasy. This word can refer either to "political" rebellion or to "religious" rebellion. For an example of it referring to political rebellion, Josephus, the great first-century Jewish historian, used the word to describe the Jewish rebellion against Rome, 67-70 AD. On the other hand, the Bible not only uses "apostasy" in the sense of a religious rebellion against God, Christ Himself claimed that many would fall away from God in those last days (Matt. 24:10-11).
The religious rebellion against God either paves the way or else is caused by a dark, sinister figure: "the man of lawlessness . . . the son of perdition." In Revelation this same figure is called "the Beast," while in 1 John 2:18 he is called "Antichrist." By calling him "man of lawlessness" Paul means that he opposes God's Law; "son of perdition," that is, "son of damnation," means that his ultimate destiny is perdition, damnation, not only for him but also for all who follow him. The apostasy and the emergence of the man of lawlessness are the 2 things which must happen before Christ returns. In fact their emergence means that Christ is just around the corner.
How will you be able to identify the Antichrist though? If he is such a diabolical figure, neither you nor I would ever want to be misled into following this person. In fact Jesus claims that one of the reasons He gives us such detailed information about the last day is that we won't be led astray by this figure (Matt. 24:4). So how can I know for sure who or who is not the Antichrist, Man of Lawlessness?
There is a lot of speculation about the identity of the Antichrist. Paul says that one thing definitely will be true about him: "who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object SO THAT HE TAKES HIS SEAT IN THE TEMPLE OF GOD, DECLARING HIMSELF TO BE GOD" (2:4).
What is meant by the clause "SO THAT HE TAKES HIS SEAT IN THE TEMPLE OF GOD, DISPLAYING HIMSELF AS GOD"? When you look at the time in which Paul is writing 2 Thess., you come away with the distinct impression that he is speaking about the literal temple in Jerusalem. The actual word translated "temple" in Jewish circles referred to the inner sanctuary, that is, the Holy of Holies. Jesus also declares that this is the act which brings about His return: "Therefore, when you see the abomination of desolation (which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet) in the holy place . . . then those who are in Judea must flee!" (Matt. 24:15-16). The abomination of desolation was the event in which Antichrist performed the abominable act of entering the holy of holies and declaring himself to be God. This act was so abominable to God that He starts to pour out great desolation upon Antichrist and his followers.
What is interesting about Paul's description about the Antichrist is that he couches it in terms and words normally used to refer to the coming of Christ Himself: "appearing" (from the Greek "epiphaneia," or "epiphany") and "coming" (Greek: "parousia" or "advent," "coming). Just like Jesus performed signs and wonders and miracles, so will this Antichrist (2 Thess. 2:9). He is going to claim and apply to himself all the trappings of deity. It's not that he says there is no God. It's just that he claims to be God, sets himself up as rival to Christ. In fact the word "anti" in Antichrist in the Greek can mean "instead of," "in place of," rather than "Against Christ." He will claim that you will need a Christ, just not the Christ of Christianity. Who will serve as a good candidate for that Christ? Why him, of course.
ULTIMATE REASON FOR COMFORT (2:8-12)
Up to this point I just can't see how Paul's words would have comforted the Thessalonians. OK, so they were not in the period of time known as the Day of the Lord. OK, their persecutions were not as severe as they were going to get when the Day of the Lord actually arrived. Where is the comfort in those thoughts? The comfort is not that the Day of the Lord has not yet arrived; the comfort is not that we are going to escape persecution because of a pre-tribulation rapture. Comfort comes in the fact that even though we will suffer persecution, even though the Antichrist will dominate for a period of time (3 1/2 years), all these persecutions and reign of the Antichrist will be short-lived. Jesus is going to come back.
Look at the return of the Lord in light of what Paul has just said about the Antichrist. The Man of Lawlessness boasts that he is God, even taking his seat in the holiest site on earth, the temple. Yet for all his braggadocio the Man of Lawlessness pales in comparison with Christ. When you read in Revelation about the climactic battle between Christ and Antichrist, the build-up is enormous. Antichrist gathers the kings of the earth and their armies to wage war against the Lamb and His armies. The actual battle is almost comical. Christ returns, speaks, and it is over. No long, drawn-out battle in which superior strategy, ammunition, deceit, etc., win the day. No, just one word from Christ and it is over.
Without going into as much detail, Paul basically says the same thing as Revelation about the end of Antichrist: "And then that Lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will SLAY WITH THE BREATH OF HIS MOUTH" (2:8). Christ returns, and it is over. Done. Period. Fin. It's over. That's the reason we can have comfort even though we are going thru times of great persecution. All persecution is temporary. On the other side of the persecution stand the return of Christ and the glory He will share with His followers.
SOME LOOSE ENDS
Two statements Paul makes in chapter 2 have troubled Christians and NT scholars for the past 2000 years. First, Paul says that SOMETHING and SOMEONE is "restraining" the Antichrist (2:6-7). (How much has this troubled Christians? Augustine the great theologian threw up his hands and said he had no idea what Paul was talking about here.) The most popular interpretation of this in American Christianity is that the Something is the Church and the Someone is the Holy Spirit. According to this interpretation the presence of the Church on earth is what prevents the Antichrist from emerging. Only after Christ has raptured the church from the earth and taken the Holy Spirit back into heaven will the Antichrist be able to emerge and do his deeds.
First of all you need to realize that NO ONE taught that view until 1827 with the teachings of John Darby and the Plymouth Brethren. This does not mean that that interpretation is wrong; however, it would be really strange for the church to have been that wrong for 1827 years, especially when those taught by the apostles didn't teach this view.
To me an even more important objection to this belief is that it does not explain the secrecy of this portion of chapter 2. If the church was the restraining thing and the Holy Spirit was the restraining person, why didn't Paul just come out and say it? That was such a purely religious claim that the Romans wouldn't in the least have cared about. Such a teaching didn't threaten the Roman empire. So why the secrecy?
In light of the context and in light of the fact that at least some early Christian commentators claimed this view (e.g. Tertullian), I feel that the restraining force would refer to government and the restrainer would be the head of state of government. In Paul's day the government was Rome, the head of state the emperor. If Paul had come right out and said that the government and its head were going to be done away with (maybe even pretty soon), he might have brought suspicion upon the church in Thessalonica. In fact he had just recently been driven out of Thessalonica on the charge of undermining the government (see Acts 17:6-7).
Just a side note and take it for what it is worth. One of the most noted Christians of the 20th century was Corrie Ten Boom. She was a lover of Israel and a lover of the Jew. In fact she is only one of 2 non-Jews honored by the state of Israel in the arbor at Yad Vas Hem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. (The other is Oskar Schindler.) Corrie Ten castigated the church in the early 70's for teaching a pre-trib rapture. She has some really harsh words on this subject. Others do not agree with her; I would not have couched my objections in the terms she uses; however, I feel that her comments are worth reading. Letter from Corrie Ten Boom (Skip over the author's introduction and go directly to her letter.)
The next clause Paul makes also has mystified Christians for the past 2000 years. He claims that the "mystery of lawlessness" is already at work. What has puzzled people is that he claimed that the Man of Lawlessness had not appeared and yet the mystery of Lawlessness was already at work.
A closer look at the entire Bible gives good insight into what Paul is saying here. Although there will be a final battle between Satan/his Antichrist and Christ at the end of human history, the conflict has been raging since the Garden of Eden. According to John we see this conflict when Lot was in Sodom and Israel in Egypt (Rev. 11:8). Babylon was the anti-God force during the days of Daniel (Rev. 17:5). Moreover, just like Jesus had prophesied the coming of many antichrists, Judas Iscariot himself was called "the son of perdition" (John 17:12: another name for Antichrist) by John himself, the author of Revelation. In 40 AD the Roman emperor Caligula tried to put a statue of himself in the Holy of Holies. We see antichrists emerging during the last days of John when he wrote 1 John 2:18. We see John referring to the Roman Empire and its emperor worship as the embodiment of the antichrist. It would be weird for this conflict to have stopped at the end of the first century. The hordes of Vandals which overran Europe and tried at first to stamp out orthodox Christianity were energized by Satan. The same holds true for the tyrants of the 20th century--Hitler and Stalin. This conflict will peak and terminate with the final and ultimate appearance of this Man of Lawlessness; HOWEVER, Christianity teaches that this conflict is basically the true interpretation of history from God's perspective.