Don't be unsettled - 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
This is what one commentator; Dr Leon Morris says about the section that we are looking at tonight: ‘… this passage is probably the most obscure and difficult in the whole of the Pauline correspondence and the many gaps in our knowledge have given rise to the most extravagant speculations.’ In other words, I have drawn the short straw in having this passage to preach on this evening. But since I drew up the preaching rota I have only myself to blame! But that observation from Morris does serve to highlight the fact that we are all going to have to work hard to follow what Paul is saying in order to get to grips with his meaning. Let me say at the outset that there is no universal agreement amongst the commentators about the interpretation of this passage. Both Lee and Scott have preached on this and I re-listened to what they had to say and the approach I shall be taking tonight is different from both of them. So if you don’t like what I have to say, you can listen to Lee and Scott’s sermons on line and go with one of those if you wish. But whatever differences there may be in the detailed interpretation of Paul’s teaching, hopefully the main principles which apply to us will be clear- so bear with me. And because this is a difficult passage I am going to do something I don’t normally do and that is to give my own translation whilst roughly following the NIV.
First of all, what is the occasion for Paul’s writing? We are told in verses 1-2, ‘Now we request of you brothers, concerning the coming presence (Parousia) of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering to him, don’t be shocked off balance, either by spirit, or by word or by letter as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is come.’ Paul is primarily a pastor and like any pastor worth his salt he is concerned with the spiritual well being of young Christians. This is not an academic paper he has written to titillate those interested in futurology, but a loving, practical letter to calm the hearts of worried believers. Now we don’t know the details, and maybe Paul didn’t either, of the teaching which was unsettling these Christians. We do know that in some way the claim was being made that the coming of Jesus- the Parousia- had somehow happened. This teaching may have come via some alleged prophecy, or ‘spirit’. It may have come via preaching. Or it could be that some folk were misinterpreting some of Paul’s letters, ‘a letter as though from us’ not necessarily a forgery, but certainly drawing wrong inferences. And the mind which is unsettled by wrong teaching is settled down by correct teaching. Feelings aroused by falsehood are calmed by the truth.
Now, given that Paul has already taught them about the Second Coming as part of his basic Christianity Course, according to verse 5, ‘ Don’t you remember that I used to tell you about these things when I was with you?’ Why should the claim that Christ has already returned bother them now? Well, it is because of what they are experiencing, namely, persecution, chapter 1:4, ‘Therefore, we boast about you amongst God’s churches about your perseverance and faith in all your persecutions and in the tribulations you are suffering.’ Now, as we shall see in a moment, integral to Jesus own teaching about his return (Parousia), is that persecution and tribulation of his followers will mark the ‘end times’. So we read in Matthew 24:9, ‘You will be handed over to tribulation/affliction (same word that Paul uses thlipsis) and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations on my account. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other.’ Well, that was happening to some degree, and so you can imagine some young Christians grasping hold of that teaching and putting two and two together and coming up with five- ‘There is persecution/ tribulation - so maybe Jesus has already come and we have missed out on it somehow?’ That is bound to make you wobbly in your faith. And so Paul tries to settle them down. If they had mugs in those days he may well have given them one with these words written on them, ‘Keep Calm and Read my letter’!
So what is the instruction? Verse 3, ‘Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way. For (and here the translators have added something which is not in the original in order to make sense of an incomplete sentence-‘that day will not come’) unless the rebellion comes first and the man of lawlessness, the son of perdition is revealed who opposes and exalts himself beyond measure over everything that is a god or an object of worship so that he sits in God’s temple, showing himself as a god.’ What’s that all about?
It is at this point that the commentators bemoan their disadvantaged position, because in v9 Paul says, ‘Don’t you remember that when I was with you I told you all of this?’ ‘Good for them Paul, they knew what you were talking about, you had already told them, but we don’t and so we have to guess and fill in the gaps.’ True to some extent, but we have something they didn’t have- namely, the Gospels and Jesus own teaching about his return in Matthew 24 and Mark 13 for example. Now it seems to me that there are so many parallels between what Paul says here and what Jesus says in those passages that what Paul had done in Thessalonica was to simply pass on to them verbally Jesus’ own teaching which we now have written down in the Gospels. So we are going to look at Jesus’ teaching to help us understand Paul’s teaching. It is Jesus’ teaching which actually fills in the gaps for us- and to help us see this I have produced a diagram for you.
Countdown to the Second Coming of Christ (Parousia)
Jesus- Matthew 24 Paul in Thessalonians
When will the temple be destroyed?
What will be the sign of Jesus return?-v3
The things which must happen before the End, Teaching about the return of Jesus as already
The decisive fall of Jerusalem and accompanying taught by Paul (2 Thess 2:1)
Warning against deception v4,v11 Warning against deception v3, v10
Don’t be alarmed v6 Don’t be alarmed v2
(The beginning of birth pains v8) The end is not yet v3
Tribulation/persecution v9 Tribulation/persecution – 1:4
Increase in lawlessness v12 Lawlessness-v7
The Gospel to be preached v14 Restraint (through Gospel preaching?) v6
The Call to be steadfast - v12 Commendation for being steadfast -1:4
The horrible event- desecration of the Temple The appearance of the man of lawlessness in
Destruction of Jerusalem vv 15-22 the Temple- vv 3-4
False claims of Christ’s return
False signs and wonders vv 23-24 False signs and wonders- v9
These things will happen within a generation Occurred 20 years later?
After these things Christ will return at any Christ will not appear until the horrible event
unexpected time vv 33-36 has happened- v3
The Second Coming vv 26-31 The Second Coming – v8 ( and 1 Thess 4:16-17)
So let’s look at Jesus countdown to his Second Coming in Matthew as it parallel’s Paul’s teaching in 1 and 2 Thessalonians.
With Jesus it all began with a discussion with his disciples about the destruction of the temple and they ask two separate but related questions, ‘When will this happen and what will be the sign of Jesus coming and the end of the age? So Jesus begins to instruct them.
First, he warns against deception about his return, Matthew 24:4, ‘Watch out that no one deceives you (that is Paul’s concern in v3). For many will come in my name, claiming ‘I am the Christ’ and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed (same word Paul uses in verse 2). Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.’ Then Jesus goes on to talk about famines and earthquakes occurring which are to be thought of as being like the first contractions in labour, but it is not time for the birth just yet. That is what Paul is saying here. Don’t panic; don’t be deceived about talk of the Christ having come. There will be tough times, but the end is a not yet.
Then, as we have already seen, there will be tribulation, v9, as well as false prophets who will deceive folk, and in Matthew 24:12, ‘Because of the increase in wickedness, (literally ‘lawlessness’- same word that Paul uses) the love of many will grow cold. But he who stands firm (remains steadfast) to the end will be saved.’ Again, that is what Paul is teaching. In chapter 1 he has spoken of the Christian being steadfast (a sign that they will be saved), the concern not to be deceived in vv 3 and 10, and the mystery of lawlessness which is already at work, v7. There will be a spread of the Gospel, according to Jesus Matthew 24:14, which some people think is what Paul is referring to in verse 6 when he talks of the ‘restraint’ on lawlessness, the idea being that the Gospel keeps evil at bay and preserves the good in society acting as salt and light. There will also be a time of trickery, when according to Matthew 24: 24, means people performing ‘signs and wonders’- Paul uses the same language in verse 9, which, by the way, is a phrase which doesn’t necessarily mean they are performed by the ‘man of lawlessness’, but that his appearing will be accompanied by these things done by others.
But there is one major horrible event which must take place and until that happens the end will not come. It is the decisive marker which until it occurs means that Christians can be quite sure Christ has not returned and will not return. What is that event? Jesus speaks of it in this way in Matthew 24:15, ‘So when you see the ‘abomination that causes desolation’, spoken through the prophet Daniel- let the reader understand-then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.’ In verse 4, Paul uses a different phrase to refer to the same thing- a man of lawlessness, a son of destruction will act as if he were a god, sitting in God’s temple. Now this is key.
So what is the interpretation?
In Daniel 8 and 11 there is a vision of a blasphemous ruler who will reign for a short time and desecrate God’s dwelling place. In 11:36, it is said that he ‘will exalt and magnify himself above every god and will say unheard of things against the God of gods’-very similar to Paul’s language here in 4. That prophecy of Daniel had already been literally fulfilled back in 167BC when a Greek ruler called Antiochus Epiphanes IV (which means –‘God manifest’), amongst other things erected a statue to Zeus and sacrificed a pig in the Temple. This led to the Maccabean revolt and a dreadful war. So Jesus is saying that the same imagery can be taken up and re-applied to a later event centred on the temple in Jerusalem which in its turn will lead to dreadful suffering and destruction. And all of this will happen within a generation of Jesus’ own lifetime (v34). When you see that happening, says Jesus, run for the hills. And you know what? Christians did just that in AD 70 when after another revolt by the Jews which began in AD 66, Caesar Vespasian’s son, Titus, entered the temple- which was sacrilege- and the troops are said to have offered up sacrifices to the image of the Emperor on the ensigns which were carried there, after which the troops went on the rampage totally destroying the Temple. The ‘Wailing wall’ is all that is left of it today. The Jewish historian Josephus claims that over a million were killed, and given that the population of the whole Roman Empire was little more than 60 million, that was slaughter on an unprecedented scale. So Jesus was not exaggerating when he said, ‘There will be great distress, unequalled from the beginning of the world until now.’ (v22). But after that event, says Jesus (AD 70), he could return at any time, but it will be a time no one will expect, like a thief in the night (which is exactly what Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians chapter 4). Paul is just teaching what Jesus taught
So, to recap-Jesus has been teaching that in the ‘last times’ – which is the period between his ascension and his return- his followers will be persecuted, subject to attempted deception by false teachers into thinking he has returned, some of whom will perform signs and wonders, as well as there being terrible wars, famine, earthquakes- all of which happened during the period of the early church. These act as the ‘trailer’ to the main feature which is Jesus’ actual return-the Parousia. But that will not happen until the temple has been desecrated and destroyed. After that- things will go on as normal (24:37) and Christ will return at a time no one knows and no one expects. Are you with me so far?
So how does this ‘man of lawlessness’ fit in? Obviously, he is tied in with what happened to the temple in AD 70, remember, this letter was written around 20 years before that. Therefore, could it not be that just as in the Book of Daniel, Antiochus Epiphanes represents the arrogant, overweening pride of the powerful man in rebellion against God, so here the absolutism of the Roman Empire embodied in its Caesar with its Emperor worship and idolatry, what is called ‘Babylon’ in the Book of Revelation with its outright opposition to God and his people as demonstrated by the destruction of Jerusalem and the desecration of the Temple, is just one embodiment of all human pride and lawlessness against God throughout the ages- all under the operation of Satan of course-v 9? Caesar and his representatives are ‘anti-Christ’. Rome claimed total power for itself and acted as if it was Caesar and not God who ruled the world. And until this appearing happens, says Paul, reiterating the teaching of Jesus, Christ will not return. But after that, we can expect him to come at a time only known to God- like a thief in the night. Presumably 20 years later, after AD 70, the Thessalonian Christians like all other Christians were ready for Christ’s coming at an unexpected time. But in the meantime, they were to persevere under trails as Paul was commending them for doing. Do you see?
Now to me all this makes sense. But what do we do with v8, ‘And then the lawless one will be made known, whom the Lord Jesus will annihilate by the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by his outshining presence (Parousia).’? This seems to suggest that whoever the man of lawlessness is who sets himself up in the temple, he is dealt with decisively at the Second Coming of Christ, in which case it hardly squares with what we have been saying about AD 70 being the horrible event. However, I can’t see how there will be a man of lawlessness in the temple at the time Jesus returns, because there isn’t a temple to be in. I don’t pretend that there is an easy answer, but a clue as to how this might be understood can be gleaned from the way prophecy ‘works’ in the Bible.
Let me explain: Sometimes an historical figure is taken up as representative of a spiritual principle which can appear again later on. For example, at the end of Malachi it is said that before the ‘day of the Lord comes’ God will send the prophet Elijah. This is taken up in the New Testament as referring to Jesus’ first coming-‘the day of the Lord’ and John the Baptist being ‘Elijah’ (Matthew 11:17). He was obviously not literally ‘Elijah’ but an Elijah-like figure- and so in that sense fulfilling the prophecy. You get the same thing going on in Ezekiel 28 and the historical King of Tyre being presented as an arrogant ‘anti-God’ figure. Historically this is what the King of Tyre was like and yet he was also representative of other tyrannical anti-God figures that surface from time to time throughout history. So could it not be so here? In the Emperor Vespasian and his son, Titus, you have the ‘man of lawlessness’; the temple is literally desecrated; blasphemous claims are made for themselves in AD 70. You know, even when Vespasian was dying, his last words were, ‘Oops, I think I am becoming a god’, which was ironic given that he was dying of diarrhoea! But then after Titus, his son Domitian, became one of the most arrogant anti-Christ rulers who ever lived and is clearly the main culprit in the Book of Revelation-the ‘beast’. So you see, the anti-Christ, lawless man appears over and over again. And this will continue until the day Christ returns and when he does that will be the end of all such arrogance and rebellion. All such lawlessness will be ‘revealed’ for what it is once and for all. And notice there is no great cosmic battle, the destruction comes simply by ‘the breath of his mouth’ (cf Isaiah 11:4), Jesus gently blows on him and all other such men and ‘poof’ they are gone. They are not so powerful after all! I hope that makes some sense.
So what is the application? Take a look at v 9, ‘Whose coming (the man of lawlessness) is according to the working of Satan with all powers and signs and wonders of a lie and with all unrighteous deception in the ones perishing because they did not love the truth in order to be saved. And so God sends upon them a work of deception to believe the lie in order that all may be judged who have not believed the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness.’
Throughout this passage you can’t have missed what the essential work of Satan is- deception. It is not frightening people but deceiving people so that they not only believe the lie, they want to believe the lie- they take pleasure in unrighteousness. God’s judgement is that he gives them over to the lie they want to believe in because they have rejected the truth of the Gospel. Friends, that is exactly where we find ourselves today both outside and inside the church- the rejection of truth and the embracing of the lie. And people like it that way because it means that it is we and not God who sets the agenda and that is the essence of lawlessness.
And so there is the phenomenon called ‘post-modernism’ which is the latest way for human beings to express their rebellion against God and the way things are by denying that there is any such thing as ‘the way things should be’. So the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb warns, ‘Postmodernism is the denial of the very idea of truth, reality, objectivity, reason or facts…… It’s a totally permissive philosophy-anything goes- and it’s extraordinary how far it has gone.’ And so when Hillary Clinton is found out as having told a blatant lie, she claims she simply ‘misspoke’. But if there is no truth, then there can’t be lies, just people ‘misspeaking’- but such ideas have the smell of sulphur on them. God has given over people to believing what they want to believe so it is now a ‘believers free for all’. And of course while you are in that state you can never accept the Gospel which saves you because to do that you have to believe that it is true.
Similarly within the church. The present Dean of York Minster, who is strongly being touted as the first woman bishop, has openly admitted that she is in favour of same sex marriages (another denial of the truth of God), she thinks the bishops of got it wrong and will do everything she can to get around the rules without actually breaking them. Now where’s the integrity in that? But that is the shift we have seen in the church’s thinking when it comes to what is considered to be truth and falsehood. William Temple delayed his consecration as bishop until he could get it sorted in his mind that he really did believe in the Virgin Birth. Truth mattered you see. But now, there is no truth to matter, except the truth that there is no truth- and so Satan does his work to deceive, and both society and the church unravel as they sink into the kind of lawlessness Paul describes here.
Do we despair? No. The reason being is that Christ Jesus rules this world and cares for his people- that is the truth. Jesus is still saving people through the proclamation of the Gospel- that is the truth. And one day Jesus is going to return and remove all deceit and those doing the deceiving whether they are politicians, philosophers or priests- for the days of the man of lawlessness are numbered, but the days of Christ are without end and that friends is the truth!
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