Reasons to be watchful - 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the evening service on 19th March 2006.

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Aim: To encourage the congregation to hold on to the Bible’s teaching so that they can persist as Christians even when faced with false teaching. The sermon will focus on the particular false teaching being faced by the Thessalonians. 


Theme: Paul corrects dangerous false teaching about the imminence of Jesus’ return from heaven.

At the beginning of February, Melvin, Nathan and myself decided to attend a training day for Anglican ministers who currently work in Hull and in the area surrounding the city. Many of you know this is not our normal practice. If you were able to compare our diaries you would soon discover that in a typical year the number of meetings each of us attends with fellow Anglican ministers is very small. As you would expect, we are keen to fill our diaries with meetings that will build us up and encourage us to keep on preaching the gospel in a faithful and creative way, but the last thing we want is to meet with people who cause us to tear our hair out and demotivate us for the massive task of communicating the gospel to a city that desperately needs to hear it. And, unfortunately, this is our normal experience when we meet with our fellow Anglican ministers. But, nevertheless, at the beginning of February, all three of us went to Bridlington for a training day with the title: “Does it matter what we believe?” Now I don’t have time this evening to pass on all the highlights of that day but let me tell you what happened in my small group.

If you can imagine the scene, we were all sitting in a circle discussing what opportunities we took as full-time ministers to speak to people about the Lord Jesus Christ. There was quite a lot of silence in our group. But eventually people starting talking about what they said to those parents who brought children for baptism, for those who came to get married, and to the families of those recently bereaved.

After a while one of them turned round to me and asked what we did at St Johns for our baptism preparation. So I told the group that we don’t believe it makes any sense to baptise the children of non-Christian parents, and so if the parents are not keen to become Christians we offer them a thanksgiving service instead. But then I said that what frustrates me greatly as an Anglican minister is to see other Anglican ministers in the city baptising the children that we have refused to baptise, for the sake of everyone’s integrity. Now at this point the lady sitting next to me confessed that her church would baptise any children we would not. And then she uttered one of the most popular statements that we hear in the 21st Century: “I’m not saying that what you do is wrong or what I am doing is right. I think we are both right in our different ways.” To which I responded, “What would you say if I said that what you are proposing is wrong and would deeply damage my ministry? In fact, let me say it.” And so I looked her in the eye and said, “If you practice that policy you are wrong and you will deeply damage my ministry.” Now as you can probably imagine the polite group dynamics changed somewhat over the next few minutes. I was not Mr Popular. How dare I suggest that someone else might be wrong when discussing matters of religion?

But have you noticed that in many other areas of life we still talk about truth and error? Just imagine you were on a British Airways Flight to Tenerife and as you walked up and down the cabin to stretch your legs you overhear the following conversation between the pilot and his co-pilot. “Sir, I’m sure that’s a Virgin Plane heading straight towards us. I really think we should change our course to avoid a collision.” “Well, that’s an interesting observation Bob. But I see things slightly differently. I’m sure it won’t hit us directly. It might just come close. But in the end, what does it matter? Your opinion is just as valid as mine.” Can you imagine hearing that at 35,000 feet?

I think passenger numbers would plummet on British Airways flights if their pilots regularly had those types of conversations.

And yet in matters of religion those types of conversations happen almost every day. The categories of true and false are removed and people speak about their sincerely held opinions instead. So why are many people bothered about truth and error when it comes to flying aircraft but not when they discuss the God who made them? Let me suggest two reasons.

First of all, because many people assume the various religions in the world are simply mankind’s guesses about God. Admittedly, some of the guesses are better than others but in the end a guess is still a guess. And so therefore no one can categorically say that someone else is wrong. Unless, of course, your religion is based on revelation from God rather than on human speculation about him. Which is why Christians can never say it doesn’t matter what people believe about their creator. When God speaks, as he has done through the Old Testament prophets and supremely by sending his Son Jesus Christ into the world, our responsibility is to humbly listen and obey, not arrogantly say it’s all just a matter of opinion.

Secondly, I’m convinced that another reason why many people shy away from using the categories of true and false when discussing religious topics is because, in the end, they don’t think it matters. It’s quite understandable that aircraft pilots want to know the truth about a plane’s position, because in their case it’s a matter of life and death. But to many people, on a scale of importance, religion is much further down the chart. And if you believe God will save everyone then it hardly matters what a person sincerely believes. But let me remind you of what we discovered last week from 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9: There is a day coming when Jesus “will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power.”

It does matter what we believe. There is truth that will take us to heaven and there is falsehood that will take us to hell.

The stakes are that high. How we respond to the gospel of the Lord Jesus will determine whether we stay on the sinking ship, destined for eternal ruin, or whether we join the rescued survivors on the lifeboat heading for eternal joy. Do you ever ask yourself which boat you are on? I wonder if you know.  It does matter what we believe.

And not just at the beginning of our Christian lives it also matters what we believe as we continue to live as Christians waiting for Jesus to return. We saw last week that one of the major themes of 2 Thessalonians is for Christians to persist as Christians until the very end. As we wait in the lifeboat of salvation we are guaranteed to encounter strong winds and high seas, which both have the possibility of ejecting us from our place of safety. So if we want to remain Christians until the very end we must get our feet secure and hold on, as tightly as we can, to the teachings that we find in the Bible. Only these will help us endure outside persecution and inside deception.

Our passage tonight is all about inside deception. Last week we focused on how the amazing truth that God is righteous helps a Christian persist as a Christian through all sorts of trials and tribulations. But tonight our focus shifts to the second great danger facing Christians in a world that largely rejects Jesus Christ, the danger of false teaching from within God’s churches. It is much more subtle than outside persecution but it’s consequences are just as deadly. Unless recognised and dealt with, false teaching can shipwreck the faith of even the most committed believer.

So with that in mind, let’s turn to the first 12 verses of 2 Thessalonians chapter 2 and learn some lessons from the great apostle Paul. We begin by asking a very simple question: What precisely was being taught in Thessalonica?

Have a look at verses 1 and 2. “Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers,  2 not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us, saying that the day of the Lord has already come.” So at the heart of this false teaching is a dangerous misunderstanding about the day of the Lord. It seems that in Paul’s absence a new teaching about the second coming of the Lord Jesus had begun to spread among these new believers. And, according to verse 2, it was causing them great distress. We are told that the new things they were hearing had unsettled them or quite literally they had been shaken in their thinking. And now they were in a state of constant alarm. Like a boat that is relentlessly tossed by the wind and the waves so these Thessalonian Christians were unsecured and were drifting dangerously in a sea of mental confusion. They had been rattled and so they desperately needed Paul’s help.

Now you’ll notice from verse 2 that Paul is not entirely sure how this false teaching had arrived in the city. He mentions three distinct possibilities or perhaps even a combination of all three: a prophecy, a report or a letter supposedly sent from him. So it’s possible that as the church gathered to thank the Lord Jesus for saving them from the wrath to come someone claimed to have a direct word from the Lord Jesus himself, concerning his return from heaven. Or maybe a rumour had reached the Christians in Thessalonica from a passing Christian traveller. Or it might even have been that someone had received a forged letter claiming to be from the apostle Paul himself. But, to be honest, we simply can’t be sure how this false teaching had arrived in the city.

What we do know, however, is what particular doctrine was under attack. End of verse 2. Someone was claiming that the day of the Lord had already come. Now if we belonged to the Thessalonian church we would have no difficulty understanding what Paul is talking about. This would be an idea frequently discussed in the congregation.

No doubt over a cup of coffee everyone would be talking about the latest implications of the arrival of the day of the Lord. But for us, living 2000 years later, we need to think very carefully about what Paul could mean and see if we can identify as many clues as possible from what he writes elsewhere in his letters to the Thessalonians. You’ll see from your handout that I’ve suggested four different interpretations of the phrase “the day of the Lord has already come.”  

First of all, it could have been the case that some people in the congregation were suggesting that the Lord Jesus had secretly returned to the earth and was currently living somewhere on the planet, perhaps even in Jerusalem. In the days before global communication this was indeed a possibility but I think it is very unlikely that this sort of teaching was actually being talked about in the city of Thessalonica. For example, if you glance across the page at 1 Thessalonians 4:16 you will see what Paul had previously communicated to the church about the second coming of Jesus. He had written, “The Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.” It’s not exactly a secret coming is it? In one verse we are told about a loud command, the voice of an archangel - which, although I have never heard the voice of an archangel, I presume it’s not a very quiet voice! And then for good measure we even read about a trumpet call of God. Or in other words, when Jesus finally appears it will be loud and it will be public. So it seems very unlikely to me that the Thessalonians could have been fooled by anyone who claimed Jesus had secretly returned to the earth.

A second possibility is that some people in Thessalonica were claiming that Jesus had returned in a new spiritual way. They may have been a claiming that a superior spiritual life was now on offer for those who wanted it. Forget persecution, forget suffering and forget sickness, this spiritual return of Jesus has opened the way for believers to receive the fullness of the heavenly life while they still live here on the earth.

You can see the attraction can’t you? Who doesn’t want a life without sickness and pain? But although we do come across this sort of teaching in 1 Corinthians chapter 4, 2 Timothy chapter 2 and even in many churches today, I’m not persuaded this was the false teaching being communicated in Thessalonica. It seems to me that in verses 3-12, where Paul actually refutes the false teaching, he never challenges the definition of the day of the Lord. He never says, for example, “Stop talking all this nonsense about a spiritual return of Christ and dig out, from your files, the first letter I sent to you. And when you do you will discover that I wrote about a very public and visible return of the Lord Jesus, not some sort of spiritual return.” He never says that. Instead, his central concern in verses 3-12, is not with a wrong definition of the day of the Lord but with a wrong understanding of when it could happen.

So this brings us to options 3 and 4. Option 3 sticks with the NIV translation but understands the day of the Lord to be a short period of time before the return of Jesus rather than the return of Jesus itself. Therefore, if option 3 is correct then it seems that some people in the church were claiming that because this short period of time had arrived then the appearing of Lord Jesus must be just around the corner. Now personally I don’t think this option is the right one but I do think it is the best one we’ve looked at so far. For example, it does explain why Paul is so concerned to deal with timetable issues in verses 3-12, rather than on a correct definition of what the day of the Lord actually is. However, despite its initial attractiveness, I don’t think it is the interpretation we should follow. And my reason is because it understands the phrase, “the day of the Lord”, to be referring to a short period of time before Jesus returns rather than the return of Jesus himself, And I’m convinced that when Paul speaks about “the day of the Lord” in his letters he consistently means Jesus’ personal arrival from heaven rather than a short period of time before this other event takes place.

Therefore, I think we should go for option 4, which translates the phrase at the end of verse 2, as “the day of the Lord is just about to happen.” As you can tell, it’s very similar to option 3. It again stresses the imminence of Jesus’ personal return from heaven. But where it differs from the third option is how it understands the phrase “the day of the Lord” and how it translates the last few words in the sentence. So instead of “the day of the Lord” being a short period of time just before Jesus’ personal return, “the day of the Lord” is Jesus’ personal return. But if this is the case then we need to follow an alternative translation for the last few words at the end of verse 2. So instead of saying “the day of the Lord has already come” I think the end of verse 2 should read, “the day of the Lord is just about to happen.” It seems that some people in Thessalonica were claiming that Jesus’ second coming was to be expected in the very near future. Perhaps in a few days, a few weeks, or at the most, in a couple of months.

Now it’s not difficult to understand why this sort of teaching was causing the Christians at Thessalonica to become unsettled. For example, if you glance back across the page at 1 Thessalonians 5:1, you’ll see that Paul had previously said to the church that he would not write to them about the precise times and dates of Jesus’ return. So, no wonder they became alarmed when some in their number claimed that Paul had now passed on the news that Jesus’ return was just about to happen. Why this change of mind? And what about the rest of his teaching? Could it still be trusted? Because if he had taught them wrong things about the second coming of Jesus, what else had he got wrong? No wonder the Thessalonians were rattled!

And just consider what would happen when the Lord Jesus failed to appear as they anticipated. Wrong expectations are deadly for the long-term sustainability of Christians. We do not continue to persist when we are constantly promised things that never materialise.

So, in order to head off a potential spiritual disaster, Paul reminds the Thessalonians, in verses 3 to 12, of what they should have believed about the second coming of the Lord Jesus. Have a look at verse 3. “Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction.”

The second coming of the Lord Jesus cannot be just around the corner, says Paul, because two events need to happen first before Jesus is revealed – the rebellion and the coming of the man of lawlessness. Now we don’t know for certain the exact relationship between these two events. We’re not told if there will be a rebellion first, which at some point will gather pace under the leadership of a particular individual, or if the actions of a particular individual will cause the rebellion to happen. The precise details are not disclosed in 2 Thessalonians. But we are promised that Jesus cannot return until the world has witnessed both the rebellion and the appearing of the man of lawlessness.

First of all, the rebellion, or more literally, the world is to expect something Paul calls the apostasy – which means a falling away from faith. Now we need to recognise that this is not a completely new idea. For example, in the Old Testament book of Daniel, a time is predicted when a particular individual will cause many Jews to abandon their covenant agreement with their God. This is what we read in Daniel 11:28: “The king of the North will return to his own country with great wealth, but his heart will be set against the holy covenant. He will take action against it and then return to his own country.” And then just a few verses later, in 11:32, we are told, “With flattery he will corrupt those who have violated the covenant, but the people who know their God will firmly resist him.”

Daniel was talking about a Greek ruler called Antiochus Epiphanes, who in the middle of the 2nd century BC, caused a large number of Jews to compromise the purity of their religion by mixing it together with the gods and the culture of the Greek empire. This is what one of the historical records says about that time. You can find it on your handout. “In those days there came forth out of Israel transgressors of the law, who persuaded many, saying, Let us go and make a covenant with the Gentiles that are round about us…And they made themselves uncircumcised, and forsook the holy covenant, and joined themselves to the Gentiles…And the king’s officers, that were enforcing the apostasy, came into the city of Modein to sacrifice.” (1 Macc 1:11, 15, 2:15)

Now we see the same outcome again in Matthew chapter 24. Do you remember what the Lord Jesus said would happen before the destruction of the temple in AD 70? Matthew 24:10: “At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.”

We need to understand that in the past there have been occasions when a large number of God’s people have given up the faith.  They have been guilty of apostasy. And, if I’ve understood 2 Thessalonians chapter 2 properly, then before the visible appearance of Jesus there will be another large scale falling away from within the church of Jesus Christ.

Now closely linked with this rebellion is the appearance of a rather obscure person called the man of lawlessness. There’s no doubt that ever since Paul wrote those words there has been no end of speculation from Christians about the identity of this particular individual. In the early years of the Christian church various Roman Emperors were suggested.

At the time of the crusades the Western church identified the man of lawlessness as Muhammad. During the Reformation, in the 16th century, Martin Luther referred to the papacy as the man of lawlessness and then the papacy returned the favour by identifying Martin Luther as the man of lawlessness. And in more recent times the names of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and even Bill Gates have become attached to this mysterious figure. So what are we to do with this man of lawlessness? Well, let me encourage us to concentrate on what we are told about him in 2 Thessalonians chapter 2. Our great temptation is either to scan the history books or to scan the newspapers for any clues about his secret identity. But I think it is more profitable for us to stay in 2 Thessalonians chapter 2. Because when we do we discover four essential facts about this unique individual.

First of all, he is a man. Now you might think this is stating the obvious but let me state it anyway. In verse 3 he is called both the man of lawlessness and the man doomed to destruction. And then in verse 9, we discover that the coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders. So, although it is clear the arch enemy of God empowers and directs this individual it would be a mistake to conclude that the man of lawlessness is Satan himself. He is not Satan. Rather, he is Satan’s man for a particular mission against God’s people.

Secondly, we are told that he is a man of lawlessness. Or in other words, his chief characteristic is to be lawless. Which does not mean he has no idea what God’s laws are and so disobeys them in blissful ignorance. No, it means he knows exactly what they are but chooses to invent his own. And this, I think, explains what we read in verse 4. Paul says, the man of lawlessness “will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshipped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.”

Now the original background for this language can be found in Daniel 11:36. But I’m confident that even without this Old Testament background we have enough clues in the surrounding text to work out what this obscure individual will end up doing. He will proclaim himself to be God. That is, he will take God’s place when it comes to deciding what is right and wrong. He will truly be lawless because he will take the place of the only legitimate spiritual lawgiver in the universe. And notice where this will happen? He will set himself up in God’s temple. Now I’m not convinced from my reading of the Bible that in the future God’s temple in Jerusalem does not need to be rebuilt. Instead, it seems clear to me that the New Testament speaks of the church of Jesus Christ as the equivalent of the temple that we find in the Old Testament. So when we read that the man of lawlessness will set himself up in God’s temple, I think, we meant to conclude that he will set himself up as a leader in the worldwide church of Jesus. And in this position he will lead many professing Christians to commit apostasy by abandoning God’s teaching preserved in the Bible. He is a man of lawlessness.

Thirdly, he is man who has not yet appeared. We’re told in verse 6 that something is currently holding him back, very probably the Holy Spirit, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. And then in verse 8, Paul assures us that one day the lawless one will be revealed. Implication? He is not yet here. He may already be in the mind of Satan but, according to the New Testament, he is certainly not hiding next to Osama Bin Laden in a cave somewhere in Afghanistan. He is still to appear on the stage of human history.

But, fourthly, let’s make sure we don’t forget that he is also a man doomed to destruction. There is no doubt about the fate of this individual. We are told in verse 8 that the “Lord Jesus will overthrow [him] with the breath of his mouth and destroy him by the splendour of his coming.” So it won’t be a big battle at the end of history.

We are not to expect Jesus to be fighting a few rounds with the man of lawlessness, sometimes in the lead but sometimes in danger of losing the fight. Not at all! We are promised that Jesus will overthrow him with the breath of his mouth. He simply has to blow and the man of lawlessness will hit the canvas.

Now I don’t know how much you have understood of what I have been speaking about tonight but to make it crystal clear what these verses of the Bible mean for us let me finish by giving us three practical lessons to take away.

First of all, let’s recognise that there is such a thing as false teaching in the churches of Jesus Christ. It is not just a matter of opinion. We must use the categories of true and false. And let’s not think lawless behaviour in the churches is only destined for a short period of time before Jesus appears to end the world. Have a look at verse 7. “For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work.” Or in other words, even today we are likely to see in many so-called Christian churches the evidence of lawless behaviour. And isn’t that exactly what we do see? Church leaders who set themselves up in God’s temple and declare practices to be legitimate, which the Bible says are forbidden. So, my friends, if a Christian leader tells us they have a direct message from God but it contradicts the Bible then we are to reject what they say as false – even if their ministry is surrounded by the miraculous. Miracles don’t prove something is from God. We’ve heard tonight that Satan can do his own miracles. And there is no suggestion in verse 9 that his miracles are anything but real. So how should we deal with false teaching? I think we are given a clue in verse 5. Paul says to the Thessalonians, “Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things?” The Thessalonians had got themselves into trouble because they had forgotten the truth that Paul had passed on to them. And there in a nutshell is how we recognise and avoid false teaching.

Like a bank clerk who handles money, we must familiarise ourselves with the genuine so that we can spot a forgery whenever it comes our way.

Secondly, let’s remember that God controls the future. He will not be surprised by the future apostasy of his people and he will not be surprised by the future appearance of the man of lawlessness. In fact, he will be the one who decides exactly when the lawless one will appear. So let’s be encouraged that our God is in complete control of everything that happens.

And then, finally, I think we should allow this passage to change our timetable of future events. I think we need to conclude that Jesus Christ cannot come back tonight. According to the apostle Paul, two significant events must happen before Jesus appears to end the world – the apostasy and the appearance of the man of lawlessness. But as far as I can make out both events have still to take place. I have no idea when they will take place and I have no idea how long the man of lawlessness will be around for when he does appear. But in the light of what we have studied tonight it would be wrong for me to say that Jesus Christ could return at any minute. I no longer believe that to be true. Now please don’t misunderstand me. I still believe we can meet Jesus Christ at any moment, because remember there are two different ways of meeting someone – either they come to us or we go to them. And, let’s be honest, none of us sitting in this building tonight knows exactly when we will start our journey to meet Jesus Christ face to face. But in terms of him coming to us, my study of 2 Thessalonians has convinced me that Jesus cannot return by the end of today.

I want to finish by reminding us of our big responsibly as we wait for Jesus to come back. We cannot be sure when it will happen and we cannot be sure when the apostasy will begin and when the man of lawlessness will be revealed. But in the meantime we can be sure of our big responsibility. 2 Thessalonians 2:15: “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.” Let’s pray.

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