Facing the Future Without Fear
Facing the Future Without Fear
Facing the Future Without Fear
2 Thessalonians 2:1-12216
Main Idea: God gives us a glimpse into the future so that we can live hopefully and expectantly in the present.
- Deception Distorts Reality (2:1-3a, 5).
- False teaching robs us of peace (2:1-3a).
- False teaching ruins our perspective (2:5).
- Rebellion Intensifies in History (2:3b-4, 6-10a).
- The coming apostasy (2:3b, 9-10)
- The rise of the antichrist (2:3b-4, 6-10a)
- The removal of the restrainer (2:6-7)
- God Controls Our Destiny (2:8b, 10b-12).
- The antichrist is destroyed (2:8b).
- The rebellious are judged (2:10b-12).
A number of years ago while doing mission work in China, several people from our mission team returned to the hotel excitedly one evening. When asked about the source of their excitement, they revealed that while making their way back to the hotel they were approached by a street salesman who offered to make them a very good deal on "Rolex" watches. His normal price was $20; but because he liked our group so much, he was willing to sell each person a watch for only $10. One by one, each person from our group proudly showed off their newly purchased luxury timepieces. Later that evening as we headed to dinner, I asked one of the men if he would allow me to have a closer look at his watch. While removing it from his wrist I heard the man gasp as he noticed that the crystal had fallen off of his watch! While neither of us thought that $10 would buy him an actual Rolex watch, we both expected that his cheap imitation would last more than two hours! Most people would admit that there is a big difference between the real thing and a cheap substitute. Even though we know that if it seems too good to be true it probably is, we still find ourselves being fooled time and again. Being deceived by a watch salesman is one thing, but being deceived by Satan is an altogether different matter.
217The subject matter of 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 points forward to future world events, particularly as they relate to God's redemptive history. This portion of Paul's letter introduces some new material, including the events surrounding a coming world leader called the "man of lawlessness" (2:3). This individual will be the personification of evil like this world has never seen. Paul's description of his activity is chilling:
He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called God or object of worship, so that he sits in God's sanctuary, publicizing that he himself is God.... The coming of the lawless one is based on Satan's working, with all kinds of false miracles, signs, and wonders, and with every unrighteous deception among those who are perishing. (2:4, 9-10)
His purpose is twofold: to usurp the place of God and to deceive those who are perishing. But as quickly as he enters the scene of human history, the return of Jesus Christ will bring an abrupt end to his reign of terror (2:8).
In exploring this section more closely, we must remember that while this material may be unfamiliar to the contemporary reader of 2 Thessalonians, it was apparently not new to the Thessalonians themselves. We know this to be true for two reasons, one explicit and the other implicit. First, Paul clearly reminds the Thessalonians to recall his previous instruction about these future events (2:5). At some point in his initial visit to Thessalonica, he taught them many things about God's future redemptive plan, including the Lord's return, the coming lawless one, and the Day of the Lord. We have access to some of this instruction preserved in his letters (1 Thess 4:13-18; 5:1-11; 2 Thess 1:6-10; 2:1-12). In fact, in 2:1 Paul mentions Christ's coming for the sixth time. So, clearly the theme of Christ's return and the specific details surrounding it were not unfamiliar to the Thessalonian believers.
There is also an implicit reason to believe that Paul had given them sufficient instruction about future events. His discussion about the "man of lawlessness" is surprisingly brief. As a result, those outside of Thessalonica are left scratching their heads with more questions than Paul has answers. The implication is that because his previous instruction was more than sufficient, he saw no need to further elaborate.
Concerning his teaching and instruction, we must not miss the significance of what Paul did in Thessalonica. Following their conversion, Paul had a very brief time with these new believers. Though how long he was with them is not certain, it was most likely somewhere between 218three weeks and a few months. But even in that limited time, Paul apparently taught them extensively about the doctrine of last things. From the prophecy of Daniel to the words of Jesus, Paul no doubt painted a picture of the future, including the rise of antichrist and the abomination of desolation (Dan 7:8, 24-25; 9:27; 11:31; 12:11; Matt 24:15-28). So in the midst of their questions about the future, Paul responds to the Thessalonians, "Don't you remember that when I was still with you I told you about this?" (2 Thess 2:5).
The message here to pastors is noteworthy. As challenging as it may be to address the difficult eschatological texts of Scripture, we have a solemn responsibility to teach our people the "whole plan of God" (Acts 20:27). For the Thessalonians to face their future without fear, they needed to be anchored to the unshakable foundation of God's truth. And as we will see, by means of false teaching, someone in the Thessalonian church had attempted to compromise this foundation. The end result was an "upset" and "troubled" church.
With this as a backdrop, remember that Paul is less interested in satisfying our eschatological whims and more concerned with bringing the Thessalonians pastoral encouragement. Since Paul's aim was not to provide every conceivable detail of God's future game plan, we may walk away from the passage with more questions than answers. Still, the text is invaluable as you seek to understand God's ultimate plan for redemptive history.
Deception Distorts Reality
2 Thessalonians 2:1-3a, 5
From the outset of human history, Satan's goal has been to deceive God's people and to thwart God's purposes (Gen 3:1; John 8:44). Because his purposes are diametrically opposed to the purposes of God, he has dedicated himself to fighting God in every conceivable way. He declared war on Adam and Eve in the garden and on Jesus in His earthly ministry. He continues that war today (Matt 4:1-11; 2 Cor 11:14; 1 Pet 5:8). Satan's battle plan includes two main strategies: exploit our weaknesses, and blind us to God's truth. Although these two strategies almost always work in tandem, the latter typically gives rise to the former. Satan knows that if he can undermine our belief in what God says, then he can exploit our weaknesses as we struggle to live out our lives in obedience to God.
219Satan was working assiduously to undermine the Thessalonians' peace about their future. Paul makes this clear as the passage begins:
Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to Him: We ask you, brothers, not to be easily upset in mind or troubled, either by a spirit or by a message or by a letter as if from us, alleging that the Day of the Lord has come. Don't let anyone deceive you in any way. (2 Thess 2:1-3; emphasis added)
We can sense Paul's concern for the Thessalonians: Don't be upset. Don't be troubled. Don't be deceived. He knew that their fretfulness about the future was directly related to their forgetfulness about what he had taught them. Therefore, his goal is to help them refocus on their future by providing them with the lens of God's truth.
However, before we can fully understand what Paul reveals to them in this passage, we first need to recall some background. In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 Paul taught the Thessalonians about an imminent event on God's prophetic calendar, that is, the rapture or "snatching away" of the church. Paul pointed them to a future day when Jesus would appear in the clouds to call His church to be with Him. He gave the Thessalonians no specific date for this event, but he did give them a suggestion about its timing. Piecing together his flow of thought between 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and 5:1-11, likely Paul taught them that Jesus was going to come and gather His church prior to the Day of the Lord. As imposing as the Day of the Lord judgments might be, the Thessalonian Christians could view the future with hope knowing that God had no intention for them to be around for these events. Paul twice challenges the church to "encourage one another" with this hope (1 Thess 4:18; 5:11).
To be sure, not everyone agrees that this passage supports a pre-tribulational view of the rapture. Some suggest that it actually makes a stronger case for a post-tribulational rapture.17 Adherents to that position contend that if Paul believed that Christ would rapture His church prior to the Day of the Lord, his subsequent discussion about the coming "apostasy" and the revelation of the "man of lawlessness" would be superfluous since the Thessalonians would actually miss these events.
220They further argue that Paul's provision of the details and timing of both of these events is proof that he was arming the Thessalonians with the insight needed to recognize them when they happened. The post-tribulationist would conclude that Paul's purpose here is not to remind the Thessalonians that they would miss the Day of the Lord, but to prepare them for it. In this regard, Paul thus seeks to reassure them of God's sovereign control over their lives both in the present and in the future when Christ returns to establish His eternal reign.
While such a conclusion is not without merit, it does fail to capture adequately the pervasive theme of pastoral encouragement in Paul's eschatological teaching throughout the Thessalonian correspondence (1 Thess 4:18; 5:11). One might question how the news that things will get worse would bring much comfort to an "upset" or "troubled" Christian. Further, that the Thessalonians were so quickly troubled by the spurious news that the Day of the Lord had arrived does suggest that they had anticipated missing it.
We are now in a better position to understand the significance of Paul's instruction in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 with this as the backdrop. Someone in the Thessalonian church, either by a false letter or by false teaching, was claiming that the Day of the Lord had already come. To make matters worse, this letter or teaching had been ascribed to Paul himself. Given their respect for Paul and their ongoing suffering and affliction (2:5-7), the Thessalonians had become convinced that they must have missed the rapture and were now experiencing the Day of the Lord. This fear was taking its toll on the church. We can imagine how the anticipation of facing continued and even worsening persecution was destroying their peace and ruining their perspective, especially considering that they had pinned their hopes on being with Christ.
False Teaching Robs Us of Peace (2 Thess 2:1-3a)
To understand the serious threat that this false teaching posed to the church, recall that Paul described the Thessalonians as "upset," "troubled," and in danger of being deceived. Needless to say, upset, troubled, and deceived people are not part of God's formula for a healthy, vibrant, and growing church. These believers were shaken and confused by this new revelation. As Marshall observes, they were "so perturbed as to lose [their] normal composure and good sense" (Marshall, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 186). Perhaps another way to view their state of mind would be to say that they were an emotional wreck.
221Their physical and emotional stress was uncalled for, since it resulted from a lie. We can learn from the Thessalonians' mistake. Think about how many times we allow falsehood to steal our joy or rob us of peace. Consider the following hypothetical situation that will help drive this truth home: Suppose your boss comes to you on Friday afternoon at 4:30 and requests a meeting with you at 8:00 on Monday morning. Since your boss never gave you a reason for the meeting, you begin to inquire among your coworkers if any of them has heard anything. One of your coworkers informs you that she has heard a rumor that five people are being let go for financial reasons. With that new information, you are now convinced that you are among those being fired. You dejectedly head home for the longest weekend of your life. You can't eat or sleep. You are irritable with your spouse and grumpy with your children. No matter how much you try, you are unable to get the 8:00 a.m. meeting out of your mind. Questions and doubts begin to fill your mind: Will I have to sell my home? How will I support my family? Why do I deserve this fate? What will everyone think? When Monday finally arrives, you are resigned to the fact that you will be fired. Upon arriving at your boss's office, your boss greets you with these words: "Congratulations, you have been elected as employee of the year!" What? This was definitely not the news that you were expecting. Your anxious, joyless, and miserable weekend was ruined by something that was not even close to being true.
Although the illustration is frivolous, the point is not: when we build our lives on false premises, we are setting ourselves up for many sorrows. Can you see why Paul was so concerned for the Thessalonians? Their emotional instability and mental anguish had nothing to do with the truth. With a firm but pastoral tone, Paul exhorts them, "Don't let anyone deceive you in any way" (2:3). He reminds them that because their future was far from uncertain, they could keep their cool in the midst of trying times, but they needed to allow the light of truth to shine on the darkness of their confusion. The only way to do this is to expose them to the revealed Word of God.
False Teaching Ruins Our Perspective (2 Thess 2:5)
The promise of Christ's return was meant to be a source of encouragement, peace, and hope for the church. Yet confusion about the timing of the Day of the Lord was having the opposite effect. Instead of living joyfully in the present and looking hopefully at the future, the 222Thessalonians had lost their perspective. For Paul, this response was unwarranted because he had previously instructed them about God's plan for future events, including the timing of the Day of the Lord. Concerning this, MacArthur wisely notes,
There was really no excuse for the Thessalonians to have been so gullible, despite the seemingly convincing forged letter.... The Thessalonians' gullibility was an emotional reaction to the stress of their situation. However, truth is not determined by emotions or circumstances, but by Scripture. Believers must allow biblical truth and theology to rise above every situation. (MacArthur, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 270)
As noted above, what makes the Thessalonians' confusion so troubling is the fact that Paul had repeatedly taught them about the Day of the Lord. Incredulously, he asks, "Don't you remember that when I was still with you I told you about this?" (2:5). His use of the imperfect tense of the verb told indicates that his teaching had been continuous. In other words, he did not merely tell them about the Day of the Lord once; it was a recurring theme in his teaching. As a wise pastor, Paul knew that the church needed to recognize how to interpret their present experiences based on their knowledge of future events.
Those who preach and teach must remember that God has given them the assignment to prepare their people to face life's many issues. This commitment requires proclaiming the biblical text both systematically and expositorily. We cannot pick and choose what portions of the Bible we think our people need to hear. Paul's breadth of teaching in Thessalonica serves as a powerful model for a well-rounded and balanced preaching and teaching ministry. Although both letters to the Thessalonians take only about 15 minutes to read aloud, the amount of truth they convey fills volumes. Hence, just as Paul sought to prepare the Thessalonian Christians with God's truth, so, too, you must prepare your congregation for the inevitable exigencies of life by exposing them repeatedly to the Scriptures. Peter gives a strong challenge:
I will always remind you about these things, even though you know them and are established in the truth you have. I consider it right, as long as I am in this bodily tent, to wake you up with a reminder... I will also make every effort that you may be able to recall these things at any time after my departure. (2 Pet 1:12-13, 15)
223The only corrective to false teaching is repeatedly and consistently to expose people to true teaching—God's revealed Word (Jude 3).
Rebellion Intensifies in History
2 Thessalonians 2:3b-4, 6-10a
This section of Paul's letter is admittedly one of the most difficult in the New Testament to understand. However, what makes these verses so challenging is not the subject matter, but the succinctness with which Paul addresses the subject matter. As already noted, the whole of the apostle's teaching regarding the return of Christ and the Day of the Lord was much more detailed than what is included in the Thessalonian letters. In fact, arguably Paul had been so thorough in his personal instruction that he saw no need to provide more than a quick reminder in his letters. This approach is frustrating to modern interpreters because, as they see it, access to more information would go a long way toward clearing up any confusion. Concerning the challenges that modern interpreters face with this passage, Leon Morris offers a keen insight:
Our big difficulty in interpreting what he says is that it is a supplement to his oral preaching. He and his correspondents both knew what he had said when he was in Thessalonica, so there was no point in repeating it. He could take it as known, and simply add what was necessary to clear up the misunderstandings that had arisen. We find it very difficult to fill in the gaps and to catch his allusions, which are so difficult, indeed, that many and various suggestions have been put forward in the attempt to elucidate the apostle's meaning. We must bear in mind the gaps in our knowledge and not be too confident in our interpretations of this notoriously difficult passage. (Morris, First and Second, 212-13)
Given the inherent challenges facing the interpreter, perhaps the safest place to begin the investigation of this passage is to ask the question, What is Paul's main point?
Regardless of where commentators choose to land in their varying interpretations, they agree that Paul's point is to demonstrate to the Thessalonians that the Day of the Lord had not yet come. Paul's own words speak for themselves: "For that day will not come unless ..." (2:3b). With this statement, Paul accomplishes two objectives. First, 224he fires back at the false teachers. Note that his response is not a personal defense of his authority but a theological exposition of the truth. In other words, he is forcing the false teachers to argue with God's Word. This method is always the most effective means by which to confront false teaching. God's Word is more than sufficient to stand on its own. Remember, Paul's response was prompted by a report that the Thessalonians were upset and troubled by the specious claim that the Day of the Lord had already come. To confront the error and to reestablish their footing, Paul recognized that what the Thessalonians needed was not another opinion—they needed truth. He therefore unfolds for them the specific events that must occur prior to the Day of the Lord. His purpose is to allow the light of truth to expose the error of the false teachers.
Paul's second objective in these verses is to set forth a preview of coming events in God's redemptive history. While the commentators acknowledging the inherent difficulties in this passage are many, the truth remains that this passage provides a helpful glimpse into the future. Yes, we must guard against imposing on the text more than what Paul intended, but we must also recognize that God included passages like this in Scripture for our edification and not for our confusion. In other words, there is a message here that we cannot miss.
The Coming Apostasy (2 Thess 2:3b, 9-10a)
To make his point that the Day of the Lord had not yet come, Paul points the Thessalonians to three future events: the apostasy, the revelation of the man of lawlessness, and the removal of the restrainer (2:3b, 7-8). Using these events as waypoints by which to navigate the understanding of future events, Paul reminds the Thessalonians that none of these events has yet occurred. Any purported teaching claiming that they are now under the shadow of the Day of the Lord is therefore inaccurate. Questions regarding the timing of these three future events are legion, specifically as they relate to "the apostasy" and the "man of lawlessness." Rather than seeking answers to questions that the text does not provide, the best approach is to explore the nature of each of these events.
The idea of "apostasy" was obviously not unfamiliar to the Thessalonians. Paul's simple mention of it with no further explanation indicates that this topic had been previously discussed with them.Apostasyis a military term that suggests "the abandoning of a position." When used within the context of the church it points to abandoning or 225departing from the faith (1 Tim 4:1-2; Heb 3:12). To be honest, modern-day interpreters are at some disadvantage to know exactly what Paul meant when he used this word. Was he referring to a future time during which professing Christians would turn away from their faith? Or was he speaking about a specific historical event that would be characterized by a massive revolt against God? Or was he speaking of something else?
History is replete with examples of those who once professed to know God but then turned away from Him. In this sense, apostasy is nothing new; it has occurred in every period of church history. Paul's use of the definite article suggests that he has in mind something much greater than simply professing believers who fall away from the faith. He appears to be speaking futuristically about a specific period in human history—a time that will be marked by a massive rebellion against God, perhaps even an event gaining wide attention.
Whatever Paul has in mind concerning this apostasy, you can be sure that it will be closely related with the revelation of the "man of lawlessness." Paul ties the two together in the following description:
The coming of the lawless one is based on Satan's working, with all kinds of false miracles, signs, and wonders, and with every unrighteous deception among those who are perishing. (2:9-10a)
Fueled by deception and falsehood, the "lawless one" will be Satan's energizing force behind the apostasy. He will be unwavering in his opposition to God and relentless in his revolt against Him. He will also be successful in turning believers away from their once-professed faith. Jesus gives a glimpse into the future with these words of caution:
Then many will take offense, betray one another and hate one another. Many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. Because lawlessness will multiply, the love of many will grow cold. (Matt 24:10-12)
With this background, we now have a better idea as to why the Thessalonian believers were so shaken by the false teacher who was claiming that they would experience the Day of the Lord. Perhaps we can also sense their relief when they learned from Paul that such teaching was not from God. It is difficult to see how any news other than their total deliverance (rapture) prior to the coming apostasy would be an encouragement to them (cf. Rev 3:10).
The Rise of the Antichrist (2 Thess 2:3b-4, 6-10a)
226Clearly such a massive revolt against God will not occur without someone very powerful behind it. Paul identifies this driving force as the "man of lawlessness" or "son of destruction." Both descriptions reflect the heinous nature of this man. He is lawless because he despises everything about God's law, and he is the son of destruction because that is his destiny. He will thus have great disregard for the law of God and the dignity of human beings. He will fight to dethrone God, and he will work tirelessly to destroy human beings.
His true character is revealed in the following description: "He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he sits in God's sanctuary, publicizing that he himself is God" (2:4; emphasis added). For this reason, he has been given the title "antichrist." He will oppose everything that God stands for and counterfeit everything that God does:
- God establishes a law; he is the lawless one.
- God stands for creation; he is the son of destruction.
- God demands worship; he sits in God's sanctuary.
- God declares truth; he peddles unrighteous deception.
- Jesus was revealed from heaven; he will be revealed from earth.
- Jesus will come for His church; he will come in Satan's power.
Although he failed in his first attempt to dethrone God (Isa 14:13-15), he will not be deterred from one final attempt at another coup (cf. Rev 13:1-10).
Who will the antichrist be? The simple answer is that we don't know. Every attempt to identify this historical figure has proven to be futile. We know that he is coming; we just do not know who he will be. An unhealthy fixation on the antichrist will only serve to distract us from our focus on knowing, loving, and serving the real Christ. We would do well to heed the apostle John's warning that a "spirit of the antichrist" will characterize every age. He describes it in the following way: "But every spirit who does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist; you have heard that he is coming, and he is already in the world now" (1 John 4:3; see also 1 John 2:18, 22; 2 John 7). While we know that a future historical figure will one day burst on the scene, we also acknowledge that "the spirit of antichrist" is already here. The lawless one may be coming, but lawlessness is already here. The one 227who opposes Christ may be coming, but people who oppose Christ are already here. We may miss the reign of the antichrist, but you will not miss the spirit of the antichrist. In light of these challenging days, Paul gives a solemn charge: "Pay careful attention, then, to how you walk—not as unwise people but as wise—making the most of the time, because the days are evil" (Eph 5:15-16).
The spirit of antichrist that is characteristic of the present age will pale in comparison to the coming man of lawlessness. In an ultimate act of defiance against God, he will sit "in God's sanctuary, publicizing that he himself is God" (2 Thess 2:4). Commentators have offered a number of interpretations as to what Paul means when he speaks of sitting in God's sanctuary. Some have identified the sanctuary as that of the literal temple in Jerusalem. Others suggest that Paul is referring to a figurative heavenly temple or perhaps even to the church as the temple of God.
While no view is without its difficulties, apparently Paul has in mind the temple in Jerusalem. A figure like the antichrist would almost certainly desire a worldwide platform from which to blaspheme God. One could find no more prominent place than that which has historically represented the very presence of God. If the temple in Jerusalem is in view, then it is likely that the apostasy to which Paul refers in 2:3 is a reference to what Jesus called the "abomination that causes desolation" (Matt 24:15; cf. Dan 9:27). Though we cannot be certain what this event will be like, we have some historical referent that may give us an idea. In 167 bc the Greek ruler Antiochus Epiphanes desecrated the Jewish temple by erecting a statue of Zeus in the sanctuary and sacrificing a pig on the altar. Driven by his hatred for the Jewish people and his disdain for God, Antiochus sought to bring an end to their worship and their God. Because this act of desecration would have been well known to His disciples, Jesus alludes to it as He describes the coming Day of the Lord. Although He does not speak of the antichrist, He clearly points to a public and heinous act of desecration that would occur in the final days of human history.
Is this the event that Paul had in mind when he wrote about the apostasy? Although the text is not explicit, apparently Paul was foretelling a future event of similar scope and magnitude. Since the antichrist will be a worldwide figure, we can safely assume that his reign of terror will be on a worldwide scale. Paul may have left much to the imagination, but it is difficult to see how his description of the reign of the 228antichrist could be anything other than a public and prominent display of Satan's power.
Paul makes clear that the antichrist is no ordinary man. Empowered by Satan himself, the antichrist will be Satan's superman. Listen to Paul's description:
The coming of the lawless one is based on Satan's working, with all kinds of false miracles, signs, and wonders, and with every unrighteous deception among those who are perishing. (2:9-10)
This description vividly portrays the power and the activity of the antichrist. A number of observations must not be missed. First, he will have a "coming." He will attempt to mimic Christ in every way possible, including the way that he enters the world stage. Morris calls this a "parody of the incarnation" (Morris, First and Second, 232). Second, he will be empowered by "Satan's working." Just as Christ was filled by God's Spirit (Luke 4:1), so the antichrist will be fueled by Satan's power. Third, he will perform "false miracles, signs, and wonders." Paul uses the word false to identify the real motive behind the antichrist's miracles. His attempt to mimic Christ only goes so far. Jesus performed miracles to demonstrate His power to save; the antichrist will perform miracles to accomplish his purpose to deceive.
His sole reason for existence is to deceive those who are perishing (2:10). The antichrist will merely be a reflection of his father—the father of lies (John 8:44). This is why Paul calls him the "son of destruction" (2 Thess 2:3). Both his earthly objective and his eternal end are destruction and ruin. Interestingly, in the biblical record the only other figure who is referred to as the "son of destruction" is Judas Iscariot (John 17:12). MacArthur provides a helpful contrast between the two:
Judas desecrated the temple with the money he received for betraying Christ (Matt. 27:5); Antichrist will desecrate the temple by committing the abomination of desolation (Matt. 24:15). Judas, apparently without influencing others, went astray, a tragic solitary disaster (Acts 1:18-19); Antichrist will lead the world into destruction (Rev. 13:5-8). (MacArthur, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 273-74)
The Removal of the Restrainer (2 Thess 2:6-7)
To remind the Thessalonians that the Day of the Lord had not yet arrived, Paul gave them the following information:
229And you know what currently restrains him, so that he will be revealed in his time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but the one now restraining will do so until he is out of the way, and then the lawless one will be revealed. (2:6-8a; emphasis added)
Based on previous instruction, Paul is reminding them of the impossibility that they were in the Day of the Lord. He bases this argument on the abiding work and presence of the restrainer.
To be honest, Paul's reference to the restrainer has perplexed even the most able Bible commentators. However, what may be baffling to us was clearly obvious to the Thessalonians. Using his previous instruction about the Day of the Lord as a reference point, Paul was building a foundation on which they could regain their hope and reestablish their footing. His message to them is actually quite simple: the Day of the Lord cannot come until the restrainer is removed. That Paul provided no long explanation indicates that his point was self-evident to the Thessalonians. Perhaps this was the evidence the Thessalonians needed to change their perspective about the Day of the Lord. Maybe they nodded their heads in approval and confidently moved on. We, on the other hand, cannot move on so quickly.
While identifying the restrainer is no easy task, a careful reading of the passage does provide some clues. In verse 6 Paul mentions "what" restrains, but in verse 7 he points to "the one" who is doing the restraining. On one hand, he speaks of the restrainer as a force (neuter), but on the other hand, he speaks of the restrainer as a person (masculine). The implication is that someone who has the ability to exercise supernatural force is currently holding back the antichrist.
But this only leads to the question, Who is holding back the antichrist? Attempts to identify this person are many.18 Some see the restrainer as a government, such as the Roman Empire, not as a person. Others suggest that Paul is referring to the nation of Israel or even the preaching of the gospel, while still others argue that Satan himself is holding back the antichrist. Whoever is responsible for holding back the antichrist is obviously very powerful, and that power will not be released until its proper "time" (Mark 13:32-33).
230Perhaps the best approach in seeking to identify the restrainer is to acknowledge the obvious: God is ultimately the one responsible for holding back the antichrist. G. K. Beale offers an important insight:
It is clear that God is the ultimate power behind whatever historically particular agent is in mind. This is explicit from the observation that the restrainer will restrain until the revelation of the antichrist at the proper time.... This time is certainly set by God, since the whole segment (2:6-12) is placed within a prophecy-fulfillment framework. God will bring history to a conclusion in his own timing. (G. K. Beale, 1-2 Thessalonians, 217)
Through the power of His Spirit, God exercises His sovereign control over human history. Only when He chooses to remove His hand of restraint will the antichrist be revealed. This conclusion may appear to be an oversimplification of a difficult text, but it takes into account Paul's reference to the restrainer as both a force and a person. Only the Holy Spirit could fit such a description. Since the Holy Spirit is God, His removal from the scene does not indicate His complete absence. Rather, it points to a deliberate lessening of His suppression of evil.
In summary, through the Person and power of the Holy Spirit, God is presently holding back the evil onslaught of the antichrist. Though "the spirit of antichrist" pervades the age, the stage of human history awaits the arrival of the "man of lawlessness." God will one day remove His restraint through the temporal cessation of the Spirit's restraining work; when this happens, the antichrist will be revealed.
God Controls Our Destiny
2 Thessalonians 2:8b, 10b-12
The antichrist exits the stage of history just as quickly as he entered when God seals his fate with the coming of Jesus Christ. The same fate awaits every person who will be deceived by the antichrist. Even during the dreadful Day of the Lord, God's purposes will prevail. As Paul illustrates in these closing verses, God is methodically moving human history toward its final and perfect consummation. The "man of lawlessness" is simply a means by which God will bring this consummation to pass.
The Antichrist Is Destroyed (2 Thess 2:8b)
231Paul announces that the antichrist will meet his final fate at Jesus' coming. He purposely speaks of the "brightness of His coming" to emphasize two aspects of the Lord's return: His presence will be revealed, and His purposes will be fulfilled. Paul clearly wanted to make the point that Jesus was coming not only to reign but also to judge. By the "breath of His mouth" He will effortlessly destroy the antichrist (cf. Isa 11:4). At that moment every aspect of his reign will be rendered inoperative. His temporary seat in the sanctuary of God will be exchanged for his permanent home in the lake of fire (Rev 19:20). How ironic that the "man" who thought that he could conquer everything will be brought to nothing at Christ's return (Rev 19:11-21).
The Rebellious Are Judged (2 Thess 2:10b-12)
By the deceptiveness of his miracles, signs, and wonders, the antichrist will be successful in leading many to follow him (Rev 13:13-14). The full effect of his work will be embraced by the untold numbers of people who would rather believe what is false than to trust in what is true. As devious and deceptive as the antichrist may prove to be, the ultimate responsibility for failing to embrace the gospel falls squarely on the shoulders of anyone who rejects "the love of the truth" (2:10b). As Stott so aptly puts it, "Behind the great deception there lay the great refusal" (Stott, Gospel and the End, 172).
The closing verses of this passage reveal a chilling picture of those who will fall prey to the deceptiveness of the antichrist. Whatever else may be said about those who turn away from God, they ultimately make the deliberate choice to love their own sin more than they love God. As Paul puts it, they will perish not because they have not heard the truth, but because "they did not accept the love of the truth in order to be saved" (2:10b). That is a strong statement with significant implications. Human beings are notoriously reluctant to take responsibility for their own actions. Nearly everyone wants to pass blame on to someone else. Paul's reminder is that all will face the inevitable consequences for their own actions. Those who face judgment and condemnation will have no one to blame but themselves. The downward spiral of deliberate disregard for God is clearly illustrated in this passage: rejecting God's truth; believing what is false; enjoying unrighteousness; facing condemnation.
232Condemnation is the inevitable outcome of deliberate and willful disregard for and rejection of the truth of the gospel. Whether a person chooses to accept or reject salvation is a matter of the heart. The same is true for those who buy into the deception of the antichrist. Marshall makes this point well: "Whatever one may say about predestination, the lost carry the responsibility for their own perdition" (Marshall, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 203).
For those who persist in the path of disobedience, God will send "a strong delusion so that they will believe what is false" (2:11). This admittedly challenging verse reveals much about the ultimate outcome of those who repeatedly and persistently reject God's truth. Paul's statement that "God sends them a strong delusion" can be viewed in one of two ways. First, God will deliberately delude the reasoning of the disobedient to seal their condemnation. The precedent for such action is found in a number of biblical texts (Exod 10:20; Isa 6:9-10), but most notably in Romans 1 where Paul writes, "And because they did not think it worthwhile to acknowledge God, God delivered them over to a worthless mind to do what is morally wrong" (Rom 1:28). For those who persist in willful disregard for Him by loving their sin more than Him, God simply "fixes" or confirms their pathway to eternal destruction. As Hiebert rightly points out, while God did not cause their sin, He "subjects them to the power of the error they chose. God uses their choice of evil as the instrument to punish their sin" (Hiebert, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 344).
A second way to view Paul's statement is that God will permit the antichrist to delude the reasoning of the disobedient. Richard Mayhue describes this view:
God will send them strong delusion (literally "a working of deceit") by having the restrainer step aside (2:6-7) and by letting Satan's undiluted and unchecked lying have its sway over all the earth. God does this by His permissive will, not His determinative will. In other words, Satan will be, for a time, totally free to give the people exactly what they want to believe, i.e. the lie (cf. John 8:44; Rom 1:25; 1 John 2:21). The populace will not be restrained (cf. 2:7) from believing Satan's ultimate deception—the lie that Antichrist is God and salvation is through him. (Richard Mayhue, Triumphs and Trials, 191)
233Those who choose to believe the antichrist will suffer the consequences of their delusion—eternal condemnation.
In either case one must not miss the point: those who ultimately suffer delusion and judgment do so not because they failed to have the opportunity to be saved, but because they would not believe and receive the truth. God is sovereign even in judgment. From our limited perspective, seeing how God would allow us to travel down a pathway to eternal destruction is difficult. However, if God is able to "work all things together for good," then we must accept that He can use both good things and evil things for His purposes (Rom 8:28). Morris provides a helpful insight:
God is using the very evil that people (and even Satan) do for the working out of His purpose. They think that they are acting in defiance of Him, but in the end they find that those very acts in which they expressed their defiance were the vehicle of their punishment.... God is sovereign. No forces of evil, not Satan himself, nor his Man of Lawlessness, can resist God's might. He chooses people's sin as the way in which He works out their punishment. (Morris, First and Second, 235)
John Stott offers a fitting summary of this passage when he writes, "History is not a random series of meaningless events. It is rather a succession of periods and happenings which are under the sovereign rule of God, who is the God of history" (Stott, Gospel and the End, 173). Like the Thessalonian Christians, we are afforded the privilege of joining with God in what He is doing in history. But unless we keep the big picture in mind, we, too, can be easily shaken by circumstances outside of your control. We would do well to remember a number of purposes that God is accomplishing in the world.
He is building and strengthening His church. The Thessalonians' anxiety about their present circumstances resulted from their failure to remember God's promises about future events. In a world awash with everything that is false, God has provided the church with the unlimited resources of His truth. He has given believers His future game plan. Armed with the knowledge and insight of His Word, God's people can fulfill their mission with passion and expectancy.
234He is using both good and evil to accomplish His purposes. When the world appears to be caving in around us, calamity is simply another means by which God accomplishes His ends. If God can use the vilest of people to fulfill His purposes, then we can be sure that He can also bring good out of our most troubling circumstances.
He is moving history toward a final consummation. The future of this world is not in doubt. Evil may appear to prevail for a season, but looks can be deceiving. God is methodically doing His work in the world. Whether He uses the decree of an unwitting Roman emperor, the vitriol of self-righteous Pharisees, or the lawlessness of the antichrist, we can rest confidently that we do not live in a runaway world. The next time someone asks, "What is this world coming to?" we can answer resoundingly, "This world is coming to Jesus!"
Reflect and Discuss
- Why were the Thessalonians so upset and troubled?
- How does Paul seek to clarify their confusion? How important is it for a pastor to be both firm and pastoral when addressing such issues?
- How are the "apostasy" and the "man of lawlessness" connected?
- What do you think Paul means when he says that the man of lawlessness will sit in God's sanctuary? Why?
- Why is Paul's discussion about these future events so brief in this passage? What do you think that he previously told them?
- Who do you think "the one now restraining" is? Why?
- How does Satan seek to counterfeit Jesus through the coming and reign of the "man of lawlessness"?
- What is the ultimate reason people perish?
- What does Paul mean by suggesting that God will send "strong delusion" to those who do not love the truth? How would you defend this doctrine to a non-Christian?
- How does a passage like this equip you to live expectantly in the present?