Text: 2 Thess 2:1-12
‘In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.’ The chief concern of Christopher Columbus, however, was not the discovery of new continents. He was convinced that the end of the world was near. His main aim in life, apparently, was to free Jerusalem from the Moslems and to evangelise the world in order to pave the way for the millenium. He happened to discover America almost by accident and without realising what he had done.
John Napier, the inventor of logarithms, used his new mathematical techniques to calculate the date of Christ’s return – somewhere, he estimated, between 1688 and 1700. He wrote a commentary on the book of Revelation which went through 23 editions before the year 1700 came and went. After that, there wasn’t quite so much interest in it.
Charles T. Russell, founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, predicted that the world would end in 1874, later revising the date to 1914. After this second date had passed, his successor, Judge J.F. Rutherford claimed that Christ had in fact returned on Oct 1st 1914, only in secret. The JWs had to fiddle the books again when in 1975 the world’s expected end once more failed to take place.
People have been predicting the date of the end of the world for a long time now. And it was happening back in the days of the New Testament. Paul had had to write his first letter to the Thessalonians to reassure them that Christ would indeed return, and that all believers, whether they had already died, or were still living at the time, would be caught up together, to meet with their Saviour and to be with him for ever.
But in just a few months the pendulum had swung in the other direction. Far from doubting our Lord’s return, some were now teaching that he had already come, or at least, that Christ was on his way.
You can understand the confusion this caused. Hadn’t they been taught that ‘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 now some were saying that this was already happening. Some prophecy was doing the rounds, someone had seen it down in writing. Anyway, an apostle’s name has been mentioned so it must be OK. The time had come! The end of the world had arrived! The Saviour was returning!
And the minutes, and the hours, and the days, and the weeks slipped by, and nothing seemed to have happened. And excitement and anticipation was replaced by doubt and disappointment. Not only that, but God’s people had left themselves open to ridicule and their faith was being brought into disrepute.
And into this situation Paul wrote this chapter.
‘Don’t be unsettled and alarmed by these rumours that are going around,’ he writes, vv1f. And he ponits out why the day of the Lord could not have come. ‘I’ve already told you. Before Christ comes, there must first be a great rebellion.’
Let’s see what Paul has to say about about this rebellion, the restraint which is holding it back for the time being, and also the retribution which will crush it.
1. The rebellion, vv3f
It is as though in the last days Satan will throw all his forces into one last despairing effort. The climax of this will be the appearance of ‘the man of lawlessness’. Here is an individual who will defy all law and order. He will oppose God, and will try all means to undermine God’s rule and authority. He will even seek to take God’s place as the one object of worship. This man is called in the letters of John ‘the Antichrist’. Empowered by Satan, v9, he will do all kinds of false ‘miracles, signs and wonders’. The shadowy figure of the man of lawlessness, the Antichrist, had already been anticipated in the Book of Daniel and also by Christ himself in Mt 24 and Mk 13.
Even now, Paul points out, v7, ‘the secret power of lawlessness is at work’. Whenever we see people undermining the wise laws of God, and those of a decent society, we see this evil power already in operation. But near the close of the world’s history, a single person will claim centre-stage and sum up in himself all the wickedness and godlessness that was only hinted at even in the Neros and Caligulas, the Stalins and the Hitlers of this world. For the Great Rebellion, and the appearance of the man of lawlessnes is not yet, says Paul, for it is being held back or restrained:-
2. The restraint, vv6f
Who or what is holding back this man of lawlessness? The Thessalonians knew, but we don’t. Our best guess is that it is the very principle of law and order itself. Law and order was represented in Paul’s day by the Roman empire and the emperor, and in our own by the governing authorities and the head of state. These may fall very far short of what they should be, but Paul clearly teaches that they have a God-given authority:-
Rom 13:1 Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.
The appearance of the man of lawlessness is held back by the measure of justice, decency and freedom which was then enjoyed, and which we now enjoy. These restraining forces will one day be removed, says Paul, and then the man of lawlessness will seize his moment. He will gather his followers, those who hate the truth and delight in wickedness. He will dazzle the world with his false miracles. And then what?
3. The retribution, vv8-12.
Those who have been taken in by the man of lawlessness ‘are perishing’, v10, for they have consciously and persistently hated the truth and loved evil. They have stopped their ears to the overtures of God’s grace. They have anaesthetised themselves against the pangs of conscience. They have rebutted all the arguments, warnings and invitations of their godly friends. They have chosen a delusion. And God’s punishment is to finally let them have it.
And as for the man of lawlessness, he is ‘doomed to destruction’, v3. Mighty as he is, he will be swept away by our almighty Saviour. See v8: ‘whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendour of his coming.’ Our Saviour will blow him away and utterly destroy him. Don’t be alarmed by the malicious power of the Antichrist. Those who stand with the Lord Jesus are on the victory side.
So, says Paul, don’t be unsettled by the false teaching that is flyng around. Live always in the joyful expectation of Christ’s return. Rejoice in the prospect of our Lord’s final destruction of evil. Comfort each other with the hope of meeting with him and being with him for ever. But don’t be deceived into thinking that that great day has already come. That’s a recipe for chaos and confusion.
So, how can we guard against deception?
I can do no better than point out to you the instruction Paul had already given to the Thessalonians,
1 Thess 5:21 Test everything. Hold on to the good.
First, we can test everything by being watchful. Error can seem very attractive at first. The idea that Christ’s return is upon us can be very exciting, especially for suffering Christians like the Thessalonians. If false teaching came to us and said, ‘I am your sworn enemy. I have come to deceive and confuse you,’ it would get short shrift from most of us. But it comes more subtly that that. It brings a promise of great blessing. It may seem to offer an easier salvation, a higher degree of certainty, a quicker route to heaven, greater power, stronger emotion, more excitement. Therefore Jesus says,
Mt 7:15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.”
Second, we can test everything by accepting that our knowledge of God’s ways is not complete. False teachers pander to the desires of those who wish to know more than God has revealed. But we should not seek to pry into the unknowable. There are secret things, and there are revealed things, and the wise person knows the difference between the two.
Deut 29:29 The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children for ever, that we may follow all the words of this law.
Third, we can test everything by reference to the word of God. When unsettled and alarmed by the challenge of mediums and spiritists, Isaiah called the people to consult God and his word:-
Isa 8:20 To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn.
Now, concerning the time of Christ’s return, we have already been told by our Lord that:-
Mk 13:32 “No-one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
Acts 1:7 “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.”
In ways like that, then, we are to ‘test everything,’ as the inspired Apostle says. But we are equally to ‘hold on to the good.’ And one good thing to hold on to is this: the Lord Jesus will return.
He will return, and God will complete the plan he began in Christ. We shall see the reign of God finally and totally established. We shall see an end to suffering, and sin, and death.
He will return, and God will bring all things to their climax. For life on this planet is not a meaningless succession of events, a journey from nothingness to nowhere. It is moving towards a goal. And every day brings that final destiny closer.
He will return, and all who have known him and loved him in this life will be gathered together to meet him and to be with him for ever.