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Lesson 4: God’s Comfort in an Evil World (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12)

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February 12, 2017

If you track with the news, it’s easy to become anxious about all of the widespread evil that takes place every day. ISIS in the Middle East is committing unspeakable atrocities. Al Qaida continues its campaign of worldwide terror. The Phoenix evening news usually has reports of murder, armed robbery, child abuse, and the like. Voice of the Martyrs reports stories of horrible persecution against our brothers and sisters worldwide.

You can come away from all of this news wondering whether God is really in control of the world. Although we are currently not suffering persecution, maybe you’ve gone through a difficult trial where you wondered, “Where is God in this? Does He love me?”

In our text, Paul shows that God is sovereign even over evil rulers and evil events. At the climax of history, the most powerful, hideously evil ruler ever will gain a worldwide following. Paul shows that this is all part of God’s prophetic plan. His point here is not to give us a timetable of end times events to satisfy our curiosity. Rather, he wrote to comfort these persecuted new believers with the truth. Leon Morris puts it (The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians [Eerdmans], p. 229), “[Paul] is convinced that all men and events are in the hand of God…. He writes to assure them that whatever happens God is over all.”

But we need to grapple with a number of difficult interpretive matters in these verses. I’ll try to explain most of them as we work through the text. But I need to mention a major divide as we begin. Those who hold to the pretribulation rapture of the church contend that the problem Paul was addressing was that some false teachers had told the Thessalonians that they had missed the rapture and were now in “the day of the Lord,” which included the tribulation (John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, 1 & 2 Thessalonians [Moody Press], pp. 265ff.). So Paul is reminding them that he had taught them that that day would not come until the apostasy came first and the man of lawlessness was revealed. Since those two major events had not taken place, they could be assured that they were not in the terrible day of the Lord.

But there are several problems with this view, which I think reads a preconceived idea into these verses. First, if the Thessalonians thought that they had missed the rapture and were in the day of the Lord, surely Paul would have said, “Don’t you remember that I told you that we will be raptured before the day of the Lord?” Why would he tell them about these two signs to look for if they weren’t going to be around when they happened? (See Douglas Moo, Three Views of the Rapture [Zondervan], p. 189.)

Robert Culver mentions a second problem with this view (Systematic Theology [Mentor], p. 1134):

It is unreasonable to suppose that they thought the ‘rapture’ had occurred and all the congregation, including their elders and others who had endured much persecution for the Lord’s sake … had been ‘left behind.’ Did they suppose that Paul himself and perhaps Silas and Timothy (Acts 18:5), all of whom probably kept in communication with Thessalonica, had missed the rapture too?

A third problem with this view is that those who hold to the pretribulation rapture say that “the coming” (Parousia) of Christ in verse 1 refers to the pretribulation rapture, but the same word in verse 8 refers to His second coming after the tribulation. The burden of proof is on them to explain why Paul without explanation would use the same word in the same context to refer to two separate events (G. K. Beale, 1-2 Thessalonians [IVP Academic], p. 198).

Also, it’s important to recognize that Paul’s teaching on the end times in the Thessalonian epistles is very likely based on Jesus’ teaching in the Olivet Discourse, which all commentators agree refers to His second coming, not to a pretribulation rapture. Dr. Culver (p. 1129) cites a source that lists 24 correspondences between Jesus’ discourse and Paul’s teaching. So it is unlikely that Paul’s two references to the coming (Parousia) of the Lord (2 Thess. 1:1, 8) refer to different events. Both refer to Christ’s coming after the great tribulation.

What, then, was the problem that Paul is addressing in our text? Dr. Moo (p. 188) says that the verbs suggest “that they were agitated and unsettled—abandoning their normal common sense and daily pursuits in nervous excitement over the nearness of the end.” Dr. Beale (p. 200) thinks that the false teachers were claiming that Christ’s coming and the resurrection had already happened, “so that there should be no present expectation of any future occurrence of either of these events.” He says that this conclusion is supported by the situation in Corinth, where some denied that there would be a final, physical resurrection of the dead. This also “may have entailed a belief that there would be no final coming of Christ at all.” He also refers to the false teachers in Ephesus who claimed that the resurrection had already taken place (2 Tim. 2:18).

A modern version of this false teaching called extreme preterism claims that Christ returned spiritually in A.D. 70 and thus He is not coming back again. I contended with a man from Flagstaff who wrote a short book defending this error. He’s cleverly deceptive, in that he says he believes that Christ is coming again. But when you pin him down, he means that Christ comes again spiritually every time we sense His presence. He denies the future bodily return of Christ. The warning that Paul gives in verses 1-3, “Let no one in any way deceive you,” applies to this modern version of this false teaching.

Because there is so much to cover in these verses and it’s difficult to break it into two sections, I cannot deal with all of the details in the text. I’ll try to explain the main issues. The main idea is:

Believers can have comfort in the midst of persecution or worldwide evil because God is sovereign over all and in His time will judge all evildoers.

1. Although there has always been evil in the world, just before Christ returns it will grow even worse.

As we saw when we studied 1 Thessalonians 5:1-8, the day of the Lord refers to God’s intervention in history for judgment on His enemies or for deliverance and blessing for His people. Sometimes these cataclysmic days of judgment found partial fulfillment when God wiped out Israel’s enemies and delivered His people from a military threat. But all such events pointed ahead to the culmination of God’s judgment and salvation in the first and second comings of Jesus Christ. The final day of the Lord, which Paul refers to in our text, begins with the tribulation and concludes with the second coming of Jesus Christ. Before Christ returns, two main things must take place: unprecedented apostasy; and, the man of lawlessness will be revealed. But before he is revealed, a third event must take place: the restrainer must be removed.

A. Unprecedented apostasy will come.

Paul explains (v. 3) that the day of the Lord will not come unless the apostasy comes first. The word refers to a falling away by those who formerly professed Christ. He adds (v. 7) that “the mystery of lawlessness is already at work.” “Mystery” refers to that which is hidden and only known by God’s revelation, which now has been given.

Beale (pp. 218-219) thinks that Paul is referring to the antichrist prophecy from Daniel 11, which he mentions in verse 4. Daniel’s prophecy was initially fulfilled by Antiochus Epiphanes, who desecrated the temple and claimed to be God. But it awaits final fulfillment in this “man of lawlessness,” who will exalt himself above all gods, taking his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God. Although he has not yet appeared, Paul is saying that he is already working deception through these false teachers who were plaguing the Thessalonian church. All false teachers are preparing the way for the grand appearance of the man of lawlessness himself.

While false teachers have plagued the church since the earliest times, Jesus explained that just before His return, false teaching and apostasy among professing believers will increase (Matt. 24:9-13):

“Then they will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations because of My name. At that time many will fall away and will betray one another and hate one another. Many false prophets will arise and will mislead many. Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved.”

The application for them and for us is, we need to be on guard at all times against false teaching. Satan uses both the frontal attack of persecution, and the more subtle attack of false teaching, in an attempt to unsettle believers. Although we may think that the error Paul addressed in our text was relatively minor, he was concerned. It was causing some to be shaken and disturbed in their faith (v. 2). Sound doctrine is essential for peace and steadfastness; being deceived by false teaching leads to anxiety, which makes a person vulnerable to further deception. As the day of the Lord draws near, we can expect a tsunami of false teaching.

B. The restrainer will be removed.

The problem here is that Paul had taught the Thessalonians about the restrainer being removed, but he doesn’t tell us what he said! The problem becomes more complex because in verse 6 Paul refers to “what restrains him now,” using a neuter participle; whereas in verse 7 he uses a masculine participle. So, as you can expect, there are multiple views.

Most commentators think it refers to a power (neuter participle) and/or person (masculine participle) that restrains evil until this man of lawlessness is revealed. Different suggestions include (John MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible, NASB edition [Thomas Nelson], pp. 1823-1824): (1) human government; (2) the preaching of the gospel; (3) the binding of Satan; (4) the providence of God; (5) the Jewish state; (6) the church; (7) the Holy Spirit; and, (8) Michael the archangel.

MacArthur (Commentary, pp. 278-279) understands it to be the Holy Spirit, but not removed with the rapture of the church (which he understands to happen before the tribulation). Rather, he argues that the Holy Spirit will continue His restraining work until the middle of the tribulation, when He will cease that work, allowing the man of lawlessness free reign during the last half of the tribulation. The early church father, John Chrysostom, said that the restrainer could be the Holy Spirit, but he rejected that view because Paul would not have been so enigmatic in referring to the Spirit. So he leaned toward the view that it was the Roman Empire (cited by John Calvin, Calvin's Commentaries [Baker], p. 332).

Beale (pp. 216-217) argues that the restrainer may be an angel who represents God’s sovereignty in restraining evil (“the gates of hell”), so that the gospel proclamation is effective during the church age. At the end of the age, God removes the angel and his influence, so that “all hell will break loose.” Since Paul alludes to the prophecy in Daniel 11 (in v. 4), by the restrainer he may have had in mind the angel in Daniel 10 who was resisting the demonic power that was over Persia. And, Paul has already stated (2 Thess. 1:7) that when Christ returns, it will be in the company of “His mighty angels in flaming fire.” So this view dovetails with the view that human government, under angelic authority, is the restrainer.

George Ladd (The Blessed Hope [Eerdmans], p. 95) suggests that “he that is taken out of the way” (v. 7) should be translated, “until he come out of the midst.” So it would not refer to the restrainer, but to antichrist. Ladd suggests that verses 6 & 7 are saying the same thing in parallel form:

6a: “And you know what restrains him now (God’s power);

6b: “so that in his time he (antichrist) will be revealed;

7a: “For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only He who restrains (God) will do so,

7b: until he (antichrist) comes out of the midst (is revealed).

The bottom line is, with all of these different interpretations about the restrainer, we can only be tentative. But to use these verses to argue for a pretribulation rapture of the church is to read that view into the text. Even MacArthur (who holds to the pretribulation rapture) does not interpret it that way.

What we can know from this text is that God sovereignly determines when the restrainer is removed so that the man of lawlessness will be revealed. Biblical prophecy is not a matter of God’s merely foreseeing what will happen, but rather of His predetermining what will happen. And yet, sinners aren’t robots. They are accountable for their sin. Once the restrainer is removed, the other factor in the coming of the day of the Lord will take place:

C. The man of lawlessness will be revealed.

Some early manuscripts call him “the man of sin,” but since sin is lawlessness (1 John 3:4), both phrases mean the same thing. “Man of” means that this person is characterized by lawlessness. He throws off all regard for God’s moral standards. He is also called (2 Thess. 2:3), “the son of destruction.” “Son of” is a Hebrew expression also meaning that he is characterized by destruction. Jesus uses the exact phrase (in Greek, John 17:12) to refer to Judas Iscariot (the NASB there translates it, “son of perdition”). It means that both Judas (Luke 22:22) and the man of lawlessness were predestined to hell. And yet, at the same time, both men are responsible for their awful sin and rebellion against God.

Paul uses the same language of the appearing of the man of lawlessness as he does for Christ’s appearing. In verses 1 & 8, we read of the coming (Parousia) of Christ; in verse 9, we read of the coming (Parousia) of the man of lawlessness. In 2 Thessalonians 1:7, Jesus will be revealed (apocalupto) from heaven, whereas in 2:3, 6, & 8, the lawless one will be revealed. In 1:7, Jesus will be revealed in a display of power and glory; in 2:9, the lawless one will come “with all power and signs and false wonders.” Those terms are frequently used of Jesus’ miracles during His first coming. Thus, as John Stott (The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians [IVP Academic], p. 172) says, “the coming of Antichrist [is] a deliberate and unscrupulous parody of the second coming of Christ.”

He will be empowered by Satan himself to promote widespread deception, lawlessness, and rebellion against Jesus Christ. As Paul says (2 Thess. 2:4), he “opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God.” This is the “abomination of desolation” predicted by Daniel (9:27) and Jesus (Matt. 24:15).

But, this opens another difficult interpretive question: What does Paul mean by “the temple of God”? Many dispensationalists (who hold to the pretribulation rapture) believe that it refers to the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, which will be rebuilt in the end times. Robert Thomas (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], ed. by Frank Gaebelein, 11:322), for example, argues that the obvious connection with Dan. 9:26, 27; 11:31, 36, 37; 12:11 demands such an interpretation. This view would also demand that Jewish animal sacrifices will again be offered at such a future temple.

Beale (pp. 205-210), however, argues that this view has multiple problems. First (p. 207), 2 Thessalonians 2:3 “does not appear to be talking about an apostasy from the faith in a geographically conceived Israel.” Also (ibid.), “It is … difficult to conceive of 2:3 as alluding to an ‘apostasy’ of unbelievers among the nations who are not part of the visible church, since they possess no belief from which to fall away.” Rather, the apostasy seems to be a “yet future falling away in … the church throughout the world.”

Also, Beale argues (pp. 207-208), “The same phrase, God’s temple, is found nine other times in the New Testament outside of 2 Thessalonians, and it almost always refers either to Christ or the church. Not once in Paul (five other times outside 2 Thess.) does it refer to a literal temple in Israel of the past or future.”

Others (Stott, pp. 160, 164; F. F. Bruce, Word Biblical Commentary, 1 & 2 Thessalonians [Thomas Nelson], p. 169; Gary Shogren, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, 1 & 2 Thessalonians [Zondervan], pp. 282-285) understand “temple” in a metaphorical sense. George Ladd (A Theology of the New Testament [Eerdmans], rev. ed., p. 605) says that it is “a metaphorical way of expressing, in Old Testament language, his defiance of God (see Dan. 11:31, 36; Ezek. 28:2; Isa. 14:13).”

Paul explains (2 Thess. 2:10-12) that by his satanic miracles, this man of lawlessness will come “with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false, in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness.” “What is false” (v. 11) is literally, “the lie.” Because they rejected the gospel on account of taking pleasure in wickedness, unbelievers will believe the lie that the man of lawlessness is God Himself.

As a result God will send this deluding influence to insure their judgment. “God is Light, and in Him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). But, He uses even the demons to accomplish His sovereign plans and then He will judge them and all who are deceived by them (1 Kings 22:23)! Then, just when things are at their worst,

2. In God’s sovereign timetable, Jesus Christ will return, slay the man of lawlessness, and judge all who were deceived by him.

I can only mention two things that stand out here:

A. Although God is apart from all evil, He sovereignly uses evildoers for His predetermined purposes.

It is very clear here that God is not reacting to this evil ruler who momentarily has gained the upper hand. Rather, as Leon Morris, p. 227) says, “Throughout this whole passage the thought of God’s sovereignty is dominant.” God is in control of the whole process. In His time, He allows the man of lawlessness to come on the scene and deceive those (v. 10) who “did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved.” Also in His time, Christ appears, slaying the lawless one and judging all (v. 12) “who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness.” No one can ultimately thwart God’s sovereign will (Job 42:2). God uses even the powers of Satan to accomplish His purposes (John 13:27).

B. When Christ returns, He will effortlessly slay the most powerful ruler in the world with the breath of His mouth.

This is a reference to Isaiah 11:4, which says of Messiah, “And He will strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, and with the breath of His lips He will slay the wicked.” In a similar way, John describes Jesus at His second coming (Rev. 19:15): “From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty.” It won’t be a nail-biting battle, where we wonder which side will win! Jesus will win effortlessly and decisively when He returns. All who have opposed Him will be judged. All who have believed in Him will be delivered from all evildoers and will be glorified with Him forever.

Conclusion

As in the Book of Revelation, some of the details of Paul’s words here are debatable. But don’t miss the overall picture, which is clear: Jesus is coming back bodily in power and glory and when He comes, He’s going to win bigtime! Make sure that you’re not among those who “did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved” (v. 10)! Make sure that you’re not one “who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness” (v. 12)! Make sure that you are among those who have received the love of the truth by believing the gospel and repenting of your sin! Then you will have God’s comfort even in the midst of this evil world.

Application Questions

  1. Since false teaching is so subtle and deceptive, how can we be on guard so as not to be taken in by it?
  2. How can God predestine the man of lawlessness for judgment and yet hold him accountable? Can he blame God for his rebelliousness? Can anyone?
  3. What verses teach that God is sovereign over everything? How is this a comfort to believers going through trials?
  4. Is there a difference between not receiving the truth and not receiving the love of the truth? What are the implications of this?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2017, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Suffering, Trials, Persecution