In 1 Thessalonians 5, Paul wrote to the Thessalonians about why we as Christians need not grieve over dead Christians the way non-Christians grieve over their dead: Christ is returning. When he comes, all those who are his – whether alive or dead at the time – shall meet him in the air and live with him for ever more. Here in 2 Thessalonians, Paul finds that he has to give some clarification as to the when of all this. It seems that there were some false-teachers going around who were trying to convince the Thessalonians that the “day of the Lord” – the day of Jesus’ return! – had already begun! That is to say, Jesus had already started to return in judgement against the living and the dead. Perhaps the false-teachers were pointing to the way the Christians were suffering and arguing that there suffering must be a form of judgement from God. (I’ve no idea about that at all – we’re not told. But if you read books like Job that’s a common fallacy.) What we do know about them is that spoke persuasively – perhaps claiming divine insight or falsified instructions from Paul.
But look at the effect their teaching had on the Thessalonians: they were shaken and alarmed. Had they completely misunderstood the return of the Lord? If the day of the Lord had already begun, then why hadn’t they “met him in the air”? If Christ was judging the non-believing world… then why was that same world still persecuting them? I understand a bit of their panic. Ever realised there was nobody else around… and wondered if the rapture had happened and you’d been left behind? I have… even if I don’t actually think that’s what the rapture is all about – but sometimes theology gives way to alarm. What’s needed then is calm reassurance – like that Paul gives here.
Says Paul to the Thessalonians: the day of the Lord has not started yet. For one thing, when it happens, everyone will know about it (see 1 Thessalonians 5!). And for another, it wasn’t yet time for it. Paul talks to them about there having to first be a great rebellion against God, and a “man of lawlessness” – the one bringing destruction – having to be revealed. This man of lawlessness, we’re told, sets himself up as God: he defies every other form of “god” or object of worship – defying even the true God. Paul, we’re told, had already spoken to the Thessalonians about this “man of lawlessness”. He told them that he was currently being “held back” by someone – his work being secret until his revelation.
Who is this man of lawlessness? Some people try to tie it down to a specific individual from history – someone like Nero or Caligula. But what does Paul tell us about him? Well… he works for Satan. He has counterfeit power and does signs and miracles. He uses all kinds of deception to fool those who are on their way to destruction: non-Christians who have refused to love and accept the truth – Christ come as our Saviour – that would save them.
But who is he? Has he already come? Does that mean that the end is closer now than it was before? I can’t think of anyone who matches up to that description perfectly? Someone with Satan’s power – doing signs and miracles – surely he’d be a very famous historical person. Does that then mean that he is yet to come? Can I say with confidence that Jesus will not return today because this man hasn’t arrived yet. Of course not! If the Bible is clear about one thing, it’s that Jesus could return at any moment. That’s why we’re constantly called to live lives worthy of our calling by God.
So who is he? I don’t know. Perhaps Paul here is referring to all those throughout history who have stood in positions of power against God. Or perhaps not. Perhaps there will come a time when Satan’s subtle machinations through historical persons is brought out into the open in a single individual who unites the world in opposition to God. Perhaps there will come a day when all religion is considered worthless – when “mankind” is considered the final arbiter of life, the universe and everything.
Actually – that kind of sounds familiar. It kind of sounds like life today.
But what can I be sure of? I am sure that God is in command. Who but Jesus could be holding back the man of lawlessness? Jesus is the “stronger man” who has bound Satan. And it is he who will “release” Satan (in the person of the “man of lawlessness”) to dare to stand against him. And it is he who will defeat him with a mere breath; simply the splendour of Jesus’ coming will bring about his destruction.
And what else do I know? That is God who will cause those who have rejected him to be deceived. I suspect that the releasing of the man of lawlessness and the return of the King will occur very close to each other in time. Those who are allowed to be deceived are those who have already chosen to reject God. God will cause great deception, but only because people believe the lies they are told rather than believing the truth which God has made clear for all to see.
And this also I know: we are not of the world. Jesus’ return should not cause us to fear and tremble – but to rejoice. By his Spirit who makes us holy and our belief in the truth we have been saved. We have heard the good news – the call of God to salvation – and now we can share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. The day of the Lord for us will be one of shared glory!.
And so now let us stand firm. Let us hold tight to the true teaching of the Bible concerning Christ’s return.
Lord Jesus – Father God. Thank you for loving us – for loving me. Thank you for having given me eternal comfort and a wonderful hope. Thank you that because I trust in you, your return is not something to fear, but something to celebrate. Thank you that no “man of lawlessness” can separate me from your love. Thank you that you are sovereign, and that you will be clearly triumphant at your return. Please – give me your comfort. Help me to be a good disciple. Help me to follow you well. Please let my every thought and word and deed express the hope that I have in you. Please Father – make me more like Jesus. Thank you that your perfect love drives out all fear.