‘Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him….’ That’s how Paul begins this, the second chapter of his second letter to the Thessalonians. This whole chapter is about the coming of the Lord and the events which will precede it. As such, it fits perfectly with everything else Paul has written to the Thessalonians, because — as I’ve said before — every chapter of 1 Thessalonians refers in some way to the Lord’s coming, and the coming of the Lord also featured in the first chapter of 2 Thessalonians. Paul ended chapter 1 of 1 Thessalonians by describing how the believers in that church had turned from idols to the true God and to wait for his Son to come from heaven. He ended chapter 2 by saying how he will glory or rejoice in the presence of the Lord Jesus when he comes. He ended chapter 3 with the prayer that God will strengthen their hearts so that they will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes. And in chapter 4 and 5 he wrote at length about the coming of the Lord and of the resurrection of believers when he comes. And in chapter 1 of 2 Thessalonians he wrote that God will pay back those who were troubling and persecuting the believers and he will give relief to his suffering people; and this will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven. In every chapter of these two letters, Paul refers in one way or another to the coming of the Lord. Ad he does the same in chapter 2 of 2 Thessalonians. And if you look down to verse 5 of chapter 2, you’ll see that Paul says to his readers:
Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things?
So, when Paul planted the church in Thessalonica, he instructed them about the Lord’s coming. In those early days, when this little church has just been planted, and he was teaching these new believers, one of the things he taught them about was the coming of the Lord.
Sometimes Christians do not give much thought to the end times and to the coming of the Lord. Sometimes we’re put off because there are lots of strange ideas in the church and among believers concerning the last things. And these strange ideas can be baffling and confusing; and they can put us off thinking about such things. I remember being put off these things when I was a teenager, because of some of the strange ideas my friends had about these things; and I didn’t know how to answer them; so I tried to avoid discussing these things with them. That’s sometimes what we do. But the Apostle Paul was not afraid to talk about these things or to teach about them.
And, you see, when he taught the Lord’s people about these things, it was to comfort them. Paul possessed a pastor’s heart; and he wanted to encourage the people and to comfort them. Back in chapter 4 of 1 Thessalonians, after writing that Christ will come to raise the dead, he said:
Therefore encourage one another with these words.
He wanted to teach them about the Lord’s coming in order to encourage them. And in today’s chapter, some of the people were alarmed by false ideas which they had heard. And so, Paul wrote to remind them of what he had already taught them about the Lord’s coming; and he ends the chapter by praying for the Lord Jesus and for God the Father to encourage their hearts. He didn’t want them to be alarmed and upset, but to be comforted and encouraged.
And so, as we turn to study this chapter — and all that Paul says about the coming of the Lord, and the man of lawlessness and the secret power of lawlessness and the work of Satan — we need to remember that Paul wrote these things to encourage his readers. And so, he’s writing these things to encourage you and me.
Verses 1 and 2
Well, in verse 1 Paul refers to the coming of the Lord and to our being gathered to him. In 1 Thessalonians he taught that when Christ comes again, those who died before his coming will be raised from the dead; and they will be gathered together with those who are alive at his coming. And together they will meet the Lord in the air.
Well, Paul goes on in verse 2 to appeal to his readers not to become unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy or report or letter which said that the day of the Lord had already come. We’re not sure of the details, but it seems that the idea was going around the church in Thessalonica that the Lord had already come. Since Paul mentions a prophecy, it’s possible that someone had come to the church, claiming to have a prophecy, or a word from the Lord, to that effect. But Paul also mentions that this prophesy or report or letter was supposed to have come from him. So, perhaps this so-called prophet claimed that he was able to interpret or explain what Paul really meant about the coming of the Lord; and what he really meant is that it has already taken place.
Don’t let anyone deceive you, Paul says in verse 3. Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way. Any prophecy, any report, any letter which claims the Lord has already come is false. Don’t be taken in by it.
The commentators wonder how could they be taken in? How could they believe that the Lord has already come? Hadn’t Paul said in his first letter, that the Lord will come with a loud command and with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God? Hadn’t he written to say that when the Lord comes, the dead will be raised? How could the Lord have come like that and they didn’t know about it? And so, the commentators wonder about it and put forward different suggestions. Perhaps the most likely one is that fear is often irrational and contagious. Often our fears just don’t make sense, but still their grip our hearts. Other commentators wonder whether this false prophet was saying that the Lord came secretly, not publicly, as Paul supposed. And if that were so, then the Thessalonians were alarmed, because that means they missed out on it and on the everlasting salvation which the Lord had come to give his people. In fact, there’s a doctrine which has been put forward by some scholars called preterism, which says that the Lord has returned to earth already. He returned, they say, in AD70, whenever Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. So, they’re saying what this false prophet was saying in Thessalonica. Or the commentators also point out that the Jehovah Witnesses say the Lord returned to earth on 1 October 1914. In other words, whoever was saying to the Thessalonians that the Lord has returned and you missed it, may have been the first to make that claim, but he wasn’t the last person to make that claim. And so, the church in every generation needs to pay attention to this chapter so that we’re not taken in and deceived by false ideas about the Lord’s coming.
When I go to the opticians, the optician makes me take a field-vision test in which I’ve to press a button every time a small light appears in front of my eye. And the light appears only briefly; and it’s not very bright. And so, I’m sitting there thinking:
Did I see a light or did I only imagine it?
Well, the coming of the Lord will not be like that. We won’t wonder to ourselves:
Did he come or did I only imagine it? Did he come and I missed it?
No, his coming will be unmistakable.
In verses 3 to 12 Paul makes clear that the Lord won’t return until certain other things happen. And since those other things haven’t happened yet, it’s not yet time for the Lord to come.
And in the course of explaining this, Paul goes forward and back in time. Sometimes he’s referring to future events; sometimes he’s referring to present events. He goes forward and back. And so, in verses 3 to 5 he refers to future events. Then, in verses 6 and 7 he refers to present events. In verses 8 to 10 he refers to future events again. And in verses 11 and 12 he refers to present events once again. So, it’s future, present, future, present.
Perhaps it might be helpful to outline what he will say before we look at it in more detail. So, before the Lord comes again, the man of lawlessness must first appear. That will happen in the future. However, for the time being, in the present, the man of lawlessness is being held back; and he will continue to be held back until the right time. And then, in the future, the man of lawlessness will be revealed and, when he comes, he will deceive many. Meanwhile, in the present, God sends a strong delusion on those who are perishing and who refuse to love the truth, so that they believe what is false. And then, after verses 3 to 12, we have Paul application in verses 13 to 17, which is: Stand firm; and hold to the teachings we passed on to you; and may the Lord Jesus and God the Father encourage and strengthen you. So, let’s look at these verses in more detail. We won’t get through all of it this evening, but will study verses 3 to 7 this evening; and come back to the rest the next time.
Verses 3 to 5
Don’t let anyone deceive you, says Paul, because that day — the day of the Lord — will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. So, until those two things happen, the Lord won’t appear. And since those two things haven’t happened yet, you don’t need to worry that the Lord has come and you missed it.
So, what does Paul means by the rebellion and who or what is this man of lawlessness? The fact that he refers to the rebellion suggests that he’s referring to something which was already familiar to them. He’s able to mention the rebellion, without explaining what he means, because, presumably, when he was in Thessalonica, he instructed them on this matter. Unfortunately, he doesn’t refer to ‘the rebellion’ anywhere else in his writings, so it’s not so clear to us. However, he’s presumably referring to a rebellion against God which will take place before the coming of the Lord. Some interpreters believe he’s referring to a rebellion within the church; and so, many who once professed faith will turn away from the Lord. Others — and I prefer this interpretation — think he’s referring to a worldwide rebellion against the Lord. For instance, in Revelation 20 we read of how the nations of the world will assemble for one last battle against the Lord and his church. Paul could be thinking of something like that.
Who or what is the man of lawlessness? Well, Paul goes on to describe him in verse 4: he’ll oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshipped; and he will set himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.
You might recall when we were studying Daniel 11, that Daniel received a vision concerned the whole of human history from the time of the Persian Empire until the coming of the Lord. And, according to Daniel’s vision, just before the coming of the Lord, there will come a king who will do as he pleases; and who will exalt and magnify himself above every god; and will speak against the God of gods. When we studied that passage, I explained that the great king which Daniel wrote of is the same as the man of lawlessness which Paul wrote of; and it’s the same as the antichrist which John wrote of. Before the Lord comes again, this great and wicked king, this man of lawlessness, this antichrist will come. And he will set himself up in opposition to God.
When Paul says in verse 4 that he will set himself up in God’s temple, he means that he will set himself up as god. He will proclaim to the world that he alone is god, the true god, and they ought to worship him. So, just before the Son of Man appears with glory and power to gather his people together, this man of lawlessness will appear and he will promote himself in the world as the true god and lead a rebellion against the Lord.
However, we should note carefully the other title which Paul gives to this man. Not only is he ‘the man of lawlessness’, but he’s ‘the man doomed to destruction’. Though he is mighty and powerful and will set himself up as god, he is destined to perish. He will not last. He will not be victorious. He will be destroyed. His destiny, his fate, his end is already decided. It’s been decided by the Lord God Almighty, who is the true and only God and who determines what will be. And though this man of lawlessness will deceive many, the Lord has already determined that he will be destroyed.
Paul is writing to comfort and encourage his readers; and so he makes clear that even God’s greatest enemy will be destroyed.
Verses 6 and 7
Having spoken about future events in verses 3 to 5, Paul returns to the present day in verses 6 and 7. For the time being, in the present, something or someone is holding this man of lawlessness back. Something or someone is retraining him. Think of a fierce dog, which wants to tear you apart. But it can’t, because it’s being restrained by a strong chain. Well, the man of lawlessness is being held back from coming.
However, even though the man of lawlessness is being held back from coming, he is — says Paul — already at work in the world through a secret power of lawlessness. That’s in verse 7. In fact, Paul refers more literally to ‘the mystery of lawlessness’. He refers to it as a mystery, because this is not something Daniel anticipated whenever he wrote about the man of lawlessness. Daniel thought the man of lawlessness would only appear at the end of history. But Paul reveals that he’s already at work in the world.
So, although the man of lawlessness has not yet come, he’s already at work in the world to persecute the church and to deceive the people. And, of course, the believers in Thessalonica had seen this lawlessness at work already, because when Paul came to that city to preach the gospel, their unbelieving neighbour rose up against Paul and started a riot in the city and forced him to leave. And you see, wherever the church is persecuted, wherever people are deceived and led astray, wherever people give in to wickedness and do evil, there you see evidence of this lawlessness at work in the world.
However, we should note carefully again that even this lawlessness is being held back for the time being. It’s being held back by the one who holds it back, says Paul.
So, the coming of the man of lawlessness is held back; and the lawlessness already at work in the world is held back. So, who or what is the restrainer? Again, this is presumably something Paul made clear to the Thessalonians when he was with them. It’s not so clear to us. And it’s hard to figure out who or what it is, because in verse 6 Paul seems to be referring to a thing, not a person. He says ‘what’ is holding him back and not ‘who’ is holding him back. But in verse 7, he refers to the restrainer as a person: ‘the one’ who now holds it back. So is it a thing or a person? And what is it?
Well, as you can imagine, there are lots of theories. I won’t mention them all, but only some. Some say the church is the restrainer. So long as the church exists in the world, the man of lawlessness is prevented from coming. Some say it’s the preaching of the gospel. Through the preaching of the gospel, sinners are saved from the power of sin and Satan, so that instead of living lives of rebellion, they’re enabled to live lives of obedience. Instead of bring deceived, they come to a knowledge of the truth through the preaching of the gospel. Moreover, in Mark 13, the Lord foretold that the gospel must first be preached to all the nations before the end will come. So, perhaps they’re held back by the preaching of God’s word. Others says it’s the angel Michael. In Daniel 10 Daniel received a vision which showed him that the things that happened on the earth were affected by things that happened in the heavenly realm; and that a great spiritual battle was taking place in the heavenly realm which was affecting and determining what was happening on the earth. And in the course of that vision, Daniel saw the angel Michael, who helped the Lord to withstand the satanic prince of the Persian empire. Furthermore, according to Daniel 12, Michael was protecting the Lord’s people here on earth. Then, according to Revelation 20 at the end of the Bible, a great angel came out of heaven to seize and restrain the devil; and the devil will continue to be restrained like this until the end comes, when he will be released for a time. What Daniel said about Michael and what Revelation 20 says about the great angel matches what Paul says about the one who holds back the coming of the man of lawlessness and who holds back the lawlessness which is already at work in the world. And so, it seems likely that the one who restrains them is in fact the angel Michael. But since Michael is God’s angel, sent by God and under the authority of God, then we can also say that the one who restrains the man of lawlessness and the lawlessness at work in the world is the Lord our God.
And that fits with what we also read here. According to verse 6, the man of lawlessness is being held back until the proper time. Well, who is it who determines when the proper time will be? It’s the Lord, isn’t it? He’s the one who determines all things. And according to verse 7, the one who holds back the lawlessness at work in the world will continue to do so until he — the restrainer — is taken out of the way. Well, who decides when that time has come? Again, it’s the Lord. He’s the one who decides and determines all things. He’s the one who is in control.
And so, for now, the Lord allows lawlessness to operate in the world. Even so, while it is at work in the world, the Lord is restraining it and holding it back. And when the Lord decides the time is right, he will remove his restraint, which will allow the man of lawlessness to be revealed. And the man of lawlessness, when he comes, will oppose the true God; and will set himself up as god; and will lead an unbelieving world in rebellion against the Lord.
However, he is doomed to destruction. He is destined to perish. Though he can mobilise all the nations against the Lord and his church, he will not succeed, but will be destroyed. If we had time this evening, we’d be able to go on to verse 8 where Paul tells us that as soon as the man of lawlessness is revealed, the Lord Jesus will overthrow him with the breath of his mouth. He will not succeed.
Well, that’s all the time we have this evening. We’ll come back to the rest of this chapter next time to read more about the man of lawlessness and what he will attempt to do when he comes. And we’ll read again about what is happening in the present.
But for the time being, we ought to be encouraged and comforted, because we’re reminded once again that our God is in control. He’s the mighty one who rules and reigns in heaven over all. Even his enemies — those who set themselves up against God — are under his sovereign control; and they cannot threaten him or overwhelm him. The One enthroned in heaven laughs at his enemies, because even though his enemies are powerful, they are nothing to him; and he just scoffs at them.
And even though the world hates us, and despises us for believing what we do, even though the world has turned away from God and laughs at us for believing in him; even though the world scoffs at us for believing his word; even though the world hates us for walking in his ways, we don’t need to be afraid. We don’t need to be afraid, because our God reigns; and everything is under his authority. And we know that when the time is right, the Lord Jesus Christ our Saviour will come again to destroy Satan and all who have sided with him and to gather his people together, so that we will be with him forever and ever in glory.
So, you don’t need to be afraid. And instead you must stand firm. Paul will go on to say to the believers in Thessalonica that they need to stand firm. And you must stand firm in the faith and don’t let anything move you from believing in Christ. Stand firm, Paul says, and hold to the teachings we passed on to you. Hold on to the Bible and to all that you have heard through the reading and preaching of God’s word, so that you won’t be unsettled or alarmed or deceived by false teachings, because you’ll recognise them as false, because you’ve already grasped the truth.
Stand firm and hold on to the teachings. And look to the Lord Jesus and to God our Father to encourage and strengthen you. Remember the pilgrim psalm? Psalm 121? The psalmist on the way to Jerusalem to worship the Lord. But there are many dangers on the way. Who will help him? Well, we’re a pilgrim people, on our way to the heavenly Jerusalem, the holy city, where we will worship the Lord forever and ever in glory. But there are many dangers on the way. Who will help us? Well, our help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. And so, we must look to him and trust in him to help us and to protect us and to shield us by his mighty power. And he never slumbers nor sleeps, but promises to watch over us and to keep us forever. And so, look to him. Trust in him. And ask him to help you to stand firm in the faith and to hold on to what you have been taught. And since the Lord Jesus was prepared to give up his life for our sake, we know there’s no good thing which he will withhold from us as we try to stand firm and remain faithful to him.