So, we began to study this chapter last week; and since a number of people were away because of the Bank Holiday, let me summarise what we studied last week.
It seems that the believers in Thessalonica had been disturbed by some kind of prophecy or report or letter which was supposed to have come from Paul and which claimed that the Lord had already come. The Lord has come; and you missed it.
Well, I mentioned last time that our fears are often irrational. They don’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense to be afraid of the dark, but how many of us get nervous when we’re alone in a dark house? Well, it didn’t make sense for them to fear that the Lord had come and they missed it, because hadn’t Paul explained to them that the Lord will come with a loud command and with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God and that the dead will be raised? His coming will be unmissable.
But because our fears are often irrational, they were afraid that this was true. And so, Paul wrote to re-assure them that what they heard was not true; and they should not let anyone alarm or deceive them about this kind of thing, because the Lord will not come until certain things happen.
And in the following verses Paul outlined what will happen before the coming of the Lord. And I said the last time that in the course of these verses, he 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.
Let me summarise — as I did last week — what he says in these verses. So, before the Lord comes again, the man of lawlessness — who will lead a rebellion against God — must first appear. That will happen in the future. For the time being, though, in the present, the man of lawlessness is being held back; however, although he’s being held back for now, he is — in a sense — already at work in the world, though in a limited and restrained way. And so, Paul refers to the secret power of lawlessness or, better, to the mystery of lawlessness which is already at work in the world. And then, in the future, the man of lawlessness will finally 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 by holding on to the teachings we passed on to you; and may the Lord Jesus and God the Father encourage and strengthen you.
We studied verses 1 to 7 last week and we noted that what Paul says here about the man of lawlessness recalls what we read in Daniel 11 about the coming of a great and wicked king, who will precede the coming of the Lord. According to Daniel, this great and wicked king will do as he pleases; and he will exalt and magnify himself above every god; and he will speak against the God of gods. That matches what Paul says about the man of lawlessness, who will oppose and 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. And, of course, what Daniel and Paul said about this mysterious person matches what John tells us about the antichrist who is coming. Before the Lord comes again, this great and wicked king, this man of lawlessness, this antichrist will come to lead a rebellion against the Lord. But since he hasn’t come yet, then the Lord hasn’t come yet; and the Lord won’t come until the man of lawlessness appears. So, don’t believe any prophecy or report or letter which claims the Lord has come and you missed it. Before he comes, the man of lawlessness will come; and he hasn’t come yet, because he is still being held back.
The last thing to mention before we turn to verses 8 to 17 is that Paul was writing, not to frighten his readers, but to reassure them. Paul the Apostle had a pastor’s heart; and he wanted to comfort and encourage and to reassure his readers. We saw this in different ways. Firstly, he wanted them to know the truth about the coming of the Lord so that they wouldn’t be unsettled or alarmed or deceived by false prophecies and rumours. Secondly, while he wrote about the coming of the man of lawlessness, he made clear that the man of lawlessness is also the man doomed to destruction. Though he may be able to mobilise all the nations of the world to rebel against the Lord and his people, his end, his fate, his destiny has already been decided. He will not succeed, but he is destined to perish. And thirdly, Paul made clear that the man of lawlessness is currently being restrained; and the mystery of lawlessness which is already at work in the world is also being held back and restrained. The commentators offer different suggestions about who or what is restraining them. The most likely suggestion is that it’s the angel Michael, whom we read about in Daniel. But since angels are sent by the Lord, then ultimately the restrainer is the Lord God Almighty. He rules and reigns over all in heaven and on earth, over the invisible and the visible worlds. And so, God’s people don’t need to be afraid or frightened, because our God reigns; and he scoffs at all his enemies, because they cannot threaten him or thwart his plans for the world and for us.
Verses 8 to 10
So, that’s where we got to last week. Let’s turn now to verses 8 to 10. And in these verses, Paul is once again going forward in time to the future coming of the man of lawlessness. And once again we see Paul’s pastor’s heart, because as soon as he mentions that the man of lawlessness will be revealed, he adds that the Lord Jesus will overthrow him with the breath of his mouth and by the splendour of his coming.
We hear that the man of lawlessness is coming. He will one day be revealed on the earth. And when he comes, he’ll be frightening, because he will oppose and exalt himself over everything that is called God. He will proclaim himself to be God. And he will lead a rebellion against the Lord and his people. When he comes, he’ll be frightening.
But it’s as if Paul is saying to his readers:
But don’t be afraid, because when he comes, as soon as he comes, the Lord Jesus will destroy him.
We find something similar in Revelation 20, where John saw into the future to a time when Satan will be unbound and will deceive the nations and gather them together for one last battle against the Lord. His army will be like the sand on the seashore, far too many to count. And John says they will march across the earth and surround the camp of God’s people, which is the church of Jesus Christ. But immediately fire came down from heaven and devoured them. As soon as they gathered for war, they will be destroyed. And as soon as the man of lawlessness will be revealed, he will be destroyed.
Furthermore, his coming is under the control of the Lord, because when it says he will be revealed, we should ask ourselves: Who will reveal him?
And the mostly likely answer is that he will be revealed by the Lord. For now, the Lord is restraining him and holding him back. But when the Lord decides the right time has come, the Lord will remove his restraint and allow the man of lawlessness to come. Even the time of his appearance is determined by the Lord who rules over all.
And he will be destroyed by the breath of the Lord’s mouth. Well now, I was thinking of the children’s story of the three little pigs. Do you remember? One built a house of straw; another a house of sticks; another a house of bricks. When the wolf came, he was able to blow down the house of straw and the house of sticks. But the reason he could blow those houses down is because those houses were weak and flimsy. And so, when the wolf blew against the house of bricks, it did not fall, because it was stronger than the other houses. However, the reason the man of lawlessness will be destroyed by the breath of the Lord’s mouth is not because he’s weak. No, he’s not weak; he’s very strong; he’s a mighty enemy. However, the Lord Jesus is even mightier; and the breath of his mouth is mighty and powerful; and with his mighty breath, he’s able to destroy the man of lawlessness. The expression probably goes back to Isaiah 11:4 where it says the Lord’s king will come and will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; and with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Well, with the breath of his lips, the Lord Jesus will slay the man of lawlessness.
And the Lord Jesus will also destroy the man of lawlessness with the splendour of his coming, or with the appearance of his coming. The Lord will appear suddenly; and when he comes, the man of lawlessness will wilt in his presence and perish.
So, here’s Paul’s pastor’s heart, because he’s reassuring his readers that we don’t need to be frightened by the thought of the coming of the lawless one. Yes, he’ll come. Yes, he’s powerful. But he will not last, for the Lord will come and destroy him.
Having said that, and having made that clear, Paul goes on to describe a little of what the man of lawlessness will do whenever he comes and before he’s destroyed. What will happen when he comes? Well, his coming will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders and in every sort of evil that will deceive those who are perishing.
Paul makes clear in these verses that the man of lawlessness is not the Devil. He’s not Satan. They are separate from one another. However, they’re linked, aren’t they? What the lawless one will do is in conformity and in keeping with the work of Satan; and so, he will act as the agent of Satan.
And his work will include counterfeit miracles and signs and wonders. Now, the use of the word ‘counterfeit’ by the NIV is misleading, because that suggests the miracles and signs and wonders he will perform are not real. They’re only fake. However, that’s not what Paul means. First of all, he refers to power, not miracles, which implies that the man of lawlessness will be powerful. And the signs and wonders he performs will not be fake; they’ll be genuine signs and wonders. However, they’re designed to deceive. People will see the signs and wonders he performs; and they will be taken in by him. They will be misled by him and by the things he can do. And that’s confirmed by what we read in verse 10 where Paul says that what he does will deceive. Just as Satan deceived Eve in the Garden of Eden, so Satan’s servant, the man of lawlessness, will deceive many by the things he does. By the powerful signs and wonders he performs, they will be deceived; and they will be deceived into doing evil.
But will everyone be deceived by him? Will everyone be taken in? Will believers be taken in? Once again we see Paul’s pastor’s heart, because in case his readers are frightened by the thought that this man of lawlessness will deceive them, Paul makes clear that the ones who will be deceived by him will be those who are perishing. Do you see that in the middle of verse 10? And who are they? Who are the ones who are perishing? Well, they are the ones who refuse to love the truth. In other words, they’re the ones who refuse to love the truth of the gospel and who have refused to trust in Christ the Saviour. If they loved the truth of the gospel and trusted in Christ the Saviour, they would be saved from God’s wrath and condemnation. But since they refused to love the truth of the gospel, and since they refused to trust in Christ the Saviour, they cannot be saved. They cannot be saved. Therefore they will perish when Christ comes again to judge the living and the dead. Instead of receiving eternal life when Christ comes, they will perish. They will be condemned.
And they will also be taken in and deceived by the man of lawlessness when he comes. Since they refused to love the truth, they will be taken in by his lies and deceit.
So, think of a child who has been immunised; he’s immune from disease and doesn’t need to be afraid. And believers will be immune from the lawless one’s deception, whereas unbelievers will not, because those unbelievers refused to love the truth.
Verses 11 and 12
At the end of verse 10, Paul says unbelievers will perish because they refused to love the truth. Since he uses the past tense — they ‘refused’ to love the truth — it’s possible that he’s thinking of all those people in Thessalonica who heard him preach the gospel. They heard Paul preach the gospel, when he revealed to them the truth about Jesus Christ, who is the only Saviour of the world. But so many of those who heard Paul refused to believe his message. And instead of accepting the message, they hated it and they stirred up trouble for Paul, so that he had to leave the city. And those unbelievers in Thessalonica continued to persecute the believers in that city. So, it’s possible that Paul is thinking about them at the end of verse 10. And he continues to think about such people in verses 11 and 12 when he refers to the present time.
But these words are surprising, aren’t they? Paul says:
They refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason, God sends them a powerful delusion.
So, in the present, God sends a powerful delusion on those who refused to love the truth. And God sends a powerful delusion on them so that they will believe the lie. Furthermore all those who have not believed the truth, but who have delighted in wickedness, will be condemned. Well, it’s puzzling to think that God sends a powerful delusion on those who refused to love the truth. Why would the Lord want to delude them or want them to believe something that is not true? It’s puzzling.
However, this is not the only place where we find this kind of teaching. In Romans 1 Paul writes about how God reveals his wrath in the present time against all those who suppress the truth by their wickedness. Everyday God reveals his wrath from heaven. However, the way he reveals his wrath against men’s godlessness and wickedness in the present is not by sending thunderbolts from heaven to destroy the wicked. No, he reveals his wrath in the present by letting sinners fall deeper and deeper into sin and into the misery it causes. So, think of a child who is trying to run away from her father. And the father is holding her wrist. And the child is straining with all her might to get away. And then, the father relaxes his grip. He lets go. And the child suddenly falls to the ground. Well, in Romans 1 Paul tells us that God is angry with men and women and children for their godlessness and wickedness. And so, he relaxes his grip. He lets them go. And so, they fall further and further into sin. And here in 2 Thessalonians, he’s saying that, since unbelievers refused to love the truth, God lets them fall further and further from the truth.
But he only lets them fall further and further from the truth, because they first refused to love the truth. Those unbelievers in Thessalonica heard the truth from Paul, but they refused to believe it. And God has sent preachers into all the world to proclaim the truth of the gospel. People all around the world have heard the truth about Christ, who gave up his life for sinners, so that whoever repents and believes in him will be saved. They heard the truth. They were invited to trust in Christ for salvation. But though they heard the truth, they refused to believe it. When God offered them salvation, they said ‘no’. And because they said ‘no’, and refused to love the truth when they heard it, then God lets them fall further and further from the truth.
And they’re the ones who will be taken in and deceived by the man of lawlessness, when he’s revealed.
Verses 13 and 14
But, says Paul in verse 13. And this ‘but’ once again reveals Paul’s pastor’s heart, because having spoken about the condemnation which is coming on those who refused to believe the truth, he goes on to speak about the salvation they can expect to enjoy when Christ comes again. Paul writes:
But we ought to give thanks to God for you, brothers [and sisters] loved by the Lord….
Why ought he to give thanks to God for them? Because God chose them to be saved. Those who refused to love the truth will be condemned; but God chose to save you. And he chose to save you through the work of the Holy Spirit and through belief in the truth. So, he sent the Holy Spirit to enable you to believe the truth of the gospel and to trust in Christ, the only Saviour of the world. He called you through the preaching of the gospel so that — though you’re a sinner who deserves to be condemned and punished forever for all the ways you have disobeyed God’s law and doubted his word — nevertheless he called you through the preaching of the gospel to share in the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ.
And do you see how Paul makes clear the grace and goodness of God and how God is the one who took the initiative in saving his people? He’s the one who chose to save you. He’s the one who sent his Holy Spirit to enable you to believe the truth. He’s the one who called you. And he’s the one who called you through the gospel, which is the good news of what God’s Son has done to save you. Your salvation is God’s work from beginning to end. And since he’s the one who chose to save you through the work of the Holy Spirit and belief in the truth and through the preaching of the gospel, then you don’t need to fear the coming of the man of lawlessness. You don’t need to fear him, because if you believe the truth, it’s because Almighty God chose to save you; and no one and nothing can snatch you from his hand or from his Son’s hand. God chose to save you, and therefore he will keep you always. God chose to save you, and therefore he will protect you from the man of lawlessness when he comes; and he will protect you from the mystery of lawlessness which is already at work in the world. He will keep you, because he chose to save you.
Verses 15 to 17
And so, bearing all that in mind, what must you do? Well, you must stand firm, says Paul in verse 15. Let nothing move you. Let nothing unsettle or alarm you. But stand firm in the faith.
And the way to stand firm in the faith is by holding on to the teachings you have received. Do you see that in verse 15? The reason the believers in Thessalonica were unsettled and alarmed by the false prophesy they heard is because they had forgotten the things Paul had taught them about the coming of the Lord Jesus. So, hold on to what you have heard about Christ and the gospel. Hold on to those things. Remember them. Think about them. Study them. And they will help you to stand firm in the faith.
This, of course, is why it’s so important to come to church, where God’s word is proclaimed every week, morning and evening. We teach God’s word on a Wednesday evening as well. The reason I teach God’s word is, first, to convince and convert unbelievers to faith in Christ; and second, it’s to help believers grow in their knowledge and understanding of these things, so that you’re not taken in by error and by false doctrines; and so that you’ll be better equipped to stand firm. Knowing the truth more and more, understanding the truth more and more, being reminded of the truth again and again is vital for enabling you to stand firm against all the wicked schemes of the devil and all the troubles and trials of life and all the false ideas which abound in the world today. But when we get tired with these things, and when our itching ears want to hear new things, and when we disregard the teachings we have received about Christ and the gospel, that’s when we become vulnerable and when we’re liable to stumble and fall, instead of standing firm in the faith.
So, you’re to stand firm in the faith by holding on to the teachings which were passed on to you about Christ and the gospel. And you should look to the Lord Jesus Christ and God the Father to encourage and strengthen you in every good deed and word.
Do you know what it’s like when a wasp or bee appears? You can’t concentrate on anything else while it’s buzzing around, because it’s annoying and distracting and you’re worried it might sting you. You can’t get anything done with that wasp buzzing around. Well, the devil can come along and he can buzz around believers. He can make us anxious and afraid, with the persecution and oppression he stirs up against the church; and with the false doctrines he spreads among God’s people. And he distracts us from doing what the Lord commands us to do, which is to live obediently before him. And so, let’s look to the Lord to encourage us and to strengthen us against the Devil’s wicked schemes, so that we can concentrate on doing what we’re supposed to do, which is to serve the Lord in all we do and say. That’s what we’re to do for the time being, while we wait for our Saviour to come again. And no matter what happens between now and the day he comes, whatever trouble rises up against the church, we can trust that the Lord our God will take care of it and take care of us.