The second letter to the Thessalonians is an avoided text because of the descriptions that are found in it. It is a text that has been subject to wild speculations concerning end time events. But to understand the message of this passage we need to start at some beginning, foundational concepts. What is the gospel? The gospel is not a feel good message that has no implications regarding sin. The gospel message is message of the enthronement of Jesus and the submitting of the nations to his rule (Psalm 2; Isaiah 40:9-10; 52:7; 61:1).
“I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.” (Psalm 2:6 CSB)
What we see in the scriptures is that the first coming of Jesus was not the goal but the beginning of his reign, putting all the enemies under his feet and restoring all things (Acts 3; 1 Corinthians 15) until he returns a second time to bring his reign to completion. The second coming of Christ is a foundational doctrine of the New Testament, generating hope in the face of the world’s sinfulness. So when we come to places in the scriptures like 2 Thessalonians 2, we can struggle with them because we do not know the Old Testament prophecies, by which many will make fanciful ideas from this text. But the message is simple and what Paul teaches in chapter 2 appears to be the primary reason why he wrote this letter.
Do Not Be Alarmed (2:1-2)
The concern is described in the first two verses of 2 Thessalonians 2. Paul does not want them to be alarmed or shaken because people are saying that the day of the Lord has come. The false claim appears to be that Christ’s coming and the final resurrection have already happened, so that there should be no present expectation of any future occurrence of either of these events. This was apparently a common false teaching. Listen to what Paul wrote to Timothy.
But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some. (2 Timothy 2:16–18 ESV)
Notice that there were people who were Christians (they have swerved from the truth) and are saying that the resurrection has already happened. Amazingly enough, there are people today even who attend churches of Christ that declare that the Lord has already returned. There is nothing new under the sun and this is continuing false teaching. If you ever hear about the AD 70 doctrine or realized eschatology, just run away for it is a false teaching along these same lines. Paul writes so that these Christians will not have their faith disturbed by saying that the coming of the Lord has already occurred.
Day Cannot Come Yet (2:3-9)
What Paul does in verses 3-4 is tell them that there are things that must happen before Christ returns. The day cannot come “unless the rebellion comes first and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction” (2:3). Now this is where people go crazy interpreting this imagery. Please notice verse 5 before we go further. Paul says in verse 5 that he already told them these things when he was with them. Not only this, but notice verse 7 says that the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Not only this, the power of the lawlessness already exists and verse 6 says that it was about to be revealed.
So for us to think that what Paul told them was about the Roman Catholic Church, North Korea, the Soviet Union, China, the European Union, or anything else that would not be revealed in the lifetimes of these individuals makes no sense. Can you imagine Paul saying that I told you before that the man of lawlessness was when the communist nations merge together and go to war against Christians? Futuristic interpretations collapse under the weight of the fact that Paul explained these things to these Thessalonian Christians in the first century.
So what was Paul describing? What is this rebellion or falling away? What is the revealing of the man of lawlessness, the son of destruction? There are two things we need to consider as we answer these questions. First, we need to carefully read the descriptions given by Paul about these events and see if they match any other information given in the New Testament. Second, these descriptions about these events are found in the Old Testament prophecies and will help us understand what Paul is saying.
Descriptions of the Rebellion and the Man of Lawlessness
First, the rebellion or falling away refers to some kind of observable, measurable event so that these Christians would know that this had taken place. If the text is referring to a spiritual falling away, Jesus predicted this would happen before the destruction of Jerusalem in Matthew 24:9-14.
Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:9–14 ESV)
The rebellion may also refer to the Jewish rebellion against the Roman Empire that brought about its destruction. We will see why this could be a likely connection in just a moment. But hold these thoughts in your mind for a moment as we consider “the man of lawlessness.”
The language that we find in 2 Thessalonians 2 is found in a couple other places in the scriptures and they are referring to the same thing. Paul says that this man of lawlessness, the son of destruction “opposes and exalts himself against every so-call god or object of worship, taking his seat in the temple of God.” Further, he “proclaims himself to be God.” His coming is the activity of Satan (2:9) and works with power, false signs, and wonders (2:9). These are descriptions used of wicked rulers.
Revelation 13 describes Satan raising a beast up that blasphemes against God, God’s name, and God’s dwelling (13:6). It performs great signs in front of the people (13:13). When we study the book of Revelation we see that we are reading about the Roman Empire and what those emperors would do in exalting themselves against God, people worshiping them as a god, and harming God’s people. In the prophecy of Daniel about the fourth terrifying beast, which was also a reference to the Roman Empire, the same description is given: “He shall speak words against the Most High” (Daniel 7:25). Daniel 11 makes the same reference. It is worthy of noting that the early church also saw these images in all of these passages as referring to the Roman emperors because that is exactly what they did. Very few emperors did not do what this passage describes. This language in 2 Thessalonians 2 sounds just like what Emperor Caligula did when he put a statue of himself in the temple of God in Jerusalem in 40 AD. Does this not sound just like verse 4? So in the first century the thinking of the reader of this passage would be that Paul is talking about the Roman emperors.
Now I would like to take us another direction to help confirm this conclusion. If you are standing in the first century after Christ has come and risen from the dead, are there any prophecies that have not yet been fulfilled? Have the prophets described things that yet must happen after the Messiah gives himself? There are still some prophecies that have not been fulfilled. In particular there are two very important prophecies that have not happened yet. Turn to Daniel 9:24-27.
24 “Seventy weeks are decreed about your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy place. 25 Know therefore and understand that from the going out of the word to restore and build Jerusalem to the coming of an anointed one, a prince, there shall be seven weeks. Then for sixty-two weeks it shall be built again with squares and moat, but in a troubled time. 26 And after the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one shall be cut off and shall have nothing. And the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war. Desolations are decreed. 27 And he shall make a strong covenant with many for one week, and for half of the week he shall put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate, until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator.” (Daniel 9:24–27 ESV)
Now many find this passage to be difficult. But I want to zero in on two parts of the prophecy. First, in verse 26 we are told that the city of Jerusalem and the temple of God were going to be destroyed. Second, in verse 27 the one who did this destroying would have its decreed end poured out on it. It is the same picture as in Daniel 7 and Matthew 24. Jerusalem is going to be destroyed by the fourth empire (the Roman Empire) and then the Roman Empire will also be destroyed. I submit to you that this is also the message of the book of Revelation. If you are standing in the first century and you know these prophecies, then you know that there are two things that still have to happen. The Romans must enter Jerusalem and destroyed the city and temple and then the Romans themselves must fall. Please reread 2 Thessalonians 2:3-10 and notice that these events are what Paul is picturing.
What I want us to see is that the reason why Paul can say that “the day will not come” unless these things first happen because there are prophecies that still had to be fulfilled. God said that he was going to destroy Jerusalem and destroy that destroyer. Therefore, do not listen to anyone who says that the Lord has already come and that you have missed out on the resurrection. The Lord will not return until he completes the prophecies he gave.
Now this can seem very complicated and complex to us. Why does Paul need to go through all of this? I want to bring us back to the beginning of this sermon. This is the gospel message. You may be questioning this statement but what we have just read is the gospel message. The gospel message is the enthronement of Jesus and the subjugation of his enemies. The Lord Jesus Christ is putting all the enemies under his feet. This is the message of Psalm 2 regarding God and his Anointed. The nations rage against the Lord and plot against him. But God will set his King on Zion and then listen to what he says:
I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” (Psalm 2:7–9 ESV)
The ends of the earth is the Son’s possession and he will break the nations with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces. What we are reading in 2 Thessalonians 2 is the gospel message. The gospel message is not simply about you and I having the forgiveness of sins, though this is certainly an important benefit of the gospel. The gospel message is the subjugation of all the enemies, including Satan, sin, and death. Jesus rules over all things and every person and every nation that resists the Lord will be dashed to pieces. The gospel is the message of the king who sits on the throne and rules over the earth.
The Problem (2:10-12)
This is why we see the gospel message in verses 10-12. People refuse to love the truth and so be saved. This is the key problem for those who are perishing. All unbelief boils down to this: they refuse to believe the truth. They refuse to love the truth. They want to believe in the power of the nations of the earth. They want to believe in the power of themselves. They want to have pleasure in unrighteousness (2:12). God will allow you to believe this lie. God will distinguish between those who have a love for God and truth and those who want to do what they want to do. You have a choice to believe the strong delusion as millions of others have in the past. Or you can believe the truth of the gospel that Jesus reigns, love that truth, and so be saved. There is a warning here that we do not believe what is false because sin blinds our hearts and minds. How many people think they are Christians while still following their own desires and will!
Stand Firm (2:13-17)
So what are we to do? Look at verses 13-17. Notice verse 15.
So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter. (2 Thessalonians 2:15 ESV)
The events that happen in the world and teachings of those who are false are going to constantly bombard our faith so that we are shaken away from the truth of the gospel: the Lord Jesus reigns, we must submit to him, and those who do not submit will experience the wrath of God. Hold on to the teachings given by the apostles that have been handed down. This is the idea of the word “traditions.” These are not human traditions but the traditions of God. God’s word being passed on and handed down is what you are to hold on to. Stand firm in the truth of the rule of Jesus and do not believe the delusion of this world. Jesus reigns and will destroy all who resist his rule. Submit to the Lord with all your heart.