I and II Thessalonians are two letters that Paul wrote to a young church that he established in 51 AD. The key ideas he writes about are:
- His joy over the fact that despite their many trials and persecutions, this young church was persevering in faithfulness, knowledge and brotherly love, and preparing for the return of Christ.
- The other things he writes about are the events surrounding the return of Jesus. In his first letter he describes what will happen to Christians (living and dead) when Jesus returns and he exhorts them to be ready. In the second letter he explains what's going to happen to sinners and the unfaithful when Jesus appears again. He encourages them by telling them not be disheartened by what the wicked are doing; when He comes, Jesus will reward and punish according to a person's deeds. After this, Paul continues his letter by instructing them concerning the events that will take place prior to Jesus' return.
The day has not come
Now we request you, brethren, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, that you not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.
- II Thessalonians 2:1-2
If you read between the lines, it seems that this was the core problem of this church. Someone may have claimed to have a prophecy, an authority or a teaching from an Apostle claiming that the second coming had already occurred. Someone may have promoted the idea that they were already in the midst of it or that it was very near. The effect on the church was disturbing. It seems that they were becoming spiritually unbalanced, agitated and confused.
Paul begs them not to lose their composure and become overly disturbed with this teaching and false notions.
Whatever its source, he discounts it and reaffirms that before the "day of the Lord" comes, other significant events must take place first, and he goes on to give details about these events.
Language / Literary Style – vs. 3-12
The next passage is among the most difficult in the Bible. Even Peter the Apostle attests to the fact that some of Paul's writings are difficult to discern (II Peter 3:15-16). In addition to the complicated ideas to grasp, this section is written in a literary style that is impossible to understand unless we have some background on the terms used.
This passage was written in the apocalyptic literary style that was filled with symbolic words and images. The word apocalyptic means "uncovering" or a "revealing." It was a style of writing used by many in the ancient world including prophets and other Old Testament writers to describe in dramatic terms the content of their prophecies. They also used this type of language to warn the nations about impending war or judgment from God.
- Daniel 7:13 – Dreams
- Ezekiel 32:2 – Visions
- Joel, Acts 2:19-20 – Prophecy
The apocalyptic style was mainly used in times of trouble or at those periods when the Jews were being oppressed. In many instances the writing was understandable only to the Jews, but not to others because of the symbols that had meaning only to a Jew. This style was also used by the New Testament writers for the same reasons.
- Jesus (Matthew 24:1-34) – Destruction of Jerusalem
- Paul (II Thessalonians) – Apostasy and second coming
- John, Revelation – Destruction of Rome and the judgment
The thing to remember is that when this style is used it is a "coded" message to the reader. It may be disturbing to read, but was actually meant to comfort and encourage God's people in times of trouble. At other times it was to warn or point to events that would take place in the future, all with the use of symbols.
This is the language Paul switches to in II Thessalonians 2:3-8. We cannot discern his message unless we understand the symbolism in which the message was written.
Symbols / Terms
3Let no one in any way deceive you, for it will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, 4who 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. 5Do you not remember that while I was still with you, I was telling you these things? 6And you know what restrains him now, so that in his time he will be revealed. 7For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains will do so until he is taken out of the way. 8Then that lawless one will be revealed whom the Lord will slay with the breath of His mouth and bring to an end by the appearance of His coming;
- II Thessalonians 2:3-8
Before we search for over-all meaning, let's look at some of the key terms:
1. Apostasy (rebellion) – vs. 3
Literally means to fall away. In this case it means to fall away from Christ and His teachings. Apostasy in the New Testament refers only to the Christian faith. For example, Muslims cannot be apostate because they are never in the faith to begin with. We can refer to non-believers as pagans or the lost, but for Christians who go away from Christ or His teachings, the correct term is to be an apostate or in apostasy.
2. Man of Lawlessness / Son of Destruction – vs. 3
Lawlessness means sin or sinfulness. The sin that accompanies the apostasy. This is a one-of-a-kind, unique personality, power or organization that embodies the sin. Man of Lawlessness; Son of Destruction; Perdition; Antichrist – all refer to the same thing.
3. Restraining Influence – vs. 6
The person or power that restrains the Man of Lawlessness (whatever form it takes) from declaring his/its position or revealing himself.
4. Mystery of Lawlessness – vs. 7
This refers to the actual outworking of evil generated by the apostasy. Just like the outworking of good caused by the word of God in building the Kingdom can be seen in good works and conduct, the apostasy also spreads its influence in a negative way (leaven).
5. Breath of His Mouth – vs. 8
The word of God, the Scriptures (Revelation 2:16).
6. Appearance of His Coming – vs. 8
The second coming or return of Christ.
Paul is prophesying here based on the revelation from God given to him. He is telling them what will happen in the future and at the end of time. This is the same thing as when he described what will happen to the faithful and the wicked at the end. One thing to note in order to avoid confusion, however, is that prophecy gives the facts of what will happen and the succession of events but it rarely gives the time of, or in between, these events. So, we know what is going to take place and the order of things but are not told when they will happen, how much time elapses between the events or when all the events will be completed.
For example, John the Baptist prophesied the coming of the Messiah as well as the judgment of the Jewish nation (Matthew 3:11-12). In his mind these two events were to happen at the same time. This is why when he was imprisoned by Herod, he sent disciples to Jesus to inquire if Jesus was truly the Messiah (Matthew 11:2-3). He was confused because Jesus the Messiah was here but there were no signs of judgment on the nation. Thirty seven years after Jesus' death and resurrection however, and some 40 years after John's death at the hands of Herod – God's judgment on Jerusalem, spoken of by John, came down on the city in the form of a Roman army. In 70 AD the nation of Israel came to an end as the Roman army destroyed the city and killed most of its people – John's prophecy fulfilled. John understood the events and the sequence correctly but did not know the time in between these events.
In the passage in II Thessalonians we see Paul predicting events that will happen in the future and he explains the sequence of these events but not their time frame. It could have all happened during their lifetimes in the first century or take 10,000 years to fulfill. It will all happen in the sequence that it has been spoken of, but only God knows when. When we study this passage therefore, we are studying the meaning and sequence of what will take place but have no idea of the time frame.
Sequence of Events – vs. 3-12
Paul explains two major events that must take place before the return of Christ. He explains this in order to calm their fears in thinking that the return of Christ has already happened and they missed it; or that it was to happen very soon.
1. The Apostasy – vs. 3a
The return of Jesus does not happen until this takes place. The Apostasy is a rebellion, a falling away from faith in Christ and obedience to His word. This is an event that takes place within Christianity! Paul mentions that this apostasy was inevitable and likely within his lifetime.
Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with his own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.
- Acts 20:28-30
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.
- II Timothy 4:3-4
Apostasy is the action of leaving the truth and embracing a lie. It is the love of what is not true and the ultimate cause of condemnation. The apostasy began in the first century as teachers rose up to deny the divinity of Christ and continue to this day as many "Christian" groups deny the inspiration of the Scriptures and teach that Christ is an angel (Jehovah Witnesses) or a man who became a god (Mormons).
2. The Man of Lawlessness is Revealed – vs. 3-7
The big question here is, "What is he like?"
Vs. 3 – One of a kind person or personage could be embodied in a personality, organization, philosophy or movement (i.e. Hitler – Nazism). Hidden at first, then revealed.
Vs. 4 – Opposes every god or object of worship. Does not deny that there is a God, but opposes every form of deity. Takes God's place within God's sanctuary or God's dwelling place. Places himself where God is and makes himself equal with God within Christianity. God's sanctuary on earth is within the hearts and minds of His people.
Vs. 5-7 – His influence is manifested before he is. Like a seed develops roots, stalk and leaves before it blooms; he will develop an evil influence and with time will mature to manifest himself for who and what he truly is: the Man of Lawlessness, the Son of Destruction, the Antichrist. Now Paul says that his influence is (was) being restrained at the time Paul wrote his letters to the Thessalonians. It had not bloomed yet but was already at work in its evil influence. This manifestation, he says, was being restrained by a person or power or a combination of both which will later be removed.
What will the Man of Lawlessness do?
Vs. 9-13 – He will deceive people in the name of God and Christ in order to seduce them to believe what is false and be lost because of it. He will do this using all manner of false power, false signs, false wonders, wicked lies and deceptions. These powerful weapons are necessary to convince people that the lie is true. He will know that he is a liar, he will lie on purpose and will do so in order to destroy the souls of men (vs. 10). Paul tells us in advance why Christians will believe these lies:
- They don't love the truth, they love sin, love the world, love self, but not the truth (like John 3:19).
- God gives them what they desire (lies) by allowing the Man of Lawlessness to work his works so that those among the believers who love lies will get their fill. The "deluding influence" is the cumulative effect produced by believing error/lies. God doesn't send lies or error, He permits and directs where Satan may work (i.e. Job – Satan needed permission to attack him).
- People who love wickedness eventually refuse to listen, or accept truth and they will have ample time to demonstrate their evil and error so as to also demonstrate how just God is in condemning and punishing them.
What will happen to him?
Vs. 8 – God will destroy him in two steps: the breath of His mouth – the word of truth; and the appearance of His son – the return of Christ for the judgment of all liars.
Remember that all these events will take place but we don't know when or if they will take place all at once or be spread out over a period of time.
Paul tells the Thessalonian church that the "Day of the Lord" has not come so they shouldn't be worried or upset by anyone who brings a teaching to the contrary. He tells them that before the Lord returns two important things must happen.
- The Apostasy must occur and had already begun in some aspects.
- The Man of Lawlessness had to be revealed for who he is.
In the next chapter we're to examine several theories explaining who the "Man of Lawlessness" really is, how he works today and what the "restraining power" might be (there are four possibilities). In the meantime there are three very practical lessons we can learn from the material we have just covered:
1. Bad teaching hurts the church.
We need to be careful not only of how we live, but also what we teach. The only way to avoid false teaching is to continually stay with Christ's teaching and make corrections when there is error. Bad teaching, careless teaching, teaching of worldly ideas instead of Biblical concepts often divides the church or slows its growth.
2. Satan desires to destroy souls.
Our prayers, our watchfulness, our faithfulness to God and His word are what protect us. Note that it is the word wielded by Christ Himself that destroys Satan in the end.
3. We can be the true church.
The right and true religion and the church that practices it is the one that carefully and humbly follows Christ's teaching. Don't be fooled by appearances, signs, flashiness – the word of God is our only sure sign. Our job is not to judge if other churches or groups are legitimate or not, that judgment belongs to God; our task is to follow God's word and encourage others to do the same.
- What is meant by "apocalyptic" writing and why is it difficult to understand?
- Discuss the following terms used in II Thessalonians 2:3-8.
- Man of Lawlessness/Son of Destruction
- Restraining Influence
- Mystery of Lawlessness
- Breath of his mouth
- Appearance of His coming
- In Acts 20:28-30, Paul says is the best response to the return of Christ. How does this relate to his warnings of a great apostasy?
- What are the characteristics of the Man of Lawlessness as discussed in II Thessalonians 2, what will he seek to do and what will happen to him?
- How can you use this lesson to grow spiritually and help others come into a relationship with Jesus?