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TEXT: II Thessalonians 2:1-17
SUBJECT: Thessalonians #12: The Apostasy and the Hope
There once was a man who owned a great farm. In the spring of the year, he told his servants to plant the fields with the finest of wheat. They obeyed the master, and had high hopes for a rich harvest that fall. But their hopes were soon disappointed. Looking at the fields one summer day, they noticed the wheat was growing up nicely, but not only wheat. Tares had gotten into the field!
They ran to the farmer to find out how the bad seed had got in with the good. He told them, there was nothing wrong with his seed, but 'an enemy has done this'. While the man and his servants were sleeping, a jealous neighbor had tried to ruin the crop.
At the harvest, the wheat and the tares will be separated. But, from now on, someone ought to keep a better eye on the farm!
This brings me to the doctrine of the Second Coming of Christ. When taught and believed properly, it will produce a bumper crop of hope, courage, generosity, and patience. But when taught badly or believed wrongly, it can only produce folly, sin, and division.
This is what had happened in Thessalonica. Paul had preached the Second Coming of Christ in such a way as to make the church hopeful, patient, and brave.
But then came the others. They, too, affirmed the Second Coming of Christ, but they were not content with where Paul left it. They speculated, they set dates, and they inferred things from it they shouldn't have.
When Paul learns what they're up to, he writes to correct them. He doesn't say they're going to hell, but that they're wrong, and the church ought to stop listening to them!
What he said to them, he says to you: Be content with what the Bible says about the Second Coming of Christ! Be satisfied with its plain meaning, and don't listen to speculators-even if they're fine men.
THE TOPIC, V.1a
The subject of our chapter is the Second Coming of Christ, v.1a,
Now, brethren, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him.
In his first letter, Paul had explained all this in some detail. In short, he said Jesus Christ is coming again, and when He does, His People will meet Him in the air. By 'His People', Paul meant both the living believers and also the dead. The living will be 'caught up' or 'raptured' and the dead will be raised to life, glorified, and put at the front of the line!
This is what Paul is getting at in the chapter.
THE REASON, VV. 1b-3a
Why is he bringing this up again? Some of his Epistles have hardly a word on the Second Coming, but he keeps harping on it here and in I Thessalonians. Why?
It is not a personal obsession with him. Some men are fixated on the Second Coming of Christ. To them, every verse in the Bible says something about it. If Peter's mother-in-law rises from her sickbed, it means one day the dead will rise from their graves. Paul isn't this way at all! Yes, he believed in the Second Coming of Christ-and preached it. But his obsession was something else,
I determined to know nothing among you save Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
Paul doesn't care about a super-detailed, precise and exact doctrine of the Second Coming. Some of the pastors I grew up with were this way. They didn't know the Trinity from a hole in the ground, but they'd fight you over the Two Witnesses! Paul is not this way. His teaching on the Second Coming is way too general to please my old pastors.
So, why does he spend a whole chapter on the Second Coming? Because his friends had heard rumors that the Lord's Return was at hand, and they were worried about it, vv.1b-2,
We ask you not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as if from us, as though the Day of Christ had come.
People were saying the Lord is coming next week! Some of them were saying it by 'the Spirit', that is, they were prophesying in the Church: Thus says the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ will come back on Friday! Others were just talking about it in private or maybe preaching it from some supposed proof text in the Bible. Others had written a letter and signed Paul's name to it saying the Lord would be back in a few days!
Paul says 'It's not mine!' The Spirit is not saying this to the prophets and the rumors you hear are just that-rumors and nothing else! In other words, the Lord is not coming in, let's say, 53 AD!
Of course, we know that, but they didn't. But let's not be too hard on them: millions bought a book saying the Lord would return in the 1970's! Thousands bought another saying 1994 was the year! You understand why they felt this way.
They wanted the Lord to come again, and it's easy to believe what you want to. The Second Coming would end their persecution and take them from the outhouse to the White House!
But Paul says No! The Lord is coming again. But not today. Not tomorrow.
THE FALLING AWAY, V.3
How does he know this? Paul is an Apostle, but the Holy Spirit has not told him when the Lord will come again. If even the Lord Himself didn't know the day or the hour, then neither does Paul or anyone else!
But, without knowing when Christ will come again, Paul knows it can't be right away because two things have to occur before He does. The first of them is the apostasy, v.3,
Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the Falling Away comes first.
What is 'the falling away'? The word is apostasy, which means just that-a falling away from God. Apostasy can take either of two forms or both.
There is a doctrinal apostasy, which is falling away from the truth into heresy. Not every mistake is heresy, and not every wrong interpretation of the Bible is falling away from God. If it were, everyone would be an apostate and all teaching would be heresy. Heresy is a major mistake on a major doctrine. It's so bad that you cannot believe it (or teach it) and still have fellowship with God.
While some have minimized the number of heresies to one or two (or even zero), others have expanded the number of heresies to include anything they disagree with! We have to beware of both exaggerations!
There is a practical apostasy. The Church can get all the doctrines right, but if it falls into serious and known sin, and stays there for years and years, it may fall away from God. We have to be careful passing judgment on this one because doctrines are far easier to assess than human hearts.
Who will fall away from the Lord near the end of time? The ones who seem to be in fellowship with Him. And who are they? Professed believers, people who have said they are disciples of Christ.
How many of them will fall away from God?
It has to be a lot of them, for if there isn't, no one would recognize the Falling Away. The Church is the 50's AD had the same problems we do: heresy, immorality, materialism, hypocrisy, laziness, division, you name it and they had it! But Paul did not infer from this falling away that The Falling Away had occurred.
Thus, it has to be big enough for ordinary Christians to sit up and take notice. But that's all he says about it! He doesn't give a percentage of Christians who will fall away or how extreme their falling away will be.
We mustn't speculate. Paul says an apostasy will occur near the Second Coming, but the President of Family Radio is not satisfied with that; he says every church without exception will fall away from God-and already has. This is not read out of the text, but into it!
THE MAN OF SIN, VV.3b-5, 9-10
At the same time that many are falling away from God, another will be rising to power; he's called the man of sin, son of perdition, and the lawless one vv.3b-5,
The man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped so that he sits in the temple of God showing himself that he is God. Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things?
Who is this 'Man of Sin'? From the days of Martin Luther until well into the Twentieth Century, all Protestants said he was the pope. I believe the pope is a man of sin, but not the one Paul has in mind here.
The reason I don't believe what all my heroes taught is because he doesn't fit the profile. The Man of Sin seems to be one man, not a long string of men. What's more, he appears just before the Second Coming, while the first pope dates back to 590.
In the Twentieth Century, popular preachers and writers began seeing him in the great dictators of the day-Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao-Tse Tong, and so on. These men were also sons of damnation, but they also fail to fit the Man Paul has in mind here. The Lord destroyed them all, but not with the brightness of His coming.
The President of Family Radio says he 'can only be Satan' (and that's a quote). It's true that angels are called men at times and the devil will be destroyed with the Second Coming, but this too falls short. In v.9 Paul says,
The lawless one is according to the working of Satan.
I suppose you could say, 'Satan came according to the working of Satan', but does that ring true to you? It seems forced to me.
I see no reason to not take this man of sin for what Paul says he is: A uniquely evil man, with a giant ego, who demands worship from all. When it says he 'sits in the temple' it doesn't mean the temple must be rebuilt (as some say) or that he takes over the church (as someone else), but it simply means he demands the honor that belongs to God only.
Will he be a great dictator or a false Messiah, both or something else? Paul doesn't say and we must not guess. It's enough to say that when he appears, the Lord's people will be able to recognize him. If we don't know who he is, it means he hasn't come yet.
But when he does, he will master the art of deception, vv.9-10,
The coming of the lawless one is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs and lying wonders, and with all unrighteous deception among those who perish.
You can't read these words without thinking, first of the serpent in the Garden-lying with buttery words, appealing to Eve's vanity, and making her wonder if God said so or not.
Later you think of Pharaoh's magicians, doing by the power of Satan many of the same things Moses and Aaron did by the power of God.
You think of false prophets who performed miracles and then told the people to go after other gods. And then, men like Simon Magus and Bar-Jesus, those sorcerers in the New Testament who had everyone believing in them.
The Man of Sin, it seems, won't be a great dictator so much as an ad man-getting people to want what he's selling.
What will he promise? Whatever's in vogue at the time: maybe peace and security, or excitement and adventure, maybe the world, maybe heaven. But whatever he's selling, he'll have plenty of buyers. But not yet.
THE RESTRAINT, V.7
Why hasn't he come? The seventh verse tells us why,
For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only He who restrains will do so until He is taken out of the way.
Someone or something is holding back the man of sin. Who or what is it? Paul says the Thessalonians know who or what it is. But we don't. Thus, we cannot be dogmatic.
The traditional answer is the Roman Empire. The Empire was pagan, of course, but it was also powerful and conservative. It kept things in check and pretty much let people live their lives in peace. When the Empire falls, lawlessness will break out and this will usher in the Man of Sin. I like some of this, but, of course the Empire in the West fell in 476 and in the East in 1453. But the Man of Sin didn't come with its fall.
More recently, Evangelical Christians have said the Church is what's holding back the Son of Perdition. When the Church is rapture, he'll be free to have his way. I like some parts of this answer, because the Church is the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Take us away and the world would become far darker and more rotten than it is. But I do not accept it because, it seems to me, the Rapture takes place at the end of the world, thus leaving no time for the Man of Sin to come.
Others have said it is the Holy Spirit who is holding back the Man of Sin. When He's withdrawn from the world, all hell breaks loose. I like some of this answer too, but then they go to far as say people will be saved without the Holy Spirit. Wrong!
The best answer is also the fuzziest. God is holding back the Man of Sin and when He quits doing that, the Man of Sin will break into the world with terrible wrath! If a detail or two is wrong here, the big idea is surely right.
Somehow or other, either personally or through some agent in the world, God is holding back the Man of Sin. For that we can be very thankful! When was the last time you praised the Lord for that favor? You praise Him for healing your hangnail or making your cat come home, but do you thank Him for holding back the Son of Perdition?
The wicked ideas or the unclean spirits that will bring the Man of Sin into the world were already at work in Paul's day. But, by the Lord's mercy, they've been held in check. Do you know why?
So that more sinners can be saved, II Peter 3:9,
The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.
THE ENDS, VV.8, 10-12
What will become of the Lawless One? The eight verse tells us,
The Lord will consume [him] with the breath of His mouth and destroy [him] with the brightness of His coming.
This means the end of history is a happy one. The powers of darkness lose! Jesus Christ wins. And we win with Him!
But what about the ones who follow the Man of Sin?
First, why do they follow him? It's not because they're stupid, but because they don't love the truth, vv.10-12,
They did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this reason, God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie, that they may all be condemned who did not believe the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
They have access to the truth, it seems, but they don't want it. Truth makes them uncomfortable because it cuts into their sinful pleasure. It tells them some things are wrong, even if everyone else is doing them and saying they're right. It says we ought to do some things, including the ones that are hard and embarrassing.
This rejection of the truth leads to two judgments. First, in this life, the Lord confirms their choice by making them believe the lies they are told. Then, at His return, they share the fate of the leader-they will
All be condemned.
That's the fate of all who follow the Man of Sin. Including the ones who do it before he comes. What's this? How can you follow a leader before he starts leading? Before he is born, even? By following his ways, and you do that by loving unrighteousness and not loving the truth.
That's what will happen to them.
THE THANKSGIVING, VV.13-15
But what about the ones who love the truth? We won't share in their fate, of course. But why not? Why does the world run after the man of sin while the church despises him? Paul tells us why in vv.13-14,
But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief in the truth, to which He called you by our Gospel, for the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Why don't we love unrighteousness? Why do we receive the truth? No Christian wants to say, 'It's because we're smarter or better than others'. Yet their theology pushes them that way. But the Bible takes us in the other direction. We don't love unrighteousness because God has chosen us for salvation! Before He created the world, He chose to save some, and, not leaving it there, He also chose them to believe the Gospel, to come under the influence of the Holy Spirit, and to obtain the glory of Jesus Christ.
In short, it's not you and me; it's God!
Paul is deeply thankful to God that His people will not fall away at the end of time and be taken in by the Man of Sin. In a somewhat similar passage, our Lord said,
If it were possible, [the false prophets] would deceive even the elect.
But, of course, it isn't possible-not because the Elect are hardier than others, but because God has willed our salvation, and all the means to it-including seeing through the lies of Satan!
THE DUTY, V.15
Election does not save us. Sometimes you'll hear someone saying he was saved from the foundation of the world. No he wasn't. We are chosen for salvation, but chosen for it doesn't mean saved.
In fact, to be saved we have to put our faith in Christ and persevere in that faith. That's what we're called to do in v.15. Paul doesn't say, 'Now that you're elect, put your feet up and start making plans for heaven'. No, he says the opposite,
Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, either by word or our epistle.
Hang on to your faith-he says-or better still, Hang on the Christ! We do that, in short, by holding on to the traditions, which here cannot mean human traditions, vain traditions, the traditions of the Pharisees, and so on, but the traditions Paul handed to them. In other words, the Word of God, especially the Gospel, the Sacraments, and the Old Testament as interpreted by the Apostles.
Hang on to Christ and to His commands, and you'll weather the storm, whether the Man of Sin comes today or in a million years.
THE BLESSING, VV.16-17
He closes the worrisome chapter with a blessing and a promised comfort,
Now may our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and our God and Father, who has loved us and given us everlasting consolation and good hope by grace, comfort your hearts and establish you in every good word and work.
The blessing of God and Christ are again invoked as though Father and Son are equal. Which they are. The Lord who comforted Paul with an everlasting comfort and an infallible hope, will do the same for us. Not so we can feel good, but so that we can glorify Him in what we say and what we do.
All this means: The Second Coming of Christ and the frightful things that precede it are not revealed to satisfy our curiosity, to scare us, or to make us pull back from other Christians who interpret them differently than we do.
These things are revealed to put us on the path of duty-not a special duty fit for the End Times only-but to live the Christian life in comfort, hope, and obedience.
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