The Rebellion of the Antichrist (preaching resource for 11/6/22)
This post exegetes 2 Thessalonians 2, the context for the 11/6/22 Revised Common Lectionary Epistles reading. This exegesis draws on several sources, including John Stott's commentary.
|"Deeds of the Antichrist" by Signorelli (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)|
It is a sad reality that Christian history is littered with the wreckage of 'prediction addiction'—an obsessive focus on speculative end-time prophetic scenarios. Such was the case for some Christians in Thessalonica. Though Paul had taught them concerning the events that would precede and accompany Jesus' return. But with the aid of false teachers, some had misunderstood, so Paul writes 2 Thessalonians to set things straight. In chapter two he warns against what is false, teaches what is true, and expresses his confidence in the church's stability despite the troubles they were experiencing.
Warning against what is false (2:1-3)
1 Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, 2 not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come. 3 Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction.
The false teaching in Thessalonica related to *the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him* on the last day (the day of the Lord). Paul addressed both issues in 1 Thess. where Christians were concerned that Christ's return had not come quickly enough, since some friends had died before it had taken place. Now they were being falsely told that it had already occurred (2Thess.2:2). To counter this heresy, Paul begs them *not to become easily unsettled or alarmed* (1c-2a) concerning *some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us* (2b). This letter might have been a forgery or it might have been Paul's first letter wrongly interpreted. In any case, Paul denies that the teaching of the false teachers was his. Indeed, he contradicts it: *Don't let anyone deceive you in any way* (3a).
Sadly, false teaching continues to trouble the body of Christ in our day. However, God is well able to turn the tables on false teachers, using their deception as an opportunity to reform, refine and thus strengthen the church. Through such difficult circumstances, Christ is revealed and glorified and his people are edified.
Paul negates the heresy of the false teachers by clarifying the order of future events: *The day of the Lord* (2b) cannot be here already, he says, because *that day will not come until* two other things have happened, namely the occurrence of a particular event (*the rebellion*), and the appearance of a certain person (*the man of lawlessness*). Although Paul does not label this person the 'Antichrist', this is evidently the person he is referring to. He will be in the world behind the scenes, but one day, says Paul, he will be *revealed* (3b) and the rebellion he leads will break out.
Paul chides them for forgetting his former teaching: *Don't you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things?* (5). The safeguard against deception and the remedy against false teaching is to hold closely to the teaching of the original Apostles (in this case Paul). In the New Testament we have the carefully preserved record of their inspired teachings, which often take us to the inspired writings of the Old Testament (thus for us, the New interprets the Old). The Holy Scriptures (both New and Old Testaments) in this way are our authoritative, objective and thus fully reliable source for doctrine and practice. Holy Scripture is the test of what is true and our primary shield against error. We must believe fully in what the scriptures say, neither going further than, nor detracting from what they proclaim. There are many 'antichrists' (little "a") in the world today proclaiming things, as though from God that contradict what Scripture teaches. Such teaching must be rejected.
Teaching what is true (2:4-12)
4 He [the man of lawlessness] will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God. 5 Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things? 6 And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. 7 For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. 8 And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming. 9 The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with how Satan works. He will use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie, 10 and all the ways that wickedness deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. 11 For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie 12 and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.
Having warned against false teaching, Paul reminds them of what is true concerning the coming rebellion: its leader (3b-5), its outbreak (6-8a) and its dynamics (8b-12).
1. The leader of the rebellion (2:3b-5)
Paul introduces the rebellion's leader by four titles: *the man of lawlessness*, *the man doomed to destruction*, the man *who will oppose...everything that is called God...*, and the man who *will...exalt himself over...God* (3b-4). Paul goes on to emphasize the first and the last titles which characterize Antichrist as opposed to both God and to law, in order that he might advance his goal of totalitarian world domination.
a. Opposed to law. The Antichrist is both 'the man of lawlessness' (3) and 'the lawless one' (8). The context relates to the Antichrist leading a world-wide and general rebellion against divine authority prior to Jesus' return. Thus 'law' should be understood here as a reference to both moral and civil law (we might use the term 'ethics' to summarize both). Some (e.g. Sabbatarians) see 'lawless' here as against the Ten Commandments and other precepts of the Law of Moses. But what Paul has in view is basic public safety and morality in the same general sense as did Jesus, who said: 'Because of the increase of wickedness ['lawlessness'], the love of most will grow cold' (Mt.24:12).
b. Opposed to God. *He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshipped, so that he sets himself up in God's temple, proclaiming himself to be God* (4). The allusion to 'God's temple' is probably a metaphor to speak of usurping God's authority. To limit the metaphor to the Jerusalem temple or to the church (the spiritual 'temple') is probably not warranted. Rather, what Paul seems to be saying is simply (but importantly) this: the Antichrist will oppose the worship of the true God and will demand that he be worshipped instead.
c. Identity of the Antichrist. There are two reasons that we must approach with great humility the task of identifying the Antichrist. First, Paul had taught the Thessalonians about the man of lawlessness before and does not repeat what he has already taught them. 'You remember...you know...', he writes (5-6). The second reason for humility is that Church history is littered with self-confident but mistaken attempts to find in Paul's text a reference to some contemporary person. Thus we should avoid such speculations, being quite skeptical and cautious about current attempts as in the "Left Behind" series of books and movies. These are mere fiction and only very loosely grounded in Scripture.
Here's what we do know about the identity of the Antichrist: His 'spirit' has been around from day one. We find it at work in the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve were seduced into defying God and rejecting his ethical standards. We see it again in the King of Babylon who fell because he said in his heart 'I will ascend to heaven;...I will sit enthroned...I will make myself like the Most High' (Isa.14:13-14), and in the ruler of Tyre who dared to say: 'I am a god [or God]; I sit on the throne of a god [or God]...' (Ezek.28:2).
The most notable example is Syrian King Antiochus IV (Antiochus Epiphanes) who in 169 BC entered the Holy of Holies and the following year erected an altar to Zeus on the altar of burnt offering, probably placed a statue of Zeus over it, and sacrificed a pig on it. These acts constituted what came to be referred to as the 'abomination that causes desolation' (Mt.24:15; Dan. 8:13; 9:27; 11:31; 12:11). In Daniel, Antiochus Epiphanes is the 'little horn' with 'a mouth that spoke boastfully', and as the one who is said to 'speak against the Most High and oppress his saints' (Dan.7:8, 25). Later he appears as 'the king of the North' who invades the south, violates the temple fortress, abolishes the daily sacrifice, and sets up the abomination that causes desolation (Dan.11:28-31). Indeed, 'the king will do as he pleases. He will exalt and magnify himself above every god and will say unheard-of things against the God of gods' (Dan.11:36). Antiochus Epiphanes is the prototype for multiple Antichrists to come as noted by Jesus, Paul and John.
Jesus, borrowing Daniel's phraseology, predicted the Jewish war of AD 66-70 that culminated in 'the abomination that causes desolation'--the desecration and destruction of the temple and the slaughter of the masses of Jews in Jerusalem and Judea by the Romans (Mark 13:14). This prophecy was in line with Jesus' many warnings about judgment coming upon the Jewish nation and destruction of the Jerusalem temple (which brought to a close the old covenant regime).
Paul echoes Jesus' words and Daniel's phraseology, but applies the prophecy to the whole of the Roman Empire with its cult of emperor worship. In the early AD 50's, when Paul dictated these words, Christians were generally experiencing the protection of Rome which continued 'holding back' (2:7) the spirit of Antichrist. But Paul understands that this time of restraint would not last. In the 60's, Rome under the rule of Nero became increasingly anti-Christian--even commanding Christians to substitute the words *kyrios Kaisar* ('Caesar is Lord') for their confession *kyrios Jesus* ('Jesus is Lord'). And it got worse. In AD 81 Domitian became emperor and demanded to be worshipped as god himself and persecuted those who refused.
John, during one of these times of persecution, was imprisoned on Patmos, from which he wrote Revelation. In this prophetic book, set in Apocalyptic imagery, the two 'beasts' of Chapter 13 both seem to represent the Roman Empire--the beast emerging from the sea symbolizing its persecuting power and the beast emerging from the earth (later called 'the false prophet') symbolizing the cult of emperor worship. Interestingly, in his epistles, John applies the term 'Antichrist' not to the Roman Emperor but to false teachers within the church: 'even now many antichrists have come' (1 John 2:18).
So in Scripture, various personages and forces stand as antichrists—as forces 'against God.' And many more will, undoubtedly come, including, apparently, one final, climactic one. We must, therefore, avoid bold pronouncements about the identity of the final one. Sadly many have not been so careful. The final Antichrist has been confidently proclaimed to be just about any major personage you care to mention: various Roman emperors, then non-Roman rulers such as the Vandal generals, then Muhammad, then various Popes and Protestant leaders, then a progression of totalitarian despots: Napoleon, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and, in our day, Saddam Hussein.
Noting all of these failed predictions, one might be tempted to give up on the idea altogether. But it is a short step from there to giving up on the idea of Jesus' final, visible return. What we should give up on is wild speculation concerning the identity of the final Antichrist. Rather, we should humbly acknowledge that when he does finally appear, it will be clear who he is because immediately following his appearing, Jesus will return in all his glory. Then (and only then) we shall be sure.
2. The outbreak of the rebellion (2:6-8)
What will the appearing of the final Antichrist be like? Paul does not specify the exact form, but focuses on the time sequence, using a series of time references: '*Now* you know what is restraining him, so that he may be revealed *at the proper time*. For *already* the mystery of lawlessness is at work secretly; but the one who *now* restrains it will *continue* to do so *until* he is removed. And *then* the lawless one will be revealed' (6-8). Two processes are now already going on simultaneously. On the one hand *the secret power of lawlessness is...at work* surreptitiously and subversively. On the other hand, the restraining influence is also at work, preventing the secret rebelliousness from breaking out in rebellion. Only when this control is lifted will first the revolt and then Christ's return take place.
What is holding him back? The nature of *what is holding him back*(6) is later personalized as *the one who now holds it back* (7). From Paul's words we glean the following: First, this restraining force was at work in Paul's day and was stopping the outbreak of the predicted rebellion. Secondly the restraint is both an 'it' and a 'he'—a something and a someone. Thirdly, at the right time this 'it' or 'he' will be removed, and the removal will trigger the revelation first of Antichrist and then of Christ. Fourthly, there must be some reason which prompts Paul to write about this restraint and its removal in very guarded terms.
It's likely that Paul understood the restraining force to be secular government. Paul regarded the state as God's agent for the punishment (and thus the restraint) of evil (Rom.13:1ff.). Indeed this was Paul's recent personal experience. He and Silas as Roman citizens had recently experienced protection from great harm from Roman magistrates in Philippi and Thessalonica. If Paul has in mind the Roman government as the current restraining force against evil it's understandable why his references are rather guarded since he is predicting that this force will, at some point, be 'taken out of the way.'
Meanwhile, *the secret power of lawlessness is already at work* (7a), though underground and thus restrained. The anti-law, anti-God movement of many antichrists has been and will continue to be at work. In our day it is seen in godless secular humanism, in the totalitarian tendencies of extreme left-wing and right-wing ideologies, in the materialism of the consumer society which puts things in the place of God, in so-called 'theologies' which proclaim the death of God and the end of moral absolutes, and in the social permissiveness which cheapens the sanctity of human life, sex, marriage and family, all of which God created or instituted.
Were it not for certain remaining restraints which preserve a measure of justice, freedom, order and decency, these antichrist forces would break out much more virulently. In some locales where all restraint has been removed we see what happens. And one day the restraints will fall universally and secret subversion will become open rebellion under the unscrupulous leadership of a single *lawless one* who *will be revealed* (8a). Then we can expect a period (mercifully short) of political, social and moral chaos, in which both God and moral law (ethics) are impudently flouted, until suddenly *the Lord Jesus* will come and *overthrow* him *with the breath of his mouth and destroy* him *by the splendor of his coming* (8). Come Lord Jesus!
3. The dynamics of the rebellion (2:9-12)
Though the rebellion will take place publicly and visibly, there are invisible dynamics going on behind the scenes involving both Satan (9) and God (11). Both God and Satan are at work in relation to the coming of Antichrist. First Paul asserts that *The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan* (9a). The language here causes us to see the coming of Antichrist as a parody of the return (second coming) of Christ. In 1:7 the Lord Jesus is going to be 'revealed' from heaven, whereas three times in chapter 2 (verses 3,6,8) it is the lawless one who is going to be 'revealed' (it is not stated from where). Again, Christ is coming in power and glory (1:7) and in *splendor* (2:8), while the coming of the man of lawlessness will be accompanied by *all kinds of counterfeit signs and wonders* (9). Just as the ministry of Jesus was accredited by 'miracles, wonders and signs' (Acts 2:22), and also the ministry of the apostle Paul (Rom.15:18-19), so the ministry of Antichrist will be accompanied by (though not authenticated by) miracles. For his will be *counterfeit miracles*, probably not in the sense that they will be fakes, but in the sense that they will deceive rather than enlighten.
Thus both comings, of Antichrist and of Christ, will be personal, visible and powerful. Tragically, the coming of Antichrist will be such a clever parody of the coming of Christ that many will be taken in by the satanic deception. The reason for their being deceived is that *they refused to love the truth and so be saved* (10). Love of the truth (it is implied) was offered to them, but they rejected it. Behind the great deception there lay the great refusal. *For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie* (11). This 'lie' is the denial of the fundamental truth that God is God, together with the blatant assertion by Antichrist that he is God. God will 'give them over' to their own willful blindness (Rom.1:24-25). As a result they *all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness* (12).
Note that the opposite of 'believing the truth' is 'delighting in wickedness'. This is because the truth has moral implications and makes moral demands. Evil, not error, is the root problem. The whole process is grimly logical. First, they delight in wickedness, or 'make sinfulness their deliberate choice' (NEB). Secondly, they refuse to believe and love the truth (because it is impossible to love evil and truth simultaneously). Thirdly, Satan gets in and deceives them. Fourthly, God himself 'sends' them a strong delusion, giving them over to the lie they have chosen. Fifthly, they are condemned and perish. The only way to be protected from being deceived is to love goodness and truth.
Paul's confidence in the stability of the Thessalonians (2:13-17)
13 But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. 14 He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15 So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. 16 May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, 17 encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.
Despite the bleak outlook for those who succumb to Antichrist's delusion, Paul rejoices concerning the outlook for Christians: *But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord* (2:13). Why such confidence in their stability in such unstable circumstances? Because he is confident in the stability of God's loving purpose for them: 'God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation' (NASB)... through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.' God 'called you through our gospel that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ' (13b-14). In eternity past God chose us (elected us) in the Elect One, Jesus Christ. In the present age he calls and sanctifies us. In eternity future we will share Christ's glory. Let the Antichrist be revealed and the rebellion break out, yet over against the instability of our circumstances and our characters, we set the eternal stability of the glorious plan and purpose of God and we too have every reason to be confident.
And how do we live out that confidence? We *stand firm* and *hold to the teachings* (2:15). The *teachings* (or 'traditions') are those they had received from Paul and which he had received from God (13) which, says Paul, *we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth (his oral instruction when present with them) or by letter* (his written instruction when absent). The teachings we are to hold on to in our day are the original teachings of the Apostles--those which the Apostles received from Christ, which are now preserved for us in the New Testament. The only way to resist false teaching is to cling to the true teaching.
Note also that Paul's appeal for stability is made to the Thessalonians as *brothers* (15). This is a recognition that the context within which they are to 'stand firm and hold to the teachings' was the Christian fellowship, the family of God. In other words, we need each other. We need the Church. Left to ourselves, it is easy for us to misinterpret the Word of God. So we need the checks and balances of the broad Christian family, in order to help restrain our individualism and establish us in the truth. It is the Bible in the Church which can develop our Christian stability, and so strengthen us to withstand the pressures of persecution, false teaching and temptation.
Paul concludes this last section on Christian stability with a prayer for their encouragement that they would be strengthened in *deed and word* (17), all in the context of God's love (16). That God is love, that he has set his love upon us, that he loves us still, and that his love will never let us go, is the foundation of Christian stability.
The rebellion (and thus the revealing) of the Antichrist occurs in three stages:
- The first stage, which continues in our day, is the time of *restraint* in which the secret power of lawlessness is held in check by the restraining forces of public law and order. At times, of course, this restraint has been relaxed and the underlying spirit of Antichrist has become more apparent.
- The second stage is yet future. It will be a time of great *rebellion*, in which the control of law will be removed and the lawless one will be fully, suddenly and shockingly revealed.
- The third stage, which follows close behind the second, will be the time of *retribution* in which the Lord Christ will defeat and destroy the Antichrist, and those who have believed the Antichrist lie will be dealt with.
From this account we learn that history is not a random series of meaningless events. It is rather a succession of periods and happenings under the sovereign rule of the God of history. Ultimately, this succession leads to the revealing of God in the glory of Christ—a glory in which his born again children will fully share. In the meantime, we stand in God's love, safe, secure and thus stable.
To God be the glory! Amen.