The Present Age of Restrained Rebellion
“…all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.” 2 Thessalonians 2:12
Paul is writing a personal letter to one particular church – the gathering of Christians in Thessalonica. He knows them and has taught them many things. He boasts of their faith and especially of the work of God that He is doing amongst the believers. Paul is impressed that God is growing them and keeping them in the faith despite strong opposition. We don’t know everything about the relationship between Paul and this church and there are hints of what we do not know in chapter 2. Verse 5, for example, shows us that we do not remember what Paul has told them because we were not there. This is a personal letter from Paul to the church at Thessalonica. We will now read the beginning of chapter 2 and eavesdrop on his correspondence to them.
- 1-3a – Don’t be deceived
- 3b-4 – The Man of Lawlessness
- 5-8 – God is restraining him
- 9-12 – Belief in the Lie or the Truth
1-3a – Don’t be deceived
“Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ…” Paul moves on to a topic that may well be the primary purpose for writing. Paul’s teaching in this passage has a few mysteries which we are unlikely to clear up in a single study and it is important to take note of the things we are undoubtedly being taught here. The first thing is that Jesus will return and he has not returned yet. The second coming of Christ is not debatable in the New Testament. The one unmissable thing that this passage teaches is the fact that Christ’s return will be unmissable.
“…and being gathered to him…” Recall chapter 1 verse 10 – When Jesus comes, he will be glorified in his holy people and to be marvelled at among all those who have believed. The project of God throughout all time has been to gather his people together in his presence. The word used for ‘gathered’ is the same word used for church. That is because church is about the gathering of God’s people and he, through His Spirit, is present with us. It is jarring to find a ‘Christian’ who does not like to gather with God’s people. The prerequisite is not that church ought to be good or enjoyable or filled with people my age but that we are joined together in Christ.
“…not to become unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us…” Here we have two mysteries. Firstly, what did Paul know from the Thessalonians that led him to conclude they may be unsettled. Secondly, what correspondence is he referring to? Both questions are answered only through speculation. What we will focus on is that Paul wishes to calm any anxiety that has arisen in Thessalonica concerning the second coming. The church were not to be ‘shaken in mind’ (ESV) because they thought that Jesus had already returned. Paul will later make the point that the second coming will not be overlooked by anyone! See also 1:7
“Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way…” Here we have the conclusion of part one and the opening also of part two. Don’t be deceived. The rest of this passage will circle the concept of deception and lies. We are to be seekers of the truth and this includes being detectors of untruth. We go now to a description of our age of deception.
3b-4 – The man of lawlessness
“…until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed…” Speculation begins to run wild again at this point and passages like this one lead people to discuss what the end of the world will look like. For further investigation, look up a respected reference on the definitions of Premillennialism, Postmillennialism and AMillennialism. We want to focus on the aim of the passage though and listen to what we can be sure of. There will be a rebellion in the future and the man of lawlessness, who is hidden now, will be revealed. This man is either ‘doomed to destruction’ (NIV) or else ‘son of destruction’ (ESV). Either way, he is aligned with destruction. We get the message that his destiny is set. We’ll read further on that God is holding him back right now and it will be in God’s time that the rebellion occurs. We want to be careful about what we add to this discussion lest we too become alarmed at deceptive teaching on this subject. A rebellion and a revealing is yet to take place.
“He will…” Notice the description here expands on the description of lawlessness. This is not saying that he will break laws. He is not a lawbreaker. He is much more than that. He is without law. He will oppose everything about God. He will ignore the truth that God is God and will place himself in this position. People have tried to map descriptions of such a character onto people or religions or corporations or nations of our recent time. Such attempts miss the obvious point of this passage: the rebellion will not need interpreting since it will be unmissable. He will have a message and it will be oozing with lie. He will not accept any other to be worshiped other than himself and that will also be a lie.
He will be the man of law-less-ness.
5-8 – God is restraining him
“Don’t you remember…” The fact is that we don’t, and we can’t, because we were not there. At this point, again, people begin to speculate and fill in holes in the story but we don’t need to waste time digging for historic context. Perhaps Paul had a fuller understanding of the second coming but his letters focus on what is important to know. If Jesus knew more or thought that we ought to know more, then he’d tell us.
“And now you know what is holding him back…” Again, we don’t. Just as we don’t know who or how he is taken away in verse 7. The obvious lessons are that the lawless man is not stronger than God and we will see that the lawless man will be revealed exactly when God chooses to reveal His Son again. ‘He may be revealed at the proper time.’ It’s ironic that the one who will claim to be God is currently being held back ultimately by God. The deceiver himself will believe the lies he spins.
“…the secret power of lawlessness…” The power is the lie. This is the way Satan works and the man (whether Satan or else) will and already uses deceit and lies to gather in the wicked who will not believe the truth.
“…is already at work…” This evil waiting for its day is not totally constrained. There is a hidden force working in this world to deceive and trick and destroy. It is secret in that we simply don’t see it plainly.
“…now holds it back…till he is taken out of the way.” This is where we see the real power of this passage. We are not to have our eyes set on the future and what that will look like because we live in a present danger. We live in the age of secret deceit. Since Christ has come, we live in the age of the proclamation of the gospel. Those who believe the truth must proclaim what we know. But we also live in the age of deceit where many will reject the truth in favour of lies. This age will continue until Christ returns and the restraint on lawlessness is taken away.
“…the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow…” The rebellion is not given any amount of time (could be a thousand years or could be a day). But the battle will be infinitely in favour of our Lord. He will breath of his mouth and his very coming will mean the overthrowing of the lawless one. We cannot maintain a thought that God strives against an equal opponent.
9-12 Belief in the lie or the truth
“The coming of the lawless one…” Paul is pairing the coming of the Lord (verse 1) with the coming of the lawless one. Not that they will come together but that the coming of the Lord will happen when the lawless one’s restraint is lifted.
“…in accordance with how Satan works.” Satan has a method which matches that of the lawless one. He won’t be a whole new variety of evil, he will use the same strategies that Satan has been using to oppose God and that will be deception.
“…that serve the lie…” Those who will be condemned at judgment will be those who have been fed by deception. There are two types of believers in this this world, those who believe lies and those who believe the truth. This isn’t simply a one off foolishness or gullability, but an attraction to believe that God is not real, or he is other than who he really is. Those who have been seduced through trickery will perish because they have not obeyed the truth.
“…signs and wonders…” Astrology comes to mind here as a present deception. The power is in deception and the signs and wonders are anything used to give ‘concrete’ appearance of believability. See Matthew 24:24. What we need to seek is not signs and wonders but truth.
“They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.” This is the sober bit. Put aside future apocalypse. Put aside signs and wonder. Put aside answering many of the gaps in our knowledge of this passage. Here is the crux. Do we love the truth. If we do, we will be saved. Those perishing are those who are not for the truth but will treat a lie as truth and will be happy to believe what they have decided to believe. We don’t need to be nervous about how much we do or don’t know. We only need to be lovers of the truth. John 8:32 ‘Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’ We need to be careful what we grasp hold tightly of as truth when we may not know for sure what it is. I am thinking again about what brand of ‘millennialism’ we subscribe to. A firm hold of one over another may well taint our pursuit of truth.
The ultimate truth is that there is one God who made the heavens and the earth and so is worthy of our respect and obedience. He has spoken to us in his word and ultimately through his Son whom died for our sins and was raised to life again in victory over sin and death. Jesus is the name that is above all names. He is the Lord and Saviour. He will come again to judge the living and the dead. Those on the side of truth will have life while those who deny this in favour of a lie are perishing.
“…God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie…” A tricky truth no doubt. What is it that we believe about God? Do we subscribe to the thought that God is idly waiting and watching us to see what we will do? Whether we will come to him or reject him? Or do we believe what the bible teaches and that He is active in this world for both those who receive him and those who reject him? In God’s sovereignty he allows (but not passively) deception to exist and flaunt its power in our world so that the lie can be believed if that is our choice! He allows us to choose between The Truth and The Lie.
“And so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth…” The opposite of believing the truth is to ‘delight’ in wickedness. This is reminiscent of Proverbs and the rest of scripture. Matthew 12:30 ‘Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.’ We tend to get passionate about what we believe because what we believe defines who we are and what is important to us. Those who have turned away from the truth will be passionate about what they believe even though it is a lie. Humans are very capable of standing firm on things that do not hold up to scrutiny. Christians ought never be wary of scrutiny to what they believe. If it is truth, it will stand. Be wary when we put aside truth in favour of what we desire to believe.
Those who love the truth will be saved while those who do not believe the truth but delight in wickedness will be condemned and perish.
We live in a world of restrained rebellion. All around us is information pleading with us to reject the truth and delight in wickedness with the lawless one. His power is in deceiving the world secretly. God’s power is in restraining his full ability right up to the moment that he will be destroyed. Don’t worry about the end of the world, you won’t miss it. Rather, be concerned about the pursuit of truth.
- Ways of nurturing the truth and discerning lies. How do we pursue the truth in a world that is seduced by wickedness? List ways that our lives are exposed to the lies of Satan. List also ways that our hearts and minds can be fed with truth. Discuss whether you are pursuing truth or being unsettled in your faith by untruth.
- Having an ever present awareness of Christ’s return. Paul is not doubting the return of Christ and in fact positive that when it comes, it will be a hell of a show! Is the return of Christ a truth that shapes your goals and priorities in life? Why or why not? What, if anything, should change because of this reality?
- Praising God for his power and might. Any hint or idea that the power of the lawless one is a challenge to God is removed in verse 8 as well as verse 6. We can praise God that despite the hiddenness of his power in this world now, we know that he is completely in control. Use this as a theme to pray together now and encourage one another to dwell on this in the week that remains. How can knowledge of God’s supremacy help you in your work and personal life?
Prayer of the Week
Our Lord and our God, keep us directed to the Truth and away from the lure of the evil one. Help us in this age of evil restraint to share with others the nature of the truth and so lead many to you, Lord Jesus. May we meditate on your word and bring to mind the promise and hope of the gospel so that we will pursue truth and reject wickedness. Amen.