The church in Thessalonica was troubled with persecution from without and false teaching within over the return of Christ. The goal of Paul’s second epistle to the Thessalonians was to comfort the church that the second coming had not yet arrived. That an erroneous teaching had surfaced in the church that Jesus had already returned is evident by Paul’s correction that such a conclusion is impossible since two very recognizable events have not yet occurred.
2 Thess 2:1-4 states,
Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.
Two things must happen coincidently before Christians are gathered together in the final resurrection. First, there must be a rebellion (apostasia), a great “falling away.” Paul connects this falling away with the work of a “man of lawlessness” who is going to set himself up above everything that is called God, or worshipped, so that he will sit in God’s temple and proclaim himself to be God.
The two recognizable phenomena are not intended to deny the imminent coming of Jesus, but are events that indicate the nearness of the second coming and that his parousia has not yet occurred. Jesus frequently told his disciples to be aware of certain observable things that indicate the time is at hand. “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” What things? These:
And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory (see Luk 21:27ff).
While no man can know the day nor the hour, we can observe certain phenomena that indicate the nearness of his return.
Two Coincidental Phenomena
There will be a great falling away and the revealing of the Antichrist before Christ’s return. 2 Thess. 2 is Paul’s mini apocalypse. Like the book of Revelation, it is full of highly symbolic and figurative language. The phenomena described here borrow from the long Biblical history of antichrist activity.
First, Paul describes this apostasy as a time when people will not receive a love of the truth. It will be a time that, as Jesus said, will be characterized by lawlessness. God’s Word will be universally rejected in the form of a united rebellion of humanity. This rebellion will also infiltrate the church as his holy temple. No longer will there be definitive truth. Truth will be determined by everyone ruling according to the dictates of their own hearts.
This apostasy is connected with the direct working of the “man of lawlessness”. Paul has in mind the origination of all cosmic treason and rebellion that took place in the Garden of Eden. A lie was introduced by the archetype Antichrist who came in the form of a snake. Satan, with pompous words, standing in the temple of God, directly assaulted God’s creation norms by planting the seed rebellion, through the lie, to our first parents. Wanting autonomy and freedom to determine their own way, our first parents, refusing the identities and positions God assigned to them, sought a new way, at the instigation of the devil, that would achieve their own autonomous divinity. They would be their own gods, living in their own “alternate” reality. It was this first rebellion that brought mankind into sin and ruin.
The Bible provides a long, detailed history of these two coinciding phenomena of rebellion and Antichrist. One of the more intriguing Genesis figures is Nimrod, whose name means “rebel.” From the cursed line of Ham this king of Babel (lit. Gate of God) organized an imperial rebellion against God and his command to fill the earth, as Nimrod sought to build a tower, a center of lawlessness whose top would reach the heavens. The entire Babel event is pictured as a predevelopment of the antichrist crisis that earned God’s intervention to hold off the judgment until the purposes of Christ and his Great Commission were accomplished.
This Antichrist phenomena would become paradigmatic throughout history to teach us about the final paraousia. For instance, in Isa. 14, the King of Babylon says in his heart, “I will ascend into heaven, I will raise my throne above the stars of God, and I will sit on the mount of the congregation, I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, and will make myself like the most high, the language is almost directly the same. In addition, the king of Tyre in Ezek. 28 says in his heart, “I am a God and lifts Himself up by desiring to seat himself in the temple of the Gods.” This is the historical backdrop that Paul is working from to explain the last cosmic, recognizable conflict that will occur before the second coming.
Other contemporary events in Paul’s day would support this conclusion. In AD 40, the emperor Caligula set his statue in the Jerusalem temple for worship. In AD 55, emperor Nero would set up his statue in Rome’s temple of Mars and demand all worship. There are inscriptions found in Salamis and Cyprus attributing worship to Nero as the Almighty God and Savior as he set himself up as “god” over the religion of the people in the temple.
Further, the apostle John, knowing well of Paul’s description of the man of lawlessness wrote, “Little children, it is the last hour and as you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come, by which we know it is the last hour,” and, “this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming and is now already in the world (see I John 4).” The spirit of, the stuff of the antichrist is already here. The antichrist phenomena Paul describes in 2 Thessalonians is not new to history. In fact, his use “son of perdition” is meant to make us all pause and study the actions of Judas as one of the worst antichrists is his betrayal of the Lord of glory.
What We Can Expect
Geerhardus Vos once said that Paul’s mini-apocalypse will become recognizable as it unfolds before us. With the long history of these phenomena in mind, however, it’s not difficult to reach a conclusion regarding the second coming from Paul’s mini-apocalypse in 2 Thessalonians 2.
Before the second coming, Satan will have a united influence upon the masses in some great form of rebellion unlike previous generations. It’s a culminating event when he is loosed to deceive the nations (see Rev. 20). Whether the Antichrist will take shape in a literal man or the spirit of antichrist in this culminating event is unclear to this point, both are acceptable historical interpretations.
What is important to observe are the collective forms of rebellion against God’s word that are unfolding in our times. These are meant to tell us that the day is at hand. Is there not a worldwide rebellion forming against God at the present, unlike previous times, that is cosmic in scope? Are God’s creation norms collectively and universally under assault? Are God’s assigned identities of male and female being overturned as God created them? Are the boundaries set by God’s creational norms and law being overturned? Are all God-given distinctions become obliterated? Have the newest theories for societal repair become a religion to which everyone must bow?
We would not have dreamed such a thing possible twenty years ago, but, at present, this collective rebellion is unfolding before us. Whether or not the days of our rebellion “is” the final rebellion of 2 Thessalonians 2 is not really the point. The point is that we are in the midst of a great rebellion at present, as the church has always faced these things to one degree or another throughout history. This has a message for us about Jesus’ return: he is coming soon.
To be sure, 2 Thessalonians has in view some universal and final collective rebellion, a united, worldwide falling away, with the Antichrist whose influence reaches into the very church of God as his holy temple. In our times, one thing is becoming clear, the demand is presently being legislated to bow to the new “morality” of our culture. In whatever form this rebellion takes, and whatever image Babylon sets up, as it has always been done, there will be no room for dissent except to a “fiery furnace.”
The Good News
Moments of collective rebellion against God are indications that Jesus is coming soon to give us relief. Living with this hope is an important solution to our present distress. Jesus has always delivered his people from their sorrows and persecutions.
The marvel of Paul’s instruction to the Thessalonians is that nothing was to make them “soon shaken or troubled in mind” regarding the things that precede the second coming. There were to look at the things happening as: 1) evident of the righteous judgment of God (2 Thess. 1:3ff), and, 2) that he was soon to bring them relief (2 Thess. 1:7). The second coming in the Bible is presented as day of deliverance and relief from those who do the true oppression in the earth.
The same is true for us living in 2021, the troubling rebellion of our time indicates the nearness of Jesus return. We have nothing to fear. We should lift up our heads in eager anticipation for the relief that he is about to give and the final judgment. The time is at hand. Jesus will come soon, and, using the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, Question 52:
What comfort is it to thee that “Christ shall come again to judge the quick and the dead”?
Answer. That in all my sorrows and persecutions, with uplifted head I look for the very same person, who before offered himself for my sake, to the tribunal of God, and has removed all curse from me, to come as judge from heaven: who shall cast all his and my enemies into everlasting condemnation, but shall translate me with all his chosen ones to himself, into heavenly joys and glory.
There is only one name given under heaven by which people can be saved. And there is only one name to which everyone must bow, that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and tongue confess that he is Lord. When you see these things come to pass, said Jesus, don’t panic, lift up your head for you redemption draws near. We need this kind of confidence in our times that Jesus has already won the victory and he will be here soon to make everything right.