It Will Not Come Unless: Interpreting 2 Thessalonians 2
For all its doctrinal richness, this lengthy eschatological text was written primarily out of deep pastoral concern. As verses 1-2 make plain, a rumor was circulating among the Thessalonian house churches, to the effect that the Day of the Lord had come; that it was imminent. Since the rumor was troubling the brethren, distracting them from their spiritual mission and daily responsibilities, Paul addressed it pointedly. His message is clear: The Day of the Lord will not come until certain things happen first; until certain unmistakable signs appear on the historical horizon. So then: Until you see those signs, stand firm (2:15) and stay busy (2:17, 3:6f)!
Because, in the providence of God, this passage tells us so much about events leading up to the Consummation, it invites a closer look. Once again, my approach will be to give the gist of each section, spotlighting along the way the many indications that Paul here presupposes and teaches a single Consummation at the Parousia of Christ.
An Urgent Request
Verses 1-2 present an urgent request. The subject matter of the request is three-fold: The Coming of Christ (1 Thess. 2:19, 3:13, 4:15, 5:23), the gathering together of the saints to Christ (i.e., the “rapture” of 1 Thess. 4:17), and the Day of the Lord (1 Thess. 5:2). The protests of our Dispensational brethren notwithstanding, the simple juxtaposition of these three expressions makes it quite clear that Paul has in mind a single Consummation. The Parousia, the Resurrection, the Gathering Together, and the Judgment on the Day of the Lord all occur basically simultaneously. Yes, each expression denotes a discrete event; but the discrete events are simply parts or elements of one Momentous Event.
As for the request itself, it is this: Don’t let any evil spirit, false word of teaching or prophecy, or phony letter, as if from one of us apostles, persuade you that the Day of the Lord (or the Parousia or the Gathering Together of the saints to Christ) has come, and so shake you from your proper spiritual composure (Mark 13:7).
Concerning the phrase “has come,” the NIV Study Bible well comments: “Obviously, Christ’s climactic return had not occurred, but Paul was combating the idea that the final days had begun and their completion would be imminent” (p. 1869). So then, for Paul, the one Parousia of Christ is not imminent in the technical sense defended by Dispensationalists; certain things must happen first, certain signs must appear on the stage of history. This simple truth is of great importance for the saints of all generations, but especially those of the last. Because God has structured the Consummation in this manner–and because he has moved Christ and his apostles carefully to teach us about it–, Christians should well be able to keep their cool, even at the end of the world!
What exactly are the telltale signs that will enable them to do so? In our journey thus far, we have discussed several of them. Here, however, in verses 3-5, Paul focuses on just two, presumably because they will occur closest to the end. They are the rebellion (or apostasy), and the revelation of the Man of Lawlessness (or the Antichrist).
Concerning the first, it is true that the NT anticipates a large-scale apostasy, or falling away from the faith, at the time of the end (Mt. 24:10-12, 1 Tim. 4:1, 2 Tim. 3:1-9). Here, however, the close association of the apostasia with the revelation of the Man of Lawlessness strongly suggests a causal relation. If so, it is probably best to translate apostasia as rebellion (see NIV, ESV). On this reading, Paul’s thought would be that the Day of the Lord will not come until the corrupt world-system (or possibly of the Man of Lawlessness himself) fully and finally rebels against the Law and Gospel of God, thus paving the way for Satan to go public with his counterfeit Christ: for the Antichrist to be revealed, and for the whole fallen world to follow after him (vv. 10-11, Mt. 24:12, Rev. 13:3).
The Man of Lawlessness
As for the Man of Lawlessness, Paul here draws freely upon OT prophecy to give us the gist of his character and very short career (vv. 3-4; Dan. 7:8, 20-21, 25, 9:26-27, 11:36). Above all, he is an antichrist; indeed, he is the final embodiment of “the spirit of antichrist,” so that he is the Antichrist himself (1 John 2:18, 22, 4:3).
Here, the Greek is most instructive. The word anti can mean against or instead of. We see both elements running all through our text. Unlike Christ, who delighted only to do his Father’s good pleasure, this man—clearly a true human being, and not simply an institution—is lawless; he obeys neither the Law nor the Gospel of God. Like Christ at his first and second Comings, he will be revealed in his proper time, yet only for a short time, seeing that he is a son of destruction (i.e., one doomed to destruction, John 17:12). He not only opposes every (alternative) god or object of worship, but also seeks to supplant it. Thus, like Satan himself, he exalts himself above all that is called God, “taking his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God” (Isaiah 14:13-14).
How are we to understand this last phrase? While some interpreters argue that the reference is to the temple in Jerusalem, it is clear from his writings that Paul regards the Church as the true temple of God; as the place where God is, and ought to be, rightly worshiped in Christ (1 Cor. 3:16, 2 Cor. 6:16, Eph. 2:21). Accordingly, here he likely means that the Man of Lawlessness will seek to usurp the universal worship that now, in these last days, rightfully belongs to God and Christ.
It is possible, however, that the Spirit who inspired Paul to write these words had in mind something that Paul himself did not: That the Antichrist will attempt to usurp the worship of God by posing as Christ himself; by taking his seat as the purported head of the universal Christian Church. In Reformation times, many Protestant leaders read Paul this way, asserting that the Pope was the Antichrist, the head of a false, counterfeit church from which every true believer in Jesus ought swiftly to withdraw. Modern Christians would be wise not to rule out this line of interpretation.
Looking for Whom?
Note from verse 5 that Paul had previously taught these things to the Thessalonians, and how surprised he is that they have quickly forgotten them. Now if, as our Dispensational brethren so frequently admonish us, the Church is to look only for Christ (at a secret Rapture) and never for the Antichrist (as a sign of Christ’s Coming), why is Paul here telling the Thessalonians to do precisely the opposite? The answer is clear: He never taught them to look for a secret Rapture at all, but rather for the one Parousia of the Lord Jesus; for the Coming of Christ that must be preceded by the coming of the Antichrist. So then, by watching first for the sign of the Antichrist, the Thessalonians–and all God’s saints–will not fall prey to false prophecies about an “imminent” return of the true Christ—as all too many of our Dispensational brethren have.
Seeking to keep the Thessalonians on their spiritual toes, Paul now reminds them in verses 6-7 that the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. He means that the antichrist spirit (i.e., Satan and his demonic hosts) is abroad in the world, eager to raise up and bring forth the Antichrist himself, the Man of Lawlessness (1 John 2:18). For the moment, God is restraining Satan from doing so—through what instrumentality, Paul does not say. Possibly he has in mind governmental rulers, or angels, or simply the power and person of the Holy Spirit himself (Rom. 13:1f, Rev. 12:7). In any case, the Restrainer will continue to do his work until God, at his good pleasure, takes him out of the way. Since this must happen, and since it could happen without warning, the saints must be ever watchful.
In passing, observe how these verses closely parallel the teaching of Revelation 20: In both cases we learn that Satan is bound—and the Church therefore free to fulfill her mission of global evangelism—until God removes the Restrainer and releases the devil for a little season, which brings on the Last Battle, which brings back to earth the High King of Heaven, which brings in the completed Kingdom of God!
In verses 8-12 Paul again takes up his theme of the revelation of the Man of Lawlessness, this time going into greater detail about his brief but dramatic career. Before delving into the verses themselves, two reminders are in order.
First, this is Paul’s unique contribution to progressive biblical revelation about the appearing of the Antichrist and the Last Battle, a battle destined to occur just prior to the Consummation at Christ’s return (in the Revelation, John will give us the final installments). Paul knows this. As we have seen, he is well aware of OT teaching on this theme, and has doubtless spoken of it to the Thessalonians (v.5). So then, though he does not explicitly reference the OT texts here, he clearly has them—and the great Consummation they describe—very much in mind. As we read Paul, we too must keep this in mind (v. 5; Ezek. 38-39, Daniel 7, 9, 11, 12, Joel 3:1-17, Zech. 12:1-7, 14:1-3; Mt. 24:29-31).
Secondly, in studying verses 8-12, we must not fail to observe that God, with a great flair for the dramatic, has decreed that at the end of Salvation History, Satan will raise up a counterfeit prophet, priest, king, kingdom, and “god-man” that, in many ways, will darkly mirror the Person and Work of the true Christ. Here we have the outworking of a principle laid down by the Lord Jesus himself in his Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, wherein both Christ and Satan are seen to have their own people and their own kingdoms, sown together in the earth, growing up side-by-side, running parallel to one another, until the Day of final fruition and the Final Harvest at the end of the age (Mt. 12:22-30, 13:36-43, Luke 4:6, Rev. 14:14f). Paul understands all this, and is at great pains to show that the Man of Lawlessness is indeed a true antichrist: He not only opposes Christ, but also apes Christ—powerfully and pitifully—in manifold ways.
The Career of the Man of Lawlessness
Accordingly, in verse 8 he begins by telling us what will happen when the Restrainer is removed: The lawless one will be revealed, much like Christ was revealed in the days of his flesh, and again will be in the Day of the Lord. Unexpectedly, yet quite significantly, Paul does not immediately go on to describe the career of the Antichrist; rather, drawing on Messianic prophecy found in Isaiah, he first speaks of the destruction of the Lawless One, whom the Lord himself will slay with the breath his mouth at “the appearing (epiphaneia) of his coming (parousia)” (Isaiah 11:4)! Paul’s message in this is close sequence is crystal clear: The career of the Lawless One will be exceedingly short, brought swiftly to an end by the return of Christ in judgment. For this reason, the revelation of the Man of Lawlessness becomes what is likely the single most important sign of the imminence of the end—and, in its own way, a great encouragement to the (suffering) saints of God (Luke 21:28).
In verse 9, Paul resumes his teaching about the course of the Antichrist. Now, however, he speaks of his coming. We remember that this word denotes the arrival of a powerful dignitary, as of an emperor or a king. Just as Christ, in the days of his flesh, arrived upon the scene in great power and authority, so too will the Lawless One. Just as God the Father enabled Christ to perform signs and true wonders, so Satan, the spiritual father of the Lawless One, will enable his son to perform signs and false (i.e., real, but misleading) wonders (John 8:44, Rev. 13:2, 4). Speaking of the final clash of the kingdoms in the last of the last days, the Lord Jesus himself warned about this very thing (Mt. 24:24). Later on, John the Revelator would do the same (Rev. 13:13-14, 16:14, 19:20).
According to verse 10, when the Lawless One comes, he will come not only with counterfeit miracles, but also with “every deception of wickedness.” This deception will include “the lie,” a false but very winsome gospel; a new, alternative religion. It will work. Multitudes who did not receive the love of the true Gospel will believe the false Gospel of the Antichrist, and so perish (v. 11; Rev. 13:3).
The Gospel and the Love of the Truth
Why will latter day unbelievers fall prey to the deceptions of the Antichrist? It will be because they did not welcome the message of the truth, but chose instead to take pleasure in unrighteousness (v. 12; Eph. 1:13). Consequently, the God of judgment will hand them over to a deluding influence, so that they will believe “the lie” and stand condemned, together with their god. Here Paul depicts unbelievers as free agents who are responsible to take and pass the Gospel test (John 3:16-21; Acts 13:46). Nevertheless, through a fervent expression of thanksgiving, he reminds his converts always to ascribe their salvation to God: the God who loved and chose them from the beginning, and who—through the preaching of the Gospel, and by the sanctifying work of the Spirit—called them to saving faith Christ (vv. 13-14; Eph. 1:3–14). The Thessalonians must realize that they freely welcomed (Greek: dechomai) the truth of the Gospel only because they had received (Greek:dechomai) the love of the truth as a gift from the sovereign God (Matt. 5:6; 13:10–17; John 8:43–45; 1 Thess. 1:2–5).
Understand, Tremble, and Rejoice
The saints, then, are to understand, tremble, and rejoice. One day, Satan will unveil his man. When he does, relatively few on earth will be able to discern or resist him, seeing that his person and work will hew so closely to the Person and Work of Christ. Like Christ, the Antichrist will have a coming and a revelation. Like Christ, he will have a spiritual father who leads and empowers him. Like Christ, he will perform supernatural signs and wonders. Like Christ, he will proclaim a gospel of salvation. Like Christ, he will have a flock and a kingdom—and on both counts, his will be larger and more powerful than the Good Shepherd’s.
Therefore, in that Day it will be just as the Master said: “For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if it were possible, even the elect” (Mt. 24:24). Therefore, let the elect, together with Paul, ever give thanks to the sovereign God who has purposed to save them from all these things. And when the things themselves finally come to pass, let them be ever vigilant to receive, welcome, and hold fast to the love of the truth (2 Thess. 2:9, 13)!