What Must Happen Before the Day of the Lord?
Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling to meet him, we beg you, brethren, not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited, either by spirit or by word, or by letter purporting to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. 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 perdition, 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. Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you this? And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, and the Lord Jesus will slay him with the breath of his mouth and destroy him by his appearing and his coming. The coming of the lawless one by the activity of Satan will be with all power and with pretended signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are to perish, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends upon them a strong delusion, to make them believe what is false, so that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
The longer you meditate on the writings of the apostle Paul, the more clearly you see that genuine, deep spiritual experience depends on genuine, deep biblical knowledge. I mean things like faith and love and peace and joy—these precious subjective experiences of the heart—depend on the mind's apprehension of objective biblical truth. From a biblical standpoint, studying and thinking and knowing are never ends in themselves; they always stand in the service of feeling and willing and doing. The mind is the servant of the heart. Knowledge exists for the sake of love. And all theology worth its salt produces doxology.
How Paul Deals with a Crisis of Faith
Last week we saw this principle at work. The church at Thessalonica was suffering. To help the church respond to this suffering in the most profitable way Paul says that it is the sign of God's righteous judgment (1:5). Then to explain and support this he gives three reasons why it is righteous for God to ordain persecution as part of his own judgment:
- It is righteous because by this suffering the Christians are being made worthy for the kingdom of God (v. 5)—it aims ultimately not at their harm but at their holiness.
- It is righteous because those who are afflicting will become
the afflicted at the Lord's second coming (v. 6)—the evil
will not always prosper.
- It is righteous because the Christians
who are being afflicted will be given rest and joy at the coming of
the Lord (v. 7)—faith and patience will be vindicated and
rewarded in the end.
So you can see how Paul deals with this crisis of faith: in order to supply their heart with more faith and strength and peace and love in the midst of suffering, he teaches them the objective truth about the ways of God. To help them cope in their hearts and bodies with the miseries of suffering, he imparts to their heads the meaning of suffering.
Paul's Practical Aim in 2 Thessalonians 2:1–12
Today we see the same principle at work in 2 Thessalonians 2:1–12. Paul's aim in all this teaching is to solve a practical emotional problem.
Verses 1–2 tell us what the problem is and what Paul is trying to accomplish:
Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling to meet him, we beg you, brethren, not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited, either by spirit or by word, or by letter purporting to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.
So Paul's aim here is, first, that the Thessalonians not be shaken from their senses (v. 2), that they keep their heads, we might say, that they not be thrown off balance or lose their equilibrium. He wants to help them be calm and composed and steady and clear-thinking in all the upheaval around them.
Second, his aim is that they not be "excited" in the sense of being disturbed or alarmed (v. 2). The word is used in Mark 13:7, for example, in the same kind of context: Jesus says, "And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is not yet."
So Paul's aim is very practical in this passage: he wants to help Christians experience peace and calm and stability and clarity of mind—Christians who don't get all "shook up" and agitated and anxious and fretful and confused and off-balance when crises come to the world.
Paul Responds by Providing Truth
So his goal is practical. It has to do with the heart and the emotions. But now what is his approach to this goal? How will he minister to this practical need?
Verse 3 gives the answer: "Let no one deceive you in any way." Paul is persuaded that deceit is at the root of mental and emotional disturbances. If we are shaken from our senses and lose our balance and feel alarmed and fretful and begin to act in ways unworthy of our call, it is because deceit has taken root somewhere in our minds.
So what does Paul aim, then, to do for the Thessalonians so that they won't be shaken and alarmed? He aims to teach them a truth tailored for their specific struggle. He studies the kind of deceit that is taking root in their minds, and then he loosens the soil around it and digs it up with the spade of biblical doctrine.
Do we follow the apostle in this? Do we tend the garden of our emotions with the tools of biblical truth? When there is some alien desire or fear, do we give ourselves day and night to searching the Scriptures for that truth that God has inspired for the undeceiving of our hearts? Keep in mind that, unlike all the wisdom of men, the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of root and rock and dislodging even the deepest, unconscious deceits of our minds that yield the alien fruit of fear and desire.
"Let no one deceive you in any way!" Paul says. And then come ten verses of teaching designed to dislodge the deceit from the minds of the Thessalonians and restore the stability and calmness of their faith.
The Deceit Taking Root at Thessalonica
Before we look at this teaching, we need to find out what the deceit was that was beginning to root itself in the minds of the Thessalonians. Verse 2 tells us fairly plainly. It says that they were starting to believe that the day of the Lord had already come: "Don't be quickly shaken in mind or excited, either by spirit or by word, or by letter purporting to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come."
Evidently they think that the second coming of the Lord is so near that it is as good as present. Paul responds, It doesn't matter where this thought came from—a forged letter, a spoken sermon, a supernatural prophecy—it is wrong. The day of the Lord—the time of his glorious second coming—has not come.
Then he gives two arguments in verse 3 which he unfolds in verses 4–12. First, we know the day of the Lord hasn't come because the rebellion, or the apostasy, must come first. And second, the man of lawlessness has to be revealed before the day of the Lord arrives: "For that day will not come, unless the rebellion [or: apostasy] comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed" (verse 3).
Then in verses 4–9 Paul describes the coming of the man of lawlessness and in verses 9–12 he describes the climax of the great apostasy.
The Pre-Tribulational View of the Second Coming
One of the questions that I want to deal with tonight is where the rapture fits in here. There is a large wing of the evangelical church today that believes the second coming of Christ is going to happen in two stages. First, Christ will come for the church; they will rise to meet him in the air, return with him to heaven for a period of seven years, and then after the great tribulation is over, return to the earth in judgment. This view of the second coming is called the "pre-tribulational" view because it says that Christ comes for the church before the tribulation.
This view has been popularized by the notes in the Scofield Reference Bible and by many Bible schools and some seminaries. It was the basis of Hal Lindsay's Late Great Planet Earth, and has inspired songs and movies about the sudden disappearance of the Christians out of the world at the time of rapture.
One Argument for the Post-Tribulational View
Tonight I hope to take this issue up in more detail. But for now let me just show you one of several arguments from 2 Thessalonians why I cannot follow this interpretation, as much as I love and respect those who do. Why am I a post-tribulationist, that is, why do I look forward with great anticipation not to a sudden departure from the world for seven years but to a great gathering to meet the Lord in the air as he comes with his mighty angels in flaming fire to establish his earthly kingdom, giving rest to his people and judgment to his enemies?
What the Thessalonians Were Alarmed About
The saints at Thessalonica were shaken and alarmed thinking that the day of the Lord is at hand. Now for the pre-tribulationist the "Day of the Lord" is the second half of the second coming after the tribulation. It is described in verse 8: "And then the lawless one will be revealed, and the Lord Jesus will slay him with the breath of his mouth and destroy him by his appearing and his coming."
This is the day of the Lord—not the quiet rapture when the saints are snatched away, but the glorious and overwhelming attack from heaven against the man of lawlessness and all evil.
Now the question arises: If the Thessalonians were overly excited and shaken, thinking that the day of the Lord had come, why didn't Paul simply say, "You know it hasn't come because you are still here and I'm still here and the rapture hasn't happened yet"? Why did he say in verse 3, "You know the day of the Lord has not come because the apostasy has not come and the man of lawlessness has not been revealed"?
The Revealing of the Man of Lawlessness
All pre-tribulationists believe that the man of lawlessness will be revealed after the rapture, during the great tribulation. In fact, they say that according to verses 6–7 the restrainer, which holds back the appearance of the man of lawlessness, is the Holy Spirit in the church, so that when the church is raptured out of the world, the man of lawlessness will be released. In other words, the church will not be here, they say, when the man of lawlessness is revealed. The Thessalonian Christians will not see the appearance of the man of lawlessness according to pre-tribulational teaching.
Why then would Paul try to convince them that the day of the Lord has not come by pointing out that a man of lawlessness has not been revealed whom they were never to see anyway? If Paul believed in a pre-tribulational rapture, all he had to say was: the day of the Lord can't have come yet because we are all still here. Instead what he does say is exactly what you would expect him to say if he believed in a single post-tribulational coming of the Lord. He says that the day of the Lord can't be here yet because the apostasy and man of lawlessness who appears during the tribulation haven't appeared to us yet.
And then Paul goes on to lay out for them a description of the man of lawlessness in verses 4–9. And the most natural assumption is that he does this because he wants Christians to be able to recognize him when he appears. The point of this passage is not that Christians have gone to heaven before the man of lawlessness appears, but that Christians should recognize him when he comes.
Recognizing the Man of Lawlessness
My own conviction is that I would dishonor the Word of God and do you a great disservice if I did not equip you as best I can from this text to recognize the man of lawlessness should he appear in your life-time.
- First, from verse 3, simply notice his name, the "man of lawlessness." We may infer from this that he is an individual person and that he embodies the spirit of rebellion against God's law—lawlessness.
- Second, from the end of verse 3, notice that he is a "son of perdition": just as surely as his character is lawless, his destiny is destruction. Perdition clings to his very nature. Let us hear in this an earnest warning to guard ourselves from rebellion against God's law, because it leads to perdition (cf. 1:9)
- Third, from verse 4, the man of lawlessness will oppose God and all objects of worship except himself. He will exalt himself, Paul says, and put himself forward as God. And as a means to that end it says he takes his seat in the temple of God, which may mean the church, since Paul calls the church the temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:21)—that is, he may become some kind of world-church leader. Or the temple here may refer to the temple in Jerusalem.
- Fourth, from verses 6–7, the man of lawlessness is now being restrained until his appointed time. He is not in control; God is. His time is appointed and will be very short. Who or what the restrainer is no one knows for sure today, but ultimately it is the power of God that sets the times and seasons for the last days (Acts 1:7).
- Fifth, from verse 8, soon after he appears "the Lord Jesus will slay him with the breath of his mouth and destroy him by his appearing and his coming." One word, one puff of air, from the mouth of Jesus and the man of lawlessness will be destroyed. That is meant for our great encouragement. His doom is sure.
- Sixth, from verse 9, the man of lawlessness is not Satan, but comes in the energy and power of Satan with supernatural signs and wonders. This is a warning not to make signs and wonders the ground of your faith or the criterion of truth. All these signs and wonders are counterfeit not because they aren't miraculous—they have satanic power—but because they don't point to truth. They lie. They are no more to be trusted than the spirit of prophecy in verse 2 that said the day of the Lord had come.
So Paul's first tool of truth for digging up the roots of deceit in the minds of the Thessalonians is the teaching that before the day of the Lord comes, the man of lawlessness must come first. The Thessalonians should regain their composure: the end is not yet, and when it comes, victory will belong to the Lord. (See Daniel 7:8, 20f.; 8:4, 11f.; 11:31–40 for the OT background for this man of lawlessness.)
How the Apostasy Will Come to a Climax
Then in verses 9–12 Paul describes how the apostasy will come to a climax. Remember, he had said in verse 3 that the day of the Lord will not come until the apostasy comes first. Apostasy means a falling away from the truth by those who once held it.
Paul is probably reaffirming what Jesus taught about the end time when he said in Matthew 24:10–13,
And then many will fall away [skandalisthesontai], and betray one another, and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness is multiplied, the love of many will grow cold. But he who endures to the end will be saved.
Notice the links here: Paul said in verse 7 that the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, and Jesus said that lawlessness (same word) will be multiplied. Paul said in verse 3 that there will be a great apostasy, and Jesus said that the love of many will grow cold, but that those who endure to the end (i.e., who don't commit apostasy) will be saved. So Paul is right in line with Jesus here.
The apostasy comes to a crushing climax in verses 9–12 with an incredibly heavy force of delusion and deceit. According to verse 10 the signs and wonders of the man of lawlessness deceive those who are perishing. Why? Why are they so vulnerable? Why do many professing Christians leave the truth and follow falsehood?
Knowing the Truth and Loving the Truth
Paul's answer at the end of verse 10 is that they refuse to love the truth (literally: they did not welcome a love for the truth). Notice: it is not merely an issue of knowing or believing in a merely mental sense: it is an issue of loving.
Look at verse 12: " . . . so that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness." The opposite of believing the truth is delighting in evil.
And this means that saving faith—faith that will endure to the end through the affliction now and through the apostasy to come—is not merely an accepting of truth but a loving of truth. Verse 10: "They perish because they refused to love the truth."
We can be sure that when the man of lawlessness comes, his signs and wonders will be used to support claims that appeal to our natural desires. Therefore the only defense against this appeal will be a deeper desire for God. If Christ is our portion and our treasure, if he satisfies our longings, and if we love the glory of his gospel, then the mystery of lawlessness will not overcome us, and our love will not grow cold and we will endure to the end and be saved. May the Lord grant us all to receive the love of the truth. Amen.