The Second Coming: Not Before the ‘Man of Lawlessness’

Bethlehem 2020 Conference for Pastors + Church Leaders | Minneapolis

When Paul introduced his teaching on the second coming in chapter 1 of 2 Thessalonians — as we saw in the previous message — he did so precisely to help the church understand why their persecutions and afflictions (verse 4) were a sign or “evidence” of God’s righteous judgment (verse 5).

So, his teaching on the second coming is not first a chapter in an eschatology book, but an urgent message of help for Christians who, in every age, are being slandered, and fired from their jobs, and beaten, and jailed, and killed. In other words, Paul’s teaching about the second coming in chapter 1 is meant for Pastor Wang Yi, just sentenced to 9 years of imprisonment in China; and for the family of pastor Lawan Andimi, just beheaded in Nigeria two weeks ago; and for Fatemah Mohammadi, a Christian woman missing in Iran; and for you.

But persecution and suffering are not the only issue at Thessalonica, and Paul, now in chapters 2 and 3, takes his instruction about the second coming to a new level of detail in dealing with this second issue. The issue is that some in the church have ceased to do their ordinary vocational jobs, and started to make a nuisance of themselves as busybodies, mooching off the other Christians, since they’re not earning any money. And evidently, though Paul doesn’t say so explicitly, this delinquency is owing to a kind of hysteria in the community that the day of the Lord is not just near, but is already present.

So, while in chapter 1 Paul’s teaching on the second coming was designed to help the Christians keep on believing and loving each other through persecutions and suffering, now in chapter 2, Paul’s teaching on the second coming is designed to counteract the hysteria and get them back to work. So, we could say: the aim of eschatology in chapter 1 is steadfastness in suffering, and the aim of eschatology in chapters 2 and 3 is steadfastness in doing good works and earning a living.

Walking in Idleness

Let’s get the situation in front of us and then see how Paul deals with the second coming in response to this situation.

Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you, and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men. For not all have faith. But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one. And we have confidence in the Lord about you, that you are doing and will do the things that we command. May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.

Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.

As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother. (2 Thessalonians 3:1–15)

So, the situation is pretty clear. Negatively, Paul condemns idleness, and the consequent nosiness, and mooching. And positively he commands steadfastness, toil, labor, non-dependence on others’ work, earning your own living, and not growing weary in doing good. All of it rooted in verse 3: “The Lord is faithful. He will establish you.” And verse 5: He will direct your hearts to “the steadfastness of Christ.”

And with that assurance of the Lord’s work in us, he tells them what to stop doing, and what to do.

  • Avoid people who are walking in idleness (verse 6).
  • But instead imitate us (Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy [1:1]) (verse 7).
  • When we were with you, “we were not idle” (verse 7).
  • We did not “eat anyone’s bread without paying for it.” We “worked night and day” not to burden any of you (verse 8).
  • We could have demanded an apostolic right (the laborer deserves his wages), but we chose to lead by example, not demands (verse 9).

So, in verses 10–11, Paul tells the brothers who have stopped working, and who keep asking you for food, “We are not going to keep supporting you in this idleness of yours. You need to get back to work, and stop meddling in others’ affairs.” Then in verse 12 he says to them, “Do your work quietly and earn your own living.” Then verse 13: “No matter how long the affliction lasts, and the Lord’s coming is delayed, do not grow weary in doing good. Fill your lives, short or long, with gainful employment of doing good work, and volunteer employment of doing good works. Don’t be idle.”

Uproar over the Parousia

That’s the situation. How did it come about? What’s behind this idleness of some of the members of this church? Paul describes what has happened in verses 1–3 of chapter 2. It appears that a kind of hysteria has gripped some of the church. They’ve been shaken out of their senses and are in the sway of an irrational and mistaken excitement. Let’s read it.

Now concerning the coming [parousias] of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together [episunagōgēs] to him, we ask you, brothers, not to be quickly [implying, it has already taking hold] shaken in mind [literally: shaken from your mind/understanding] or alarmed [throeisthai], either by a spirit [some word of prophecy, see 1 John 4:1] or a spoken word [some oral report], or a letter [any of it: spirit, report, or letter] seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come [enestēken]. Let no one deceive you in any way. (2 Thessalonians 2:1–3)

  • Parousias is the ordinary word used five times in the Thessalonian letters to refer to the second coming.

  • Episunagōgēs is a form of the same word Jesus used in Matthew 24:31: “[The Son of Man] will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather [ἐπισυνάξουσιν] his elect from the four winds.”

  • Throeisthai is the same word Jesus used in Matthew 24:6 and Mark 13:7: “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed [throeisthe], for this must take place, but the end is not yet.” These are the only two places, the warning of Jesus and the warning of Paul, in the New Testament where this word is used.

  • Enestēken is not the ordinary word for near or at the door, but arrived, present.

So, the situation of idleness and meddling at Thessalonica seems to be rooted in this hysteria where people are shaken out of the proper use of their reason, and are in the grip of an alarmist, emotional mindset: The day of the Lord, the “coming” of Christ, the “gathering” to meet the Lord is here, they say. There is no point in working for a living anymore. How they actually conceived of his presence, we don’t know. But Paul considered it irrational. In other words, if you say, “That makes no sense. How could they even think that?” Paul would agree and say, “Right, it makes no sense. They are shaken out of their minds” (verse 2).

Now you can see the double-pronged challenge of the sober-minded members of the church at Thessalonica. On the one hand, they had to come to terms with the fact that God is sovereign and has appointed affliction for them (1 Thessalonians 3:3), and that this is a righteous judgment; and on the other hand, they had to deal with a faction in the church, who were so persuaded that this affliction can’t go on that someone had seen a vision (perhaps) that solves the suffering problem: It’s over; he’s here.

How Paul Assuages the Hysteria

What will Paul say now in chapter 2? How will he deal with this hysteria and its theological error and its practical error? And here’s what he says:

Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day [the day of the Lord, the coming of Christ, the gathering to meet him] 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. Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? 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, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming. The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. (2 Thessalonians 2:3–12)

Diabolical Details

Two things strike me immediately about Paul’s response to this situation of alarmist disorientation about the second coming at Thessalonica. One is how amazingly detailed and long and full it is. He goes on and on about the rebellion, and the man of lawlessness, and his sitting in the temple of God, and this power or person who is restraining him, and the mystery of lawlessness, and satanic signs and wonders, and divine deluding, and the appearing of Jesus to slay the pretender and to judge unbelievers. All of that to say, The day of the Lord is not here, folks.

I mean, wouldn’t the middle of verse 3 have been enough to settle the matter? The day is not here, “for that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed.” It hasn’t happened. Go back to work. But instead, Paul goes into amazing detail.

‘Do You Not Remember?’

The other thing that strikes me is that in spite of all the detail, we are left with unanswered questions.

  • What rebellion (verse 3)?
  • Who’s the man of lawlessness (verse 3)?
  • What temple will he sit in (verse 4)?
  • What, or who, is restraining his appearance (verse 6)?
  • What’s the mystery of lawlessness (verse 7)?

So, on the one hand, he says more than I would expect him to, and, on the other hand, he doesn’t say enough to answer all our questions. I think verse 5 is the key to explain both of these. Right in the middle of his teaching about the second coming he says, “Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things?” So, in the brief time that Paul spent with the new believers in Thessalonica (Acts 17:1–9) he had taught them in remarkable detail things about the second coming and the days leading up to it. And now he says, “It looks like you have forgotten much of what I said. Do you not remember?” (2 Thessalonians 2:5).

Because of their seeming failure to remember what he taught, he gives them a fairly full reminder. But the very fact that he has been over all this before is probably why he doesn’t include everything. He triggers their memory, and they can fill in the gaps from what he taught before.

Uninformed for Our Good

In other words, in God’s providence in creating and preserving Scripture for his church in all ages, God does not see to it that everything the early church talked about with the apostles, we get to know. We don’t.

I take this to be a work of God’s wisdom and goodness. It is better for us to know what is preserved in the apostolic writings, than that we know about all the detailed conversations Paul had at Thessalonica. We have what we need for salvation and God-pleasing obedience. We don’t have enough to answer all our questions. We are not meant to.

Signs of the Second Coming

So, let’s ask: What can we know from this teaching in 2 Thessalonians 2 that will help us not be shaken loose from our reason, or drawn into alarmist hysteria, but remain steadfast in our work and full of good deeds for Christ’s sake?

Paul says that you should stay at your jobs because the end of the age, the coming of Christ, the gathering to meet him in the air, the day of the Lord, won’t come until two things take place. Then, he describes the two things that have to happen, and ends with verses 9–12 in a way that shows why he chose to mention these two things and how we can be protected from the deceptions that the Thessalonians were falling into.

Rebellion in the Ranks

The rebellion must come first.

Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first. (2 Thessalonians 2:3)

This rebellion has to refer to more than the ups and downs of Christian faithfulness, some years ingathering, other years losses. Because that observation won’t work in Paul’s argument. If they could make the valid claim, “Sure there’s a rebellion. Just look at how many believers have turned away owing to this persecution,” then Paul’s argument wouldn’t work. No, Paul is referring to something climactic. Something decisive and epoch-making. Something recognizable as utterly sweeping and catastrophic in the church.

And since we have seen numerous parallels in the Thessalonian letters between Paul’s language for the second coming (parousia, gathering, alarmed, etc.), and Jesus’s language in Matthew 24, we are warranted to look at that passage for light on this phrase of “rebellion” or “apostasy” or “falling away.” Here is Matthew 24:9–13:

Then [sometime after the beginning of the global birth pangs, (verse 8)] they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake [it sounds like the great commission is virtually complete because all nations (pantōn tōn ethnōn) know enough about Jesus to hate his disciples]. And then [well along in church history] many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. [Of course, this happens all through history, but the word “then” seems to show that Jesus is thinking of a climactic, gathering storm.] And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness [anomian, another parallel: “man of lawlessness” (2 Thessalonians 2:3), “mystery of lawlessness” (2 Thessalonians 2:7)] will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved [as if he has that final generation in view].

That’s the kind of thing Paul is referring to when he says in 2 Thessalonians 2:3, “the rebellion [falling away] comes first.” Before the second coming there will be a climactic, decisive, epoch-making, catastrophic rebellion against God, Christ, and his people, from inside and outside the church — all nations hating the church from outside, love growing cold from inside.

In Paul’s mind that is an event, a limited period, that has not yet happened, even though he knows, like the apostle John, that “many antichrists have come” (1 John 2:18). The crisis at the end will be identifiable. That’s how he knows it hasn’t happened. There will be a point, Jesus said, when you can “straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28).

Man of Lawlessness

The second event that must take place, Paul says, before the coming of Jesus and the gathering of the elect and the day of the Lord, is the revealing of the man of lawlessness.

Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless [1] the rebellion comes first, and [2] the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction. (2 Thessalonians 2:3)

He tells us at least seven things about the man of lawlessness:

1. He is a man. A human. Not an angel. Not a demon.

2. He is quintessentially lawless. He is called the man of lawlessness. He considers himself absolutely above the law. He is lawless in considering himself subject to no law and no lawgiver.

3. And since there is only one who is above all law, namely, God, that is what the man of lawlessness claims for himself.

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. (2 Thessalonians 2:4)

This is the final and climactic Antichrist: “I am Christ, your God.”

4. His is born for destruction. Paul calls him “the son of destruction” (2 Thessalonians 2:3). His DNA, from his father, is to be destroyed. He has no future, but is quintessentially lawless and doomed.

5. As a man he is coming, nevertheless, by the power of Satan. Second Thessalonians 2:9: “The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan.”

6. Therefore, as a man, he will, nevertheless, have supernatural power. Paul calls it “all power” and he will work signs and wonders. When the ESV in 2 Thessalonians 2:9 calls them “false signs and wonders” we should not read that to mean they don’t really happen. It means they really do happen, but they happen in the service of falsehood (see Deuteronomy 13:1–3).

7. Therefore, the man of lawlessness will be unparalleled in his ability to deceive, as 2 Thessalonians 2:10 says, “with all wicked deception for those who are perishing.” It really could be “in all deception of unrighteousness,” because we are going to see in just a moment that the way he deceives is by making unrighteousness seem pleasurable. (Notice how the word adikia is repeated in verses 10 and 12.) Again, I would argue, Paul is unpacking the prophecies made by Jesus. Jesus said,

Then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. . . . For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. . . . So, if they say to you, “Look, he [one person!] is in the wilderness,” do not go out. If they say, “Look, he is in the inner rooms,” do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. (Matthew 24:21, 24, 26–27)

At the close of this climactic period of lawlessness and a great deception led by a person, Paul is saying, the coming of the Son of Man will be unmistakable. Like lightning flashing from horizon to horizon.

We do not need to know precisely what Paul means when he says in 2 Thessalonians 2:4 that the man of lawlessness “takes his seat in the temple of God.” We may be sure that it is not a reference to the desecration of the Jewish temple which was coming in AD 70. We can be sure of this because in 2 Thessalonians 2:8 Paul backs up and describes the revelation of the lawless one like this: “And then [when he is no longer restrained] the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming.”

This coming (parousias) is the “coming” of verse 1 when Christ gathers “his elect from the four winds” (Matthew 24:31), the “coming” of 2 Thessalonians 1:7–8 when he comes “with his mighty angels in flaming fire,” the “coming” of 1 Thessalonians 2:19 and 3:13 and 4:15 (when the saints will be raised, and we will rise to meet him in the air). This rebellion and this man of lawlessness are at the climactic end of the age. They are ended and undone by the glorious appearing of the coming of the Lord.

Where the man of lawlessness takes his seat — whether in the Vatican, or Geneva, or Salt Lake City, or Colorado Springs, or Jerusalem — is not of the essence. It will be in the place of the global focus of Christian worship, which has become anti-Christian. (There is more than one meaning of “temple of God” in Paul.) And it will be with the claim to be above all law, and to be God.

The Idol Behind Idleness

There is one last thing I want us to see. Why did Paul focus on the rebellion and the man of lawlessness with the kind of detail that he did to help the Thessalonian Christians stay at their work, and fill their lives with good deeds (2 Thessalonians 2:17)?

It’s because their root problem, and our root problem, is not a failure to grasp the timing of the second coming. The root problem is why they were sucked into this deception. And his answer is: the tendency of the human heart not to love the truth, but to find pleasure in unrighteousness — to find pleasure not in the God of truth, but in the god of lawlessness. Paul chose to highlight the rebellion (2 Thessalonians 2:3) — the terrible change of the human heart away from God to the pleasures of unrighteousness — and to highlight the power of the man of lawlessness to deceive with unrighteousness (2 Thessalonians 2:10), because the rebellious heart, the love of unrighteousness, is the greatest danger in the world.

Pleasure in Unrighteousness

Look how he ends the paragraph in 2 Thessalonians 2:10–12. Why will they be deceived? Why will they perish? Verse 10: “Because they refused to love the truth.” Literally: “Because they did not welcome a love for the truth.” They didn’t want the love of truth in their hearts. That’s why they will be deceived and perish.

And it gets clearer in 2 Thessalonians 2:11–12. What is this love of the truth that they don’t have? Since they don’t welcome a love of the truth, “God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false.” Is that believing what is false, and falling in line with the man of lawlessness, at root an intellectual mistake? No. Verse 12: “[They] did not believe the truth but had pleasure (eudokēsantes) in unrighteousness.”

The opposite of believing the truth is to find your pleasure in unrighteousness. And according to 2 Thessalonians 2:10 this is how the man of lawlessness will deceive the world and the church. He will do it “with all deception of wickedness.” The word “unrighteousness” (adikia) in verse 12, and the word “wickedness” (adikias) in verse 10, are the same word. The man of lawlessness will create the great apostasy and rebellion by making unrighteousness seem more pleasurable than truth.

Therefore, the battle to protect yourself and your church from coming apostasy is to pray and preach and live in such a way that you and your people are able to lay down your lives for the superior pleasure that you have in righteousness, in the truth, in Christ.

Treasure What’s True

In summary, then, the way Paul got people back to work was to argue that the second coming hadn’t happened yet. He supported this claim by showing that end-time apostasy and the man of lawlessness must come first, and they hadn’t. And in choosing these two events — a massive turning away of the human heart from God to unrighteousness, and the appearing of a man with supernatural power to deceive with the pleasures of unrighteousness — Paul was able to get at the root issue of why the rebellion will happen, why the Thessalonians are being shaken out of their minds, and how we ourselves may fall under the sway of the man of lawlessness.

In showing the root of how this happens, Paul shows pastors how to prepare and protect their people. The great apostasy and the great deception happen, he says, not because people don’t have a clear mental picture of the timing of the second coming. That’s not the root issue.

The apostasy and deception will happen because people will feel more pleasure in unrighteousness than in truth. It all comes down to 2 Thessalonians 2:10 and 12, which get at the same thing in two different ways. Verse 10: People are deceived and will perish “because they refused to love [love, cherish, treasure, embrace, kiss, enjoy, find pleasure in!] the truth.” Verse 12: They will be condemned “who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.” Believing involves having more pleasure in the truth (loving it [verse 10]) than in unrighteousness.

I close by saying it like this: Christian Hedonism is the antidote to end-time deception. The doctrine that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him and that, therefore, we should devote all our energies to maximizing the pleasure that we and others have in God — that doctrine, pastors, is how you help your people remain in their jobs, multiply their good deeds, and meet the man of lawlessness undeceived.