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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
 
Preached At:Providence Canadian Reformed Church
 Hamilton, Ontario
 
Title:God reveals more about the Day of the Lord
Text:2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:End Times
 
Preached:2013
Added:2013-08-15
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Note:  all songs from the 2010 Book of Praise

Hymn 66
Psalm 73:9 (after the law)
Psalm 68:1,2,12
Hymn 67:1,2,6,7
Hymn 70

Scripture reading:  1 Thessalonians 4:1-5:11
Text:  2 Thessalonians 2:1-12
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved congregation of Christ,

In broader Christian circles, eschatology (or the doctrine of the last things) has often been a hot topic.  It seems this has shifted somewhat in the last decade or so.  There has been a cultural shift towards focussing on the here and now, instant results, and this has had an impact on North American Christianity.  Many no longer think about the future as much.  But historically, this has been a hot topic and numerous schemes have been developed.  When it comes to eschatology there are all kinds of ‘isms’ – amillennialism, postmillennialism, premillennialism, historic premillennialism, dispensational premillennialism, progressive premillennialism, preterism and probably a bunch more that I’m leaving out.  Many of these are quite elaborate and you really do need charts and other visual aids to figure them out.

However, when you turn to the last article of the Belgic Confession, you find a simple eschatology.  The Reformed doctrine of the last things is spelled out in article 37, “The Last Judgment.”  It’s uncomplicated, so there’s no need for a chart.  At the time known only by the Father, when all the elect have been gathered in, Christ will return to judge the living and the dead.  The righteous and the unrighteous will rise from the dead for judgment.  Those who have believed in Christ will go to eternal life and those who have rejected Christ will go to hell.  That is the simple Reformed eschatology.  It’s a faithful summary of biblical teaching. 

But just because it is faithful, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s comprehensive.  The Belgic Confession and our other confessional standards don’t say absolutely everything the Bible has to say about eschatology.  The Bible does say more than what we have in article 37.

This morning we’re going to consider more of what the Bible says on the doctrine of the last things or eschatology.  Sometimes we can be confused when we encounter people who hold to those different systems of eschatology.  Or we can get confused by reading books like the famous Left Behind series from a few years ago.  Sometimes questions just arise from our own reading and study of the Scriptures.  That’s why it’s good that we take some time to listen carefully to what the Bible says about this matter. 

Paul’s two letters to the Thessalonians give us some of the most detailed teaching about the doctrine of the last things in the Bible.  His first letter laid out some of the basic facts about the Day of the Lord, the day when Christ returns.  Paul taught in chapter 4 that Christ’s return would be personal and visible – he would return as he had left.  At Christ’s return, the dead would rise and believers would then be with the Lord forever.  In chapter 5, he addressed the matter of timing.  He said the day would come like a thief in the night.  However, for believers who are not in darkness, the day would not surprise them like a thief might.  After all, no one wants a thief to suddenly appear in the night.  But for believers, the sudden appearance of Christ would be something to be welcomed and eagerly anticipated. 

But something happened between Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians and the second.  Some in Thessalonica began saying that the Day of the Lord had already come.  In other words, the last days were upon them.  From later in the letter it appears that this affected their lifestyle too.  Believers gave up their jobs and stopped working – after all, why work if you’re convinced Jesus is just about to come back?  Paul didn’t know for sure how this teaching spread.  Verse 2 says that it could have come by prophecy, by a report, or by a letter.  Somehow people were connecting the teaching to Paul and the apostles, appealing to his authority.  All of this upset and disturbed people in the congregation.  There was unrest and anxiety because of this teaching.

This was really the occasion for writing this second letter to the Thessalonians.  Paul wanted to clear this matter up – that’s the central point of this letter.  He wanted the Thessalonian believers to have comfort in view of the future.  He wanted them to be able to trust the Lord and his plan for the future.  Through Paul, the Holy Spirit was reassuring them with the truth, so that they might go on with their lives in faith.  Therefore, I’ve summarized our text with this theme,

For the comfort of believers, God reveals more about the Day of the Lord

We’ll consider: 

1.      What happens before the Day

2.      What holds back the Day

3.      What happens on the Day

After setting out the problem he needs to address in verses 1 and 2, Paul begins to tackle it in verse 3.  This is a matter of truth versus falsehood.  Those teaching that the Day of the Lord has already come are putting forth something false, something deceptive.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that their intentions were malicious.  It simply means that they are not teaching what is true.  Paul warns the Thessalonians to be on their guard against false teachings in whatever form they might come.  To do that, they have to pay careful attention to what he writes to them.  In the past he has given them the truth about the Day of the Lord, and now he’ll continue to do so.  Through him, the Holy Spirit will be guiding the people of God to the truth.

The truth is that before the Day of the Lord comes, before Christ returns, certain things must first take place.  These are things that had not yet taken place in the days Paul wrote this letter, and these are things that have not yet taken place even till today.  There are two things that Paul mentions here that have to take place before Christ returns.

First, there is “the rebellion.”  Here in 2 Thessalonians, the Holy Spirit doesn’t give us any detail as to what this might involve.  There is simply an event called “the rebellion.”  People will rebel against God.  The word in the original is the root of our English word “apostasy.”  It’s used throughout the Bible to describe a turning away from the truth, a falling away from God.  Before the return of Christ there will be a widespread departure from the true faith, people in the church will defect from Christ.

Closely connected with that is the second thing:  the revelation of the Man of Lawlessness.  Paul has far more to say about this.  This is a definite human figure.  You can’t say that this is a concept or an institution or something like that.  There is a definite figure involved.  If we leap ahead in our text, we find in verse 8 that this is someone whom Jesus will kill.  It’s a man – someone who can and will die. 

He is called the “Man of Lawlessness.”  In the KJV, he was called the “Man of Sin.”  He’s called the Man of Lawlessness because he rebels against God’s law and puts himself over it.  This figure is not someone with absolutely no standards.  Instead, he has standards but they are his own and they are opposed to God’s standards.  In this sense, the Man of Lawlessness could be a legalist’s legalist.  But the standards that undergird his legalism are his own.  He has a morality, but it is not God’s morality, it’s his own.  His morality rebels against God’s. 

Because that’s the case, this Man of Lawlessness can also be described as “the man doomed to destruction.”  That’s the same expression used to describe Judas Iscariot in John 17.  In other translations, you find “the son of perdition” or “the son of destruction.”  This is a manner of speaking about someone who is on his way to hell.  Because this Man of Lawlessness is rebelling against God, he is on his way to hell. 

Verse 4 then gives more details about what exactly his rebellion looks like.  If we summarize it, it’s a thorough-going arrogance that demands he be treated not merely as a god, but as the only god.  Not merely as a divine figure, but the only divine figure worthy of worship.  The Bible speaks about this same figure in 1 John 2 and describes him as the Antichrist.  As the Antichrist, he demands the same exclusive commitment that Christ demands.  He is a competitor to our Lord Jesus.  Just as Christ says that he alone is God, and he alone is Lord, so also this Man of Lawlessness says that he alone is a god and he alone deserves worship.  He exalts himself over absolutely everyone and everything and he tolerates no others. 

At the end of verse 4, Paul says that “he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.”  This needs some special attention because it is liable to serious misunderstanding.  Some have argued that Paul is speaking about the temple in Jerusalem before it was destroyed in 70 AD.  With that understanding, from our perspective this passage refers to an event that’s already taken place.  Others have argued that Paul is speaking about the temple in Jerusalem that will someday be rebuilt.  There are those who believe that before Christ returns, the temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem, Jewish sacrifices will resume, and that in this temple, the Man of Lawlessness will take his place.  However, we need to have Scripture interpret Scripture. 

If we search the New Testament, we find that, after Christ’s death, the temple building in Jerusalem loses its significance.  At Christ’s death, the temple curtain was torn – signifying the end of its role amongst God’s people.  God’s Name no longer dwells there.  Now the New Testament still speaks about the temple, but it does so in new ways.  Let’s review those and think about which of those ways would best fit here in 2 Thessalonians.  Christ calls himself the temple in John 2.  Obviously, the Man of Lawlessness cannot set himself up in Christ.  In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul speaks of individual believers as being temples of the Holy Spirit.  If the Man of Lawlessness cannot set himself up in Christ, then certainly he can’t do that in individual believers either.  The book of Revelation portrays the new heavens and new earth as the temple of God – it is the place where God makes his dwelling with man.  However, that’s in the age to come, in a time and place where no sin can be found.  That reference has to be out too.  That leaves us with the last one.  In 1 Corinthians 3 and 1 Peter 2, the Bible speaks about the church as being the temple of God.  This makes sense especially when you see it in connection with Christ.  If the church is the body of Christ, and if Christ describes himself as the temple, then it only makes sense that the church too is the temple of God.  The church is a people where the Holy God makes his name dwell.  This is definitely an option for the meaning of our text.

The Man of Lawlessness, as the Antichrist, he is going to set himself up in the church and there proclaim himself to be God.  He will come in the midst of God’s people, the body of Christ, and demand that they worship him exclusively along with everyone else.  This will be the time of great apostasy.  Many will depart from Christ and follow the Man of Lawlessness.  For them, he will replace Jesus.

Let me address a couple of questions in connection with this.  First of all, who is this Man of Lawlessness?  The short answer is:  the Bible doesn’t say.  We have a description of him, but we should be careful about making identifications of current figures.  In history, numerous attempts have been made to nail down his identity.  In the time of the Reformation, many Reformers identified the pope as being the Man of Lawlessness.  They said that the pope was the Antichrist.  This eventually even made its way into the Westminster Confession.  However, this figure described by Paul in 2 Thessalonians 2 is a definite, single figure.  There have been many popes over the years, and certainly they are antichrists, but they don’t completely fit the description that we have here.  All we can say then is that this figure is still coming.  Perhaps he will somehow be connected to the papacy, maybe he will even be a pope, but that has to be called what it is:  it’s speculation.

The other question relates to the teaching of 1 Thessalonians.  Paul said that the Day of the Lord would be sudden and unexpected.  The same is found elsewhere in Scripture.  Jesus himself spoke in the same way in the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24 and the parallels in Mark and Luke.  We saw that this made its way into our Belgic Confession.  The Day of the Lord will be sudden and unexpected.  But how do we reconcile that with Paul saying here that certain events will precede the Day of the Lord?  If these events are upon us, then surely we will know that the Day is close.   Then it’s not sudden and unexpected anymore.  Do you see the problem?  Is it unexpected or will there be signs warning that it’s coming?  Which is it now? 

Paul apparently didn’t see any conflict between these two.  Both teachings are given to us by the Holy Spirit, so to God this makes sense.  Sometimes there are places in Scripture where we don’t have access to answers for questions we might have.  God hasn’t given us an answer, and we just trust that he knows how these things fit.  However, this is not one of those places.  There are a couple of things we should remember.  First of all, Scripture is clear (in places like 1 John 2) that there will be many antichrists, there will be many false prophets and teachers.  This has been the case throughout history.  A whole string of them through the centuries will mean that when the Man of Lawlessness comes, at first it may seem like just another one of those kooks from the past.  It may not be immediately evident that this figure is the Man of Lawlessness to be revealed before the Day of the Lord.  When it does become evident to God’s people, Scripture does not directly say for how long he will do his evil work.  It could be a week, a month, a year – maybe more.  Scripture does not say directly.  However, it seems to me from the text (especially verse 8) that it would be a shorter time rather than a longer time.  If it is a shorter time, then that fits better with the overall picture in Scripture of a sudden and unexpected Day of the Lord.  The Antichrist suddenly appears, and then just as suddenly, shortly afterwards, Christ returns.  That seems to be the best way to explain this.  Whatever explanation we might put forward, we do need to hold all these things together.  Christ is coming suddenly and the Man of Lawlessness will be revealed before he does. 

More important than reconciling those things is addressing how we respond.  When it comes to the sudden coming of Christ, the response is to be always ready.  When Christ returns, we want him to find us waiting for him eagerly, not with fear, but with love and anticipation.  Being ready means looking to him in faith, daily repenting of our sins, and living out of our union with him.  What Scripture says about this Man of Lawlessness reminds us that we also need to be well-grounded in the truth.  If we want to keep from being deceived by him or about him, we must be good students of the Bible.  The Man of Lawlessness will gain a following amongst those who are poor students of Scripture and therefore, not truly committed to Christ, not loving him and walking after him.  Loved ones, don’t let that be you!  Instead, study the Scriptures carefully and let them shape your faith and your love for Christ, so that no one will ever deceive you in any way. 

So what happens before the day is the rebellion and the revelation of the Man of Lawlessness.  Now what about what restrains all of this from unfolding? 

Here we run into some problems.  When he was preaching about verses 6 and 7, the church father Augustine of Hippo had to confess, “I admit that the meaning of this completely escapes me.”  If Augustine struggled with it, we certainly don’t have to feel bad if we do.

A big part of the problem is found with verse 5.  Paul says that when he was in Thessalonica, he used to teach the Thessalonian believers about all this.  Certainly he did so in a lot more detail than we have recorded for us in the Bible.  What we have is a reminder about some of the key points, but the details are missing.  There are gaps here.  It’s like we’re listening in on a conversation and we’ve missed the first half.  Certainly the important points are here.  Of that we don’t have to doubt.  But when verses 6 and 7 speak about something or someone restraining the Man of Lawlessness, we have to admit that we don’t have definite answers. 

You see, verse 6 says that the Thessalonians know what Paul’s talking about.  He told them when he was with them in person.  “You know what is holding him back…”  Paul doesn’t have to say it to them, because they know, they’ll remember.  But we don’t know; we weren’t there.  What we do know is that this restraining agency is a thing or force or power in verse 6, but a person in verse 7.  Verse 6 speaks of “what is holding him back,” but verse 7 says, “the one who now holds it back.”  There is something/someone holding back the Man of the Lawlessness at this time.  It’s the identity of this restraining agency that we wrestle with. 

There are different proposals made by interpreters.  Rather than review them all with you, let me just tell you what I think is the best interpretation.  If we compare what we have here with Revelation 20 and similar passages which speak of Satan being restrained, then it is God who restrains and he does so through means such as the preaching of the gospel.  The Man of Lawlessness and Satan are not the same, but they are connected.  This will become clear further in our text.  God restrains Satan so that the gates of hell cannot prevail against the church.  So here too, God restrains the Man of Lawlessness, holding back his revelation until the gospel has gone out to the ends of the earth and all the elect are drawn in.  That will be the proper time, the divinely appointed moment for his being revealed.  Lawlessness is already at work, there is already rebellion against God happening behind the scenes, but God’s purposes are still being fulfilled.  The end is not yet here.

This interpretation does justice to the sovereignty of God in history.  God is in control of all things that happen.  Martin Luther used to say that even the devil is God’s devil, and certainly the Man of Lawlessness is also under God’s sovereignty.  This is comforting to believers.  It would have been comforting to the Thessalonians and it can and should be for us too.  No matter how violent God’s enemies become against him and his people, they are still under his control.  He will not allow those enemies to snatch away his elect.  If we are in Christ, we are safe, safe even from this vicious Man of Lawlessness.

That brings us to what happens on the Day of the Lord.  The Lawless One, the Man of Lawlessness, will be revealed beforehand.  He will come and his coming will be right in line with what Satan does.  Like Christ has his appearance, so also the Man of Lawlessness.  He comes with glory and with a spectacle.  Like Christ came to earth with miracles and signs and wonders, so too will the Man of Lawlessness.  He will have ways to impress people.  However, these ways are designed to lead people away from the Truth, away from Christ, away from the Bible, away from the gospel, away from the true God in every single way.  Our Bible translation says that these are “counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders.”  That gives the impression that these are not genuine miracles, signs, and wonders.  In other words, it’s just some kind of sleight of hand, it’s just apparent miracles, signs and wonders.  Here the ESV translation is to be preferred.  The ESV says, “with all power and false signs and wonders.”  In the book of Exodus, the Egyptian magicians could draw on demonic powers to replicate many of Aaron’s miracles that he performed by the power of God.  They were genuine miracles.  Demonic powers can do amazing things and we should not forget that.  Yet these amazing things are false and deceptive in the sense that they are designed to lead us away from the Truth.  They’re intended to draw us away from the Christian faith.  So it is here with the Man of Lawlessness in verse 9. 

Further, he engages in all kinds of evil to lead astray those who are perishing.  Why are they perishing?  Because they refused to love the truth so that they could be saved.  What a powerful warning we have here, brothers and sisters!  If we do not want to be led astray by all kinds of evil, if we want to be saved from the coming judgment, we must love the truth.  God’s Word is truth.  Christ himself is truth.  We must love God’s Word and we must love the Christ revealed in God’s Word.  Only by doing that can we be saved from the coming judgment.  Many don’t love the truth.  God gives them over to their sin.  It’s just like with Pharaoh in the Exodus.   With the first plagues, the Bible says that he hardened his own heart.  But with the later plagues, the Bible says that God hardened his heart.   That is a judicial hardening.  That’s what we have here in 2 Thessalonians as well.  God gives them over to their rebellion.  Since they have already rejected and rebelled against him, he sends them a powerful delusion so that they believe the lie and follow the Man of Lawlessness, they follow the Antichrist.  Those who don’t believe the truth, but instead delight in wickedness, they will be judged and condemned on the Day of the Lord.

Then, Paul says in verse 8, then Christ will appear.  Our Saviour Jesus will return personally, visibly, and gloriously.  With his Word, “by the breath of his mouth,” he will kill this Man of Lawlessness.  Christ is portrayed here as a mighty Warrior.  Paul uses Old Testament language drawn from Isaiah 11.  Christ is a Warrior who needs only speak to destroy his enemy.  That’s exactly what he will do.  He will have a splendid public victory over the Antichrist; he will bring him to nothing along with all who follow him.  He will show who is really in control and then will judge the living and the dead.  Then those who belong to him will live with him forever in blessedness.  This is a comfort for believers, especially for those who face persecution from the world and Satan’s forces.  These forces are doomed to destruction, together with the Man of Lawlessness. 

We don’t know when this great Day of the Lord will come.  Nor should we try to speculate.  We should certainly not listen to those who make those speculations.  A sure sign of a false teacher when it comes to eschatology is date-setting.  Christ warned against it and Christians simply ought not to do it.  We should never presume to be wiser than God.  We don’t know when the Day of the Lord will be, though we are given some teaching about what will precede it. 

Certainly we are given many warnings about it.  These warnings are here in our passage too.  If you’re not resting and trusting in Jesus, if you’re not repenting from your sin every day, then what you read here should make you worried and anxious.  If we’re to find comfort in the Day of the Lord and what the Bible says about it, we must find our comfort in Christ and in his Word.  For Christians, the Day of the Lord is a not a reason for anxiety, but for hope, the hope of vindication, the hope of glory, the hope of the end of a struggle with sin, both corporately and personally.  We don’t know if we will be alive when these words are fulfilled.  It could be a decade from now, or maybe another thousand years.  In one sense, it is irrelevant as to when it happens, because the application is the same.  Whether we see the Lord coming with the clouds of heaven, or whether we leave this world at our own death, the application is the same.  If you refuse to love the truth, you will not be saved.    If you have not believed the truth, you will be condemned.  If you delight in wickedness and do not turn from it, God’s judgment rests on you.  But if you are looking to Christ in faith and trusting in his work on your behalf, you will be kept safe, you will be preserved in the loving and gracious hands of your God.

This is a difficult passage, definitely one of the most challenging that I’ve preached on.  It’s controversial.  Yet the main point here is clear enough.  The Day of the Lord has not come and don’t listen to those who say it has.  Certain events will come first and then our Lord Jesus will return.  Whether this happens in your lifetime or not, prepare yourself.  Always be ready for the Day of the Lord by trusting in the Lord, loving his truth, loving him and following him.  AMEN.

Prayer:

Sovereign God,

Your Word is truth.  It is a light for our path, also as we look to what lays in the future.  Thank you for what your Word has revealed here in 2 Thessalonians 2.  We praise you as the One who is control of all things, sovereign and glorious God.  We look forward to the Day of our Lord Jesus.  We do want him to return and destroy all his enemies, including this Man of Lawlessness.  We pray that the Day would come quickly.  We pray for ourselves that you would keep us and our children in your truth.  Please help each of us with your Holy Spirit so that we love the truth and so are saved.  Help us to believe your truth, to believe your Word, to believe in Christ and to turn from our sins.  Help us love you from our hearts, with all our strength.  We depend on your grace for these things.  Please continue working in us so that instead of delighting in wickedness, we find our pleasure in doing your will, for your glory.  O gracious God, we beg you to help us persevere in our faith.  Please preserve us and keep us until the day of our death or until the great Day of the Lord.  We humbly ask you:  let us never be deceived or led astray by our sinful desires, by the world, or by Satan.    

        




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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