“Already or Not Yet” 2 Thess. 2:1-12 Oct 29, 1995
What we have before us in these twelve verses is what is often called the “little apocalypse” of the Apostle Paul. “Apocalypse,” as you may know, is the Greek name of the Book of Revelation and has to do with the revelation of future events, of prophecy concerning the end of time and the consummation of human history. It is a passage, as you can imagine, that has been much discussed and debated in the history of biblical interpretation, just as every eschatological passage — or end-time prophetic passage — in the Bible has been.
I confess to you that I approached the study of this text with something of a sigh. I confess it to have been wrong of me for every part of Holy Scripture is of great importance and should be profitable to us. But, the fact remains that the disputes about the proper interpretation of this passage are so complex, so long-standing, and so seemingly intractable, that preaching it is a special problem. Paul refers in v. 5 to teaching he had given the Thessalonians when he was with them and to the knowledge that, as a result, they already had about these things. What I wouldn’t give to know what they knew; to have notes of that teaching Paul had given them. But we do not and the situation for us is much more confusing.
You see, one’s interpretation of 2 Thess. 2:1-12, in most respects, will be determined by decisions that he has made regarding other issues on the basis of other texts.
As some of you are aware, there are different schools of thought regarding the Bible’s teaching concerning the end of time and the consummation of the ages. Those of you who heard Jim Jordan here at Sunday School some weeks ago will have heard him describe the revival in the “preterist” or post-millennial interpretation of biblical prophecy. In this view, much of what was prophesied as yet to come in the NT in fact has long since been fulfilled, mostly in connection with the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. “Preterist” means “having to do with the past” because this view regards much of NT prophecy as fulfilled in the past long ago.
Many preterists then, for reasons that are too complicated to list now, argue that Paul here in 2 Thessalonians 2 is speaking of things that, while future to Paul, are past to us.
The man of lawlessness was either one of the Roman emperors or the Roman general Titus and the reference in verses 4 to his setting himself up in the temple of God has either to do with the emperor Caligula’s effort, in A.D. 40, to set up an image of himself in the temple in Jerusalem, which came to nothing as a result of his death, or with the destruction of the temple by Titus and his armies at the end of the Jewish rebellion in A.D. 70. Further, then, vv. 5-12 describe events that are long since past and the “coming” of the Lord that Paul speaks of in v. 2 is not his second coming at the end of time but his coming in judgment against the Jews or the church, or his coming in the spread of the gospel through the world. These folk then hold the view that, while the day of the Lord Paul is speaking of had not come when he wrote 2 Thess 2:2, it came shortly thereafter and, where 2 Thess. 2 to be written to us today, it would say rather that the day of the Lord has already come or, perhaps, began to come long ago and has been coming right along these two thousand years.
Some hold that it is a reference to his second coming at the end of the world, and that Paul simply does not indicate here –because he himself did not know– that there were to be thousands of years separating this rebellion, culminating in the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, from Christ’s second coming. But he does not say that the coming of the Lord would happen immediately after the man of lawlessness is revealed. This was the view, for example, of the great Benjamin Warfield.
Now, I do not think that the preterist interpretation of this passage is very convincing. I will show you why I don’t think so momentarily. But, I say again, I confess that I have little zeal for the question because I seriously doubt that the issue can be settled in the church’s present state of knowledge.
I am much more concerned that you have a humble reticence in your opinions about the prophesies of the Bible than that you take my view or the view of someone else. Spurgeon once wrote that only fools and madmen are certain of their interpretation of the Apocalypse, but there are plenty of folk out there, in our own circles, who are, in my judgment, altogether too certain of their interpretations of Revelation, of Matthew 24, and of 2 Thess. 2. I will leave it to you to decide whether they are for that reason fools or madmen!
For the fact is, these arguments for every major view have been around for a long time now. They have been advanced by brilliant men and defended by those men against their detractors. And, while some have been convinced of this view or that, just as many have remained unpersuaded. As the Lord is my witness, I have read the preterists with an open mind. Indeed, I have felt a certain attraction to their position and have wondered if I might, at some point, accept it for my own.
But, at the last, I remain unpersuaded. It does not seem to me, at a number of very important place, that they read the Bible in the most natural and obvious way. I do not, in fact, think that the destruction of the temple and of Jerusalem figures as largely in NT prophecy as they claim that it does.
And many others, far better read, far more powerful minds than mine, have come to the same conclusion. Now, hear me: I am not saying that I know, therefore, that the preterists are wrong. I say it still: they may be right. But they haven’t persuaded me that their case is nearly as good as they think it is.
And shouldn’t we all, at last, have the same point of view. After all, the three great schemes of biblical prophecy have been around for centuries and each has had the support of godly, wise, gifted biblical scholars. If you take the preterist view, for example, you have on your side the American Presbyterians of the 19th century and a number of clever folk writing in biblical prophecy today — the new breed of post-millennialists. But the Dutch reformed school of Bavinck and Kuyper, most of the protestant Reformers, Augustine, and such helpful modern writers as Anthony Hoekema would be against you and would be forever pointing the difficulties with your position.
This is the state of affairs. Every view has strengths — every view has passages that, were they the only passages in the Bible, would convince us all of that prophetic scheme. But every view has weaknesses, punishing weaknesses, passages that, were they the only passages in the Bible, no one would ever have thought of that prophetic scheme and which seem virtually incompatible with it.
My quarrel with the new preterists is not with their exegesis or interpretation of the Bible so much. I think they have done about as good a job as they could do making a case for their interpretation. My quarrel with them is rather that they refuse to admit the weaknesses in their position. Which is tantamount to saying that anyone who doesn’t accept their interpretation is stupid. But, the fact of the matter is, lots of very bright people, with very open minds and godly attitudes, have read their books and come away unpersuaded.
Now, let me then present what I think is a more straightforward interpretation of 2 Thess. 2, an interpretation that, at least in its broad outlines, is still by far the majority view of the church’s biblical scholarship.
I. First, by “day of the Lord” and “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” in vv. 1,2, and 3, Paul means the second advent, the return of Jesus Christ to the world at the end of time.
It is this coming that was the subject of his remarks in 1 Thessalonians. Indeed, you can look across the page of your bible and see in 1 Thess. 4:15-16 the same phrase “coming of the Lord” used to refer to what is explicitly the day of resurrection. In 1 Thess 5:2 the phrase “day of the Lord” is used of that same catastrophic event Paul is describing in that section of his first letter.
What is more, in chapter 1 of 2 Thess. the great day of the Lord’s second coming is again Paul’s theme –he uses the terminology of the Lord’s “coming” in v. 10–. The description of the revelation of Jesus Christ in chapter 2 — especially in v. 8 is so like the description of the Lord’s return in chapter 1, vv. 7-9 that it seems to me utterly unlikely that Paul is not referring to the same event in both chapter 1 and chapter 2.
In other words, the terms and the descriptions Paul uses in chapter 2 to describe the coming of the Lord Jesus so completely agree with what he has used in 1 Thess. 4-5 and 2 Thess 1, in passages that are indubitably about the second coming, that it seems to require a certain desperation to argue that Paul is talking about the second coming in the first two places but another coming of the Lord, some other kind of coming, in chapter 2.
II. But, perhaps Warfield is right and we should think of chapter two as about the second coming, but also about the rebellion and the revelation of the man of lawlessness that both occurred in the first century.
In that way, chapter 2 is about certain events that happened long ago and certain events yet to happen. The confusion is created by the fact that Paul did not say how long a time would separate the first events from the second. But, the drift of Paul’s teaching seems to be against this. It does not seem to be the natural reading of the passage at all.
Look, for example, at verse 8. Is not the suggestion made there, and clearly, that the man of lawlessness will be overthrown directly by the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. If that is the second coming –as it certainly seems to be in this context, as we already said– then the revelation of the man of lawlessness should be expected right before, not 2,000 or more years before, the second coming of the Lord.
What is more, it seems highly doubtful to me, that the thrust of Paul’s argument in reply to confusion concerning the second coming of Christ would be that the second coming will not occur until the man of lawlessness is revealed, if, in fact, the revelation of the man of lawlessness was not in any meaningful way connected chronologically with the second coming. If the man of lawlessness was, in fact, revealed in the first century, in connection with the destruction of Jerusalem, then, once the temple lay in ruins, the Thessalonians confusion and ours regarding the second coming is again just as profound now as ever. The church has been told nothing really about the precursors of the return of Christ, though Paul seems clearly to be intending to tell us just that.
So let me give you what I think is a sound summary of what Paul says will happen.
As other passages in the Bible seem also to teach, at the end of the age there will be a great “apostasy” or rebellion against the Lord and his rule in the world. The word the NIV renders “rebellion” in v. 3 is the word “apostasy.” This is a final, climactic spiritual rebellion against God just before Christ returns on a scale that justifies it being called as here, with the definite article “the rebellion.”
That apostasy or rebellion is linked with the appearance of “the man of lawlessness,” who seems to be the same figure the Bible elsewhere refers to as “the antichrist.” This man will come out of the great rebellion at the end of time, he will oppose and lead the opposition to God and all of God’s truth, he will accept worship himself, setting himself up to be a god — a true anti-Christ insofar as he is not only against Christ but is a substitute Christ –, he will gain a great following by the powers he will be able to demonstrate as the servant of Satan (v. 9), and, finally, as implied here and taught elsewhere, his appearance will mean terrible persecution for the church.
Paul writes here that the man of lawlessness will not be revealed until the power and the person who now holds him back is taken out of the way. There has been, as you might imagine, endless debate concerning the identity of this power and person: is it human government, the Roman empire, the Lord himself? With a humility that more modern scholars should emulate, the great Augustine himself said of this statement about the man of lawlessness being restrained, “I frankly confess I do not know what he means.”
What’s good enough for Augustine is good enough for me!
Now, inevitably, certain objections are raised by preterist interpreters against this “futurist” interpretation of 2 Thess. 2.
1. What of the reference to “God’s temple” in v.4? Does this not suggest a time before the temple was destroyed. Well, Paul himself employs the term temple for the Christian church as a spiritual community. Or, it could simply be a symbolic or metaphorical reference to the Antichrist’s arrogation to himself of divine honor and worship.
2. A second objection is that the apostasy and the antichrist are both said to be present already in the age of the NT. When John speaks of antichrist in his letters, he speaks of a present reality.
But, listen to how John speaks (1 Jn 2:18): “Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come…” John himself seems to say that the antichrists present in his day were the agents or the forerunners of the Antichrist who would appear at the end of the age.
The same can be said of the apostasy or rebellion. Paul says a similar thing in v. 7 of chapter 2: “the secret power of lawlessness is already at work…” but this is but the foretaste of that climactic and final outbreak of rebellion against God that is the precursor of the Lord’s second coming.
3. A third and common objection to this futurist interpretation of 2 Thess 2 is that it is defeatist. It suggests that things will only get worse and that this world will never experience the triumphant sway of the gospel as is suggested in other texts. Well, we cannot sort all of that out now. For myself, I don’t think it can be labeled defeatist when the Apostle’s whole point is that, far from any long drawn-out battle in which the fortunes of each side wax and wane, the rebellion and the man of lawlessness will be put down never to rise again immediately upon the return of Jesus Christ to earth. In other words, though the appearance of the man of lawlessness will bring great suffering to the church, they have nothing to fear, for Christ will come soon to crush him.
Besides, the preterists must admit that they do not know when the Lord is coming either and, as Jim Jordan suggested to us, it may be thousands of years before he does. In which case, your view of what will happen in the last few years of human history probably does not really determine your view of what to expect in our own day and in the next few years. There may be any number of revivals and terrible spiritual declensions before we reach the great rebellion and the man of lawlessness.
Now, for those who are not yet thoroughly confused, let me add this one further thought regarding the interpretation of this passage and others like it. One reason why the preterists need to get this passage into the past, as something already fulfilled, is that it bears so many similarities to other important passages, like Matthew 24, that their view also requires to be in the past. If Paul is here describing things that are yet to happen in the future, a strong argument is thereby furnished to those who think that Matthew 24 is largely describing events still in the future.
Now, for us all, a concluding application. What are we to do with all of this when, for all we know, the Lord’s second coming may still be a thousand years in the future? Well, something very important!
What all of this indicates from the vantage point of prophecy is what is taught in other ways as well in Holy Scripture: there is being waged in this world and throughout human history a great battle. We are part of that battle. It is being waged around us every hour of the day. It spills over into our hearts and families and into this church, into our places of work. The Lord and his hosts have adversaries. And he will one day crush them under his foot.
But, meantime, we must always carry about with us this larger sense of our lives. We too easily collapse into our very private and personal interpretation of our own existence, our own happiness and our own woe. We forget that we live our lives on a great battlefield of the greatest conceivable war and that all of our private and personal circumstances must be seen in terms of that way, of our adversaries wrath and power, and of the eventual victory that our Leader will grant us on the last day.
I heard it rather cleverly put this summer by a preacher who was pointing out that no one should be surprised that he or she is being attacked, or that life has become difficult and wearying, when, after all, we have enemies doing their very best — and their best is very good indeed — to destroy us.
When soldiers get shot at on the battlefield, they don’t stick their heads up and, with a wounded expression on their faces, call back to the enemy lines: “Was it something I said?”
Of course not. You’re a soldier in a great battle. Life will be tough. It is enough for us now to know that victory will be ours at the end of the day.
Life in this world is serious business and the way human history will end is the most profound demonstration of that fact!
God! Fight we not within a cursed world,
Whose very air teams thick with leagued fiends–
Each word we speak has infinite effects–
Each soul we pass most go to heaven or hell-
And this our one chance through eternity
To drop and die, like dead leaves in the brake…
Be earnest, earnest, earnest, made if thou wilt:
Do what thou dost as if the stake were heaven,
And that thy last deed ere the judgment day.