Stand Firm Against Deceivers Concerning the Second Coming
Daniel 11:36-37; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-15 (text); Revelation 13:5-6
March 20, 2011
(Click pictures to enlarge)
With the Japan earthquake and the Libyan civil war, false prophets are again very much alive and well on this planet earth. Harold Camping continues his defiance of many counselors to repent from his prediction of the rapture on May 21, 2011. The images of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan remind many of the doomsday movie â€œ2012.â€ Just a few days ago, a popular TV program featured a pastor predicting a big earthquake in Manila and the secret rapture between now and March 2012. Surely, many of the usual false prophets are again licking their chops because of this latest fodder for their latest Armageddon and doomsday book.
To download a printer-friendly PDF version of this sermon (which includes the timeline below), click here.
Almost all evangelicals believe that Jesus may return at any moment, saying that the secret rapture is imminent. Whenever some major war erupts in the Middle Eastâ€”because of its proximity and relationship to Israelâ€”or a major disaster inflicts heavy casualties and damage, many people again start wondering if the end of the world is near and then become fearful of the future.
The Thessalonian believers in the first century were also fearful, but for another reason. They thought they had been â€œleft behind.â€ Some false teachers were saying that the day of the Lord, the Second Coming of Jesus, had already taken place without them participating in it.
We remember in his first letter to this church that Paul answered their questions about the return of Christ. When they asked about those who had died in Christ, Paul assured them that they will be resurrected and will also be taken to heaven. Asked about those who are alive at the time of Christ’s appearing in heaven, Paul again assured them that they too would be given resurrected bodies and taken to heaven. Then Paul encouraged them to live holy and blameless lives as they await the Lord’s return.
Our text is Paul’s last instructions to the Thessalonian church regarding the Second Coming of Christ. This time, he gives them instructions as to the timing of the Lord’s return. Unlike date-setters throughout the history of the church, Paul echoes Jesus’ teaching that no one can know the day or the hour of Christ’s appearing from heaven. He assures them that the day of the Lord has not yet come as some false prophets had taught.
Without a doubt, Paul’s instructions in 2 Thessalonians 2 are about the Second Coming when he begins, â€œNow concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him.â€ In this chapter, he uses the word for â€œcomingâ€ three times, and seven times in his two letters to the Thessalonians. The theme of Christ’s future â€œcoming,â€ which means the physical arrival of someone who is not yet present, therefore highlights these two letters.
The second word he uses in the first verse to refer to the return of Christ is â€œto be gathered together,â€ which is related to the same verb used in Matthew 24:31, when his angels â€œwill gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.â€ This is the gathering of all the elect at the second coming of Jesus, the same idea when Paul says that on the day of Christ’s return, both dead and living believers will be â€œcaught up together … in the cloudsâ€ (1 Thess 4:17).
Paul then encourages them not to be â€œquickly shaken in mind or alarmedâ€ by the false teaching that the day of the Lordâ€”the return of Jesusâ€”had already come. The source of the false teaching was unknown to Paul, but he suggests three possibilities: (1) a â€œspirit,â€ someone who claims to have divine revelation; (2) â€œa spoken word,â€ a sermon or teaching; or (3) a forged letter claiming to be from him.
Why is Paul sure that the day of the Lord has not yet come? It is because it had been divinely revealed to him that two things must happen first before the return of Christ. Later, in verses 13-15, he reassures the Thessalonian believers that God had chosen them for salvation and for a glorious future. He then calls on them to stand firm and hold to the apostolic traditions he had passed on to them through their authentic spoken word or letters.
Christ Will Not Return Until Two Things Happen
Most of us have been taught the idea that the Second Coming, especially the so-called secret rapture, could happen at any moment. This is usually called the â€œimminencyâ€ of the Lord’s return.
The most popular teaching is that the coming of Christ is in two phases: a secret rapture and an open visible second coming. Those who advocate this say that the rapture may happen â€œat any moment,â€ while the Second Coming will be preceded by â€œsigns of the times.â€ For example, John MacArthur says, â€œChrist could come at any moment. I believe that with all my heart â€¦ â€œ He correctly cites the importance of this any-moment hope, because it â€œshould motivate us to prepare, to pursue Christlikeness, and to put off all things that pertain to our former lives without Christ.â€ 1
However, Paul clearly tells us in our text that the day of the Lord will not come until two things happen: (1) a â€œrebellionâ€ or falling away; and (2) â€œthe man of lawlessness is revealed.â€ How does MacArthur argue against this evidence that Jesus will not return until these two things have already occurred? He counters by saying that in 2 Thessalonians 2, Paul was talking about both the secret rapture and the open coming. The â€œgathering togetherâ€ in verse 1 is the secret rapture, and the â€œday of the Lordâ€ in verse 3 is the visible Second Coming. He surmises that the Thessalonians were fearful that their afflictions and persecutions were part of the tribulation period after the secret rapture. Paul therefore was merely encouraging them by denying that the secret rapture had already taken place.
But it is highly unlikely that within a short passage of three verses that Paul was talking about two separate events. And as we have earlier seen, the word Paul used here for â€œgathering togetherâ€ is the same word used in Matthew 24:31, when Jesus said that â€œimmediately after the tribulation of those days,â€ his angels â€œwill gather his elect â€¦ from one end of heaven to the other.â€ Paul was clearly repeating what Jesus told his disciples: he will return after a period of tribulation, and they should not be deceived by those who teach that the day of Christ had already come.
This tribulation period will be marked by two things. First, there will be a â€œrebellion.â€ The word used here is the Greek word apostasia from where the English word â€œapostasyâ€ comes (NASB). Apostasia means â€œdefiance of established system or authority, rebellion, abandonment, breach of faith.â€ 2 So in Christianity, it is â€œa willful falling away from, or rebellion against Christian truth… the rejection of Christâ€ by someone who had professed to be a Christian. 3
“Man of Lawlessness”
Second, Paul says that before the Second Coming, the â€œman of lawlessnessâ€ will be revealed. Paul describes this character, sometimes also called the â€œman of lawlessnessâ€ (KJV), in verses 3-10. He is traditionally mentioned in connection with the beast of Revelation 13 and the â€œabomination of desolationâ€ of Daniel 9:27 and Matthew 24:15. So this is a complex thread of Biblical texts related to an endtime character called Antichrist. I will briefly summarize these threads as I explain the attributes of this character.
The first attribute of the man of lawlessness is that he is the â€œson of destructionâ€ or â€œson of perdition.â€ Only two men in the Bible are given this notorious title: one is this man of lawlessness, and the other is Judas Iscariot, the one whom Jesus said â€œhas been lostâ€ (John 17:12). Why is he called thus? Because when Jesus returns, he will â€œkill this man with the breath of his mouthâ€ (verse 8), a combination of two phrases from Isaiah 11:4, â€œhe shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.â€ John describes the glorified Christ as one â€œfrom [whose] mouth came a sharp two-edged swordâ€ to make war on evildoers and â€œstrike down the nationsâ€ (Rev 1:16; 2:16; 19:15). This two-edged sword is the word of God, â€œliving, active, sharp, piercing, and discerningâ€ so as to expose the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Heb 4:12-13).
This is how the man of lawlessness will be exposed and destroyed: by the word of Christ. In his great hymn, â€œA Mighty Fortress is Our God,â€ Martin Luther is confident, â€œone little word [from Christ] shall fell [the Prince of Darkness].â€ The Word of God saves us from sin and Satan, but he also condemns and destroys evildoers, because he knows all the intentions of the heart, whether good or evil.
Second, the man of lawlessness â€œopposes 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 Godâ€ (verse 4). Again, this connects the man of lawlessness to Daniel’s prophecy of a coming king who â€œshall exalt himself and magnify himself above every god, and shall speak astonishing things against the God of godsâ€ (Dan 11:36). Daniel Chapter 11 describes the succession of kings who will rule the Jews: first, the Persians during Daniel’s time; second, the Greeks under Alexander the Great; third, the Seleucids from Syria and Babylon. It was one of the Seleucid kings, Antiochus Epiphanes, who was the focus of Daniel 11’s middle section (Dan 11:21-39), and who was called â€œthe abomination that makes desolateâ€ (Dan 11:31). (See chart below.)
Earlier, in Daniel 9:27, the prophet also described a future â€œabomination of desolation,â€ a prophecy that was fulfilled twice in ancient history. In 167 B.C., Antiochus Epiphanes desecrated the Temple when he erected an altar to the Greek god Zeus and sacrificed swine and other unclean animals there. Jesus also prophesied about the abomination â€œspoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy placeâ€ in his Olivet DiscourseÂ (Matt 24:15), which was fulfilled when the Roman army entered, desecrated and finally destroyed the temple in A.D. 70. In both of these historical events, the fulfillment was literal when kings entered the temple, sat on the temple throne, and proclaimed themselves as God.
Another text that Paul alludes to in 2 Thessalonians 2 is Daniel 7:19-26, where the fourth beast of Daniel 7 â€œshall speak words against the Most High, and shall wear out the saints of the Most Highâ€ (verse 19). The four â€œgreat beastsâ€ of Daniel 7 are â€œfour kings who shall arise out of the earthâ€ in succession (verse 3), each more frightening than the previous one. The first was like a lion with eagleâ€™s wings, which was Nebuchadnezzarâ€™s Babylonian Empire. The second beast was a bear which represented the Medo-Persian Empire. The third was like a leopard, swift and having sharp senses, which certainly pointed to Alexander the Greatâ€™s Greek empire. But the fourth beast was different from the other three. It had ten horns, â€œterrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strongâ€ (verse 7), and â€a mouth speaking great thingsâ€ (verse 8), which parallels verse 19.
Thus, the common thread that connect 2 Thessalonians 2â€™s man of lawlessness to Daniel 7â€™s fourth beast, the abomination of desolation of Daniel 9 and 11, is his blasphemous claim to be God and his hatred of God and his saints.
But Paul says that there will be a final fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy when the man of lawlessness is revealed before the return of Christ on the last day. Daniel 12:10-11 refers, strikingly, to an â€œabomination that makes desolateâ€ during the end times when â€œthe lawless ones will do lawlessness â€¦ and will not understand.â€ They will not discern between true and false teachings, and will be deceived, just like some of the Thessalonians. Jesus also calls false prophets â€œworkers of lawlessnessâ€ (Matt 7:23).
This endtime character is described by John in great detail in Revelation 13:1-10 as the ten-horned, seven-headed beast who â€œwas given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words â€¦ to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and â€¦ those who dwell in heavenâ€ (Rev 13:5-6). He is not called the Antichrist in 1 John 2:18 for no reason, because he is against Christ and all God’s people, persecuting and even killing them. As the ultimate rebel against God, the man of lawlessness will try to usurp God’s authority as the only Lawgiver. He will subtly contradict all of God’s law revealed in God’s written covenant word to seduce the world with his deception. Daniel says, â€œHe shall think to change the times and the lawâ€ (Dan 7:25) and â€œHe shall seduce with flattery those who violate the covenantâ€ (Dan 11:32). This is one reason why he is called the â€œman of lawlessnessâ€–he is a lawless lawgiver.
The man of lawlessness is the personification of his master Satan, who continues to do what he set out do from the day that he deceived Adam and Eve into rebelling against God until Christ destroys him with the breath of his mouth when he returns. Paul even says that â€œthe mystery of lawlessness is already at workâ€ during his time (verse 7). This is why John says that even in the first century, the spirit of the Antichrist was already present, referring to unbelievers who deny that Jesus is the divine Christ, â€œChildren, it is the last hour â€¦ so now many antichrists have come â€¦ This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Sonâ€ (1 John 2:18, 22; cf 1 John 4:3).
“Already at Work” Then and Now
Many Christians think that works of the man of lawlessnessâ€”the Antichristâ€”will begin only right before the Second Coming of Christ. But the spirit of the Antichrist was â€œalready at workâ€ in the first century, and will continue until Christ returns. This meansâ€”as Jesus also warns us in Matthew 24:9-11, 24â€”that tribulations, falling away, false prophets and false christs performing signs and wonders in increasing frequency and intensity (â€œbirth painsâ€) will be present all throughout this age between his first and second comings.
The Antichrist is not only against Christ, but he even declares himself to be above Christ, exalting himself above the God of gods. Throughout history, powerful kings have declared themselves to be above God. Adam and Eve wanted to be like God. Pharaoh thought he could overcome God. So did all the kings and empires who wanted to destroy God’s people Israel. The Roman empire tried to wipe out Christianity by persecution, but the faith spread throughout the world instead. Emperor Nero was probably the one John was pointing to when he said that the number of the beast was 666, the numerical total of Nero’s name in Greek. John also says that the beast was mortally wounded, but was later healed (Rev 13:3), counterfeiting the resurrection of Christ from the dead, â€œas though it had been slainâ€ (Rev 5:6). John might be referring to the empire’s apparent demise after the death of Nero, but it later survived and became even more powerful than before.
In recent times, many men have declared themselves to be Christ or the Son of God. Two false christs have appearedâ€”a Korean, Sun Myung Moon, and a Filipino, Apollo Quiboloyâ€”with millions of followers claiming to be Christians. They have set themselves on the throne of the temple of their own churches. This is what Jesus prophesied, â€œmany will come in my name, saying, â€˜I am the Christ,â€™ and they will lead many astrayâ€ (Matt 24:5). For sure, many will arise especially after the great earthquake in Japan and the wars in the Middle East to lead astray many who have little or no knowledge of Scriptures.
Third, the man of lawlessness will be deceive those in the church with â€œall power and false signs and wonders.â€ Claiming to be God, he will sit in God’s temple, which for Paul is always the church (1 Cor 3:16-17; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:19-21). As the false Christ, the man of lawlessness will declare himself to be the head of Christ’s church. Thus, he will not be a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist, or a pagan. How will he deceive many in the church if he was a pagan? He will come from the ranks of the church in the end times. How will he deceive those in the church? Like Jesus and the apostles, he will perform lying signs and wonders, not real signs and wonders, because only God could perform true signs and wonders.
This is why today, the most popular churches are those where so-called miracles, prophecies, healings and speaking in tongues are performed. They are lying signs and wonders, as Jesus himself prophesied in Matthew 24:24, â€œFor false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.â€ So be forewarned, those of you who are followers of these signs and wonders churches and false prophets. You might unknowingly be followers of Satan and his representative, the man of lawlessness!
Paul also prophesied in 1 Timothy 4:1 that from the early church until Christ returns, â€œsome will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons.â€ This is why there will be a great falling away from the faith. The man of lawlessness will lead a great persecution and deception of believers. He will deceive many not only with his false signs and wonders, but also with the teachings of demons. What are these teachings of demons? Peter says these are â€œdestructive heresiesâ€ of false prophets and false teachers, who will bring â€œswift destructionâ€ upon themselves (2 Pet 2:1).
Everywhere in the world, destructive heresies abound. Only last year, an evangelical group in the Philippines proclaimed a â€œJubilee of Jubileesâ€ for the country, prophesying the election of their leader as president. The prosperity gospel heresy has seduced millions into worldwide giving generously to bring great blessings of health and wealth from God. In a new book, Love Wins, popular megachurch pastor Rob Bell teaches that there is no real physical hell, but hell is something that you create for yourself. All human beings will be given a second chance, even after they die. And in the end, God’s love wins, because all mankind will be saved and there will be no eternal hell. And many other pulpits are occupied by ministers preaching self-esteem and psychotherapy, not the gospel of Christ. False christs, false prophets and false teachers fulfill the spirit of the man of lawlessness today, and they will be plentiful until the day of the Lord. In fact, their activities will increase when the final antichrist is revealed.
Fourth and last, this man of lawlessness will be an international political power. John says that Satan will give him authority â€œover every tribe and people and language and nationâ€ (Rev 13:7). With the great power symbolized by his many crowns and horns, he will wield absolute power that no one could buy or sell without his authority. For a short time, he will be able to conquer the church by persecution and martyrdom. Believers who read the book of Revelation would have easily seen the figurative and symbolic references to the powerful Roman caesar, his demand to be worshiped, and his persecution of Christians.
To be sure, there is still a future personality, organization, or government who will fulfill Paul’s man of lawlessness and John’s Antichrist or beast. But this is contrary to those who teach that John’s Apocalypse was written exclusively for Christians 2,000 years into the future, and that first-century believers did not understand what John wrote. Why would John write a letter addressed to the first-century church when they would not even understand what he was talking about? Indeed, many argue that the book was not even for their consumption!
“Stand Firm and Hold to the Traditions”
Today, despite all the false teachers, the true gospel is still being preached throughout the whole world. During the short time that the man of lawlessness conquers the church, the restraining power of the preaching of the gospel will be removed. The â€œrestrainerâ€ in verses 6-7 is the gospel, and not the Holy Spirit as many contend. How can salvation continue, indeed life itself, if the Lord and Giver of Life, the Spirit of God, is taken away from this world? Others argue that Satan is the one who restrains the man of lawlessness, but why would two evil forces resist each other to accomplish their evil mission?
The â€œrestrainerâ€ is the gospel itselfâ€”the power of God unto salvationâ€”which will be preached to all the nations before Christ returns (Mark 13:10), and before the â€œabomination of desolationâ€ wields his power in the church. But who is God’s agent in making the preaching of the gospel effective? To be sure, the Spirit works faith in a man’s heart through preaching, but we know that he cannot be taken out of the world. The most plausible answer proposed by some is that an angel of God, even Michael the Archangel himself, is the one who restrains the man of lawlessness, as he does in Daniel 10:13, 20-21. Is this also why John tells us of an angel who symbolically binds Satan with a chain and throws him down a bottomless pit in Revelation 20:1-2? 4
And when the preaching of the gospel ceases, the man of lawlessness will prevail. There will be no more restraint on him, because the power of the gospel unto salvation has been removed. Most people at that time will be deceived and refuse to love the truth and salvation offered in the gospel of Christ. They will all perish when Christ returns and destroys all of them, including the man of lawlessness, with the breath of his mouth.
Paul says that because of the hardness of their hearts, God himself will send â€œa strong delusionâ€ to the unbelievers. God will remove the restraining power of his Spirit, and give them over to their pleasures in unrighteousness. Their ears will be tickled by the false teachings so that they may be condemned by the true gospel. God has already condemned their lawlessness, and they are already perishing, causing them to be deceived by the man of lawlessness.
But Paul prayed for the Thessalonians and thanked God for their faith. Paul says that you who believe in the gospel are beloved by the Lord. He chose to save you before the creation of the world by giving his Son to die on the cross to save you from sin and Satan. The Holy Spirit has set you apart from all the unbelieving world by giving you a new heart so that you may believe the truth of the gospel and repent of your sins.
And because the Spirit dwells in you, do not fear those who come with lying signs and wonders. Do not fear that you might be deceived by false prophets and false teachers. Do not fear that you might fall away from your faith in Christ because of persecution. Do not fear, because God has given you his Spirit of perseverance and preservation. He will complete the good work that he has begun in you until the day of Christ’s return. No one can pluck you out of your Father’s hand. Jesus encourages you in the midst of your afflictions, â€œIn the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the worldâ€ (John 16:33). You are overcomers, as John says, â€œFor everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the worldâ€”our faithâ€ (1 John 5:4).
How do you overcome the deceptions and persecutions of Satan and the man of lawlessness? It is by standing firm and holding to the traditions taught by the apostles. What are these â€œtraditionsâ€ that Paul is talking about? Are they the oral traditions that the Roman Catholic hold on to? The Roman church teaches that their authority is not solely the written Scripture, but also the oral traditions transmitted down to the popes by the apostles. No, Paul is referring to inspired teaching he has personally given to the Thessalonian church. By â€œour spoken word or by our letter,â€ he means the inspired teachings handed down by the apostles alone to the church, the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints by the apostles, not traditions handed down from one pope to the next.
And if there are real oral traditions handed down by the apostles to the Roman church, what are these traditions? No one knows, because only the Pope has knowledge of them. Doesn’t this sound like Gnosticism’s secret knowledge? This teaching by the church of a secret oral tradition came down from Gnostics who claim an exclusive secret knowledge to salvation.
You are to stand firm, persist, and persevere in your faith. You are to hold fast to your faith. Are you able to do this by your own effort? No, because you are â€œquickly shaken and alarmedâ€ when sufferings, persecutions and false teachings come, as Paul says in verse 2. This is because the Spirit gives you the desire to listen to and to love the truth of God’s word. Do not think that you know everything needed to know about God and so neglect his word. The surest way to avoid being deceived by false teachers is to attend to God’s word, whether written or preached.
Do not fear when others proclaim the end of the world is near, because of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan and the war in Libya. All of these are part of God’s unshakable plan for the eventual redemption of his elect from sin, death, and Satan. As David says, â€œI shall not be shakenâ€ because the Lord â€œgives me counsel â€¦ [and] he is at my right handâ€ (Psa 16:7-8).
Do not fear when you hear that the rapture is coming in two months. Do not believe this, because Christ will not return until two things happen: a great falling away from the faith, and the appearing of Antichrist, the man of lawlessness. But this doesn’t mean that you can live whatever life pleases you since Christ is not coming at any moment. To be sure, a great apostasy overwhelmed the medieval church, but only in Europe. But who can say if the proliferation of false teachers and false prophets todayâ€”worldwideâ€”is not the coming great apostasy? And who can say if today’s false prophets do not constitute the â€œman of lawlessnessâ€ who sits in God’s temple, the church, and who proclaims a false gospel and a counterfeit God?
No, you have to live daily as if the end of the world will come at any moment because no one knows. And not only that, for every person in this world, the end of the world is one heartbeat away: no one knows when death will come. Death is the end of the world for all who will not be alive when Christ returns. And after death, there is no second chance, but only Judgment Day.
- John F. MacArthur Jr., â€œIs Christ’s Return Imminent?â€ The Master’s Seminary Journal 11/1 (Spring 2000), 7-18. ⇧
- W. Bauer, W. F. Arndt, F. W. Gingrich, and F. W. Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd edition, revised and edited by Frederick William Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001). ⇧
- Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), 41. ⇧
- G. K. Beale, 1-2 Thessalonians, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 216-7. ⇧