The Rise of the Antichrist (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12)
As we begin to consider the special line of truth that is the subject of this passage, we need to remind ourselves that the outstanding theme of the first Epistle to the Thessalonians is the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ to receive His own before the onset of the awful period of judgment that is designated in the Old Testament as the day of the Lord, a time of trouble, or the time of Jacob’s trouble. Our Lord Jesus spoke of the period as the great tribulation.
The Thessalonian believers were looking forward to the appearing of the Lord. They were waiting for Him to return to earth to execute judgment on the wicked and set up His kingdom in this place where He had been rejected and crucified. It was this aspect of His coming that had made the deepest impression on their hearts even though Paul had explained that the Lord will first come in the air for His saints.
Sometimes believers have very poor memories and these Thessalonians seemed to have forgotten this truth, which Paul had endeavored to make so clear in his first letter. So when they encountered bitter persecution and trouble, they began wonder if the day of the Lord had begun; they thought they might already be in the midst of the great tribulation. They completely lost sight of the truth that had been revealed concerning the rapture of the church.
It seems that someone had misled them into believing that they were experiencing the throes of the time of Jehovah’s wrath. Presumably this person had asserted that he had been given a special revelation from God, and many of the brethren had been deceived.
It seems too that someone had forged a letter in the name of the apostle Paul in which he definitely declared that the day of the Lord really had begun and the church was going through the great tribulation.
In order to correct these false beliefs, the apostle wrote his second Epistle to the Thessalonians. In the first chapter of his second letter he declared the truth concerning the Lord’s judgment that will take place when He is “revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thessalonians 1:7-8). Before this time of vengeance, believers of this church age will have been caught up in the clouds “to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thessalonians 4:17), but they will appear with Him in great glory when He descends as depicted in 2 Thessalonians 1.
In 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 the apostle emphasized the fact that the day of the Lord cannot begin while the church is still on the earth. He wanted his readers to remember that the hope of believers is that they will be gathered together unto the Lord before judgment falls upon the earth. They were not to give heed to the theory that they were entering the great tribulation era—even though someone had professed to have discovered such teaching in the Word, or to have spoken by the Spirit, or to have received a letter from Paul asserting the theory.
In 2 Thessalonians 2:2 Paul cautioned his readers not to believe “that the day of Christ is at hand” (King James version). Here “the day of Christ” is a faulty translation. The best manuscript authority renders the original as “the day of the Lord.” The two phrases refer to two very different events. The day of Christ is the time when believers receive their rewards at the judgment seat of Christ immediately after the rapture. The day of the Lord, as we have seen, is the period when Jehovah’s judgments will be poured out, culminating in the literal return of the Lord Jesus to this world, where He will set up the kingdom of God.
The day of Christ is always imminent. There are no signs to be looked for; the Son may return from Heaven at any time. It is not to this precious and glorious event that 2 Thessalonians 2:2 refers, but to the next stage of Christ’s second advent and the judgments immediately preceding it.
Almost invariably when the church is called on to go through a time of great suffering, there are those who jump to the conclusion that it must be the beginning of “the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world to try them that dwell upon the earth” (Revelation 3:10). In our own generation we have passed through two world wars; in each of these awful conflicts, a large part of the professing church of Christ endured great suffering, and many teachers began to assert that we were entering the great tribulation.
Some have taught that the church must go through the entire tribulation period which, according to the book of Daniel, is to take place in the last and unfulfilled seventieth week of the great prophecy of chapter 9. This seven-week period is all a time of tribulation, but it is divided in Scripture into two parts: the first three-and-one-half years is a time of preliminary and largely providential judgment; the last three-and-one-half years cover the great tribulation proper when the wrath of the Lamb and the wrath of God will be poured out on the world, and Satan will be cast down from the heavens.
Some who realize that the church is to be saved from the wrath, and therefore cannot agree with the idea that it will go through the entire seven-week period of judgment, have taught that the church will go through at least the first half of the week. If this teaching were true, two companies of saints would be on earth at the same time: the heavenly company (the church, which is the body of Christ) and the earthly company (the remnant of Israel, who are to be gathered out of the apostate nation at the beginning of the tribulation).
To conclude that both companies will be on earth at the same time is unthinkable if one considers the Scriptures relating to each company. God has both a heavenly and an earthly election. In our Lord’s great prophetic discourse recorded in Matthew 24, the elect to be gathered out of all nations when He descends to set up His kingdom are Israel and those Gentiles who, having “washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14), will come out of great tribulation. The elect of the Epistles are a heavenly company, the “church of the firstborn” whose names are written in Heaven (Hebrews 12:23).
As Christians we ought to realize that ours is indeed a heavenly hope. We are not to be occupied with events and conditions down here; we should be looking for our blessed Lord to snatch us away from the wrath to come. The day of the Lord cannot begin until after this has taken place.
Paul said, “That day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition” (2 Thessalonians 2:3). The “man of sin” is undoubtedly the same as the personal antichrist of whom the apostle John spoke in his Epistles and the king who “shall do according to his own will” in Daniel’s great prophecy. The day of the Lord cannot come until the “man of sin” has been revealed and he will not be revealed prior to the rapture. We therefore arc never instructed to look for the rising up of this sinister personage who occupies such a large place in prophecies that relate to the last days.
After the church has been caught up, the apostasy of Christendom and Judaism will be complete. Among the vast throng of people left on earth will be many who, though unconverted, have professed faith; these will throw off all pretension of allegiance to Christ and to God. That complete “falling away,” or apostasy, will be the preparation for the reception of the antichrist. When the Jews are gathered back to their own land in unbelief, these words of the Lord Jesus will be fulfilled: “I am come in my Father’s name, and ye receive me not: if another shall come in his own name, him ye will receive” (John 5:43). The one who will “come in his own name” is the “man of sin… the son of perdition.”
The “man of sin” will proclaim himself to be the incarnation of God; he will exalt himself “above all that is called God, or that is worshipped” (2 Thessalonians 2:4). This antichrist will sit in the temple that the returning Jews will build in the land of Palestine and to him will be rendered the worship that belongs to God alone. As Daniel prophesied in 11:36-37:
The king shall do according to his will; and he shall exalt himself, and magnify himself above every god, and shall speak marvellous things against the God of gods, and shall prosper till the indignation be accomplished: for that that is determined shall be done. Neither shall he regard the God of his fathers, nor the desire of women, nor regard any god: for he shall magnify himself above all.
We know that this mysterious king will be a Jew because he is said not to “regard the God of his fathers.” In Scripture “the God of his fathers” refers invariably to the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. “The desire of women” undoubtedly refers to the Messiah, since every Jewish woman hoped to be the mother of the Deliverer of Israel. So the “man of sin” will be the son of Jewish parents and he will present himself to Israel as God manifest in the flesh, the Messiah for whom they have waited.
It is evident that Paul had taught his readers about the antichrist when he was in Thessalonica, for he said, “Remember ye not, that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things?” (2 Thessalonians 2:5) Of course in the short time that he was in that city he could not have made everything clear, and even if he had, much would have been forgotten. So when circumstances arose that filled the Thessalonians with fear and dread, they became so focused on these conditions that they lost the hope of the return of Christ to take His people away before the judgments begin.
In 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7 the apostle explained something that every believer ought to understand and many students and teachers of prophecy have misunderstood: “Ye know what withholdeth that he [the antichrist] might be revealed in his time. For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way.” Some of the words in these verses have changed their meaning in the course of the centuries. For example when the King James version of the Bible was published, the word “let” meant “hinder”; now it means “permit.” What the apostle was really saying in these verses is this: “Ye know what restraineth that he might be revealed in his own time. For the mystery of lawlessness doth already work: only there is One who now hindereth, until He be taken out of the way.”
Observe that Paul suggested that his readers should know what “hindereth.” Some have supposed that the apostle was referring to the Roman empire, whose downfall he had told the Thessalonians privately would take place before the second coming of Christ. It has been said that he spoke in a cryptic way because if he had spoken more clearly, he would have endangered both himself and other Christians and subjected them to the suspicions of the ruling powers.
Others have thought that Paul was referring to orderly government. In other words, a state of anarchy must prevail throughout the world before the antichrist is revealed and the Lord returns from Heaven.
But all such speculation seems needless in view of the fact that Paul was writing not merely for the Thessalonians or other believers living at that time, but also for future generations of Christians; his words would be read until the end of the dispensation. He spoke to us all when he said, “Ye know what restraineth.”
My reader, if you are a Christian, you ought to know what restrains the full demonstration of evil. Do you know? I have asked Christian audiences this question many times, and they have never failed to answer correctly. Yes, it is the Holy Spirit who restrains. Isaiah 59:19 tells us, “When the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him.” This verse has also been translated, “The Spirit of the Lord shall restrain him.”
The Holy Spirit is in the world, where He is working in and through the church of God. He indwells every believer individually and the church collectively; therefore as long as the church is in the world, the antichrist will not be revealed.
Of course as 1 John 2:18 tells us, “Even now are there many antichrists.” Everyone who denies the Father and the Son is an antichrist. But we are speaking here of the “man of sin,” “the son of perdition,” the one who will “come in his own name,” the archdeceiver who will appear at the end of the age. This antichrist will not be revealed as long as the Spirit of God is in the world.
The Holy Spirit came to abide with the church forever, so as long as the church is here, He will be here. But when the church is caught up to be with the Lord, the Spirit of God will no longer be in the world in the sense in which He has been here during the Christian era.
We sometimes sing, “The Holy Ghost is leading / Home to the Lamb His Bride.” Like Abraham’s servant, the Spirit of God has come down to this far country to find a bride for the Son. It is the Holy Spirit who works in the hearts of men and women, leading them to Christ. When His work is completed, He will go up with the church “and then shall that Wicked be revealed” (2 Thessalonians 2:8).
This lawless one, who will set himself up as God incarnate, will be the special object of divine judgment; he will be destroyed by the Lord Himself when He returns in power and glory. We learn from Revelation 19:20 that he will be cast alive into the lake of fire.
During his brief time of power on earth the antichrist will deceive the nations with all kinds of false miracles and “lying wonders” (2 Thessalonians 2:9). Jesus said that if it were possible, the very elect would be deceived by him (Matthew 24:24). But, thank God, it is not possible, “for they know not the voice of strangers” (John 10:5); they will hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. The propaganda of the antichrist will carry away those who “received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved” (2 Thessalonians 2:10). In fact it is God Himself who in righteous judgment will give them up to be deluded. We read in 2:11, “God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie.” Instead of “a lie,” we might read, “the lie”: the lie that the “man of sin” is the Christ of God.
This is a solemn word indeed for those who hear the gospel in our day and definitely reject it. If they are still rejecting the truth when the rapture of the church takes place, there will be no hope of their turning to Christ during the period of tribulation. Having believed the lie, they will be judged with all those who have apostatized from the truth.
If you have not yet received Christ, the following words are for you. No doubt many of you who are unsaved are children of Christian parents. You have heard the name of Christ all your lives, yet you have never definitely accepted Him. If Jesus should come today, you would be among the number who will receive the antichrist. You will probably say, “Impossible! I have been too well-taught for that; I have heard the gospel too many times. I have learned the great outlines of prophecy, and I know something of the divine program. I would not be deceived in that way. I would turn immediately to the Lord after He had taken His church out of the world, and thus I would be prepared to welcome Him at His glorious appearing.” But according to the Word of God, that will not happen. If you reject Christ now, you will have no desire to accept Him in the coming day of tribulation. You are in the most dangerous position anyone could be in. The Word of the Lord says, “He, that being often reproved hardeneth his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy” (Proverbs 29:1).
Some of the saddest funerals I have had to conduct have been for unsaved young people who were members of Christian families. These young men and women had often been urged to come to Christ, but they had gone on in carelessness, hoping that everything would come out all right in the end. Then suddenly they were struck down, perhaps by accident, and they went out into eternity leaving no testimony.
If you are unsaved, I plead with you not to allow another day to pass without coming to Christ, lest the near future find you forever beyond all hope of mercy. God has given you the opportunity to believe the truth; He has presented His Word. But if you turn away from that truth and refuse to believe the gospel, then God Himself may give you up to delusion so that you will believe the lie of the “man of sin” and so be eternally lost.
Salvation through Sanctification (2 Thessalonians 2:13-17)
Having spoken of the apostasy of the last days and the coming of the “man of sin” when the hinderer, the Holy Spirit, will no longer be working on the earth, the apostle turned to comforting the saints with the assurance that they were the special objects of divine care. His words apply to Christians everywhere, for all such are “brethren beloved of the Lord” and everyone of them has been chosen by God from the beginning for salvation “through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth” (2 Thessalonians 2:13). We read in Romans 8:29, “Whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son.” Looking down through the ages God foreknew all who would ever put their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and He chose them to be conformed to Christ. If you are a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, you need never worry about your election. The very fact that you are a believer, redeemed by Christ, assures you that you are among the elect of God.
Notice that God has chosen you “to salvation through sanctification” (italics added). That means we were aroused to realize our lost condition and our need of a Savior by the direct work of the Holy Spirit and thus we were led to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. Sanctification of the Spirit is the initial work of God in the soul, and then when we believe the gospel we have the assurance of salvation.
Paul told the Romans that he was a minister of God to the nations so that “the offering up of the Gentiles might be acceptable, being sanctified by the Holy Ghost” (Romans 15:16). A man may preach the Word with great liberty and power, but unless the Holy Spirit applies the Word to the hearts, illumines the minds, and troubles the consciences of his listeners, his preaching will never convert a single person.
Those of us who are saved can look back and recall how the work of the Holy Spirit began in our souls. We remember the time when we were just part and parcel of the world around us, and then there came an awakening. Perhaps at first we could not understand what was happening to us. We became unhappy and dissatisfied; we desired something we had never known before; we became conscious of our sinfulness and guilt; and we cried out in our hearts for cleansing and purity—that was the sanctification of the Holy Spirit.
There is a beautiful illustration of this sanctification in Genesis 1:1-2. We read in the first verse, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” That creation, we learn from Isaiah 45, was absolutely perfect, like everything else that comes from God’s hand. But in Genesis 1:2 we read, “The earth was without form, and void.” Most Hebrew scholars feel that a better rendering would be, “The earth became without form, and void.” Whether or not this change from perfection to formlessness had to do with the fall of angels, we cannot be sure, but we do know that a tremendous catastrophe took place and the earth was plunged into chaos.
“And darkness was upon the face of the deep.” The scene was one of gloom and desolation, but then “the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” The word translated “moved” is sometimes used to describe a hen brooding over her nest, so we could say that “the Spirit of God brooded upon the face of the waters.” A brooding hen, although she seems quiet and inert, is actually in constant motion. Every muscle is quivering and this generates the warmth needed to hatch the eggs. So we see the Holy Spirit moving—brooding—over the waste of waters in preparation for the reorganization of the earth in order to make it fit to be man’s dwelling place.
That same blessed Holy Spirit broods over fallen man—that is, He does His sanctifying work in the sinner’s heart—and then when the light shines in, the soul is saved. “God said, Let there be light: and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). This was the beginning of the new order. Psalm 119:130 tells us, “The entrance of thy words giveth light,” but no man sees the light until he has been wakened from his sleep by the Holy Spirit.
So as 2 Thessalonians 2:13 tells us, we are chosen “to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth.” First Peter 1:2 says of the elect that the Spirit’s sanctification leads them into the obedience of faith, which brings them to the “sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ.” When we, like Israel on Passover night, take our place in faith beneath that sprinkled blood, we become absolutely secure, for Jehovah said, “When I see the blood, I will pass over you” (Exodus 12:13).
Another New Testament passage that mentions the Spirit’s sanctification is 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. There Paul listed a number of evil characters (including some so vile and unclean that I almost feel like refraining from mentioning them) and then added, “Such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.” Some of the Corinthians had lived evil lives, but they had been washed by the application of the Word of God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus. This is the order in Scripture: The Word of God is proclaimed, heard, or read. The Spirit of God sanctifies—He convicts the sinner, bringing him to the place where he desires to be saved and is ready to receive Christ. Believing the gospel, the sinner is justified by faith.
Let me give some advice to those who seek to win souls: Do not try to rash people into confessing Christ. Do not try to make them say they are saved. Try to find out if there is any real conviction of sin. Try to find out if the Spirit of God has awakened them.
The reason a great many people make a profession of Christianity in revival meetings and soon afterward drift back into their former ways is that there has been no real work of God in their souls. They have never been sanctified by the Holy Spirit; they have never known divine conviction. First people need to be awakened to see their need of Christ; then the gospel can be given to them. That is the divine order. Sanctification by the Spirit leads to “belief of the truth.”
When people believe the gospel message, they may be assured of eventually sharing the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ: “He called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thessalonians 2:14). This is the purpose for which God is sending His gospel out into the world.
When people have been really born again, they will continue in the Christian life. We hear a great deal about backsliders, but some one has well said that many who are designated as backsliders have never been frontsliders; they have never been born again. In Philippians 1:6 we read, “He which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.”
The Thessalonians had listened to the apostle and had also received his written word, and in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 they were exhorted not to let anything turn them aside from the truth that had been proclaimed. “Therefore, brethren,” Paul wrote, “stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.” Do not misunderstand what the apostle said. He had not added human traditions to the Word of the Lord. But he had taught the Thessalonians certain truths by word of mouth and he urged them to retain these teachings as well as those he had committed to writing.
Today we no longer have inspired apostles proclaiming the Word; nothing is left for us but the written Word. We have no need of traditions, for we have the completed Scriptures. As 2 Timothy 3:16-17 tells us, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.”
When our Lord was on earth, He told the scribes and Pharisees that they had made “the word of God of none effect” through their traditions (Mark 7:13). There arc those today who have added a great many human traditions to the Word and have utterly confused their followers. But those who honor the Scriptures need no human traditions.
Drawing 2 Thessalonians 2 to a close, Paul wrote of God’s gifts of “everlasting consolation and good hope” (2:16). Our consolation (comfort) will continue throughout eternity. Our hope will never be disappointed. The apostle also wrote of believers being established “in every good word and work” (2:17). We are not saved by good works or by any effort or behavior of our own. But because we have been saved “through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth,” we are responsible to maintain good works. Thus we adorn the gospel of Christ.