Preached by Benjamin Vrbicek
One of the benefits of teaching regularly in a local church is that after you preach and you think of more you could have said, you have the chance to go back and say those things the following week. This is going to be one of those weeks. I’ll explain in a minute. But let’s read the passage and pray.
I want to get last week’s passage as well as this week’s passage in front of us, so I’m going to be reading all of chapter 1 and then the first 12 verses of chapter 2. Follow along with me as I read, and then we’ll pray that God would be our teacher.
1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
3 We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. 4 Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring.
5 This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering— 6 since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels 8 in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 10 when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. 11 To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, 12 so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
2 Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers,2 not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. 3 Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, 4 who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. 5 Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? 6 And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. 7 For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. 8 And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming. 9 The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, 10 and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. 11 Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, 12 in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
Thoughts from Last Week
The main point from the passage last week was that relentless suffering can make your mind go to dark places. It just does. But we also saw that into the darkness, Paul shines the hope of the Second Coming—Jesus is coming again “to be glorified in his saints” (1:10).
Each Tuesday afternoon a few of us get together to debrief the sermon from the previous week. We talk about what worked well and what didn’t work as well. It’s a way for us to take seriously the call to be preachers of the word of God and to grow in our ability. Last week two items in particular were mentioned that were not necessarily wrong but were insights into the passage that I felt were worth doubling back to say.
Let me re-read v. 6 from chapter 1.
6…God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you.
Paul says some challenging things about the punishment of God on people who do not know him. I made the point that what Paul says and what we could possibly perceive as a harshness from God makes more sense if we understand that Paul was trying to encourage those who were suffering affliction because they were following Christ.
Now, when I preached the passage, I tended to lump all suffering in one big bucket: suffering from physical ailments, suffering from the loss of a job, suffering because you read your Bible on your lunch break and now your co-workers won’t be friends. I lumped all of that suffering together. I did that for a few reasons. In each case, the result of the suffering is the same: we can go do spiritually dark places questioning whether we are doing something wrong (maybe I’ve got some physical ailment because I’m not a very good Christian, we think) or maybe there is something wrong with God (maybe he doesn’t see or know or care, or if God does, he can’t to anything, we think). All suffering can push us to that place. The encouragement from the passage, regardless of what one is suffering, is the same: trust that God is coming again and when he does, it will be good for his children.
I believe all of that is still true. In our sermon debrief meeting, however, an additional insight was mentioned that is not true of all suffering, but it is true of suffering for persecution, and that is the desire for vengeance.
If I get cancer, I might go to a spiritually dark place, but I won’t necessarily want to take vengeance on anyone. But if my son was beaten and thrown into jail because he is a Christian, then I might be tempted to take vengeance, right?
I mentioned this summer the story of my friend Kyle. In college Kyle was killed in an avalanche. I had to speak during the funeral while his fiancé Maria wept on the front row. I was tempted to go to a dark place spiritually, but I was not tempted to get vengeance because there was no one to take vengeance against. You can’t take vengeance on a mountain and snow. But let me also tell you this.
The local news in Colorado covered the story with a reporter at the foot of the mountain. The reporter interviewed local police officers, search and rescue crews, and even an avalanche expert. All the while, in the background of the footage, you could see the two other men who had been climbing with my friend, Kyle. You could also see Maria, Kyle’s fiancée, weeping on the shoulder of one of the surviving climbers.
As I watched the report, I remember thinking how everything about this “avalanche expert” smacked of smugness, as though what he was really saying was, “Hey, look at me! I’m on TV!” I remember wanting to reach my hands into the laptop screen, grab him around the collar, and shout, “That’s my friend you are talking about! Look over your shoulder. There’s Maria. You gonna talk like that to her?” Of course, technology (thankfully) doesn’t allow such interactions.
a. Do not take vengeance
Do you see where I am going with this? The church in Thessalonica was experiencing persecution. We don’t know exactly what form their persecution took, but as they were excluded from society, as they were beaten, as some of them were placed in jail, they wanted to know if God was watching. And through his letter, Paul placed his hands on their shoulders, looked them in the eyes and said, “I love you, and God loves you, and God will repay with affliction those who afflict you.” In other words, you don’t have to take vengeance.
Look at a few verses with me from Romans 12, where Paul addresses the same thing.
19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:19–21)
If you’ve heard the line killing someone with kindness, that’s in a way what Paul is saying here. Christian, you don’t have to get even, you don’t have to take a pound of flesh. Leave room for God to be God. We must be kind, tenderhearted, warm, and loving people because vengeance is God’s, not ours. We don’t have to reach into our laptop screens to choke someone because when Jesus returns, he will deal with all injustice, which leads to the next thing I neglected to say last week, but still would like to say.
b. Do practice evangelism
Often when two of my children are in an argument, one of them will want to tell me what their sibling did to them. But what about him? Look at what he did?”What do you as a parent in those situations? You say something like, “I know, I know. And I’ll talk to him. But I’m talking to you right now.” That’s what Paul was doing in chapter 1. He was looking the Thessalonians in the eye and saying God will deal with them. Rest in that.
But here’s my question: if we had what Paul would have said to those who were doing the oppressing, what would that have sounded like? Could we imagine Paul, full of the Holy Spirit, saying, “Just give me five minutes alone in a room with the people who are oppressing you, and I’ll teach them a thing or two about the vengeance of God? Just let me reach through the screen in my laptop so I can choke them out!” I don’t think so. In fact, in the book of Acts, we actually have the record of several occasions where Paul does speak to people who are not just generally persecuting people, but they are persecuting him! Look with me at this exchange from Acts 26. Paul has been thrown in jail, and he is explaining how he became a Christian to the people who put him in jail. He tells King Agrippa and a man named Festus that he used to persecute the church, but then the love of God changed his life. Let me pick up in v. 24.
24 And as he was saying these things in his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.” 25 But Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words.26 For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner. 27 King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” 28 And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” 29 And Paul said, “Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains.” (Acts 26:24–28)
Do you see how this relates to Thessalonians? Because God is going to judge the world, and because we as Christians have been saved from his wrath, we should be those who tell others about how we can all be free from God’s wrath and experience God’s love through Jesus. The fact that God will judge the world did not make Paul callous toward people who do not know God—even when those people were hurting him. Because of the gospel, the persecution Paul received did not make him vengeful. Instead, he became compassionate.
I almost never go back to a previous sermon, but I felt those were significant enough that I shouldn’t move forward without addressing them.
2. Thoughts from This Week
So now we come to this week’s passage. Don’t worry. I’m not going to begin a 30-minute sermon at this point. We’re more than halfway done. In chapter 1, Paul addressed a potential impediment to their church: physical persecution. In chapter 2, Paul addresses another potential impediment to their church. This one is not so much physical but intellectual. There was a misunderstanding about the end times that caused alarm among these believers. As bizarre as it might seem to us, they were worried they had missed the “day of the Lord” and the return of Christ. Let me read vv. 1–7 again.
2 Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers,2 not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. 3 Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, 4 who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. 5 Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? 6 And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. 7 For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way.
False teachers had influenced the church, perhaps even though the writing of a fake letter purportedly from Paul, that told them they had missed the coming of the Lord. That’s weird to us. But as Ben and I talked about this passage this week, we mentioned to each other how most Christians who have been a Christian for any length of time probably have some story that they can look back on where they heard some bizarre teaching about the end times, and it was really troubling, even alarming.
When I was in college, I remember sitting in the dorm room of my friend Jay. My friend Josh was there too. I had recently started following Christ and reading my Bible, and these guys seemed like good brothers to hang around because they were so mature. If I had been following Christ for like 5 minutes, then these really mature brothers had been following Christ for a whopping 8 minutes.
Jay says to us, “So I was listening to this preacher on the radio. He seemed super legit. And he was preaching from the book of Revelation. And he talked about how in John’s vision of the end times there will be these flying grasshopper things, which totally are military helicopters. That’s crazy, right?” And Josh and I are like, “Yeah, man. Crazy.” Then Jay says, “So the preacher is getting all into it, and then he said that 1/3 of the whole world would be killed—soon.”
There were three of us in the room. And I remember thinking, Humm. So am in the 2/3s or the 1/3?It’s funny now, but as a new follower of Christ it was very alarming then. Perhaps you have a story like this too. I remember when I as a pastor at my former church a well-meaning woman came to church one morning and brought a ton of books from home and placed them on the church welcome table to give away. I guess she didn’t want them anymore. One of the books was an old book called The Late Great Planet Earth, which is notorious for unhelpfully stirring up alarm. Maybe you’re familiar with it. I left the rest of the books on the welcome table because I didn’t want to be rude, but I hid that one.
Fear is a strange thing. It can oftentimes be irrational. Think of the many times we become afraid of a person or a conversation that never materializes. And think of the way fear can be contagious, infectious.In the Old Testament there is a story of when 10 people persuaded the rest of the people of God not to go into the Promised Land because they were afraid. The fear of the 10 swept across nearly all of God’s people.
And confusion about the end times can certainly lead to unnecessary fear. However, Paul’s point in this passage is that knowing the truth of about the coming of the Lord kills fear.
So, if being grounded in the truth about the return of Christ and loving the truth about the return of Christ is what kills fear, then knowing the truth about the return of Christ is really, really important. Look again at vv. 5–6:
5 Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? 6 And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. (2:5–6)
Paul calls them back to their earlier instruction. “You know the truth,” he says. “You remember because I taught you.”
a. What they knew but we do not
What’s interesting, however, is that in our own day, some of the things that Paul writes here are very confusing to us. They were apparently clear to them, reminders even. But to us they are unclear. I’ve done a lot of study on this passage, and there are things that, to be candid, I still don’t know. And I listened to a few sermons on this passage by three heroes of mine, and in each of their sermons, they mentioned that there are things that they did not know.
For example, the passage speaks of the man of lawlessness being revealed at the end of time and setting himself up as God in the “temple of God.” But what is the temple of God? Is it the Jewish temple which was destroyed in ad70? So should we anticipate that one day the Jewish people will rebuild their temple? Some think they will. Others note that Paul uses “temple of God” in several places in his letters to refer to the Christian church (e.g., 1 Corinthians 3:16–17; 2 Corinthians 6:16b). So is this great man of lawlessness going to arise as though he were part of the Christian church? Not to make it more difficult, but also consider that sometimes the Bible speaks of a heavenly temple, as in the last few chapters in the book of Ezekiel and Revelation. So what is the temple of God in v. 4? I don’t know.
There’s also the statement about the way the lawless one is restrained. Paul says they know who or what does the restraining. But Idon’t know. Some commentaries put forward three different ideas. One commentary offered seven possibilities. Maybe the presence of the church in this world restrains the lawless one. Maybe it’s the preaching of the gospel that restrains him. Maybe it’s an angel. Maybe it’s the Holy Spirit. Maybe it’s the Roman empire, some say. Maybe it’s Satan himself who does the restraining so that Satan can delay the coming of his antichrist until just the right time. We don’t know. I don’t think it’s Satan who does the restraining, but it’s tricky.
b. What we both know
While we don’t know for certain some of the details of this passage, other details are crystal clear. If loving the knowledge about the truth of return of Christ is what kills fear and mitigates against anxious alarm, then let’s focus on what is crystal clear. That’s where we should focus our attention. I want to mention two things that are perfectly clear from this passage.
1. Christ’s return may linger
First, we know that Christ’s return may linger. It might be a while before Christ returns. Paul encourages them that they have not missed the coming of the day of the Lord because two things had not happened yet: there has not been a great rebellion, and there has not been the revealing of the man of lawlessness.
God wants us to be ready for his return, which can come quickly and unexpectedly like a thief in the night (Matthew 24:43; 1 Thessalonians 5:2, 4; 2 Peter 3:10). But at the same time, God wants his children to be prepared for Christ’s return to linger.
A delay in the return of Christ is consistent with what we read in other passages, even from Jesus himself. Jesus once told a parable about his return, and those who benefited from his return were those who didn’t assume he would return right away but rather made preparations for a long delay. In the parable those who prepared more oil for their candles so that they could wait a long time for the return were the ones who benefited from his return (Matthew 25:1–13). Look also at what Paul wrote to a young pastor in 2 Timothy.
2 You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, 2 and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also. (2 Timothy 2:1–2)
The fact that Paul told Timothy to set up a discipleship program where one person who could teach should tell others who can teach and so on, implies that Paul expected the return of the Lord to linger.If the return of Christ won’t come until there is a great rebellion and until a leader of that great rebellion has emerged, then the return of Christ will linger. Let that calm fears you might have about the end times. “Do not be quickly alarmed,” Paul pleads with them and I now plead with you. So that’s the first thing we know from this passage.
2. But Christ’s victory is sure
The second thing we know from this passage is that though the return of Christ may linger, his victory is sure. This is the main think I want to say. Look with me at v. 8.
8 And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming. (2:8)
Paul is drawing here from an Old Testament prophesy about the Messiah. We taught the passage last winter. In Isaiah 11:4 we read,
but with righteousness [the Messiah] shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
In Israel’s day and our own day, enormous amounts of money and time and energy and lives are spent keeping wickedness at bay. Think of the laws we pass and the officers who try their best to enforce them, and think of our military and the battles we fight. So much energy. So much effort. So much loss of life. How great is the Messiah? This great: one day he will topple evil the way I could stack up a line of dominos and blow them over. Effortless.
There is a pop-culture, folk religious, pseudo-Christian belief that is pervasive today. It says that in this world there are good and evil, and they are in a war—that much is true. But here’s the lie. The lie is that good and evil are in a war and that God and Satan are pretty much equal in strength, and we don’t know, in fact, we can’t know who will win. So, what we should do is cross our fingers, wish upon a star, and try really hard and hope for the best, and vote for the right person, then maybe, just maybe, if we are lucky things will be okay.
NO!God is a warrior, and the enemy of God is not the equal of God. Right now, God the Father sits on the throne of the universe and has said to his Son, “Park your throne next to mine until I take care of this for you” (cf. Mark 12:35ff and Psalm 110). When Jesus gave the Great Commission in Matthew 28 to his disciples just before he went back to heaven he declares, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Christians, lift up your heads. Do not be fearful or alarmed. Jesus is so wonderful that he can destroy the greatest evil with the breath of his mouth.
Some of you have had things happen to you that are unspeakably cruel. And there are all sorts of ways that I as your pastor would hope to minister to you. If you would ever want to talk about it, I could just weep with you and just look you in the eyes and say, I’m so sorry someone did that to you, and I’m so sorry someone did that to your child. I can do that. I will do that. I have done that.
But also, I would hope to minister to you by telling you to lift up your head, by reminding you of the reality that in Jesus we do not have a tame, domesticated house pet. We have, as the Bible says, the Lion from the tribe of Judah who loves his people.
Some five hundred years ago, in a very dark time in church history, a Christian wrote a hymn we still sing today. The lyrics from one verse go like this:
And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, / We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us; / The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him; / His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure, /One little word shall fell him.
The one little word that defeats Satan and his lawless one is the word “Liar.” His miracles are counterfeits. His appearing is simply a parody of the coming of Jesus. The lawless one sets himself up as God; Jesus the Messiah is God. And though Satan rage, his doom is as sure as the love of God is sure for his children. Lift up your heads, Church. Jesus will destroy the greatest representation of evil the world has ever known simply with the breath of his mouth.
Here I’m expanding upon a point made by Matt Smethurst in 1–2 Thessalonians: A 12-Week Study, 76.
D.A. Carson brings up both Matthew 25 and 2 Timothy 2 in a sermon on 2 Thessalonians 2 called “Waiting for the Last Time,” March 9, 2008, http://resources.thegospelcoalition.org/library/waiting-for-the-last-time.