The following is an edited section of a sermon preached on 2 Thessalonians 2 at City Church a few weeks ago on the knotty issue of when and in what way Jesus will return.
Maybe you remember Harold Camping, in the news last year, who predicted that Christ would come in judgement on 21st May 2011. When by May 23rd it hadn’t happened Camping stated that May 21 had been a “spiritual” day of judgment, and that Jesus would come again on October 21, 2011. Camping was wrong and no doubt there were lots of spiritual casualties too.
Something strange was going on at the church in Thessalonica (2 Thess 2v.1-2) Paul is writing to them about the coming of our Lord and v.2 the church has become unsettled and alarmed. The word unsettled has the idea of being ‘shaken from your mind’ like a ship being forced from its mooring by a storm and bobbing about in the high seas. The Thessalonians were in danger of being ‘all at sea’.
Something was getting to the Thessalonians and v.2 it seemed to be some report or prophecy saying that the Day of the Lord has already come. We don’t really know exactly what was going on here but 2 options are our best guesses.
1) The Greek word ‘already come’ can have the idea of ‘is at hand’. So the AV translation of the verse reads
be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand
It might be that they were thinking that the Lord’s Day was imminent.
2) Or it could be as the NIV translates the word the return of Christ has ‘already come’. Maybe some in the church were teaching that in some sense Christ has come spiritually. But if Christ has come, if the Kingdom of Heaven is powerfully breaking in, why were Christians still suffering so much?
Either translation could be right but if we don’t know maybe we don’t need to know the exact form of the error. Paul’s answer in v.3 seems to answer either way.
But Jesus is not coming yet v.3-4?
Now this is where it all gets difficult. Leon Morris wrote ‘This passage is probably the most obscure and difficult in the whole of the Pauline writings and the many gaps in our knowledge have given rise to extravagant speculations.’
What do we make of Paul saying that Jesus cannot come until evil gets worse and a certain man of lawless is revealed?
Does this mean Jesus can’t come back today?
Essentially 2 options are open to us. It could be that Paul’s answer to the Thessalonians doesn’t relate directly to us because he was thinking about something that happened in AD70.
1) a prophecy fulfilled in AD70
In 169BC the Syrian King Antiochus Epiphanies’ captured Jerusalem and desecrated the temple in the most appalling way. He erected an alter to Zeus and sacrificed of all things a pig on the altar of burnt offering in the temple. Many saw this as a fulfilment of a prophesy in the book of Daniel in the Old Testament in which he describes ‘an abomination that causes desolation.’
But Jesus insisted that although this might have been a fulfilment in part Daniel’s prophecy awaited a further fulfilment. In Matthew 24:15-16 Jesus tells us that Daniel’s prophecy is fulfilled in the siege of Jerusalem. In AD70 the Romans defeated the Jews the armies entered the temple carrying the emblem of Caesar into the temple and offered sacrifices to their gods. So could the rebellion Paul is prophesying in 2 Thessalonians 2 refer to the same event? When Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians it was still only 50AD and so the timing works. There was still 20 years to go before the destruction of the temple.
Now if the man of lawlessness is Caesar then what Paul says to the Thessalonians in one sense he is not saying to us. To them he is saying something like ‘Don’t be alarmed or unsettled …Jesus has not come….and he won’t yet come because the Romans haven’t invaded Jerusalem yet..the man of lawlessness is still to come.’
But that wouldn’t be what he is saying to us. To us he’d say ‘Don’t be alarmed or unsettled because Jesus has not come…but do understand that he could come at any moment because everything that needs to happened has happened.’
So that’s option 1 and the problem with it is that every commentary I read rejected that interpretation for a number of reasons that space doesn’t permit us to discuss. Perhaps the key one is that a number of books of the Bible that are almost certainly written after the fall of Jerusalem in AD70 – especially Revelation and the book of 1 John — still expect the coming of the man of lawlessness or the Antichrist as he is also known. John writes in 1 John 2:18 ‘this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming.’
2) The lawless one is yet to be revealed
If the man of lawlessness was not revealed in AD70 that would mean that what Paul is saying to the Thessalonians he is also saying to us (v.7) that the secret power of lawlessness, evil and opposition to God will be at work in the world until at the very end of history but then there will be one final embodiment of evil who will trigger the return of Christ. God’s plan and timing will decide when the arrival of the man of lawlessness will trigger the return of Christ and at that time the man of lawlessness will be utterly defeated.
Now if you are a suffering Christian somewhere in the world today (like the Thessalonians) then that is of great reassurance. Paul is saying ‘don’t be surprised by the presence of evil. There will be evil in the world right up until the day the Lord returns but God is in control.’
Could Christ come back today?
Firstly, we should admit that these verses are so difficult and Christians disagree on their exact meaning that whatever view we hold we should hold provisionally.
That means that if it is possible (even if we think unlikely) that everything that needs to happen has happened then we should be ready for Jesus to come back at any moment. Wayne Grudem in his chapter on eschatology in his Systematic Theology asks ‘is it possible to be ready for something that we think unlikely to happen in the near future?’ Certainly he says ‘Everyone who wears a seatbelt when driving gets ready for an event he or she thinks to be unlikely.’ The point is because we can’t be sure what will happen, because we don’t know for sure whether this prophecy has been fulfilled, either way we need to be ready.
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