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.
And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. (Matthew 12:31 NIV)
The words of Jesus here in Matthew 12 have frightened many Christians. Have I committed the unforgiveable sin? No less a man than the great preacher, John Bunyan, feared that he might be guilty of the sin and was deeply troubled by it.
If you are someone who worries about this verse let me tell you what it does not mean. Jesus is not saying that there might have been a sin in your past, maybe something that continues to haunt you that you cannot confess to God and find complete and final forgiveness. Too many Christians struggle with guilt over sins of the past when the promise of God is clear.
If we confess our sins he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sin – 1 John 1:9
If we are ever to understand what Jesus is referring to we need to put these verses in their proper context.
What prompts Jesus to utter these remarks is what happens at the beginning of the section that leads up to his statement. In v.22-23 we discover that the people of Israel see Jesus cast out a demon from a blind and mute man. What they see leads them to conclude that maybe this man is the Christ. But when the Pharisees see that many are considering Christ they in turn attribute the work of God through Christ to Satan.
Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. 23 All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?” 24 But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.” (Mat 12:22 NIV)
Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is therefore to deliberately and wilfully attributes the work of God to his ultimate enemy Satan. This sin is to self-consciously reject self evident truth about God.
The casting out of a demon can ONLY be the work of God. So to witness it and accept it is to see the incontrovertible hand of God at work. To then call it evil is the sin of blaspheming the Spirit.
So what does Jesus mean when he says ‘anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not’?
I think the best way to understand this is to see that it is possible to speak against Jesus out of ignorance. RT France in his commentary argues that it is possible to speak a word against Jesus
‘without being aware that one was opposing the saving purpose of God….But the significance of Jesus’ exorcisms was plain for all to see; there could be no excuse for misinterpreting this work of the Holy Spirit and attributing it to Beelzebul.’
Of course in our own times we are too sophisticated to believe in evil spirits but that doesn’t change the fact that there are men and women out there who make it their business, sometimes quite literally their business, for profit, to call what is good, evil.
Some of the new atheists come close to this. When Christopher Hitchens in his book ‘God is not great: How religion poisons everything‘ describes Christianity as an agent for evil in the world that is self-evidently false. It is a deliberate distortion of history to call good evil. Even a most basic look back into history reveals the profound impact for good that Christianity has had on our culture.
David Cameron in a speech remembering the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible said this
‘the knowledge that God created man in his own image was, if you like, a game changer for the cause of human dignity and equality…When each and every individual is related to a power above all of us, and when every human being is of equal and infinite importance, created in the very image of God, we get the irrepressible foundation for equality and human rights.’
Bruce Sheiman in his book ‘An atheist defends religion’ writes of the extraordinary impact of Christianity when he reminds us of what we owe to the gospel;
‘A commitment to human dignity, personal liberty, and individual equality did not previously appear in ANY other culture’
To describe Christianity as a force for evil in our world is to call light to darkness, calling that which is good, evil is the very message brought to us today most clearly in the message of new atheism.
We also have to fear for a culture that refuses to see the hand of God at work in creation preferring to ascribe the existence and complexity of our universe to nothing rather than to God.
Dick Lucas, Rector Emeritus of St. Helen’s Bishopsgate, a large church in the city of London said this:
To look at this marvellous creation and dismiss the idea of God seems to me to be very close to calling light darkness
Are we any more rational than the Pharisees when we attribute the universe to ‘nothing’. Are we not so close to blaspheming the Spirit?
The psalmist writes
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. 2 Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. 3 There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. (Psalm 19:1-3 NIV)
Fraser Nelson writes in the Spectator of the growing threat to Christians in the Middle East.
Baroness Warsi, in an article in today’s on-line edition of the Telegraph, writes in glowing terms of religious freedom in Pakistan. She even claims ‘The idea of unity through diversity runs through Pakistan’s history and helps to define its society today.’
Clearly, the Baroness is either ignorant or in denial over the persecution of minority faith communities in Pakistan who face the threat of being arrested under Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law. Far more reliable a guide to the true state of affairs in Pakistan are the comments of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom;
In Pakistan, blasphemy allegations, which commonly are false, result in the lengthy detention of, and sometimes violence against, Ahmadis, Christians, Hindus, and members of other religious minorities as well as Muslims on account of their religious beliefs. Because the laws require no evidence to be presented after allegations are made and no proof of intent, and contain no penalty for leveling false allegations, they are easily used by extremists to intimidate members of religious minorities and others with whom they disagree. They are also often used by the unscrupulous simply to carry out a vendetta or gain an advantage over another.
Given that the Baroness writes ‘I went to a bishops’ conference and said that this Government would “do God”.’ she could write a piece in the national press next time on the steps she intends to take to put pressure on the Government of Pakistan to amend it’s legislation to prevent systematic persecution of non-Muslims and at the same time she might take the opportunity to put political pressure on other Islamic states that have either Blasphemy laws or apostasy laws that make conversion from Islam to any other faith a crime with severe penalties.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide ask us to pray:
For Pastor Nadarkhani
For God to stay the hand and change the hearts of the Iranian judiciary, that they would reconsider the death sentence handed down.
That the international statements of support for Pastor Nadarkhani would have an impact on the verdict.
That God would uphold Pastor Nadarkhani.
For peace, strength and comfort for Pastor Nadarkhani’s family.
For wisdom and protection for Pastor Nadarkhani’s lawyer who is also facing legal difficulties.
That attempts to charge him with other charges to justify a death sentence will come to nothing.
For Christians in Iran
That God would comfort members of Pastor Nadarkhani’s church and denomination.
That Iranian Christians would not be bound by fear and would keep their eyes fixed firmly on God.
Ask God to grant peace to all families affected by arrests and interrogations by the Iranian authorities in the past year.
For religious freedom in Iran
Please pray that Iran will become a nation where no faith group faces discrimination or persecution. Please continue to pray especially that the seven imprisoned Baha’i leaders would be released, and that government would cease its inflammatory rhetoric against minority religions.
Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints (Eph 6:18).
With thanks to Archbishop Cranmer for passing this on.
Update: Seems that the BBC do have something to say after all – it’s just that the BBC can’t spell his name correctly and that their search engine isn’t very sophisticated.
How is it possible that a search of the BBC News’ website should return ‘no matches’ when I searched this morning for news of the fate of Iranian pastor Yousef Nadarkhani. How is it possible that obsessed as the BBC is with the fate of Amanda Knox, et al., it has nothing to say or report on a man who has been sentenced to death for the crime of becoming a Christian in a Muslim country?
Visit the Sky News website and you will find up to date news. Search the Guardian, the Times, and this excellent post on New Statesman site for detailed coverage. But for some inexplicable reason the BBC is silent on this human rights story.
Barnabas Fund encourage us to pray for the Christians of Sudan as the South of the country after gaining its independence today.
Sharia is in force in the mainly Muslim North, and the president has threatened to change the constitution to make Islam the country’s only religion, sharia its only law and Arabic its only official language. Pray that the Lord will protect His people in the North from even more severe repression.
Pray too for the Christian majority in the South, that independence will bring them lasting peace and the opportunity to rebuild their land, which was shattered by decades of civil war. Pray for unity among the churches there.
Never mind ‘the Beast’ Christine Odone spots an elephant in the room.
I had the privilege of preaching from 1 Timothy 2 on Sunday evening. It was a humbling experience because it reminded me of how little time I, and the church I serve, give to prayer and in particular prayer for the world.
Philip Graham Ryken’s Reformed Expository Commentary on 1Timothy had some challenging things to say on Paul’s charge to pray for the nations and their leaders. Here is Ryken on prayer;
Pastoral prayers ought to be large, expansive, and wide-ranging. They should include the great issues of the day and the vast nations of the world. Intercession should be made for renewal, revival, and reformation in the church. Prayer should be offered for missionaries, evangelists, and church planters. The sufferings of the persecuted church and the desperation of unsaved humanity should be brought weekly before the throne of grace.
The God who rules the world wants his peopel to pray for the world. Therefore, every church should locate itself at the center of something God is doing in the whole world.
What is of special importance in Paul’s instruction to Timothy is that the church should pray for world leaders who are NOT Christians.
The early church took this responsibility seriously. Consider how Clement of Rome prayed for the rulers and governors of the earth in the early second century: “Grant to them, Lord, health, peace, harmony and stability, that they may blamelessly adminster the government which you have given them….Lord, direct their plans according to what is good and plasing in your sight, so that by dievoutly administering in peace and gentleness the authority which you have given them they may experience your mercy.’
These world leaders, at the time of Paul’s writing to Timothy were without exception non-Christians and often hostile to Christianity. Calvin notes of the leaders at the time of Paul’s writing that they were all ‘enemies of the Gospel, persecutors of the poor Christians, murderers and wicked men.’
So by praying for the nations and the leaders of the nations we fulfil Christ’s command of Matthew 5:44
‘I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.’
And when we do pray in this way? We remember that ‘this is good and pleases God our Saviour. Who wants all men to be saved.’ v.3-4.
So why not recommit to prayer for the nations. Prayer in church services, in your small groups, with your family and in your own personal prayer life. Operation World is an obvious resource and now a new resouce called ‘The World Prayer Map’ provides an interactive map of the world with detailed prayer points.
That God should be pleased when we pray is reason enough to pray. That the nations need our prayers is further reason still.
The God who rules the world wants you to pray for the nations of the world.
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