We hear about identity theft frequently, and more than likely, you’ve experienced it yourself. A couple years ago, a person created a fake Gmail account, impersonated me, and emailed my staff, asking them to send gift cards to help a needy person. Thankfully, my staff questioned the veracity of this, alerted me, and we contacted Google’s fraud department. As we continue our Advent study of 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12, we’re going to learn about an ancient case of identity theft, but one that will help us get ready for Jesus return.
Paul writes in verse 2 that someone had attempted to steal his identity. That person wrote the Thessalonian Christians a letter, claiming to be Paul, leading them to believe that they had missed out on Jesus’ return. Why would someone do that? We don’t know for sure, but my guess is that fake letter writer probably tried to turn the people away from Paul’s teaching. They likely wanted to get the Thessalonian Christians to stop believing Paul. But Paul steps in and says, “No. Do not fear, do not be deceived.” And why not? Because he didn’t write the letter, and Jesus had not yet returned.
To prove his point, Paul says the day of Jesus’ return will not happen until some other things happen, and those other things haven’t happened yet. What two things? First, a rebellion will occur, and second a man of lawlessness will be revealed. What are they? What rebellion? What man of Lawlessness?
The rebellion is an apostasy. Apostasy is the idea of turning away from the faith. But Paul is not referring to a person who decides they don’t believe in Jesus anymore. He is talking about a battle between good and evil, or more precisely, a battle between God and the evil one. As we look back over 2000 years of Christian history, there have been many, many wars and rebellions against God. Is it possible this has happened already? Not in the final sense that Paul describes.
Next, the man of lawlessness, the one whom Paul says is doomed to destruction? Paul writes in verse 4 that this man of lawlessness will oppose and exalt himself over every god and object of worship. He will sit down in the temple of God, declaring publicly that he himself is God. This man of lawlessness will put himself on display to the world, saying “Look at me, I am God.” So the lawless one goes beyond the typical political or military dictator. This lawless man says that he is deity. Had this happened? Not by 51 CE when Paul wrote. Then, the temple was still standing. They could have known. In 70 CE, nearly twenty years after Paul writes this letter, the Romans would destroy the temple, and all that is left of it to this day is the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall. In the last 2000 years, there have definitely been candidates for that kind of evil guy who would set himself up in the temple, declaring himself to be God, but there is no temple. So this event has not happened. Of course, that is if the proper interpretation of Paul is a literal interpretation. It is entirely possible that he was speaking in figurative language at this point, as prophecy is often figurative.
Clearly, though, Paul’s point is that the man of lawlessness has not emerged. Not in the first century, and not since then up until the twenty-first century. Paul wants to encourage the Thessalonians, “Do not be afraid, Jesus has not returned because these momentous events have not happened yet. There has been no rebellion and no man of lawlessness in the temple.”
Then he says in verse 5, “Do you not remember that I said this to you when I was with you?” That question made me laugh. Does anyone else detect a hint of frustration in those words? I read those words and I had an immediate flashback to my house. Has anyone here today ever had a spouse tell you, “How can you not remember this? We just talked about this. And it’s been on the calendar for weeks.” Anyone here today ever had a parent say, “I told you this a million times.” Paul might be getting a little chippy here. I suspect he is slightly miffed that the Thessalonians were concerned that they missed out on Jesus’ return because Paul had already told them this, and they should have known that the letter was a fake, that Jesus didn’t return. But he moves on, because there is more he wants to make sure they know about this man of lawlessness.
Paul writes in verse 6 that the man of lawlessness is currently being restrained. Restrained? By whom or what? Paul doesn’t tell us. So let’s keep reading. In verse 7 we read that “the mystery [or secret power] of lawlessness is already at work.” Already? The power of evil is already at work in the world? Clearly that evil power is being restrained or held back, at least partially, but it is already at work. This sounds ominous, doesn’t it? Evil is work in the world. It IS ominous. I think Paul wants the Thessalonian Christians to know, though, that just because there is clearly evil in the world, that doesn’t mean they are in the end times. The same goes for us. Yes, there is evil in the world, but it’s full manifestation is being restrained. In other words, the presence of evil at work in the world is par for the course. That’s just life. The presence of evil in the world does not mean that we are in the end times.
Paul also says in verse 8 that a day will eventually come when the restrainer will let go, and the lawless one will be revealed. That could freak you out a bit. A super evil guy will be revealed? Is that the anti-Christ? Maybe. The identity of the lawless one, of the anti-Christ, has sparked lots of speculation through the centuries, with nervous people wondering if the anti-Christ is alive now. Adolf Hitler was maybe the best choice, but there have been many candidates. Wicked, evil leaders that scare us. Do you hear about evil in the world and feel unsettled?
But even then, we need not worry, Paul says, because Jesus will destroy the lawless one with the breath of his mouth. How powerful is breath? Hardly powerful at all. Some of us can’t even blow out a candle that is a couple feet away on our birthday cakes. That is Paul’s point precisely. Jesus is so powerful, even his breath is strong enough to easily defeat the lawless one.
Paul, at the end of verse 8, talks about the splendor of Jesus’ coming. Paul is using the word “advent” again, referring to Jesus’ second coming. Jesus’ second advent will lead to the eradication of the advent of the lawless one. Therefore, Christians need not fear the end times. Jesus wins! We have victory not only in his resurrection, but in his final victory over sin, death and the devil.