God’s promise of hope and strength for those who are suffering – 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17, Part 5

In the previous post we learned that suffering is the way to glory. I have to admit that I don’t like the sound of that. I would rather glory come by way of ease, comfort and fun.

This is precisely why Paul says what he says next in our ongoing study of 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17.  But before we read what he says, think about the context with me. If the way to glory is through suffering, and we know that the Thessalonian Christians were already suffering, as we read in chapter 1, verse 4, it would be possible that the Thessalonians were thinking, “I didn’t sign up for this difficult life. I just wanted the golden ticket to get into heaven.”  Paul knows that their faith could easily start failing if the persecution continued.  So look at what he says in verse 15.  

“Stand firm and hold fast to the traditions or teachings which I taught you when I was with you and in my letter to you.”

What teachings did Paul give them?  We can read his first letter to the Thessalonians and find out some of his teachings.  But know this: Paul did not make up his teaching out of thin air.  He taught what was first taught to him, that Jesus is the Messiah, and that his followers are people who believe in Jesus and give their lives to follow him.  We’re now getting back to what we read in verse 13, that we Christians are people who receive the good news, “through belief in the truth.”  Paul’s teaching was the same as the apostles’ teaching, which was the same as Jesus’ teaching: a relationship with Jesus starts with believing in him.  But a relationship with Jesus is far more than just belief. 

To stand firm and hold to those teachings meant, for the Thessalonian Christians, that they would seek to apply the teaching of Jesus to their lives as they lived in Thessalonica.  Don’t write that off as overly basic, because it is so, so important.  Standing firm and holding to the teachings of Jesus, therefore, is not just believing the right things in our minds, it is also showing that we believe those teachings by the choices of our lives. 

Jesus’ was not interested in just believers.  Believers are people who think of their faith in terms of a theology quiz. God is real?  Check. Jesus is God?  Check?  Jesus rose again from the dead?  Check.  But is that all Jesus desires of us? To get a high score on a theology quiz?

Don’t get me wrong. Believing those ideas, and others, is important.  Jesus certainly invited people to believe in him, and yet also called us to be disciples.  A disciple is a believer, yes, but one that actually lives like Jesus.  I’m not saying that Jesus teaches we have to be perfect or he will treat us as failures.  What I am saying is that standing firm and holding fast to his teaching starts with accepting ideas in our minds, but it must move on to making life choices that show we believe those ideas.  That refers to the other phrase in verse 13, “the sanctifying work of the Spirit”. What is the sanctifying work of the Spirit?

Sanctification is the process of being made holy, of being set apart for God. In other words, sanctification is the process whereby Christians grow in their resemblance of Jesus.  If you view yourself as standing firm and holding fast, but the people in your life do not think you resemble Jesus, that should be a reality check, or at least cause for you to do a deep examination of your life.  This is why Paul will talk about the transformation that Holy Spirit brings to our lives.  “In Christ,” he says, “we are new creatures, the old has gone, the new has come.” There is an obvious change taking place in our lives. 

In other places, Jesus and Paul describe our lives as trees producing fruit.  When the Holy Spirit is at work changing a person to be more like Jesus (which is the meaning of sanctification), and that person is allowing the Holy Spirit to change them, the good fruit of the Holy Spirit will out of that person’s life. 

As Paul writes in verse 16, this transformation of our lives flows out of God’s heart for us.  God wants what is best for us.  Look at how Paul describes this in verse 16.  Jesus and God love us, giving us eternal encouragement and good hope. Paul is saying that God wants us to have encouragement and hope, both now, in the midst of the difficulties of life, as well as eternally.

The result of this encouragement and hope, Paul concludes in verse 17, is that our hearts are encouraged, and we are strengthened to live the life of disciples of Jesus in word and deed.  That is a wonderful promise. 

Encouraged hearts.

Strengthened lives.

Good deeds and words. 

Think about that.  Think about the relationality of that.  God wants to be in relationship with us so that we are encouraged, so that we are strengthened, and so that we can live the lives he calls us to live, flowing with good deeds and words. 

Photo by Faris Mohammed on Unsplash

How to experience glory – 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17, Part 4

This week in our study of 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17, Paul writes that Christians are people who are saved. In the previous post we examined how we are saved from separation from God. In today’s post we try to understand how we are also saved for something. As Jesus taught it, we are saved to be his disciples who will live out the mission of his Kingdom in the world. Discipleship means that Jesus calls us to give our lives to him, to sacrificially serve him and his kingdom.  That’s a very different story than what we Christians so often tell. It seems to me that we tend to focus on the saved from side of the story. We are saved from separation from God. That’s wonderful! But we are also saved for something. We are saved for discipleship, and disciples are learners from Jesus who strive to do what he did, up to and including dying for him.

You might be saying, “Joel, I don’t see any of that call to sacrificial discipleship in 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17.”  Not in those words, you don’t.  But look at the phrase in verse 14, “he called you…that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Share in the glory? What does Paul mean? At first glance, sharing in glory sounds really, really good. “Glory” is one way we talk about heaven. Is Paul just talking about glory in heaven?  It is that for sure.  We are saved from separation with God, and we are saved for relationship with him so we can experience his glory in heaven.  But we’re saved for more than that.  This is where the saved for part of the story gets dicey.

Think about Jesus’ pathway to glory. It is the pathway that first leads to crucifixion. Let’s not forget that.  Christianity is cruciform, cross-shaped.  Christianity is new life, but that new life is preceded by death.  Jesus’ resurrected life requires a crucified life. The good news is not from old life to new life.  It is from old life to death of the old life to new life.  This is why Paul would go on to write in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” 

This is why Paul will write in Philippians 3:10, “I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so somehow to attain to the resurrection of the dead.”

This is why Paul will write in Romans 12:1-2, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.  Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

Paul didn’t just make this up.  He got this all from Jesus.  It was Jesus who said, “If you want to be my disciple, take up your cross daily, die to yourself and follow me.”  In other words, Paul was trying to live in line with Jesus’ teaching and actions.  Paul wanted to do what Jesus did. 

As a kid afraid of burning in hell, I didn’t understand that.  It is hard for kids to understand that.  But you and I aren’t kids.  We’re adults.  If we want to share in Jesus’ glory, we need to grasp the reality that for Jesus, glory only came through suffering.  Glory only came through death. 

So often we want a pathway to glory that involves no suffering.  That’s just not reality, and it is not the way of the Gospel.  No doubt, the Good news is truly good news!  We have hope, we have the promise of eternal life and abundant life and glory.  But let’s remember what it cost our savior.  Let’s remember that it cost him death, and that it was our sin that he died for.  Then out of profound gratefulness to him, we in turn say, “Thank you, Jesus!  Just as you gave your life for me, I give my life to you.”  That is the way to glory.

Photo by Michael und Maartje on Unsplash

What Christians are saved from? – 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17, Part 3

Do you believe in hell? The Bible talks about it, but biblical scholars disagree if those images are intended to describe a literal or figurative place. Some people say that hell is on earth. Some people say all kind of things are hellish. No matter what you believe about hell, it seems that there is a literal idea of human separation from God.

In the previous post, we learned that Paul writes in 2 Thessalonians 2:13 that Christians are chosen to be saved.  What does Paul mean when he talks about being saved?

I think it is helpful to point out that we can be saved from and saved for.  We are saved from separation from God because of sin.  That separation is both now and for eternity.  Our sinfulness separates us from God, making it impossible for us to have relationship with God, and that matters for life now and eternally.  God wants to be in relationship with us now and forever, because he loves the whole word.  So one important way to understand salvation is that God’s work in salvation makes it possible for all humans to be in active relationship with God. In other words, we are saved from separation from God, and we are saved for relationship with him (and for the ongoing work of the mission of his Kingdom).

If all we were was saved from something, we could think to ourselves, “Whew, I am so thankful that God saved me from hell, and that is all.”  It is the image of a person who is dangling over the edge of a precipice, about to fall to their death, and a person comes by, reaches down, pulls them up to solid ground and saves them.  That person was saved from death.  But how would it feel if the one who was saved, immediately after being saved, turned around and started walking away?  The person who did the saving runs after them and says, “Wait, wait, are you okay?  How did this happen?”  And the saved one just keeps walking away, totally ignoring them.  No acknowledgment of what just happened.  No gratitude. 

Once saved, do we treat God like that?

I doubt it. I think most of us at least initially feel gratitude and some semblance of a relationship with God, because he saved us! So that had me thinking of a variation to the scenario above.  Think about the same situation where a person is hanging on for dear life, about to fall off a cliff to their death, and a person walks by and saves them.  Once pulled to safety, the saved person embraces their savior with a bear hug. The saved person is so thankful, they emotionally gush, “How can I ever thank you?”  The savior responds, “It was my pleasure, and all I ask is that you pay it forward and help others in need.”  The saved one hugs the savior again, and they go their separate ways.  The next day the savior is walking the same trail, and again hears a person calling for help.  Astoundingly, the person they saved the previous day is in the same predicament.  The savior reaches down and pulls them up, this time astounded, “How did this happen again?”  The person is ashamed to admit that they did the same thing that got them in trouble the day before.  And then it happens the next day, and the next.  The person was saved from something, but they didn’t see themselves as being saved for something.  They didn’t learn from the situation. They weren’t changed at all.

Christians, we are saved from separation from God, but is also important that we see ourselves as saved for something. 

Paul goes on to say that this salvation is through two things.  It is through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, and it is through belief in the truth.  Both are vital to our understanding of how we are saved for something. We’re going to talk about those each more in the next post. 

For now, let’s consider that we Christians are people who are loved by God, chosen along with all others who are true followers of Jesus.  That’s why Paul goes on to say in verse 14 that we are called through the good news.  The good news is another way of describing the Gospel.  Let’s get really basic again. What is the Gospel?  What is the good news? 

The Good News is the story that Jesus, who is God, defeated the power of sin, death and the devil, through his birth, life, death and resurrection, so that our sins can be forgiven, when we believe and live as his disciples, giving us both hope of eternal life in heaven and the experience of abundant life now. 

I remember first hearing the Good News when I was a child, maybe 4-5 years old.  I was at a Sunday night service at the church I grew up in.  I heard the pastor preach a hellfire sermon, and it freaked me out.  It was the story of how our sin separates us from God.  I was the person hanging on the edge of the precipice.   That scared me, and I couldn’t sleep that night.  So my mom came to my bedside and shared me the good news story of Jesus, that we don’t need to be afraid of hell.  Jesus is the savior who reaches out his hand and pulls us to safety.  At that moment, I was an enthusiastic convert! 

But my understanding of the Gospel was understandably shallow and immature.  I think most children will react like I did when they are told that when they die they will go to a place where people will burn forever.  Most kids will be eager like I was to believe in Jesus. 

What is much more difficult for kids, and for adults, is to grasp what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in the here and now.  Believe that Jesus gets you out of hell?  Yeah, we’re definitely into that.  That is easily understandable good news.  Even young kids know that is a deal they want in on.  That is the saved from side of the story. What about being saved for something? Check back to the next post, as we’ll talk about that.

Photo by Ybrayym Esenov on Unsplash

Does God choose people to be saved? – 2 Thessalonians 2:12-17, Part 2

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Some Christians believe God chooses people. Some Christians believe people choose God. Which is it?

As we learned in the previous post, God love us. Paul called the Christians in Thessalonica, “Brethren loved by the Lord.” Paul continues to prove that God loves them by talking about salvation.  He says that God chose them as the first fruits for salvation through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.  Typical Paul.  Packing tons of theology into a few words.  Let’s try to understand what he is saying piece by piece.

In this post we’ll talk about that first part, that God chose them. In the next post we’ll look deeper into the rest of what Paul said.

What does Paul mean when he said that God chose them to be saved?  Some people believe that this is one of the passages in the New Testament that proves that God chooses individuals, some for salvation and some for damnation.  This is called the doctrine of election.  The denomination to which I belong disagrees with the idea of individual election.  We do not believe that God is in heaven saying “Hmmm…I chose you, but not that neighbor of yours.” The idea of individual election is like a heavenly playground where God is picking his team, and people have their hands raised, jumping, “Ooo…ooo…choose me, choose me, God.”  God says, “Uh…no…sorry…I don’t want you on my team.”  And people walk away disappointed and dejected on their way to hell, crying, “I wanted to get into heaven, but God didn’t choose me!”

Instead, in my church believes in corporate election, the idea that God chooses to bring his salvation through a group.  In the Old Testament, the group he chose was the nation of Israel, and he gave them the mission to reach the rest of the world.  They pretty much did a terrible job of that, so he sent Jesus, God in the flesh.  Now God chose the group of people to be in Christ.  The church.  And just like Israel, he gave the church the mission to reach the whole world, because all those who are in Christ can be saved.

In 1 Timothy 2:4 we read that God “wants all to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”  Or there is 2 Peter 3:9, which says that God “does not want anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”  This is why Jesus himself said to his disciples that they “will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on [them]; and [they] will be [his] witnesses…to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  Another famous teaching of Jesus is the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20, where he instructs “Go and make disciples of all nations.”   We can summarize this by saying that Christians should be globally-minded.  God so loved the world!

So in conclusion, God’s choosing or election is best seen not as individual, but as corporate. In 2 Thessalonians 2, Paul does not say that God chose individuals. Paul says God chose them all. Paul’s intent is to say that God loves the world, he wants all to be saved, and all have the opportunity to choose him. Of course, not everyone will choose him. So how do we choose him? Check back to the next post as we learn what Paul has to say about this.

A basic, revolutionary truth: God loves you – 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17, Part 1

One of our sister churches every Christmas season has a Blue Christmas service.  During the holidays, while the world is filled with joy, some of us can really struggle.  We miss loved ones who passed on, some of whom died in the last 12 months, and this is our first Christmas without them.  Some of us watch families posting joyful pictures on social media, or on their holiday picture cards, and it gets under our skin because we don’t feel like our family is as joyful as what we see on those photos.  Maybe we have broken relationships in our families. Maybe we are feeling blue, down, low, in the middle of everyone else’s joy.

How are you feeling this Christmas?  Are you feeling blue?  This Advent season as we prepare to celebrate Christmas, our theme is Ready for the Return.  We’re studying 2 Thessalonians as Paul teaches the Thessalonian Christians how to be ready for Jesus’ return.  Turn to 2 Thessalonians chapter 2, verse 13.  Paul is writing to Christians who have a very blue situation in their lives.  They have been facing persecution.  Paul wants them to be ready for Jesus’ return, even in the middle of a difficult time. 

In verse 13 Paul sets a tone for this passage that will carry through the end of the chapter.  He starts by saying that he ought to give thanks to God for them. If someone says to you, “I thank God for you,” that feels amazing, right? But it gets even better. Notice what Paul calls the Christians: 

“Brethren who are loved by the Lord.” 

That’s awesome!  Paul wants the Thessalonian Christians to identify themselves as people who are loved by God.  He just declares it.  He speaks it into their hearts and minds.  “You are people who are loved by God.”  Sometimes, perhaps many times, we need to hear these actual words spoken over us.  So hear this, it is true: we are people who are loved by God. 

On the one hand, that is basic.  It’s Christianity 101.  We could quote the most famous verse in the New Testament, John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life.”  God’s love for us is so foundational that the Veggie Tales videos always finished with the line, “Remember, kids, God made you special, and he loves you very much.”  If there was one thing that the Veggie Tales people wanted kids to know it was that God loves them. 

The reality, though, is that many of us might not feel God’s love.  Or we can go through spells when it seems God is distant.  Or we can look around the pain and disaster in the world and think, “How could a loving God allow this?”  Paul knows the Thessalonian Christians could be asking that question, especially because they are going through persecution.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Timothy came back from his visit to Thessalonica saying, “Paul, they have it difficult there.  They are wondering if God really is as loving as you taught them.”  Whether they said that or not, Paul wants to affirm the truth, that God is a loving God. 

I believe that all of us need to sit and dwell on that singular truth.  “God loves me. I am a beloved child of God.”  Is it basic?  Yes. But we need to dwell on the basics.  God loves you.  God loves you.  God loves you! Sometimes we need to say something over and over, day after day, for it to sink down into our soul. 

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

What Burmese Christians taught me about Christmas – 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17, Preview

Earlier this week I was talking with a member of the Burmese Church that my church rents to, and he asked us to pray because they are dealing with a situation in the Burmese Christian community.  Here’s what’s happening.  The Burmese Christians in America are eagerly posting on social media about the Christmas holidays.  Their pictures show smiling faces, holiday light displays, parties, gifts, and lots of joy.  It is totally normal that the Burmese Christians here are really enjoying the season.  Christmas is joyful!

At the same time, the situation in their home country, Myanmar, is horrible. I wrote about it a few weeks ago in a series of posts starting here. Many Christians there are fighting for their lives this Christmas.  Many are without work.  Many had to flee to the jungle because the military bulldozed their homes and towns.

The Christians in Myanmar see their brother and sister Christians in America enjoying peace, and that makes the ones in Myanmar feel upset.  Last year, Christmas in Myanmar was so joyful.  Their nation just had democratic elections, and things were looking great. Then this past February, the military staged a coup, and began oppressing people, including many Christians.  This year Christmas in Myanmar is awful.  Many will have no Christmas. Do you see how this has caused tension between the Burmese Christians in Myanmar and the Burmese Christians in America? 

Maybe you know the feeling.  This Christmas, I wonder, are you feeling more like our Burmese brothers and sisters in Christ here in the USA or more like our Burmese brothers and sisters in Christ in Myanmar?  There’s no doubt that Christmas can spur great joy and great sadness.  As we have been studying 2 Thessalonians for Advent, learning how to be Ready for Jesus’ Return, we have read that the Christians in Thessalonica faced extreme difficulty.  They were in a situation very similar to the Christians in Myanmar.  What will Paul say to help them get through this painful time? Read 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17, and then next week on the blog we’ll study this passage further.

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A distinctly Christians response to conspiracy theories – 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12, Part 5

Have you noticed that massive increase in the number of conspiracy theories in recent years? There have been what are called troll farms on social media, many of which are run by foreign countries, purposefully spreading lies.  They create totally fake articles meant to deceive and create mistrust.

One article said, “Facebook took down 1.3 billion fake accounts between October and December of 2020, and that it had over 35,000 people working on tackling misinformation on its platform.  The company also removed more than 12 million pieces of content about COVID-19 and vaccines that global health experts flagged as misinformation.”

This kind of report is highly frustrating.  Who can we trust?  There is an eroding trust in our society because of the prevalence of intentional deception.  In the late 1950s a group called the National Election Study started polling people about their level of trust in government.  Into the mid 1960s, public trust in the government was as high as 80%.  That means in a year like 1965, 80% of people indicated that they trusted the government.  In the last ten years, that number is closer to 20%.  In fact, Pew Research said, “Only about one-quarter of Americans say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” (2%) or “most of the time” (22%).”

It’s hard to know what to do about this.  Paul says, “Do not be deceived,” and he is right. We should actively pursue the truth.  But who has time to investigate all the conspiracy theories?  I don’t.  It is a huge time waster, one that can lead to going down the rabbit hole of social media.

But shouldn’t we Christians want to know the truth?  Yes!  It is good, therefore, to ask: How trustworthy is the government?  If your preferred political party is in power, are they more trustworthy?  Do you actively spend more time believing in conspiracy theories when you the party you don’t prefer is in power? 

What is a distinctly Christian response to this? 

First, I would recommend that we Christians keep the main thing the main thing.  I believe that is what Paul is trying to say to the Thessalonian Christians: “People, Jesus has not come.  I didn’t write that letter to you.  Let me give you a few very specific things you can look for, to prove to you that Jesus didn’t come back.  And even if he did, you need not fear, because Jesus is exceedingly more powerful than the evil one.  So instead, be not afraid, focus on the truth.”  The truth is that Jesus is King, no matter what the powers of evil try to do to scare us or deceive us.  So let us be people that focus on getting to know him, his heart and the mission of his Kingdom.  Whether our own government, media, or a foreign government or media is trying to deceive us, do not fear.  Jesus wins.  Trust in him.  Focus on him. 

Second, we Christians should have a newspaper in one hand and a Bible in the other.  While you don’t need to spend all day every day making sure you find the truth, we Christians are people who ground our lives on truth. We should do diligence in learning about the presuppositions and beliefs of the news sources that you listen to.  If a source is far right, we should know that it is far right.  If a source is far left, we should know that it is far left.  I personally believe that we should strive to listen to sources in the middle.  There are independent organizations that rate news media as to their ideological presuppositions. Or visit a source like allsides.com that seeks to present a balanced view on the news.

Third, practice humility.  In a world where it is hard to know who to trust, we Christians should be the first to say, “I could be wrong about this.”  We don’t have to be precisely right about all matters, because we can trust in Jesus.  We need not fear.   We have Jesus and therefore, we can be humble. 

Fourth, listen to this podcast, which gives even more practical advice for how Christians can have a specifically Christian response to conspiracy theories.

Photo by Kajetan Sumila on Unsplash

The lies we tell our kids – 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12, Part 4

We live in an era of conspiracy theories. A comedian said that he hears people say that not a single conspiracy theory is true, and that we can trust the government.  But, he said, the government is like a parent to the people, and how many of you parents tell your kids the truth all the time?  He said, “I lie to my kids constantly.”  He’s kidding of course, but his point is well-taken.  Think about the lies we tell our kids.

“Santa Claus is coming soon, so you better be on your best behavior.”

“You can be anything you want to be.”

One person online admitted, “The most creative lies I tell as a parent come from when my kids discover their artwork in the trash can.”

As we continue our Advent study of 2 Thessalonians, Paul has been talking about a lie that the Thessalonians heard. Someone, impersonating Paul, wrote them a letter claiming they missed out on Jesus’ return. In 2 Thessalonians 2, Paul is responding to that lie, saying that Jesus didn’t return, because the Lawless One had not been revealed. In verse 9, Paul writes that the Lawless One’s advent or arrival, his coming, will be according to the working of Satan in power, and with miracles and wonders, but they will be lies.  Paul is not saying that these works will be fake, necessarily.  Paul is not talking about a magician who does not have any real power.  Instead the manifestation of Satan’s wickedness, through the lawless one, will be real.  But the powerful deeds the lawless one does are meant to deceive people to trust in the lies of Satan rather than trusting in the truth of God and righteousness.

That is Paul’s point in verse 10, “Do not be deceived by evil.  Instead salvation is only by loving the truth.”  As if to drive this point home, Paul writes in verses 11-12, God allows people to be deceived.  The way the NIV translates this makes it sound like God is doing a horrible thing, that God himself is deceiving people.  We know, though, that God is not a deceiver or a tempter, as James clearly writes in James 1.  So what is Paul trying to say here?  It seems that Paul is probably talking about God as allowing deception.  God allows there be sin in the world.  He allows there to be an evil one in the world, and that evil one is a deceiver.

At the same time, God has actively sent truth into the world.  So Paul’s great concern in these 12 verses is that the Thessalonian Christians pursue the truth, believe the truth and act on the truth, and that they are not deceived.

Paul assures them that Jesus has not returned.  Paul did not write them the letter claiming that Jesus has returned.  Furthermore, they need not fear because even if the lawless one arrives in their lifetime, Jesus is easily able to defeat him.  So love the truth.  Do not be deceived.  Do not fear.

Like the comedian above mentioned, at least some conspiracy theories are likely based in truth.  We can be deceived and not know it, which is the whole point of deception! Consider this Dove video. 

Advertisers lie to us a lot.  In fact, advertising lies are so prevalent and so damaging, especially to young girls who see the images and grow an expectation that they have to look like the women in the images.  Except that those women don’t exist!  There is a movement to legally require printed disclaimers on art that has been modified. 

A legal disclaimer is great, but are there other ways we Christians can avoid being deceived? We’ll talk about that in the next post.

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How an ancient case of identity theft can help us get ready for Jesus’ return – 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12, Part 3

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.

Photo by De an Sun on Unsplash

What is “The Rapture”? (and why I think that is the wrong question) – 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12, Part 2

Do you believe in the rapture? Maybe you’re reading this and wondering, “What is the rapture?”

In our Advent 2021 study of 2 Thessalonians, we’ve learned that Paul is teaching the Thessalonian Christians about the second advent of Jesus.  He describes it in 2 Thessalonians 2, verse 1 as a day in the future when Christians will be gathered to Jesus.  What does that word “gathering” indicate? 

The rapture?  Maybe.  It’s hard to know, especially because there are numerous theories about what will happen when Jesus returns and gathers his people.  Hold that thought.  We’ll try to at least begin to answer the questions of “What is the gathering? Is it the rapture?” in today’s post. For now, though, in 2 Thessalonians 2, verse 1, Paul simply focuses on the idea that Jesus will return, and people will be gathered to him at that point.  Paul brings up Jesus’ return because he has a word of caution for the people, and he gets to that next. 

In verse 2, he cautions them not to be easily shaken in their minds, to not be fearful about the day of the Lord.  When he refers to the day of the Lord, Paul is talking about Jesus’ second coming.  Why would they be fearful of that?  You’d think they would be excited for Jesus to return again.  But they are fearful, Paul explains, because they heard that Jesus already came back!

Paul likely learned this news from Timothy. We learned in our study of 2 Thessalonians 1, that Paul had previously written the letter of 1st Thessalonians to them, and he sent Timothy to visit the Thessalonians and deliver the letter.  The Thessalonians told Timothy about someone who was teaching that Jesus’ second coming already happened.  The Thessalonians were rightly afraid, then, that they missed out.  That reminds me of the acronym FOMO.  Do you know what FOMO stands for?  Fear of missing out.

That’s the fear that the title of the Left Behind books and movies taps into.  It came from Larry Norman’s song, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” which he released in 1969.  In the song, Norman sings, “There’s no time to change your mind, The son has come and you’ve been left behind.”

What is Norman talking about?  Left behind from what?  He describes it further in the rest of the song:

A man and wife asleep in bed
She hears a noise and turns her head
He’s gone
I wish we’d all been ready

Two men walking up a hill
One disappears and one’s left standing still
I wish we’d all been ready

Norman is talking about the rapture.  I mentioned that earlier, in reference to the “gathering” Paul talks about in verse 1.  The rapture is a theory that Jesus will have two second comings.  The first of those, the theory goes, will only be in the air.  He won’t land on the ground.  When he returns in the air, he will gather up all his true disciples to be raptured with him.  Just like the song says, the rapture is the idea that all the true Christians will disappear from earth when Jesus returns, and they will instantly go to heaven.  Some Christians say that the rapture will be the sign marking the beginning of the end times.  Once the rapture occurs, they believe there will be seven years of tribulation and great pain, war, destruction and persecution will happen.  Then after those seven years, Jesus will return again, this time to earth, and he will defeat Satan, beginning a millenium-long reign on earth. 

In Matthew 24:30-31 Jesus himself describes what might be the rapture. Maybe.  It is 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, the letter Paul previously wrote to the Christians in Thessalonica, that we read perhaps the clearest description in the New Testament of a rapture, a gathering of Christians in the air.  So that brings us back to the question I asked earlier. What is the rapture, the gathering?

The word “rapture” is rarely used in conversational English.  We sometimes talk about rapt attention, which means someone is staring intently at something, like the Prophetic Stare, which we’ve seen over and over in the Ezekiel series.  Another way I have heard the word “rapture” used is in reference to wonder or awe or ecstasy.  We might say that a person in rapture is carried away by emotion or joy.  They’re so focused, it’s like they are in another world.  I will admit, that can happen to me.

I’ve always loved reading books. In my childhood, my mom would be in the next room calling me, and she would come into the room where I was reading, with a look of frustration on her face, saying, “I have been calling you a million times.” I never once heard her.  That’s rapture.  You get so carried away, so into something, your senses literally cannot experience the world around you.  See how this relates to the idea of The Rapture, where Jesus comes to carry his people away to another world, heaven?

The question is this, though: is that idea of a two-part second coming the right way to interpret Scripture?  I used to think so.  Now, I’m not so sure.  There have been many, many books and articles and sermons debating this, and I’ve read quite a few. They go far more in-depth than I will here.  I have come to the conclusion, the more I’ve studied, that the New Testament writers are far less interested in when Jesus will return or how he will return.  What Jesus himself and Paul here are really concerned about is how we answer the question: Am I ready for his return?

Therefore the Thessalonians were rightly concerned that they had missed out.  Whether it was a rapture or a final second coming, the method is not the issue.  The issue is, did they miss out?  If they did miss out, they show they were not ready for his return.  Neither do you and I want to miss out.  We want to be ready for him.  That is the theme of our 2021 Advent series, “Ready for the Return.” But how do we get ready? Paul already helped us answer that question last week in our five-part study of 2 Thessalonians, chapter 1 starting here. This week he will have more principles to help us be ready for Jesus’ return as we continue studying 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 in the next post. 

Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash