Hope in God's Supremacy (Words of Hope 2 Th - Part 3)
Scripture: 2 Thessalonians 2:1–2:12
Words of Hope Part 3: Hope in God’s Supremacy
2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 (Scripture Reading)
1 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.
The scripture we have just read is mainly concerned with the things that must happen just before Jesus returns, but there is another underlying question in the text: Is God really in control? It is an important question, especially when we see the way things are in the world.
Nations are rising against each other in international wars and civil wars. Is God in control? There are disasters occurring all the time: floods, earthquakes, and typhoons. Is God in control? More often than not, the wicked prosper, the cheaters win, the rich oppress the poor, the powerful exploit the weak, and the good guys, when there are any, hardly ever win. Is God really in control?
The bible tells us that God is all-powerful and good, but looking at the way things are in the world, how can we believe this? We answered part of this question last week in terms of God’s justice. He is good and will come back to set all things right. But what about the all-powerful part? How can we believe that God is really in control when we see the state of the world? Even the bible says that things are going to get worse before they get better. All this being true, is God really supreme as the bible says?
In the last few weeks we have been working through Paul’s 2nd letter to the new believers in Thessalonica. This was a church that was planted in just four weeks in a place that turned out to be very hostile to Christianity. The result was that they were being persecuted, so Paul wrote this letter to instruct and encourage them.
In the first part of chapter 1, he encouraged them to hope in God’s favor that was apparent among them by their growing faith, love for each other, and faithful endurance of persecution. In the next section we covered, he encouraged them to hope in God’s justice by which they had been counted worthy of God’s kingdom. They had been saved by faith in Jesus so that when he returns, they will glorify him instead of facing his wrath.
This week we come to chapter 2 in which Paul encourages the Thessalonian believers with words of hope in God’s supremacy, both in the midst of their persecution, and in knowledge of the trouble that must come before Jesus’ return. His whole point is that God really is in control and God wins in the end.
Today’s text is difficult partly because there certain things that we simply cannot know until they are revealed in their proper time. Therefore, we need to be reserved in our interpretation today so as to not go beyond what the bible says and find ourselves in the vaporous realm of speculation. We will work through this text beginning with the events that come just before Jesus’ return, and then moving into the deeper questions of God’s supremacy that are raised and answered there.
Even though things were tough for them at the time and would certainly get worse, Paul began by telling the Thessalonian believers not to be afraid.
Let’s reread verses 1-2
1 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.
Following right along from last week’s text, we are still in the context of Jesus’ return, but we take a step back to things that will happen just before that. It seems to me that Paul was reassuring them because they were afraid of missing the big event.
I have been living far away from my family for a long time. One of the results of this is that sometimes I am the last one in my family to hear about things. For example, just after I joined the Army and finished my basic training, I was stationed in another part of the US for advanced training. One day I called home only to hear the voice of an operator say that this number was no longer in use. It turned out that my family had moved to another house and hadn’t gotten around to telling me about it.
Back in the time of Paul and the Thessalonian church, there was no telephone, or internet, or tv news. The only way people got news was by word of mouth or official announcement. Perhaps they were afraid that Jesus might come back and they would be the last to know. Or even worse, they might miss him entirely. This and the rumors of things to come made them anxious as they waited.
The first thing Paul told them was “not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed..” when they heard rumors that Jesus has already come. The sense of this in the original language is more like: “We implore you not to be shaken up and continuously troubled by reports that the day of the Lord has already come. Paul then listed three possible sources of false information: a spirit, a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us.
His point was, do not believe anyone who says that Jesus has returned already. Not if they base their claims on supernatural revelation, or rumors, or if they say they have figured out the bible code, or even if they seem to have an apostolic letter. Paul implored the Thessalonian believers not to believe any of them and not to be afraid of what must come.
Apart from the fact that Jesus’ return will be unmistakable, Paul reminded the Thessalonian believers that there were certain things that needed to happen before the coming of Jesus. These events would be obvious in nature because they would be direct challenges to the supremacy of God and they would occur on a very large scale. Let’s reread verses 3-4:
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.
Before Jesus returns two things must happen:
1. The rebellion must come.
The word used here in the original language is apostasia which is where we get the English word apostasy from. It means to defect from or rebel against the truth. I take this to mean two things. First, many people in the world will reject the gospel, and second, many people in the church will rebel against biblical truth. Paul said as much in 1 Timothy 4:3-4:
3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.
Does this sound familiar? I believe we are seeing the beginnings of this even now. Biblically solid teaching is being increasingly pushed aside in favor of feel-good sentimentalism and whatever else the culture deems acceptable. This is happening even in some of our mainstream denominations. As evil as this is, it is nothing new.
Paul said in v7 that “the mystery of lawlessness is already at work.” I understand this to mean that even though the ultimate rebellion is not yet here, types of it keep popping up. There is a pattern in church history of error and apostasy from the truth that is followed by reformation and a return to the truth of scripture. The rebellion in our passage today will be the final culmination of this. Lawlessness in the world and in the church will eventually lead up to it. In that great rebellion, the object of worship people will turn to will be what Paul refers to as the ‘man of lawlessness’ or the ‘son of destruction.’
This brings us to the second great affront to the authority of God that must come before Jesus returns.
2. The man of lawlessness will be revealed
The first thing to notice in verse 3 is the word ‘revealed.’ This tells us that the identity of this man is not something we are going to figure out. It’s not a matter of having the right clues, but a matter of revelation. In this case, there is no way to know who this man of lawlessness (AKA the antichrist) will be until he is revealed. It’s useless to even guess.
Even so, Paul said enough for us to know the important things about him. For one, we know generally what he will do. Verse 4 tells us that he will oppose everything that people call god and worship, including the One True God. He will exalt himself, or lift himself up, above all gods and objects of worship including the True God. He will even go so far as to sit in the temple of God and proclaim (the original word is actually ‘show himself to be’) God.
Essentially, the man of lawlessness will be a megalomaniac who, on the world stage, will oppress all religions and demand all people to worship him as God. Proclaiming oneself to be God is an obvious sign of insanity. How could such an obviously insane person gain so much power? Verses 9-10 give us the answer:
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.
With power from Satan he will deceive people with false signs and wonders. Now, verse 10 specifies that the people who follow him are those who are perishing because they refused to love the truth. That is, all people in the world who have rejected God. Considering that he will set himself up in the temple of God, we can assume that he will have a great following within the temple also. That is, his followers will be found among many who call themselves Christians.
Once again, this is nothing new. The mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Or as John said in his letter, “many antichrists have already come.” People have been proclaiming themselves to be god for a very long time and every time they gain a small following before they die or are deposed.
Caesar Caligula, for example, proclaimed himself to be a god, and later proclaimed his horse to be a god too. He was obviously insane, but this insanity comes from somewhere. When you consider that the heart of sin/lawlessness is the desire to be your own god, it makes more sense why this happens and you can trace it all the way back to the first sinners.
When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, the desire that led them to sin was the desire to be like God. When people built the tower of Babel, they were trying to reach the heavens and make a name for themselves. Basically, they wanted to be great and glorified like God. When Nebuchadnezzer had a statue of himself built and commanded all the people to worship, his desire was to be worshipped as a god. Even today, there are cult groups springing up all the time around people who manifest this desire and declare themselves to be God.
The mystery of lawlessness keeps coming back in different ways and will eventually culminate in the ultimate man of lawlessness who will also be expressing this desire to be his own God. The difference will be that Satan will add a sort of false confirmation to his desire with powerful signs and wonders to deceive many more people in the world than anyone else has ever been able to.
Before Jesus returns, many people will reject the truth and rebel against God. They will instead worship this man of lawlessness who will directly oppose God with miracles, proclamation of his own divinity, and even the hubris to make his home in God’s temple. To all this Paul said, “Don’t be shaken and don’t be alarmed.”
At first glance, this seems like a very strange way for Paul to encourage the Thessalonians. Don’t be afraid, the end has not come yet, because things have to get a lot worse first. In the end, it may even appear that God has completely lost control, but don’t worry, that is not the case. I think Paul wanted to encourage the Thessalonians that God reigns in the midst of the trouble they faced then and his supremacy will remain unchallenged even in the great rebellions to come.
There are three key points in Paul’s words which reveal that God’s supremacy cannot truly be challenged. Three things that teach us that God is in control and always will be.
The first key point is the fact that evil is not free from God’s rule. In fact, God holds evil back from being as bad as it could be.
1. God restrains evil
Let’s read what Paul said in verses 5-7:
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.
Paul was talking about the man of lawlessness being restrained until he is revealed. Paul said ‘what’ restrains him in verse 6 and when ‘he’ is out of the way in verse 7. It is not clear from this passage what Paul was talking about. The Thessalonians knew because he told them while he was with them. We, however, simply do not have the key to interpret this. So what do we make of it?
My natural inclination is to say that Paul is talking about God, but that doesn’t really work because God is not a ‘what’ and it is hard to see in what sense God could be moved out of the way. In this case, I have to interpret scripture with scripture and refer to passages like Genesis 20:6 where God said to Abimelech, “It was I who kept you from sinning against me.” Another good place to look is the book of Job where God said:
22 “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow,
or have you seen the storehouses of the hail,
23 which I have reserved for the time of trouble,
for the day of battle and war?
The idea here is that God sometimes uses bad weather to limit the violence of war. Looking to recent history, three armies have been halted by the Siberian winter. Also, one of the coldest winters in Korean history came at the height of the Korea war. It was so cold that the soldier’s rifles froze and they couldn’t shoot each other anymore.
I point this out because it shows that God often uses things to accomplish His purposes rather than intervening directly. In the case of our text today, whatever it is that now restrains the coming of the man of lawlessness was put in place by God for that purpose. Though indirectly therefore, it is God who holds back the power of Satan and the coming of the man of lawlessness.
The wonderful thing about that is even they are not by any means free from God. In fact, I would say God gives them just enough rope to hang themselves with as we shall see later. There comes a point, though, when God will remove this restraint. Even then, He has not lost supremacy because whatever they do, they will still find themselves fulfilling God’s will in the end.
In verses 11-12 we see that God will use Satan and his crony (the antichrist) as part of his judgment against those who reject Him.
Let’s read verses 11-12
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.
This is by far the most difficult scripture I’ve had to deal with in a sermon. The best sense I can make of it is that God punishes sinners using their own sin.
2. God punishes sinners with their own sin.
It is important to notice here what the text does and does not say. It does not say that God created the delusion or that he will cause people to sin. What it does say is that people did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. The sin was already there, already being committed, the truth had already been rejected.
What we see God doing here is giving them over to their sin. Punishing them by giving them what they want so that the true depths of their wickedness might be revealed. It’s like giving a power hungry politician more and more power until the monstrous depths of his despotism is revealed. In the case of the rebels who reject God, they will be given a false god to worship and obey.
It is easy for us to read a passage of scripture like this and say, “Those people are so bad.” What we should do instead is realize the truth that we are no better. But for the grace of God, there we go also.
It is interesting to notice here that there will be two major sins being committed. On one hand, many people will refuse to believe the gospel and reject the worship of God. On the other hand, there will be this megalomaniac who wants to be worshiped as God. Like putting together the pieces of a puzzle, God will put them together. The man who proclaims himself to be god will be allowed power to deceive and be worshipped by all those who have rejected the true God. In this way their sin is multiplied, their wickedness exposed, and they are utterly condemned.
This is the judgment of God when people reject the truth. There comes a point when He allows them to be so hardened against the truth and so steeped in sin that there is no way back. There will come a point when God will say, “Go ahead. Believe the lie. Rebel as much as you can.” In this way, God is supreme even over those who reject Him, even over sin.
The final key point of our text that reveals God’s supremacy is that when Jesus will returns, it will be clear that God has no rival when all this rebellion and lawlessness is brought to nothing.
3. God has no rival
Let’s read about the anticlimax of the antichrist in verse 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.
The most remarkable thing about this verse is that it does not detail an epic battle between good and evil. Instead, the false god’s rebellion just peters out like smoke in the wind when the real God appears. Despite all the power of Satan behind him, the son of destruction is destroyed by nothing more than the breath of Jesus’ mouth. It will be a big anticlimactic event for the antichrist, and a great affirmation of God’s matchless power.
The way the passage is written, it is as if the whole purpose of the antichrist’s coming will be the spectacle of his destruction by Jesus. It will show that God never had a worthy enemy. From beginning to end, He remains unchallenged and unrivaled. This is a short point because the man of lawlessness will come to a short end.
God is supreme even when His people are persecuted and even in all the trouble to come. He restrains evil, He uses existing sin to accomplish His purposes, and He has no rival. The question for us today is how do we live in hope because of God’s supremacy?
The first thing to know is that God’s supremacy only fills us with hope if we have believed the gospel and love that truth. For those who have not loved the truth, God’s supremacy is dreadful. Remember that all the people who reject God are not free from Him, but experience His supremacy in a different way. He uses their sin to punish them. God’s judgment is real and may even be immediate in the lives of some people who reject Him such that there will not be a way back.
Now, it has not been revealed to us who will and who won’t be saved. That really important question is this: Do you love the truth? There are only two options, you either love the truth and receive salvation, or you do not. But be warned: You cannot play with God. Don’t think you can get away with postponing the decision until you’ve done that last sinful thing. Don’t think that in rejecting the gospel now you will be guaranteed a way in later. Choose to love the truth now.
For all who have believed and loved the truth, there are a two ways we live in hope because of God’s supremacy. First, is that we live in hope rather than fear. In fact, we have nothing to fear.
We don’t need to be afraid of persecution today because even though men of lawlessness may kill our bodies, Jesus has already taken supremacy over death. He is our salvation and we will rise again to eternal glory. Our persecutors can do no permanent harm to us. We don’t need to fret that false religions are growing because we know how God is using them. That is not a reason to celebrate, but a reason to do all we can to free people from the lies.
We don’t even need to be anxious about the coming of the antichrist. This is a big issue in the church today. People are looking for signs and trying to figure out who he will be. The bible is clear: We won’t know until he is revealed. Don’t worry if you are in Christ because if you love the truth, the delusion will be nothing to you. You will not be deceived. On top of that, we know that God will bring him to nothing. Jesus will kill him with the breath of his mouth.
Second, we don’t need trouble ourselves with questions about when Jesus will come. God in His supreme wisdom decided not to tell us. We do not and cannot know when Jesus is coming because God did not reveal that to us. Don’t let anyone deceive you! The apostles did not know, so it is not hidden in scripture or some bible code. That means no one can figure it out and no one will receive this knowledge by prophecy. The bible is clear that it will be an unexpected event for everyone. Jesus will return when God has ordained him to do so. That is all we need know.
So, instead of worrying about when Jesus will return, we need to be focused on the mission Jesus gave us! We should live in personal readiness for his return with a sense of urgency for spreading the gospel. It could be that all these things are fulfilled in the coming week in ways we didn’t expect and Jesus is coming right away. Be always ready. At the same time, we need to be prepared in case it will be a long wait. It could be that God in His great mercy gives us another thousand years to complete the task of bringing the truth to the whole world. In light of this, we need to make long term plans for world evangelism and discipleship.
This end of the matter is this: God is supreme. He has no rival. Nothing that happens in the world today or in ages to come will ever challenge His authority. We need not fear. We need not speculate. We need only to hope in God’s supremacy and do what He has commanded us to do.
I would like to close with Isaiah 46:9b-10
I am God, and there is none like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose’
More in Words of Hope from 2 Thessalonians
August 1, 2014Hope Applied in the Church (Words of Hope 2 Th - Part 5)
July 25, 2014Hope in God's Work (Words of Hope 2 Th - Part 4)
July 11, 2014Hope in God's Justice (Words of Hope 2 Th - Part 2)