A Commentary by John Stott
2 Thessalonians 2:1-17. The rebellion of antichrist.
It was not only persecutors who were disturbing the peace of the Thessalonian church; it was false teachers as well. In fact, the intellectual assault on Christianity is often fiercer than the physical. To be sure, both kinds of challenge can be beneficial, like the refining of precious metals in the fire. But both can also be painful and cause havoc. So Paul first identified the nature of the error (2:1-3), then contradicted it by a full exposition of the appropriate truth (2:4-12) and thirdly expressed his confidence in the Thessalonians’ stability (13-17).
1). Paul’s warning against the error of the false teachers
The particular false teaching which had been making headway in Thessalonica related to *the coming [parousia] of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him* (our *episynagoge* to him, the cognate verb describing how the angels will ‘assemble’ God’s people on the last day; Mk.13:27). Both topics, Christ’s coming to us and our going to him, the unity of heaven and earth, had featured in Paul’s first letter (1 Thess. 4:13-5:11). At that time, the Thessalonians were troubled that the Parousia had not come quickly enough, since some of their friends had died before it had taken place; now their problem was that it had come too quickly, for some teachers were *saying that the day of the Lord has already come (2), or is already here* (REB). Perhaps they had got hold of Paul’s emphasis that Christians are ‘children of the day’ (1 Thess 5:5, AV) and ‘belong to the day’ (1 Thess.5:8), and were deducing from this that the day must therefore have arrived. Otherwise how could they belong to it?
A modern version of the belief that Christ has already come is found among Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their founder, Pastor Charles T. Russell, first taught that the world would end in 1874, and then revised his calculations to 1914. After this year had passed, his successor Judge J.F.Rutherford asserted that Christ did in fact come on 1 October 1914, but invisibly. On that day he exchanged an ordinary seat at the Father’s right hand for the throne of his kingdom. So no parousia of Christ is to be expected; it has already taken place.
It was in response to some similarly bizarre notion that Paul wrote this paragraph. He begs the Thessalonians with strong affection, as his *brothers, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed* (1c-2a). The single word *unsettled* translates a phrase meaning ‘shaken from your mind’, that is, from your conviction or composure. The verb (*saleuthenai*) is an aorist infinitive, referring to their initial upset, and was used of ‘ships being forced from their moorings by the pressure of a storm’. The second verb (*throeisthai*) is a present imperative and seems therefore to describe their continuing state of anxiety. They were ‘in a constant state of nervous excitement’ or, as we might say ‘in a flap’. The source of their confusion was *some prophecy (literally, ’spirit’), report (verbal message or statement) or letter supposed to have come from us* (2b). The last words, indicating that the false teachers were claiming Paul’s authority for their particular view, are probably meant to cover all three possible media of communication. The mention of a letter might refer to forgery, and would explain why Paul adopted the custom of signing his letters personally (e.g. 2 Thess.3:17). But it could equally refer to his first letter to them and to the heretics’ claim to have its correct interpretation.
At all events, Paul denies that their teaching has his imprimatur. Indeed, he contradicts it. *Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way* (3a), he writes. It is bad enough for them to be unsettled or alarmed; it would be worse for them to be deceived. What he does is to clarify the order of future events. *The day of the Lord* (2b) cannot be here already, he says, because *that day will not come until* two other things have happened. A certain event must take place, and a certain person must appear. The event he calls *the rebellion (apostasia*, ‘the Great Revolt’ JB; ‘the final rebellion against God’ REB) and the person *the man of lawlessness*, the rebel. Although Paul does not call him the ‘Antichrist’, this is evidently who he is. John writes of the expectation of his coming (1 Jn.2:18). He will be in the world before he emerges into public view. But only when the rebel *is revealed* (3b) will the rebellion break out. Paul had told them this, and more, about the man of lawlessness, when he was with them. He chides them for their forgetfulness. *Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things?* (5). The safeguard against deception and the remedy against false teaching were to hold on to the original teaching of the apostle. The Thessalonians must neither imagine that he had changed his mind, nor swallow ideas that were incompatible with what he had taught them, even if it was claimed that these ideas emanated from him. Loyalty to apostolic teaching, now permanently enshrined in the New Testament, is still the test of truth and the shield against error.
In countering the false teaching that the day of the Lord had already arrived, Paul’s essential point was that the rebellion will precede the Parousia. He does not deny that the Parousia will still be sudden and, to those unprepared for it, unexpected. But, as he argued in his first letter, it will not take believers by surprise. For one thing they already belong to the day; for another they know that the rebellion will herald its arrival.
Tomorrow: 2 Thessalonians 2:4-12. 2). Paul’s teaching about the rebellion of Antichrist.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.