The Anti-Lord and the Day of the Lord
2 Thessalonians 2:1–2 1 Now we request you, brethren, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, 2 that you not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.
When we look back throughout Church history and especially the history of Christian thought on eschatology, at the very ‘tip of the spear’ as it were is this doctrine of Antichrist. The Church has no shortage of controversies, conspiracies and superstitious doctrines about the antichrist and the end times. Many have documented the rise of Dispensationalism and its effect on eschatology. One of the consequences of Dispensational hermeneutics was a major shift towards a literal reading of the text (historical-grammatical-literal interpretation), even apocalyptic genres in Scripture like that found in Revelation and Ezekiel are often thought to have a literal fulfillment. Historically, the Dispensationalists were responding to the vacuous interpretation of Scripture that resulted from theological liberalism, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Liberalism, made the mistake of reducing theology to a hopeless subjectivism since matters of faith could not be rooted in actual history. For liberalism, eschatology was more about a person’s personal, subjective experience of the heavenly now with little or no regard to a future ending of the world (see, Reymond, Robert L. A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith. Nashville: T. Nelson, 1998. 981ff.).
We can certainly sympathize with our Dispensational brethren about the need to take the bible serious, the importance of the historical as well as the abstract, the grammar of the text and the like. However, by swinging to the other side of the pendulum, Dispensationalism abandoned the use of typology (with accusations of allegorizing the text), apocalyptic imagery and any notion of realized eschatology. From this insistence that eschatology has everything to do with the future and nothing to do with the present, every aspect of Jesus’ kingdom is a future reality that will only come in a literal millennial reign of Christ in this earth (although renewed to some degree or another). This position was and is maintained even if it means that Jesus comes to reign in a sin-filled, death-plagued, satanically-unified world that still needs to be overthrown in yet another world ending scenario called Gog and Magog (cf. Rev. 20.7-10). In other words, Dispensationalists have Jesus returning to what many regard as a sub-eschatological state of affairs that falls short of heaven.
In terms of the antichrist, theological over-reach is not just something that happened in the Dispensational Church, the Reformers also committed fallacies that are easy to spot. For example, many of the Reformed confessions do not hesitate to identify the antichrist as the Pope at that time. Sadly, the London Baptist Confession (as well as the WCF) go so far as to cite 2 Th. 2.2-9 as referring directly to “the Pope of Rome”:
“… neither can the Pope of Rome in any sense be head thereof, but is that antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the church against Christ, and all that is called God; whom the Lord shall destroy with the brightness of his coming.” (LBC: 26.4).
According to Reformed theologians in the 16th-17th centuries, Paul was referring to the Pope in Rome. The reality is when it comes to the identity of antichrist, we will never know until at last he is revealed by God for who he is. As Kim Riddlebarger writes:
“Paul’s reference to the Man of Lawlessness does not refer to the papacy, since Paul is not referring to a series of individuals who may come and go (an institution) but to a particular individual who is destroyed by Christ at his second advent.” (Kim Riddlebarger, The Man of Sin: Uncovering the Truth about the Antichrist (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006), 171–172).
The reality is, all eschatological positions have their strengths and weaknesses, all of them have questions that will probably never be fully resolved because, as Paul himself admitted, we all see through a glass dimly. But although our knowledge of eschatological details may be limited, and our capacity to synthesize those details may be limited as well, there is immense and practical clarity in the midst of the complexity of it all. That is where Paul begins, a point of clarity.
Paul begins his entire discourse of the antilord within the context and crisis facing the Thessalonians, namely that this church was being unsettled by confusion regarding the eschaton. This will lay the groundwork for His overall dissertation on “the man of lawlessness”— His disclosure and destruction. Here the overall argument focuses on the Day of the Lord. The heretics, whoever they were, had used the Day of the Lord to shake or unsettle the faith of the church. Critical to this point is Paul’s emphasis on two events, the preceding apostasy, and final revelation of the man of lawlessness (vv.3-10). Verses 1-2 focus on the need to vigilant and on guard from being deceived by an unbiblical eschatology of the Day of the Lord, its timing and relationship to the antilord- the man of sin.
The Context Of Paul’s Teaching On The Day Of The Lord
The context of Paul’s teaching on the Day of the Lord has already been laid out in the first epistle (1 Th. 4.13-5.11) but even before these letters were written Paul had given the church a biblical foundation regard their basic eschatological worldview:
1 Thessalonians 5:1–2 1 Now as to the times and the epochs, brethren, you have no need of anything to be written to you. 2 For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night.
The present situation revolves around the all-defining event of the parousia, “Now we request you, brethren, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him” (Ἐρωτῶμεν δὲ ὑμᾶς, ἀδελφοί, ὑπὲρ τῆς παρουσίας τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ καὶ ἡμῶν ἐπισυναγωγῆς ἐπʼ αὐτὸν). To be certain today there is as much or more confusion about the second coming of Christ as there was in Paul’s day. Both it’s nature (e.g. physical bodily return) and its timing (e.g. “pre”, “mid”, or “post”- Tribulational views and pre or post millennial views etc.) are hotly debated issues. Dispensational theologians have long argued that the reference here in v.1 is referring to the ‘secret rapture’ since it mentions our “gathering together to Him” (see, Beale, 1-2 Thessalonians: IVP, 199). However, this is completely arbitrary since v.8 also refers to Jesus’ coming with the same word (παρουσίας) when He returns to destroy the antichrist, “whom the Lord will slay with the breath of His mouth and bring to an end by the appearance of His coming” (2.8; also 1 Th. 4.16-18).
Despite our precise position on many of these texts, we should be sympathetic with those with whom we disagree knowing that many of these passages are exegetically challenging. No doubt the enigmatic complexity of eschatology made it easy in one sense for false teachers to attempt to deceive the church even as many do today. The context of Paul’s teaching on eschatology and in particular what he will develop in these verses is the need for greater clarity especially as it relates to the parousia, the Day of the Lord and the “man of lawlessness” (v. 3).
The Comfort Of Paul’s Teaching On The Day Of The Lord:
Paul seeks to protect the church from sinister forces, false teachers who are using eschatology as a means to unsettle the faith of the church. Ironically, this too is a work of the antichrist. In other words, all false teaching arises from the antichrist in the sense that it imitates the principle of antichrist in what John calls the “spirit of antichrist”:
1 John 4:1–6 1 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world. 4 You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world. 5 They are from the world; therefore they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
In this text from John, the original Greek does not say, “spirit” of antichrist, it literally reads, “the of the antichrist” (τὸ τοῦ ἀντιχρίστου). Some have suggested that here in 1 John “spirit” is omitted to distinguish the nature of antichrist from the nature of God. John may not want us to make such a close parallel or comparison between God and the antichrist even when speaking in antithetical terms (see, Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, vol. 51 Word Biblical Commentary (Waco: Word Publishers, 1984) 224). John’s point is the same as Paul’s elsewhere, that is, all false teaching has its foundation in satanic deception and what Paul calls “doctrines of demons” (1 Tim. 4.1; also 1 Cor. 8.5-6).
The point of raising the issue of the second coming of Christ is so that the church will have a proper appraisal of that day, namely that the second coming is and will be a point of comfort for the church not despair. It will mean our deliverance not our demise, our joy not our gloom, our triumph not our defeat, our glory and vindication not our perdition. He has taught this point extensively in these letters:
1 Thessalonians 4:17–18 17 Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore comfort one another with these words.
1 Thessalonians 5:4–6 4 But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day would overtake you like a thief; 5 for you are all sons of light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness; 6 so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober.
1 Thessalonians 5:11 11 Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing.
1 Thessalonians 5:23 23 Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
2 Thessalonians 2:13 13 But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth.
2 Thessalonians 2:16–17 16 Now may our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us eternal comfort and good hope by grace, 17 comfort and strengthen your hearts in every good work and word.
Comfort and encouragement is the tone throughout these letters particularly when we look at the passages on eschatology. Ironically, we have turned what was intended for comfort into an overly complex occasion for controversy and cynical skepticism. May God grant us grace to reverse this unfortunate tendency. Eschatology is given to us with the aim of comforting the Christian along the weary road of life and the distress of persecution and even the signs of the times by stressing our great hope (Col. 127), our great victory (1 Cor. 15.57), our resurrection (2 Cor. 4.14), and our glorification in the kingdom of God (Rom. 8.17).
The Confusion Of Paul’s Teaching On The Day Of The Lord:
The confusion surrounding the Day of the Lord has some very important lessons. This now begins to introduce us to some preliminary thoughts about antichrist. First we need to understand that antichrist is both a principle and a person. Of course, those things are distinguished in Scripture so that we do not confuse the two. On the one hand antichrist proper is the “man” of lawlessness (ὁ ἄνθρωπος τῆς ἀνομίας), the antilord who opposes God and seeks the destruction of the Church and is energized by Satan (2.9). We will be dealing extensively with this aspect of antichrist. But second, antichrist is also a principle that operates independently of the antichrist. This principle is seen in sin, heresy and false teachers and has been operative since the dawn of the antilord in the Garden (cf. Gen. 3.1-7). Of course, the principle of antichrist is also broader than that in that we could say that Satan and antichrist have the same ultimate aim and agenda to deceive and destroy. It is this second aspect that was now at work in Thessalonica, even as it is all over the world as far as Satan’s influence is found (cf. 1 John 5.19).
The present antichrist crisis in this church can be understood to be antichrist from its methods, error, and remedy.
The Methods In The Confusion
As stipulated in 1 John 4, anything can be regarded as antichrist or the spirit of antichrist when it leads to the distortion of the faith. Satan being a skilled theologian, diabolical but brilliant nonetheless and never to be underestimated (cf. 1 Pet. 5.8). Satan has always had his antichrist agents serving under the dominion of his false kingdom. Here, Paul gives us three practical methods and ways the spirit of antichrist works. First, antichrist works through teachers or what Paul and John calls, “a spirit” (πνεῦμα). This is perhaps the worst slave of Satan— someone peddling a lie in the name of the truth (Mt. 7.15; Acts 13.6-10). Paul says that this is what Satan uses to blind the minds of the perishing (cf. 2 Cor. 4.1-3). The method of this antichrist confusion is a great warning to the Church that false teachers will be a prevailing reality in the present evil age (cf. Mt. 24.11; Rev. 2.9):
2 Peter 2:1 1 But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves.
2 Corinthians 11:13–15 13 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14 No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will be according to their deeds.
Second, these antichrist agents proliferate their heresy through teaching and in that teaching the followings they that create. Third and very closely related to the previous point, these antichrist agents are actually traders of the truth and of Christ. They operate in falsehood, hypocritically as imposters of the truth. So Paul says, “as if from us” (ὡς διʼ ἡμῶν). This was something Paul had always faced throughout his apostolic career; those who would pretend to be of the same ‘spirit’, apostleship and teaching as Paul but were not (cf. 2 Cor. 11.12-15 ; also, Rev. 2.2). The reality is that all false religion since the dawn of time has attempted to borrow from the biblical worldview in one form or another. This is how Satan deceives the most. Atheism has never been his primary form of attack. Just as the Serpent did not say that there was no God; false religions and false teachers always begin with the distortion of truth. In the present context, the distortion of truth was with the timing of the return of Christ, “Now we request you, brethren… that you not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.” (2.1, 2).
The Error Of The Confusion
The nature of this confusion was an over-realized or even an over-heated eschatology, precisely that, “the day of the Lord has come” (ὅτι ἐνέστηκεν ἡ ἡμέρα τοῦ κυρίου). Over realized would mean that these false teachers would have been preaching some sort of spiritualized, perhaps secret, return of Christ (cf. 2 Tim. 2.18). Certainly that would lead the church to become unsettled since Paul never taught on such a secretive spiritual return of Christ but a visible, apocalyptic and physical return of Christ for His people. By over-heated eschatology I simply mean that as some commentators have pointed out, these false teachers could also have been teaching that the Day of the Lord was an imminent, or at-any-moment event that would catch the church by surprise. This later view is rooted in the verb, “has come” (ἐνέστηκεν) which can convey the notion of immediate imminence (see, Gene L. Green, Pillar New Testament Commentary, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 305).
The Remedy For The Confusion
The remedy for this antichrist crisis that we are already in through Satan’s minions, Satan’s agents, false teachers, and cultural influence is found in verse 3, “let no one in any way deceive you” (μή τις ὑμᾶς ἐξαπατήσῃ κατὰ μηδένα τρόπον). This reminds us that we live in a world of incredible spiritual danger and as such requires the greatest degree of spiritual discernment we are capable of. When we are discerning, the author of Hebrews says we will be able to literally ‘judge-through’ (διάκρισις) “good and evil” (cf. Heb. 5.14).