The Second Epistle To The Thessalonians
Introductory Lectures On The Epistles Of Paul
The second epistle takes up another difficulty. It was written in view of another abuse of the truth of the Lord's coming - a danger that threatened the saints. As the first epistle was intended to guard the saints from an error about the dead, the second epistle was more particularly meant to correct them about the living. They were distressed at finding that some of their brethren died before the Lord came. So filled were they with the constant expectation of Christ from heaven, that it never occurred to them that a single Christian might depart from the world before His return, How they must have realized, in their habitual waiting, the nearness of that blessed hope! They now learnt that they need not sorrow on such a score; for the dead in Christ shall rise first, and then we, the living at His coming, shall be caught up with them to join the Lord together. But the second epistle grew out of another and more serious error. We have seen that they were greatly alarmed and agitated. The apostle was really uneasy about them lest the tempter should tempt them, and his labour come to nought - lest, moved by their sore affliction, they should fall into fear about the awful day of the Lord, which the enemy knows well how to use.
Everybody who has read Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the lesser prophets knows what they tell us of the horrors for men when the day of Jehovah comes upon the earth, - that it will be a day of dismay and darkness, when all earthly things are utterly confused, and the people of God seem about to be swallowed up by their enemies. False doctrine ever sets one truth against another; and it was not wanting among the Thessalonians at this time. For some sought to persuade them that the day of the Lord was even then arrived. They probably argued that their troubles were part of the circumstances of that day. Certainly they sought to shake them by pretending that the day of the Lord was actually there. There was such fearful persecution and trouble among them, that this might be plausibly enough mixed up as supporting the idea that the day of the Lord was begun. For this false rumour seems to imply that they must have given some sort of figurative colour to "that day" (as it was certainly so used in Old Testament prophecy). At any rate, they must have supposed that "the day of the Lord" did not necessarily require the presence of the Lord Himself. In other words, they might think, as many Christians since have imagined, that a dreadful time of trouble must befall the world before the Lord comes to receive His own to himself above.
This second epistle was written to disabuse the minds of the Thessalonian saints; and indeed it directly tends to set all Christians free from any anxiety of the kind, though, of course, there may be persecution again, as there was then, and repeatedly afterwards, especially from Pagan and from Papal Rome. But this is wholly different from the dread which the enemy sought to infuse among the Thessalonians. The apostle accordingly sets himself to this task. First of all he comforts them.
"Paul, and Silvanus, and Timotheus, unto the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. We are bound to thank God always for you, brethren, as it is meet, because that your faith groweth exceedingly, and the charity of every one of you all toward each other aboundeth; so that we ourselves glory in you."
It may be noticed that he leaves out "the patience of hope." How comes this? It was exactly the hope that was no longer bright in their hearts. So far the enemy had succeeded. They had been comforted, but they had lost somewhat of the light and joy of the hope. They were moved more or less by their tribulation; not perhaps so much by the outward pressure as by the insinuation of Satan through false teaching, which is a far more dangerous thing for the child of God. It is plain that the apostle merely mentions their faith growing, and their love. He no longer praises nor names their patience of hope, but rather prays for them in 2 Thessalonians 3 in such a way as to show there was a lack in this respect. That is, he takes up two of the qualities mentioned in the first epistle, and not the third. This, which was bound up with the whole structure of the first epistle, is left out of the second. There was too good reason for it. For the time they had let it slip, as I have just explained. It is true that the apostle tells them, "we glory in you in the churches of God for your patience, and faith" (he does not speak of their "patience of hope") "in all your persecutions and tribulations that ye endure." They were holding on, and not giving up Christ but their souls had not the former spring through Christ their hope. We shall have the evidence of this more fully soon.
There was "a manifest token," says he, "of the righteous judgment of God, that ye may be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which ye also suffer." So far it was well. "Seeing it is a righteous thing with God to recompense tribulation to them that trouble you; and to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ." Observe the reason why he brings in "that day." It was a false doctrine about the day, which draws out an explanation of its nature and its relation to the coming of the Lord. When that day comes, it will not fall with its troubles on the children of God. In truth the Lord will then execute judgment on their enemies - I do not mean on the dead till the close, but on the quick or living. It will be no more in some figurative and preparatory sense of exceeding affliction, or of natural overthrow; but its description here is the Lord Jesus revealed from heaven in flaming fire. There will be no doubt about its nature or effects. Every eye shall see Him.
That is, even 2 Thessalonians 1 plainly prepares us for the complete discomfiture of the illusory and alarming dreams which these false teachers had been foisting in under false colours among the Thessalonian saints. But he pursues the matter farther. He will take vengeance on two classes - on those that know not God, and those that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These seem the Gentiles and the Jews respectively; but why do not we find here some allusion to the third class - His relation to the church of God? Because those who compose the church are no longer here.
Thus it is shown that the Lord will deal with all on earth, - not merged in one, but discriminated; for He executes judgment, and hence does not confound those who differ in a common class. There is thus a definite distinction drawn; but this so much the more precisely leaves out the Christian. Its force is more understood the more it is weighed. The apostle does not declare all at once, but prepares the way with much circumspection. When he says "them that know not God," he means the idolatrous Gentiles. Then he adds with another article, "and those that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ" (not, as we have it in English here, "and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus;" as if all were one and the same class). There are two classes, and therefore accuracy would seem to call on us to make the sense more definite - "and on them that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ." At all events, whatever mode of rendering may be preferred, I have no hesitation in saying that such is the sense of the Greek, and nothing else. They are the Gentiles, who knew not God, (or, as Bengel has it, "qui in ethnica ignorantia de Deo versantur,") and the Jews, who might know God after a sort and to a certain point beyond Gentiles, but who did not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. ("Judaeis maxime, quibus evangelium de Christo praedicatum fuerat.") For unbelief is always convicted by the test that God employs; and the day of the Lord will deal with every form. The Gentiles that know not God will be punished, and the Jews that abuse the forms of Old Testament revelation to disobey the gospel will not escape, still less nominal and apostate Christendom.
The reason why no notice is taken of Christians as then on earth we shall see assigned a little lower down: I merely now remark that he could not put himself in either of those two classes. It is evident that on whomsoever that day is to fall it has no bearing on such. If therefore the Christians were troubled now, it was in no way the same character of trouble as that which shall be in the day of the Lord. The teaching of those who had spread this impression was utterly false; and if they claimed the highest sanction for it, they were worse than mistaken - they were the guilty tools of Satan. But as to both the classes we have seen described by the apostle, they "shall be punished with everlasting destruction," both "from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power; when he shall come to be glorified in his saints, and to be admired in all them that believed:" for this is the full force of it.
In the new age people will be blessed abundantly, but the blessing of the millennium does not exactly take the shape of belief. They shall behold the glory of the Lord. Such is their form as assigned by scripture. The earth shall be filled with the knowledge - not with the faith, but with the knowledge - of the glory of Jehovah, as the waters cover the sea. It will be in countless cases the fruit of true divine teaching; but knowledge describes it better than faith; and we may easily understand the difference. They will behold the glory, they will look upon the Lord, no longer hidden but displayed. The blessed spoken of in our chapter are clearly those that have already believed. So indeed the apostle states: "Wherefore we pray always for you, that our God would count you worthy of the calling, and fulfil all the good pleasure of his goodness, and the work of faith with power; that the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you, and ye in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ."
Next (2 Thess. 2) he comes to the special error in question. "Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ... that ye be not soon shaken in mind nor troubled, neither in spirit nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of the Lord is present." It is well known that "of the Lord" (not of Christ) is unquestionably required by the best manuscripts, and other ancient witnesses.
jhnevsthke does not mean "at hand," but actually come. I do not enter into any long proof of this just now, having already done so elsewhere. Suffice it to say, that the word occurs in half a dozen places in the New Testament, and nowhere can bear any sense but the one alleged. Nor does it ever convey any such meaning as "at hand" in any correct Greek author. It has been so thought; but it is a mistake. It always means present, in contrast with future ever so imminent. So in two instances of the New Testament it stands over against future things; as when it is expressly said (in Romans 8 and 1 Cor. 3), "things present and things to come." The latter might be "at hand," but not the former. The things to come are in pointed opposition to those actually arrived. Again, we have (Gal. 1: 4) "this present evil world." This is now only. The age to come is not evil but good. It is in contrast with the present. And so as to "for the time then present," (Heb. 9) and "for the present necessity." (1 Cor. 7) It is not a question of the future, but solely of the present; a necessity now, and at no other time. In short, it is the regular word for "present." If a Greek meant to say "present" in contrast with the future, there was no more emphatic word to use. What, then, can be conceived more calculated to destroy the right understanding of this epistle than the common mistranslation? Such is the true sense of the word, I am bold to say.
But clearly this gives an immense help to the understanding of the passage. The apostle appeals to the saints. It is not a question of teaching in this verse, but the apostle beseeches them by a certain powerful motive, which was still in their souls. He does not mean, "We beseech you concerning," as some conceive, but as our English version says, "by." It is a legitimate meaning of the preposition with words of entreaty. He uses the hope of being gathered to Christ at His coming as a motive why they should not listen to those misleading the saints. Now mark the character of this false teaching. It was not the excitement of hope, but of terror produced on the spirit. It caused them to shake, hindering them from a settled, holy, hearty waiting for Christ. The error occupied them with the terrors of some intervening trouble. The pretence was that all the afflictions they had been enduring were parts or signs of the well‑known day of trouble, the day of the Lord. Not at all, says the apostle: the trouble of that day will befall the enemies, not the friends, of the Lord. As they knew that every believer loved His name, the notion propagated was wholly astray. It was morally false, as ignoring in the first place His unfailing and perfect love for them.
Therefore he could say, "We beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our gathering together unto him, that ye be not soon shaken in mind, nor troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as by us, as that the day of the Lord is present." Do you not know that Christ is coming for you, and that the first aim and effect of His coming will be your gathering together to meet Him in the air? Why, therefore, be uneasy at such a rumour about His day, with all its awful associations? You have been taught that from God; why be disturbed by this effort of the enemy, who falsely pretends to the Spirit and word, and an alleged letter of mine? That day will fall on the world. Indeed, the apostle had implied in the opening of this epistle, as well as in the latter part of his first, that the day of the Lord does not concern the saints, who were sons of light and of day. They would come accordingly with that day, instead of its overtaking them as a thief by night, because so it comes on whom it may. It comes from the Lord in His execution of judgment on a guilty world; and the very fact of their being sons of light ought to have proved that it cannot surprise such, because they belonged to the region whence it comes.
With striking pithiness he briefly points to the ways of deceit and darkness which accompanied the notion, and betrayed its real source. Truth refuses an admixture of falsehood; and the pretence that any had a spiritual intimation to themselves, or a word for others, that the day of the Lord was really come, was manifestly of the serpent, not of God. Such and so rapid are the steps of evil, one wrong leading to another. But the allegation that they had the apostle's own authority for the delusion gave him a direct opportunity to contradict the error. "Let no man deceive you by any means: for it shall not come unless there shall come the apostasy first, and the man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition." These are two different things. The apostle affirms that the day cannot be before both. Christendom will have abandoned the faith, and the man of sin must be revealed. What a prospect! Do the children of God believe it? We know the world has wholly opposite expectations. Those who allow themselves with so little seriousness to bear the excellent name of the Lord will openly fall away from the confession of the gospel; and then a suited leader into the gulf of perdition will soon appear for the apostates.
I am perfectly persuaded that some of the most important parts of Satan's means of bringing about the apostasy are now actively at work. God has been graciously filling many hearts with joy and comfort of the truth. He has given not a few to believe these words, the moral signs of which are becoming daily more and more manifest. The apostasy again must come, and, in contrast with the man of righteousness, the man of sin be revealed, even the final Judas, "the son of perdition, who opposeth and exalteth himself above every one called God, or an object of veneration; so that he sitteth down in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God." How sharply in contrast with the Lord Jesus, who, though really God, in love became man, in order to accomplish the glorious counsels of God and man's salvation by grace! This one is the son of perdition to the ruin of those who trust him. Although he be but a man, and the man of sin, he takes the place of being the true God here on earth, and this too, not in the world, but in the temple of God of that time. Thus he not merely takes the place of God here below, but actually as such enters His temple. I do not doubt that the temple will then be in Jerusalem; so that as Christendom began at Jerusalem, the holy city will be its last scene of sinful pride and of divine judgment, though not its only place of judgment. Jerusalem! Rome! - they are two names of most solemn import as to the subject to which I am briefly alluding. "Remember ye not that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things? And now ye know what withholdeth that he might be revealed in his time." It is no absolute restraint, but provision only; for he must be revealed in his own season.
The reference to previous teaching left the matter in comparative obscurity, and has given rise to a great deal of discussion. I think the true answer neither difficult nor uncertain. It is evident that what withholds or restrains must be a power superior to man or Satan, and of a nature totally opposite to the man of sin. As this is the embodiment, or rather head, of evil, so that which restrains his revelation would naturally be the power of good which suppresses as long as God pleases the full manifestation of the lawless one. There seems to be a good reason why the matter is put in this general, if not vague, manner. What withholds is presented as a principle or power in an abstract way, and not as a person only. It might, I suppose, assume a different shape at different times.
Thus we find ourselves within narrow limits in order to fix the restraint and the restrainer. The Thessalonians, who were but young in truth, already knew what restrains, "that he might be revealed in his own time. For the mystery of iniquity" [or "lawlessness," which is the true force of the word] "doth already work: only there is one who restraineth now until he be taken away; and then shall the lawless one be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus shall consume with the breath of his mouth, and shall destroy with the appearing of his coming" or presence. Evidently, then, we find here a power that hinders the manifestation of the lawless one - a power which is also a person. Where do we find one that effectually checks the plans of Satan, a person no less than a power? We need not consider long, but answer, without hesitation, the Spirit of God.
Undeniably He is both a power and a person; and save in Him it will be far from easy, if possible, to find an answer that combines these two distinct intimations, as well as both the character and the extent of the power involved. It can hardly be said to be the Spirit of God dwelling in the church, except in the most general way. We must recollect that the Holy Spirit not only dwells there, but also acts providentially in the government of the world. I am far from meaning that, when the church is gone, He will restrain the powers of the world much longer. There are men of the world who have no confidence in its stability; though it exercises no salutary fear over their souls, and they cling to it all the same. I am sure that no Christian man should trust it for a moment. They are not called to promise fair things to that which cast out and slew the Lord of glory. They know that its doom is coming quickly, but not till they have formally rejected the truth, and accepted the man of sin. But no matter what the wicked will of man and the wiles of Satan may be, they will not be able absolutely to extinguish divinely-controlled government among men as soon as they desire. There is One that still restrains, who could always indeed, but who will cease only when, according to God, the time for the final outburst arrives. It does not, I think, terminate at once, even when the Lord shall have come and taken up His saints, both those that sleep and all those alive and waiting for Him. I say "all," for, you must remember, it is invariably assumed in scripture that every saint waits for Christ. The notion that a person may be a saint, and not looking for His coming, does not enter into the mind of the Holy Spirit. One may fall, of course, into a wrong state from bad teaching or careless ways; but if Christ is my life and righteousness, I shall surely love Him; and if so, I must want to see and be with Him in the condition of glory, where alone such life and righteousness, and the love that gave them, have their just display and results. Hence it is always assumed that every Christian is, in the knowledge of His love, waiting for Christ to come and receive us to Himself, that we may be with Him in the Father's house before He executes judgment on the world. Till then the Spirit of God acts as a cheek on the designs of Satan; and even after the church is gone (as I think) He will restrain for a short space.
From the Apocalypse we learn that for a little while God carries out certain agencies of blessing. Not only does He not immediately cease to deal with souls, but we do not at once see either the apostasy or the man of sin. This is a consideration that bears on the question; for undoubtedly it is not the will of man that either sheds blessing on souls or restrains the proudest effort of Satan. After the church is taken up, then the Spirit of God works; and this doubly. He will bring souls into the knowledge of the testimony that God will then raise up to meet the existing circumstances, for His own glory as well as in His pitiful mercy to man. But, besides, He will even then restrain the powers that be from falling instantaneously into the devices of the devil. At a certain given moment, which the Revelation clearly defines, Satan will be cast down from heaven, and will then bring forward his long-meditated plan. The empire that has disappeared from among men for so long, that the wise men of the world think its resurrection impossible - the Roman empire will come forward clothed with a diabolical energy. This is the moment when the Spirit ceases to restrain.
Accordingly the Western empire will use all its might, and Satan will help it, to establish a politico‑religious power in Jerusalem, who will be the head of the Jews, and at the same time the religious chief of the West. Such is the issue of idolatrous Christ‑rejecting Judaism and of apostate Christendom. The man of sin will sit and be worshipped as God, in His temple at Jerusalem. This will enable the Roman empire still to carry on its political game of opposition to the Eastern powers. The West, I say, will support and be supported by the Antichrist, and consequently must share in the awful destruction that the Lord will Himself execute when He appears. Angels will do their part, and the breath of the Lord like a stream of brimstone; for they will be caught red‑handed in their opposition to the Lamb, little knowing that He is Lord of lords and King of kings. As for the civil and religious leaders, the beast and the false prophet, they will be consigned to everlasting destruction, without even the form of trial. Nothing less awaits these last and seemingly greatest leaders of the world's false glory. But, remember, the flower of the West (of these lands that boast of religion, and civilization, and progress) shall perish in this destruction of the revived imperial power and its Jewish ally.
I dare not prophesy smooth things to our own country and race. I believe that all these kingdoms of the West, now so confident in their resources and power, will fall helplessly into the hands of Satan at last. At Jerusalem the man of sin, as at Rome, the civil head of empire, with his confederate but subject kings, will be the two beasts of Rev. 13. It is not the time to enter into further details now; but I may state my conviction, that the man of sin, whom 2 Thess. shows enthroned in God's temple, will be the accepted Messiah of the deceived Jews in Jerusalem, as the first beast is the imperial head at Rome; for the civil power will then be separate from the religious, and we all know how ardently men desire this now. But its accomplishment will have results far different from what most look for.
I confess I am struck by the solemn fact, that one cannot speak of these subjects, even at short intervals of time, without perceiving new features which, in principle, bring us more and more up to the brink of the precipice. I do then, from every point of view, warn all those who are looking for bright hopes on the earth, and promising improvement to men. It is serious to observe that the lawless one here described and reserved for such a destiny is related very nearly to the mystery of lawlessness which was then at work, as the apostle let us know, and which has gone on increasing, and is immensely increased now. It is true that the lawless one will not be revealed until the restraint of the Spirit of God over the world is removed. This appears to me to be the unforced deduction from the apostle's statement, compared with the light thrown on the subject by other Scriptures, which, by common consent, treat of the same time and point. It is the Spirit of God ceasing to restrain in the world as well as in the church, since He will for a brief space both act on souls and restrain Satan in the world, after the church has been caught up to heaven.
This I consider a comprehensive and correct view of what, is revealed. It is put generally here both as "he who withholds" and as "that which withholds." The particular from of withholding power might differ according to varying circumstances. The Christians of old used to think the Roman empire withheld them. Nor was their idea far from the mark; because the empire was assuredly among the powers ordained of God, as I do not doubt emperors, kings, presidents, etc., are still. But the hour hastens when the powers that be will cease to derive their authority from God; when the West above all will openly renounce the true God, and the beast will rise up from the abyss. Our chapter adds a true picture of the extent to which the man of sin will be allowed to go in diabolical imitation of what God wrought by Christ when here below. It is the hour of retribution, when the proud apostates who refused the truth accept and perish in the lie of the enemy. How blessed the lot of the saints which the apostle contrasts with this! (Verses 13‑17.)
The next chapter (2 Thess. 3) closes the epistle with divers desires, and a prayer for them that the Lord would direct their hearts into the love of God, and into the patience of Christ. The key‑note is thus maintained from first to last. As Christ waits to come, so should we, that we may meet Him then. But the apostle would not have this hope nor the Lord Himself dishonoured by the reproach of disorderly ways. And thus he nowhere more enjoins the duty of honourable industry, appealing to his own example, than in the epistles which most insist on Christ's coming as the proximate and constant hope of the Christian. If any would pervert such a truth, or any other, to idleness and disorder, he was to be marked as unworthy of Christian companionship, not of course counted an enemy (like the wicked or heretics), but admonished as a brother. Idleness is fruitful of disorder and the foe of peace, which the apostle desired for them from the Lord of peace Himself always and in every way.
May we seriously heed the truth, and its immediate application to our consciences and ways! May God give us quiet energy without restlessness or excitement, but so much the more calmly, because of the realized nearness of the Lord's return, and the solemn consequences for all mankind! Oh for an earnest, burning zeal; for self‑denying love; for hearts devoted to Christ, which might warn men of their impending destruction, that, if they have not been won by His love, they may at least tremble at the hopeless inextricable ruin in which their unbelief will soon leave them for ever.