2 Thessalonians 2: 1 – 17
This is a very difficult passage to study, not least because 2,000 years have passed since it was written. There are ideas and concepts, references that have been lost in the mists of time so in my meditation this morning I will be brushing with broad strokes, not trying to do in depth analysis as I believe that for us today it is the most useful approach. But let us first hear the passage itself:-
2 Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, 2 not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come. 3 Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness[a] is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. 4 He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.
5 Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things? 6 And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. 7 For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. 8 And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming. 9 The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with how Satan works. He will use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie, 10 and all the ways that wickedness deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. 11 For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie 12 and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.
13 But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits[b] to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. 14 He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
15 So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings[c] we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.
16 May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, 17 encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.
So what is the passage teaching us? What are the larger issues connected to life that can be learned here? I have already confessed that we may never really understand the meaning of the terms contained in the chapter, such as the full identity of the person of lawlessness, the restraining one, or the big lie. We may always be searching for the exact referents to these concepts. Larger issues, however, speak to us as we read this second chapter of 2 Thessalonians.
The broader issues of this chapter are simply, but yet not so simply, that the end is going to be bad, but you will be able to make it if you stand firm and hold the traditions; God is in control, but you’d better pray a lot. To these larger concerns we turn our attention.
First, the end is going to be bad. Even with all the confusion related to the interpretation of this chapter, the author has given us a helpful template for the discussion of evil. The anticipation of the end of time demands a conversation about evil. We cannot ignore it.
A vocabulary of evil is important for the life of the believer. Beverly Gaventa says that “texts such as 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12, however they make us squirm, call us away from a white-bread Christianity, in which neither God nor the gospel has much depth or substance, to a recognition of the presence of evil in the world.”
We need to pay attention to the evil around us. We need words to talk about what it looks like, what it feels like, and how we should respond.
For people who knew the stories of the Jewish fight for independence during the Maccabean Revolt in 168 BC, the epitome of evil was Antiochus Epiphanes. The ruler had taken away their freedoms. This evil one had desecrated their temple, in the same manner that later generations would remember Pompey and even Caligula as greater examples of evil in the world.
For people living during World War II, the epitome of evil was not Antiochus Epiphanes but another ruler, this time from Germany, named Adolf Hitler. For many, Hitler was the greatest example of evil in the world. For some, he remains the greatest example of pure destruction and evil in his maniacal schemes of genocide, persecution, and extinction.
Other names have been suggested for the identity of the greatest evil person but we need to realise that all of these attempts to describe evil speak more about us than they do about the evil person we are trying to identify. We seem to need to personify the evil forces in this world; we cannot leave the evil energy nameless or faceless. We must give it a name in order to be able to have appropriate discussions. In some ways, that is helpful. Generalizations can remain abstract unless we have an appropriate example or illustration. For example, one cannot fully know the abstract concept of love until one has been loved by another human being. We need the incarnated version of the story in all directions. The anthropomorphic nature of apocalyptic language is helpful.
Evil is so powerful that we are not content to live with a generalized abstraction or theory. Evil is personal. Evil has a name. It is not enough to go to war to fight an abstract theory such as evil or domination. We do best when we can label evil with a name, racial description, and address. And the name of evil is usually the name of our most current enemy.
Naming evil in this manner has some advantages. The rhetoric has focus. But personifying evil as something or someone out there is a dangerous thing as we are seeing in the USA just now when hundreds of thousands of police officers are being demonised because of the actions of a very few! Walter Wink cautions us against turning all of our attention on evil as an outside force. Even cartoonists know that “I have seen the enemy, and the enemy is me.” If evil is seen only as an outside force, then it becomes an even more dangerous and personal state with greater negative consequences.
Evil is not just outside of us; evil is a part of us, in us, and with us. We cannot kill all of our enemies and then look at each other with smugness, thinking that we have finally eradicated evil. Self reflection is a necessary prerequisite to a discussion of evil. The collective voice speaks, “What did we do to contribute to an environment of hate so that our neighbours are wanting to riot?” The individual voice speaks, “What evil do I contribute in small but significant ways that cause destruction of ideas as well as lives?” Evil is not simply out there waiting to snatch and control the life of a willing political leader. Evil is in here waiting to work its way into my daily life, with family and friends, at the job or the home dinner table. I, too, am responsible for the evil, not just someone out there.
The second concern of this chapter is that, in the midst of all this confusion, the best thing that we can do is “stand firm, and hold fast the traditions.” These are good words. In the midst of crisis, most us want to flee. We want to run away from the pain. The author of 2 Thessalonians gives counsel to do the exact opposite. Sit tight, don’t move, and hold on to what you have been taught. You know what to do.
The moment of decision comes. You can decide to stay or flee. The context does not matter. The chaos can be a soured relationship that is bringing disharmony. The crisis can be academic failure. The distress can be from the loss of a job. Sometimes our response to these terrible moments of distress is to withdraw and give up. Most likely, the Thessalonian Christians were experiencing persecution of both physical and emotional degree. The counsel that they are given is worth our attention—stay put and remember the past. Hang on; don’t run!
Third, the author wants us to know that God is firmly in control of this time. The great feature of apocalyptic language is that regardless of the severity of the situation, God is working in the mess all the while. And God will bring victory over evil. The message of the book of Revelation is less a description of the corruption of the last days and more a victorious description of a God who is and will defeat all evil powers.
That notion of a God who wins enlivens us. We know the last chapter even before the book is completed. We know the end before it is even written! We can rest even though we are in the middle of the battle. God will reign; we are assured of that.
Finally, the concern of this chapter in Thessalonians challenges us to pray often. I remember my response to reading Walter Wink’s Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. Wink had convinced me that there were evil forces all around—personal and institutional. I had followed every chapter that he wrote on the domination system. My eyes were open to the evil forces all around me, in me, and through me in new ways that I had never thought about before. I read his words, and I wanted to go to work right away to eradicate evil. I wanted to roll up my sleeves, put on my jeans, and join some group—nonviolent, of course—but some kind of group that would work for institutional change.
Then I came to part 4 of his book, chapter 16, titled “Prayer and the Powers.” I was mad. My first thought was that Wink has worked me up to this point of wanting to do something about the evil forces in this world and now he was just telling me to pray. I had heard all of that before, or so I thought. My first response was, how much more passive and ineffective can you get? Prayer, before I read Wink’s words, had seemed the last resort for change, not the first option. In other words, I was not against praying, but I simply assumed that one prayed after one had done all that could be done, not the other way around. Through these years, however, I have continued to listen to Wink. Prayer is the first place to begin to deal with the power of lawlessness, the restraining forces, and the big delusion. Prayer is where we start, not where we end the battle with evil.
Prayer is never a private act. It may be the interior battlefield where the decisive victory is first won, before engagement in the outer world is even attempted. If we have not undergone that inner liberation, whereby the individual strands of the net in which we are caught are severed, one by one, our activism may merely reflect one or another counter-ideology of some counter-Power. We may simply be caught up in a new collective passion, and fail to discover the transcendent possibilities of God pressing for realization here and now. Unprotected by prayer, our social activism runs the danger of becoming self-justifying good works, as our inner resources atrophy, the wells of love run dry, and we are slowly changed into the likeness of the Beast.
Paul knows how to pray. Prayers break forth and interrupt his speech, appearing more like liturgical cues for a worship service than lines belonging to personal correspondence. Praying is akin to breathing, or talking, or writing. The community of believers in Thessaloniki is also urged to pray. The times are hard. The evil forces are unleashed. It is going to become worse before it gets better. Jesus will come in due time. In the meantime, however, much more suffering will occur. What is the believer to do? Create a social action team? March on Westminster or Holyrood? Write a letter to one’s political representative? Vote in a church business meeting? All of these responses are appropriate, but the first response is best. And the first response is simply this— pray, pray, pray!
Wink offers these closing words: “We pray to God not because we understand these mysteries, but because we have learned from our tradition and from experience that God, indeed, is sufficient for us, whatever the Powers may do.”