A Look at Second Thessalonians. Part 2: Standing firm against false teachings
A measure of maturity
Have you ever googled a Biblical or spiritual topic? You’ll find an amazing the range of ideas and interpretations, because anyone can post their thoughts on the web. There is no quality control! So, how should we deal with teachings which don’t match Scripture? There are many of these posted on the internet for anyone to read. Today we see how Paul addressed such a situation in Thessalonica.
In our previous article we looked at the first chapter of Paul’s second letter to the believers at Thessalonica. Paul encouraged them to persevere in their trials, suffering and persecution by reminding them that their primary relationship was with the Father and the Son; who are the source of grace, peace and endurance. By holding out against the pressures and temptations of this life it was evident that God was at work in their lives in developing character and maturity. The Thessalonians were so occupied with suffering and persecution that they forgot about their hope for the future. So Paul gave them an eternal perspective with a vision of the appearing when their suffering will be replaced by glory. There will be great power and glory when the Lord and His followers are revealed for all to see. He also reminded them that in future things will be set right and the truth will be evident to all. God is going to punish the persecutors and those guilty of wicked deeds. There will be retribution. This would have helped them to cope.
Not only were the believers in Thessalonica suffering physically, but they were being attacked by a false teaching. A rumour was spreading about the end of the age.
The False Teaching (2 Th. 2:1-2NIV)
Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to Him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, 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.
Paul now addresses a misunderstanding that had arisen in Thessalonica. Because of the persecution they were enduring, some thought that they were in the tribulation—the first part of the day of the Lord (1 Th. 5:1-11). If this was so, then the rapture must have already occurred and they had been left behind. False teachings such as this are unsettling and alarming—they introduce doubt and uncertainty about the truth and can destroy the unity within a church. Paul now addresses this false teaching. Firstly, he says that it didn’t come from him and secondly, he corrects it.
There was a rumour that the idea that they were in the day of the Lord came from Paul. Some said it was a prophecy—a direct revelation from God, others that Paul had taught it by word of mouth, and others that he had written it in a letter. Paul says that these were only allegations; they were not true. He also refers to the rapture: “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to Him”. The Greek word before this clause is translated “concerning” in most bibles, but a better translation is “because of” or “by”. It is clear from 1 Thess 4:13 – 5:11, that the rapture and the day of the Lord are different events; in fact they have been divided into separate chapters in this instance. The word “concerning” implies that 2 Thess 2 is about the rapture, but this is not the case. Instead, Paul is saying that because of the rapture they should not think they were in the day of the Lord. By the rapture they will be taken to heaven before the day of the Lord occurs on earth.
The sequence of future events is evident in the book of Revelation. At present the church is on earth. The next event is the rapture when all believers (dead and alive) will be resurrected to heaven. Then while the church is in heaven, there will be a period of tribulation on the earth, which will end with the appearing of the Lord in great power and glory. This will be followed by the 1,000 year reign of the Lord on the earth and then the eternal state of the new heaven and the new earth.
The false teaching said that they were in the tribulation period, which was not the case as the church was still present on earth.
The Antichrist (2 Th. 2:3-5)
Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. 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. Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things?
Paul then helps them not to be deceived again on this topic. He says that two things need to happen before the day of the Lord is present. First, there is a “rebellion”. This Greek word, which is also used in Acts 21:21, means “defection from the truth” or “apostasy”. This seems to indicate a major rejection of faith in God during the tribulation. During a time of great persecution many will turn away from the faith rather than suffer and die (Mt. 24:10-12). Instead of love there will be betrayal, hate, wickedness and false prophets.
Then the “man of lawlessness” will be revealed. He is the antichrist, because he sets himself up as God and no other form of worship will be allowed. He even has an idol of himself in the temple in Jerusalem (Rev. 13:14). This event, which marks the middle of the tribulation period, had been described earlier by Daniel and Christ (Dan. 9:27; Mt. 24:15). Furthermore, the antichrist is a “man doomed to destruction”, because he is destined to be tormented forever in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:10). The same description was also given to Judas Iscariot (Jn. 17:12). Paul had previously told them about these things, but they had forgotten them.
The Restrainer (2 Th. 2:6-8)
And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. 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. 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.
Paul says that the antichrist will not be revealed until that which is holding him back is taken away (v.6). He will certainly be revealed when he displays miraculous power through signs and wonders (v.9).
In v.7 it is evident that the antichrist and the power of evil are being held back by a person or a group of people. The Greek word for the restrainer means to “hold fast or down” and is used as a metaphor. Paul doesn’t say who the restrainer is; some have suggested it the principal of law and order as found in human government or the Holy Spirit or believers as indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit indwelling believers seems to fit best. Jesus said, “When He comes, He will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment” (Jn. 16:8). The Spirit is here because the world rejected Christ and He went back to heaven. The fact that He is here demonstrates the world’s guilt. Also, when he wrote about testing false teachers, John said “every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 Jn. 4:3-4). Those who do not acknowledge that Jesus was divine are following the spirit of antichrist. But believers can overcome such false teachers because the Holy Spirit helps them detect error.
Believers are like salt and light in this world: in this sense they hold back the “power of lawlessness” (Mt. 5:13-14). Salt preserves and light removes darkness. Their influence on the world through the indwelling Holy Spirit will be removed at the rapture and the restraint on lawlessness will be gone (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19). We see that the power of lawlessness was already at work in Paul’s time and we know that evil is present in our world today (v.7). But it will be fully revealed during the tribulation. This universal evil will be present on earth until the restrainer is removed—then it will be judged. For example, the great flood didn’t come until Noah’s family were safely in the boat and Sodom was not destroyed until Lot’s family were safely away from the city. So, God will not judge the evil in this world until He has taken His people to safety in heaven.
Although the Holy Spirit is omnipresent, He came to the earth on the day of Pentecost to indwell believers (Jn. 14:16-17). He will leave the earth in this sense when all believers are raptured to heaven. Of course in the tribulation He will still be in the world convicting people of sin in the same way as in Old Testament times.
So in v.8 we see that the antichrist will be revealed during the tribulation and his reign of terror is described in the next section. At the end of this period, the antichrist will be destroyed when the Lord appears in great power and glory (Is. 11:4).
How evil works (2 Th. 2:9-12)
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, and all the ways that wickedness deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.
The antichrist will work like Satan works. He will be able to do miracles and people will be amazed at his signs and wonders. Many will be deceived and believe that these miracles prove that he is divine (v.10). But this is a lie; Satan and demons can also perform miracles. In that day, God will send a powerful delusion so that those who deliberately rejected the truth will believe the lie that the antichrist is the Messiah (v.11); God on earth. As most people rejected the real Messiah, most people in the tribulation will accept the false Messiah. This shows how much Satan and sin have affected humanity.
Those deceived are described as: “perishing”, “they refused to love the truth”, they “have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness”. Because of their unbelief, they will be condemned by God—their names will not be written in the book of life (v.12; Rev. 20:15). However, we also know that many people will be saved in the tribulation (Rev. 7:9-14).
So how does this evil work?
- In the unseen spiritual world—that’s how Satan works.
- It can use counterfeit miracles.
- Deceptively—things that seem to be good finish up being destructive.
- In those who have no time for God or the Scriptures.
Thanksgiving (2 Th. 2:13-14)
But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.
After describing the antichrist and his followers, Paul now contrasts them with the Christians at Thessalonica. This change from bad news to good news is indicated by the word “but”. He thanks God for saving them (v.13). This salvation involves the past, the present and the future. In the past, God chose them to be believers in the early church. But the Bible doesn’t teach that God chose others to be destined for hell. Instead His desire is that all would be saved (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9), but many reject this offer of salvation. In the present, the Holy Spirit convicts people of sin and the need to accept the gift of salvation. In the future, Christians will share in the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ, because they will be with Him and like Him forever (v.14). That’s a summary of God’s work throughout history and in our world today.
Both God and humanity play roles in this salvation. The three members of the trinity are mentioned in v.13; God chose them, the Lord loved them and the Spirit sanctified them. On the human side, the Thessalonians were called to be believers when God used Paul to preach the gospel to them (v.14). Also, the people needed to believe (v.13) and act on the truth of the gospel.
Paul now concludes his message saying despite the hard times they were going through, they should “stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you” (v.15). This is the key verse of this chapter. In those days doctrine was taught verbally by apostolic and prophetic messages and written in letters. But we now have the teachings of the apostle Paul and the other inspired authors written in the Bible, which should be the foundation and anchor of our faith. So, the defence and remedy against false teachings is to follow and obey the instructions and principles in God’s Word.
Paul urged them not to quit or give in to evil but to draw on the resources that God had given them to handle the pressures of life. Similarly, he told those in Ephesus to—“stand against the devil’s schemes”; “stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand”; and to “stand firm” (Eph. 6:10-18).
Paul’s Prayer (2 Th. 2:15-17)
May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.
Then he prayed that God would encourage and strengthen them inwardly in order to produce good deeds and good speech outwardly. Their greatest resource was God Himself. By mentioning both the Son and the Father, he is emphasizing their unity. Paul also mentions three things about God: He loved them, He gave them “eternal encouragement”, and He gave them “good hope”. Likewise, because of the gift of His Son for us, our sin has been forgiven and so believers have the eternal encouragement now and the hope of a future with the Lord. So our source of encouragement and hope should be God’s promises in the Bible. Also, note that the Christian life is not just words to know, but deeds to do. All the principles of God’s word need to be put into practice. Otherwise, we are hypocrites if we say the right words but never apply these to ourselves.
Other false teachings
There are many references to false teachings in the New Testament. These often related to mixing Jewish religion or Greek religions with Christianity. Paul faced Jewish legalism, the gospel of good works and those forcing Jewish customs on others. The Gnostics, who believed that matter was evil, had myths that required special knowledge and wisdom to interpret. For example, Hymenaeus and Philetus denied the bodily resurrection and thought there was only a spiritual resurrection (2 Tim. 2:17-18). Such philosophy (Col. 2:8) is seeking wisdom outside God’s revelation—it puts human reason above God.
Others: opposed the truth (2 Tim. 3:8); taught false doctrines, myths and endless genealogies (1 Tim. 1:3-7); worshipped angels, and promoted harsh rules and treatment of the body (Col. 2:16-23); prohibited marriage and certain foods (1 Tim. 4: 1-3); and promoted controversies and quarrels over words (1 Tim. 6:3-5). These false teachers were conceited (1 Tim. 6:4), selfish (Rom. 16:18), cunning, crafty and deceitful (Eph. 4:14). They were influenced by demons (1 Tim. 4:1). Their teachings brought strife and spread like gangrene and cancer and destroyed peoples faith like these diseases destroy bodily tissue (1 Tim. 6:4; 2 Tim. 2:17-18).
We need maturity in order to distinguish good from evil and to avoid being blown off course by false teachings (Eph. 4:13-14; Heb. 5:14). False teachers could be recognised by their false view of Jesus (1 Jn. 4:1-3), their false gospel (Gal. 1:6-9), and their bad fruit (Mt. 7:15-20). Don’t welcome false teachers or false teachings into your house or the local church (2 Jn. 7-11), instead keep away from them and have nothing to do with them (Rom. 16:17-18; 2 Tim. 2:21; 3:5-9). Finally, false teachers will be judged by God (2 Pet. 2:1-21).
Lessons for us
Paul taught the young believers at Thessalonica about future prophetic events. This gave them an eternal perspective and helped them endure suffering and persecution. Likewise, we should include prophecy when teaching young believers.
But the Thessalonians had forgotten what Paul had told them about the future. This shows the importance of being reminded of the truths of scripture. Just because we have heard or read them in the past, doesn’t mean that we will remember them in the future. We can be reminded by personal Bible study and by listening to teaching from the Bible.
Two of our greatest resources are God and the truths of scripture. Like the Thessalonians we should also “stand firm and hold fast” to the principles of God’s Word. Let’s live by the true teachings, so we won’t be deceived by the false ones. This will lead to maturity and being able to distinguish between what is true and what is false.
When we hear new teachings, don’t ignore them. Instead check with the Bible as we may have forgotten what we have learnt from it. If you are uncertain about a particular teaching consult with someone who is “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2).
What is “the lie” that Satan is spreading today? You can run your own life. You can do whatever you want to. It’s called humanism; the worship of humanity. It is opposite to the gospel, which says we should hand our life over to the Lord, who will encourage and strengthen us to live with Him.
Written, April 2007