The Church Calendar quickly approaches its conclusion. The end of the great drama of redemption draws near with the Sunday of the Fulfillment, otherwise known as Christ the King Sunday. Hard on the heels of the festival of All Saints, the next two Sundays with their pericope lessons purpose to heighten the coming Parousia — the coming of the Lord, yay, the Day of the Lord. Preaching should be conscious of the rhythm of the calendar, since Christ is the Lord of time and the imposition of the life of the Messiah Jesus and the theological loci of the New Covenant envelop creation to the consummation of the age. What is more, while there are cautions and warnings and, for those outside of Christ, the awful judgment of the King over these next three weeks, nevertheless, for those “in Christ Jesus” these texts (just like those on All Saints) resound with the Gospel of God. Herald, therefore, the Gospel boldly for the sake of lost souls. And, so, Law and Gospel are discernible in all the appointed texts for the end of the year.
The main part of this epistle begins in the second chapter. Paul’s goal is to disabuse his auditors of erroneous suppositions and teaching concerning the end of the age. With dispensationalism, new found “progressive dispensationalism,” and no shortage of end times prophets occupying the pulpits/podiums/stages of large swaths of evangelicalism, the preacher may choose to take some liberties here to debunk false teaching and set the theological record straight, employing the great ecumenical creeds of Christianity (Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, and Athanasian Creed).
Saint Paul writes to fortify what he taught the Thessalonians in person (v.5). Unfortunately, there is little for us to discern as to what the oral teaching may have been, even though he makes several allusions to it. Sadly, speculations have gone unbridled. So, spurious teaching has spun out of abject speculation, leaving the solid ground of Scripture.
The Apostle opens with a solemn entreaty in the full, formal title of, “our Lord Jesus Christ.” What follows is of a serious nature and with the complete authority of our King Jesus. The context of all that follows comes next: parousia (the return of the King) and His saints being gathered. Whatever else may be said about the Last Day it consists of these two inseparable things: Christ’s coming and His kingdom people being gathered to Him. The Gospel ensures His people will be gathered to Him enduringly until the Last Day, and ultimately on that day. The Law, on the other hand, ensures those who manifestly are not His people will not be gathered to Him in grace and mercy but will find what the Law of God justly brings — judgment.
To make this difficult passage easier to understand and appreciate, New Testament scholar N.T. Wright employs the metaphor of a telescope with multiple lenses, which together create an image of the object. The goal is magnified so it looks closer than it really is, to help understand the situation Paul describes in 2 Thessalonians 2. Wright suggests Paul is looking into the far distant future as, “the final judgment has not yet taken place. But he sees it through the lens of events which were unfolding in his own times.”
From this sensible perspective, it becomes clear Paul did not suppose these events (the one’s from his own times) are the final events of the world. Consequently, the “day of the Lord” does not necessarily mean, “the end of the world.” “The day of the Lord” refers to divine judgments in his day, in the same way the phrase was used by Old Testament prophets in their day. Paul sees awful events about to press upon the fledgling churches of Eurasia and, at the same time, looks beyond them to the ultimate final judgment to come. As Wright explains, “His telescope writing style may confuse us, but for Paul there was no problem in talking in the same breath of events both near at hand and at an uncertain distance in the future.”
What does Paul see both near and far? Verses 3-12 tell of a great rebellion to God and God’s people. Hence the warning of the Apostle: the Thessalonians should not be deceived in any way (v. 3) but hold steadfast to the gospel traditions they have been taught (v. 15). The near view suggests the tensions between the Jews and the Roman Emperor, Gaius Caligula, who, thinking himself divine, tried to erect a massive image of himself in the Jerusalem Temple. Only Caligula’s murder (AD 41) prevented this provocation to war. Make no compromise. Your allegiance must be entirely to Christ, for only He is truly the Son of God and the Savior of the world.
Caligula would not be the only “man of lawlessness” either. Other Roman Emperors would claim divine status and persecution of the Jews, and particularly Christians, would grow hotter, be it ever so episodic. Paul saw this danger looming ahead, shortly ahead. Indeed, within a couple decades the Temple itself would be destroyed and the Jewish religion of Torah with it — amounting to “the day of the Lord.” This was just as Jesus foretold about the end of Biblical Judaism and the rise of the Kingdom of God, His holy Church. One cannot help but think of Muhammad, Bahá’u’lláh, Joseph Smith, Mary Eddie Baker, Charles Tase Russell, and other lawless persons who have departed from the Christ-given “traditions” of truth and life. Many more will be far more subtle than these leaders of so-called Christian movements of prosperity and progressive theology. Do not be deceived. Do not heed to their call of allegiance. Cling to the traditions taught by the apostles of Christ and preserved in holy writ for our confidence and assurance.
Verse 6 introduces “the restrainer” or the one, “holding [Satan] back.” There have been various interpretations of who or what this restrainer may be. However, the meaning is perfectly obscure, and we have no availing insights. What is clear, though, is Paul’s firm belief in a coming time when God’s judgment on the idolatrous world, and its blasphemous leaders, will be unveiled. Sin will be judged. The penalty for violating the Law of God, both revealed and in nature, will be exacted. Sin will be judged where it is found in human beings and human structures. “Through this lens we see, too,” explains Wright, “events further off, the final personal presence (the ‘parousia’) of Jesus, who will destroy all evil and put God’s just and truthful judgment into effect against those who had been taken in by lies great and small” (op. cit. 149). God will judge amid history and throughout, but most certainly at the end of history itself. Let the world and all governments and ideologies who have supplanted His reign of grace and gospel take notice in every age.
In the meantime, do not be deceived, the Lord is in charge. The great temptation will be awe and allegiance to the powers-that-be or, mundanely, that the world was ever so.
In Jesus, we find security in turbulent times, now and in the future. It is an unknown future save for judgment itself. In the meantime, the people of God are “being gathered” for Christ’s “parousia” according to His Word, through the Gospel of grace and the Sacraments. Here, we are connected personally and directly with His grace as often as two or three are gathered in His name for His saving, justifying, and self-giving. In a word, one can be deceived and think they can stand with the “man of lawlessness” and attempt the judgment of God or they can stand in Christ Jesus upon whom the judgment for sin has already fallen.
Verses 13-17 exhort us to steadfastness in this saving faith, both in belief and the good works which follow. Hold fast, Paul charges, to, “the traditions which you were taught,” the traditions proclaiming Christ crucified and resurrected and our share in the judgment He bore and for which He was vindicated for our justification. Salvation and sanctification belong to those who “hold fast.” Comfort, faith, security, assurance, blessing, grace and God Himself will be found in these “traditions” of the pure preaching of the Gospel and the Sacraments administered according to that Gospel. Christian piety, devotion and steadfastness flow from these and they preserve us in the way of truth. His truth yields the manifestation of the tradition before the world: “every good work and word.”
Concordia Theology- Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching 2 Thessalonians 2:1-8, 13-17.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach 2 Thessalonians 2:1-8, 13-17.