Scope and Divisions of Second Thessalonians
The second epistle to the Thessalonians is after the manner of all second epistles, a supplement to the first. As the Christian hope — the coming of the Lord — pervades and characterizes the first epistle, so the patience of hope may be said to characterize the second. The coming of the Lord is still prominent: but it is more the coming to the world (His appearing or manifestation) than for the removal of His people out of it, which, though in an important place, is but once referred to (2 Thess. 2:1). The appearing of Christ is that which ends entirely "man's day" upon the earth, the time of man's will without manifest intervention on God's part. The manifestation of Christ will be the manifestation of the world also, — taken, as it will be, in open defiance of God and of His Son. And to permit the true character of it to come out, the restraint which unseen is upon it, and which makes things in the meantime tolerable, will be taken away, and the prince of this world unfurl the standard of rebellion amid the plaudits of the nations; and, all neutrality being at an end, the remnant of Christ's followers will once again, and more than ever, be as sheep among wolves, until the Shepherd with an iron rod "shepherds the nations."
This is the time of Antichrist and "the lie," — the time of retribution upon those to whom, as having no love for the truth, God will send strong delusion; powers and signs and lying wonders giving apparently the same attestation to satanic falsehood as once was given to the truth itself. And thus men will be gathered against Jehovah and against His Christ (Ps. 2), until the breath of the Lord smites down His enemies.
This then is the central subject of the epistle now before us; a most solemn one for us, who can already discern, and not afar off, the rising of these fateful storm-clouds. The practical lessons for us also are most important. All prophecy of the future is thus a present light in the dark places, to guide the feet of pilgrims in the path of God. Let us give it heed.
The divisions of the epistle are three, though not quite in accord with the three chapters of our common Bibles: —
1. (2 Thess. 1.): In the midst of persecution, the ground of peace for the saints in the righteousness of God.
2. (2 Thess. 2:1-12): The wicked one and the deliverance.
3. (2 Thess. 2:13 — 3:18): Separation to God the manifestation of the saint.
Division 1. (2 Thess. 1.)
In the midst of persecution, the ground of peace for the saints in the righteousness of God.
The present time is characterized by the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church: this the closing discourses of the Lord before His death, as John has given them to us, with the opening of the Acts, make manifest. But the presence of the Spirit convicts the world of sin, because they have not believed in Him (John 16:9): "They have both seen and hated both Me and My Father," is His own declaration (John 15:24). On the other hand, as to the Spirit Himself, sent to represent the One whom they have driven out of it, He says again, "Whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth Him not, neither knoweth Him" (John 14:17). Thus the Spirit is not only the Witness of the rejected Christ, but Himself also rejected; and this double rejection is for opposite reasons: for infidelity is from the heart, and so all arguments suffice for it. But thus it is plain that from the beginning it was a foregone conclusion that the world was not, as still the dream is, to be converted by Christianity, and that for the Christian it would be ever a place of rejection, as for his Master, — a place of darkness, as from the absence of the Sun. So Scripture consistently treats it ever. God is now calling out of it a people for His Name, and that is all we are to expect until Christ comes again and brings the day.
It is plain indeed, that the opposition of the world is not always felt to the same extent, or in the same way. On the one hand, the providence of God may avert the open assault of the enemy; on the other, the enemy has found by large experience that, according to the proverb, "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church;" and that the lure is in general more successful than the open attack. Attack he will still, in disguise; and has learned how in the name of Christ, and in zeal for Him, to destroy His followers. A time, too, is at hand in which he will persuade himself that the rule no longer holds; or, rather, being moved by ungovernable fury in the knowledge that he has but a short time, he will again, and more defiantly than ever, make war upon God and upon the Lamb. But this will be the time of his complete overthrow in that day of the Lord which the apostle here assures the Thessalonians is not yet come, and the character of which he unfolds to us in this epistle.
In the meanwhile the world is nevertheless in steadfast opposition to the life of faith; and in whatever form it may be, "all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution" (2 Tim. 3:12). The Thessalonians were suffering manifestly for Christ; and yet the enemy would persuade them, and by means of professing Christians themselves, that these very sufferings showed that they were in those times of divine judgment upon the earth which, being in righteous recompense for iniquity, could not be upon the saints, but on their adversaries. They might be at peace, therefore, and rejoice in being witnesses for their Lord, in sufferings which but demonstrated their worthiness of the Kingdom of God, for which they suffered.
1. The apostle, associating Silas and Timothy with him as before, greets them in the same manner as in the former epistle. As children of the Father, and owning Christ their Lord, he wishes and hails them with grace and peace from the Father and the Lord. Their sufferings altered nothing as to this, — only brought in the inexpressible comfort of it for the need in which they were.
2. The apostle then testifies his thankfulness for the increase of their faith and love. Faith grew in them exceedingly, love abounded. How good it is when we have not to look back to the happier times of a first love, but the vision brightens with the days that pass, under the beams of an unchanging sun that is ever rising into a more excellent glory! "From glory to glory:" that is the apostolic summary of progress, — the heart responding to the light that more and more shines in and gladdens it. "God who made the light to shine out of darkness, has shined in our hearts, for the shining forth of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Cor. 3:18; 2 Cor. 4:6). This is no temporary or partial or interrupted display, as Paul speaks of it: "We all . . . are changed," he says. It is not of a few specially favored and exalted ones that he declares such things. He refuses to allow that of God's will any there are among Christians who are not partakers of so great a blessing as the beginning in his soul of an eternal day. He does not, as it were, allow for retrogression, or alternation of light and darkness, of even cyclical changes of this kind. The typical Christian is he who goes on from glory to glory. If there be darkness with him, or aught but steady progress, this is the abnormal condition to be accounted for, when the path of the righteous is as the shining light, which shineth more and more unto the perfect day. But, thank God, Scripture in its description of the Christian refuses to mingle the abnormal with the normal; and thus to make, as it were, the abnormal condition a thing of course.
The Thessalonians were making evident progress; and the trials through which they were passing did not hinder this: did they not rather help it? For when in Corinthians the apostle has shown us how "this treasure" of the light is in an earthen vessel, he immediately goes on to speak of trials and persecutions, and the bearing about in the body the dying of Jesus; this, that the life also of Jesus may be manifested in our body (2 Cor. 4:7-10). Indeed, what can there be more helpful to the soul, than to be so openly and wholly identified with Him whom the world crucified that it may still ordain for us, (as it will ordain) His cross, and throw us upon the might of His arm, and the sweet consolations of His sympathy, who was Himself despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief"?
This was the case with the Thessalonians: all people knew of them that they had "another king" than the man the Roman world adored: "One, Jesus;" One whose sway was more absolute than Caesar's, and which reached where Caesar's could not, — to the inmost recesses of the heart; in which it yielded a delight, to those who knew it not, all but incredible. Insanity it might be, but the hold it had upon His followers was quite unmistakable; a people whose emblem was a cross, and for whom "crucified with Jesus" was a sufficient answer to the suggestion of every opposing interest.
Thus they suffered; not amid plaudits, but reproach and obloquy; yet in which there was no sting to rankle, no bitterness to harden or inflame the spirit: they rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer for His Name, and found in it all a fellowship with one another which sprang out of that first fellowship which was the bud enfolding every other. The apostle assures them that their sufferings for the King were but a manifest token, in the patience and faith sustaining them all through, of the righteous judgment of God, which counted them worthy of the Kingdom of God, for which also they were suffering. In Phil. 1:28, he argues similarly that the fearlessness of the disciples in view of their adversaries was an evident token of the perdition of the latter, and of their own final salvation. He who was already thus with them by the way would be found in corresponding attitude at the end of the way, both towards friends and enemies, whom His righteous judgment, as the apostle puts it here, could not possibly confound. He does not mean or say — it would be indeed out of the question for such as Paul to say — that suffering, any more than working, could give any title to acceptance on the part of the Righteous God. It was grace (as he says again to the Philippians,) that gave them even to stiffer for Christ's sake. But grace had righteous title to count them worthy; and what it had wrought in them it was righteousness also to acknowledge. For the Kingdom of God they were already suffering, identifying themselves and identified too with it; and the result would show that it was no deception.
3. Paul goes on to the final recompense of that day in which God's righteous judgment will be fully displayed. He puts in the strongest way, by making a question of it, that surely for them there could be no question as to the future: for those for whom God had already shown Himself, in the support He had given them through all their afflictions at the hands of men. There is no change in the Unchangeable; and with Him whose righteousness had so manifested itself toward them in the past there could be no failure ever to distinguish between friends and enemies. It would be righteous still to recompense affliction in the day of recompense, to those who had afflicted them; while to His suffering ones there would be rest, at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with the angels of His power, — the messengers who execute His will upon the ungodly, and upon those disobedient to the gospel of His grace.
Whether there are two classes here, or one in two aspects, has been much disputed. Hall men are included in the judgment spoken of, then it is evident that all have not had the gospel preached to them. The judgment of the dead, as the book of Revelation exhibits it, is certainly not intended; but only that of the living when the Lord appears. Whether this also is a judgment strictly universal may he questioned; and the question cannot be answered here without a long digression. Even so. it need not be that the apostle meant to bring in all into a statement manifestly designed as consolation for the persecuted Thessalonians. Their persecutors had certainly this double character: — they knew not God, and obeyed not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. The apostle speaks of some even of the Corinthian disciples as not having the knowledge of God (1 Cor. 15:34); and when the Son of God was in the world — before men's eyes, and preached of in their ears — "the world knew Him not." It was an ignorance with opportunity of knowledge; though this is, in fact, the condition of all the heathen. God could not hide Himself from men that sought Him, and all ignorance is, in its essence, of the heart rather than the mind. Man proves it, when the light comes, by his rejection of it. God's vengeance, as the text before us declares it, could not fall upon mere helpless babes: that were impossible to His nature. But here plainly their ignorance is that which makes them culpable, not such as would even palliate their condition.
But the gospel! the sweet glad tidings of God, so divinely suited to all man's need, and with its revelation of the incomparable God of our Lord Jesus Christ, made known in the depths of His nature by the love-gift of His Son — what must be the consequence, answering to the revelation of the depths of man's own heart in it, of his disobedience to the gospel? Men, says the apostle, who shall suffer the judgment of everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His might. It is not any materialistic annihilation that is declared or implied in this. Banishment from the presence of that glory which he has turned his back upon and despised, — hardening himself into a final, awful incapacity for it, — what is it but the "destruction" of one made at the first in the image of God, — and for communion with Him?
Just then, on the other hand, the saints shine out in glory — their inheritance for evermore. It is the time of which we hear in Romans as "the manifestation of the sons of God." Such by creation, but redeemed and immeasurably exalted by new creation, they now are seen as the fruit of Christ's work, their glory His glory: He is glorified in them, and marvelled at in all who have believed; — and believed the same testimony which had been given to the Thessalonians. These poor persecuted followers of Christ, who now need faith so much amid the trials surrounding them, will then be the marvel of the inhabitants of earth, and make men marvel at the grace bestowed on them.
The apostle closes with a prayer that they may now in the present time exhibit a character which shall answer to such a calling as is here shown to be theirs. He prays that God may count them worthy of it: that is, that He in the day of account may adjudge them to have walked as those governed by it; for this end, therefore, that God might accomplish in them all that was in His heart to do; which faith indeed would effect, as His instrument, but with a power, therefore, more than human. So would the name of Christ be glorified in them already; and they too in Him, for whom it was the highest glory to live, to suffer, and to die. It was the grace of God, and of the Lord Jesus bestowed upon them.
Division 2. (2 Thess. 2:1-12.)
The wicked one and the deliverance.
The apostle now proceeds to put before the Thessalonians the character of that "day of the Lord," which it had been sought to persuade them had already come; to show them what would introduce it, and that there was a present hindrance; though the mystery of lawlessness was indeed already working, which would bring in the judgment upon it, in which man's day would end.
He shows the apostasy which would be from Christianity, and the rise of Antichrist, the great apostate; in whom Satan would work in the display of miraculous power, such as once heralded the truth, but which now as "lying wonders," would be permitted to ensnare those who, having had the truth presented to them, had not the love of it, but rejected that which would have been their salvation. In this last Antichrist the Jewish and Christian forms of unbelief would come together; rising to a height of arrogancy and defiance of the living God, which would bring down the open judgment of God in the destruction of the blasphemer, whom the Lord will destroy with the breath of His mouth, and bring to nought by the manifestation of His Presence. With him his deluded, followers will receive their judgment, and the earth be liberated from the oppressive power of evil.
1. The apostle beseeches them not to be shaken or troubled by the statement, however it might seem authenticated, and even though it might purport to be from himself, that the day of the Lord had come. Taking their view of the coming of the Lord largely, and of necessity, from the Old Testament, the day of the Lord would seem to precede what they had been taught continually to expect as the coming of the Lord. The New Testament distinguishes between two phases of this, — His coming to receive His people to Himself, as the first epistle pictures it, the dead raised and the living changed, and both caught up together to meet Him in the air. When He appears, (to the world) "then shall we appear with Him in glory" (Col. 3:4). Thus His descent into the air and our gathering together unto Him are not the same as, but preparatory to, His appearing and our appearing with Him. This does not indeed imply any appreciable interval between them; but it leaves room for it; and we have seen elsewhere that such an interval there is, comprising, at least, the whole last week of Daniel's seventy (Dan. 9:27) — the "end of the age" of the Lord's prophecy on the Mount of Olives (Matt. 24); and which has been there shown to be the cut-off end of the Jewish age, and not a Christian one. Christianity is then gone from the earth, with the departure of Christians to be with their Lord, and Israel is now again in the fore-front, the Lord's thoughts again centering upon her. Thus in this prophecy we find Him once more recognizing as His disciples Jewish saints in connection with the temple as of old, and a revived worship there. This has, as we shall see, an important bearing on the chapter before us. It accounts also for the character, so generally misunderstood, of a large part of the book of Revelation; in which, after the addresses to the seven churches, — a necessarily veiled prophecy of the Church's history till the coming of the Lord, the apostle is in the Spirit caught up to heaven, as in fact we shall be, and there beholds the redeemed glorified and enthroned around the throne of God. The book of the divine counsels is then put into the hands of One who, though seen as a Lamb slain, is now declared to be the Lion of the tribe of Judah; that is, the King of the Jews. Accordingly, when now the scene returns to earth, we find no more the Church, but Israel and the Gentiles once again distinct (Rev. 7), and in the temple of God the ark of His covenant (Rev. 11:19). By and by the Lamb Himself stands upon Mount Zion, and with Him the sealed remnant of the tribes of Israel, seen before (Rev. 14:1).
All this has been hidden as to its true meaning from the mass of Christians — through the common confusion between Israel and the Church, and the assumption of the heirship of the latter to all Israel's promises. It is even counted "judaizing" to take passages like these in their plain sense. Those who do so are accused of robbing the Church of her just due, as well as largely depriving Scripture of its present interest for us. In fact, it is the very opposite; but here is not the place to discuss such matters, which must be fully examined in the book of Revelation itself, — of which we can know little aright if they are unknown.
The interval, moreover, of which we have been speaking, is a period of the greatest importance in the history of the world, as the period of its permitted development apart from the restraint under which it has been from God; and in which, therefore, its character is fully manifested. Until this is done the final judgment cannot take place; and this character of the day of manifestation must needs make it of the deepest interest for every one who desires to be with God in the present time. As presently we shall find Paul saying, "The mystery of iniquity doth already work." All around us, therefore, that is going on which will be fully disclosed to all in the near future, but which God would already reveal to His people, that they may be delivered from any complicity with it, and be kept in communion with Himself. If this was true in the apostles' days, how much fuller must be its significance for days when the evil has been so long working. We need not forget that there is a present hindrance; which, moreover, we can trace, as it is most instructive to trace it, in the pages of history. What would it be for us, to acquire in this way the true history of the world as the scene of a warfare between good and evil, in the midst of which we still find ourselves; and when now approaching the crisis, as it surely is, — the forces gathering for the last, decisive conflict. What will prophecy become to us when we read it with such an application, as the living word of our glorious Captain of salvation, — the unfailing guidance of Him who seeth the end from the beginning, and whose heart is pledged to us in His cross of shame.
We are prepared now to understand the force of the apostle's adjuration "by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together unto Him," not to be troubled by any assertion, however loudly or confidently made, that the day of the Lord was already come. It would be equally correct, as far as language is concerned, to say "in behalf of," as "by." In either case there is seen the apostle's earnest solicitude, and to which he hopes and expects response from those he is addressing, that the coming of the Lord should be free from distortions which would hinder its due effect upon the soul. The thought of the day of the Lord as to precede it would in different ways be a real distortion and distraction of heart from the simple expectancy of the Lord from heaven. The day of the Lord belongs to Jewish prophecy and times not Christian. It would set them necessarily, therefore, upon the hunt for dates and calculation of times, which have been so fruitful a cause of disappointment to multitudes at various periods. The Lord had said to His apostles after His resurrection, that it was not for them to know times and seasons, which the Father had placed under His own authority (Acts 1:7). That which will be unfolded to the "wise" in Israel in the due time of their need (Dan. 12:9-11) was expressly hidden from the leaders in the new dispensation. And so the apostle has already told the Thessalonians that of the times and seasons he had no need to write to them (1 Thess. 5:1).
The gathering of Christians to their Lord is the natural and necessary end of Christianity — of what is called the Christian dispensation. The "end of the age" which follows is, as already said, the end of another age — Jewish, and not Christian. The disciples are again in connection with the Jewish temple and worship, yet owned by the Lord. This means that, according to Micah's prophecy (Micah 5:3), "the remnant of His brethren" are returned to the children of Israel. There is no fusion, as some would have it, of times so different. It is when darkness covers the earth, and gross darkness the peoples, that the Lord arises upon Israel (Isa. 60:2); and this can only be when He shall have gathered the saints of the present to Himself. And thus He promises the Philadelphian overcomers that He will keep them out of the hour of trial that shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth. Immediately He follows this with, "Behold, I come quickly" (Rev. 3:10, 11); and what else can deliver His own from the very "hour" of a world-wide trouble, but His own coming to gather them to Himself?
Nothing but trouble is connected with this thought of the day of the Lord being come. It is not the excitement of a vain hope that the apostle would repress, but the depression resulting from dread of that from which the Lord pledges His word to the Philadelphian saints, that they shall be delivered. It is not something, as some imagine, to be desired to pass through for the glory of Christ, and in testimony to Him. It is a time of judgment for iniquity, although it is true that the mercy of God makes it also a time of new birth for Israel, and for multitudes among the Gentiles also. But it is "a time of trouble such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time" (Dan. 12:1); and which the Lord emphatically reiterates as to be "great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world unto this time, no, nor ever shall be" (Matt. 24:21). The Thessalonians are in danger of being "shaken in their mind," or, more literally, "from their understanding," at the false announcement; which the apostle beseeches them in behalf of truths so precious as the coming of the Lord and the gathering of His own to Him, not to heed.
Even at so early a day in the Church's history, we see moreover, that the enemy was at work; and that in places where we should have little expected to find him. Thus the saints are warned that this falsehood may be put forth by persons assuming to speak under the guidance of the Spirit of God, or as a report of some oral statement of the apostle, or even by an epistle forged in his name. The variety of methods warned against show, at least, how far he believed deception might be carried; and probably from knowledge of what had been done elsewhere. At any rate, he knew full well the boldness and the craft of the great adversary of Christ and of His people, and the weakness and folly to be found among Christians, so ready to be caught by a plausibility, or daunted by an assumption of spiritual power. Is it not so still? and can we expect it to be otherwise now, than what we find in the very earliest epistles of Paul, when he, and such as he, were yet living to confront the error?
2. But he goes on now to show them how, in fact, the day of the Lord would be ushered in, and the magnitude of the evil which would necessitate the judgments characterizing it: evil which was indeed already at work, but upon which there was the restraint as yet from God, which hindered its full development. Before the revelation of Christ, there must be the revelation of Antichrist, the "wicked one" who will then be consumed by the breath of His mouth, and brought to nought by the manifestation of His presence.
This man of sin, moreover, would be the issue of an apostasy from the ranks of professing Christians themselves, and unite the treachery of a Judas (the son of perdition, John 17:12) with Jewish unbelief; yet still transcending this, in a blasphemous exaltation of himself in the very temple itself, challenging even Israel's Most High in the place claimed by Him as His earthly throne, and exalting himself as supreme above every god whatever, named among men. It is plainly the most pretentious and insolent defiance of God that can be even imagined; and yet with such imposing display of power that the masses of those once enjoying the light of revelation (Jewish or Christian) will be carried captive by it. For all the power of Satan, freed from restraint on God's part, will be let loose in it; and God will be giving over to believe a lie those who, having once been solicited by the truth, have made a fearful and deliberate choice of error in its stead.
At the first statement of such an appalling diabolism as this impending, one would say, Here is something that has never been yet; something that would need no argument to convince us of its existence, if it did exist: and this is, surely, what would be the judgment formed upon the most thorough and profound examination of it in connection with all kindred passages. Here, we should say, is certainly the apostle John's great "Antichrist, who denieth the Father and the Son," — the Christian revelation, on the one side; as on the other, he is "the liar, who denieth that Jesus is the Christ," — the Jewish form of unbelief. It is needless, at present, to go further. In its character, as marked with such absolute distinctness, as well as in the time of the revelation, (just before that appearing of Christ, which brings the wicked one to an end,) and in its result, as carrying away the mass of unbelieving Christendom, as well as in its being given as an unmistakable sign of the day of the Lord, this devil-inspired power is guarded, as it would seem, from all possibility of being misapprehended, and decisively determined to be even yet in the future to us,however near. As we know, it has indeed been taken to be the papacy; and this was perhaps the universal belief of the Reformers; with whom, naturally enough, the evil shadow which brooded ominously over so much of the professing Church, suffered them to look no further for the full development of Antichrist. Nor were they mistaken in seeing features of this kind in one in whom the mystery of lawlessness assuredly has manifested itself in a manner so conspicuous. If, as the fruit of its working, the apostle John could already in his day declare that there were "many antichrists," and saw in this the character of the "last time," (1 John 2:18,) how clearly might it be expected that here was now the fruit, much more developed, and at least approaching its full ripeness. Did not the pope claim honors really divine? and did he not sit in this godless affectation of supremacy in the Church, the true temple of God? How could one look for plainer evidence?
Yet, however natural the error was in their time, there is one consideration which is by itself amply sufficient to prevent our following them. If Antichrist were already manifested over three centuries ago, the apostle's statement has for all this time ceased to have the significance he attached to it, as what would be an indication of the nearness of the day of the Lord. Now it is quite true that, for the Thessalonians, if we are only to think of these, it would still be a sufficient guard against any mistake such as he feared they might be making; for them the papal Antichrist would be yet far off. But to accept this as sufficient would be to say that the apostle wrote only for current needs, and did not know enough to give what would provide against such a mistake in the future. We may dismiss it, therefore, from our thoughts.
Moreover, the same consideration tells against the "man of sin" being, as this view would make him, a succession of individuals, instead of the one person, which really the whole prophecy suggests. Otherwise the sign would be insignificant, or, at least, its significance would be very much reduced. Nor can we imagine that this open defiance of God, which in fact brings in the long impending judgment, could be yet allowed to go on for generations more, unsmitten by it. It is the climax of insult and outrage, after all God's grace has been manifested in vain for salvation, — and, with the exception of a remnant preserved of God for Himself, the world of professed Christianity has gone after the devil's candidate and king. The final conflict is commenced, and the issue cannot long be in suspense: the battle is that of the great day of God Almighty.
While there may be lesser antichrists many, the definition of the Antichrist marked out by prophecy is, according to the apostle John, such as to describe, not a concealed, but an open enemy. "Who is the liar," he asks, "but he who denieth that Jesus is the Christ? He is the Antichrist, who denieth the Father and the Son" (1 John 2:22). Thus there is no pretence of Christianity whatever, even the least orthodox. The pope does not deny, — he affirms, — that Jesus is the Christ: be never pretended to be the Christ, but only His vicar. Antichrist is, according to the full meaning of the word, "one in the place of Christ," but not His vicar: he is himself the Christ, and denies that Jesus is; and so denieth the Father and the Son, — the Christian revelation in its whole extent. Thus he does not, in the common idea of this, sit in the temple of God at all; for in the Church he is not, even by profession. The papacy, for all these reasons, cannot be the "man of sin;" the pope is only one who exhibits certain similar features, and thus foreshadows the great apostate.
This leads us further to realize what the sitting in the temple of God must mean. If the Church of Christ be necessarily excluded, then there is but one other temple of which we can think; and that is the temple at Jerusalem. For the present it does not exist; and by many it is still believed to have passed away for ever. It is useless to show them the plainest statements of the Old Testament; for these they take as merely Jewish symbolism, to be applied in spirit, not in letter, to the Christian Church. But they cannot doubt that when the Lord, in His prophecy upon the Mount of Olives, speaks of "the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place," He is speaking of that very temple which was then before Him. The temple then existing, of course suffered destruction at the hands of the Romans, and according to the Lord's own prophecy; but the application of His words as given in Matthew to anything that happened before or at that time — to the standards, for instance, planted on the site of the already desolate sanctuary, is entirely set aside by the connection in which He places it. For the abomination is the sign at which His disciples are to flee, and then follows a tribulation so great that, except the days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; immediately after which the sun and moon are darkened, the stars fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens are shaken; and "then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven; and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory." The Lord then speaks of angels sent forth to gather His elect from the four winds, of the going forth of the wise virgins (His true saints) to meet Him; of His sitting on the throne, and the nations being gathered before Him for judgment, when He separates between the sheep and the goats, and the latter depart into everlasting fire. It is with a violent wrench, indeed, that these things can be torn apart from one another; while by no possibility can they all be made to have taken place at the destruction of Jerusalem, now more than 1800 years ago. They undoubtedly all concur at the time for which the Thessalonian saints were looking, and for which after this long delay, that the longsuffering of the Lord might be salvation, we are looking still. (See notes to Matt. 24, 25.)
But thus we see how there can and will be, in the last days, a revival of Jerusalem and Jewish worship there, which now becomes continually easier to anticipate, with the increasing Zionite movement, and the actual increase of the Jews in the land, which Scripture assures us again will be their own. That they are going back still in unbelief makes the temple worship easier to understand. It would be more difficult to see the connection of those disciples with Jewish worship in the days contemplated, (whom yet the Lord evidently owns as His own, and listening to His voice,) if we had not the knowledge of that coming of our Lord into the air, and our gathering to Him there, which precedes His appearing, and which the apostle is in earnest that we should not confound with the day of the Lord. If once we see the interval which elapses between our gathering to Him, (which ends Christianity, in the sense we attach to it ordinarily, upon the earth,) and His appearing with us, which brings in the blessing for Israel and the world at large, things are in the main clear to us. The brethren of the Lord have returned to the children of Israel (Micah 5:3). They are very much in the position of the disciples while the Lord was yet with them, and which continued for some time after the resurrection, while, acknowledging Jesus as their Messiah, they were "daily with one accord in the temple," and were "all zealous of the law" (Acts 2:46; Acts 21:20). Of such the apostles at the time of the prophecy we have referred to, were fitting representatives.
Among Israel, then, back in their own land, and obeying the voice of the Lord their God as made known to them by Moses' law (Deut. 30:2, 3), there will arise the dark and terrible figure of the last antichrist, the outgrowth of Jewish unbelief and consummated apostasy in which Christendom will end. The prophecies of Daniel regarding the abomination of desolation and the wilful king enlarge and confirm our knowledge of what is here; which the book of Revelation completes for us on both sides, the Jewish and the Christian. The figure in Daniel (11:36, 37) can scarcely be mistaken, of the king who "shall do according to his will, and shall exalt himself above every god, and shall speak marvelous things against the God of gods, and shall prosper till the indignation be accomplished." Here he sitteth in the temple of God, setting himself forth that he is God. The simple placing in juxtaposition of these prophecies delivers us from all uncertainty as to the application here.
3. The apostle had already told them, — not some other things which would enable them to understand these (as many take it,) but these very things. The Thessalonians had forgotten already instruction they had received: a forcible reminder of the need on our part of that written Word which God in anticipation of it has provided for us. How it becomes us, in every detail, to make sure that we have the exact statements of Scripture to build our souls upon. The careless quotation of it from memory, which so often for many does duty for the real, words, is a very positive injury to us, in clothing with the authority of inspiration what are the fallible conceptions of men. While, for exact, trustworthy memories, it is of course a first requisite that we exactly scrutinize the text which we store up in them; that the very perfection of our memories may not make perfect a delusion, which every recurrence of it to our minds shall only the more stamp there.
But now they knew what was keeping back the development of this wickedness so that it should only be revealed at the time ordained for it. For, though the mystery of lawlessness was already at work, there was One who held it back, and would do so, until He should be out from the midst. There is no reason to doubt, although He be unnamed, who this power restraining is. It is evident that the apostle expects the Thessalonians to have this knowledge; and if it were not from other instruction than his epistle furnished, then we too ought to be able to gather from it what they should. And indeed there seems no great difficulty, when once we have recognized the character of the evil, in recognizing the power which holds it back.
The "mystery of lawlessness" is not the mere fact of its existence: it has existed since ever the world was. Man doing his own will is, alas, too common a thing to excite any wonder; the wonder is when the grace of God delivers him from this madness and misery of his fallen nature. The "mystery of lawlessness" ceases, as such, in its manifestation. The special form of the mystery is then revealed in an open opposition to God and His Christ, which is developed out of the bosom of Christendom itself; setting up a false god and a false christ, to give the world its long-sought liberty from, divine restraint, and bring its vaunted progress to perfection, which under Christianity it has found it impossible to attain.
In fact, already the failure of Christianity is proclaimed; and already there are incipient attempts to provide a substitute, not always covered even with a Christian dress. It will be noticed, also, how largely these lay claim to the supernatural, or what has been accounted such, and live in the borderlands of the unseen and "occult." The craving for knowledge, which is to turn to sight a faith too much given to be credulous, finds here broad fields which, being outside of Scripture, cannot invite credulity! The gains of science have been continually at the cost of the miraculous; and its marvels reveal it as the most practical friend of man. What may not the new century add to its conquests? while Scripture is constantly paling before it, or frowning on men with an oft-repeated story of a judgment continually deferred.
What hinders the outbreak of this spirit of lawlessness, which is indeed more and more declaring itself in every sphere today? It is nothing, and can be nothing but the strong hand of God repressing it, whatever may be the means or instruments He uses. But the prophecy before us speaks of One who is in the midst: until He be out from the midst, there will be a restraint upon the evil. Such an One it is not hard to recognize; nay, it would be hard not to recognize Him who is here to maintain the interests of the absent Christ, and here in that Church which is thus the House and Temple of God. When the Church is taken away to be with her Lord, then will He be also out of the midst; the Pentecostal dispensation, which began with His descent from heaven, will be at an end with His return to it. And this unites with what we have had before, to assure us that, Christianity being past, the only temple of God on earth will be, strange as it may seem to many now, the old temple at Jerusalem, so long forsaken, but where He will yet display Himself in more than all His glory of old time. The time of Antichrist will not, of course, be yet the time in which that glory shall return; but return it will; and the same prophet who saw its departure has seen and described its return, to depart no more (Ezek. 1 — 5): — a prophecy by the very terms of it never yet accomplished, but which, as God is true, must be therefore in the future, now surely near. So long as we fail to see this, what the apostle speaks of here will surely be misinterpreted by us, as it has been by so many. Once let us see this, and Daniel, Matthew, Revelation unite with Thessalonians in one clear, intelligible announcement which makes how much else clear as to the days at hand.
The Church must depart before the lawless one can be revealed; the light that is yet in the world must depart, and darkness cover the earth, — yea, gross darkness the peoples; and then "the Lord shall arise on" Israel, "and His glory shall be seen upon" her.
When that glory arises, its first act will be the smiting down of the powers of the earth, then combined against Him who made them. Israel is thus freed from the hand of her persecutors, and of the man of sin, with his standard of defiance unfurled in the very place of His throne. The words of the apostle here are but the application of the words of the prophet (Isa. 11:1-5): "He shall smite the earth with the rod of His mouth, and with the breath of His lips shall He slay the wicked (one)." In Revelation also (Rev. 19:15), "out of His mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it He should smite the nations; and He shall rule them with a rod of iron." Certainly it is an extreme of spiritualistic misinterpretation which here can see only the destruction of error by the preached gospel! The time of the manifestation of His presence will be the time of judgment for His gospel rejected; and the man of sin and his followers will not be converted, but slain. The redemption accomplished when He "treadeth the wine-press of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God," will not be a redemption by sacrifice, Himself bearing the wrath, as so many have taken it, but the redemption of His people by power out of the hands of their enemies. The iron rod is still indeed the shepherd's rod, but it is used in the defence of the flock; and so the Lord says of His saints, as associated with Him at that time: "And he that overcometh, and keepeth My works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to pieces even as I received of My Father" (Rev. 2:26, 27; Ps. 2:8, 9). Thus alone will the world come under the dominion of the saints.
4. The apostle goes on to show what the Lord speaks of as "the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth (Rev. 3:10). Scientific infidelity now avouches with a sneer that we never see a miracle, and Hume's argument against all evidence in favor of such is its contradiction of universal experience. But it is soon to he matter of extensive experience that miracles there are; only in a very opposite interest to that of Christianity. These things are even now showing themselves in a more or less tentative and doubtful way; they are yet to throw off all reserve, and challenge the faith of the world. "Powers and signs and wonders" are the threefold designation of miracles in Scripture: "wonders," which excite attention and admiration; "signs," or timings that have meaning and doctrine; "powers," that are evidently beyond human. These have borne witness in past time to the truth; — never proved it, apart from the truth itself with which they were connected: and this is the mistake of so many at all times, that a real miracle — something that could be rightly spoken of as all these — is an absolute guarantee of the message that it brings. Thus they are ready at any time to follow what is thus supported. Yet, if there are heavenly beings, — "angels that excel in strength," — it is evident that, if permitted, and if evil enough to attempt it, they could at any time lead us thus according to their mind. Now that is the very thing which God has declared He will permit, when the time shall have arrived. When men have shown that they desire the truth no longer, and the patient longsuffering of God has, at last, no justification further, that will have come to pass for the professing Christian world which we recognize as coming to pass in the history of individuals: God will say again, "Ephraim is joined to his idols: let him alone." And then will rise up one "whose coming is according to the energy of Satan, with all power and signs and wonders of falsehood," — no longer in the interests of truth, but of a lie, — "and in all deceit of unrighteousness for those that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved."
Dangerous would it be, as well as foolish, to assert that this is of the past, and not the future; — that it has been fulfilled in Romanism, or in any like way. Has the power of Rome, whatever its pretension to fabulous miracle may be, exhibited itself after this fashion? No doubt, there is a class at all times ready to be duped in this way, as we see in the rapid progress of such transparent absurdities as, for instance, "Christian Science;" but in all this there is only the feeble anticipation of a delusion which will yet carry away the multitudes of unbelieving profession. The arch deceiver is not in the Vatican, nor elsewhere at the present time: he is to be revealed in his time. And yet we may indeed discern the foreshadows of this tremendous iniquity, and realize that his way is being prepared in many events and movements that are taking place under our eyes.
5. The apostle closes here with the assurance of a holy, divine government working in all this; the worst form of evil will become (while remaining evil no less in itself) the meting out of righteous recompense to the rejectors of the truth. Indeed the very motives which lead men to the rejection of Christ lead them of necessity to the reception of Antichrist. "I am come in My Father's name, and ye receive Me not; if another come in his own name, him ye will receive." That which is according to their own taste they are permitted at last to have; and we need not doubt that it will present itself with abundance of pretentious claims, and decorated with all the taking titles of liberty, equality and fraternity, which have already proved their power to deceive the masses, and in the name of which, about a century ago, the blood of multitudes ran copiously in the streets, to the frantic delight of the onlookers. Still that which hath been is that which shall be — only with increase of malignancy in an incurable evil, for which not even a palliative any longer exists. The light will have departed which can make vice any longer ashamed, and from the restraint of all but the lusts of those as reprobate as themselves, men shall at last be free. The earth owes this spectacle yet to the patient heavens; and it will be given: sin allowed to be its own terrible witness against itself, — a witness at which eternity will shudder.
Let us beware also, Christians as we may be, how we treat the truth which God has entrusted to us. Here also the rule works surely, that every bit of truth rejected delivers us up to error; and on the coin for which we sell the truth there is at all times, faint as it may be, the image of Antichrist. What debtors are we to divine grace! May we be kept in the sense of our need of it, in the salutary humility which will make us ever afraid most of all of our own wills. Alas, "we had turned every one to his own way" but let it suffice us now: "Jehovah hath laid upon Him the iniquity of us all."
Division 3. (2 Thess. 2:13 — 3:18.)
Separation to God the manifestation of the saint.
The doctrine of the epistle ends here; and the apostle, after his constant manner, closes with exhortation. Sin, the world, the power of the enemy, are yet to manifest themselves in a horrible unity which shall be a lesson for all time. The principles are all at work around us, though the restraint of God's hand is upon their working. The saint is, therefore, one separated from the world with a far more than outward separation: he is set apart in his very nature to God, in whose service he finds freedom in communion with whom is his deepest possible delight. As the Lord could in every sense say, so can the believer say, in so far as his new nature is concerned, "The prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me." Just on this account, however, he is conscious that there is still within him a world that would link him with, and claim him for, that outside world from which God has separated him. And because of this, self-judgment is a constant necessity to him. He has a self of which he can yet say, through grace, that it is not himself. He is delivered from it, and yet has to abide in the power of his deliverance. He is exercised as to good and evil after a manner which no other being knows; painfully, and yet most healthfully. He is qualifying indeed for companionship with Him who for him has felt the horror of sin, — not in Him, but upon Him. Abundant provision has there been made for him, that he may grow into communion with his Lord. For him all the history of the past as God reads it has been written out, in what becomes in the divine wisdom types and parables of the present; while he is set in a place which lifts him above the whole sphere of seductive self-interest into that new creation scene where Christ is all and in all, and in whose light he finds light. In abiding in Christ, in the joy of what He is, and thus finding everything his, the power and so the manifestation of the saint are found.
1. What has saved us from the awful tyranny of evil in a world whose self-chosen prince is Satan, and not Christ? From first to last salvation is the work of divine love, which has from the beginning chosen us to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth. Out of the whole region of falsehood the sovereignty of truth has rescued us, making way for itself by the sweet enfranchising glad tidings of grace which is in Christ, and which leads us on a path brightened by the beckoning glory. The first exhortation, therefore, is to stand fast and hold fast the truth. There were already adversaries, as the epistle itself shows; and they need a strength beyond their own, which he prays the God they knew so well, and who was in such tender relationship with them, to minister abundantly.
2. He needs also their prayers himself, charged as he is with that gospel the power of which they had themselves proved, that it might run and be glorified in many like themselves, spite of the, opposition of unreasoning and evil men, in whom true reason would have led to the faith they had not. For them and for himself he can lean upon the Lord's faithfulness; desiring that the Lord Himself direct their hearts into the love of God, and into that patience of Christ which yet went on untiringly for the accomplishment of men's salvation.
3. Disorder within faced them more menacingly; and here grace did not suggest an easy toleration of the evil, but separation from if; not indeed the cutting off of the offender from the assembly at large, — a severity of dealing not yet required by the gravity of the case, but the lesser reproof of personal avoidance. It would be the destruction and not the maintenance of discipline to carry it beyond the end sought, which was in the first place restoration, where possible, and not cutting off. No doubt there are cases in which the sin is of a nature to destroy all present confidence, and then there is no other course but cutting off. In the one before us there is the lack of self-judgment, a spirit of self-indulgence, and spiritual conceit, in itself distressing and liable to be followed by some open fall; but as yet not without hope of recovery. Here was a call, therefore, for admonition, a testimony to the conscience, in which, of course, every one feeling rightly would coincide, but still individual. Generally followed up, it would do much to prevent the possibility of continuance of an evil, of which the streams that fed it had to be found outside itself. Foolish talkers are maintained by the folly of hearers; and bread eaten without cost must find those ready to pay the cost. Here, indeed, a false liberality might do harm to many more than those who indulged it. How little is thought of the various ways in which we may become "partakers of other men's sins!" How careful was the apostle, while having such a claim as few besides could urge, and none perhaps could refuse, still rather, for example's sake, to forbear to act upon it, than furnish the least possible excuse for others in this way. Self-sacrificing love had marked the conduct of one who sought not theirs but themselves. And the rule for these disorderly ones was that they were to obey the general law of man's existence, that if they did not work they should not eat.
On the other hand, there must be care that there should be no harshness or unbrotherly conduct, which would destroy once more the effect of the discipline. Not harshness or legality could accomplish the end sought, but only love; the assurance of which would lay hold upon the offender; drawing, while enabling the admonition to obtain audience. Only at another's feet can one wash them.
The apostle closes his epistle, as usual, with salutations. He prays that they may abide constantly in peace; true as the ordering of the Lord of peace can make it. Peace is that to which all His ways tend ever, and which will be the final result of all. Creation, brought into complete subjection to Himself, will manifest in all its parts and relations the harmony of its complex and glorious unity. To this peace every step taken truly with God tends therefore also necessarily. And he who walks with God finds ever that, as His ways are holiness, so, spite of whatever opposition, all His paths are peace: the presence of the Lord with His people must needs ensure this.
To guard them against such impositions as he was, at least, afraid of in their case, he tells them that his greeting, in his own handwriting, would be the token of a genuine communication from himself. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ was, as we ever see, the inner token.