5 Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? 6 And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. 7 For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. – 2 Thessalonians 2:5-7 ESV
The Thessalonian believers to whom Paul wrote were undergoing persecution for their faith. But they were also experiencing unnecessary suffering as a result of errant end-times teaching that had made its way into their fellowship. In his previous letter, Paul had taught that the Great Tribulation would not begin until the Rapture of the church had taken place (1 Thessalonians 5). The Rapture would usher in “the day of the Lord” which would include the seven-year period of tribulation and end with the Second Coming of Christ. But others were teaching that the presence of persecution and trials was evidence that the day of the Lord had already begun. In essence, they were teaching the Thessalonian believers that they were already living in the great period of end-times tribulation.
Paul believed in and taught a pretribulation Rapture, which was based on Jesus Christ returning for His bride, the church, and removing all His followers from the earth. They would be “caught up” to meet Him in the air and return to heaven to live with Him there. And this removal of His bride would protect them from the judgment of God that would come on the earth during the Great Tribulation.
For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ… – 1 Thessalonians 5:9 ESV
Paul had taught the Thessalonians to find encouragement in the knowledge that Jesus would one day return for the church. It may not happen in their lifetimes, but it would happen before the final period of tribulation began. The order of the end times events was the Rapture of the church, the Great Tribulation, the Second Coming, the 1,000-year reign of Christ on earth, the Great White Throne Judgment, and then the eternal state.
Even today, there are those who do not believe in the Rapture of the church. They understand and teach that there will only be Christ’s second advent. Based on this view, many conclude that we are already living in the period of tribulation and can expect the Second Coming to take place at any time.
But Paul was very specific regarding his views on the matter. In reference to the Second Coming, he stated that Jesus would come from heaven and descend to the earth in order to mete out God’s judgment on unbelieving mankind.
…when the Lord Jesus appears from heaven. He will come with his mighty angels, in flaming fire, bringing judgment on those who don’t know God and on those who refuse to obey the Good News of our Lord Jesus. – 2 Thessalonians 1:7-8 NLT
After seven years of intense judgment on the earth and all its inhabitants, God will send His Son a second time, but not in the form of an innocent baby. He will return to earth as the Warrior-King, accompanied by the host of heaven and charged with the task of dispending “the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty.”
Then I saw heaven opened, and a white horse was standing there. Its rider was named Faithful and True, for he judges fairly and wages a righteous war. His eyes were like flames of fire, and on his head were many crowns. A name was written on him that no one understood except himself. He wore a robe dipped in blood, and his title was the Word of God. The armies of heaven, dressed in the finest of pure white linen, followed him on white horses. From his mouth came a sharp sword to strike down the nations. He will rule them with an iron rod. He will release the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty, like juice flowing from a winepress. On his robe at his thigh was written this title: King of all kings and Lord of all lords. – Revelation 19:11-16 NLT
But there was confusion among the Thessalonians. On the one hand, they were eagerly expecting the return of Jesus for the church. But then, others were telling them that the tribulation had already begun. Their understanding of the end-times sequence of events was muddled and confused. And Paul makes it clear that the real heart of the matter was the Rapture of the church. He opens this chapter with the phrase: “Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him…” (2 Thessalonians 2:1 ESV).
Regardless of what others were teaching, Paul wanted the Thessalonians to rest in the knowledge that Jesus was going to return for the church. In spite of what the false teachers were claiming, the day of the Lord had not yet arrived. And, according to Paul, there were certain events that had to take place before it did.
…that day will not come until there is a great rebellion against God and the man of lawlessness is revealed—the one who brings destruction. – 2 Thessalonians 2:3 NLT
Paul refers to “the man of lawlessness,” an individual who will play a significant role in the end times scenario. The prophet, Daniel, refers to him as “the ruler” (Daniel 9:27). And this ruler will stand in direct opposition to God Almighty.
He shall speak words against the Most High,
and shall wear out the saints of the Most High,
and shall think to change the times and the law;
and they shall be given into his hand
for a time, times, and half a time. – Daniel 7:25 NLT
This individual will appear on the scene after the Rapture of the church. He will arise to power out of relative obscurity and become a global leader with great power. And as Daniel predicts, this individual will make a treaty with the nation of Israel, the chosen people of God. But halfway through the seven-year period of tribulation, he will break that treaty and launch a program of intense persecution of the Jews.
“The ruler will make a treaty with the people for a period of one set of seven, but after half this time, he will put an end to the sacrifices and offerings. And as a climax to all his terrible deeds, he will set up a sacrilegious object that causes desecration, until the fate decreed for this defiler is finally poured out on him.” – Daniel 9:27 NLT
When Daniel refers to “a time, times, and a half time,” he is speaking of the first three-and-a-half years of the tribulation.
A time – 1 + times – 2 + a half time – 1/2 = 3 1/2
Paul is revealing details concerning the end times that are meant to assuage any worries the Thessalonians may have had. The presence of trials and persecution was not a sign that the tribulation had begun. Even Jesus had warned that all kinds of ominous and seemingly portentous events would take place, but they would simply be the precursors of something far worse to come.
And you will hear of wars and threats of wars, but don’t panic. Yes, these things must take place, but the end won’t follow immediately. Nation will go to war against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in many parts of the world. But all this is only the first of the birth pains, with more to come. – Matthew 24:6-8 NLT
The ruler to whom Daniel referred and the man of lawlessness are one and the same person. He is the Antichrist, the Satan-appointed and empowered world leader who will dominate the seven years of the Great Tribulation. Paul describes him as “the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God” (2 Thessalonians 2:4 ESV). In the book of Revelation, the apostle John refers to this same individual as “the beast” and describes his open rebellion against God and His holy people.
Then the beast was allowed to speak great blasphemies against God. And he was given authority to do whatever he wanted for forty-two months. And he spoke terrible words of blasphemy against God, slandering his name and his dwelling—that is, those who dwell in heaven. And the beast was allowed to wage war against God’s holy people and to conquer them. And he was given authority to rule over every tribe and people and language and nation. And all the people who belong to this world worshiped the beast. They are the ones whose names were not written in the Book of Life that belongs to the Lamb who was slaughtered before the world was made. – Revelation 13:5-8 NLT
Again, notice that his ability to inflict persecution on God’s chosen people, Israel, is restricted to a period of 42 months or 3-1/2 years. Then God will inflict judgment on him and all those who bear the mark of the beast (Revelation 13:16-17). This will be the period of Great Tribulation, the second half of the seven years of tribulation.
Paul is describing a future period of time that has no similarity whatsoever to the circumstances in which the Thessalonians are living. They had no need to worry about whether they were living in the day of the Lord because none of the events associated with that day had taken place. Yes, Paul concedes that “the mystery of lawlessness is already at work” (2 Thessalonians 2:7 ESV). In other words, the world showed signs of the coming apostasy, but it was nothing when compared to the tribulation to come. Jesus described it this way:
“For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.” – Matthew 24:21 ESV
And Paul wanted the Thessalonians to know that the only thing preventing that fateful day from occurring was the presence of “he who now restrains” (2 Thessalonians 2:7 ESV). This is a reference to the Holy Spirit who indwells each and every believer (John 14:17), as well as the entire body of Christ (2 Corinthians 6:16). Due to the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence, the body of Christ acts as a restraining influence on the earth. When the church is raptured, this restraining influence will be removed, allowing unbridled apostasy to run rampant on the earth.
And with the church removed, God will be free to bring His full wrath to bear on the unbelieving world, for their sin and for their rejection of His gracious offer of salvation through His Son’s sacrificial death.
Things were difficult in Thessalonica, but Paul wanted the believers there to know that the real days of tribulation were yet to come. And the good news was that they would be preserved and protected from experiencing the suffering of those days because of their faith in Christ and God’s promise to save them from the wrath to come.
For God has not appointed us to suffer wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. – 1 Thessalonians 5:9 BSB
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.