Dark Days Indeed

And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming. The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, 10 and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. 11 Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, 12 in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. 2 Thessalonians 2:8-12 ESV

Helping Christ-followers understand the events surrounding the end times was important to Paul because he knew that knowledge would dramatically influence the way they lived their lives in the present. Without a firm grasp on the divine timeline of the last days, believers in every age would find themselves easy prey to every false doctrine and spurious opinion that came along. Even Jesus warned that there would be those who showed up claiming to be Him and declaring themselves to be the Messiah.

“Don’t let anyone mislead you, for many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah.’ They will deceive many.” – Matthew 24:4 NLT

Without a well-developed understanding of God’s plans for those final days, people will be susceptible to the claims of false teachers and self-proclaimed prophets. Jesus warned His disciples.

“And many false prophets will appear and will deceive many people. Sin will be rampant everywhere, and the love of many will grow cold.” – Matthew 24:11-12 NLT

So, when Paul heard that false teachers were causing angst and anxiety among the Thessalonians by declaring the day of the Lord had already begun, he felt strongly compelled to correct their error. As discussed in yesterday’s lesson, “the day of the Lord” refers to that future period of time which includes the Tribulation, the Second Coming, the Millennial Kingdom, and the Great White Throne Judgment. According to Paul, the Rapture of the church will be the event that sets all of these things in motion. With the removal of all believers from the earth, the restraining influence of the church will create a moral and spiritual vacuum that will allow wickedness to spread like wildfire.

In verse 7, Paul refers to an individual who acts as a restraining influence on evil and prevents the coming of “the man of lawlessness…the son of destruction” (2 Thessalonians 2:3 ESV).

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 2:7 ESV

This “restrainer” is the Holy Spirit, who inhabits the church and every single believer. With the rapture of the church, all believers living at that time will be “caught up” to meet the Lord in the air. Then they will receive their glorified bodies and return to heaven with Christ. With their departure, the primary means by which the Holy Spirit restrains wickedness in the world will be gone. Whether we realize it or not, the presence of Spirit-filled Christians on this planet plays a powerful role in holding back the forces of darkness. Jesus stated, “You are the light of the world…” (Matthew 5:14 ESV), but with the church’s rapture, the light will be removed, allowing the darkness to envelop the world as never before.

That is why this period of time is called the Tribulation. It will be a literal seven-year span of time that begins the day of the Lord and will feature cataclysmic events and divine judgments that will be unprecedented in their intensity. Jesus described it in rather stark terms.

“…there will be greater anguish than at any time since the world began. And it will never be so great again. In fact, unless that time of calamity is shortened, not a single person will survive.” – Matthew 24:21-22 NLT

There is no doubt that evil was running rampant in Paul’s day. In fact, he said, “the mystery of lawlessness is already at work” (2 Thessalonians 2:7 ESV). The New Living Translation puts it this way: “this lawlessness is already at work secretly.” The apostle John describes much of the false teaching that was infiltrating the church as “the spirit of the Antichrist.”

…if someone claims to be a prophet and does not acknowledge the truth about Jesus, that person is not from God. Such a person has the spirit of the Antichrist, which you heard is coming into the world and indeed is already here. – 1 John 4:3 NLT

The evil influence of this “man of lawlessness” was already alive and well in the 1st-Century because he will be nothing more than a tool of Satan. In the book of Revelation, John provides details concerning his vision of the Antichrist, describing him as “the beast” who receives his power and authority from “the dragon” (Satan).

…to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority.…and the whole earth marveled as they followed the beast. And they worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” – Revelation 13:2, 3-4 ESV

While there will be a literal, real-life Antichrist who rules and reigns during the Tribulation, the spirit or attitude of the Antichrist has been alive in every generation. Paul warned Timothy that the last days would be filled with apostasy and a level of rebellion like nothing the world has ever witnessed before.

…in the last days there will be very difficult times. For people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred. They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God. They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. – 2 Timothy 3:1-5 NLT

And, even though Paul is describing the last days, he warns Timothy to “Stay away from people like that!” (2 Timothy 3:5 NLT). Why? Because those kinds of people can be found in every generation. But in the last days, they will represent the majority of people on earth and they will eagerly take part in what Paul describes as the “rebellion” (2 Thessalonians 2:3). The Greek word is apostasia, from which we get our English word, “apostasy.” It means, “a falling away” or “a defection from the truth.” Remember what Paul told Timothy. The people living in the last days “will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly” (2 Timothy 3:5 NLT).

Paul describes Antichrist’s powerful influence over the world during the last days.

This man will come to do the work of Satan with counterfeit power and signs and miracles. He will use every kind of evil deception to fool those on their way to destruction, because they refuse to love and accept the truth that would save them. – 2 Thessalonians 2:9-10 NLT

John adds his own description of Antichrist’s reign of terror.

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. – Revelation 13:5-8 NLT

Notice John’s mention of worship. And remember what Paul told Timothy: “They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly.” Those living in the last days will worship Antichrist, who slanders the name of God and sets himself up as a replacement for God. Paul describes him as one “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).

The prophet Daniel was also given a vision of this future world leader.

…a fierce king, a master of intrigue, will rise to power. He will become very strong, but not by his own power. He will cause a shocking amount of destruction and succeed in everything he does. He will destroy powerful leaders and devastate the holy people. He will be a master of deception and will become arrogant; he will destroy many without warning. – Daniel 8:23-25 NLT

In the book of Revelation, John describes the creation of an idol, made to represent the Antichrist, which is set up in the temple of God. And the false prophet, the second-lieutenant of the Antichrist, “was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast might even speak and might cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain” (Revelation 13:15 ESV).

These will not be ordinary, run-of-the-mill days. As Jesus said, “there will be greater anguish than at any time since the world began” (Matthew 24:21 NLT). And Paul indicates that those days will be marked by a level of deception and spiritual delusion like nothing the world has ever seen before. People will “refuse to love and accept the truth that would save them” (2 Thessalonians 2:10 NLT). And, as a result, “God will cause them to be greatly deceived, and they will believe these lies” (2 Thessalonians 2:11 NLT).

During the Tribulation, God will bring a wave of unprecedented judgments on the world. He will reveal Himself through a series of cataclysmic plagues and meteorological catastrophes. And while those who endure these judgments will recognize His hand behind them, they will still refuse to repent of their sins and turn to Him.

But the people who did not die in these plagues still refused to repent of their evil deeds and turn to God. They continued to worship demons and idols made of gold, silver, bronze, stone, and wood—idols that can neither see nor hear nor walk! And they did not repent of their murders or their witchcraft or their sexual immorality or their thefts. – Revelation 9:20-21 NLT

And as Paul sadly states, “they will be condemned for enjoying evil rather than believing the truth” (2 Thessalonians 2:12 NLT).

The end times will be marked by rampant rebellion and level of spiritual blindness like nothing we have ever seen before. Even while recognizing the hand of God behind their suffering, mankind will shake its fist in His face, choosing to endure His divine punishment rather than admit to the truth of their own sin and their need for a Savior.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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A Long-Term Perspective.

15 “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), 16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17 Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house, 18 and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. 19 And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! 20 Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath. 21 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. 22 And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. 23 Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. 24 For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. 25 See, I have told you beforehand. 26 So, if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. 27 For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 28 Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.

29 “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30 Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31 And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.– Matthew 24:15-31 ESV

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In this chapter, which has come to be known as the Olivet Discourse, we have Jesus giving His disciples a glimpse into God’s plans for the end of the age. As His upcoming death and eventual departure drew nearer, He prepared His followers to set their hopes on the future. It was all in response to their question: “what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3 ESV). Jesus was providing them with an expansive overview of the things to come. Some of what He had to say would take place in the not-so-distant future, including the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, which occurred in 70 AD. But much of what Jesus told them has still not happened. 

Jesus’ reference to the abomination of desolation refers to a passage from the Old Testament book of Daniel. In chapter 9, Daniel records a message he received from the angel, Gabriel. It was in response to a prayer Daniel had prayed on behalf of all his fellow Jews who, like him, were living in exile in Babylon. He had been reading the prophecies of Jeremiah and saw that God had promised to return the people to the land of Canaan after 70 years in captivity. Daniel knew that the 70 years was quickly approaching, and he longed to see God fulfill His promise.

Gabriel delivered the following message to Daniel:

“Know therefore and understand that from the going out of the word to restore and build Jerusalem to the coming of an anointed one, a prince, there shall be seven weeks. Then for sixty-two weeks it shall be built again with squares and moat, but in a troubled time.” – Daniel 9:25 ESV

Daniel had been thinking about the fast-approaching date of Israel’s return to the promised land. But God was giving him a much broader, longer-term view of the things to come. Yes, a remnant of the Israelites would return to Judah at the end of the 70 years of exile. And they would rebuild Jerusalem and reconstruct the temple. But then, God told Daniel that a period of seven sets of seven (49 years) and sixty-two sets of seven (434 years) would pass, once the people had been restored to the land. That adds up to 483 years. Once the people had returned to the land, it would be 483 years until the Anointed One came. This was a prediction of the coming of Jesus in His incarnation. But Gabriel also predicted that the “anointed one shall be cut off and shall have nothing” (Daniel 9:26 ESV). This was a reference to Jesus’ eventual death.

But what Gabriel shared next has yet to occur. He was giving Daniel a glimpse into the distant future, the end times.

26 “And the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war. Desolations are decreed. 27 And he shall make a strong covenant with many for one week, and for half of the week he shall put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate, until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator.” – Daniel 9:26-27 ESV

And this is what Jesus referred to in His Olivet Discourse. He too mentioned a time yet to come. The prophetic words of Jesus describe a series of future events, and they are complex, confusing, and controversial. Jesus told the disciples that there would be difficult days. When these future events occur, those living in Judea should run for their lives (vs. 16). They should not bother packing (vs. 17). If they’re away from the house when it happens, they should not go back for any reason (vs. 18). It would be best not to have small children when these things take place (vs. 19). Those who are alive at that time should pray that nothing hinders their departure, including bad weather or the Sabbath itself (vs. 20). Why? Because these will be the worst days the world has ever known or ever will know (vs. 21). Then Jesus stated that unless God intervenes, no one will survive (vs. 22). And while all these things will leave the impression that Jesus’ return is near, no one knows the actual day (vs. 23-28).

“But immediately after the tribulation of those days THE SUN WILL BE DARKENED, AND THE MOON WILL NOT GIVE ITS LIGHT, AND THE STARS WILL FALL from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” – Matthew 24:29 NASB

Here, Jesus describes what is known as the Great Tribulation. It will be a literal seven-year period of great persecution and evil on the earth. But before this all takes place, the Church will be removed or raptured. Jesus will return to the earth in order to gather all the believers who remain. Paul encourages us about this in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18. The removal of believers will result in the removal of the indwelling Holy Spirit, the One who restrains evil in the world. And the removal of the stabilizing influence of believers and the presence of the Spirit will result in a time of unrestrained and unadulterated evil on the earth. This period of tribulation will be accompanied by the coming of the Antichrist, described by Paul in 2 Thessalonians 2. It will be a time of intense persecution of the people of Israel, greater than anything they have ever experienced. But it will end with the second coming of Christ.

The Return of the King!

These difficult days will end with the second coming of Christ.  The tribulation will culminate with the return of Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

“And then at last, the sign that the Son of Man is coming will appear in the heavens, and there will be deep mourning among all the people of the earth. And they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” – Matthew 24:30 NLT

The disciples would not live to see this day. Neither will we. And Jesus informs us that no one knows when this day will happen.

“However, no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows.” – Matthew 24:36 NLT

Just like in the days of Noah, Jesus’ return will catch those who are living at the time unprepared and off guard. It will come suddenly and unexpectedly. But during the period of tribulation, there will be those who, by the grace of God, come to faith in Jesus Christ. There will be 144,000 whom God will save and appoint as His missionaries to the nations. They will lead countless people to Christ from every tribe, nation, and tongue. Then Jesus will return.

“And he [the Son of Man] will send out his angels with the mighty blast of a trumpet, and they will gather his chosen ones from all over the world – from the farthest ends of the earth and heaven.” – Matthew 24:31 NLT

Jesus says that there will be two men working in a field. One will be taken, the other left. Two women will be grinding flour, one will be taken, the other left. He says that the chosen ones or the elect will be taken. This clearly indicates that there will be those who come to faith in Christ during the Great Tribulation. And His second coming will include a dividing between believers and non-believers – all those who are alive at that time. This is NOT a rapture passage.

Even though the disciples would not live to see these events, they were to live in readiness. And, as we make new disciples, we are to pass on this attitude of preparedness. We are not to allow ourselves to be dulled by the world and lulled into complacency. Jesus warns:

“Watch out! Don’t let your hearts be dulled by carousing and drunkenness, and by the worries of this life. Don’t let that day catch you unaware, like a trap. For that day will come upon everyone living on the earth. Keep alert at all times. And pray that you might be strong enough to escape these coming horrors and stand before the Son of Man.” – Luke 21:34-36 NLT

What difference should all this make to us today? Do you find yourself dulled by the worries of this life? Do you live in a state of readiness for the Lord’s return? Do you have a proper understanding of what is to come? Jesus was preparing His disciples to keep their eyes focused on the end. Their immediate future was going to be difficult. He was going to die, resurrect, and then leave them. And they would be responsible for carrying out His commission to share the gospel with the world. They would suffer as a result, and many of them would die martyr’s deaths. But He wanted them to know that God had a plan in place. Their immediate circumstances would not be an indication of how things were going to end. Jesus would eventually leave them, but He would also return.

And, as modern-day believers, we need to share the same long-term perspective, focusing our attention on the end that God has in store. Jesus has promised a future day that will feature “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matthew 24:30 ESV).

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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.

(MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson