It has been said that if two people agree on absolutely everything, then one of them is unnecessary. That statement is a rather facetious acknowledgement of the fact that on any given topic of study or conversation among any given group of individuals, it is going to be difficult to find 100 percent agreement among all those present.
That fact makes an appropriate introduction to this week’s Bible study, because the study passage focuses on Christ’s return—and there is perhaps no other area of Christian doctrine in which there is more divergence of opinion among believers than the return of the Lord Jesus. A person might easily become overwhelmed by the number of varying interpretations of those scripture passages which speak of the Second Coming of Christ.
Ours is by no means the first generation of Christians to experience uncertainty or disagreement over the Lord’s return. Our study passage demonstrates there was some confusion on this subject among the Christians at Thessalonica, even to the point that some of the Thessalonians were concerned the Day of the Lord might already have come, and somehow they had missed out on that event (vv. 1-2).
We marvel at how the Thessalonians might have been deluded into such an erroneous belief. How, we wonder, could a Christian believe the Lord Jesus Christ would return in such a way that his followers are unaware of his coming?
Part of the answer to that question might lie in the fact that those rumors were being falsely tied to the Apostle Paul himself. Evidently, some were claiming Paul had spoken prophetic words or written letters indicating the Day of the Lord already had come—claims the apostle strongly disavowed (vv. 2-3). But even though those statements were patently false, the fact that Paul’s name had been attached to them gave them weight with the Thessalonians, who doubtless held the apostle in the highest regard.
To settle their fears, the apostle reminded them of some vital facts related to the Lord's return that he already had taught them during the time he had spent with them in person (v. 5). We easily can hear Paul encouraging them, “Don’t let yourself be confused or persuaded by false teachings concerning the Lord’s return; be convinced in your own mind of the truth.”
This passage might be taken as a warning against placing too much weight on the words of others concerning the second coming of Christ, rather than what the Scripture says. Walk into any Christian bookstore and you will find dozens of volumes on both the fiction and nonfiction shelves thematically tied to Christ’s return. Those books can be valuable aids to the study of Scripture, and many persons have their favorite authors to whom they turn for guidance on the doctrine of Last Things.
But we must be careful that our beliefs concerning the Lord’s return are derived from Scripture rather than from popular literature.
One of the things Paul already had taught the Thessalonians concerning Christ’s return—and which he reminded them of on this occasion—was that certain other events had to take place before the Lord appeared. Among those other events will be a time of great rebellion against God, as well as the appearance of the one whom Paul called the “man of lawlessness” (which many students of Scripture see as a reference to the Antichrist). A comparison of the NIV translation “man of lawlessness” and the KJV “man of sin” is interesting in light of 1 John 3:4: “Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness.”
The fact that Paul stated the Lord would not return until after that “man of lawlessness” had appeared does not imply Paul was convinced the return of Christ would occur (from his perspective) quickly, or even within his own lifetime. The apostle also was not attempting to help the Thessalonians create a systematic timeline of events leading up to and culminating in the second coming of Christ; he simply was reminding them certain things would be taking place before the Lord returns. Those first things had not yet taken place, and so it was not possible that Christ should have yet come back.
We cannot be absolutely certain about what Paul might have been referring to in verses 6-8—specifically, what that restraining power is which currently is holding the powers of lawlessness in check, but which will be removed prior to Christ’s return. Once again there are a number of explanations which have been offered as to the identity of who or what that restraining power is, but we cannot be dogmatic about it. But although we cannot be certain about the identities of these personalities described in the passage, we can rest in the assurance that God is in charge of the timing of all these events.
The concepts of lawlessness and God’s judgement of sin are explored further in verses 9-12. God will use their own error to punish those who choose to believe lies and delight in wickedness rather than accepting and living according to the truth (vv. 11-12). This passage calls to mind statements Paul made in Romans 1, where the apostle wrote God’s judgment consists in part of him giving sinful people over to their own sins (Romans 1:24, 26, 28).
The study passage closes with words of commendation and encouragement from Paul to the Thessalonians. He was thankful for their inclusion in God’s saving and sanctifying work (vv. 13-14), and reminded them to “stand firm and hold to the teachings” that he had communicated to them in person and by letter (v. 15).
You might have heard it said that U.S. Treasury agents are trained to spot counterfeit currency by spending hours upon hours studying the genuine article. By thoroughly knowing what a real $20 bill looks like, an agent will have a firm standard in his mind against which to compare and detect fraud. In a similar way, a thorough familiarity with the truth of Scripture will give us a ready standard against which error can be detected.
This encouragement in verse 15 to hold fast to the truth makes a fitting conclusion to our study of this passage. Whether we are talking about the return of Christ or any other area of Christian doctrine, there are basic biblical truths we must hang onto. We can remain calm in the face of numerous and confusing winds of doctrine (Ephesians 4:14), because the truth will give us a standard against which we can compare and measure what we read and hear from others.