The Tribulation (1)

The assembly at Thessalonica was in turmoil. They were enduring persecutions and tribulation (2Thes 1:4), passing through a time of intense pressure and suffering. But though these circumstances were taxing, they were not, in themselves, the greatest disturbance to the peace of the Thessalonian believers. A more devastating threat came from those who sought to interpret and explain the Thessalonian’s sufferings. Claiming apostolic authority for their teaching, these propagators of false doctrine pointed to the prevailing conditions as proof positive “that the day of the Lord is present” (2Thes 2:2, Darby). The trials through which the believers were passing, they suggested, demonstrated that the Tribulation had begun.

The Thessalonian believers should, of course, have known better than to give credence to this teaching. After all, in the first epistle, Paul had singled out their expectation of Christ’s return, and their salvation from the Tribulation as one of the outstanding features of their testimony: “Ye turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to await His Son from the heavens, Whom He raised from among the dead, Jesus, our Deliverer from the coming wrath” (1Thes 1:9-10, Darby). Later in the first epistle, Paul urged the believers to “put on for an helmet, the hope of salvation. For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ” (1Thes 5:8-9, Darby). This knowledge, that God had not marked them out to pass through the ravages of the Tribulation, but to obtain salvation, ought to have stayed and steadied their thoughts and armored their minds against the assault of false teaching.

However, it was one thing to know the truth in theory, and quite another to keep hold of it in the midst of trial and turmoil, and with the specious arguments and explanations of the apostles of error hammering on their ears. Paul understood this, and feared that these believers would be “shaken in mind, or be troubled” (2Thes 2:2). And so he writes to reassure them by reminding them of the things he had told them while he was with them (2:5), about the events that would take place before and during the Tribulation.

He begins by taking them back to the truth that had been so central to the first epistle. As the Thessalonians looked with dismay at the events that were unfolding about them, and began to entertain the idea that something had gone wrong and that they were, after all, in the day of the Lord, Paul hastens to remind them of the truth that would, more than any other, restore and reinforce their peace of mind. So, he beseeches them “by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto Him” (2:1). That Christ was coming was a comfort, but the reminder that, at His coming, they were going – leaving earth to be gathered to Him “in the air” (1Tehs 4:17) – went right to the heart of the Thessalonians’ fears.

Paul adds to that comfort in the following verses by outlining two events that must take place before the day of the Lord could begin. These events are, first, “the falling away” (2Thes 2:3) and, second, the revelation of the man of sin (vv3-4). “Falling away” is apostasy, a word that means “departure,” or even “rebellion.” Some commentators have understood this in a spatial sense and have seen in this verse another reference to the Rapture. However, its usage elsewhere in Scripture and in other ancient texts supports the more traditional view that the text refers to a great spiritual and religious departure. The history of Christendom has been marked by much apostasy – denial of and departure from divine truth. This, however, is the apostasy, an act of rejection unique in its significance. This remarkable apostasy will set the stage for the revelation of the man of sin (lawlessness, ESV) “the son of perdition; who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshiped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God.” So thoroughly will Christendom have turned from God that the vaunting claims of this usurper will be accepted, and his self-enthronement will be accepted and applauded by those who have utterly and finally departed from the truth.

This passage tells us a little about the character and actions of this man. He is characterized by lawlessness. Uniquely, he shares with Judas the title “son of perdition.” His aim is total opposition to God, or to all that is called God. Other passages of Scripture will fill in the details of this evil figure. From a comparison of Revelation 13:1 and 17:15, we learn that he is a Gentile. He is the leader of a revived Roman empire (Dan 9:26). He leads a great political and military federation (Rev 13:1; 17:12-14) based on diplomacy (Dan 8:24-25; Rev 17:12) and on conquest (Dan 7:8, 24). He will be a man of remarkable ability (Dan 7:8, 20; 8:23-25) and of great guile (Eze 28:2-5). Ultimately, the source of his power and the energy behind his meteoric rise to global prominence and dominance is satanic (Rev 13:4; 2Thes 2:9). He will be hailed and acknowledged by those “who received not the love of the truth that they might be saved” (2Thes 2:10). Having rejected the truth of the gospel, these individuals will be judicially blinded – God will “send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie” (v11).

The fact that the day of the Lord could not begin before these events take place must surely have reassured the Thessalonians, as it should us. But another question would have arisen in their minds. Granted, the apostasy had not taken place when Paul wrote, but was it possible that they would soon see this full-blown apostasy and find themselves in the Tribulation?

Paul addresses this question by going back over the events that he has already covered. But he does not simply rewind and replay. Rather, he moves to a different point of view. Paul takes us behind the scenes of divine purpose to enable us to more clearly understand why neither the apostasy nor the antichrist can emerge before the rapture has taken place: “And now ye know what withholdeth (restrains, Darby), that he might be revealed in his time. For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only He who now letteth (restrains, Darby), until He be taken out of the way. And then shall that Wicked be revealed’ (2Thes 2:6-8).

The apostasy and the revelation of the man of sin are being restrained. These verses present two restrainers – a “what” in verse 6, and a “Who” in verse 7. The restraining person will be “taken out of the way,” and then – and only then – will “that Wicked”‘ be revealed. While there have been some differences in the interpretation of these verses, the view that the Church is in view in verse 6, and the Holy Spirit in verse 7 seems to fit best with the context here. Satan is not free to act as he will. The presence on earth of the Holy Spirit, indwelling the Church, withholds the fruition and fulfilment of his diabolical designs for earth. Only when the Church is removed at the rapture, and the Holy Spirit taken out of the way will the apostasy take place, and the man of sin be revealed.

The Thessalonian believers, then, did not need to fear that the Day of the Lord was present, and that they had entered into the Tribulation. The very fact that they remained on earth indicated that divine power was still restraining. Not only could the Tribulation not begin while they were still on earth, even the necessary preliminaries could not take place. And so they could face both the assault of circumstances and the attack of error without dismay. At the commencement of the chapter, Paul had expressed his concern that their minds and their emotions would be disturbed, that they would be shaken in mind and troubled. As he brings the chapter to its close, his prayer is that their hearts and minds alike would be reached: “Now our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and God, even our Father, which hath loved us, and hath given us everlasting consolation and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts, and stablish you in every good word and work” (vv16-17). May the truth of God’s Word, and an understanding of our place in the eternal purposes of God likewise equip us to face the challenges and the errors of our own day.