II Thessalonians - A Letter of Warning and Comfort
The Church's Error on the Second Coming
It is interesting to note that the first epistles St. Paul wrote deal with the last topic in Christian theology: the end times. After only a few months since St. Paul composed his first letter to the Thessalonians, he heard that despite their growing merits, they were still beset by wild eschatological excitement. What had previously been a mild error concerning the Lord's second coming had now blown up into an enormous problem. His first epistle was calculated to dispel the misunderstandings and fears the church had concerning the second coming, and to urge them to live calm and diligent lives; but to his astonishment, the fervor of their fanaticism was increased by an unfortunate misapplication of his words.
Their fanaticism seems to have fixed upon certain statements of the Apostle's, such as the one in 1 Thess 4:15—"We, who are alive and remain to the Coming of the Lord, shall certainly not precede those have fallen asleep." It was almost natural that they should interpret the words to mean that the Apostle himself expected to survive until that glorious Day. If so, the Day must be very close at hand; and again, if so, what use were the petty details of daily living? Thus, many of the Thessalonians had put down their plows and saws and spades, and forsook all dutiful work in life to wait in suspense for the hour when the earth would be touched by the clouds on which the Lord stood. The whole framework of society in the Thessalonian church was in danger of dissolution.
And we know from St. Peter that the instability produced by these misunderstandings was intentionally created by certain corrupt men who found pleasure in distorting the Apostle's words.1
Ever remembering the heart-felt welcoming of the gospel that St. Paul found in Thessalonica, and every joyful in the continual news of the Thessalonians' growing faith and love2, he again spends the entire first chapter in thanksgiving to God for them.3 He mentions again his boasting of them to other churches4, and he strives to reassure them in their present persecutions that their struggles are what make them worthy of the kingdom of God5, and that God himself would take vengeance on their adversaries.
In the third chapter the Apostle deals specifically with the "busybodies"6, those who had given up daily work with the excuse that they were waiting for the Lord to return. In answer to such idleness St. Paul points directly to himself as an example when he was among them.7 He took food from nobody without charge in the Thessalonian church—although it was his right as their evangelist and pastor—but decided to work, even long hours into the night, to avoid becoming a "burden" to them.8 Finally, he set the following rule: "If anyone will not work, neither will he eat."9 And if, after receipt of this letter, anyone refused obedience to this rule, they were to avoid that man that he might be ashamed; not to consider him as an enemy, however, but to admonish him as a brother.10 St. Paul was impressing upon them the idea that, although the Lord's advent might be very near, they were still to "work in quietness" during the wait.11
The Man of Lawlessness
In the second chapter we find what seems to have been the primary object or purpose of the epistle. It was important for the Thessalonians to know that they did not need to get up every morning with the fearful expectation that the sun might be darkened before it set,12 and the air shattered by the angelic trumpet, and all the elements dissolved by fire.13 St. Paul tells them that Christ's return, however near, was not as instantaneous as they thought; because the apostasy or "falling away"14 must come first. And this apostasy will find its final and personal development in "the man of lawlessness"—a human Satan or antichrist who will set himself up as the arch-rival of God.15 St. Paul then speaks about some "restraining" power or person16 which is keeping this mystery of lawlessness in check. He says the lawlessness was even already at work; but it would finally be consumed by the breath of the Lord and the brightness of His parousia.17
Now, who exactly is this man of lawlessness; what is meant by the "falling away;" and what is the "restraining power" that has temporarily bound the wickedness within certain limits? We do not know. St. Paul cloaks his message in vague terms because, as he says, he had previously explained to them these things when he was with them18; and apparently, it must have posed some real danger to their safety to plainly mention the subject by written words. Scholars believe, for example, that he might have been indicating the Roman empire.
We modern readers must content ourselves with the fact that, regarding the actual details of this passage, it will always be an insoluble enigma. What seems to us so hazy and distant was to the Thessalonians close and distinct; and these words must have had the greatest interest to them. Many theories have been advanced to explain the second chapter, and some quite preposterous, but none can ever be sure and final. What we do know however is that lawlessness will ever be working in the world, deceiving men and leading them into unrighteous pleasure19; but it will meet its final doom at the bright and glorious coming of the King.