End Times at Thessalonica: Act 2—The Antichrist and the Tribulation
Paul wants to comfort the persecuted believers in Thessalonica, but along the way, he has to write to correct some error within the church. They had been “shaken in mind or alarmed” (2 The 2:2)—they feared that the Lord had already returned and they had somehow missed it (cf. v. 1). Why? Someone had forged a letter from the Apostles and was spreading this vicious rumor (vv. 2–3). Paul sets them straight on these events, reminding them of what they have already been taught concerning “the day of the Lord” (vv. 1–2).
Thus, Paul begins verse one by discussing the coming (little-C) of the Lord. This "coming" is the rapture of the church, the “gathering together” we witnessed in the first act of Paul's drama. Paul explained this while he was still with the fledgling church (v. 5) and repeated it in the first Thessalonian letter. However, since then, the false teaching that Christ had already returned began to spread, and the Thessalonians believed that they had not only missed the rapture but that their troubles were part of the tribulation God promised to pour upon the earth.
There is blessing here, though: it affords Paul the opportunity to write on the second act of this drama. Remember, these acts are part of the end-times performance Paul bills as “the day of the Lord,” a period of Jesus Christ revealing Himself to the earth—which we might describe as beginning with the rapture and accelerating as His wrath pours upon the earth, but specifically culminates in His Second Coming (capital-C) to earth. Since the coming kingdom also involves a physical manifestation of the son of David upon the throne, it may also be included within the purview of His “day.” Paul explains that was no great apostasy or a great man of lawlessness in the Thessalonians’ time (v. 3), they need not worry that they have missed out on Christ's kingdom.
To look at this from another angle, since the events in the second act have not begun, then the curtain hasn't opened on the first act yet. Thus, there seems to be no room for an intermission between the acts—the great apostasy and tribulation will follow the rapture, and the Second Coming follows that. If there is only movement on stage but the curtains haven't yet opened, then the show has not started.
Now, Paul’s screenplay has an antagonist who is develops in the second act. The man who the crowd lauds at the end of the first act now stands center-stage and in opposition to God. He is the son of perdition or destruction (v. 3). He is a pseudo-messiah for the people in the confusion following the first act of the day of the Lord, standing self-exalted, placing himself over every form of worship and placing every world religion at his feet (v. 4). He swaggers into the temple of God, seating himself there as God Almighty Himself (v. 4).
Paul is not through shocking the audience. He reveals Satan stands behind the antichrist, moving and empowering him to work signs and wonders (v. 9), creating in the Antichrist a more complete antithesis to Jesus Christ. This satanic pawn comes deceiving the lost souls upon the earth (v. 10). And, as if the power of this deceiver were not enough, God adds “strong delusion” to those during this time period that they might condemn themselves in their disbelief and their unrighteous desires (vv. 11–12). This antagonist will fill the stage with inexplicable sights to the amazement and applause of those on stage and in the audience, uniting the entire world in one inglorious move away from God.
Thankfully, we can pause here for a moment to compose ourselves. Paul reminds his readers of the time in which they live, comforting the Thessalonians in the fact that the Holy Spirit is restraining the Antichrist (vv. 6–7), keeping the evil reserved until his appointed time. In fact, Paul throws in this quick reminder: the Lord will slay this deceiving creature with the mere breath of His mouth, and “bring to nothing” all that the false christ had done to the earth (v. 8). Yet, they, as we do also, live in a time where “the mystery of lawlessness” is already active (v. 7), and contenders to the title of “the Lawless One” enter the pre-show spotlight as the stage is set. However, none will come in the “signs and wonders” until after the first act—the rapture of the church.
It is fascinating that as Paul reviews the plans God has for earth, he does so as an encouragement to the Thessalonians, not as a threat or some sort of fear-based behavioral adjustment. He reminds them of Gospel truths: they were chosen of God, first-fruits among their Gentile countrymen, sanctified by the Holy Spirit (Who has not yet been removed, my Thessalonian brethren), called to the Gospel (vv. 13–14). They will possess the glory of Jesus Christ (v. 14) at His coming! It is only after encouraging them that Paul turns to admonishment—“so then … stand firm and hold to the traditions” (v. 15). It is the Lord who will grant comfort and hope (vv. 16–17) and establish and guard them from the evil one (i.e., Satan, 3:3).
Though the Thessalonians received the word “in much tribulation” (1 The 1:6), the simple presence of tribulation is no evidence that they missed the Lord’s appearing. He continues by reminding them that they are saved from the wrath to come (v. 10), meaning that any tribulation they now experience is not part of the central “wrath” God has planned for earth. God has not destined His believers for that grand outpouring (1 The 5:9).
That wrath will come suddenly upon those who are in darkness, like a thief (1 The 5:2, 4). It's so unexpected because, as the players in the first act concluded, there is now peace and safety on the earth. The trials that The Tribulation shall bring will overcome unbelievers in waves, much like birth pangs cause deep aches and stabbings within a mother-to-be (v. 3), bound to the godless character who has taken over the world stage.
As for the Thessalonians' own plight, it too is within God’s control and will. God will give them strength and will meet out affliction to those who afflict them, which is, in itself, evidence of God’s righteous judgments (2 The 1:5–6). God plans to grant relief to His saints (2 The 1:7), the opposite of what Satan would desire. Finally, Jesus will deliver His saints from the wrath to come (1 The 1:10). Thus, even in the then-present events of Thessalonica, Paul could speak of the kind of situation a global tribulation might represent. Those who hate God and His judgments may only spurn Him today, but they will curse Him when the curtain rises on this act.
To be continued...