1 Thessalonians and 2 Thessalonians are two key texts about Jesus' second coming.
It is widely believed that 1 Thess. 4-5 describes what will transpire in the future on the last day of life on earth, when Jesus comes back.
But, in that post, I covered six plain statements from 1 Thessalonians which show that Paul, Silas and Timothy (by inspiration of the Holy Spirit) believed that Jesus' second coming was imminent and that the original recipients of the letter would be alive to see that event.
Now let's take a fresh look at what Paul, Silas and Timothy taught about Jesus' second coming in the second letter to these Thessalonian Christians.
Welcome to the 34th post in my series of rethinking Christian eschatology. Because these posts build upon each other, if you've not already done so, I invite you to read the previous posts in this series before continuing here.
Let's dive in...
Setting the historical context
Paul, Silas and Timothy's first letter to the Thessalonian Christians created quite the concern for the Thessalonians. In fact, it was probably within a year that the trio wrote the follow-up letter, 2 Thessalonians.
2 Thessalonians addressed three main problems:
- The continued Jewish persecution of the Christians in Thessalonica.
- False messages erroneously attributed to Paul, Silas and Timothy had unsettled the brethren there, thinking that the day of the LORD had already come.
- As a result, some were being idle busybodies, no longer working.
As with the previous letter, 2 Thessalonians provides further evidence that Paul, Silas and Timothy anticipated Jesus' second coming during their lifetime.
Let me show you...
Evidence #1: Relief to you and us
4 Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.
5 All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering. 6 God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you 7 and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. 8 He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might 10 on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.
(2 Thess. 1:4-10 NIV)
Remember the primary audience principle. Who were Paul, Silas and Timothy writing to originally?
The Thessalonian Christians living at the time.
But notice that Paul said GOD was going to "give relief to" (v.7) the Thessalonians and they themselves.
"Relief" implies that those who were alive would continue to live, on earth, after Jesus' second coming. (For, if they were dead at the time, they would no longer be bothered by the oppression of the Jews.)
36 "For the Lord will judge His people,
And have compassion on His servants;
For He sees them disabled
And left in distress and weakened.
40 For I raise My hand to heaven,
And I swear by My right hand, and say,
"As I live forever,
for I whet My sword like lightning;
And My hand takes hold on judgment.
I will render vengeance on My enemies,
And repay those who hate Me.
42 I will make My arrows drunk from blood;
And My sword shall devour flesh
From the blood of the slain and the captives,
From the heads of the leaders of the enemy."'
43 "Rejoice, O Heavens, together with Him,
And worship Him, all the sons of God;
Rejoice, O Gentiles, with His people;
And let all the angels of God be strong with Him;
For He will avenge the blood of His sons
And render vengeance to His adversaries;
And the Lord will purify His people's land."
(Deut. 32:36, 40-43 OSB)
3:16 Then those who feared the Lord talked with each other, and the Lord listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the Lord and honored his name.
17 “On the day when I act,” says the Lord Almighty, “they will be my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as a father has compassion and spares his son who serves him. 18 And you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not.
4:1 “Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. 2 But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. 3 Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the Lord Almighty.
4 “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.
5 “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”
(Mal. 3:16-4:6 NIV)
Malachi pointed back to Moses, to the very instructions I have cited for you—the warnings of blessings and cursings upon Israel before they set foot in Canaan.
None of these referred to the end of the universe.
Regarding 1:9 ("...punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord..."), recall Jesus' words from Luke 13:
22 Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. 23 Someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?”
He said to them, 24 “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. 25 Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’
“But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’
26 “Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’
27 “But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’
28 “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. 29 People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. 30 Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.”
(Luke 13:22-30 NIV)
In 2 Thessalonians, Paul frequently alluded to the teachings of Jesus. He was not giving new teaching, but reiterating what Jesus and the Prophets already taught.
Evidence #2: Our being gathered to Him
1 Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, 2 not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come.
(2 Thess. 2:1-2 NIV)
I used to think that the gathering Paul referred to here was exclusively the events discussed in 1 Thess. 4:13-18, where the dead (and, in my thinking, the living) at the time of Jesus' return would instantly float into the physical sky.
But it turns out that's not the case.
The gathering Paul was referring to in 2 Thess. 2:1 is actually the same gathering that the Prophets foretold—the spiritual gathering of the Christians under Jesus' kingship as a unified people of GOD.
For example, we previously looked at Isaiah 11, which says:
10 In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious. 11 In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the surviving remnant of his people from Assyria, from Lower Egypt, from Upper Egypt, from Cush, from Elam, from Babylonia, from Hamath and from the islands of the Mediterranean.
12 He will raise a banner for the nations
and gather the exiles of Israel;
he will assemble the scattered people of Judah
from the four quarters of the earth.
13 Ephraim’s jealousy will vanish,
and Judah’s enemies will be destroyed;
Ephraim will not be jealous of Judah,
nor Judah hostile toward Ephraim.
(Isa. 11:10-13 NIV)
We could also cite a host of other prophecies, such as Jeremiah 30:
8 “‘In that day,’ declares the Lord Almighty,
‘I will break the yoke off their necks
and will tear off their bonds;
no longer will foreigners enslave them.
9 Instead, they will serve the Lord their God
and David their king,
whom I will raise up for them.
10 “‘So do not be afraid, Jacob my servant;
do not be dismayed, Israel,’
declares the Lord.
‘I will surely save you out of a distant place,
your descendants from the land of their exile.
Jacob will again have peace and security,
and no one will make him afraid.
11 I am with you and will save you,’
declares the Lord.
‘Though I completely destroy all the nations
among which I scatter you,
I will not completely destroy you.
I will discipline you but only in due measure;
I will not let you go entirely unpunished.’
(Jer. 30:8-11 NIV)
Remember that, although GOD was speaking about Israel here, Christians (Jew and Gentile) are Israel now!
But these promises aren't talking exclusively about the resurrected dead people living in heaven.
Remember, Jesus' church is the second gathering that the Prophets foretold!
Paul merely referenced the teachings which had already been delivered. Remember, Jesus said:
30 “Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. 31 And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.
32 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. 34 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
(Matt. 24:30-35 NIV)
Lastly, before we move on, regarding the statement, "...asserting that the day of the Lord has already come...," this is one reason why chronological study is so important. Paul, Silas and Timothy wrote these words about 20 years before Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed by the Romans.
What we should ask ourselves here, though, is how the Thessalonians could have even been deceived by such teachings regarding Jesus' return. This question is insightful regarding the nature of Jesus' second coming.
If the second coming were going to be physically observable as is commonly believed, even a blind person couldn't have missed it, for they would have heard the trumpet and floated into the sky themselves.
This alone should tell us we've misunderstood!
Evidence #3: The apostasy was not the Catholic church
The English translations of 2 Thess. 2:3 have fueled confusion and speculation regarding the Lord's return. Consider for example the NASB translation of this verse:
3 Let no one in any way deceive you, for it will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction,
(2 Thess. 2:3 NASB)
NASB translates the phrase "the apostasy." KJV, NKJV, and YLT translate it as "the falling away."
In this case, the NIV is the most helpful:
3 Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction.
(2 Thess. 2:3 NIV)
The Greek word is indeed transliterated apostasy, but that also means rebellion.
Regardless of who this "man of lawlessness" was, he was already at work when Paul wrote the letter. For Paul said:
6 And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. 7 For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. 8 And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming.
(2 Thess. 2:6-8 NIV)
Paul wasn't referring to some future person or role, such as the pope, hundreds of years in the future. The man of lawlessness was active in the first century, just being restrained somehow.
Again, though, Paul wasn't giving new teaching—though he did tell the Thessalonians more about this "man of lawlessness" in person than we have been given (see v.5).
Rather, when you line up what Paul wrote in 2 Thess. 2 with Daniel's prophecy, it seems clear Paul was referring to this same person. Check it out:
29 “At the appointed time [the king of the North] will invade the South again, but this time the outcome will be different from what it was before. 30 Ships of the western coastlands will oppose him, and he will lose heart. Then he will turn back and vent his fury against the holy covenant. He will return and show favor to those who forsake the holy covenant.
31 “His armed forces will rise up to desecrate the temple fortress and will abolish the daily sacrifice. Then they will set up the abomination that causes desolation. 32 With flattery he will corrupt those who have violated the covenant, but the people who know their God will firmly resist him.
33 “Those who are wise will instruct many, though for a time they will fall by the sword or be burned or captured or plundered. 34 When they fall, they will receive a little help, and many who are not sincere will join them. 35 Some of the wise will stumble, so that they may be refined, purified and made spotless until the time of the end, for it will still come at the appointed time.
36 “The king will do as he pleases. He will exalt and magnify himself above every god and will say unheard-of things against the God of gods. He will be successful until the time of wrath is completed, for what has been determined must take place. 37 He will show no regard for the gods of his ancestors or for the one desired by women, nor will he regard any god, but will exalt himself above them all. 38 Instead of them, he will honor a god of fortresses; a god unknown to his ancestors he will honor with gold and silver, with precious stones and costly gifts. 39 He will attack the mightiest fortresses with the help of a foreign god and will greatly honor those who acknowledge him. He will make them rulers over many people and will distribute the land at a price.
Note: Compare Dan. 11:36-37 with 2 Thess. 2:3-4. They are nearly identical in their descriptions, with Daniel providing the greater detail.
40 “At the time of the end the king of the South will engage him in battle, and the king of the North will storm out against him with chariots and cavalry and a great fleet of ships. He will invade many countries and sweep through them like a flood. 41 He will also invade the Beautiful Land. Many countries will fall, but Edom, Moab and the leaders of Ammon will be delivered from his hand. 42 He will extend his power over many countries; Egypt will not escape. 43 He will gain control of the treasures of gold and silver and all the riches of Egypt, with the Libyans and Cushites in submission. 44 But reports from the east and the north will alarm him, and he will set out in a great rage to destroy and annihilate many. 45 He will pitch his royal tents between the seas at the beautiful holy mountain. Yet he will come to his end, and no one will help him.
12:1 “At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people—everyone whose name is found written in the book—will be delivered. 2 Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. 3 Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever. 4 But you, Daniel, roll up and seal the words of the scroll until the time of the end. Many will go here and there to increase knowledge.”
Note: We covered this prophecy previously, but observe afresh how these things relate to the time of the end (of physical Israel and the old covenant). In 12:1-4, that timeframe is clearly connected with the resurrection. And these events are clearly connected with the Romans and the Greeks before them, as you can see in Dan. 8-9 as well.
And all of this points to the first century timeframe!
Can you see how plain and obvious it is, if we will just be intellectually and spiritually honest when evaluating the evidence?
5 Then I, Daniel, looked, and there before me stood two others, one on this bank of the river and one on the opposite bank. 6 One of them said to the man clothed in linen, who was above the waters of the river, “How long will it be before these astonishing things are fulfilled?”
7 The man clothed in linen, who was above the waters of the river, lifted his right hand and his left hand toward heaven, and I heard him swear by him who lives forever, saying, “It will be for a time, times and half a time. When the power of the holy people has been finally broken, all these things will be completed.”
8 I heard, but I did not understand. So I asked, “My lord, what will the outcome of all this be?”
9 He replied, “Go your way, Daniel, because the words are rolled up and sealed until the time of the end. 10 Many will be purified, made spotless and refined, but the wicked will continue to be wicked. None of the wicked will understand, but those who are wise will understand.
11 “From the time that the daily sacrifice is abolished and the abomination that causes desolation is set up, there will be 1,290 days. 12 Blessed is the one who waits for and reaches the end of the 1,335 days.
13 “As for you, go your way till the end. You will rest, and then at the end of the days you will rise to receive your allotted inheritance.”
(Dan. 11-23-12:13 NIV)
It seems obvious to me that "the man of lawlessness" in 2 Thess. 2 and the king of the North in Dan. 11-12 are the same person. (See also Dan. 9:26-27 and Matt. 24:15-16.) I won't be argumentative about that, but the evidence seems clear to me.
What matters, though, is that whomever Paul was referring to in 2 Thess. 2, they were alive during the first century.
Nothing in 2 Thessalonians disagrees with the perspective I have been suggesting from the Scriptures as this series unfolds.
If anything, 2 Thessalonians provides further evidence in support of this perspective.
Paul, Silas and Timothy (inspired by the Holy Spirit), foresaw a near-term return of Jesus that would directly impact the living Thessalonian Christians at the time the letter was written.
Got questions or comments? Leave them below. (I'm truly happy to help. But please, carefully read the entire series first.)