"Who's Your Hero: Christ or Antichrist?"
July 18, 2010 2Thess 2:1-17
YOU WILL KNOW THEM BY THEIR...KNEES?
I can't remember whether it was when I was little at our church Sunday School picnics over at the Seaforth park, or at some church camp campfire, or both. But I've seen it done. You get a bunch of people to take off their shoes and roll up their pantlegs above their knees (unless they're already in shorts, which makes it much easier). Then you put a sheet across, hanging as a curtain so that all that can be seen from the audience is their legs from the knees down. The contest is to guess who each person is just on the basis of their lower legs.
Our chapter today in 2Thessalonians is a bit like that: there's much that's hidden as a mystery, that we're not privy to and have to guess at. Or as another commentator said, it's a bit like listening to one side of a telephone conversation: you can sort of gather generally what it's about but it would leave you guessing at many of the particulars. There is a 'sheet' hiding things on at least 2 levels: for one thing, many of the events Paul talks about haven't yet taken place, so we'll have to wait until they're revealed at the actual time. Then the sheet will be taken away and true identities unmasked. On the other hand, Paul refers to things he'd taught the church at Thessalonica back when he was there in person: v5, "Don't you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things?" But we weren't part of that conversation so it kind of leaves us out of the loop. So some things will remain a mystery and leave us guessing.
However the sheet game only works because you can see enough of knobby knees and length and hairiness of leg to decide at least some of the people's names. Likewise, here Paul provides sufficient detail for us to be adequately warned about the identity of the end-times antichrist, on the one hand, and to be edified in following our Lord Jesus as His disciples on the other. God in His Word, the Bible, provides sufficient light that we can be saved from delusion that leads to doom, and instead believe His truth that through grace leads us to share His glory eternally.
PICK THE CULPRIT
Have you seen those detective shows in which there's a police lineup? They have half a dozen people line up so witnesses can hopefully identify a villain by his or her face, voice, height, and so on. The purpose is to identify the criminal. In this case, it's more to identify an impostor, someone who's pretending to be someone else or take their place, but their features aren't quite the same. This chapter offers a juxtaposition or side-by-side contrast of Christ and the antichrist: can we spot the phony and pick the culprit?
Why is it important to be able to identify the antichrist, you may ask? This is a 'sure thing' on God's sovereign timeline; the day of the Lord won't come UNTIL the 'man of lawlessness' appears - v3, "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." A second reason this is important is the fact the Thessalonian church was suffering, barely hanging on through persecution. They needed to see the big picture to help them hold on and have HOPE when times were tough. In some ways, describing the 'man of lawlessness' gives focus and helps understand the current corrupt world system they were being oppressed by already.
So, what are some identifying characteristics of the antichrist? Let's begin with things that parallel the true Christ, Jesus. They resemble each other in these categories. First, both claim to be God. V4, "He will...[set] himself up in God's temple, proclaiming himself to be God." This must be the height of lying, to claim to be your opposite! However Jesus claimed to be God, in this case, rightly. Perhaps more discreetly and humbly, though. Consider John 14:8-10a, "Philip said, "Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us." Jesus answered: "Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.How can you say, 'Show us the Father'? Don't you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me?"
When Jesus made an allusion to the "I Am" statement of God in John 8(58f), the Jewish leaders quickly caught His drift and tried to stone Him for blasphemy: ""I tell you the truth," Jesus answered, "before Abraham was born, I am!" At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds." Or when Jesus appears after the resurrection to doubting Thomas, He does not rebuke Thomas or in any way try to correct him when Thomas says to Him bluntly, "My Lord and my God!" So both the antichrist and Jesus claim to be God, but only the latter is correct.
Second, both have a 'parousia' (Gk) or 'coming'. V9, "The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan..." While the phrase immediately before, at the end of v8, talks about the splendour of Jesus' 'coming'. V1, "Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ..." Every chapter in 1Thessalonians closes with some reference to Jesus' coming (1:10; 2:19; 3:13; 4:15ff; 5:23); the clearest account is in chapter 4, "According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever." To know Jesus is to COME FOR US gives believers real COMFORT. Note that, while antichrist's coming is "in accordance with the work of Satan," Jesus' coming is obviously in accord with God's authority and power.
Third, both are described as being 'revealed'. This is the taking away of the sheet that preserves the mystery. V3 "the man of lawlessness is revealed," v6 "that he may be revealed at the proper time," v8 "then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow..." Our Lord Jesus is also described as being revealed: 1:7, "This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels." In 1Peter (1:7) that apostle writes, "These [trials] have come so that your faith...may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed." A big difference in Jesus' revealing is that He simultaneously reveals God the Father - quite the opposite of antichrist, who is more akin to Satan. Jesus prays to the Father in Jn17(6), "I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world." And Matthew 11(27), "...no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him." Jesus is the One who for believers takes the sheet away that prevents natural man from beholding God.
The antichrist will be revealed - at the appropriate time. Who's holding him back? There's been a lot of conjecture about the meaning of v6, "And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time." Does Paul mean the Roman government, which provides civil order and the rule of law? Or the Holy Spirit (in v7 the pronoun is personal, 'who' instead of 'what')? Is it Judaism? The Church? Perhaps it's something Paul alluded to more clearly when he was with them. Perhaps it's best for us to be as honest and frank as St.Augustine when he wrote in the fifth century, "I admit that the meaning of this completely escapes me."
A fourth and very notable parallel between antichrist and Christ is the ability to perform miracles. V9 says his coming will be with "all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders." Genuine but 'producing false impressions' (NIV Study Bible), designed wickedly to deceive people. Whereas Jesus' miracles were 'the real McCoy': Heb 2:4, "God also testified to [this salvation] by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will." Jesus' wonders were for the purpose of pointing people to God so they'd trust in Him: Jn 2:11 after turning water into wine, "This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him." Even Jesus' enemies acknowledged the effectiveness of His miracles, following the raising of Lazarus in Jn 11(47f): "Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. "What are we accomplishing?" they asked. "Here is this man performing many miraculous signs.If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.""
But there the similarities end. Both Christ and antichrist claim to be God; they have a parousia or coming; they'll be revealed; and they perform miracles. However there are very significant differences!
V4, the antichrist is self-exalting: he "will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God's temple..." Philippians 2(6ff) says Jesus, on the other hand, "made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant...He humbled himself..." Whereas the antichrist 'sets himself up' in the place of God, Jesus "did not consider equality with God something to be grasped..." See what a big difference that is? In Luke 22(27) Jesus used a word-picture of a waiter and the one waited-on: "For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves." There's an antidote for ego!
The antichrist is lawless. V3, "the man of lawlessness" (or 'sin' in some manuscripts and the NKJV); v7, 'the secret power of lawlessness'; vv8-9 "the lawless one". Inherent here is the idea of rebellion, rejecting authority, generating chaos not order, destroying not building up. What about Jesus - was He lawless, an anarchist? In Mk 12(14) other men say, "Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity...you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth." Hardly lawless! Jn 14:6, "I am the Way"; Heb 10:20, "...a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body..." Jesus provides structure, direction, a WAY for us to go. He said, "I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture." (Jn 10:9) A gate provides a fixed reference point, a place of entry. And the New Testament describes him as a 'cornerstone' suitable to rest the structure of our lives upon: "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone." (Eph 2:20) "...See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame." (1Pe 2:6) Do you have that bedrock security in your life? Jesus can give you that sure footing, absolute certainty in knowing God.
A third major difference is that the antichrist is a deceiver while Jesus deals in the truth. V9 "counterfeit miracles", v10 "every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing," v11 "delusion...they believe the lie" ie they're duped into believing the antichrist is God as he claims to be. More slippery than disgraced investment con-man Earl Jones! Conversely, Jesus identified Himself saying, "I am the way and the truth and the life." (Jn 14:6) He said to those who believed Him, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (Jn 8:31-32)
Can you now start to appreciate the differences between Christ and antichrist when you see them standing side-by-side as it were through Paul's description? If you were a soccer team, who'd you rather have for captain and coach? Who ya gonna trust to call the plays? Who's got what it takes to bring you victory in the onslaught? Who can you turn to when danger threatens - the Servant or the Serpent?
DUPES OR DISCIPLES?
Lest you think this passage is solely related to the perhaps-distant-future and such hard-to-pronounce fields as 'eschatology' (the doctrine of last things), Paul refuses to leave this as a purely academic exercise. Suddenly we find that WE are behind the curtain - WE are the ones on display. Is there enough evidence to pick us out of the lineup as Jesus' disciples - or is there more resemblance to a criminal element?
The New Testament is clear that, while there will arise an arch-enemy of God's people at the end time known as THE antichrist, there have in fact already been many lesser 'antichrists' and there will be more. 1Jn 2(18), "...as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come." Paul writes here n v7, "For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work..." Thus today in our population there is a big divide or distinction, between those who believe and follow Jesus and those who do not. What describes those on the side of antichrist in this passage? V10, he performs "every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing.They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved." V3 speaks of 'rebellion' occurring. V11 a powerful delusion so people 'will believe the lie'. V12, "all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness." NLT "enjoying evil"; NRSV "took pleasure in unrighteousness."
Pull your veneer of smugness and presumption aside a minute and examine your life. Do those phrases describe you in the least? "Refusing to love the truth" - how keen are you in reading God's Word each day? Is it something your family loves to talk about at the supper table? What about your attitude toward work and community - is there any hint of rebellion, resisting order? Do you feel at all like those protesters torching police cars and smashing corporate windows during the summit in Toronto? Are you anarchist or resentful toward local school boards, councils, fire departments? If an angel perched atop your TV set or monitor, would they say you 'delight in wickedness' or 'take pleasure in unrighteousness'? Do the commercials hook you?
It's sobering to compare our society today with Paul's description of those on whom God's wrath rests in Romans 1. V25 says, "They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator..." Vv24,26,28 tell how God consequently 'gave them over' in their sinful desires to sexual impurity, shameful lusts, and a depraved mind. Woe to those who fit that description!
By contrast, how blessed are those who align themselves with Jesus rather than the antichrist. Look at the better things God has for His church as Paul describes it in vv13 on: "Loved by the Lord", chosen, sanctifying work (going on in us), belief in the truth (15 holding to the teachings), 14 called, 16 graced, having eternal encouragement (and, in v17, encouraged hearts), good hope, v15 standing firm (as opposed to v2 'unsettled, alarmed' - like a ship adrift from its moorings); v17 strengthened in every good deed and word. Does THAT describe you? Can you 'own' those phrases because you are IN Christ? Do you pray those things for your family above any material blessings? Then, by grace, you can look forward NOT to God's wrath but to what v14 holds out, to "share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ."
What a contrast between antichrist and Jesus! Also, what a contrast between dupes and disciples - those deceived by sin / delighting in evil, and those believing the truth, standing firm in the gospel, knowing they're loved by God and eager for good deeds and words. What will those examining us in the lineup say: that we're a culprit - or Christlike? Guilty or Godly?
FORMER REFUGEE RESONATES WITH GOSPEL HOSPITALITY
When people look at church folk - what do they see: resemblance to Christ, or someone else? Charles Spurgeon said, "A Christian should be a striking likeness of Jesus Christ...We should be pictures of Christ...Oh! My brethren, there is nothing that can so advantage you, nothing can so prosper you, so assist you, so make you walk towards heaven rapidly, so keep your head upwards towards the sky, and your eyes radiant with glory, like the imitation of Jesus Christ."
Paul's hope for the Thessalonians is that they 'stand firm' in God's love and truth so they can be strengthened for 'every good deed and word.' When we do that - persist in grace and godly actions - the world will start to see the difference; they will 'know that we are Christians by our love' - not our knees.
On June 14 Governor General Michaelle Jean visited the Kitchener office of the Mennonite Central Committee. The visit was the result of her interest in the work the Mennonite community is doing, especially in her native Haiti where MCC has been doing relief and development since 1958 (over 50 years). While at the office, Gov-Gen Jean helped prepare a disaster relief kit and worked on a quilt, as well as sharing lunch with members of longstanding Mennonite congregations and refugees welcomed to Canada by those older congregations. MCC Ontario executive director Rick Cober explains, "You get this ongoing gospel hospitality that says 'I've been welcomed, I've been shown the love of Christ and now we in turn want to show that love.It was part of the story we wanted to tell and one we think was heard well by Her Excellency...She talked about how that resonated with her being a refugee from Haiti and being welcomed by Canadians including people of the church."
Before ending her visit, the Governor-General told staff and volunteers, "the work you do makes a world of a difference around the world." May God help us hold to Christ's teachings and stand firm against the pressures of evil, lawlessness, and deception, so by His love we truly are strong to serve a hurting world by good words and deeds. Let's pray.