Delusion, deceit and the day of the Lord

I was reading an Ann Cleeves’ murder mystery last night entitled ‘The Darkest Evening’. I learnt that the title is taken from a Robert Frost poem ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’.

In spiritual terms, the times that we are living in might sometimes be captured in that phrase ‘darkest evening’. There was certainly a temptation to believe darkness was overhanging the Thessalonian believers when Paul wrote to them – ‘you are not in darkness’ (1 Thessalonians 5:4). And then in his second letter he instructs about the day of the Lord:

“Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming.” (2 Thessalonians 2:3-8).

In this second letter to them, the apostle Paul prepared the Thessalonians with respect to the day of the Lord. He recognised that they might be misled and so he elaborates upon the revelation of the ‘man of lawlessness’. 

What is the truth revealed? Paul expands on three aspects.

First, he will oppose God and exalt himself (v 4). This is a theme through the Scriptures. It is the same rebellion rooted in the Garden of Eden and the kings of the Old Testament, as well as in the fall of Satan himself. This man of lawlessness will claim worship for himself above Jesus Christ. The phrase ‘he takes a seat in the temple of God’ may refer to a literal temple. But it also might be taken as indicating a ‘person who craves worship’. If one translated it to the church, it does seem to be that this person will try to take centre stage in the church and draw people away from Christ.

Second, in verse 9 we see that this ‘person’ will be aligned with Satan. Even displaying false wonders and signs. The point here is that Satan is the one behind this work. In verse 7 – ‘the mystery of lawlessness is already at work’. The false teaching and rebellion are already happening and behind it all is a satanic influence.

Satan wants to deceive God’s people – just as he deceived Adam and Eve: Has God really said?

In today’s context in Sydney 2023, the deceit is echoed in the approach to marriage: ‘Has God really said that marriage is to be between a man and a woman?’

Third, the antichrist will deceive those who refuse the truth (v 10). At the root of lawlessness and apostasy and rebellion is a refusal to love the truth. That refusal to love the truth leads to further deception. Here is a warning to all believers. Our only hope when we face this type of deception is to be well-grounded in the gospel and the Word of God. Do you love God’s truth – love his word?

2 Thessalonians 2 presents a bleak outlook: this lawless one (antichrist) will oppose God, will be aligned with Satan and will deceive people, drawing them away from the truth. It is a bleakness which Christians in Australia find very apparent with the attack upon the Christian church that has unfolded over the opening decades of the 21st century.

Paul does, however, provide some encouragement to the Thessalonians believers and to us today in the face of trial.

He assures them that everything is still under the sovereign hand and rule of God. In verse 6, Paul tells us that God is ‘restraining him’. There is much discussion about what exactly it is that is doing the restraining: Is it the law? The church? The Holy Spirit? The preaching of the gospel? The state and legal structures? Some argue it is Michael the archangel. (Revelation 12:7-8).

Whatever the precise referent, the point is that God is restraining the man of lawlessness! God remains in control of these events. Nothing in all of this is outside of the scope of God’s power.

God’s sovereign power is emphasized by the fact that God is even in control of the rebellion on that day. Paul says in verses 11-12:

“Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. Even at that moment, when wickedness is at its peak, God is the one behind the delusion in order to condemn wickedness.”(2 Thessalonians 2:11-12).

And it is not forward, but backwards in history that we find the gospel truths which provide us with the greatest assurance as we recall our Saviour’s own walk. For the powers of lawlessness were unleashed in all their horror when Satan entered one of Jesus’ own disciples, Judas Iscariot, and he betrayed the Christ. And the Christ was mocked and the lies of the evil one were spoken: ‘If you really are the Christ, come down from that cross – save yourself. He saved others but he cannot save himself’!

But the cross proved to be the ultimate delusion. They believed in their own power – in what was false. So God deceived them – he was completely in control. And thus Peter, who himself had fled in fear, declared on the day of Pentecost the truth:

“Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:36).

Here is the great hope of the Christian faith. The resurrection blows all the rebellion of humanity against God into nothing. Now, in the midst of the greatest darkness, we find hope in God.

The gospel brings us enormous comfort and hope on even the darkest evenings: no matter how dark the activity of this man of lawlessness, Jesus remains Lord. He is sovereign – and with the appearance of his coming the lawless one will be brought to nothing. Come, Lord Jesus, come.

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