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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
2 Thessalonians 2

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-5

Chapter 19

THE MAN OF SIN

2 Thessalonians 2:1-5 (R.V.)

IN the first chapter of this Epistle Paul depicted the righteous judgment of God which accompanies the advent of Christ. Its terrors and its glories blazed before his eyes as he prayed for those who were to read his letter. "With this in view," he says, "we also pray always for you, that our God would count you worthy of the calling." The emphatic word in the sentence is "you." Among all believers in whom Christ was to be glorified, as they in Him, the Thessalonians were at this moment nearest to the Apostle’s heart. Like others, they had been called to a place in the heavenly kingdom.; and he is eager that they should prove worthy of it. They will be worthy only if God powerfully carries to perfection in them their delight in goodness, and the activities of their faith. That is the substance of his prayer. "The Lord enable you always to have unreserved pleasure in what is good, and to show the proof of faith in all you do. So you shall be worthy of the Christian calling, and the name of the Lord shall be glorified in you, and you in Him, in that day."

The second chapter seems, in our English Bibles, to open with an adjuration: "Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto Him." If that were right, we might suppose Paul’s meaning to be: As you long for this great day, and anticipate its appearing as your dearest hope, let me conjure you not to entertain mischievous fancies about it; or, as you dread the day, and shrink from the terrible judgment which it brings, let me adjure you to think of it as you ought to think, and not discredit it by unspiritual excitement, bringing reproach on the Church in the eyes of the world. But this interpretation, though apt enough, is hardly justified by the use of the New Testament, and the Revised Version is nearer the truth when it gives the rendering "touching the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." It is of it the Apostle wishes to speak; and what he has to say is, that the true doctrine of it contains nothing which ought to produce unsettlement or vague alarms. In the First Epistle, especially in chapter 5, he has enlarged on the moral attitude which is proper to those who cherish the Christian hope: they are to watch and be sober; they are to put off the works of darkness, and put on, as children of the day, the armour of light; they are to be ready and expectant always. Here he adds the negative counsel that they are not to be quickly shaken from their mind, as a ship is driven from her moorings by a storm, nor yet upset or troubled, whether by spirit or by word or letter purporting to be from him. These last expressions need a word of explanation. By "spirit" the Apostle no doubt means a Christian man speaking in the church under a spiritual impulse. Such speakers in Thessalonica would often take the Second Advent as their theme; but their utterances were open to criticism. It was of such utterances that the Apostle had said in his earlier letter, "Despise not prophesyings; but prove all that is said, and hold fast that which is good." The spirit in which a Christian spoke was not necessarily the spirit of God; even if it were, it was not necessarily unmixed with his own ideas, desires, or hopes. Hence discernment of spirits was a valued and needful gift, and it seems to have been wanted at Thessalonica. Besides misleading utterances of this kind in public worship, there were circulated words ascribed to Paul, and if not a forged letter, at all events a letter purporting to contain his opinion, none of which had his authority. These words and this letter had for their substance the idea that the day of the Lord was now present-or, as one might say in Scotch, just here. It was this which produced the unspiritual excitement at Thessalonica, and which the Apostle wished to contradict.

A great mystery has been made out of the paragraph which follows, but without much reason. It certainly stands alone in St. Paul’s writings, an Apocalypse on a small scale, reminding us in many respects of the great Apocalypse of John, but not necessarily to be judged by it, or brought into any kind of harmony with it. Its obscurity, so far as it is obscure, is due in part to the previous familiarity of the Thessalonians with the subject, which allowed the Apostle to take much for granted; and in part, no doubt, to the danger of being explicit in a matter which had political significance. But it is not really so obscure as it has been made out to be by some; and the reputation for humility which so many have sought, by adopting St. Augustine’s confession that he had no idea what the Apostle meant, is too cheap to be coveted. We must suppose that St. Paul wrote to be understood, and was understood by those to whom he wrote; and if we follow him word by word, a sense will appear which is not really questionable except on extraneous grounds. What, then, does he say about the delaying of the Advent?

He says it will not come till the falling away, or apostasy, has come first. The Authorised Version says "a" falling away, but that is wrong. The falling away was something familiar to the Apostle and his readers; he was not introducing them to any new thought. But a falling away of whom? or from what? Some have suggested, of the members of the Christian Church from Christ, but it is quite plain from the whole passage, and especially from 2 Thessalonians 2:12 f., that the Apostle is contemplating a series of events in which the Church has no part but as a spectator. But the "apostasy" is clearly a religious defection; though the word itself does not necessarily imply as much, the description of the falling away does; and if it be not of Christians, it must be of the Jews; the Apostle could not conceive of the heathen "who know not God" as falling away from Him. This apostasy reaches its height, finds its representative and hero, in the man of sin, or, as some MSS. have it, the man of lawlessness. When the Apostle says the man of sin, he means the man, -not a principle, nor a system, nor a series of persons, but an individual human person who is identified with sin, an incarnation of evil as Christ was of good, an Antichrist. The man of sin is also the son of perdition; this name expressing his fate-he is doomed to perish-as the other his nature. This person’s portrait is then drawn by the Apostle. He is the adversary par excellence, he who sets himself in opposition, a human Satan, the enemy of Christ. The other features in the likeness are mainly borrowed from the description of the tyrant king Antiochus Epiphanes in the Book of Daniel: they may have gained fresh meaning to the Apostle from the recent revival of them in the insane Emperor Caligula. The man of sin is filled with demoniac pride; he lifts himself on high against the true God, and all gods, and all that men adore; he seats himself in the temple of God; he would like to be taken by all men for God. There has been much discussion over the temple of God in this passage. It is no doubt true that the Apostle sometimes uses the expression figuratively, of a church and its members-"The temple of God is holy, which temple ye are"-but it is surely inconceivable that a man should take his seat in that temple; when these words were fresh, no one could have put that meaning on them. The temple of God is, therefore, the temple at Jerusalem; it was standing when Paul wrote; and he expected it to stand till all this was fulfilled. When the Jews had crowned their guilt by falling away from God; in other words, when they had finally and as a whole decided against the gospel, and God’s purpose to save them by it; when the falling away had been crowned by the revelation of the man of sin, and the profanation of the temple by his impious pride, then, and not till then, would come the end. "Do you not remember," says the Apostle, "that when I was with you I used to tell you this?"

When Paul wrote this Epistle, the Jews were the great enemies of the gospel; it was they, who persecuted him from city to city, and roused against him everywhere the malice of the heathen; hostility to God was incarnated, if anywhere, in them. They alone, because of their spiritual privileges, were capable of the deepest spiritual sin. Already in the First Epistle he has denounced them as the murderers of the Lord Jesus and of their own prophets, a race that please not God and are contrary to all men, sinners on whom the threatened wrath has come without reserve. In the passage before us the course is outlined of that wickedness against which the wrath was revealed. The people of God, as they called themselves, fall definitely away from God; the monster of lawlessness who rises from among them can only be pictured in the words in which prophets portrayed the impiety and presumption of a heathen king; he thrusts God aside, and claims to be God himself.

There is only one objection to this interpretation of the Apostle’s words, namely, that they have never been fulfilled. Some will think that objection final; and some will think it futile: I agree with the last. It proves too much; for it lies equally against every other interpretation of the words, however ingenious, as well as against the simple and natural one just given. It lies, in some degree, against almost every prophecy in the Bible. No matter what the apostasy, and the man of sin, are taken to be, nothing has ever appeared in history which answers exactly to Paul’s description. The truth is that inspiration did not enable the apostles to write history before it happened; and though this forecast of the Apostle’s has a spiritual truth in it, resting as it does on a right perception of the law of moral development, the precise anticipation which it embodies was not destined to be realised. Further, it must have changed its place in Paul’s own mind within the next ten years; for, as Dr. Farrar has observed, he barely alludes again to the Messianic surroundings (or antecedents) of a second, personal advent. "He dwells more and more on the mystic oneness with Christ, less and less on His personal return. He speaks repeatedly of the indwelling presence of Christ, and the believer’s incorporation with Him, and hardly at all of that visible meeting in the air which at this epoch was most prominent in his thoughts."

But, it may be said, if this anticipation was not to be fulfilled, is it not altogether deceptive? is it not utterly misleading that a prophecy should stand in Holy Scripture which history was to falsify? I think the right answer to that question is that there is hardly any prophecy in Holy Scripture which has not been in a similar way falsified, while nevertheless in its spiritual import true. The details of this prophecy of St. Paul were not verified as he anticipated, yet the soul of it was. The Advent was not just then; it was delayed till a certain moral process should be accomplished; and this was what the Apostle wished the Thessalonians to understand. He did not know when it would he; but he could see so far into the law of God’s working as to know that it would not come till the fulness of time; and he could understand that, where a final judgment was concerned, the fulness of time would not arrive till evil had had every opportunity, either to turn and repent, or to develop itself in the most utterly evil forms, and lie ripe for vengeance.

This is the ethical law which underlies the Apostle’s prophecy; it is a law confirmed by the teaching of Jesus Himself, and illustrated by the whole course of history. The question is sometimes discussed whether the world gets better or worse as it grows older, and optimists and pessimists take opposite sides upon it. Both, this law informs us, are wrong. It does not get better only, nor worse only, but both. Its progress is not simply a progress in good, evil being gradually driven from the field; nor is it simply a progress in evil, before which good continually disappears: it is a progress in which good and evil alike come to maturity, bearing their ripest fruit, showing all that they can do, proving their strength to the utmost against each. other; the progress is not in good in itself, nor in evil in itself, but in the antagonism of the one to the other. This is the same truth which we are taught by our Lord in the parable of the wheat and the tares: "Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather up first the tares," etc. In the time of harvest: not till all is ripe for judgment, not till the wheat and the tares alike have shown all that is in them, will the judgment come. This is what St. Paul understood, and what the Thessalonians did not understand; and if his ignorance of the scale of the world, and the scale of God’s purposes, made him apply this law to the riddle of history hastily, with a result which the event has not justified, that is nothing to the prejudice of the law itself, which was true when he applied it with his imperfect knowledge, and is true for application still.

One other remark is suggested by the description of the character in which sin culminates, viz., that as evil approaches its height it assumes ever more spiritual forms. There are some sins which betray man on the lower side of his nature, through the perversion of the appetites which he has in common with the brutes: the dominance of these is in some sense natural; they are not radically and essentially evil. The man who is the victim of lust or drunkenness may lose his soul by his sin, but he is its victim; there is not in his guilt that malignant hatred of good which is here ascribed to the man of sin. The crowning wickedness is this demoniac pride: the temper of one who lifts himself on high above God, owning no superior, nay, claiming for himself the highest place of all. This is rather spiritual than sensual: it may be quite free from the gross vices of the flesh, though the connection between pride and sensuality is closer than is sometimes imagined; but it is more conscious, deliberate, malignant, and damnable than any brutality could be. When we look at the world in any given age-our own or another-and make inquiry into its moral condition, this is a consideration which we are apt to lose sight of, but which is entitled to the utmost weight. The collector of moral statistics examines the records of criminal courts; he investigates the standard of honesty in commerce; he balances the evidences of peace, truth, purity, against those of violence, fraud, and immorality, and works out a rough conclusion. But that material morality leaves out of sight what is most significant of all-the spiritual forms of good and of evil in which the opposing forces show their inmost nature, and in which the world ripens for God’s judgment. The man of sin is not described as a sensualist or a murderer; he is an apostate, a rebel against God, a usurper who claims not the palace but the temple for his own. This God-dethroning pride is the utmost length to which sin can go. The judgment will not come till it has fully developed; can any one see tokens of its presence?

In asking such a question we pass from the interpretation of the Apostle’s words to their application. Much of the difficulty and bewilderment that have gathered about this passage are due to the confusion of these two quite different things. The interpretation gives us the meaning of the very words the Apostle used. We have seen what that is, and that in its precise detail it was not destined to be fulfilled. But when we have passed behind the surface meaning, and laid hold on the law which the Apostle was applying this passage, then we can apply it ourselves. We can use it to read the signs of the times in our own or in any other age. We may see developments of evil, resembling in their main features the man of sin here depicted, in one quarter or another, and in one person or another; and if we do, we are bound to see in them tokens that a judgment of God is at hand; but we must not imagine that in so applying the passage we are finding out what St. Paul meant. That lies far, far behind us; and our application of his words can only claim our own authority, not the authority of Holy Scripture.

Of the multitude of applications which have been made of this passage since the Apostle wrote it, one only has had historical importance enough to be of interest to us-I mean that which is found in several Protestant confessions, including the Westminster Confession of Faith, and which declares the Pope of Rome, in the words of this last, to be "that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the Church against Christ, and all that is called God." As an interpretation, of course, that is impossible; the man of sin is one man, and not a series, like the Popes; the temple of God in which a man sits is a temple made with hands, and not the Church; but when we ask whether or not it is a fair application of the Apostle’s words, the question is altered. Dr. Farrar, whom no one will suspect of sympathy with the Papacy, is indignant that such an uncharitable idea should ever have crossed the mind of man. Many in the churches which hold by the Westminster Confession would agree with him. Of course it is a matter on which everyone is entitled to judge for himself, and, whether right or wrong, ought not to be in a confession; but for my own part I have little scruple in the matter. There have been Popes who could have sat for Paul’s picture of the man of sin better than any characters known to history-proud, apostate, atheist priests, sitting in the seat of Christ, blasphemously claiming His authority, and exercising His functions. And individuals apart-for there have been saintly and heroic Popes as well, true servants of the servants of God-the hierarchical system of the Papacy, with the monarchical priest at its head, incarnates and fosters that very spiritual pride of which the man of sin is the final embodiment; it is a seedbed and nursery of precisely such characters as are here described. There is not in the world, nor has ever been, a system in which there is less that recalls Christ, and more that anticipates Antichrist, than the Papal system. And one may say so while acknowledging the debt that all Christians owe to the Romish Church, and while hoping that it may somehow in God’s grace repent and reform.

It would ill become us, however, to close the study of so serious a subject with the censure of others. The mere discovery that we have here to do with a law of moral development, and with a supreme and final type of evil, should put us rather upon self-scrutiny. The character of our Lord Jesus Christ is the supreme and final type of good: it shows us the end to which the Christian life conducts those who follow it. The character of the man of sin shows the end of those who obey not His gospel. They become, in their resistance to Him, more and more identified with sin; their antagonism to God settles into antipathy, presumption, defiance; they become gods to themselves, and their doom is sealed. This picture is set here for our warning. We cannot of ourselves see the end of evil from the beginning; we cannot tell what selfishness and wilfulness come to, when they have had their perfect work; but God sees, and it is written in this place to startle us, and fright us from sin. "Take heed, brethren, lest haply there shall be in any one of. you an evil heart of unbelief, in falling away from the living God: but exhort one another day by day, so long as it is called Today; lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin."


Verses 6-12

Chapter 20

THE RESTRAINT AND ITS REMOVAL

2 Thessalonians 2:6-12 (R.V.)

CHRIST cannot come, the Apostle has told us, until the falling away has first come, and the man of sin been revealed. In the verses before us, we are told that the man of sin himself cannot come, in the full sense of the word, he cannot be revealed in his true character of the counter-Christ, till a restraining force, known to the Thessalonians, but only obscurely alluded to by the Apostle, is taken out of the way. The Last Advent is thus at two removes from the present. First, there must be the removal of the power which holds the man of sin in check; then the culmination of evil in that great adversary of God; and not till then the return of the Lord in glory as Saviour and Judge.

We might think that this put the Advent to such a distance as practically to disconnect it from the present, and make it a matter of little interest to the Christian. But, as we have seen already, what is significant in this whole passage is the spiritual law which governs the future of the world, the law that good and evil must ripen together, and in conflict with each other; and it is involved in that law that the final state of the world, which brings on the Advent, is latent, in all its principles and spiritual features, in the present. That day is indissolubly connected with this. The life that we now live has all the importance, and ought to have all the intensity, which comes from its bearing the future in its bosom. Through the eyes of this New Testament prophet we can see the end from the beginning; and the day on which we happen to read his words is as critical, in its own nature, as the great day of the Lord.

The end, the Apostle tells us, is at some distance, but it is preparing. "The mystery of lawlessness doth already work." The forces which are hostile to God, and which, are to break out in the great apostasy, and the insane presumption of the man of sin, are even now in operation, but secretly. They are not visible to the careless, or to the infatuated, or to the spiritually blind; but the Apostle can discern them. Taught by the Spirit to read the signs of the times, he sees in the world around him symptoms of forces, secret, unorganised, to some extent inscrutable, yet unmistakable in their character. They are the beginnings of the apostasy, the first workings, fettered as yet and baffled, of the power which is to set itself in the place of God. He sees also, and has already told the Thessalonians, of another power of an opposite character. "Ye know," he says, "that which restraineth only there is one that restraineth now, until he be taken out of the way." This restraining power is spoken of both in the neuter and the masculine, both as a principle or institution, and as a person; and there is no reason to doubt that those fathers of the Church are right who identified it with the Empire of Rome and its sovereign head. The apostasy was to take place among the Jews; and the Apostle saw that Rome and its Emperor were the grand restraint upon the violence of that stubborn race. The Jews had been his worst enemies, ever since he had embraced the cause of the Nazarene Messiah Jesus; and all that time the Romans had been his best friends. If injustice had been done him in their name, as at Philippi, atonement had been made; and, on the whole, he had owed to them his protection against Jewish persecution. He felt sure that his own experience was typical; the final development of hatred to God and all that was on God’s side could not but be restrained so long as the power of Rome stood firm. That power was a sufficient check upon anarchic violence. While it held its ground, the powers of evil could not organise themselves and work openly; they constituted a mystery of iniquity, working, as it were, underground. But when this great restraint was removed, all that had been labouring so long in secret would come suddenly to view, in its full dimensions; the lawless one would stand revealed.

But, it may be asked, could Paul imagine that the Roman power, as represented by the Emperor, was likely to be removed within any measurable time? Was it not the very type and symbol of all that was stable and perpetual in man’s life? In one way, it was; and as at least a temporary check on the final eruption of wickedness, it is here recognised to have a degree of stability; but it was certainly not eternal. Paul may have seen plainly enough in such careers as those of Caligula and Claudius the impending collapse of the Julian dynasty; and the very obscurity and reserve with which he expresses himself amount to a distinct proof that he has something in his mind which it was not safe to describe more plainly. Dr. Farrar has pointed to the remarkable correspondence between this passage, interpreted of the Roman Empire, and a paragraph in Josephus, in which that historian explains the visions of Daniel to his pagan readers. Josephus shows that the image with the head of gold, the breast and arms of silver, the belly and thighs of brass, and the ankles and feet of iron, represents a succession of four empires. He names the Babylonian as the first, and indicates plainly that the Medo-Persian and the Greek are the second and third; but when he comes to the fourth, which is destroyed by the stone cut out without hands, he does not venture, as all his countrymen did, to identify it with the Roman. That would have been disloyal in a courtier, and dangerous as well; so he remarks, when he comes to the point, that he thinks it proper to say nothing about the stone and the kingdom it destroys, his duty as a historian being to record what is past and gone, and not what is yet to come. In a precisely similar way does St. Paul here hint at an event which it would have been perilous to name. But what he means is: When the Roman power has been removed, the lawless one will be revealed, and the Lord will come to destroy him.

What was said of the man of sin in the last chapter has again its application here. The Roman Empire did not fall within any such period as Paul anticipated; nor, when it did, was there any such crisis as he describes. The man of sin was not revealed, and the Lord did not come. But these are the human elements in the prophecy; and its interest and meaning for us lie in the description which an inspired writer gives of the final forms of wickedness, and their connection with principles which were at work around him, and are at work among us. He does not, indeed, come to these at once. He passes over them, and anticipates the final victory, when the Lord shall destroy the man of sin with the breath of His mouth, and bring him to nought by the appearance of His coming; he would not have Christian men face the terrible picture of the last workings of evil until they have braced and comforted their hearts with the prospect of a crowning victory. There is a great battle to be fought; there are great perils to be encountered; there is a prospect with something in it appalling to the bravest heart; but there is light beyond. It needs but the breath of the Lord Jesus; it needs but the first ray of His glorious appearing to brighten the sky, and all the power of evil is at an end. Only after he has fixed the mind on this does St. Paul describe the supreme efforts of the enemy.

His coming, he says-and he uses the word applied to Christ’s advent, as though to teach us that the event in question is as significant for evil as the other for good-his coming is according to the working of Satan. When Christ was in the world, His presence with men was according to the working of God; the works that the Father gave Him to do, the same He did, and nothing else. His life was the life of God entering into our ordinary human life, and drawing into its own mighty and eternal current all who gave themselves up to Him. It was the supreme form of goodness, absolutely tender and faithful; using all the power of the Highest in pure unselfishness and truth. When sin has reached its height, we shall see a character in whom all this is reversed. Its presence with men will be according to the working of Satan; not an ineffective thing, but very potent; carrying in its train vast effects and consequences; so vast and so influential, in spite of its utter badness, that it is no exaggeration to describe its "coming" ( παρουσια), its "appearing" ( επιφανεια) and its "revelation" ( αποκαλυψις), by the very same words which are applied to Christ Himself. If there is one word which can characterise this whole phenomenon, both in its principle and in its consummation, it is falsehood. The devil is a liar from the beginning, and the father of lies; and where things go on according to the working of Satan, there is sure to he a vast development of falsehood and delusion. This is a prospect which very few fear. Most of us are confident enough of the soundness of our minds, of the solidity of our principles, of the justice of our consciences. It is very difficult for us to understand that we can be mistaken, quite as confident about falsehood as about truth, unsuspecting victims of pure delusion. We can see that some men are in this wretched plight, but that very fact seems to give us immunity. Yet the falsehoods of the last days, St. Paul tells us, will be marvellously imposing and successful. Men will be dazzled by them, and unable to resist. Satan will support his representative by power and signs and wonders of every description, agreeing in nothing but in the characteristic quality of falsehood. They will be lying miracles. Yet those who are of the truth will not be left without a safeguard against them, a safeguard found in this, that the manifold deceit of every kind which the devil and his agents employ, is deceit of unrighteousness. It furthers unrighteousness; it has evil as its end. By this it is betrayed to the good; its moral quality enables them to penetrate the lie, and to make their escape from it. However plausible it may seem on other grounds, its true character comes out under the touchstone of conscience, and it stands finally condemned.

This is a point for consideration in our own time. There is a great deal of falsehood in circulation-partly superstitious, partly quasi-scientific-which is not judged with the decision and severity that would be becoming in wise and good men. Some of it is more or less latent, working as a mystery of iniquity; influencing men’s souls and consciences rather than their thoughts; disinclining them to prayer, suggesting difficulties about believing in God, giving the material nature the primacy over the spiritual, ignoring immortality and the judgment to come. The man knows very little, who does not know that there is a plausible case to be stated for atheism, for materialism, for fatalism, for the rejection of all belief in the life beyond the grave, and its connection with our present life; but however powerful and plausible the argument may be, he has been very careless of his spiritual nature, who does not see that it is a deceit of unrighteousness. I do not say that only a bad man could accept it; but certainly all that is bad in any man, and nothing that is good, will incline him to accept it. Everything in our nature that is unspiritual, slothful, earthly, at variance with God; everything that wishes to be let alone, to forget what is high, to make the actual and not the ideal its portion; everything that recalls responsibilities of which such a system would discharge us forever, is on the side of its doctrines. But is not that itself a conclusive argument against the system? Are not all these most suspicious allies? Are they not, beyond dispute, our very worst enemies? And can it be possible that a way of thinking is true, which gives them undisputed authority over us? Do not believe it. Do not let any plausibility of argument impose upon you; but when the moral issue of a theory is plainly immoral, when by its working it is betrayed to be the leaven of the Sadducees, reject it as a diabolical deceit. Trust your conscience, that is, your whole nature, with its instinct for what is good, rather than any dialectic; it contains far more of what you are; and it is the whole man, and not the most unstable and self-confident of his faculties, that must judge. If there is nothing against a spiritual truth but the difficulty of conceiving how it can be, do not let that mental incapacity weigh against the evidence of its fruits.

The Apostle points to this line of thought, and to this safeguard of the good, when he says that those who come under the power of this vast working of falsehood are those who are perishing, because they received not the love of the truth that they might be saved. But for this clause we might have said, Why expose men, defenceless, to such a terrific trial as is here depicted? Why expect weak, bewildered, unstable creatures to keep their feet, when falsehood comes in like a flood? But such queries would show that we mistook the facts. None are carried away by the prevailing falsehood but those who received not the love of the truth that they might be saved. It is a question, we see, not of the intelligence simply, but of the whole man. He does not say, They received not the truth; that might have been due to some cause over which they had no control. They might never have had so much as a good look at the truth; they might have got an incurable twist in their education, a flaw in their minds like a flaw in a mirror, that prevented them from ever seeing what the truth was like. These would be cases to stand apart. But he says, "They received not the love of the truth." That truth which is presented for our acceptance in the gospel is not merely a thing to scrutinise, to weigh, to judge by the rules of the bench or the jury box: it is a truth which appeals to the heart; from cultured and uncultured, from the clear-headed and the puzzle-headed, from the philosopher and the message boy, it demands the answer of love. It is this which is the true test of character-the answer which is given, not by the brain, disciplined or undisciplined, but by the whole man, to the revelation of the truth in Jesus Christ. Intelligence, by itself, may be a very little matter; all that some men have is but a tool in the hands of their passions; but the love of the truth, or its opposite, shows truly what we are. Those who love it are safe. They cannot love falsehood at the same time; all the lies of the devil and his agents are powerless to do them any harm. Satan, we see here, has no advantage over us that we do not first give him. The absence of liking for the truth, want of sympathy with Christ, a disposition to find less exacting ways than His, a resolution to find them or to make them, ending in a positive antipathy to Christ and to all the truth which He teaches and embodies, -these give the enemy his opportunity and his advantage over us. Put it to yourself in this light if you wish to discern your true attitude to the gospel. You may have difficulties and perplexities about it on one side or another; it runs out into mystery on every hand; but these will not expose you to the danger of being deceived, as long as you receive the love of it in your heart. It is a thing to command love; the truth as truth is in Jesus. All that is good in us is enlisted in its favour; not to love it is to be a bad man. A recent Unitarian lecturer has said that to love Jesus is not a religious duty; but that is certainly not a New Testament doctrine. It is not only a religious duty, but the sum of all such duties; to do it, or not to do it, is the decisive test of character, and the arbiter of fate. Does not He Himself say-He who is the Truth-"He that loveth father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me"? Does not His Apostle say, "If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be anathema"? Depend upon it, love to Him is all our goodness, and all our defence against the powers of evil. To grow cold and indifferent is to give the enemy of our souls an opening against us. The last two verses in this passage are very striking. We have seen already two agents in the destruction of men’s souls. They perish by their own agency, in that they do not welcome and love the truth; and they perish by the malevolence of the devil, who avails himself of this dislike to the truth to befool them. by falsehood, and lead them ever further and further astray. But here we have a third agent, most surprising of all, God Himself. "For this cause God sendeth them a working of error, that they should believe a lie: that they all might be judged who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness." Is God, then, the author of falsehood? Do the delusions that possess the minds of men, and lead them to eternal ruin owe their strength to Him? Can He intend anybody to believe a lie, and especially a lie with such terrific consequences as are here in view? The opening words-"for this cause"-supply the answer to these questions. For this cause, i.e., because they have not loved the truth, but in their liking for evil have turned their backs upon it, for this cause God’s judgment comes upon them, binding them to their guilt. Nothing is more certain, however we may choose to express it, than the word of the wise man: "His own iniquities shall take the wicked himself, and he shall be holden with the cords of his sin." He chooses his own way, and he gets his fill of it. He loves the deceit of unrighteousness, the falsehood which delivers him from God and from His law; and by God’s righteous judgment, acting through the constitution of our nature, he comes continually more and more under its power. He believes the lie, just as a good man believes the truth: he becomes every day more hopelessly beclouded in error; and the end is that he is judged. The judgment is based, not on his intellectual, but on his moral state. It is true he has been deluded, but his delusion is due to this, that he had pleasure in unrighteousness. It was this evil in him which gave weight to the sophistries of Satan. Again and again in Scripture this is represented as the punishment of the wicked, that God gives them their own way, and infatuates them in it. The error works with ever greater power in their souls, till they cannot imagine that it is an error; none can deliver himself, or say, Is there not a lie in my right hand? "My people would not hearken to My voice, and Israel would none of Me. So I gave them up unto their own hearts’ lust: and they walked in their own counsels." "When they knew God, they glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful; wherefore God gave them up to uncleanness." "They changed the truth of God into a lie; for this cause God gave them up unto vile affections." "They did not like to retain God in their knowledge. God gave them over to a reprobate mind." "They received not the love of the truth: and for this cause God sendeth unto them a working of error." Sin bears its punishment in itself; when it has had its perfect work, we see that it has been executing a judgment of God more awful than anything we could conceive. If you would have Him on your side, your ally and not your adversary, receive the love of the truth.

This is the final lesson of the passage. We do not know all the forces that are at work in the world in the interest of error; but we know there are many. We know that the mystery of iniquity is already in operation. We know that falsehood, in this spiritual sense, has much in man which is its natural ally; and that we need to be steadily on our guard against the wiles of the devil. We know that passion is sophistical, and reason often weak, and that we see our true selves in the action of heart and conscience. Be faithful, therefore, to God at the core of your nature. Love the truth that you may he saved. This alone is salvation. This alone is a safeguard against all the delusions of Satan; it was one who knew God, who lived in God, who did always the works of God, who loved God as the only begotten Son the Father, who could say, "The prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in Me."


Verses 13-17

Chapter 21

THE THEOLOGY OF PAUL

2 Thessalonians 2:13-17 (R.V.)

THE first part of this chapter is mysterious, awful, and oppressive. It deals with the principle of evil in the world, its secret working, its amazing power, its final embodiment in the man of sin, and its decisive overthrow at the Second Advent. The characteristic action of this evil principle is deceit. It deludes men, and they become its victims. True, it can only delude those who lay themselves open to its approach by an aversion to the truth, and by delight in unrighteousness; but when we look round us, and see the multitude of its victims, we might easily be tempted to despair of our race. The Apostle does not do so. He turns away from that gloomy prospect, and fixes his eyes upon another, serene, bright, and joyful. There is a son of perdition, a person doomed to destruction, who will carry many to ruin in his train; but there is a work of God going on in the world as well as a work of evil; and it also has its triumphs. Let the mystery of iniquity work as it will, "we are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, for that God chose you from the beginning unto salvation."

The thirteenth and fourteenth verses of this chapter are a system of theology in miniature. The Apostle’s thanksgiving covers the whole work of salvation from the eternal choice of God to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ in the world to come. Let us observe the several points which it brings out. As a thanksgiving, of course, God is the main subject in it. Every separate clause only serves to bring out another aspect of the fundamental truth that Salvation is of the Lord. What aspects, then, of this truth are presented in turn?

(1) In the first place, the original idea of salvation is God’s. He chose the Thessalonians to it from the beginning. There are really two assertions in this simple sentence-the one, that God chose them; the other, that His choice is eternal. The first of these is obviously a matter on which there is an appeal to experience. These Christian men, and all Christian men, could tell whether it was true or not that they owed their salvation to God. In point of fact, there has never been any doubt about that matter in any church, or indeed, in any religion. All good men have always believed that salvation is of the Lord. It begins on God’s side. It can most truly be described from His side. Every Christian heart responds to the word of Jesus to the disciples "Ye have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you." Every Christian heart feels the force of St. Paul’s words to the Galatians: "After that ye have known God, or rather were known of God." It is His taking knowledge of us which is the original, fundamental, decisive thing in salvation. That is a matter of experience; and so far the Calvinist doctrine of election, which has sometimes an unsubstantial, metaphysical aspect, has an experimental basis. We are saved, because God in His love has saved us; that is the starting point. That also gives character, in all the Epistles, to the New Testament doctrine of election. The Apostle never speaks of the elect as an unknown quantity, a favoured few, hidden in the Church, or in the world, unknown to others or to themselves: "God," he says, "chose you," - the persons addressed in this letter, -"and you know that He did." So does everyone who knows anything of God at all. Even when the Apostle says, "God chose you from the beginning," he does not leave the basis of experience. "Known unto God are all His works from the beginning of the world." The purpose of God’s love to save men, which comes home to them in their reception of the gospel, is not a thing of today or yesterday; they know it is not; it is the manifestation of His nature; it is as eternal as Himself; they can count on it as securely as they can on the Divine character; if God has chosen them at all, He has chosen them from the beginning. The doctrine of election in Scripture is a religious doctrine, based upon experience; it is only when it is separated from experience, and becomes metaphysical, and prompts men to ask whether they who have heard and received the gospel are elect or not-an impossible question on New Testament ground-that it works for evil in the Church. If you have chosen God, you know it is because He first chose you; and His will revealed in that choice is the will of the Eternal.

(2) Further, the means of salvation for men are of God. "He chose you," says the Apostle, "in sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth." Perhaps "means" is not the most precise word to use here; it might be better to say that sanctification wrought by the Spirit, and belief of the truth, are the state in which, rather than the means by which, salvation is realised. But what I wish to insist upon is, that both are included in the Divine choice; they are the instruments or the conditions of carrying it into effect. And here, when we come to the accomplishment of God’s purpose, we see how it combines a Divine and a human side. There is a sanctification, or consecration, wrought by the Spirit of God upon the spirit of man, the sign and seal of which is baptism, the entrance of the natural man into the new and higher life; and coincident with this, there is the belief of the truth, the acceptance of God’s message of mercy, and the surrender of the soul to it. It is impossible to separate these two things, or to define their relation to each other. Sometimes the first seems to condition the second; sometimes the order is reversed. Now it is the Spirit which opens the mind to the truth; again it is the truth which exercises a sanctifying power like the Spirit. The two, as it were, interpenetrate each other. If the Spirit stood alone, man’s mind would be baffled, his moral freedom would be taken away; if the reception of the truth were everything, a cold, rationalistic type of religion would sup, plant the ardour of the New Testament Christian. The eternal choice of God makes provision, in the combination of the Spirit and the truth, at once for Divine influence and for human freedom; for a baptism of fire and for the deliberate welcoming of revelation; and it is-when the two are actually combined that the purpose of God to save is accomplished. What can we say here on the basis of experience? Have we believed the truth which God has declared to us in His Son? Has its belief been accompanied and made effectual by a sanctification wrought by His Spirit, a consecration which has made the truth live in us, and made us new creatures in Christ? God’s choice does not become effective apart from this; it comes out in this; it secures its own accomplishment in this. His chosen are not chosen to salvation irrespective of any experience; none are chosen except as they believe the truth and are sanctified by His Spirit.

(3) Once more, the execution of the plan of salvation in time is of God. To this salvation, says Paul, He called you by our gospel. The apostles and their companions were but messengers: the message they brought was God’s. The new truths, the warnings, the summonses, the invitations, all were His. The spiritual constraint which they exercised was His also. In speaking thus, the Apostle magnifies his office, and magnifies at the same time the responsibility of all who heard him preach. It is a light thing to listen to a man speaking his own thoughts, giving his own counsel, inviting assent to his own proposals; it is a solemn thing to listen to a man speaking truly in the name of God. The gospel that we preach is ours, only because we preach it and because we receive it; but the true description of it is, the gospel of God. It is His voice which proclaims the coming judgment; it is His voice which tells of the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, even the forgiveness of our trespasses; it is His voice which invites all who are exposed to wrath, all who are under the curse and power of sin, to come to the Saviour. Paul had thanked God in the First Epistle that the Thessalonians had received his word, not as the word of man, but as what it was in truth, the word of the living God; and here he falls back again on the same thought in a new connection. It is too natural for us to put God as far as we can out of our minds, to keep Him forever in the background, to have recourse to Him only in the last resort; but that easily becomes an evasion of the seriousness and the responsibilities of our life, a shutting of our eyes to its true significance, for which we may have to pay dear. God has spoken to us all in His word and by His Spirit, God, and not only some human preacher: see that ye despise not Him that speaketh.

(4) Lastly, under this head, the end proposed to us in obeying the gospel call is of God. It is the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul became a Christian and an Apostle, because he saw the Lord of Glory on the way to Damascus; and his whole conception of salvation was shaped by that sight. To be saved meant to enter into that glory into which Christ had entered. It was a condition of perfect holiness, open only to those who were sanctified by Christ’s Spirit; but perfect holiness did not exhaust it. Holiness was manifested in glory, in a light surpassing the brightness of the sun, in a strength superior to every weakness, in a life no longer assailable by death. Weak, suffering, destitute-dying daily for Christ s sake-Paul saw salvation concentrated and summed up in the glory of Christ. To obtain this was to obtain salvation. "When Christ who is our life shall appear," he says elsewhere, "then shall ye also appear with Him in glory." "This corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality." If salvation were anything lower than this, there might be a plausible case to state for man as its author; but reaching as it does to this immeasurable height, who can accomplish it but God? It needs the operation of the might of His power which He wrought in Christ when He raised Him from the dead.

One cannot read these two simple verses without wondering at the new world which the gospel created for the mind of man. What great thoughts are in them-thoughts that wander through eternity, thoughts based on the most sure and blessed of experiences, yet travelling back into an infinite past, and on into immortal glory; thoughts of the Divine presence and the Divine power interpenetrating and redeeming human life; thoughts addressed originally to a little company of working people, but unmatched for length and breadth and depth and height by all that pagan literature could offer to the wisest and the best. What a range and sweep there is in this brief summary of God’s work in man’s salvation. If the New Testament is uninteresting, can it be for any other reason than that we arrest ourselves at the words, and never penetrate to the truth which lies beneath?

On this review of the work of God the Apostle grounds an exhortation to the Thessalonians. "So then, brethren," he writes, "stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye were taught, whether by word, or by epistle of ours." The objection that is brought against Calvinism is that it destroys every motive for action on our part, by destroying all need of it. If salvation is of the Lord, what is there for us to do? If God conceived it, planned it, executes it, and alone can perfect it, what room is left for the interference of man? This is a species of objection which would have appeared extremely perverse to the Apostle. Why, he would have exclaimed, if God left it to us to do, we might well sit down in despair and do nothing, so infinitely would the task exceed our powers; but since the work of salvation is the work of God, since He Himself is active on that side, there are reason, hope, motive, for activity on our part also. If we work in the same line with Him, toward the same end with Him, our labour will not be cast away; it will be triumphantly successful. God is at work; but so far from that furnishing a motive to non-exertion on our part, it is the strongest of all motives to action. Work out your own salvation, not because it is left to you to do, but because it is God who is working in you both will and deed in furtherance of His good pleasure. Fall in, the Apostle virtually says in this place, with the purpose of God to save you; identify yourselves with it; stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye were taught.

"Traditions" is an unpopular word in one section of the Church because it has been so vastly abused in another. But it is not an illegitimate word in any church, and there is always a place for what it means. The generations are dependent on each other; each transmits to the future the inheritance it has received from the past; and that inheritance-embracing laws, arts, manners, morals, instincts, religion-can all be comprehended in the single word tradition. The gospel was handed over to the Thessalonians by St. Paul, partly in oral teaching, partly in writing; it was a complex of traditions in the simplest sense, and they were not to let any part of it go. Extreme Protestants are in the habit of opposing Scripture to tradition. The Bible alone, they say, is our religion; and we reject all unwritten authority. But, as a little reflection will show, the Bible itself is, in the first instance, a part of tradition; it is handed down to us from those who have gone before; it is delivered to us as a sacred deposit by the Church; and as such we at first regard it. There are good reasons, no doubt, for giving Scripture a fundamental and critical place among traditions. When its claim to represent the Christianity of the apostles is once made out, it is fairly regarded as the criterion of everything else that appeals to their authority. The bulk of so-called traditions in the Church of Rome are to be rejected, not because they are traditions, but because they are not traditions, but have originated in later times, and are inconsistent with what is known to be truly apostolic. We ourselves are bound to keep fast hold of all that connects us historically with the apostolic age. We would not disinherit ourselves. We would not lose a single thought, a single like or dislike, a single conviction or instinct, of all that proves us the spiritual posterity of Peter and Paul and John. Sectarianism destroys the historical sense; it plays havoc with traditions; it weakens the feeling of spiritual affinity between the present and the past. The Reformers in the sixteenth century-the men like Luther, Melanchthon, and Calvin-made a great point of what they called their catholicity, i.e., their claim to represent the true Church of Christ, to be the lawful inheritors of apostolic tradition. They were right, both in their claim, and in their idea of its importance; and we will suffer for it, if, in our eagerness for independence, we disown the riches of the past.

The Apostle closes his exhortation with a prayer. "Now our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and God our Father which loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and stablish them in every good work and word." All human effort, he seems to say, must be not only anticipated and called forth, but supported, by God. He alone it is who can give steadfastness to our pursuit of good in word and deed.

In his prayer the Apostle goes back to great events in the past, and bases his request on the assurance which they yield: "God," he says, "who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace." When did God do these gracious things? It was-when He sent His Son into the world for us. He does love us now; He will love us forever; but we go back for the final proof, and for the first conviction of this, to the gift of Jesus Christ. There we see God who loved us. The death of the Lord Jesus is specially in view. "Hereby know we love, because He laid down His life for us." "Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins." The eternal consolation is connected in the closest possible way with this grand assurance of love. It is not merely an unending comfort, as opposed to the transitory and uncertain joys of earth; it is the heart to exclaim with St. Paul, "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us." Here, and now, this eternal consolation is given to the Christian heart; here, and now, rather, it is enjoyed; it was given, once for all, on the cross at Calvary. Stand there, and receive that awful pledge of the love of God, and see whether it does not, even now, go deeper than any sorrow.

But the eternal consolation does not exhaust God’s gifts. He has also in His grace given us good hope. He has made provision, not only for the present trouble, but for the future uncertainty. All life needs an outlook; and those who have stood beside the empty grave in the garden know how wide and glorious is the outlook provided by God for the believer in Jesus Christ. In the very deepest darkness, a light is kindled for him; in the valley of the shadow of death, a window is opened to him in heaven. Surely God, who sent His Son to die for us upon the Cross; God, who raised Him again from the dead on our behalf, and set Him at His own right hand in heavenly places, -surely He who has been at such cost for our salvation will not be slow to second all our efforts, and to establish our hearts in every good work and word.

How simply, one is tempted to say, it all ends-good works and good words; are these the whole fruits which God seeks in His great work of redemption? Does it need consolation so wonderful, hope so far reaching, to secure patient continuance in well-doing? We know only too well that it does. We know that the comfort of God, the hope of God, prayer to God, are all needed; and that all we can make of all of them combined is not too much to make us steadily dutiful in word and deed. We know that it is not a disproportionate or unworthy moral, but one befitting the grandeur of his theme, when the Apostle concludes the fifteenth chapter of 1st Corinthians in a tone very similar to that which rules here. The infinite hope of the Resurrection is made the basis of the commonest duties. "Therefore, my beloved brethren," he says, "be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour: is not in vain in the Lord." That hope is to bear fruit on earth-in patience and loyalty, in humble and faithful service. It is to shed its radiance over the trivial round, the common task; and the Apostle does not think it wasted if it enables men and women to do well and not weary.

The difficulty of expounding this passage lies in the largeness of the thoughts; they include, in a manner, every part and aspect of the Christian life. Let each of us try to bring them. near to himself. God has called us by His gospel: He has declared to us that Jesus our Lord was delivered for our offences, and that He was raised again to open the gates of life to us. Have we believed the truth? That is-where the gospel begins for us. Is the truth within us, written on hearts that God’s Spirit has separated from the world, and devoted to a new life? or is it outside of us, a rumour, a hearsay, to which we have no vital relation? Happy are those who have believed, and taken Christ into their souls, Christ who died for us and rose again; they have the forgiveness of sins, a pledge of love that disarms and vanquishes sorrow, an infallible hope that outlives death. Happy are those to whom the cross and the empty tomb give that confidence in God’s love which makes prayer natural, hopeful, joyful. Happy are those to whom all these gifts of grace bring the strength to continue patiently in well-doing, and to be steadfast in every good work and word. All things are theirs-the world, and life, and death; things present and things to come; everlasting consolation and good hope; prayer, patience, and victory: all are theirs, for they are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 2 Thessalonians 2:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/2-thessalonians-2.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, August 21st, 2019
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20
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