Organized Deceit

I. A kindly worded request of absolute necessity (2:1-3a).

A. The subject of this section is “the day of the Lord” (2). Paul described that day more broadly as “the coming of our Lord Jesus and our gathering together to Him” (1). The report had been given, probably since the writing of the first letter, that Christ’s return was pressing in soon, hovering just over the next moment, or the next. It seemed feasible that Paul would give such urgent instruction in light of his attention to Christ’s return in 1 Thessalonians 1:3,10; 2:19, 20; 3:13; 4:13-18; 5:1-11, 23.

B. Do not listen to those who are inconsistent with what Paul taught—“as if from us” (2). “Let no one in any way deceive you” (3).

    1. This false message had caused alarm. Some were teaching by feigning Paul’s authority that the Lord Jesus Christ was returning from heaven to conclude all things virtually immediately. Earthly life in this age was soon to be ended. Consternation and discomposure were not caused by lack of desire to be in the presence of the Savior, but by the intimidation of the appearance of unsurpassed greatness and power. Though the coming of Christ will be marvelous to Christians (1:10) and gives a healthy sense of hope (1 Thessalonians 1:10), it still is a sobering, solemn, and awe-inspiring prospect. The display of the judgment of the unrighteous to eternal destruction will make all fall down in worship and confession of the justice of the verdict. The sensory shock of absolute righteousness, immutable holiness, infinite glory—every knee bows—creates an aura of mystery and the disablement effected by deep anticipation. Paul said that this false and sensational report had shaken and disturbed them. It was not healthy spiritually, emotionally, or physically to live on the edge of finality. The hope generated by this event will purify the believer (1 Thessalonians 5:4, 5; 1 John 3:3), but to penetrate each moment with the expectation of the immediate termination of the age enervates the sense of ongoing long-term responsibility (1 Thessalonians 3:2-5; 4:11,12). This false excitement probably was behind the cessation of work on the part of some of the believers (3:11, 12).
    2. Under the impression that they spoke by the Spirit, some were predicting a virtual immediate return of Christ. That is the reason that he told them to examine prophetic utterances carefully (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Paul is giving in this passage an apostolic word (again!) by which such unwarranted enthusiasm should be curbed. False teaching produces false living.
    3. Others reported that some message existed to the effect of an immediate return of Christ. This message supposedly would have been a word spoken by Paul, or perhaps another apostle viva voce, and passed along as revealed truth. Again, Paul says do not fall for that ruse.
    4. Some even went to the extent of composing a pseudonymous letter personating Paul. Paul was not happy about that and would never accept the validity of any written document passed off under such false pretenses.

C. Do listen to Paul (2, 5).

    1. Paul reasserts his apostolic authority and the truth of the message that he delivered. He spoke by the Spirit, preached audibly from Scripture, and wrote letters. He did not reject the method of communication, but the specific content of what they had heard from three ways in which truth was delivered from church to church in this first Christian century. The Spirit did reveal truth to the churches through the local prophets as through Paul. Words or sayings given during the life of Christ or by apostles in their ministries were reported (Hebrews 2:1-4). These messages were given to perpetuity by their written form in letters. Paul confirmed but the spoken and written word in verse 15. Each of these, however, could be abused and care had to be taken when such things were set forth in the absence of apostolic authority. If the apostolic word was ignored, the messenger of such information was to be disregarded (1 Corinthians 14:36-38).
    2. In verse 5, after beginning his response, Paul breaks off before finishing a sentence. He seemed a bit impatient with their susceptibility to believe these untested sources of teaching. “Do you not remember that while I was still with you, I was telling you these things?” If you had listened well enough, and taken my words to heart as deeply as you should have, you would not now be confused by these erroneous teachings.

II. Paul isolated a peculiarly egregious opponent of the gospel to expand the general statements of 1:6-9.

A. The “apostasy” must come first. Some interpreters make this falling away refer to the “rapture” with the tribulation following. The concern that Paul has for gearing up their knowledge for discernment of truth seems to point to a coming apostasy from the truth. The falling away involves heresy, unrighteousness, deceit, and idolatry. The Thessalonians must be solid in their grasp of truth, for, as John said, this spirit of antichrist already is in the world (1 John 4:1-3). Paul’s understanding is the same, “The mystery of lawlessness is already at work” (7).

B. This will be in coordination with the “man of lawlessness” (3). It seems that already this figure is present and will come to a critical time of unveiling. Verses 6 and 8 also use the word “revealed” or “unveiled” for the time that the work and intent of this figure begins to exert power. A. T. Robertson observed, “The implication is that the man of sinis hidden somewhere who will be suddenly manifested just as false apostles pose as angels of light (II Corinthains 11:13ff), whether the crowning event of the apostasy or another name for the same event.” Daniel describes such a figure in Daniel 7:25, again in 8:23-25; and in 11:36. This person, or institution, becomes a law unto itself—“And the king shall do as he wills. He shall exalt himself and magnify above every god and shall speak astonishing things against the God of gods” (Daniel 11:36). This posture coincides with the fallenness of humanity and its propensity to rebellion and to reject the law of God and any true fear of his power and holiness: “Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart; there is no fear of God before his eyes” (Psalm 36:1; cf Romans 3:18). For this reason, so many are brought into the orbit of this purveyor of lies, lawlessness, and deceit. Paul’s juxtaposition of the descriptions “man of lawlessness,” and “son of destruction” shows that he will not prevail but will be destroyed. This truth of certain destruction for the reigning proponent of lawlessness is expanded in verse 8: “Then that lawless one will be revealed whom the Lord will slay with the breath of His mouth and bring to an end by the appearance of His coming.”

C. Paul goes into some detail to set forth the perversity and destructiveness of this one called the man of lawlessness. It seems that this seizing of power includes social, political, and religious spheres of influence. The totalitarian impulse comes to full flower in the claims and exhibitions of control in this person or office. For a season the truly destructive and despotic root of sin is granted its time to be revealed. Godlessness and scoffing at the divinely-revealed standards of true life and righteousness will be granted a moment, as it were, to flourish, so that the verdict of destruction will be seen as perfectly fitted for the sinful perversity of rebellion.

    1. The man of lawlessness, in the style of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 3:1-7or Darius in Daniel 6:6-9, claims all the power and prerogatives of a god. He makes himself the final point of loyalty for all his subjects. He opposes every object of worship other than himself, exalts himself above them and even inserts his own authority above the God of the Bible (4). “He shall speak words against the Most High, and shall wear out the saints of the Most High, and shall think to change the times and the law” (Daniel 7:25).
    2. This being, individual or institution, is fully coordinated with the purpose and plot of the great fallen angel Satan. He claims, falsely like Satan, to have final power and authority over this world (Matthew 4:8-10). It seems to be so at times because of the conglomerate perversity that frequently rises to the place of prominence in large portions of society (Ephesians 2:1-3). There Satan is called “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now is at work in the sons of disobedience.” In 2 Corinthians 4:4, Paul called Satan “the god of this world” in his operations to blind the minds of unbelievers. The man of sin, “whose coming is in accord with the activity of Satan,” (9) uses the angelic strength of Satan to mimic divine power pointing to these as signs of his authority, but, though impressive to the carnal mind, they are but “false wonders” (9).
    3. Some commentators make this the development of civil institutions that oppose Christian truth or persecute Christians. Such may be of the same nature as this man of lawlessness, but the chief attack of this “man” is upon specifically Christian truth from within the framework of Christian worship–“takes his seat in the temple of God.” The description does not seem to isolate this person to a single individual but a collection of individuals committed corporately, perhaps purposely or by identical outlook, to an opposition to holiness, absolute moral law and the perfection and finality of revealed truth. This principle already was at work in the apostle’s time (3, 7). Peter warned against it in 2 Peter 2, as did Jude (3, 4), and John (1 John 4:1-6). In letter 2 John emphasized unity with those “who know the truth” and the necessity of “walking in truth” for “many deceivers have gone out into the world” and of resisting anyone who “does not abide in the teaching of Christ” (1, 4, 7, 9). In 3 John we learn that “your truth” must be consistent with “the truth” and that the clear evidence of true faith is “walking in the truth” (3, 4, 12).

III. Who, or what, is the one who hinders (6, 7)?

A. Some identify the hinderer as some power in society that is in competition with the goals of the lawless one. They see the Roman emperor as the hinderer. When Constantine moved the capitol of the empire from Rome to Byzantium (Constantinople), the church in Rome began to exert its influence over the next decades and into centuries as ruler of both church and state. This brought in persecution, perversion of biblical authority, a false teaching on justification, a system of merits utterly void of scriptural authority, and a division between clergy and laity foreign to biblical patterns of local church relations. The “Two Swords Theory” of Boniface VIII in the early fourteenth-century (1302) sought to establish de jure a complete dominance of the Roman bishop. The hinderer in this case would be the Roman emperor, the hindrance of which was removed when the capitol went east and thus unleashed the development of an authoritarian bishop of Rome and his false doctrine. Other events, the resistance of national kings, soon developed that hindered the de facto absolutism of Rome.

B. Paul, however, indicates that the Thessalonians already know about the operation of hindrance of evil—“and you know what restrains him now, so that in his time he will be revealed” (6).

    1. They were taught clearly about the work of the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 1:5; 4:8, 9; 5:19, 23, 24). He makes effectual the word of God, grants holiness and perseverance to the believer even in the face of tribulation. They probably would grasp, therefore, that the one who hinders the full effect of the destructive power of evil is the Holy Spirit operating according to the decreed providence of God. He subdues the power of evil in the world, represses some powers and raises up others (Daniel 5:26, 30, 31; John 19:10, 11).
    2. The many antichrists and the spirit of antichrist in the world for a while are held at bay by the Spirit’s power. When the time comes for the full implications of lawlessness to be revealed, the Spirit will no longer hinder, but will grant to evil and lawlessness its wonted power. A series of advances in power, such as described in Revelation 13, will indicate that the Spirit is allowing the mystery of iniquity to unfold with apparent domination even over the followers of Christ. They will be preserved only by the sovereign power of God operating by his eternal decree. See Paul’s summary of this in verses 13-15 and John’s picture of it in Revelation 13:10, 14:12, the sealing of the 144,000, and the Lamb’s book of life (Revelation 13:8; 17:8; 20:15).
    3. In a series of gradually increasing severities of judgment, the powers of the great beast are stripped, his iniquities punished, his allies confused (Revelation 17:15-18), and his final defeat and complete humiliation consummated (Revelation 14:6-20:10).
    4. This will be done essentially in two stages: one, “by the breath of his mouth,” (8) refers to the preaching of the gospel that will prosper and bring the myriads of elect to embrace the truth (Revelation 14:6, 7). They will resist the lawless one. The Reformers of the sixteenth century and the Puritans of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries partially debilitated this specific expression of the man of sin in their recovery of biblical authority and preaching. Two, Christ’s own personal appearance in the glory of his exalted state as the Redeemer of God’s elect will bring to an end the activities of all of those forces that have aligned themselves in anger and hatred against the law of God and the perfect fulfillment of that law in the gospel of Christ—“bring to an end by the appearance of his coming” (8). This is pictured graphically in Revelation 19:11-16.
    5. This view still could allow for the “man of lawlessness” to be the Roman Catholic church in its exaltation of the Pope, the bishop of Rome, to the position of vicar of Christ, asserting his infallibility ex cathedra, his granting of dispensations, and proclaiming of the meritorious status of pilgrimages, the doctrine of transubstantiation and the continual sacrifice of Christ. It probably also includes a liberal, compromising Protestantism as a manifestation of the universal and comprehensive penetration that lawlessness and deceit puruse in every sphere of human relations.

IV. Those who are deceived (10-12) are susceptible to deceit of all kinds for they push aside and even ridicule the truth.

A. Those who “did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved” will readily be deceived for their refuge is in lies. Truth brings them under condemnation, a verdict to which they will not consent, so it is reprehensible to them. They love themselves as they are, refuse to accept the justness of a sentence of condemnation, and thus do not the love of the truth. Having rejected the ultimate truth, their only option is falsehood; having rejected the rule of divine law, their only option is some facet of lawlessness. They did not embrace the truth of human sin and the need of salvation only through the substitution of Christ’s righteousness for our unrighteousness; so, having rejected the biblical doctrine of justification, their only option is condemnation.

B. Their attitude toward truth (11, 12) preferring deception, and their strange contentment with self-righteousness leads to increased judicial blindness justly inflicted by God (cf. Romans 1:24, 26, 28—“God gave them up,…God gave them up;…God gave them up.”) Having been established in rebellion and having their preference for evil sealed in their hearts, “they will believe what is false.” God’s truth and righteousness is magnified in their judgment for the companion of not believing the truth is the embracing of pleasure through wickedness—“who did not believe the truth but took pleasure in wickedness” (12).

C. Whether it is one individual that gains such world-wide and trans-politico, trans-religio power or the confluence of all non-truth believing systems in the world, we find several growing indicators of the plausibility of such organized deceit in this generation.

    1. This generation has intensified resistance to God’s creation mandates and revealed moral law about life. The nature of life that image-bearers by virtue of conception produce other image bearers (Genesis 3:27, 28; 4:1; 1 Samuel 1:20; Luke 1:24) is thrown aside in their quest for. To take that which is conceived in the image of God and eliminate it as void of true life and value established by God is murder. That life in God’s image begins at conception runs throughout Scripture but should be infallibly ascertained in a Christian’s conscience by Luke 1:35 and Psalm 51:5. Procedures designed to terminate hat which is conceived by procreation violate the command, You shall do no murder” (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17; Mark 7:20-23). The “compassion” that seeks unlimited abortion is indeed a lawless, perverse, and deceitful promotion of crime by means of a lovely word.
    2. The creation of humanity as male and female is called into question (Genesis 1:27; 5:1, 2; Matthew 19:3-9). Sexual perversity including violation of the created distinction and goodness of the male/female aspect of humanity has been present for millenia (Genesis 19:4-11; Romans 1:24-28). In our generation sexual perversity in aggressive violation of God’s purpose and law not only is celebrated in society as a right but is approved by so-called Christian denominations (Revelation 14:8).
    3. Theological error concerning the inspiration of Scripture, the deity of Christ, substitutionary atonement, the provenance and character of human sin, the necessity of justification, the doctrine of the Trinity, and the biblical teaching of eternal punishment are put in the category of antiquated ideas no longer fit for modern sensibilities. These positions are advocated from the offices of historically Christian denominations. The theological perversity leads to an increase in moral perversity. If the Bible is not a revelation of absolute truth, then its claims to present a standard by which all individuals in the world will be judged becomes relativized and susceptible to change by the opinions of a wicked generation (Romans 3:19, 20).
Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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