Sermon preached on 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 7/8/2018 in Novato, CA.
2 Thessalonians 2:1-12
“The Mystery of Lawlessness is Already at Work”
At our annual church open house and BBQ, I like to preach a more basic gospel message for the sermon. This is helpful for any who may be visiting today that is not a Christian, so they can learn about the basics of the Christian faith. And of course, every Christian can benefit from being refreshed in the gospel and the fundamentals of our faith. That being said, the passage I’ve selected for today might not seem to be the most typical passage for such a sermon. Some of the most difficult passages to understand are those that deal with prophecy that has not yet been fulfilled. Such prophetic passages tend to also be the most debated among fellow Christians. It’s always easier to see how a prophecy is specifically fulfilled after the fulfillment has happened. And yet today I have selected a passage full of prophecy about future events that have not yet taken place. Consequently, there have been some disagreements among Christians about how some of these future details will be worked out. We should certainly have great charity in such disagreements. And yet I chose this passage because there is part here that is not about the future but about a present reality. Verse 7 speaks of the mystery of lawlessness that is already at work. This is something we can so clearly see to be the case today. And I hope to show that recognizing this present lawlessness is important and helpful when considering the gospel of Jesus Christ. We want to expose the enemy’s tactics that are deceiving people today from believing in Jesus Christ and the gospel.
So then, in my first point I will look briefly on the future aspects of this passage; on the prophecy that has not yet been fulfilled; but I will do my best to focus most on the clearest aspects and the least debated parts. And so, this passage speaks of how in the future there will come someone known as the lawless one (vs 8). A man of sin and lawlessness (vs 3). This one will come before Christ comes back to this world to gather up his saved people to glory; that’s verses 1-3. Part of why this is important to consider what will happen in the future, is because we’ll see a connection with what is going on right now in the present. The mystery of lawlessness that is already here according to verse 7 is essentially a foretaste to what will be experienced in an ever greater degree when this future lawless one is ultimately revealed. Seeing what it says here about this future man of lawlessness will help us to think in our second point about what ways we see such workings of lawlessness already taking place today.
So, let’s think through the description of this man of lawlessness. Start by reflecting for a moment on that word lawlessness. Digest what it means to be lawless. It means you disregard and oppose the law – God’s law. This characterization is the exact opposite of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the righteous one, 1 John 2:1. He’s the man of righteousness. Jesus is the one who loves God’s law in the full. Jesus can sing in the full the psalm that says, “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day (119:97).” But this lawless one, he hates God’s law and spends his time in opposition to it. Seeing the contrast here with Jesus shows us what becomes more clear with further study: this man of lawlessness is literally the Antichrist. He is anti everything that Christ is and stands for.
Looking further at the passage, we see in verse 4 how this lawless one will oppose God and true religion. Notice that it says that he will even sit in the temple as God! In other words, he looks to displace true religion with his lawless lies. He will look to turn people away from the one true God and ultimately try to have them worship himself. The fact that he is described as sitting within the temple, and in light of similar antichrist prophecy in 1 John, it seems to point to this person rising up from within the church. In other words, likely this antichrist figure won’t be someone who attacks the church from the outside, but from within. Don’t get me wrong, there have been and will continue to be strong forces of opposition against the church from the outside; from the world. But it seems Scripture speaks as well of a final strong enemy that comes from within the church to try to turn the church from being a true church to a synagogue of Satan. That’s of course whom verse 9 says is ultimately behind this: Satan. Whether this prophecy of a man of lawlessness is some future incarnated Satan, or simply some person or institution being strongly influenced by Satan, we don’t know for sure. But the bottom line is that Satan is behind it and he is trying to get people to turn away from God.
And so along these lines, we see that this lawless one will use the weapon of deception, verse 10. Surely this means that this lawless one will not only embody lawlessness but promote that to others. He will not only live lawlessly, but he will preach lawlessness. But his preaching of lawlessness will come deceptively. It will come as some sort of new religion that appeals to the hearts of sinful men. He will lead people astray, and with his demonic powers he will even deceive with all power, signs, and lying wonders, verse 9. Make no mistake, this will be a strong delusion. If it were possible, even the elect would be led astray by it. As verse 10 says, he will deceive those who are perishing – the reprobate, those who are not God’s elect; he will convince them by these lies and they’ll not be saved. Satan, through this man of lawlessness, will get people to turn away from God, from righteousness, and from true religion. Surely that will include getting people to turn away from the gospel as well, but we will talk more of that in a moment.
I could go on in this description of this future rise of lawlessness. But now, I’d like to turn in our second point to consider the present reality of lawlessness. As we pointed out, verse 7 speaks of a way this mystery of lawlessness is already at work. The word mystery there recognizes that while we know that this lawlessness has come and is coming, we don’t know all the particulars in each case until they happen; until they are revealed in due time. That means we have to be on the look for this work of the enemy, so we can stand against it.
And so, verse 7 acknowledges that though the coming of this man of lawlessness is something for the future, there is a way in which this satanic spirit of lawlessness is already working woe in the church. This is parallel with what is said in 1 John 2:18 where it says that the Antichrist is coming, but yet even now many antichrists have already come. That’s where it goes on to further describe how such antichrists come out of the church, by the way. And so here, when we read verse 7, we should recognize that the sorts of things the lawless one will eventually do, are going to be seen in a lesser degree in the church right now. There are going to be people, leaders, rising up from within in the church, preaching lawlessness, turning people away from Christ, even right now. It’s been happening in Christ’s church, and it still is happening in Christ’s church. Remember, Jesus warned about this in Matthew 24 that false prophets and false Christ’s would arise and perform great signs and wonders to try to lead people astray. That’s exactly what Paul said here that this ultimate lawless one would do. Jesus confirms what we can glean from this chapter. That sort of thing is already beginning to happen now in the church, even before the final end.
Think of how this is seen. Historically, the time of the Protestant Reformation comes to mind. There, the Roman Catholic church, led by the Pope, placed itself above the Word of God and declared a different gospel. Despite calls for reform, they continued to stand against the truth of the biblical gospel. In that case, the spirit of lawlessness worked similar to what we see of the Pharisees in the New Testament. They essentially taught a righteousness or a law that man could keep, various external actions and acts of religion, that they said could save you. But in preaching that, it essentially was lawlessness because it took away the full demands of God’s laws to create some lesser law. And at the end of the day, it effectively put the focus on man’s works to save himself, rather than upon the grace of God in Christ, received through faith.
Flash forward to today, and we see this mystery of lawlessness still at work, yet in new ways. Essentially, we see a spirit at work today that increasingly gets rid of the law of God. What traditionally has been accepted as immoral and thus sinful is more and more no longer the case. We can understand when the world advocates that. Yet, we also find this coming forth from many so-called protestant churches. After the Protestant Reformation, we saw the visible church continue through several denominations of the Christian faith. Yet, sadly, today, many of the larger, historic denominations have had this mystery of lawlessness take over. In many so-called churches, things that were once said to be against God’s law are now allowed or even embraced and celebrated. Similarly, other things that were previously said to be lawful and good are now said to be wicked and evil.
Examples abound. Too many so-called churches today say it is okay to murder unborn babies in abortion in the name of loving the mother; too often for the simple sake of convenience for the parents. Or take divorce, too often “no-fault” divorce is embraced – an unlawful term if I have ever heard of one. They’ll say things like God wants you to be happy, to justify this immorality. We are now told that homosexuality and transgenderism needs to not only be tolerated but celebrated, something to take pride in, since that’s they way God made them, so they say. We are told that things like drunkenness and gluttony are really just diseases to treat. Even fornication and cohabitation are too often promoted as prudent and thus good. People are taught less about monogamy and more about how to have “safer” sin with whomever they want. This is all lawlessness. It’s saying that things God’s law say are wrong and sinful are no longer wrong or sinful. And if other Christians speak against such sin, we are increasingly told that we are sinning for doing so; that we are spewing hate. Again, we can understand to a degree when the world says this; but there are too many so-called churches saying it from the top; from their leadership and in their official doctrinal positions of the denomination. If you find yourself in such a church, it’s time to leave! And so, this mystery of lawlessness in our day is not longer a mystery. It is clear and evident for the unrighteousness that it is. And yet it is a compelling deception of the enemy. So many people embrace it because it affirms what they want to do in their sinful natures.
The outcome of this spirit of lawlessness is a statistical fact. I’ve seen several articles recently refencing various surveys taken where over time they show people are increasingly reducing the number of things they consider immoral. Interestingly, one of the only areas of sin that seems to have not suffered much decline in this area is adultery. In other words, a majority of humans still think adultery is immoral. Yet, even there, look at how many leaders and celebrities have committed adultery and it is too often effectively overlooked or excused by society. And the reality is you can even find people today advocating that adultery is not always wrong – I just read a series of blog posts promoting this on a psychology web site. So, that’s what we are seeing. From within the church and from outside the church, Satan has an agenda to get rid of God’s law.
Think of the implications for the gospel. And this is important to not miss. The more this agenda of lawlessness is advanced, the less perceived need there is for a savior from sin. You see, sin is to violate or transgress God’s law. It’s to do the things God’s law says not to do, and not do the things God’s law says we should do. The Bible says sin deserves punishment. God’s wrath for any and all sin ultimately deserves the punishment of hell, the perdition described here. The bad news in the Bible is that it says that all humans have sinned. Thus, all humans deserved to be condemned by God and suffer this perdition. But there is good news too in the Bible. The Bible says there is a way he has made to be saved from the punishment for sin. This salvation is referenced in verse 10. There is a way to be saved. It’s why Jesus died on the cross. On the cross, he bore God’s wrath of hell in the place of all who would put their faith and trust in him. That’s the gospel promise of salvation. If you confess your sins and turn to Christ in faith, you will be saved. If you admit you’re a sinner and look to Christ for forgiveness and grace, you will be saved. The Bible calls us to repent of our sins and turn to Christ as our Savior and Lord.
But do you see the problem with this mystery of lawlessness at work? When you increasingly get rid of all of God’s laws, then nothing is seen as sinful anymore.
If Satan can so deceive you into thinking that you are a pretty good person and don’t really do anything wrong, then you won’t see the need to be saved from your sins. You won’t see the need for grace, forgiveness, mercy, or thus the cross of Jesus Christ. You’ll have no fear of a final judgment and assume that even if there is one that God will judge you a pretty decent person. But that is worldly thinking, that is lawless thinking, that is satanic thinking, and thus it is anti-Christ thinking.
In our last point for today, I want to offer some encouragement during this present reality of lawlessness. This passage says that currently this lawlessness is being restrained. In verses 6 and 7 there are two references that speak of this. There is something keeping this lawlessness in check, so that it’s not yet as bad as it could be. Verse 6 says that they knew what was restraining the full-blown revealing of this man of lawlessness. Commentators like to point out that though they knew what was restraining this lawlessness, we aren’t told here what is restraining that lawlessness. That is true enough if we only look at this passage. However, when we cross reference this passage with other Scriptures, we get the general idea that this is God’s doing. Jesus said in Mark 3 that you can’t take from a strong man unless you first bind him. Jesus said that to speak of how he would deliver people from Satan’s hold; for that is why Jesus came, to destroy the works of the devil. At the cross, Jesus dealt a definitive blow to Satan. That opened up the way for the gospel to then go forth to the nations. Revelation 20 speaks of how Satan is now bound so he can no longer deceive the nations like he did in the past. In other words, this binding of Satan since the cross, is what has allowed the gospel to go out to the world and begin to convert so many. To be sure, Satan and his demonic forces are still able to work woe to a degree, as we even said today. But there is at least some restraint that protects God’s elect from the devil’s efforts to deceive, so they can be converted. That means there is a great gospel harvest going on right now, even though Satan still does his best to oppose Christ. That should encourage us today!
The sobering part here is that it says there will come a time in the future that this restraint will be lifted. Revelation 20 says the same thing, that just before the end, Satan will be loosed for a little while. The good news is what is seen in verse 8. The Lord Jesus Christ will then ultimately appear to save the day and put the devil to a final end. Nonetheless, the implication is that there is a coming final time near the end when a great spiritual apostasy will come. At that time, the restraining of Satan will be loosed and the man of lawlessness revealed, resulting in a great falling away, verse 3. In other words, Satan will be allowed one final time to bring a great deception to the nations. Likely that will be a time of little or no conversions to Christ.
So then, I offer two applications in light of this current restraint and the future releasing of that restraint. For those who are part of Christ’s church, seize the day. Use this time, before this great deception, and probably persecution, to be about the Great Commission. If the evidence of our current day means anything, this mystery of lawlessness is increasing. It may be that we are in the beginning of this final lawless one being revealed. Either way, time is short. Seize the day to tell others about Jesus and the gospel!
My other application then is to those who are not yet saved. I urge you to become saved now before this final delusion comes to the world. We already see this spirit of lawlessness deceiving people more and more. Recognize today, the lies of the enemy. Acknowledge today, while you still have opportunity, your sin and your need for a savior. Repent of your sins and turn to Jesus Christ. Put your faith in him and look to follow him as your Lord and Savior. Amen.
Copyright © 2018 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.