Over the years there have been many false prophets making predictions about the end of the world. Some are from “Christian” sects, some are from other religions such as Islam and Bahai, some are “scientists” (including predictions that the sun is evolving larger and will scorch up all that’s on earth) and some are environmental activists. There have been religious ‘prophets’ who proclaimed dates of the end-of-time only to have to revise the dates when the predicted end did not come. Other futurists play it safe and calculate the end to come millions and even billions of years from now. Then there are the greenies and other environmental alarmists (including the left-wing media’s latest darling, Greta Thunberg) who for various reasons believe pollution, ‘overpopulation’, climate change and such-like modern day ‘evils’ will sooner or later doom the world. We know from God’s Word that they’re all wrong.
That doesn’t mean we don’t have a duty to be good stewards of this earth. But it does mean we don’t swallow the calculations of the false prophets. Nor the left-wing media’s obsession of gloom and doom predictions as though mankind will determine the end. That end is determined by God. Jesus told His disciples, “Take heed that no one deceives you” (Mt 24:4) and “of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only.” (Mt 24:36). And elsewhere: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be burned up” (2Peter 3:10).
However, Scripture does show that before the Lord returns two things need to happen: the preaching needs to extend to the ends of the earth and, parallel to this, a falling away will occur and “the man of lawlessness” will be revealed. The apostle Paul, speaking by the Spirit, says “… the falling away comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed … And now you know what is restraining Him” (2 Thessalonians 2: 3b & 6a – translation of Rev. Joh. Francke).
Now the question often asked is: who is this “man of lawlessness” and what or who is it that is “withholding this man of lawlessness” (the antichrist)? It’s stumped a lot of commentators and most are agreed that 2 Thessalonians is one of the most difficult parts of the New Testament because it’s so hard to tell who or what it is that is withholding the man of lawlessness.
Rev. Joh. Francke, whose explanation[i] I’m following in the rest of this article, says people make it difficult by focussing on the “withholder of the antichrist”. He argues that it’s not the man of lawlessness and his withholder that’s in the centre here but the Son of man and what is withholding Him.
To demonstrate this, he points to the context. In this letter Paul is comforting the congregation in its grief and persecution by telling her that Christ will come as judge in righteousness and truth (ch. 1). And now in 2 Thess. 2 he expands on that. Why? Well, the congregation must have the right expectation because it’s so easy for misleading thoughts to come up in their minds. The danger is acute that people will harbour unrealistic expectations of the “day of the Lord”. So he begins chapter 2 with the warning “not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled”.
He sees the danger of losing the right perspective arising from three sides (vs 2). First, someone could be moved by a spirit to say, “The day of the Lord has come!” After all, there were prophets in the early NT church who received revelations from God. A person could stand and say, “The LORD has revealed to me that the day of the Lord Jesus has dawned, and we can expect Him any moment now”.
Second, there could be teachers wanting to draw people to themselves and arouse their excitement by focussing all their attention in the preaching on Jesus’ return. The so-called Maranatha preachers.
Third, some could appeal to parts of Paul’s letters to the other congregations in order somehow to demonstrate that “the day of the Lord has [already] come”.
Hence Paul’s emphasis that any claims about the day of the Lord having come, or predictions about when it’s coming, are wrong. No matter from which side or in what manner, such talk is not true prophecy.
And why not? For this reason: the Lord Jesus Christ cannot come because “the falling away comes first, and the man of lawlessness will be revealed” (vs 3). And that’s what Paul, when he was still in Thessalonica, had already told them (vs 5). Thus the main subject of chapter 2 is: the withholding of Christ’s coming. And Paul doesn’t leave anyone guessing what is withholding Him.
It’s like this. Paul is saying: You remember how when I was still with you I told you that the Lord Jesus would not return yet because first there would be a falling away and the man of lawlessness would be revealed. So now you know what is withholding Him (Christ) from revealing himself until the time the Father determines. It’s because first the falling away must come. That is the falling away of the Gospel of salvation and thereby the falling away from the LORD and His Christ.
What Paul says is completely in sync of course with what Christ says in Mt 24:14: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.”
Christ cannot come before the preaching of the Gospel has been proclaimed to all nations. And then the end will come. The end-goal of this period of world history will have been reached. That’s what Jesus had told His disciples.
But now, inspired by the Spirit of Christ, Paul may add: Yes, but also the reaction to that Gospel must manifest itself first. Not only the reaction of repentance and faith but also the reaction of unrepentance and unbelief. That is: after the Gospel is preached and accepted it will be rejected in a falling away from the LORD.
Well now, that situation of falling away must be there before Christ returns. And we understand it: falling away is falling away from the Gospel, and therefore the Gospel must first be preached. Before Christ returns the Gospel must be preached to all nations. But keep this in mind: what will also be evident is the falling away from that Gospel after people had first accepted it. And the main cause of that falling away is no love for the truth.
Can we say today that the “falling away” has already begun or come? Then we must first ask whether the preaching of the gospel has gone out to all the nations. And that question is difficult to answer.
To be sure, today there are still peoples or tribes that do not appear to have knowledge of the Gospel of God. As churches of Christ we still send out missionaries to the peoples. But who is to say whether these peoples haven’t in the past (early in the NT era) already heard the Gospel and that the falling away was in some places so complete that there’s hardly a trace of the Gospel’s message left in the lives of the people? If you go through church history you discover that time and again there has been a falling away—in Asia Minor, in North Africa and in other countries. Hence, we can’t answer the above-mentioned question with any certainty.
Today, too, there is much falling away of the Christian faith—in Europe and throughout the world. Does that mean now is the time of “falling away”? Or can we yet expect a return to Christ and His church? Who can tell?
And what about the “man of lawlessness”? There have been many “people of lawlessness” – Nero, Napoleon, Hitler and others – but none turned out to be the “man of lawlessness”. They were all attacked and defeated. So, we await the next one. And if, after a shorter or longer period of reign, he is cut down, perhaps the “man of lawlessness” in whom Satan concentrates all his energy and godlessness will arise. Who is to say that he is not already emerging? And who can say beforehand that someone is now the prophesied man of lawlessness? No one.
To conclude: Paul directs our attention to signs that will precede Christ’s coming. But the details are not so precise that we can calculate the exact time of Christ’s return. The Lord Jesus said: ““The kingdom of God does not come with observation” (Lk 17:20) and “The days will come when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. And they will say to you, ‘Look here!’ or ‘Look there!’ Do not go after them or follow them. For as the lightning that flashes out of one part under heaven shines to the other part under heaven, so also the Son of Man will be in His day” (Lk 17:22-24).
Hence the maxim is: Watch! And ignore the predictions and calculations of the false prophets and the godless doomsday ideologues of today. God governs all. And although we know much about the signs of that day from God’s Word, it doesn’t mean we can calculate Christ’s day of return. So our souls remain tense, and our prayer remains: come Lord Jesus, yes come! “He who testifies to these things says: ‘Surely I am coming quickly!’” (Rev. 22:20).
[i] Source for much of this, and certainly the explanation of 2 Thessalonians, is Rev. Joh. Francke’s meditation in leven tot in eeuwigheid (live to eternity), Boersma, Enschede, 1973, pp. 216-219.