Around 50-52 A.D, only 17 or so years after the death and Resurrection of Jesus, the Apostle Paul wrote,
“Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.” 2 Thessalonians 2:3-5
Paul’s main reason in writing this is not to give a timeline on the “end” but rather to comfort those who were told by a supposed prophecy or letter from Paul (2 Thessalonians 2:1-2) that Jesus Christ has come back already. Paul never said or wrote anything of the like. Paul is writing to tell them that such significant evil, represented in a “man of lawlessness” had not arisen yet, and therefore Jesus Christ could not have come back, and any “words” or “letters” claiming to be from him were false.
10+ Years later, Peter writes on the same subject (around 60-68 A.D.) During the Reign of Nero. Both Paul and Peter will be Martyred between 64-68 A.D.
Around ten years later, the Apostle Peter writes his letter and clarifies this very subject for us. He does so by specifically telling his audience (which is the wider Christian church and not just one church), that he acknowledges that Paul also wrote about matters like these, and that “There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16b). Peter is updating the view of the people of God on this very subject that some had incorrectly read in Paul’s teaching and elsewhere. Therefore, we should interpret 2 Thessalonians in light of 2 Peter.
Peter is very specific about universalizing the end of time
He clarifies that people (“scoffers”) have come and more will make fun of the whole concept of a second coming of Christ. Time had passed by and some felt privileged to make fun of Christians for their belief in the second coming (2 Peter 3:3).
Peter shows that the timeline was never known, and pushes us to remember God’s time is different than our own. Namely, that a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like a day to the Lord (2 Peter 3:8). Since God has no time, we should not speculate as to when. It will come in God’s time.
Peter lifts the specific ‘events’ of the end of time, into the cosmic realm and away from timelines. Namely, our view of the end should be more universal than mere events that happen here on earth. The heavens and earth are being kept for a day of purifying fire by the judgment of God, where the works of all will be exposed by that great day (2 Peter 3:7 and 3:10 and 3:12).
Peter identifies the reason why Jesus Christ has not come back yet. Namely, that he is patient and does not want one individual to perish, and that this helps more to reach repentance (2 Peter 3:9). Thus, we should not be hurrying that “DAY” but rather grateful for any delay, for more have time to come into the kingdom of God.
Peter encourages us to live holy and good lives as we await the promise of our salvation in Jesus (2 Peter 3:14). He does not forget the need to remain ready.
I think Peter was wise to push the answers to these questions into God’s court. In so many ways he helped save the church from over speculation. We need Christians to re-engage with this letter. Otherwise we are left with the same problem Peter was addressing, people distorting Paul’s writings to worry people.
30 or so years after 2 Peter was written, the letter of John weighs into the subject.
1 John, 2 John, and 3 John; those short little letters near the end of your Bible, were written near the close of the 1st century. Somewhere in the 90’s A.D. These letters give more information on the subject of “Anti-Christ” but not in the way that some might think. John is not looking for a final singular bad guy, but has identified “anti-Christ” as a plural, and in the way of a “spirit” or animating evil that can be seen in many places. Moreover, these letters are the only place in the Bible to specifically use the language of “anti-Christ.”
In 1 John 2:18, the author calls to remembrance that some in his audience had heard that evil or “anti-Christ” is coming. In this one passage, there is no definite article before “anti-Christ.” John broadens the subject from “The Anti-Christ” specifically, to “Anti-Christ” generally. Thus, evil can be working it’s way through many places all at once, and does not need to come through one man or woman.
In 1 John 2:18 he goes on to say, “even now many anti-Christs have come.” At this point we are learning that the animating evil behind certain sinister ideas and characters through history is the work of “anti-Christ” generally. John even experienced a falling away of some who were thought to be Christians but they turned out to be false believers in Christ, and hence anti-Christ in their ideas (1 John 2:19).
John widens “Who the anti-Christ” could be. His answer is clear that anyone who denies the real Christ in anti-Christ (which is the literal meaning of anti-Christ). He writes, “Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the anti-Christ – he denies the Father and the Son.” This is fascinating to me. Earlier (2:18) he refers to “Anti-Christ,” not as a specific individual, but now he uses the definite article and says that any who deny the Christ, are “the anti-Christ.” This of course can be embodied in numerous individuals. John himself has a group in mind.
The group that John has in mind, as embodying this denial of the real Christ, is a wide and varied group that we call the Gnostics today (See John Stott’s commentary on 1 John if interested). They were happy to accept the spiritual Christ, but could not accept his humanity and physicality. Thus, John writes, “Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the anti-Christ, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world” (1 John 4:2b-3).
2 John vs. 7 says the same thing, “Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the anti-Christ.”
Paul’s man of lawlessness is a reference to the embodiment of evil that is so wicked that it parallels Christ’s goodness. The passage itself was meant to encourage the Thessalonians that they were true followers, and they had not missed Christ’s second coming.
Peter lifts the whole “timeline” discussion into the hands of God himself, far away from human beings. Since God has no time, we should be cautious to speculate as to knowing the events of the end of time. We should near celebrate any delays because that means more people have room to repent, and we also have more room to accomplish the mission.
John sees that the embodiment of evil, which he calls “anti-Christ” is wider than one person. He specifically has already seen many of them, and now he sees this being embodied in a group that is happy to have the spiritual Christ, but not the physical Christ. If you do not have both, you have neither.
With all of this in place, Christians looking for a singular bad guy controlling all of the governments of the world, have it wrong. Peter and John clarify what Paul was getting at. Now, there can be some government interaction, which we will see next week in the book of Revelation.
A couple of questions for reflection
Do you have a full New Testament understanding of “Anti-Christ?”
Why do some on television (or elsewhere) fail to recall the Apostles Peter and John’s contribution to the subject? A contribution that greatly helped the ancient church to guard against speculation.
For next week: We are now at the book of Revelation, where we get the specific number “666” and more in the 13th chapter of Revelation. There, I will outline who “666” was (not is), and then outline exactly what the meaning of having the mark of the beast on our hand or forehead meant, and still means today.
Also in the Series: