“The Mystery of the Future” (2 Thess. 2:1-8, 13-17)
In the name of Jesus, dearly loved children of God.
I grew up not far from Disneyland. My family and I used to go there a lot. First, you enter the gates and walk down Main Street. This reminded you of an old-fashioned downtown, like Snohomish. Down a ways on your left was Adventureland and the Jungle Cruise. Up ahead was Sleeping Beauty’s castle, which was boring, because I’m a boy. Beyond that was Fantasyland with the Small World ride (again, boring) and the much more interesting Matterhorn bobsled and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.
My favorite part of the Magic Kingdom was Tomorrowland. I loved walking around there and seeing all the space-age structures and thinking, “This is what the future is going to look like.” But here we are in 2007, and things really don’t look like they did in Tomorrowland. Tomorrowland was “so yesterday.” It’s been many years since I’ve been to the “Happiest Place on Earth.” I understand they’ve remodeled Tomorrowland so that it no longer has that “1960’s Science Fiction” look.
It’s fun to think of what the future will be like. At the same time, it’s SCARY to think of what the future will be like. It’s a big unknown. It’s a mystery. We don’t have crystal balls that tell us what’s going to happen to us. And those who do have crystal balls to tell us about the future are fakes and scam artists.
We can do three things when we think about the future. We can trust that God will take care of us no matter what happens and live grateful lives for him. We can eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die, without a thought for God and his promises for the future. Or we can despair of God’s care and curse him because of all the bad things that we see happening in the world and in our lives.
As we approach the end of another Church Year, we contemplate what is in store for us in the future. We listen to what God’s Word has to tell us about the end of this world and this present age. What has he told us? What is going to happen?
The Christians to whom Paul wrote in today’s Epistle lesson were concerned about this, too. Apparently, the people in the church at Thessalonica had gotten the idea that the return of Jesus was just around the corner. They had been told that it was going to happen at any moment ... or perhaps had already happened, and they missed out. They were “quickly shaken” like an initial jolt from an earthquake. Then came the aftershocks of alarm and agitation and anxiety. This led some of them to quit their jobs and become idle, simply biding their time until Jesus came back. They got this idea, Paul says, either from a “spirit” (probably someone claiming divine inspiration) or from a “spoken word” (perhaps a rumor that got passed around) or from “a letter seeming to be from us” (a letter claiming to be from the Apostle and his co-workers). Now, all Christians should, of course, be looking forward to the return of Jesus at any moment and be ready. But in today’s text, Paul makes it clear that there are some things that need to happen first before we are “gathered together to him” on the Last Day.
THE MYSTERY OF LAWLESSNESS
Much of this is shrouded in mystery. In fact, Paul even uses that word “mystery.” He says “the mystery of lawlessness is already at work.” What is this all about? No one is quite sure. But if it involves lawlessness, then we know that Satan is behind it. It involves “rebellion” or “apostasy” ... falling away from the truth of God’s Word. It also involves the arrival of Antichrist, whom Paul calls “the man of lawlessness ... 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.”
Who is this “man of lawlessness”? There have been many guesses over the years. Some have said it was the Roman Emperors Nero or Domitian. Others have said that it was Mohammed. Some identified him with Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan (and can somebody tell me why it’s always the Republicans who are called Antichrist?). Saddam Hussein was one guess not long ago. Now Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, is a name being mentioned. The Lutheran Confessions identify this “man of lawlessness” with the office of the papacy in the Roman Church, and that still seems to be the best identification up to this point in time. The pope is within “the temple of God,” which is another way of referring to the Church. He takes honors for himself which only belong to God, such as declaring new teachings which are not in Holy Scripture. And the pope still does not teach that we are justified by grace through faith alone in Christ alone, but adds human works to the equation. This is, indeed, a “rebellion” from the truth of God’s Holy Word.
I like how the commentator William Barclay summarizes the issue. He writes,
“However remote these pictures may be from us they nevertheless have permanent truth in them: 1) There is a force of evil in the world ... We hide our heads in the sand if we deny that there is an evil power at work amongst men. 2) God is in control. Things may seem to be crashing to chaos but in some strange way even the chaos is in God’s control. 3) The ultimate triumph of God is sure. In the end, nothing can stand against him. The Lawless One may have his day but there comes a time when God says, ‘Thus far and no farther.’” (Barclay, The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, p. 213)Will there be some final manifestation of this “man of lawlessness” other than the papacy before Jesus returns? Only God knows. Will there be some other “rebellion” or “apostasy” before Christ comes back again? There is a lot of heresy being taught even in Protestant churches today. That could be part of the “rebellion” mentioned in today’s text. Again, only God knows.
And only God knows what the future holds for each of us. Paul’s wish for the Thessalonians as they faced the future was that they not be afraid nor be deceived by false teaching and thereby fall into false belief and despair. Likewise, the End is approaching for each of us. The “End” could be our own death. It could be the Last Day. It’s possible that you and I will be here when Christ returns. We’re closer now than we were yesterday ... or five seconds ago, for that matter.
But God’s Word today is not only meant to help us identify “the man of lawlessness.” It’s to give us both admonition and encouragement as we face the future. It’s important for us not to be deceived ... not to be “shaken” or “alarmed” by so-called “revelations” about what is to come. Be very careful when you hear someone saying “Thus saith the Lord” and what they “saith” is not a direct quote from Holy Scripture. They are treading on dangerous ground.
THE MYSTERY OF CHRIST
Also, don’t be so worried about identifying the Antichrist rather than following the Christ. “The mystery of lawlessness” is mentioned only here in our text. “The mystery of Christ”, on the other hand, is mentioned all over the New Testament. The word “mystery” is used 15 times in reference to Christ and the Gospel. Let me give you just three examples. In Ephesians 6[:19], Paul asks the church to pray for him so that he might boldly proclaim “the mystery of the gospel.” In Colossians 1[:26-27], Paul refers to “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” And in 1 Timothy 3[:16], Paul refers to the humiliation and exaltation of Christ when he writes, “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, was taken up in glory.”
What Paul said in verse 13 of today’s text is just as true for you as it was for the first recipients of his letter: “God chose you as the first fruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.” God chose you in Baptism. As “first fruits” you belong to God, just as the first part of the harvest in the Old Testament belonged to him and was to be offered to him. At the font, the Holy Spirit sanctified you ... he set you apart as God’s own special child and gave you faith and strengthened your faith to trust in Jesus, who died for your sins at the cross and rose to life again.
Paul’s benediction in verses 16-17 are for you, as well: “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.” As you face the future, you can be certain that God loves you. The comfort of the forgiveness of sins earned by Christ at the cross will carry you into eternity. You can have a certain hope for the future, not because of anything you have done, but solely by grace ... by God’s undeserved love that he gives to you in Christ. This comforts our hearts in the face of an uncertain future, because we can be certain Christ will come again to take us to be with him forever. And this establishes our hearts in every good work and word. It will strengthen us spiritually to serve our neighbor in love and to boldly proclaim “the mystery of Christ.”