WHY THIS STUDY OF 2 THESSALONIANS 2?
The Lord has given us eschatological passages (passages about the end of the age or “last things”) in His Word to show us “the things which must soon take place (Revelation 1:1).” Jesus Christ will surely return to this earth bodily in power and glory (Acts 1:11) and will draw history to a close, and there will certainly be a generation of people who will see Him coming on the clouds (Revelation 1:7; Matthew 24:29-31). Given the unprecedented events of recent history and the general trajectory of events into the future, I have wondered if, perhaps, we might be that generation of people. That is, does what the Bible describes as the events at the end of the age bear any resemblance to what we see swirling around in our world today? This study through 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12 is an attempt to answer that question.
WHAT HAPPENED LAST TIME?
The last post was the “Introduction to the study” in which there was an overview of the complete passage (2 Thessalonians 2:3-12) and an identification of the key features of the entire text. These key features will be covered in detail in the upcoming posts. Where it is appropriate and helpful, cross-references will be made to other eschatological passages in the Bible to provide greater clarity and understanding to the contents of our focus passage, and to show that the Bible is written by one Author and that the eschatological passages in the Bible fit together to form a whole.
WHAT ARE WE LOOKING AT TODAY? THE APOSTASY
“Let no one in any way deceive you, for it will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction.” – 2 Thessalonians 2:3
In this article the subject will be “the apostasy” in 2 Thessalonians 2:3. The apostasy (“rebellion” in the ESV) is one of the “gating events” mentioned in this passage, for Paul says that “it (the day of the Lord) will not come unless the apostasy comes first.” Thus, according to Paul’s teaching, the apostasy must take place before Jesus will return. Our study of the apostasy, then, should answer two questions: 1) What exactly is “the apostasy?” and 2) Has the apostasy taken place yet? If we can answer the first question satisfactorily and then answer “yes” to the second question, we can be confident that at least this end-times event is not preventing Jesus’ return.
So, what exactly is the apostasy? First, the Greek word that is translated “apostasy” is “apostasia.” While “the rebellion” (ESV) is a possible translation of that Greek word, it does not fit this context. The context (2 Thess. 2:3-4) shows that either the apostasy is a result of the revealing of the man of lawlessness, or the apostasy makes way for the revealing of the man of lawlessness, and possibly both. The preferred translation is, therefore, “the apostasy” or “the falling away” or “the departing.”
But who is departing or falling away, and from what are they departing or falling away? Although it cannot be said with certainty, the apostasy seems to involve a widespread falling away from the faith that leads to a silencing of the church’s gospel message. This falling away is related to and a result of the activity of “the man of lawlessness,” who will promote deception and wickedness, and will orchestrate persecution of the church. Support for this idea is found in Matthew 24, where Jesus is telling His disciples the signs of the end of the age. “Then they will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name (24:9).” This increased heat will cause many to fall away (24:10) to avoid the persecution. “Because lawlessness is increased (remember the man of lawlessness has now been revealed), the love of many will grow cold (24:12).” All of these are indications of apostasy. “But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved (24:13).” The true disciple of Christ will not fall away but will endure to the end no matter the cost.
Paul refers to this falling away as the apostasy. This should probably be understood as meaning that, just as the mystery of lawlessness (2:7) was already at work in AD 52 when Paul wrote this epistle, but lawlessness was going to explode when the man of lawlessness was revealed (compare Matthew 24:12), so there will be varying degrees of apostasy throughout the gospel age, but the apostasy will be marked by a worldwide and dramatic departure from the faith and a silencing of the church.
One of the major challenges with this “gating event” of the apostasy is that the only biblical mention of this is here in 2 Thessalonians 2:3. Because there are no clarifying cross-references, we are left with interpretive questions. How do we know when we have crossed over the threshold from a degree of apostasy to the apostasy? Will the apostasy occur suddenly and be marked by one catastrophic event, or will it rather be the accumulation of many smaller events that add up to the apostasy? These are difficult questions to answer and lend themselves to “sanctified speculation.” By “sanctified speculation” I mean observing current events and comparing them to biblical prophecy or looking at biblical prophecy and scouring through current events to see if the two compare favorably to one another.
In that vein, the following are some of my own “sanctified speculations” on the apostasy.
- The apostasy could include the cessation of public worship worldwide; the disappearance of the visible church; conscious attempts to silence the church’s proclamation of the gospel; large-scale collapse of local churches through financial pressures. QUESTION: Isn’t this happening now?
- Worldwide animosity to the church, to Jesus Christ, and to the Bible. This will include open persecution of the church in varying degrees. The preaching of the Bible will be restricted or prohibited. Because persecution is increased, many will fall away from the church and many churches will capitulate to the culture with their preaching and practice. Popularity and survival will be chosen over faithfulness to the Lord and to His Word. QUESTION: Isn’t this happening now?
- General moral and doctrinal decline in churches. Social evils like LBGTQ+ will receive little-to-no open opposition from church pulpits. Abortion will not be opposed in these apostate churches. Morality in these apostate churches will be dismal, but also short-lived as the churches gradually implode and depopulate. Strong biblical doctrines will be abandoned in order to remain popular and relevant. The church will become indistinct from the world. QUESTION: Isn’t this happening now?
- FACT: The worldwide shutdown of the church was accomplished in March 2020, due to the COVID-19 virus. For the first time since Pentecost, the church was forbidden to meet – and, almost without exception, the church capitulated and cooperated without a whimper! Never since that first Pentecost in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago has the entire church stopped meeting and all preaching ceased, but that is what happened in mid-March 2020. This is extremely significant. (Is this THE apostasy?) Many of the churches that shut down then remain closed to this day more than 10 months later. Not only that, but because they are no longer meeting and no longer receiving giving from their members, and because there are other economic factors at work that are crippling the financial functioning of churches, literally thousands of churches in America will forever close their doors in the next year. (Is this THE apostasy?)
- The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are certainly not limited to the United States. In every country in the world, the Christian church has suffered because of decisions surrounding the pandemic. Not only are churches forbidden to meet in many places in the world, but individual Christians are denied relief resources from governments. (Is this THE apostasy?)
- Missionary activity has been severely hampered and thus the spread of the gospel into unreached places has been crippled. Visas are not issued. Travel is restricted or prohibited. Missionaries are kicked out of countries or they leave because they are concerned about their own health risks, and will not be allowed back in. (Is this THE apostasy?)
- The results now on the Christian church are that true believers are being targeted and pressured and persecuted to make their worship of Jesus more difficult, and the increased heat is causing nominal churchgoers to fall away. Not only that, but the church and the Bible are being marginalized and excluded from all discussions in the marketplace, resulting in the further silencing of the gospel message. The gospel and Christians are maligned and ridiculed, pushing the gospel farther from the lost. (Is this THE apostasy?)
- All “normal” avenues for evangelism have been either blocked or restricted. So, for example, most office workers now operate out of home offices and do not interact with co-workers. Sporting events radically restrict spectators. In-home gatherings are restricted by “executive order.” And with the shutdown of all social gatherings and most college in-person classes, the opportunity to have “gospel conversations” has been radically reduced. These hurdles to evangelism do not even consider the psychological barriers created by the mandatory wearing of masks in all public contexts. Either intentionally or not, a mask creates fear by hiding the other person’s face and muffles the voice so that it is hard to articulate ideas. Add to masks the need for “social distancing” and you have made normal human interaction impossible. (Is this THE apostasy?)
This study began by stating that, according to Paul’s teaching in 2 Thessalonians 2:3, the apostasy must take place before Jesus will return. Since that is true, we said that our study of the apostasy should answer two questions: 1) What exactly is “the apostasy?” and 2) Has the apostasy taken place yet?
What exactly is “the apostasy?” It has been shown that the apostasy involves a largescale falling away from the true church of Jesus Christ and the throttling of her message of salvation in the world. The falling away of the apostasy is probably not the result of a single act or event but is the result of many acts of apostasy happening in a short time, like a dam that suddenly collapses from the accumulation of too much rain. The apostasy is probably related to the revealing of the man of lawlessness (2 Thessalonians 2:3), whose activity will include the aggressive persecution of the church, which will drive people from the church and accelerate the apostasy.
Has the apostasy taken place yet? Much evidence has been presented in this article to suggest the possibility that the apostasy has taken place, but the evidence is far from conclusive. It is very possible that these small events of apostasy “are merely the beginning of birth pangs (Matthew 24:8),” and that there are more definitive events in the future. If the man of lawlessness accelerates the apostasy, then it makes sense that he will have been revealed (2:3) when the apostasy takes place. That leads to the question about whether the man of lawlessness has been revealed, which will be the subject of our next article. With all that being said, the conclusion is that, while the seeds of the apostasy are now being scattered and pressures and persecution are marginalizing the church in many places in the world, the apostasy probably remains yet future and awaits the revealing of the man of lawlessness and the pressure and persecution of the church that he will bring.
WHAT ARE WE STUDYING NEXT?
Having looked at the apostasy in this article, in the next article we will consider the related topic of the revealing of the man of lawlessness, also mentioned in 2 Thessalonians 2:3.