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By John Piper — 7 months ago
Part of mature Bible reading is the willingness to stop and ponder the hardest realities that God reveals to us in his word. We don’t skim over hard texts. We press in with questions, seeking understanding.
So this summer we’re addressing three sobering questions inspired by serious Bible readers working through the first two chapters of 2 Thessalonians. Namely, is God present or is he absent in his eternal judgment? Second Thessalonians 1:9 seems to say he’s absent. On Monday we addressed that in APJ 1801. Next, many of you have written us asking Pastor John to identify the mysterious “man of lawlessness” in 2 Thessalonians 2. Who is he? That’s today. And then a question about God sending strong delusions into the world. Does he still do something like that today? And if so, what is that? This third question, on 2 Thessalonians 2:11, is on the table in a week — next Friday in APJ 1806.
So today, we approach this topic of the man of lawlessness. Here’s one representative email from many: “Pastor John, my name is Jared, and I live in San Jose, California. I was reading through my Bible and recently came across the section about ‘the man of lawlessness’ in 2 Thessalonians 2:1–12. At first, I assumed this man was Satan himself. But it becomes clear in verse 9 that this ‘lawless one’ is ‘by the activity of Satan.’ So, it’s not Satan. In your estimation, who is this lawless man?”
I don’t usually read twelve verses of Scripture when we do an APJ. But Jared’s question can only be answered by specifics from the text of 2 Thessalonians. So, let me read the first twelve verses of 2 Thessalonians. I think people will find it riveting, frankly. This is the sort of Scripture people hang on. They say, “Whoa! What’s that talking about?”
Hysteria in Thessalonica
The situation is that some kind of rumor is going around in Thessalonica to the effect that Paul has taught, by some letter or some revelation, that the day of the Lord has come — meaning that Jesus is going to show up in the clouds any day. People were quitting their jobs and mooching off of others, and Paul had to handle this feeling that was running through the church. And here’s how he did it. These are the first verses of 2 Thessalonians 2:
Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come unless the rebellion [apostasy or falling away] 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.
Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming.
The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. (2 Thessalonians 2:1–12)
So Paul says that the day of the second coming cannot have arrived and will not arrive until the great apostasy happens and the man of lawlessness is revealed. That’s his basic answer to the hysteria in Thessalonica.
Who Is This Man?
Here’s my summary, then, from that text of what we can say about the man of lawlessness. There are questions that are left unanswered, but we can say something.
1. He’s a man — a human, not an angel, not a demon. A “man of lawlessness.”
2. He is quintessentially lawless. That is, he’s called a man of lawlessness. He considers himself absolutely above law. He is lawless in considering himself subject to no law and no lawgiver and no authority.
3. Since there’s only one person who’s above law — namely, God, who writes it — the man of lawlessness claims to be God. He says so explicitly. Verse 4: “. . . 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.”
“This man of lawlessness claims to be the final climactic antichrist.”
So, this man of lawlessness claims to be the final climactic antichrist. “I am a man. I am God. But I’m not Jesus. And I don’t believe in Jesus. I’m against Jesus.” That’s the ultimate expression of antichrist. “Many antichrists have come,” John says (1 John 2:18). And this one is the last. He’s going to be destroyed by the mouth of Jesus, and the fire of heaven, when he comes.
4. He’s born for destruction. Paul calls him “the son of destruction” in verse 3. His DNA, so to speak, is from his satanic father, so he’s going to be destroyed. That’s what his DNA is. He is going to be destroyed. He has no future. He is quintessentially lawless and doomed.
5. As a man, he is coming, nevertheless, by the power of Satan. Verse 9: “The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan.” He’s not Satan. Jared got that exactly right. He is empowered and driven by Satan, animated by Satan, serving Satan, accomplishing Satan’s purposes in vain.
6. Therefore, as a man, he will nevertheless have supernatural power. Paul calls it “all power” in verse 9. And he will work signs and wonders. And when the ESV translates verse 9 and calls them false signs and wonders, be careful. We should not read that to mean “They don’t really happen; they’re really not supernatural. This is cloak and dagger. This is the rabbit out of a hat.”
No, no, no. It’s not. It means they really do happen. Satanic power really is at work in them, but they happen in the service of falsehood. That’s what it means by calling them false signs and wonders. They serve a lie. They are signs and wonders in the service of a great lie, but the satanic supernatural power is real. That’s why it’s going to be so deceptive.
7. Therefore, the man of lawlessness will be unparalleled in his ability to deceive. Verse 10 says he comes “with all wicked deception for those who are perishing” (2 Thessalonians 2:10). Literally, it reads, “in all deception of unrighteousness,” because two verses later, we see that the way he deceives is by making unrighteousness seem pleasurable. They found “pleasure in unrighteousness” (verse 12).
Now I would argue that Paul is unpacking in these words the prophecies of Jesus. Listen to what Jesus said in Matthew 24:10–13:
And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another [these are Christians; this is a great apostasy]. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
“This man of lawlessness is going to be destroyed by the final fiery second coming.”
So Jesus foresaw a great deception, betrayal — a great betrayal, a great apostasy. And he foresaw a horrible season of lawlessness in which the love of many grows cold. So no matter how many forerunners of this man of lawlessness there have been in history, we know that none of them is what Paul is talking about.
I think some people try to get around this text by saying, “Oh, there’ve been lots of men of lawlessness. They’ve cropped up in all kinds of seasons of history.” Well, that’s true, but it’s irrelevant because this man of lawlessness is going to be destroyed by the final fiery second coming. Verse 8: “Then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming” (2 Thessalonians 2:8).
This is it. It’s over — end of the age. This is the coming of verse 1, when Christ gathers his elect from the four winds. It’s the coming of 2 Thessalonians 1:7, when he comes with his mighty angels in flaming fire. It’s the coming of 1 Thessalonians 2:19; 3:13; 4:15, when the saints will be raised from the dead to meet the Lord in the air. In other words, the great apostasy and this man of lawlessness are at the climactic end of the age. They are brought to an end by the glorious appearing of the coming of the Lord. This is what we hope for. This is what we pray for. Come, Lord Jesus.
By Marshall Segal — 1 year ago
You have multiplied, O Lord my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you! I will proclaim and tell of them, yet they are more than can be told. (Psalm 40:5)
As with so many of our favorite hymns, “The Love of God” was born in adversity. Frederick Lehman (1868–1953), who wrote the hymn with his daughter, had experienced the failure of his once-profitable business, which left him packing crates of oranges and lemons in Pasadena, California, to make ends meet. Again and again throughout history, deep and enduring trials seem to have a strange and beautiful way of swelling the waves of worship.
Perhaps the most memorable lines in the hymn, however, were not Lehman’s, but words someone had found scribbled on the walls of an insane asylum a couple hundred years earlier, words that had been passed along to Lehman and held profound meaning for him.
Could we with ink the ocean fill,And were the skies of parchment made;Were every tree on earth a quill,And every man a scribe by trade;To write the love of God aboveWould drain the ocean dry,Nor could the scroll contain the whole,Though stretched from sky to sky.
The lyrics, it turns out, were a translation of an old Aramaic poem (now almost a thousand years old). And while no one knows the name of the insane asylum patient, the circumstances of his suffering, or how he came across the poem, the lines sparkle with surprising clarity, hope, and, well, sanity. A kind of spiritual sanity that often eludes us.
More Than Can Be Told
That Lehman treasured the lyrics is hardly surprising. Living just a handful of miles from the Pacific Ocean, he would have known, with acute awareness, the roaring vastness of the sea, the tall and swaying elegance of palm trees, and the bursts and hues of California sunsets. Day by day, he held the brilliant orangeness of its oranges and smelled the lively tartness of its lemons. The ocean, the trees, the sky, the earth were enormous and familiar friends of his — and yet each so small next to the love he had come to know in Christ.
When Lehman looked at the sky, he saw a hint of something wider still. He sang, like David, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:3–4). The sky above him awed him, and then humbled him. If God could stretch out heavens like these with his hands, why would he pierce those hands in love for me?
When Lehman looked out over the ocean, he heard a hint of something deeper still. “You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19). The ocean taught him of forgiveness, of a dark, far-off, forgotten place where God submerged our canceled sins. How could God possibly forget what we had said, and thought, and done? Well, he could bury them beneath the sea. And so he does.
“O Lord, how manifold are your works!” the psalmist sings. “In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. Here is the sea, great and wide, which teems with creatures innumerable, living things both small and great” (Psalm 104:24–25). The ocean is big, and crowded, and wild, and yet you, O Lord, are bigger still, and your love, wilder still. And while the ocean sang its choruses, the sand beneath his feet would occasionally interrupt: “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand” (Psalm 139:17–18).
“If God could stretch out heavens like these with his hands, why would he pierce those hands in love for me?”
When Lehman stared at the towering trees above him, he tasted a hint of something higher still. He surely could not count the trees that surrounded him, and their numberlessness reminded him of the unsearchable greatness of God. He may have read of math like this in the Psalms: “You have multiplied, O Lord my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you! I will proclaim and tell of them, yet they are more than can be told” (Psalm 40:5). More than can be told. Is there any better summary of the love of God?
Every Man a Scribe
Were we to fill that ocean with ink and stretch out scrolls to cover those skies, and were every tree, of every kind, a pen, and every one of us a scribe, we still could capture only hints and whispers of the boundless love of God. We would drain the ocean dry. And then still have so much more to say.
Let that never keep us from saying as much as we can. We ought to thank God for those, like Frederick Lehman, who help us taste and see and feel realities we will never fully grasp. We ought to thank God for the poor soul clinging to faith in that asylum. If he had not scrawled those words on that wall, from his embattled memory, would we have ever heard them? We ought to thank God for the pen that crafted those original lines, in Aramaic, so many years earlier. Who could have imagined just how far his words would float, like a letter in a bottle, and how many hearts they would brighten and strengthen over centuries?
And we ought to ask God for fresh words that might open worlds like these for others. How might we help others feel the love beyond expressing? If words fail us, we could start by writing the beloved lines where someone might someday see them.
Desiring God partnered with Shane & Shane’s The Worship Initiative to write short meditations for more than three hundred popular worship songs and hymns.
By Greg Morse — 7 months ago
The day began bright with hope and promise. This day was the nearest to Eden man had been since the fall: the dwelling place of God was again with man.
The tabernacle stood within Israel’s camp, and now Yahweh was set to appoint his priests. Israel gathered in breathless expectation as Moses publicly ordained Aaron and his four sons — Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar —to serve as priests of the Most High God.
In that first appointment to holy service, blood was spilled, animals fell slain, anointing oil was poured, special garments were bestowed, a covenantal meal was consumed. The proceedings kept in careful step with the drumbeat “as the Lord commanded” (Leviticus 8:4, 9, 13, 17, 21, 29, 36). So far, so good.
The first worship service in the tabernacle then commenced immediately after the ordination. Turning to the people, Aaron and his four sons offered sacrifices for themselves and for the people, and he blessed them. The Lord added his “so far, so good” by providing the grand finale:
The glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the pieces of fat on the altar, and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces. (Leviticus 9:23–24)
The Lord approved the ordination and showed his pleasure at their worship.
But the weather soon changed.
Wailing in the Camp
Imagine the scenario. As you sit by your tent with your family later that day, you begin to hear what sounds like loud cries heading your way. You hear shrieks and screams. As the crowd comes closer, you wonder: What could possibly bring such sorrow on a day like this?
Sobs swell in your ears as the entourage draws near.
Is that Mishael and Elzaphan from Aaron’s family? Why is their walk belabored? What is that they’re carrying between them? The smell of burnt flesh begins to fill the air — a bull?
Then you see it, the motionless heap they carry slowly through the camp and out to where the scraps of sacrifices go: the garb that so recently dazzled in the sunlight — the coverings, the sashes, the hats of a priest. It cannot be! Nadab? And Abihu too?
These — no, not these.
These just celebrated this morning — ordained of God; these, the eldest sons of Aaron, next in line to lead us; these, who went up by name to sit with the elders and see the very face of God upon the mountain (Exodus 24:1)? It could not be these who had just assisted Aaron as the glory of the Lord fell and we all collapsed in worship.
No, not these, who were just washed clean with water, clothed with coats, tied with sashes, bound with caps; not these, who so recently laid their hands upon the offerings; no, not these, who were just touched with the blood of the sacrifice upon their ear, thumb, and big toe, consecrated unto Yahweh. Not these.
Were they ambushed? Had someone defiled the tent with murder? Or has the Lord himself, so recently setting them apart, now dismissed them with fire?
Sins of Nadab and Abihu
Many wonder what exactly Nadab and Abihu’s sin entailed. Some think, with the immediate reference prohibiting drunkenness (Leviticus 10:8–11), that they offered incense while intoxicated. Others wonder (perhaps in addition to this) whether they attempted to go into the Holy of Holies (Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord?, 147).
Whatever the list of crimes, we know that Nadab and Abihu offered “unauthorized fire before Yahweh, which he had not commanded them” (Leviticus 10:1). Which the Lord had not commanded them. The sevenfold refrain of “as the Lord commanded” came to a fatal halt. They went forth of their own initiative to draw near to God as they saw fit.
And the retribution was swift, and nothing less than just. They took liberties as they gripped their censers of incense, “and fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord” (Leviticus 10:2).
Worship Is Not Safe
With many today, it appears, worship of the Almighty is slight and carefree. Some women give more thought to their makeup, and men to the game after service, than that we have gathered to meet with God.
The assumption seems to be that the Deity is content — thankful even — that we have set aside our precious time on our Sunday to give him some of our attention. He is ever-smiling, even when some barely bother to rise from their beds, happy to “worship” virtually week in and week out with their “online churches.” They wouldn’t engage with the mailman with so slouched and slovenly a disposition, but here they are worshiping before God. Many approach the burning bush every Sunday with their sandals (or bedroom slippers) still upon their feet, spiritually and otherwise.
“With many today, worship of the Almighty has become slight and carefree.”
What happened to reverence? When did it become an endangered species? Has God not the right to ask many professing Christians today, as he did the negligent priests of Israel, “A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear?” (Malachi 1:6).
And I ask this not to the bizarre outliers given to almost unbelievable forms of irreverence, like spraying the congregation with water guns, drive-thru “means of grace,” and dance contests in the worship service. I ask this to the normal, seemingly respectable church-attender, flippantly going through the motions: Do you approach the Lord with fear and trembling? And I ask this of myself, Do I consciously worship every Sunday before the Holy God, the untamable Lion of Judah?
In light of Nabad and Abihu, it stands to reason that, for thousands who gather every Sunday, the safest place for them to be would be absent.
The lightning strikes of judgment — in the old covenant with Nadab and Abihu, and in the new with the likes of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1–11) — ought to cause the same response it did for the early church: “And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things” (Acts 5:11).
I sigh that I don’t often have this fear or due reverence in the worship of God. In his presence, Isaiah cried, “Woe is me! For I am lost” (Isaiah 6:5). Job cried, “Now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5–6). Peter cried, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). The beloved disciple writes, “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead” (Revelation 1:17).
Granted, these are not to be the only or primary experiences of God day-to-day — but do we ever respond this way?
Sermon of the Dead
How would our worship services change if the Nadabs and Abihus of our day were struck dead and carried out through the aisles of our churches?
If wails of horror resounded and scorched sermons read,
Here, O Christian churches, are two corpses of those who trifled with the Consuming Fire of heaven and earth. Two men of high rank, two men of great promise, two sons of Aaron himself, consumed in judgment. Behold them. Wail for them. Learn from them.
Read the sermon text written upon their lifeless frames:
“Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified” (Leviticus 10:3).
Ministers, you who draw near to God in service today, behold them drunk upon my wrath. Will you dare toy with the shepherd’s crook? Will you wander before me with the strange fire of false teaching? Have you not been warned of stricter judgment? Have you not been commanded to watch over yourself and your doctrine and my sheep carefully? Have you not been charged — in my presence — to preach my word, not your own? The pulpit is a false hope for protection.
Or to those strolling into worship every Sunday with an irreverence, a negligence, a fatal familiarity that I did not command: Behold the bodies of my chosen servants. If I treat these with righteous impartiality, shall you escape?
With Fear and Trembling
The towering love of God, the warm compassion of Christ, the blessed name “Immanuel” (God with us), does not permit creatures to approach him with irreverence. Boldly we can approach the throne of grace through our better High Priest, Jesus — but never apart from him and never in ways disobedient to his command.
“Do we worship a Holy God, the God of Nadab and Abihu?”
Worship today is to be no less weighty than in Israel, because the God we worship has not lessened in holiness. Joyful, triumphant, consoling — but never flippant. He will be glorified. As Matthew Henry soberly comments on this text, “If God be not sanctified and glorified by us, he will be sanctified and glorified upon us. He will take vengeance on those that profane his sacred name by trifling with him.”
So, as the bodies pass us by in Leviticus 10, making their way out of the camp, they press on us a question to consider today: Do we worship the Holy God of Nadab and Abihu?