As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you? And you know what is now restraining him, so that he may be revealed when his time comes. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but only until the one who now restrains it is removed. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will destroy with the breath of his mouth, annihilating him by the manifestation of his coming. The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders, and every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion, leading them to believe what is false, so that all who have not believed the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness will be condemned.
These first Christians lived with an overpowering sense that a new age was about to dawn. Someone once compared it with how we feel as we wait for the taxi that is coming to take us to the airport: the anxiety builds up, and you can’t settle to do anything. You’re just longing for things to get going.
In his first letter Paul had addressed some of the anxieties that were around in Thessalonica, by assuring his readers that when that day arrived their loved ones who had already died would be at no disadvantage. All would be caught up to meet with one another and with their Lord, and be with him for ever. But now it seems that people were asking if perhaps that great day had already come, and they hadn’t recognised it. Could Paul spell out what they should be expecting?
One of the things that we’ve learned through the Pandemic is that it is risky to say too much about how the future is going to be. What’s going to happen next? and How do we get out of this mess? are tricky questions for anyone to answer; and when Paul tries to map out a timetable for the great day we, if not his first readers, are left puzzling over what it all means. Did the Thessalonians, I wonder, remember those things “I told you when I was still with you”? If they did, then they were much better informed than we are now: maybe they knew the identity of the “lawless one” to be revealed. But the truth is that we don’t.
But what we do know, by contrast with Paul and his generation, is that God’s plan is taking far longer than they had ever dreamed. But the taxi is still on its way!
Take from us, we pray the fears and anxieties that lead to delusions that we may trust in the love that has held us through the past and will surely bring us into your future.
The Rev’d John Durell, retired minister, member of Waddington Street URC, Durham.