Biblical prophecy is an essential factor in living godly lives in an ungodly world, which is why Jesus and the N.T. writers wove prophetic themes throughout their teachings. These give believers that much needed “two-world” view (living in this world with an eye on the world to come). But prophetic teachers and their teachings have a vulnerability, and that is the ease into which speculations become part of the teaching. Perhaps it is done to make their teaching more exciting or relevant. For example, the Rapture is an imminent event for which no “signs” are given in Scripture. So, when a preacher has a sermon with the title “Three Signs that the Rapture is Soon,” he has just ventured onto extremely thin ice biblically. He might point to the explosion of evil or to various happenings in nature. But things like earthquakes, famines, and wars or upswings of evil, are not signs of the Lord’s coming for His church. These have been present in all of human history. (Christ mentioned them in His prophetic discourse and the Revelation gives much detail, but they take place during the 7-year Tribulation).
Since prophecy is about the future and has not happened yet, it is more difficult to prove prophetic speculations to be in error. Months later when the speculations have not come to pass, most have forgotten what the prophecy teacher has said, giving him leeway to speculate some more. However, the church does have the Scriptures and believers are to use them in carefully evaluating prophetic statements. This is not a new issue, as the early church faced it as well. A look at 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 might be helpful.
Believers in the first century church. The followers of Jesus at Thessalonica were being persecuted for their faith. The Apostle Paul assured them that the Lord Jesus was fully aware of their afflictions and one day Jesus would come in power and glory and execute a severe judgment on the persecutors. They had the power now, but the tables would be turned and their judgment would be great (2 Thess. 1:5-12). But this situation of persecution opened them up to some false prophetic teaching. So, the Apostle penned some truths previously given, along with some new information about the future.
The Rapture of the church – 2 Thessalonians 2:1. He said, “keeping in mind truth about our gathering to the Lord” (the Rapture), let us go over some facts about “the day of the Lord”. The “day of the Lord” is used some 70 times in the O.T. to speak of that period in the future when God will uniquely enter the affairs of mankind. It often refers to the terrible days of the Tribulation, and sometimes includes the millennial kingdom. So, the “day of the Lord” is a period of slightly more than 1,000 years. These believers were in a terrible time of persecution and some alleged prophetic teachings from three sources (2:2) was that they had entered the “day of the Lord.” This, of course, meant that the rapture event did not take place before the Tribulation; something which Paul was clear about in 1 Thess. 1:10; 4:13-17; 5:9). Or maybe, they missed the rapture.
The Appeal to be calm and not agitated – 2:2. Their reaction to the idea that there was no imminent rapture and that they were going to experience the “wrath of God,” caused fear and anxiety in these new believers. Erroneous prophetic teaching had quickly brought distress to them. Paul told them to calm down and to listen carefully to his apostolic instruction. Generally, erroneous prophetic speculations do result in negative responses coming into the lives of God’s people.
The distorted prophetic teaching and the answer to it 2:2-4. The authoritative claims made by the false teachers came through (1) “spirit” (a claim to divine revelation of some sort); (2) a message (some teachers’ sermon); and (3) a letter (a letter claiming to come from Paul himself). From these three sources they were being taught that the Tribulation period had already begun, which Paul calls “deceptive” teaching (2:2). It negated Paul’s previous instructions (2:5) where he had clearly taught that the church will be taken out of the world before the Tribulation and, therefore, will not experience God’s coming wrath in the “day of the Lord”. It can be shown that God’s wrath is found throughout the entire 7-year period (1 Thess. 1:10 and 5:9) which shows that the church is removed prior to the start of the Tribulation. Paul then explained that two distinct but related events are at the start of the Tribulation (“day of the Lord”), and neither of these had taken place, showing the false nature of the prophetic teaching that had come their way. The first event is the uniquely terrible falling away (apostasy) from the truth of God within the church itself. He uses the definite article (THE apostasy) which speaks of the well-known, specific, spiritual rebellion within the church at the end of times (1 Tim. 4:1-3; 2 Tim. 3:1-5; Jude; 2 Pet. 2; 2 Cor. 11:13-15). The term “apostasy” is used throughout the Bible of sinful revolt against God. And while the church has always had to deal with false teachers and their false teachings, this rebellion against God and His truth will be so very unique in its breadth and depth. The second event which takes place at the very start of the 7-years of Tribulation is the revealing of the Antichrist. His unveiling as the Antichrist indicates that the “day of the Lord” had begun. The word “revealed” is placed in an emphatic position in the text by Paul, and looks at a very specific moment when this will happen. And we know when it is and what it is that reveals this man as Antichrist. According to Daniel 9:27, it is when this man, as a ruler of a western nation, enters into a covenant with the leaders of the nation of Israel, which will guarantee Israel’s peace and safety. That covenant signing starts the “day of the Lord.” And that obviously had not taken place in the first century. So, the teaching given to these Thessalonian believers that they were already in the “day of the Lord” itself was clearly false. The prophetic speculation was in error and the Word of God revealed that error.
Paul added three descriptions of this man. He is: (1) a man characterized by sin (lawless as regards the laws of God); (2) the “son of perdition” revealing his final, eternal doom, as Paul noted in 1:9; and (3) one who is an “adversary” of God and Christ. He will even sit in the holy place within God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be deity. No such individual had appeared in the first century. The world now waits for the rebuilding of the Temple of God in Jerusalem, which is necessary for this event to take place.
The restraining of lawlessness – 2:6-7. God alone can put a lid on sin and on these final great manifestations of evil. While Satan is referred to as the “god of this world,” he cannot do whatever he wants. God has the ultimate authority over all creatures. God’s “holding back” of sin is presently going on. We can only imagine what it will be like when there is no restraint on sin and evil. But the day is coming when this restraint of sin will be removed (2:7) because the Restrainer (“he” = the Holy Spirit) will take Himself out of the restraining business. When that happens, sequentially, it is “then” that the Antichrist will be revealed. So first, the restraining of sin is gone and then the Antichrist will be unveiled. The Holy Spirit’s work of restraining sin will be gone. This points to the removal of the church. The church, even with its flaws and inadequacies, is a significant deterrent to lawlessness in this world. The Spirit uses the church to restrain evil in this world and with the church gone, that restraint is also gone. Now, we must not make the mistake of saying that the Holy Spirit is taken out of the world. It is the work of restraining sin that is gone. It is impossible for the Spirit to be removed out of the world because He is an omnipresent person. Also, His ongoing ministry of regenerating people is required for the millions of people to be saved during the period of the Tribulation.
The short but deadly career of the Lawless one (the Antichrist) – 2:8-12. The Apostle then added some truths about the Antichrist which also shows that this key figure was not then present, and therefore, the “day of the Lord” had not come. In summary, here are the key points that Paul made.
HIS VERY SHORT CAREER WILL BE ENDED BY JESUS HIMSELF. After the Antichrist is revealed, he will be the key figure on the world’s stage for 7 years, with 3½ years of which he is ruler of the world (Rev. 13:5). When Jesus appears (2:8) at His 2nd Coming, the Antichrist will be thoroughly defeated and will be taken alive and placed into the Lake of Fire (Rev. 19:19-21). Not a lengthy reign.
HE HAS AMAZING SUPERNATURAL ABILITIES. His ability to work miracles will be Christ-like, but he will lead people into that which is false. His abilities come from Satan himself, with whom he is intimately associated. His ability to deceive will be something that has never ever been seen before (Rev. 13:2-7; Matt. 24:24). He will have “power” (which comes from Satan); “signs” (to show that he is messiah); and “wonders” (which cause awe in people). Never before has God allowed such a display of miracles that seem to validate sin and evil.
HIS INFLUENCE OVER THE UNSAVED. He spearheads the battle for the souls of men. All people will hear the gospel (Matt. 24:14), but those who will not accept God’s offer of eternal life will easily fall victim to the deceptions of this man. The result will be eternally catastrophic as God then allows them to be deluded (2:11-12). They heard and understood the truth of God, but preferred the pleasures of unrighteousness. These people crossed the spiritual line of no return and their temporary pleasures would soon be replaced by eternal anguish.
Reminders for us today. (1) God has given everything that we are to know about future persons and events. He did not leave out some needed information. But we need to become more understanding of what He has revealed so that we can better evaluate prophetic teachings and speculations. So, we must study. (2) We need to be discerning (maybe even suspicious) of those who say that “God spoke to me” about this or that matter. That is a claim of authority, and it is often used to try and ensure credibility to what is being said. The Apostle John (1 John 4:1) taught the believers of his day to carefully evaluate any and all who make such claims. We dare not naively accept these claims. (3) We must not forget how important the prophetic word is for living godly lives. We may hear prophetic speculations that never do not materialize. But we must not get discouraged to the point that we walk away from the prophecies of the Bible. (This has taken place all too often in individuals as well as in entire local churches). God’s prophetic word is there for our benefit and is vital in maintaining our spiritual health.
God has set forth His plans and purposes for the end times. Jesus guaranteed that He will return and that He will make all things new. And we will be a part of that…what a wonderful future we have…our best days are ahead of us!