Paul wasn’t surprised by the reality of apostasy. Paul had notified the Thessalonians that there would be a great rebellion against the gospel before Christ’s return. “Let no one deceive you in any way,” Paul wrote. “For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first” (v. 3). One of Satan’s chief goals, especially through the future “man of lawlessness,” is to induce people to abandon Christianity. Paul therefore knew that some people who profess faith in Jesus Christ will later renounce that faith, to their own destruction.
The Greek word translated in verse 3 as “rebellion” is apostasia. This word refers to the turning away from a former position or the abandonment of prior loyalties. It can be used of a political rebellion, however, in the Bible the word is used to describe a turning away from the true faith. Apostasy reflects an evil heart that embraces unbelief after previously professing faith. Does apostasy, however, describe a person who once truly believed and was saved, and who then, by losing his or her faith, lost salvation as well? The answer to this question is No. The Bible clearly teaches that those who possess a true and saving faith cannot be lost, for the simple reason that genuine faith results from the grace of God, and God never loses any of those whom He has saved. Jesus said of His true sheep: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28).
If believers in Christ can never be lost for salvation, then what is an apostate? An apostate is a professing believer and outward member of the church who, having never truly believed, falls back into unbelief and condemnation. John explained: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that they might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19). How then, do we tell that a professing believer is really an apostate? In most cases, it is difficult if not impossible to tell until he or she actually abandons the faith. It seems, for instance, that the other disciples never suspected Judas Iscariot of his falseness even up to the night on which he betrayed Jesus to His death.
If professing believers may fall away, how can a Christian know that his or her faith is genuine and therefore eternally secure? Should believers worry that their faith is actually false and that sometime in the future they might apostatize? John addressed this issue in his first epistle, when he wrote “that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). According to John, there are three tests of a true, saving faith. One is a doctrinal test, focused on faith in the person and work of Jesus: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God” (v. 1). Another is a moral test: “By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (2:5-6). This doesn’t mean that true Christians never sin or are as perfect as Jesus is. Yet true Christians have taken up the calling to follow Jesus in practical godliness, turning from sin and pursuing holiness. Third is the test of love: “everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him” (5:1). True Christians are drawn to other believers and gain a love for the church that reflects the family love of God. According to the Bible, these three tests – dealing with theology, ethics, and love – provide Christians with a testimony from God’s Word as to the assurance of their salvation.
This understanding of apostasy shows why Paul was so pleased with the news that the Thessalonians were holding fast to the gospel and embracing a lifestyle of godliness and love (2 Thess. 1:3). They were steadfast in faith under persecution, as their worldly goods and even their lives were threatened (v. 4). According to Paul, this confirmed that they were “worthy of the kingdom of God” (v. 5); that is, their lives manifested a true and saving faith in Jesus.
Yet the day will come, Paul warns, when a great apostasy will fall upon the church. Christ will not return “unless the rebellion comes first” (2 Thess. 2:3). Having understood the doctrine of apostasy, we learn from verses 9-12 that a great apostasy will occur in the end, both by the working of Satan and by God’s sovereign judging of unbelief. In verse 3, Paul had linked the great apostasy to the coming of “the man of lawlessness,” often known to Christians as the Antichrist. In 2 Thessalonians 2:9, the apostle makes it clear that the rebellion is the work of this evil person: the great apostasy by which multitudes of professing believers abandon the Christian faith and turn against the church results from “the activity of Satan” in “the coming of the lawless one.”
Paul makes three statements relating the coming Antichrist to the great apostasy that he inspires. First, the man of lawlessness comes as a counterfeit of Christ. Paul indicates this by applying to the Antichrist the same word that he has frequently used of Christ’s coming. Just as God the Father has ordained the coming of His Son, Jesus, back to earth, Satan has planned the “coming of the lawless one.”
Second, Paul says that these false signs employ “all wicked deception for those who are perishing” (v. 10). If we wonder how people can be deceived by false miracles, we need only consider the many examples that abound today. For example, in 1858 a Roman Catholic woman named Bernadette Soubirous claimed that the virgin Mary had appeared in the French village of Lourdes. Today, five million pilgrims journey to Lourdes each year, seeking miraculous healings, so that the town of fifteen thousand residents boasts 270 hotels, second in France only to Paris. In light of the power of many imaginings and frauds that happen today, consider how great will be the deception of the Antichrist when he appears with satanic power, performing genuine wonders so as to deceive the unwary, foolish and needy. Paul’s warning of Satan’s deception points out how perilous it is for anyone to neglect the saving truth revealed in God’s Word. Jesus stated that these wondrous deceptions will be so powerful that “if possible, even the elect” would be persuaded (Matt. 24:24). How much success then, Satan will have with those who have rendered themselves vulnerable by rejecting biblical truth.
Paul’s third statement regarding the satanic strategy in apostasy states that his victims are deceived “because they refused to love the truth and so be saved” (v. 10). Though Satan is unable to undo the salvation of true believers, his targets inevitably accept the deception because that is all that is left to them once they have rejected the truth. When Paul points out that Satan’s targets refused to love the truth, he inevitably includes worldly malice toward Jesus Christ Himself, who said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). They hated the gospel because it offended their self-righteous pride and threatened their lifestyle of cherished sins. For those who reject the gospel truth of Jesus Christ, there is no salvation from God but only a path leading away from Him, to Satan, and with Satan to eternal condemnation.
When Paul considers God’s purposes in the great apostasy, he says that in the coming of the Antichrist, “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” (vv. 11-12). Here Paul observes that the unbeliever not only refuses to love the saving truth that God sent through the blood of His Son, but also delights in the things that transgress God’s law and give offense to God’s holy person.
The Bible’s prophecies of the end fit the pattern both of what the early Christians faced and of the tendencies that will challenge the church throughout her history. John wrote: “Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour” (1 John 2:18). The coming of the lawless one will put an exclamation point on what takes place throughout the present era, which Hebrews 1:2 calls “these last days.” Thus, Paul’s teaching about the great apostasy and the man of lawlessness warns all Christians and provides an agenda for our watchfulness in faith.
2 Thessalonians 2:3, 9-12 Study Questions:
Paul connects the “man of lawlessness” with the presence of Satan. Describe how Satan works in the world in verses 9-12.
What is another name for “the man of lawlessness” often known to Christians?
What is the relationship between God’s activity and mankind’s choice that is alluded to in verses 9-12?