So, let’s ask: What can we know from this teaching in 2 Thessalonians 2 that will help us not be shaken loose from our reason, or drawn into alarmist hysteria, but remain steadfast in our work and full of good deeds for Christ’s sake?
Paul says that you should stay at your jobs because the end of the age, the coming of Christ, the gathering to meet him in the air, the day of the Lord, won’t come until two things take place. Then, he describes the two things that have to happen, and ends with verses 9–12 in a way that shows why he chose to mention these two things and how we can be protected from the deceptions that the Thessalonians were falling into.
Rebellion in the Ranks
The rebellion must come first.
Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first. (2 Thessalonians 2:3)
This rebellion has to refer to more than the ups and downs of Christian faithfulness, some years ingathering, other years losses. Because that observation won’t work in Paul’s argument. If they could make the valid claim, “Sure there’s a rebellion. Just look at how many believers have turned away owing to this persecution,” then Paul’s argument wouldn’t work. No, Paul is referring to something climactic. Something decisive and epoch-making. Something recognizable as utterly sweeping and catastrophic in the church.
And since we have seen numerous parallels in the Thessalonian letters between Paul’s language for the second coming (parousia, gathering, alarmed, etc.), and Jesus’s language in Matthew 24, we are warranted to look at that passage for light on this phrase of “rebellion” or “apostasy” or “falling away.” Here is Matthew 24:9–13:
Then [sometime after the beginning of the global birth pangs, (verse 8)] they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake [it sounds like the great commission is virtually complete because all nations (pantōn tōn ethnōn) know enough about Jesus to hate his disciples]. And then [well along in church history] many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. [Of course, this happens all through history, but the word “then” seems to show that Jesus is thinking of a climactic, gathering storm.] And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness [anomian, another parallel: “man of lawlessness” (2 Thessalonians 2:3), “mystery of lawlessness” (2 Thessalonians 2:7)] will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved [as if he has that final generation in view].
That’s the kind of thing Paul is referring to when he says in 2 Thessalonians 2:3, “the rebellion [falling away] comes first.” Before the second coming there will be a climactic, decisive, epoch-making, catastrophic rebellion against God, Christ, and his people, from inside and outside the church — all nations hating the church from outside, love growing cold from inside.
In Paul’s mind that is an event, a limited period, that has not yet happened, even though he knows, like the apostle John, that “many antichrists have come” (1 John 2:18). The crisis at the end will be identifiable. That’s how he knows it hasn’t happened. There will be a point, Jesus said, when you can “straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28).