IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN EASY to get things wrong about the return of Jesus. Sometimes this springs from ignorance, sometimes from a distorted emphasis. Judging from 2 Thessalonians 2:1–12, such dangers have been present since the early church.
We maintain plenty of our own skewed interpretations about these matters today. For example, because in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 Paul writes, “After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air,” many contemporary scholars hold that Paul thought the Lord’s return would take place during his own lifetime, and of course he was wrong. In reality, 1 Thessalonians 4:17 no more proves Paul believed Christ would return during his lifetime than 1 Corinthians 6:14 proves he thought Christ would not return in his lifetime. There Paul writes, “By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also.” Although he uses the first person in both places, Paul is simply identifying himself with the Christians who will enjoy these experiences—whether meeting the Lord and thus escaping death, or dying and ultimately rising from the dead. Yet the contemporary misconception on this point is widespread.
The misconception behind 2 Thessalonians 2:1–12 is not entirely clear, but apparently the Thessalonians had received a letter falsely purporting to be from Paul but lacking his well-known handwriting and signature at the end (which is why Paul draws the attention of his readers to these features in 2 Thess. 3:17). That deceptive letter somehow convinced some Thessalonians that “the day of the Lord” had already come (2 Thess. 2:1–2); either they had in some way been abandoned, or else they were being taught some sort of “over-realized” eschatology that tried to reserve all the blessings of salvation for the present. Perhaps there is immortality beyond death, but under this vision there is no need for a personal return of Jesus Christ, or a crisis of judgment and triumphant reign.
So Paul gives some reasons for saying that the day of the Lord has not come. In this he is following the example of the Lord Jesus, who also gave some instruction about those who would falsely identify someone as the Christ (Matt. 24:23–27). Certain things must take place before the Lord Jesus returns, and then he will decisively and unambiguously destroy the opposition “with the breath of his mouth” and “by the splendor of his coming” (2 Thess. 2:8). The lies may even be surrounded and supported by “counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders” (2 Thess. 2:9); at heart, however, people perish because they refuse to love the truth (2 Thess. 2:10). Sooner or later God pronounces judgment by sending the delusion they much prefer.