Man of Lawlessness
The apostle Peter, speaking about Paul’s letters, writes, “His letters contain some things that are hard to understand” 2 Peter 3:16 (NIV). Probably none of Paul’s writings fit that critique better than 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12. However, a careful examination reveals a vital message.
Missing the Parousía
2Thessalonians 2:1-2 NIV
How would you feel if you woke up one morning and discovered that Christ had returned for the faithful the night before, and you missed it? If you answer: shocked, panicked, angry, or scared, you can probably understand how the church at Thessalonica felt until they read Paul’s second letter.
After the Thessalonian church received Paul’s first Thessalonian letter, they became alarmed about the timing of the parousía (Christ’s second coming). Someone told them that the parousía had already occurred and that they had missed it. Consequently the whole church was upset. Paul wrote his second Thessalonian letter in an attempt to correct the misunderstanding left by the first. Paul assured the church that they had not missed out on Christ’s parousía. Furthermore, Paul gave them a short list of future events which will precede the Lord’s return.
Signs Preceding the Parousía
2Thessalonians 2:3 NIV
What are the first two signs (events) that indicate that the return of Christ is imminent?
First event– the apostasía, a Greek word meaning apostasy, or rebellion. Apostasy describes a general abandonment or drifting away from the basic principles of the Christian faith. Rebellion implies an open hostility to God and, by association, an animosity toward those who are faithful to him. The difference between apostasy and rebellion appears to be a matter of degree, which is best determined by the context.
Second event – the revealing of the “man of lawlessness” to the world. In a Jewish context the “man of lawlessness” could refer to one who lives outside of the Jewish law. In a Christian context it could refer to one who has turned his back on God, his creator, and rejected his son, Jesus Christ. The “man of lawlessness” may also refer to one who has rejected the rule of civil law, or the authority of a national constitution.
There are many people who fit that description today. But the real “man of lawlessness” to whom Paul refers is a special case. No one in the past has ever been quite like him. When he appears, he will be historically unique. He is destined to destruction, but will not realize it during his rise to power. We find out what makes this man unique in the next verse.
Recognizing the Man of Lawlessness
2Thessalonians 2:4-5 NIV
Once the “man of lawlessness” is revealed, how will knowledgeable Christians recognize him?
A description of the uniqueness of the “man of lawlessness” begins in verse 4. The subject of the sentence consists of two participles in Greek, “opposing” and “exalting”. Participles in Greek have gender and number. In this case, both of them are masculine in gender, and singular in number. This means they both refer to a single masculine individual.
We will recognize him because, “He will be the one opposing God and exalting himself over everything that is called a god, or is an object or place of worship.” Opposing God and exalting himself sets this man up for a contest that he cannot win.
What is the third event that will reveal the true character of the “man of lawlessness”?
The third event consists of this “man of lawlessness” seating himself in God’s temple and proclaiming to the world that he is God. The obvious conclusion here is that he expects to be worshipped. He is clearly an impostor. However, he will put on a good show and, as we shall see in verse 9, and he will attract a massive following of easily fooled ‘sheeple‘.
I see three possibilities for the identity of the temple to which Paul refers here.
- The temple in Jerusalem: It was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. approximately two decades after Paul wrote these words, and consequently it is not a candidate.
- A rebuilt temple in the future, on the site of the old one, where an Islamic temple now stands. Currently, this possibility seems unlikely.
- A figurative templealready exists. Paul describes it in both Corinthians and Ephesians:
- “You (pl.) yourselves (collectively) are God’s temple” (1 Corinthians 3:16).
- Not only is the church God’s temple, but we (individually) are God’s temple. (1 Corinthians 6:19).
- “We are the temple of the living God” (2 Corinthians 6:16).
A description of this temple is found in Ephesians 2:19-22 NIV
- It is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets
- “Christ is the cornerstone
- “Christians are the components joined together
- “God dwells in it by his Spirit
- “Peter describes Christians as living stones built into a spiritual house (1 Peter 2:5).
Clearly, the figurative temple, commonly called the Church, seems to be the most likely referent of the word “temple” in 2 Thessalonians 2:4.
Good News – Bad News
2Thessalonians 2:6-8 NIV
Why was the imposter’s arrival being delayed?
After Paul tells us that the “man of lawlessness” is going to demand our worship, Paul then gave the church encouraging news. The impostor had not yet arrived on the world stage; in fact he may not have even born when Paul was writing this. Paul explained how they could be certain. “And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time.” The “proper time” for the impostor’s appearance was still in the future (Verse 6).
What was holding back the impostor? (“And now you know…”) The rebellion has to occur first (Verse 3). Perhaps his “proper time” will occur when the rebellion has reached its “full measure” (Compare “full measure” in Genesis 15:16 NIV )
What evidence is there that this apostasy or rebellion has already begun?
Possible answers: the litigious attacks on Christians, widespread lawlessness, the wholesale slaughter of unborn children, and some churches accepting unrepentant sexual perversion in their leaders, and even some who once claimed to be Christian have become seduced by gods of wealth, power and sex. In addition, God has been expelled from public schools, national leaders increasingly show the lack of a moral compass, and a lack of wisdom in governance, etc. (Verse 7)
What will happen in the “temple (that is to say, the church)” when the rebellion reaches a level that exceeds God’s tolerance?
By that time, God, in the person of the Holy Spirit, will have departed the portion of his temple comprised of unfaithful living stones, and the “man of lawlessness” will move into the vacancy in the lives of people who are rebelling against God. Don’t misunderstand here; God’s Holy Spirit will continue to indwell those believers who remain faithful to him. But, the shocking truth here is that the “man of lawlessness” represents Satan’s final attempt to destroy the church just before Christ returns. (Verse 8, 9)
The Impostor Deceives the Masses
2Thessalonians 2:9-10 NIV
How does the Impostor manage to deceive some of those who claim to be Christians?
The Impostor’s powers are Satanic. He uses counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders. Just like we are conditioned to do, by watching movies and television, many will willingly suspend their disbelief and accept what they see as if it were real. The result is that even some of the elect will be deceived (Matthew 24: 24; Mark 13:22).
How can Christians avoid being caught up in the deception, and consequently perishing like the ones who have rejected God and rejected salvation though his Son, Jesus Christ? (Verses 10–12)
Paul makes it clear that those who willingly suspend their disbelief and follow the “man of lawlessness” will receive God’s condemnation along with their leader who demanded worship. But their condemnation is not the fault of their leader. They brought condemnation on themselves “because they refused to love the truth” (Verse 10). Truth is a code word referring to Jesus Christ who identified himself as “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). They also “delighted in wickedness” (Verse 12). In contrast, Christians who love the truth, believe the truth, and take delight in righteousness, have nothing to fear.
On page 2 we will look at some translation issues in 2Thessalonians 2:7, and then sort the entire passage into a sequence of events up to and including the parousia of Christ.
Translation Issues in 2Thessalonians 2:7
In the same way that many words in English have different meanings, Greek words may also have more than one meaning. A translator is often dependent on the context of a word to decide which English translation best expresses the meaning of a specific Greek word.
In the NIV version, 2Thessalonians 2:7 reads as follows, “For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so until he is taken out of the way.”
Logically speaking, the only one with the power to hold back or restrain the secret power of lawlessness in the world is God himself. He is the creator and sustainer of all things. How then could God be “taken out of the way”? There is no higher power strong enough to take God out of the way. The problem may be in the translation.
The phrase “he is taken out of the way” comes from the Greek words “ek mésou genatai”.
“ek” means out of
“mésou” means middle or midst
that is, “ek mésou” can be properly translated, “out of the midst”.
The third word, “genatai” is a third person singular (i.e. subject must be:he, she or it) aorist middle subjunctive.
According to J. G. Machen, New Testament Greek for Beginners, p. 219, English translations can be chosen from the following: comes into being, come to pass, appear, arise, be made, or sometimes come or be.
A good choice in this case would be: he arises, because it fits well with the idea of previously being restrained, and then being revealed to the world, in verse 8.
Paul’s literary purpose does not include placing all the events in chronological order. However, we can now put together a plausible sequence of events:
Verse 3: The apostasy or rebellion must occur first
Verse 6. The appearance of the man of lawlessness is being held back because the rebellion has not reached full measure
Verse 7. God is currently restraining the secret power (or mystery) of lawlessness.
Verse 7 The man of lawlessness arises out of the midst of a growing rebellion against God. For the reason given in verse 11, God releases the restraint on the secret power of lawlessness.
Verse 8 The man of lawlessness is revealed to the world
Verse 4 The man of lawlessness rises to power (This verse not in chronological order)
Verse 9. The people fall for the charisma of the man of lawlessness. (This verse not in chronological order)
Verse 10. Those who are perishing are deceived, and the rebellion reaches full measure
Verse 8. Christ returns in power and glory and destroys the man of lawlessness
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