“(1) Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers (2) not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us, saying that the day of the Lord has already come. (3) Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. (4) He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God. (5) Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things? (6) And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. (7) For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. (8) And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming. (9) The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, (10) and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. (11) For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie (12) and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness” (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12, New International Version).
In my previous 2 articles on “The Second Coming” (here and here) I sought to show how Paul, in his teaching about the ‘soon coming’ of Christ, was just explaining and applying what Jesus himself had taught to his disciples. In 1 Thessalonians 4, he explained that when Christ comes in his glory, those who have died will ‘rise’ to join him in his reign, and those who are still alive will later join them when they too die. In 2 Thessalonians 1, he showed that Christ’s coming would bring relief from persecution to the Thessalonian believers (and others as well), and punishment (‘trouble’) to those who were doing the persecuting. Now, in chapter 2 of 2 Thessalonians, Paul corrected a misapprehension that had arisen: that the “day of the Lord” had already arrived.
Somehow the idea had arisen in the Thessalonian congregation that the present troubles they and others were enduring, and the edict of the emperor Claudius evicting the Jews from Rome, were actually evidence that the day of the Lord had arrived. There are several ways listed by which that misunderstanding may have arisen. Perhaps someone gave a ‘prophetic word’ supposedly from ‘the Spirit’; or someone ‘reported’ that this was Paul’s teaching; or perhaps someone even wrote a letter, claiming it came from Paul, which taught that error. Note that Paul found it necessary to point out at the close of this letter: “I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand, which is the distinguishing mark in all my letters. This is how I write” (3:17). There was something about the way he wrote that was unique to him, so he let the Thessalonian believers know that in that way they could tell whether or not a letter was actually from Paul. He made a similar remark at the end of his Galatian letter (6:11): “See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!” The “report” (“word”) he mentioned may have even been someone’s misinterpretation of Paul’s own statement in his first letter to the Thessalonians when, after talking about the opposition of Jewish unbelievers, he said at the end of 2:16 – “the wrath of God has come upon them at last”. (Actually, the words “of God” are not in any Greek text, but would seem to be implied). “At last” is literally “unto [the] end”, which could mean “fully” or “completely”. It’s fairly easy to see how someone could ‘report’ (or spread the ‘word’) that Paul obviously meant that the day of God’s wrath against the Jewish nation had finally arrived.
But such an “understanding” of Paul’s statement was actually a misunderstanding. There were at least 2 things that had to occur before that ‘day’ could arrive: a ‘rebellion’, and the ‘revelation’ of a ‘man of sin’ (or ‘man of lawlessness’). “Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things?” (Verse 5). Before we try to identify what the ‘rebellion’ is (or was/will be), and who the ‘man of sin’ was/is/will be, let’s notice a few things in the text which will definitely help us in that identification.
First of all, Paul said that this lawless man was already present, but there was something restraining him, and preventing him from being ‘revealed’ (or ‘uncovered’); and the Thessalonian believers knew what that restraint was (verse 6). The lawlessness was already working, but it was doing so in secret (it was like something with a cover draped over it, waiting to be ‘uncovered’ or ‘revealed’ at the proper time). The ‘restrainer’ is both a ‘what’ and a ‘who’, and the one who restrains will continue to do so (not ‘will begin to do so’ at some future time) until he is taken out of the way (verse 7). Again, this is so important to observe and understand: in order for the ‘restrainer’ to be even then holding back the ‘man of sin’, that ‘man of sin’ must have been even then present to be held back! To realize this at once delivers us from the endless speculations of the ‘prophecy experts’ about some horrific ‘antichrist’ figure in our (near?) future, identifying first one person and then another (when the first prediction fails) as that ‘beast’ or ‘antichrist’. Even if historical records didn’t give us any clue as to who the ‘man of sin’ and the ‘restrainer’ were, and what the ‘rebellion’ was, we would understand that Paul was talking about something present while he was writing, and which would come out into the open within his generation.
But there are historical considerations which will enable us to determine what the ‘rebellion’ was, and who the ‘man of sin’ and the ‘restrainer’ were. First, concerning the rebellion, Paul didn’t have much to say about it; he just said it must take place before the day of the Lord. The Greek word translated ‘rebellion’ or ‘falling away’ is ‘apostasia’, and can refer to either political or religious defection. The only other place in the New Testament the word is used is in Acts 21:21, where the leaders at Jerusalem tell Paul that the Jewish Christians there had been informed that Paul encouraged the Jewish believers, who were among the Gentile believers in the churches he established, to defect or rebel against the law of Moses. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the word ‘apostasia’ is used both of political and religious rebellion. In Ezra 4:12, 15, and 19 enemies of the Jews wrote a letter to Artaxerxes, the king of Persia, complaining about the ‘rebellious’ city of Jerusalem being rebuilt. That would be an example of political ‘rebellion’. Religious rebellion (or ‘apostasy’) is illustrated in 2 Chronicles 29:19 when reference is made to Ahaz’ “transgression”, “unfaithfulness”, or the fact that he was “faithless”. The Greek Septuagint translation uses the word ‘apostasia’ there. “Apostasia” is the word used by the historian Josephus when referring to the rebellion of the Jews against Rome which resulted finally in their destruction in 70 A.D. Paul could probably be using the term either way in 2 Thessalonians. Certainly Jesus and the apostles recognized that there would be a falling away from the faith within the churches. But I believe that Paul’s reference here is primarily to the Jewish rebellion against Rome, which directly led to the Roman armies being dispatched to subdue and destroy them. Jesus had foretold the coming of the Roman armies against the city of Jerusalem, and that couldn’t have happened unless the Jews revolted against Rome. Judaism was a ‘tolerated’ religion within the Roman Empire, which meant that they weren’t subject to the cult of Emperor worship. Christianity was recognized as a part of Judaism, so it also enjoyed Roman tolerance and protection. The only reason the Roman army would be attacking the Jews was if the Jews flagrantly rebelled against Rome. The Jews were already in religious apostasy, and were the primary opponents of the Christians at that time. They were the ones from whose persecution the Christians would be released when Jesus came ‘in the clouds’ in judgment. It was the Jews who had been the cause of Paul having to leave the Thessalonians, and who were ‘troubling’ that church (and other ‘Gentile’ churches). So Paul was reminding the Thessalonians that the Jews must complete their religious rebellion by revolting against the political power, Rome, before the day of the Lord could come in earnest against them.
Who then was the ‘man of lawlessness’ who must be revealed (‘uncovered’) before the day of the Lord could come? Although there is some disagreement among those who recognize a 1st century reference in this passage, in my estimation there is only one figure who stands out from all the rest – and who makes the identification almost easy: the Roman Emperor Nero. Paul wrote the Thessalonian letters about 51 or 52 A.D., when Claudius was still the Roman Caesar. Claudius had become Emperor in 41 A.D. when his nephew Caligula was murdered. Caligula’s sister, Agrippina, had a son who is known to us as Nero (born in 37 A.D.). In 49 A.D. Claudius married his niece, Agrippina, and in 50 officially adopted her son Nero as his son so he (Nero) could become Emperor later. Even at that young age (early teens) Nero’s character was evil and perverted – the ‘secret lawlessness’ was already at work – but it could not be manifested while Claudius (with his relative respect for Roman law) was still Emperor. It was Claudius who was the ‘who’ restraining the ‘man of sin’. The ‘what’ which restrained Nero was the Roman law itself, and particularly the law of ‘tolerated religions’. As long as that law of toleration was honored, Jews and Christians were under the protection of Rome. It was only when Nero cast off all restraint and exalted himself above all law that Christians suffered persecution by Rome. The Jews brought on their ‘persecution’ by their rebellion. Nero’s mother Agrippina murdered her husband (and uncle) Claudius in 54 A.D., at which time Nero officially became Emperor at the age of 16. Even then, his evil character was pretty much held in check (at least as far as public policy went) due to the influence of a couple of his tutors – the famous Stoic philosopher Seneca and a Roman Prefect named Sextus Burrus. It was only in the early 60s that the restraint of law – under the tutelage of Seneca and Burrus – began to lose its power, and Nero’s perverted character began to really assert itself.
Here is what a man named David Curtis has to say about the character of Nero, when commenting on ‘the beast’ of Revelation 13:
“The character of the beast qualifies Nero for this role. He possessed a bestial nature. Nero often acted in horrible viciousness. According to Suetonius, Nero was a sodomite who is said to have castrated a boy named Sporus and married him. He enjoyed homosexual rape and torture. He killed his parents, brother, wife, aunt, and many others close to him. He so prostituted his own chastity that after defiling almost every part of his body, he at last devised a kind of game: covered with the skin of some wild animal, he was let loose from a cage and attacked the private parts of men and women, who were bound at stakes.
Revelation 13:7 speaks of the power given to the beast to make war with the saints. Nero was the first of the imperial authorities to persecute Christianity. Tacitus records the scene in Rome when the persecution of Christians broke out: “And their death was aggravated with mockeries, insomuch that, wrapped in the hides of wild beasts, they were torn to pieces by dogs, or fastened to crosses to be set on fire, that when the darkness fell they might be burned to illuminate the night.” Revelation 13:5 says that the beast would continue 42 months. The Neronic persecution was instituted in 64 AD and lasted until his death in June 68 AD, which is three and a half years, or 42 months. Nero fits the bill for the role of the beast.”
The Jews revolted against Rome in 66 A.D., at which time Nero sent the Roman army under General Vespasian to subdue and totally conquer that ‘apostate’ nation. Part of this subjugation would have been to set up an image of Caesar in the Temple at Jerusalem, to be worshiped – thus proclaiming the (supposed) supremacy of the ‘Divine Emperor’ over all gods, even the God of the Jews. He was personally thwarted when Rome itself rebelled against his rule in 68 A.D. and Nero either committed suicide or was murdered. Christian faith saw this as the Lord Jesus destroying him at the ‘appearing’ or ‘manifestation’ of his ‘coming’ (‘presence’). It was not at the ‘coming’ (‘presence’) itself, but the ‘appearing’ of that ‘coming’ – the first shining of the ‘dawn’ of the new day, as it were. (I owe that insight to J. Stuart Russell, in his book The Parousia, pages 184 and 185). It was this intent to have his image set up in the Temple, thus showing himself to be God, that Paul referred to in 2 Thess. 2:4. As Kenneth Gentry said in an article (“The Man of Lawlessness”):
The phrase “so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God” is interesting. When hoste (“so that”) is followed by an infinitive (kathisai, “to sit”), it indicates a purpose intended, not necessarily a purpose accomplished.
He then, in a footnote, gave Luke 4:29 as an illustration of this usage of “so that”: “They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff.” “In order to” is in some manuscripts the word hoste, and “to throw him down” is an infinitive. But as verse 30 tells us, “But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way”. They had every intention of throwing Jesus off a cliff, but Jesus thwarted their intentions. So Nero had every intention of having his own image worshiped in the Temple in Jerusalem, but Jesus himself thwarted that purpose. However, when General Vespasian had established himself as Emperor a year and a half after Nero’s death, his son Titus finished the conquest of Jerusalem and did in fact set up a Roman image at the site of the Temple – which was worshiped by the Roman soldiers. What Nero intended was accomplished by Titus under the rule of Titus’ father Vespasian.
What about all the “counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders” which would deceive the unbelievers who didn’t love the truth of Jesus the Messiah? They could be the deceptive ‘miracles’ of the priests of the Emperor cult; but the Jews who rejected Jesus as their Messiah did not fall for Emperor worship; the ‘miracles’ of the Roman priests and prophets never deceived the Jewish apostates. Rather, I believe Paul was referring to the promises, signs and wonders of the Jewish false prophets who deceived the Jews into believing that God was about to deliver them from the Romans. This in fact made them ‘sitting ducks’ for the Roman army. According to Paul, since those apostate Jews would not believe in God’s anointed one – Jesus – God would see to it that they were deluded by false promises of hope and salvation; so that he said in 1 Thessalonians 5:3, “While people are saying ‘Peace and safety’, destruction will come on them suddenly…” They were so deceived by the false Christs and false prophets that they felt safe even in the face of the Roman army. Even with all the signs of coming destruction around them, those poor Jews were so confident of God’s deliverance that they came from all over the Roman Empire, flocking to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish holy days. Then they wound up being trapped in the city when the Roman army surrounded it. It is so sadly amazing, that one could hardly believe it if it weren’t recorded by the respected historian Josephus. The only Jews who were ‘saved’ from the Romans were the Christians who believed their Lord and fled the city when a sudden opportunity presented itself.
Everything is so clear when placed in the historical context of the original writer and readers! Unfortunately what a lady said in a comment on another person’s blog, concerning the book of Revelation, is so true: “I was never taught in church that Revelation had any immediate meaning to its original audience (we didn’t actually entertain the idea of an original audience).” We read these Biblical writings as if they had no historical context, and were actually being addressed to us today in our cultural and historical context! It’s no wonder that Christianity has become a laughingstock in the world today. What Paul said in his day is sadly so very true now: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you [the Jews]” (Romans 3:23). Now it’s the Christians themselves who cause God’s name to be blasphemed among the nations. Any thinking person is bound to be disgusted with all of the assured declarations of prophecy ‘about to be fulfilled’, only to see the ‘prophecies’ fail completely! Christians are considered ‘nutcases’, and it’s their own fault. Fortunately not all Christians fall for the nonsense propounded by the ‘prophecy experts’. May God grant that the eyes of many people will be opened to see the genuine meaning of the Christian message, and come to appreciate it.