- The second chapter of 2 Thessalonians has always been riddled with difficulty for Bible students. When reading the passage it seems clear that Paul is reminding the Thessalonians about things he had previously talked about, information not recorded for us. We see this point made by Paul in verse 5, “Don’t you remember that when I was still with you I told you about this?” This is a problem for us because we do not know what Paul said to the Thessalonians while he was still with them. The knowledge that the Thessalonians had concerning what Paul was talking we simply do not have. Notice what Paul says in verse 6, “And you know what currently restrains him….” Another reason why this is important to notice is that it should be clear to us that the events Paul is referring to must have been coming in the lifetimes of the Thessalonians. If not, why would Paul bother talking about these things while he was with them?
- But though we do not have the information from the previous discussion Paul had with the Thessalonians, I think we can understand what Paul is talking about by relying upon the descriptions found in this text and the parallels to other known biblical passages. As with any study concerning difficult passages, let us set aside any preconceived notions about what we may think the passage is teaching and simply attempt to understand Paul’s words about the apostasy and the man of lawlessness. It is also important to state that the writing of this letter is considered to have been at approximately 54 AD.
I. The Context
A. A problem for the Thessalonican people
- It is important for us to gather as much of the context as possible to attempt to place ourselves in the minds of the Thessalonians as they would receive this letter. In chapter 1 of 2 Thessalonians we read Paul commending the Thessalonians for their faith in the midst of the persecutions and afflictions they are enduring. Paul points out that those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of Jesus Christ will pay the penalty of everlasting destruction (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9). It seems that Paul is continuing his remarks about what will take place at the end, just as he did in his previous letter to the Thessalonians in chapter 4.
- In the first verse of chapter 2, Paul talks about “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to Him.” The word “coming” is the same word used by Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:15 where Paul was describing the second coming of the Lord. In the first letter Paul encouraged the Thessalonians to be ready for the coming day of the Lord (1 Thessalonians 5:2). However, it seems since the writing of the first letter, some have claimed to have a message from the apostles that the day of the Lord had come. In light of receiving this message, it seems that some of the Thessalonians had stopped working and had become busybodies in the affairs of other people (2 Thessalonians 3:6-15). Thus, Paul is explaining to the Thessalonians when the day of the Lord would come and how they should not be deceived by those claiming to have a message from the apostles (2 Thessalonians 2:2).
B. Two events must first come
- In verse 3 Paul tells the Thessalonians that he does not want them to be so easily deceived. Thus, he tells them that there are two events that must take place before the day of the Lord can come. First, the apostasy must come. Second, the man of lawlessness must be revealed.
- Unfortunately, it seems that Paul spends most of his time talking about the “man of lawlessness” being revealed and does not going into any detail about “the apostasy.” Before we spend our time trying to understand these two phrases, let us be sure to understand that Paul seems to be setting some time markers for the people to be watching for to know that the return of the Lord could come at any time. Just as Jesus established some signs that would come before the destruction would take place (Luke 21:5-19; Matthew 24:1-14), Paul is giving events that must happen before the second coming of Christ can occur. In other words, these must be visible or knowable events so that the Thessalonians could know that these two events have happened and be ready for the coming day of the Lord.
II. The Apostasy & the Man of Lawlessness
A. Apostasy-understanding the word
- The various Bible versions have translated this word a couple of different ways. The New American Standard and Holman Christian Standard translate this word “apostasy.” The New Revised Standard, New International Version, and English Standard Version translate this word “rebellion.” Finally, the King James, the New King James, and the American Standard translate this word “falling away.” The Greek word is apostasia and Thayer says the word means “a falling away, defection, apostasy.” Vine’s defines apostasia similarly as “a defection, revolt, apostasy.”
- There are a couple of reasons why understanding the exact nature of this word in this context is difficult. The Greek word apostasia only occurs in one other place in the New Testament, that is, Acts 21:21. What is interesting to me is that when Jesus spoke in Matthew 24:10 about the many that would fall away in the times leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem, Jesus used the Greek word skandalizo and not apostasia. What this tells me is that Paul is not referring to a general falling away or a general lawlessness that will come over the world as time would pass away. In fact, the definite article exists in the manuscripts, thus reading the passage “the apostasy” or “the falling away” or “the rebellion.”
- Consider what A.T. Robertson says concerning this word apostasia: “Apostasia is the late form of apostasis and is our word apostasy. Plutarch uses it of political revolt and it occurs in 1 Macc. 2:15 about Antiochus Epiphanes who was enforcing the apostasy from Judaism to Hellenism. In Josh. 22:22 it occurs for rebellion against the Lord. It seems clear that the word here means a religious revolt and the use of the definite article (heœ) seems to mean that Paul had spoken to the Thessalonians about it.”
- John MacArthur agrees, “The language indicates a specific event, not general apostasy which exists now and always will. Rather, Paul has in mind the apostasy. This is an event which is clearly and specifically identifiable and unique, the consummate act of rebellion, an event of final magnitude” ( The MacArthur Bible Commentary; pg. 1767). These explanations seem to be agreeable to the word usage. If Paul had mean just a general falling away, it seems likely that Paul would have used the Greek word skandalizo. The Greek word apostasia does not seem to indicate a spiritual rebellion or spiritual falling away as the Greek word skandalizo does.
B. The man of lawlessness-understanding the word
- Paul goes on to tell the Thessalonians that the man of lawlessness must also be revealed. Some of the versions translated this person as “the man of sin.” This is one and the same since “sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). Paul then spends some time describing who the man of lawlessness is.
- Son of destruction (vs. 3). The very next description given to the man of lawlessness is found in verse 3, “the son of destruction.” This phrase was also used as a Hebrew idiom, which can be seen in Jesus calling Judas “the son of destruction” in John 17:12. This is the only other occurrence of this phrase in the scriptures. This could be used a general description for an evil person or may speak specifically to a destructive person.
- Opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship (vs. 4). The man of lawlessness is clearly described as a powerful person that elevates himself above all other so-called gods. The man of lawlessness will even call himself god and sit in God’s temple. Verse 6 tells us that there is something restraining the man of lawlessness at that time, but in due time the man of lawlessness will be revealed. Paul further says that these things are already at work (vs. 7). Once the man of lawlessness is revealed, the Lord Jesus will destroy him with the breath of His mouth and bring him to nothing.
- Signs and wonders (vs. 9-11). Signs and wonders also accompany the man of lawlessness. He will use unrighteous deception and people will believe the false things he says and does. Based upon these descriptions concerning the apostasy and the man of lawlessness, we will now attempt to interpret these images. We must ask ourselves an important question to interpret these images: what two significant events would take place in the lifetimes of the Thessalonians that would fit these images and also fit the prophecy of the scriptures? I think the scriptures will reveal the answer for us.
III. Interpreting the Apostasy & Man of Lawlessness
A. The revolt
- Many have read this passage to speak about a spiritual apostasy that would take place. But I believe there are difficulties with this interpretation. First, what apostasy would that be? People have turned their hearts away from the Lord for the last 2000 years. Second, Robertson does well to point out that this word refers to religious and political revolts, not to spiritual rebellion to God. We studied that distinction ourselves earlier in this lesson.
- There is only one political or religious rebellion that has any significance in the scriptures, particularly in prophecy: the Jewish revolt against the Romans. In about 66 AD the Jews led a revolt against the Roman occupation of Jerusalem and the Judean region. This revolt caused the Romans to come up against the Jews in Judea, killing over 1 million Jews.
- This was the prophecy that Jesus was giving in Matthew 24 and Luke 21. Jesus warned that “not one stone would be left upon another” (Matthew 24:2). This prophecy still had to come to pass before the Lord would be able to return in judgment. All of God’s word had yet to be fulfilled and therefore Paul tells the Thessalonians that this rebellion had to happen first before the day of the Lord could come.
- Daniel also prophesied of this revolt in the vision of the 70 weeks in Daniel 9:24-27. Verse 24 begins, “Seventy weeks are decreed for your people and your holy city.” This beginning verse shows us that the prophecy is about the Jewish people and the city of Jerusalem. The prophecy continues, “The people of the prince who is to come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end will come with a flood, and to the end there will be war; desolations are decreed” (vs. 26). The New Living Translation gives an accurate picture of this prophecy, “and a ruler will arise whose armies will destroy the city and the Temple. The end will come with a flood, and war and its miseries are decreed from that time to the very end” (vs. 26).
- Paul says “the rebellion” or “the apostasy” must come first. But how do we know that Paul is speaking about the Jewish rebellion against the Romans and not another nation’s rebellion, like the barbarians against the Romans? Verse 4 validates are view that the man of lawlessness will sit in the temple of God. Paul is picturing the destruction of the Jewish people in depicting the man of lawlessness sitting in the temple.
B. The man of lawlessness
- Most commentators state that the man of lawlessness is the Antichrist who causes desolation before or during the Tribulation. But is this the picture that Paul is giving? Would the man of lawlessness, being interpreted as the Antichrist that would supposedly come over 2000 years later, be relevant to the first century Thessalonians? Of course not. Nor is such an interpretation logical from the description Paul gives in 2 Thessalonians 2. Let us take the descriptions given to us and see who fits the bill.
- Son of destruction. We will notice that the Romans are repeatedly called the destroyer in the scriptures. From the prophecy we quoted about the rebellion, the one performs this work is called “the desolator” (Daniel 9:27). In Revelation 17:11 we read, “The beast that was and is not, is himself the eighth, yet is of the seven and goes to destruction.” The Greek word for “destruction” in 2 Thessalonians 2:4 is the same word used in Revelation 17:10.
- Opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship. 2 Thessalonians 2:4 definitely sounds like the actions and attitudes of the Roman emperors.Further, this description is very easy to see repeated throughout the scriptures concerning the Roman Empire. Daniel 11:36-38, which speaks about the Romans, says: 36 “Then the king will do whatever he wants. He will exalt and magnify himself above every god, and he will say outrageous things against the God of gods. He will be successful until the time of wrath is completed, because what has been decreed will be accomplished. 37 He will not show regard for the gods of his fathers, the god longed for by women, or for any other god, because he will magnify himself above all. 38 Instead, he will honor a god of fortresses—a god his fathers did not know—with gold, silver, precious stones, and riches.”
- The same description is given to the beast in Revelation 13. “A mouth was given to him to speak boasts and blasphemies. He was also given authority to act for 42 months. He began to speak blasphemies against God: to blaspheme His name and His dwelling—those who dwell in heaven” (Revelation 13:5-7).
- The Bible Background Commentary points out “when Titus destroyed the temple, his soldiers desecrated the temple by paying divine honors to the insignia of Emperor Vespasian on the site of the temple” (pg. 601). This shows that the Roman emperors accepted and demanded that they be honored as gods.
- Performs signs and wonders. Notice the description of the Romans again: 13 “He also performs great signs, even causing fire to come down from heaven to earth before people. 14 He deceives those who live on the earth because of the signs that he is permitted to perform on behalf of the beast, telling those who live on the earth to make an image of the beast who had the sword wound yet lived. 15 He was permitted to give a spirit to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast could both speak and cause whoever would not worship the image of the beast to be killed” (Revelation 13:13-15).
- Daniel prophesied in Daniel 7:25, “He will speak words against the Most High and oppress the holy ones of the Most High. He will intend to change religious festivals and laws, and the holy ones will be handed over to him for a time, times, and half a time.”
- I believe it is important to see how all of these prophecies fit together and point to the same entities. The apostasy or rebellion speaks to the revolt of the Jewish people against Rome. The Romans would come in and destroy Jerusalem, destroy the temple, and offer sacrifices to emperor Vespasian. Further, the Roman emperors fulfilled the words of Paul as the man of lawlessness. Is Paul speaking of one emperor specifically? He may be or he may be speaking about the whole lot of them that were to come. Just as Revelation 17:10 speaks of the one who goes to destruction seems to point to Domitian, it is possible that Paul is calling Domitian “the man of lawlessness.” However, I tend to agree with B.B. Warfield who believes the lawless one refers to whole line of wicked emperors that raised themselves against God. Paul wrote this letter under Emperor Claudius. But the next emperor that would arise after Claudius was Nero. Nero was the beginning of the outlandish activities of the emperors and the enforcement of worship as deities.
- Notice again in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 that Paul says that the day of the Lord could not come until the “man of lawlessness is revealed.” I believe Paul may be saying two things. First, this new line of destroying emperors who blasphemed God and demanded emperor worship had to come. Second, the word “revealed” is the Greek word apokalupto, which is just a verb tense of the word apocalypse. Perhaps the “revealing” of the man of lawlessness is referring to the apocalypse of Jesus Christ, also known as the book of Revelation.
- One final point of interest: Paul says the Lord Jesus will destroy the man of lawlessness by the breath of his mouth (2 Thessalonians 2:8). I found it interesting that a few shows on the History Channel have admitted that Christianity was the force that brought down the Roman Empire. God would bring down this desolator and would receive recompense for their evil deeds.