As we have repeatedly done throughout this series, let us consider again the nature of first century letter. The second letter to the Thessalonians fits the outline below better than what we noticed in the first letter to the Thessalonians.
Structure of New Testament Letters
Knowing the form of a typical letter will help us find the key themes and key purpose for the writing of the book. The form of a first century letter had this look typically:
- Author and rank
- Body of letter
Let us examine Paul’s letter looking for these elements to determine the overall message of the letter.
Structure of 2 Thessalonians
The second letter to the Thessalonians begins with the same authors as the first letter: “Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy.” The recipients are, of course, the same: “To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” We also see the same salutation that Paul gives in all his letters: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Paul gives thanks to God for the Thessalonians because of their continued good work and faith in the Lord. Remember the heaping of praise Paul gave to the Thessalonians in the first letter. It seems that the Thessalonians are still doing well a couple years later as Paul writes this second letter. Paul gives thanks because their faith is flourishing and that their love for everyone is increasing. Paul makes a great statement of confidence declaring that the Thessalonians will be counted worthy of the kingdom because of their faith in the face of affliction. It is clear in verses 6-10 of the first chapter that Paul is speaking about the return of Christ. This validates our understanding of the first letter where we declared that Paul was teaching them about the coming of the Lord through chapter 5, and was not discussing the destruction of Jerusalem.
The body of the letter begins in chapter 2, verse 1 as Paul states the purpose of his writing. “Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to Him….” Paul had talked about the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ in his first letter to the Thessalonians, in chapters 4-5. But there have been others who have been troubling the Thessalonians by teaching the day of the Lord had come. This belief that the day of the Lord was at that moment led the Christians in Thessalonica to take some drastic actions, which Paul will address in the third chapter. To help the Thessalonians not be deceived, Paul tells them that there are certain events that will take place before the coming of the Lord. The reason Paul tells them this is because the Thessalonians believed the coming of the Lord was imminent. Paul is going to teach that they needed to be ready, but realize that God had prophesied that other events must take place first.
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.
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.
The Man of Lawlessness
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.
Understanding 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.
Therefore, Paul encourages the Thessalonians to stand firm (2:13-17).
Final Instructions (3:1-15)
Paul asks the Thessalonians to pray that the word of the Lord will spread rapidly and be honored in the same way the Thessalonians had received the word. After straightening out the Thessalonians about when the coming of the day of the Lord will be (not till after the rebellion and man of lawlessness), Paul tells them to stay away from those who do not follow the teachings Paul gave to them. Therefore, the Thessalonians need to work quietly, not causing trouble and minding their own business. Paul goes so far as to command that anyone who rejects the apostle’s instructions, they are to be marked and associations are to be severed.
Paul ends this letter with a personal greeting written by the very hand of Paul. Paul takes the pen from the scribe and signs the letter to show this letter is truly from him.