Author: The Apostle Paul
Date of Writing: AD 51 (Paul's earliest epistle)
Target Audience: Jewish and Greek believers who gather as a “church” in Thessalonica.
Theme: Continuing to live in view of the coming of Christ
STHE MAN OF LAWLESSNESS
HANDOUT: 2 Thessalonians 2 HANDOUT
HANDOUT: "Man of Lawlessness" POWERPOINT
INTO THE TOPIC (OPENING):
At what stage in life were you "rebellious?" What memory (painful or humorous) is associated with those times of conflict?
INTO THE WORD (STUDY):
- What must have been happening in Thessalonica to lead Paul to write these words?
- How much time was Paul able to spend with the Thessalonians (see Acts 17:2)? How would this affect their willingness to believe rumors about Christ's return (v. 2)?
- Whom do you think is the restrainer of this lawless one (vv. 6-7)? How do you this this "restraining order" is enforced?
- What is God's ultimate purpose in allowing the "man of lawlessness" to deceive people? What signs mark his appearing?
- How will those who refuse Christ respond to this "man?" How does the "powerful delusion" sent by God differ from the deceptive evil of this "man" (vv 10-12)?
- How and why will God save his people (vv. 13-14)? In response to God's initiative and Paul's ministry, what are the people to do?
Think Q.U.E.S.T.: Do you still have a lingering QUESTION? What is particularly UNEASY for you or catches your attention? Is there an EXHORTATION or command in this passage? What is the SETTING (historical/cultural/linguistic context)? Is there a TRUTH to grasp?
INTO MY LIFE (APPLICATION):
1. How does this passage on Christ's Second Coming, and what will precede it, make you feel? Afraid? Relieved? Rather not think about it? Why? How do you think Paul would've want you to feel?
2. What encouragement do verses 13-14 give you as you face hard times? Where do you need encouragement and strength from God now?
As a result of my conversational study in 2 Thessalonians 1, I choose to pursue the following transformative life actions:
- To be encouraged by God's Grace and Jesus who loved me by _______________________________.
- To encourage ___________________________________ with God's Grace and Jesus' love.
- To put my faith into practice (through every "good deed and word") by __________________________.
HISTORICAL, CULTURAL AND BIBLICAL COMMENTARY
THE "MAN OF LAWLESSNESS" (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12)
Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come. 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. 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.
Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things? And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. 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. 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. The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with how Satan works. He will use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie, and all the ways that wickedness deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.
This particular passage is one of the most difficult ones to understand in all of Scripture. Unfortunately, this "difficulty" also opens it up for all sorts of wild speculation, misapplied theology and taking Scriptures out of context. In one particular camp, this "man of lawlessness" is synonymous with the "Beast 666" of Revelation 13 and John's "antichrist" in 1 John 2:18-22. However, there is nothing in this text that demands tethering it to these other "antichrist/666" scriptures. While there are some similarities, there are also differences...and problems.
The biggest problem is stated plainly in 2 Thessalonians 2:5: "Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things?" Essentially, we get an idea that not only did these Thessalonians know some inside information on HOW he would behave but they knew WHO or WHAT was "restraining" him. Paul told them first hand "when he was with [them]." Whatever he said clearly "unsettled and alarmed" them. It also had to be a PRESENT (first-century) situation that was happening (or going to happen) in their life time. It explains why they're so prone to rumors of Jesus' Coming, including the "big one" that He's already come. Some have also chosen to quit working (to wait for Jesus). Others were spreading falsehoods. It was a huge mess for Paul but in this passage he reminds the Thessalonians about SOME of what he taught them and encouraged them to not be "deceived" by those promoting falsehoods.
The other problem is this term "man of lawlessness." Who is he? Let's start with what we know. Paul reveals that this "man" (Greek: anthropos) is revealed. First, according to 2:3, he is a "lawless" person with no regard for righteousness (its why some translations title him as the "man of sin"). Second, he is "doomed for destruction" or as the Hebrew rephrases "the son of destruction" (2:3). Third, he is an enemy of God, someone who "opposes" God (v. 4). Finally, he is someone who "exalts" himself in God's temple (still standing in Jerusalem). This is another clue that this was a first-century individual and situation. The temple was destroyed in AD 70 by the Romans. How could someone "exalt" themselves today in God's temple except in a figurative or symbolic sense? But symbolism isn't in view here. Paul is speaking plainly and literally. It's why the Thessalonians know WHO it is. The only thing "restraining" this "man of lawlessness" is another force that only these Thessalonians (and Paul) seem to know (2 Thessalonians 2:6).
The most obvious and clear interpretation is this "man of lawlessness" is someone currently alive in the first century. Indeed certain first century names have been kicked around for this person, including the Jewish high priest Ananias, son of Nedebeus (AD 47-52), anti-Roman zealot John of Giscala, Roman emperors Caligula (AD 37-41) and Nero (AD 54-68).
Nero is an interesting choice because he will be the Caesar that launches a war against the Jews (AD 66-70). His generals Vespasian and his son Titus will ultimately, again, destroy both the holy city of Jerusalem and the beloved temple in September of 70. Nero will die (suicide) in AD 68 and Vespasian will rule when Jerusalem falls (AD 69-79). However, there is a difficulty in using Nero for this "lawless one." Paul's claims this individual will "set himself up in God's temple" (2 Thessalonians 2:4). That never happened in Nero's case. He was in Rome during the war with the Jews.
It's why a more curious choice emerges: John of Giscala. We know very little about this anti-Roman zealot who is only given notice in the history of Josephus. However, John of Giscala was a charismatic leader that raised an army of zealots. He was supported by the Sanhedrin and loved by the people. After an ingenious escape from the hands of the Roman general Titus (who had him pinned down in Giscala), John managed to get to Jerusalem. He told the Jerusalem Jews lies about Rome (they were weak, ignorant, unskillful) and said they'd never break through the massive walls of Jerusalem. In AD 68, John then led the Zealot Temple Siege that ousted the leaders of a provisional government set up in AD 66. He and his zealot forces then "set themselves up in the temple" and took control of Jerusalem. According to one Jewish source, John had 8400 followers (including 2400 zealots). They used the temple as their base of operations, created false narratives to keep the Jews confused and robbed the people for their provisions. John of Giscala even tried to set himself up as the new ruler of Jerusalem (using the temple as his throne). He truly was a "man of lawlessness" that only the mighty Roman army could eventually tame. In the siege of Jerusalem, John of Giscala was captured, taken to Rome, paraded through the city in chains as a tribute to Titus and imprisoned for life.
The selection of John Giscala might also help us understand "who" is doing the restraining. Could it be King Herod Agrippa II? It's possible. Agrippa was a pro-Roman Jewish king from the Herodian dynasty. His great grandfather was Herod the Great, who tried to kill the baby Jesus (Matthew 2:1-18). His grandfather was the Herod who imprisoned and killed John the Baptist (Luke 3:19-20; Matthew 14:1-12); and participated in Jesus' trial (Luke 23:6-12). His father King Agrippa I (called "Herod") persecuted and arrested Christians, including Peter, and executed James and John (Acts 12:1-3). King Agrippa II spent a lot of money beautifying Jerusalem. He had reputation for removing Jewish high priests who didn't agree with him. His allegiance to Rome (he was educated in Rome as part of the court of emperor Claudius) set him against his own countrymen. When the Jews revolted against Rome in AD 66, King Agrippa II and his sister Berenice were deposed. Agrippa II then raised an army of 2000 men to fight with the Romans against his own people. After the war ended, he moved to Rome, was given land and became a magistrate. He was also very good friends with the Jewish historian Josephus, whose history of this period is significant and helpful. He very well could be this "restraining force" that Paul alludes to in 2 Thessalonians 2. After all, when Agrippa II was deposed (removed or "taken away" as Paul puts it in verse 7), that was the beginning of the end for the Jerusalem temple. While the city would be rebuilt over the centuries, the golden and godly center of Judaism (temple) has not existed since AD 70. In fact, as long as Agrippa II ruled in Jerusalem, a zealot rebel and "man of lawlessness" like John of Giscala could not. With Agrippa II no longer "restraining" these zealot forces both inside and outside Jerusalem, it created a vacuum of power that John of Giscala gladly occupied.
Consequently, a logical HISTORICAL solution to Paul's "man of lawlessness" and "restrainer" statements could be the zealot John of Giscala and King Agrippa II, who's leadership in Jerusalem was all that stood in the way for this lawless rebel to find political power.
Nevertheless, for those who view this passage as speaking to "end of world" or end-time scenarios, three additional futurist views have emerged over the centuries.
- The oldest is the CATHOLIC/ORTHODOX view when a "man of sin" (a very evil person) will emerge at the end of time. When Jesus returns and destroys this person, the Holy Roman Empire will be re-established on earth. The "restrainer" is often viewed as a political system (or philosophy) that keeps this evil person from power.
- The second view is the PROTESTANT view that identifies the "man of lawlessness" as the papacy and Roman Catholicism (his system) for exaltation. The "restrainer" is the "temple of God" or the "true [Protestant] church" that keeps Catholicism from deceiving and deluding people. This view has been around since 1500 and the Protestant Reformation. Other Protestant views suggest the "man of lawlessness" is an end-time antichrist that rises in a tribulation period prior to Jesus' return. Over the years, various political leaders--Hitler, Stalin, Kruschev, Saddam Hussein, Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump--have been tapped as this "antichrist/man of lawlessness" but none have really stuck. They come and go, but Jesus still doesn't return.
- The final view is the DISPENSATIONAL/FUTURIST view that identifies the "man of lawlessness" as the Beast 666 and great end-time Antichrist. This person will rise in the final seven year "Great Tribulation" to deceive and delude. He'll make a treaty with the Jews, then rebuild their beloved Jerusalem temple. He'll restore temple sacrifices, too. However, he'll swiftly switch gears and break his treaty with Israel, enter the temple he built ("the abomination of desolation") and proclaim he is God. This view is the most recent and most speculative, arising largely in the 20th century.
Ultimately, the reader of 2 Thessalonians is faced with a difficult choice. Accept one of the views (historical, Catholic, Protestant, Dispensational) or ignore this passage altogether. And no view is without its difficulty. The advantage of the three futurist views (Catholic, Protestant, Dispensational) is they all demand FUTURE events to play to their narrative. The historical view (that this "man of lawlessness" and "restrainer" were first century individuals) leads to a more difficult conclusion: that Jesus has already "come." Paul, after all, ties the unveiling of this "man of lawlessness" and what "restrains" him to the Second Coming of Christ. There is no time delay between the emergence of the "man of lawlessness" and the "Coming of Christ." It's WHY Paul tells the Thessalonians that Jesus has not come already in AD 51 (which was the rumor). But WHEN this happens (and it did in AD 66) it means, by implication, that Jesus' return is just around the corner.
Consequently, the HISTORICAL view is also problematic, even if it seems to fit the 2 Thessalonian 2 passage well. The prophetic timeline is clear for the Thessalonians. Watch (and wait) for what's happening in Jerusalem. And Paul's teaching is remarkably similar to what Jesus told his own disciples in Luke 21:5-32 (see also Matthew 24 and Mark 13):
Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”
“Teacher,” they asked, “WHEN will these things happen? And WHAT will be THE SIGN that they are about to take place?”
He replied: “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them. When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.”
Then he said to them: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.
“But before all this, they will seize you and persecute YOU. They will hand YOU over to synagogues and put YOU in prison, and YOU will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. And so YOU will bear testimony to me. But make up YOUR mind not to worry beforehand how YOU will defend yourselves. For I will give YOU words and wisdom that none of YOUR adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. YOU will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of YOU to death. Everyone will hate YOU because of me. But not a hair of YOUR head will perish. Stand firm, and YOU will win life.
“When YOU see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, YOU will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
“There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up YOUR heads, because YOUR redemption is drawing near.”
He told them this parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
“Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.
Jesus and Paul are practically quoting each other. Jesus is talking to his disciples about what (and when) it will happen. Paul is doing the same with the Thessalonians. He is telling them to "look to Jerusalem" because that's where "God's temple" is located. Wait for the "rebellion" to happen. Watch for a "lawless man" to rise. And know that when the city (and temple) is demolished that the KINGDOM has come. That Jesus has returned in His glory and NOW LIVES WITH HIS PEOPLE. It's likely the only way they would've had known Jerusalem had been destroyed is when an outsider, traveling through their city, told them. It's why the Thessalonians were so susceptible to rumors.
I'll confess that this HISTORICAL view demands a "leap of faith." I still struggle with it myself, but do find it compelling. We've been grooved as modern Christians towards a "future" coming of Christ but there is another way to look at these passages. This ancient view (2nd century in origin) suggests that Jesus did come in judgment, right on time, in His generation to put an END to the Old Covenant (with a little help from Rome) in AD 70.
But that doesn't mean Jesus can't come (still) in the future.
In fact, one possible way to blend the HISTORICAL and FUTURIST views is through a "both/and" approach. This perspective argues that what happened in Palestine, Jerusalem and the temple in AD 66-70 is a microcosm of the events that will END THIS WORLD. The Jews faced their own "tribulation" and so will the last generation. Until then, Jesus is PRESENT with HIS CHURCH (as the Old Covenant was destroyed in AD 70). Essentially, the prophecies about "the end" have a "now and not yet" perspective. Jesus did come in judgment in AD 70 upon the Jews but He will come again, at the end of the world, to judge all mankind.
That's why this Scripture is so widely debated. It's truly a very difficult passage.
So is the "man of lawlessness" the "Beast 666" of Revelation 13? Possibly. In that prophetic passage, the readers (again, first century believers) were asked to calculate the "number" for this "beast." It was a HUMAN number. Three sixes. In Revelation, "three" can often symbolize Divinity or God. The text itself informs the reader that "six" is a human number. So "three" (God) combined with "six" (man) suggests a human exalting himself as God (666). It's a number that's "marked" on people's foreheads and right hands. This "666" Beast also forces people with this mark to worship it. Do we take these images literally? Many do. But, historically, most viewed The Beast 666 ("earth" beast) as symbolic for pagan worship. One of the earliest interpretations was EMPEROR WORSHIP. This makes sense because there are TWO beasts in Revelation 13: a sea beast and an earth beast. The sea beast rises from people and it "waged war against God's people." That sounds a lot like first century Rome. And it's this GOVERNMENT of Rome that gives the "earth" beast authority (Revelation 13:12). This reflects emperor worship--which emerged in the mid-1st century. It got so bad that if you didn't worship the emperor (a human being professing to be "god" or 6-6-6) then you couldn't "buy or sell" or do anything.
Finally, don't forget John's words in I John 2:18-19. This is the only place in all of Scripture that an "antichrist" is even mentioned. John wrote:
Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.
John says several things that create a problem for those who preach an "Antichrist" that is yet to come. First, "you have heard" refers to HIS believers in the first century, not us. They have heard this teaching, not us. Second, it's the last hour. Not the "last days." Not the "end is near." Not "soon." But pretty much right NOW. Again, penned in the first century. Third, he says there isn't just one antichrist but many. Later in verse 22, John tells us "who" is an "antichrist": Who is the liar? It is whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a person is the antichrist—denying the Father and the Son. We still have "many" antichrists running around today by that definition! Every atheist is an antichrist. Every Jew is an antichrist. Every nonbeliever is an antichrist.
My hope is that none of what I've written confuses you. The struggle most Bible students have with end-time theology is making it work with their presuppositions. It's hard, for example, to say "Jesus is coming soon" when first century Christians believed that idea too...and so did 2nd and 3rd century Christians...and 5th and 10th and 15th century Christians...and now 20th and 21st century Christians. If Jesus didn't return, as He said he would "in HIS generation" of time, then what does that mean? He lied? He was wrong? NO! But is it equally a stretch to propose that Jesus did indeed return, right on time, within 40 years (a biblical generation), to bring HIS KINGDOM and completely end the Old Covenant (temple, priests, animal sacrifices)? I don't think so. The prophecies of Daniel make a lot more sense when they're interpreted through the histories of Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greek and Rome. We can also learn from first century history that's outside the Bible. The destruction of Jerusalem and her temple was a BIG deal. It was an END. There's so much I wasn't taught in history classes about the first-century (most notably the war between the Jews and Rome).
It certainly gives us something to talk about...and me something to write about!
GOD'S DEMAND AND OUR EFFORT (2 Thessalonians 2:13-17)
But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.
The commentator William Barclay notes that in these closing verses of 2 Thessalonians 2 that there's a "synopsis of the Christian life:"
- It begins with GOD'S CALL. We are "chosen" by God for His Purposes.
- It develops in our EFFORT. We are not called to "dream" but to "fight." We are not called to "stand still" but to "climb."
- It's helped by the TEACHING and GUIDANCE of godly mentors.
- It's helped by GOD Himself. We're not in this battle alone. God is working on our behalf.
- Our CALL and this EFFORT produce "consecration on earth" and "salvation in heaven." We are set apart and saved.
Paul notes that these Thessalonians are "firstfruits (verse 13)."
The firstfruits of the ground were offered unto God just as the first-born of man and animals. The law required,
- That on the morrow after the Passover Sabbath a sheaf of new corn should be waved by the priest before the altar (Leviticus 23:5 Leviticus 23:6, 10, 12; 2:12 ).
- That at the feast of Pentecost two loaves of leavened bread, made from the new flour, were to be waved in like manner (Leviticus 23:15-17; Numbers 28:26 ).
- The feast of Tabernacles was an acknowledgement that the fruits of the harvest were from the Lord Exodus 23:16; 34:22 ).
Every individual was also required to consecrate to God a portion of the first-fruits of the land (Exodus 22:29; 23:19; 34:26; Numbers 15:20; Numbers 15:21).
- The law enjoined that no fruit was to be gathered from newly-planted fruit-trees for the first three years, and that the first-fruits of the fourth year were to be consecrated to the Lord (Leviticus 19:23-25). Jeremiah 2:3 alludes to the ordinance of "first-fruits," and hence he must have been acquainted with the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, where the laws regarding it are recorded.
Paul says these Thessalonians are "firstfruits." What does that mean? In Romans 8:23, Paul gives us a clue:
Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.
To the Corinthians (15:20-23) he expands this idea and includes Jesus as a "firstfruit" along with them:
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.
In James 1:18 the first century believers were considered all "firstfruits." John penned in Revelation 14:3-5 a clear depiction of who these "firstfruits" were:
And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders. No one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. These are those who did not defile themselves with women, for they remained virgins. They follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They were purchased from among mankind and offered as firstfruits to God and the Lamb. No lie was found in their mouths; they are blameless.
The first-century Christians were these "firstfruit" offerings. They were picked and plucked first among all the Christians throughout all the ages. In the end we will ALL stand and "sing a new song" before the throne but not without a "tip of the hat" to the Corinthians, Thessalonians and all the first century believers--many who were martyred for their faith--to pave the way for us to participate in the Kingdom. They were the "firstfruits" of much fruit to be be harvested in the centuries to come. It's a glorious thought and a beautiful picture!
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