Three studies have been devoted to Revelation 13, in which I have concluded that the political beast of Revelation (13:1-10) was the Roman Empire under the leadership of Nero and that the religious beast of Revelation (13:11-18) was (primarily) apostate Judaism. This has fit well with the premise that Revelation deals largely with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in70 A.D. Of course, this premise is not accepted by all: some believe that Revelation awaits a future fulfilment, others believe that it has no specific fulfilment but presents principles for the new covenant age, and still others believe that the first half prophesies the destruction of Jerusalem (70 A.D.) whilst the second half prophesies the fall of the Roman Empire (410 A.D.). My conclusion is that the beasts of Revelation—as well as most of the prophecy—found its fulfilment in our distant past (though in the future of Revelation’s initial readers).
It occurs to me, however, that there are other so-called “end times” passages which deal with the person commonly known as the beast or the antichrist. Although I believe our studies in Revelation 13 to be somewhat conclusive, what should we say about other “end times” passages, such as the one quoted above? Is “that man of sin” some future individual whom we have yet to meet (although who may very well be alive as I write these words) or was he also an individual living in the first century with whom the original recipients of 2 Thessalonians were familiar? This is an important question and one with which I will attempt to deal in this study.
I must say from the outset that the “end times” passages in the New Testament are most certainly connected to one another. There are passages that deal with the “coming” of Jesus Christ and then there are passages that deal with the “last days.” I am convinced that all of the “last days” passages must be seen either as having already been fulfilled or yet awaiting fulfilment. Whichever time frame it is that they deal with they must all deal with the same time frame. Thus, the “last days” were either the last forty years of the Jewish dispensation or they are the last days of history leading up to the second coming of Jesus Christ. Thus, you will already have guessed my take on2 Thessalonians 2—it described events in our distant past.
Before continuing I want to make a point very clear. I believe that there are many references to the coming of Christ which is an event yet to be fulfilled. I am not equating all “end times” passages with all “coming” passages. One needs to be careful in handling the carious uses of “coming” in Scripture.
Having stated that, the burden of proof is now upon me to show that 2 Thessalonians 2has already been fulfilled. And it this be the case then we need not be concerned about the events in this chapter occurring again in our future, although there is much that we can learn from it concerning our relationship with God. We should also note from the outset that this is a most difficult passage. Kenneth Gentry, in Perilous Times, writes concerning this passage:
The passage is noted for its exceptional difficulty. The great church father Augustine writes of a certain portion of the passage: “I confess that I an entirely ignorant of what he means to say.” New Testament Greek scholar omits interpreting the passage in his four volume lexical commentary: “I attempt no interpretation of this passage as a whole, which I do not understand.” Renowned Greek linguist Robertson despairs of the task of interpreting these verses because the prophecy is “in such vague form that we can hardly clear it up.” Morris urges “care” in handling this “notoriously difficult passage.” Bruce notes that “there are few New Testament passages which can boast such a variety of interpretations as this.” Best confesses: “we must acknowledge our ignorance.” Ladd laments: “There are no darker words in the entire Pauline corpus than these, and any interpretation must be at best a hypothesis.”
Nevertheless, the passage is inspired of God and is thus profitable for us. It would be almost irresponsible for us not to deal with it. I will admit from the start that, as George Eldon Ladd says, my interpretation is at best “a hypothesis.” I believe my hypothesis to be credible in light of Scripture and history but I will not pretend to be dogmatic in this exposition. There is one thing about which we can be entirely dogmatic: whoever the “man of sin” is (and I do not believe we can conclusively identify him) he is someone that has come and gone from the scene of history. Many have ventured a guess as to the identity of the man: Caligula, Nero, the Pope (a Protestant interpretation) and even Martin Luther (a Catholic interpretation). Whatever the case, this passage does not deal with the future. It was someone with whom the first century Thessalonians were familiar (which, of course, rules out the papacy and Luther) and who came on the scene of history during their lifetime.
The Historical Background of the Epistle
Paul had a tremendous relationship with the believers in Thessalonica. The apostle’s initial visit to Thessalonica is recorded by Luke inActs 17:
Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews: And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures, Opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ. And some of them believed, and consorted with Paul and Silas; and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few. But the Jews which believed not, moved with envy, took unto them certain lewd fellows of the baser sort, and gathered a company, and set all the city on an uproar, and assaulted the house of Jason, and sought to bring them out to the people. And when they found them not, they drew Jason and certain brethren unto the rulers of the city, crying, These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also; Whom Jason hath received: and these all do contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, one Jesus. And they troubled the people and the rulers of the city, when they heard these things. And when they had taken security of Jason, and of the other, they let them go. And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea: who coming thither went into the synagogue of the Jews. These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so. Therefore many of them believed; also of honourable women which were Greeks, and of men, not a few.
As usual, Jewish persecution arose when it was known that the gospel was being preached in Thessalonica. So quickly did persecution arise that Paul could stay in Thessalonica for no more than three weeks (“three sabbath days”). Paul’s ministry inBerea(after being driven from Thessalonica) was far more pleasant—for a while. Luke continues the account, “But when the Jews of Thessalonica had knowledge that the word of God was preached of Paul atBerea, they came thither also, and stirred up the people” (Acts 17:13). The Jewish persecution continues throughoutActs 18-19.
Although Paul had to leave in something of a hurry he later sent Timothy to Thessalonica to see how things were progressing (1 Thessalonians 3:1-3). A short while after sending Timothy, he wrote his first letter to the Thessalonians.
Penned very shortly after his “forced” departure, 1 Thessalonians assures the believers in Thessalonica that they are a wonderful example of true Christianity to “all that believe in Macedonia and Achaia” (1 Thessalonians 1:7). He goes on to explain precisely why he considered them such a good example:
For from you sounded out the word of the Lord not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith to God-ward is spread abroad; so that we need not to speak any thing. For they themselves show of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come.
(1 Thessalonians 2:8-10)
Paul then seeks to give some encouragement for the believers to stand in the midst of intense persecution, assuring them that, although he has left them in body, he is with them in spirit. Again, he refers to his appreciation for their example:
For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judaea are in Christ Jesus: for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews: Who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men: Forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins alway: for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost. But we, brethren, being taken from you for a short time in presence, not in heart, endeavoured the more abundantly to see your face with great desire. Wherefore we would have come unto you, even I Paul, once and again; but Satan hindered us. For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Are not even ye in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at his coming? For ye are our glory and joy.
(1 Thessalonians 2:14-20)
Key to this passage is that the Jews were “fill[ing] up their sins” so that “the wrath [could] come upon them to the uttermost.” This is very similar to the language that Jesus used in Matthew 23:32(“Fill ye then the measure of your fathers”). Paul again urges them to “stand fast in the Lord” in 1 Thessalonians 3:8. Then, in 1 Thessalonians 4, he begins to answer some questions that they had obviously sent to him with Timothy. He addresses at least four major concerns that they had in the closing chapters, each section indicated by the use of the word “furthermore” or “but” (peri in the Greek). Similar divisions can be seen by the use of peri in 1 Corinthians, used to indicate the beginning of a new section (1 Corinthians 7:1, 25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1, 12).
In his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul first addresses the issue of their sanctification (4:1-8). Obviously, he had heard reports of sexual immorality going on in the church and he urges them to cease from these wicked deeds. He then addresses the issue of brotherly love (4:9-12), urging his readers to increase in their love for one another. A third issue is addressed in 4:13-18:
But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words.
(1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)
This passage clearly addresses the bodily return of Jesus Christ to this earth, an event yet in our future. In these verses we see clear references to the Lord’s return (“bring with him”), to the resurrection of the dead (“dead in Christ…rise”), and to the rapture of living saints (“caught up”). None of these events has yet taken place.
Paul then moves in 5:1ff to another issue altogether. Though he speaks of “the day of the Lord” he is not referring in this chapter to the second coming. The use of the word “but” in the beginning of this verse makes as much clear. A note should be inserted at this point. Many interpreters believe that 1 Thessalonians 5does in fact speak of the second coming of Christ. Indeed, many see two distinct events: the rapture in 4:13-18 and the second coming in 5:1ff. It is, however, difficult to see how such an interpretation can be read into these sections. As noted, it is clear from the use of peri that a shift has taken place from 4:18 to 5:1. But the shift cannot be that from the rapture to the second coming for it seems clear from 4:13-18 that the rapture and the second coming take place simultaneously. Paul has already dealt with the second coming; peri indicates a shift to something else entirely. Let us consider Paul’s words in this section:
But of the times and the seasons, brethren, ye have no need that I write unto you. For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober. For they that sleep sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night. But let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation. For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ, Who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him. Wherefore comfort yourselves together, and edify one another, even as also ye do.
(1 Thessalonians 5:1-11)
“But” (peri) indicates a subject change. But to what has the subject changed? Paul speaks here of “the day of the Lord,” which will come “as a thief in the night.” Many make the unjustified assumption that “the day of the Lord” in Scripture automatically refers to the second coming. But there are actually numerous days of the Lord in the Bible. The phrase is used 20 times in the Old Testament and most, if not all, of the references there refer to a day of the Lord that has already taken place. For instance,Isaiah 13:6, 9 refers to “the day of the Lord” that would signal judgement uponBabylon. This happened in the fifth century B.C. when the Medo-Persian forces conquered the Babylonians (seeDaniel 5). InJoel 2:1-27 “the day of the Lord” describes the judgement that would come upon God’s people, a prophecy which was actually averted due to the people’s repentance.
“The day of the Lord” in Scripture is always a time when God would come in judgement upon this world. According to these terms, the second coming cannot be described to the believer as a “day of the Lord,” for believers have no judgement to fear at the second coming. For the believer, the second coming is nothing to fear. Rather it is a “blessed hope” and a “glorious appearing” (Titus 2:13). Thus, although the second coming had been described in most wonderful terms in1 Thessalonians 4, the emphasis has now shifted to the day of the Lord in1 Thessalonians 5. Obviously, some false teachers had come to the Thessalonians and had taught that the day of the Lord had already come. And the next “day of the Lord” that had been clearly foretold in the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24,Mark 13,Luke 21) was the destruction of Jerusalem.
Being concerned that the destruction of Jerusalem had already happened or was in progress, the Thessalonian Christians asked Paul about it. In answer to this question, “But of the times and the seasons, brethren, ye have no need that I write unto you” (1 Thessalonians 5:1). Why was there “no need” for Paul to write to them of the day of the Lord? First, because they should already know all about the day of the Lord. Jesus had clearly expounded the day of the Lord in the Olivet Discourse and they would doubtless already have heard about it. Jesus had clearly given some signs that would precede the day of the Lord. And since none of those signs had yet been seen by the Thessalonians there was no need for them to believe that the day of the Lord had already occurred. Second, Paul had already expounded Jesus’ teaching on theMount of Olives. According to2 Thessalonians 2 (a chapter, as we shall see, dealing with the same issue) Paul had already told them these things. Thus, their fears were wholly unfounded.
Paul continues, “For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2). For many (unbelievers) the day of the Lord would come as a thief in the night. They would not expect it and it would destroy them suddenly. But it would not come as a thief in the night for the believer. The believer knew what to expect. Thus, the “children of the light” to whom Paul was writing (1 Thessalonians 5:5) had no need to fear what would happen “in the night.” Believers would see clear (as in the day) that the day of the Lord was about to occur but to unbelievers it would be “as a thief in the night” (cf.Matthew 24:42-44).
I have a dear friend who is a dispensationalist. For years he taught the pretribulational rapture of the church but, just a few years ago, he changed his view and began to teach the posttribulational rapture. The reason for the change, he said, is that he could not see how 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18and 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11could be connected without the church going through the tribulation period. Whilst my friend was at least honest in his approach to the unity of the two texts I do not think he has taken it far enough. He is still convinced that both have to do with the rapture/second coming. Actually, the two passages are far less connected.
In1 Thessalonians 5:9, Paul writes, “For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ.” If you study the use of “wrath” in 1 Thessalonians it is always used in the context of God visiting His wrath upon apostateIsraelin the destruction ofJerusalemand it is used no differently in 5:9. In sum,1 Thessalonians 4:13-18and1 Thessalonians 5:1-11deal with two separate comings: the former with the bodily return of Christ to this earth sometime in our future, and the latter with Christ’s coming in judgement upon Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
One objection must be dealt with before we move to a consideration of 2 Thessalonians. Some may ask, “Since Jerusalem is so far away from Thessalonica, why would the Thessalonians even care about Jerusalem’s destruction?” In other words, why would Paul take 11 verses in 1 Thessalonians 5to assure them that the destruction of Jerusalem had not yet happened if it would not even affect them physically? The answer can be found in the fact that the Thessalonian church comprised mostly Jewish believers (cf. Acts 17:1-3). Any Jew would have a great burden for Jerusalem. Many in Thessalonica doubtless had friends and family in Jerusalem. And even apart from that believers in Thessalonica would doubtless have a tremendous love and burden for believers inJerusalem. Such Christian love is clearly displayed inActs 11 when the church inAntioch, some 500km away fromJerusalem, immediately sent relief toJerusalem when they heard of a coming famine. Most of those inAntioch had not even met the saints inJerusalem yet there was a bond of Christian love. And the same “bond” would have existed between the saints in Thessalonica and the saints inJerusalem. Thus, the Thessalonians were disturbed at reports that the day of the Lord had already come uponJerusalem. They were perhaps concerned that, in the absence of the signs of which Jesus had spoken, many of theJerusalem saints had been destroyed with the city. Thus Paul assures them that the day of the Lord had not yet come.
Most scholars believe that 2 Thessalonians was written very shortly after 1 Thessalonians. And it seems from 2 Thessalonians that the confusion concerning the day of the Lord had not yet been entirely cleared up. Consider2 Thessalonians 2:
Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him, That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand. Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God. Remember ye not, that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things? And now ye know what withholdeth that he might be revealed in his time. For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way. And then shall that Wicked be revealed, whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of his coming: Even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, And with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
(2 Thessalonians 2:1-12)
The “day of the Lord” in 1 Thessalonians 5is the same as “the day of Christ” in 2 Thessalonians 2. Thus, the two chapters deal with the same theme. Paul urges the Thessalonian believers to “be not soon shaken in mind” concerning the day of Christ. We might paraphrase, “Don’t lose your head over this matter…” Paul speaks of a “letter as from us” purporting “that the day of Christ is at hand.” Apparently, some false teachers had sent a letter to the Thessalonians, forging Paul’s handwriting and signature, reporting that the day of Christ had already occurred. This would naturally have been quite a shock to these believers who had just weeks earlier received 1 Thessalonians from Paul assuring them that the day of the Lord had not yet occurred in Jerusalem. But Paul makes clear now that the letter was forged: he had not sent them anything reporting that the day of the Lord had occurred.
As 2 Thessalonians 2opens, we might again be tempted to think of the second coming, for Paul writes of “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” and of “our gathering together unto him.” This particular word can simply mean the “presence” of Christ. In fact, the King James Bible translates the word as “presence” on two occasions in the New Testament (2 Corinthians 10:10; Philippians 2:12). The word does not, as some have purported, refer exclusively to the second coming of Christ. But what about “our gathering together unto him”? Is that not a clear reference to the rapture? My answer is no! Of course, we will be “gathered together” to the Lord at the rapture but that is not Paul’s message here. The Greek word translated “gathering together” (episunagoge) refers to “a complete collection” or “an assembly.” It is a word that can be used of a “gathering” at a synagogue or a church. The word is used only four times in the New Testament. It is used in Matthew 23:37 where we read, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered [episunagoge] thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” It is used again in Matthew 24:31, “And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together [episunagoge] his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” It is found again in Hebrews 10:25, “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together [episunagoge], as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.”
Thus, whatever “coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” Paul refers to in this chapter, there will be an assembly (“gathering together”) of saints at that time. The fact that Paul uses this word rather than harpazo (translated “caught up” in 1 Thessalonians 4:17) is significant, for it is harpazo that clearly denotes the rapture. In 1 Thessalonians 4 Paul had cleared up some confusion surrounded the second coming and had used harpazo to speak there of the rapture. If he were writing to the same Thessalonians in 2 Thessalonians 2 concerning the second coming, do you not suppose that he would have used the word harpazo again to speak of the rapture? Why use a different word when the Thessalonians were already confused enough as it was? Using a different word—and particularly one so commonly used by Jews for an assembly—would simply add to the confusion. Thus, we must look for another explanation for the use of episunagoge instead of harpazo.
But some may remain confused. “How,” you may ask, “would the judgement upon Jerusalemin 70 A.D. result in a ‘gathering together’ of God’s people?” In order to answer this question, one must turn attention to the use of episunagoge by Jesus in the Olivet Discourse, “And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (Matthew 24:31). In both 2 Thessalonians 2 and Matthew 24 Old Testament language is being used. Both passages allude to Isaiah 56:8, “The Lord God which gathereth the outcasts of Israel saith, Yet will I gather others to him, beside those that are gathered unto him.” Isaiah’s prophecy was that God would gather a people for Himself from the very ends of the earth. Jesus says much the same in Matthew 24:31. The “angels” (Gr. angelos) are simply “messengers” whom the Lord sends “to gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” They are not “angels” as we know them but simply (human) “messengers” sent with the gospel to every nation. And the promise is repeated in 2 Thessalonians.
But this still does not answer the question. What does the destruction of Jerusalemin 70 A.D. have to do with worldwide evangelism? Actually, the destruction of Jerusalemwould have everything to do with evangelism for the early church. Keep in mind that the early church comprised mostly Jews, who were undergoing severe persecution at the hand of their unbelieving Jewish neighbours. The harshest persecution in the early years of the church came from the Jews (although this perhaps intensified in the brief period of persecution under Nero). The unbelieving Jews persecuted the church because they believed Jesus Christ to be a false messiah. The persecution from Judaism greatly hindered gospel preaching in the first century but once Jerusalem was destroyed, the Jewish persecution stopped. With the Jewish temple no longer standing the Jews could no longer exercise their religion and thus they no longer bothered the Christians. Thus the destruction ofJerusalem in70 A.D. heralded a “golden age” for worldwide evangelism for the church could now spread the gospel without fear of reprisal from the Jews. The destruction ofJerusalem essentially marked the “coming” of Jesus Christ into the fullness of His kingdom, at which point He sent forth His messengers to the ends of the earth to gather His elect into one Body. This is important to remember from the outset of this exposition.
Paul continues, “1Now we beseech you, brethren… 2That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand.” The Greek word translated “at hand” is enistemi, which is translated in most English Bible translations as “has [or “had”] come” (nkjv, esv, nasb, hcsb, etc.). In fact, the word is translated most often in the King James Version as “present” (Romans 8:38;1 Corinthians 3:22; 7:26;Galatians 1:4;Hebrews 9:9). It seems, then, that Paul is urging them to not believe that the day of the Lord (i.e. the destruction ofJerusalem) had already occurred.
Now, let me return to the King James translation for a moment (“at hand”). If “at hand” is the better translation (as many would insist) then it seems quite clear that this cannot be a reference to the second coming. Let us assume for a moment (although I am personally unconvinced) that Revelation was written by John ca. 95 A.D. Many futurists (who hold to this date of authorship) insist that, even though the prophecies recorded in Revelation are said to be “at hand” (1:3; 22:10), this does not mean that they had to take place soon after the writing of Revelation. Such interpreters say that “at hand” simply means “imminent” (i.e. that, at any given moment in history, the prophecies in Revelation could quickly begin taking place). Thus, they claim, it has been fair for 1,910 years to describe the fulfilment of Revelation as “at hand” (even though its fulfilment has not yet begun).
But most scholars agree that 2 Thessalonians was written ca. 55 A.D.—a mere 40 years prior to the (supposed) writing of Revelation. Can we honestly say that the second coming (which has not yet happened) was “at hand” 1,910 years ago (when Revelation was written) but that it was not “at hand” 1,950 years ago, when 2 Thessalonians was written? Why does 40 years, over the scheme of almost 2,000 years, make such a difference? No, it makes far more sense for Paul—writing in 55 A.D.—to say that 70 A.D. was not “at hand” and for John—writing in 66 A.D. (which, I am convinced, is a more suitable date for the authorship of Revelation)—to say that 70 A.D. was “at hand.” Paul’s “not at hand” was a good 15 years, whilst John’s “at hand” was a mere 4 years.
That being said, I am convinced that “has come” (as in most modern English Bibles) is a better translation of enistemi than “at hand” (as in thekjv). Paul is not thus arguing that the day of the Lord is close by; rather, he is arguing that the day of the Lord had not already happened. The Thessalonians were not concerned that the day of the Lord was nearby; they were concerned that it had already taken place. And Paul is writing to them that it “has not come.”
Paul goes on to tell them how they can be sure that the day of the Lord has not yet come: “Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition.” The term “falling away” is not, as some have suggested, the rapture. The Greek word is apostasia, which refers to a time of apostasy. That is, a time of great apostasy must first take place before the day of the Lord would come. Some futurists, realising that “falling away” is not the rapture, believe that a time is coming—perhaps in our own lifetime—when the professing believers on earth will so apostatise that the true church will be nowhere to be found. A false church, following the leadership of the antichrist, will be visible on earth but the true church will be absent. My problem with this interpretation is a theological one: “I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). For the church to so apostatise as to be unrecognisable on the earth would violate the promise of Jesus!
The word apostasia can refer either to a political revolt or to a spiritual rebellion. As we continue through this exposition I hope to show that it is actually a spiritual rebellion to which Paul is referring, but one in our past rather than in our future. Coinciding with this “falling away” would be the revelation of “that man of sin…the son of perdition.” This brings us to the crux of our exposition.
The only man specifically identified in the Bible as “the son of perdition” is Judas Iscariot (John 17:12). That is, Judas Iscariot is the only person that we can concretely point to in history as being “the son of perdition.” But he was not the only “son of perdition” in history, for 2 Thessalonians—written many years after Judas’ death—reveals that another “son of perdition” would appear on the scene of world history. However, “the son of perdition” in2 Thessalonians 2:3is obviously a Judas-like character, or else would not refer to him as such. Thus, “the son of perdition” of which Paul writes was, in some way, a spiritual defector, just like Judas. And so “the son of perdition” seems to have been a religious figure who turned away from Christ. And he would take many with him in the great “falling away.”
Though Paul does not name “the man of sin,” he does tell us something of the man’s character: “Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God.” When I first began to study this passage I assumed that “the son of perdition” was Nero, lining up with the political beast of Revelation 13. But the more I studied the passage the less I became convinced that Nero fits the bill. I know of no historical account of Nero even entering the Jewish temple, much less “showing himself that he is God” in the temple. Thus we must look for someone else who better matches the criteria. Caligula (Roman Caesar 37-41) tried to have a statue of himself erected in the Jewish temple but he died long before 2 Thessalonians was written and so is immediately ruled out as a candidate.
Now, there is every reason to assume that Paul is referring to the temple that was still standing as he wrote. There is absolutely nothing in the text that suggests a future, rebuilt temple (i.e. in our future). The only reason that anyone would read a future temple into this text is because they already have a system in their heads that they are trying to force upon Scripture. The Thessalonians would never have thought of a future temple: they would have assumed that Paul was speaking about the then-standing temple inJerusalem.
Thus, in order to identify the man of sin (and there is no way that we can do so with absolute certainty), we must look for a man in the first century who, in some way, declared himself to be God in the Jewish temple. I can find no individual historically who actually, literally sat in the temple declaring himself to be God, but there are a few candidates who come close. One man was the Roman general Titus, who was in charge of the Roman forces that eventually destroyed Jerusalem. When the Romans entered the city, Titus told his armies to set their banners against the eastern wall of the temple, where they made sacrifices to them. But even this does not quite fit, because the sacrifices were offered to the ensigns of the Roman army, not to the general himself. And Titus cannot honestly be described as a religious defector. Thus, we must look elsewhere.
When Jesus pronounced woe upon the Jewish religious leaders in Matthew 23, He began with these words, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat” (23:2). Moses represented the law of God and Moses’ seat, thus, represented a position of religious authority. This is why Jesus told His listeners to obey the doctrine of the scribes and Pharisees but not to follow their hypocritical example (23:3). He continued to pronounced severe woes upon the religious leaders for their hypocrisy. One of the woes was particularly startling, “But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in” (23:13). The scribes and Pharisees by their wicked leadership were “excluding” people from heaven but, in reality, this authority belongs to God alone. Thus, in excluding people from the kingdom of heaven, the religious leaders ofIsrael were seeking to take God’s place.
Though the woe in 23:13 most clearly articulates it, all of the woes show that the religious leaders of Israel had set themselves up as God. Throughout Jesus’ ministry He condemned the religious leaders for replacing the doctrines of God with the traditions of men (seeMark 7:8-9). In short, the religious leaders had set themselves as the final authority. One particular individual, right at the outset of the Jewish War, was particularly notorious in this capacity. Josephus tells us something about this particular character:
Hereupon they sent for one of the pontifical tribes, which is called Eniachim, and cast lots which of it should be the high priest. By fortune, the lot so fell as to demonstrate their iniquity after the plainest manner, for it fell upon one whose name was Phannias, the son of Samuel, of thevillageofAphtha. He was a man not only unworthy of the high priesthood, but hat did not well know what the high priesthood was; such a mere rustic was he! Yet did they hale this man, without his own consent, out of the country, as if they were acting a place upon the stage, and adorned him with a counterfeit face; they also put upon him the sacred garments, and upon every occasion instructed him what he was to do. This horrid piece of wickedness was sport and pastime with them, but occasioned the other priests, who at a distance saw their law made a jest of, to shed tears, and sorely lament the dissolution of such a sacred dignity.
Josephus is beside himself with criticism of Phannias, referring to him as “this horrid piece of wickedness.” Phannias was perhaps the most godless man that could possibly be chosen for the high priesthood. Not only was he not in the line of Levi, but he also actively practised godlessness whilst in the office. And, as leader of the religious leaders, he would have ultimately been in charge of “excluding” people from the kingdom of heaven. In short, Phannias was an apostate religious leader sitting in the temple ofGod.
Paul continues, “Remember ye not, that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things?” Thus, whoever this individual was, it was someone that Paul had told the Thessalonians about and someone who was contemporary with them. Although we may not know for sure it is clear that the Thessalonians did know for sure who “the man of sin” was. Of course, this rules out anyone living today, for no Thessalonians would know someone living more than 1,900 years after them. But Paul had not only told them the identity of “the man of sin.” He had also told them something else:
And now ye know what withholdeth that he might be revealed in his time. For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way. And then shall that Wicked be revealed, whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of his coming: Even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, And with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved.
(2 Thessalonians 2:6-10)
Paul speaks of someone who “withholdeth” and who “letteth.” The words “withholdeth,” “letteth” and “let” are all a translation of the same Greek word (katecho), which means “to restrain.” Thus, the apostle had also told the Thessalonians that there was someone or something that was restraining “the man of sin” from breaking forth in utter wickedness. The restrainer seems to be both a thing (“what withholdeth”) and a person (“he who now letteth”). This restraining person/force, I believe, is quite simple to identify.
There is one entity, led by a person, who is seen throughout the Book of Acts restraining the Jews from fully persecuting the church of Jesus Christ. This entity was nothing other than the Roman government under the leadership of the Claudius Caesar (contemporary with the writing of 2 Thessalonians). Consider the evidence from the Book of Acts.
The events in the early chapters of Acts took place before the reign of Claudius. Thus, the persecution of the Christians by the Jews in sections likeActs 4:1-21; 5:17-26; 7:54-60; 8:1-3; 9:1-2; etc. probably took place during the reign of Caligula Caesar, predecessor to Claudius. Though Caligula did not actively persecute the Christians he did not particularly care that the Jews were doing so. But when Claudius Caesar came to the throne he restrained the Jews from persecuting the church. Examples of this are plenteous.
InActs 18:1-2we find that Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. Historians tell us that he did this because he was weary of the problems caused by the Jews persecuting the Christians. Sadly, he did not realise that many Christians were Jewish and thus he also expelled the Christian Jews fromRome. Regardless, we see clearly that he was concerned with restraining the Jewish persecution against the church. InActs 18:12-17the Jews brought Paul to Gallio, a Roman official, seeking to obtain permission to have the apostle killed. But Gallio, still under the rule of Claudius, refused to do so. InActs 21:27-40the Jews were so angered by Paul’s teaching that they sought to kill him on the spot. But Roman soldiers intervened to stop them. InActs 22, Paul (under Roman guard) gives a defence to the Jewish mob but they insist that he is not worthy to live (22:22). But, despite their every protestation, the Romans save Paul’s life (22:23-30). Paul is then taken by the Romans inActs 23to the Sanhedrin to give an answer to the charges. The religious leaders are so upset that they decide to have Paul murdered at night (whilst under Roman guard). But Paul’s nephew hears the plot and warns the Romans who sneak the apostle away under cover of night, thus saving his life. InActs 24Paul is protected by Felix, a Roman official. InActs 25he is protected by Festus, a Roman official. InActs 26he is protected by Agrippa, a Roman official. Even when he was first taken toRomehistory suggests that he was released but was later arrested for a second time under the reign of Nero, at which time he was eventually executed.
The evidence is clear. The Roman government, under the leadership of Claudius Caesar, restrained the evil that the Jews sought to exercise against the church. As long as Claudius was alive there was a great degree of peace toward Christianity. Roman law protected the church from the persecution of the Jews and it was still protecting the church when Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians. But within months of Nero being proclaimed Caesar the restrain was removed. Not only did he allow the Jews to persecute Christians but he did so himself. It was during Nero’s reign that the Jewish War broke out and during Nero’s reign that Phannias was appointed high priest inJerusalem. It was during Nero’s reign that there was wholesale apostasy inJerusalem, which eventually led to the city’s destruction.
“For the mystery of iniquity doth already work,” writes Paul. That is, Phannias was alive as Paul wrote but he would only be “revealed” once the restraining force of Claudius’ law was “taken out of the way.” Phannias worked under the power of “Satan” and had the ability deceive unrighteously. But the Lord, in His judgement onJerusalem, “consum[ed] him with the spirit of his mouth” and “destroy[ed] him with the brightness of his coming.” Again, this is Old Testament language to describe the judgement of God (cf.Hosea 6:5;Isaiah 11:4; 30:27-33). When the temple was destroyed, the priesthood came to an end, and God’s church was vindicated.
The deception caused by “the man of sin” is further expounded in the Olivet Discourse:
Then if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there; believe it not. For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect. Behold, I have told you before. Wherefore if they shall say unto you, Behold, he is in the desert; go not forth: behold, he is in the secret chambers; believe it not. For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. For wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together.
In essence, the deception was that God was still on Israel’s side. The Romans would not overcome the city: God would send Messiah to destroy the Roman army “just in the nick of time.” Josephus records manifold “prophecies” of this sort, which effectively deceived the people so that they were still in the city when the Romans finally broke through. Some 1.1 million Jews, who had “received not the love of the truth” perished. God sent them “strong delusion” and they “belive[d] a lie” so that they were “damned” because they had “taken pleasure in unrighteousness.” I can think of no better event in human history that fits the description in these verses than the destruction ofJerusalemin 70 A.D.
My conclusion, then, is that “the man of sin” was the high priest during the Jewish War: Phannias. I am open to correction but he fits the bill better than any historical figure that I know of. What I am not open to, however, is the possibility that it might be someone alive today. One thing is certain: the events described in 2 Thessalonians 2 found their fulfilment in the first century, prior to the destruction of Jerusalem. Though we may not be absolutely certain who “the man of sin” was, the Thessalonians were absolutely sure.
The Practical Application of the Epistle
Some will then ask, “If these events were already fulfilled in our past, what relevance do they have for us today?” Allow me to point out several important principles that we should glean from this passage of Scripture.
First, whoever this “man of sin” was, he was nothing in comparison to Jesus Christ! It is rather significant that we don’t know for sure who he was for that shows that he was ultimately irrelevant in world history. Paul urged his readers to not be shaken and the only way for them not to be shaken was for them to focus on Christ. In similar manner, we ought not to be shaken by the doomsdayers of the 21st century. There are those today—both in politics and in pulpits—who would have us believe that all is doomed to fail. Our Lord Jesus Christ can protect His church today just as surely as He protected His church in the 1st century. The “man of sin” may have heralded the perceived end for many but his destruction was actually only the beginning. And though many would have us believe that “the end is nigh” it may very well be that wonderful things are actually only beginning!
Second, we should believe that Jesus Christ is, indeed, Prophet, Priest and King. Therefore, we ought to believe His Word. Dear reader, do you need to be saved? Then repent and believe the gospel today! Believer, do you need encouragement? Know that Jesus Christ will be victorious! He will build His church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. Engage the world with the gospel of Christ and expect victory for the glory of God.
Third, whatever challenges you may face in this world, stay focused on Christ and persevere. He has left us in this world with a task to fulfil: to make disciples in all nations. Let us keep our head and be about the work that He has given to us to do.
Let us not pessimistically look for the day of Christ to come. It has already happened. The man of sin has been both revealed and destroyed. Instead, let us look for a better day. Let us look for the day when—through death or by the second coming—we will ever be in the presence of our Lord!