[From The Banner of Truth, December 1977, pp26-32]
Rowland S. Ward
Recent years have seen a considerable resurgence of support for the eschatological views of our Reformed and Puritan fathers. However, it is probably true to say that ‘the man of sin’ passage in 2 Thessalonians remains a difficulty with many. This article aims to give an historical introduction to the interpretation of the passage together with a suggested approach to its exposition.
In the early centuries of the Christian church it was generally held that the working of antichrist was to be seen in heresy [1 John 2.18-22] but that antichrist proper was equivalent to the man of sin and was an individual – possibly a Jew – destined to overthrow the Roman Empire and establish a wicked and tyrannical rule which would be quickly overthrown by the return of Christ. Some regarded ‘the restrainer’ as the Holy Spirit but it was more usually taken as the ordered rule of Roman law. Some [Irenaeus] held that ‘the temple of God’ in 2 Thess 2.4 was a restored Jewish temple which would become the centre of antichrist’s activity, but others said ‘not in Jerusalem alone but in every church’ [John Chrysostom].
In the Middle Ages some adjustment was made to earlier ideas in line with the changed circumstances in church and state, but antichrist was still generally held to come from outside the church. The first to [indirectly] suggest a papal identification was Pope Gregory [590-604] who, in writing against the Eastern patriarch, called the title of Universal Priest ‘the name of blasphemy’. In the 7th century the Eastern church saw ‘the lawless one’ in the rise and spread of Islam and the falling away of much of Eastern Christendom. In the later Middle Ages the extension of papal power saw various revolts and protests against the Roman see, and the idea of an apostasy within the church gained ground. The German emperors of the Hohenstaufen dynasty, as well as such pre-reformation men as Huss and Wickliff, made this papal identification.
The Reformation brought the recovery of the authority of Scripture and led to the more or less universal adoption among Protestants of the view that the man of sin was not a single individual but an institution or organized power which had its rise in the church after the initial restraint on the bishop of Rome by the Emperor declined. The antichrists of 1 John were regarded as forerunners of the papacy because activated by the same spirit, but the clear conviction of the Protestants of the 16th and 17th centuries was that the predicted antichrist or man of sin was most fully and clearly expressed in the Papal system as represented in the Pope. They believed the Reformation to be a decisive blow against the man of sin and, whilst his final overthrow would await the coming of Christ, God would yet do more to scatter the darkness of antichrist by the triumphs of the gospel of his grace.
Writing in 1556 in his Commentary on 1 John 2:18, John Calvin observed: ‘. . .Under the Papacy there is nothing more well known and common than the future coming of antichrist; . . . The Papists have imagined an antichrist who is to harass the church for three and a half years. All the marks by which the Spirit of God has pointed out antichrist appear clearly in the Pope; but their triennial antichrist has such a hold on the foolish Papists that seeing they do not see.’ This futurist view rejected by the Reformers was elaborated and advocated by the Jesuit theologian Bellarmine [1542-1621] as a counter to the damaging force of the Reformers’ teaching. Another Jesuit, Alcasar [1554-1613] , promoted the view that the prophecies were to be applied exclusively to the early period of persecution under the Roman Empire.
Until the 19th century century most Protestants held to the Reformation teaching, but since then considerable divergence of opinion has occurred. No less an exegete than B. B. Warfield held that the man of sin passage was fulfilled in the early persecutions, while William Hendriksen is a strong advocate of a future personal antichrist.
INTERPRETATION OF 2 THESSALONIANS 2
Paul’s concern in this passage is to warn the brethren of the dangers involved in the situation following the diffusion of the gospel by the first Christians. In the first letter he assumed they understood his oral teaching which included particulars of events even then developing which would affect the church before the return of Christ. He therefore summed up the question of the times and seasons in a few words which they knew perfectly well already: the coming of Christ will be sudden and un-announced like a thief in the night [1 Thess 5.2].
However, through ignorance and imperfect recollection, as well as deliberate deception by some [2 Thess 2.2], Paul’s written teaching was set against his oral teaching, and the view gained currency that no apostasy was to ensue before the return of Christ. Some were saying that the day of the Lord was come, that is, that it was upon them, as if the church was not to experience apostasy first. Hence confusion and doubt which not only brought the apostolic authority into question but which could lead to the damnation of members of the church through their failure to be vigilant in regard to an apostasy whose nature was such as to affect them personally. Hence the second letter in which an outline of the previously given oral teaching is recorded.
1. Some preliminary considerations.
a. If Paul is writing about certain events which are to occur in a short period just prior to the return of Christ, it does not seem possible to reconcile 2 Thess 2 with 1 Thess 5, although 2 Thess 2 was written to clear up just such an apparent discrepancy! How could Paul sum up the matter of times and seasons by stating that the Lord comes like a thief if, in fact, there are preceding and clear signs to believers by which we may know more or less in which watch our Lord comes?
b. The previous paragraph is reinforced by the reason given by Paul for the fact that the day of the Lord will not overtake believers as a thief [1 Thess 5.4], namely, that they are sons of light, alert and sober, and not that they are aware of special signs indicating Christ’s coming. The man who does not suffer irreparable loss at the coming of the Lord is the man with a spiritual qualification not an intellectual one! That is to say, the humble saint who serves his Saviour will not suffer loss, whereas the man who specializes in charts and calculations is not safe unless he too is found faithfully serving the Master. Watching is necessary because the time of Christ’s return is not known, but it consists in discharging the responsibilities laid upon us as Christ’s servants, not in gazing out the window or poring over prophetical speculations.
c. One cannot avoid the feeling that the futuristic interpretation breaks the connection of the passage with the Thessalonian Christians. Yet, clearly Paul regarded the revelation in the passage as of such a nature as to be relevant to the Thessalonians themselves. They needed to be clear on it because of the danger of damnation.
d. Those who say that the man of sin belongs to the period at the very end of time point especially to verse 8. They argue that there is a close connection in time between the appearance of the man of sin and Christ’s return. Therefore he or it has not yet appeared and in any event is basically an individual antagonist of Christ rather than a movement of heresy in history. That there is a connection between the man of sin and Christ’s coming is clear; that it is a close connection in time is not so clear, of which more shortly.
2. The man of sin
Paul writes that ‘the mystery of lawlessness’ is already at work but is restrained, verse 7. The removal of the restrainer will reveal ‘the man of sin’ or, if you prefer, ‘the man of lawlessness’ [There is no essential difference in the readings since sin is lawlessness, 1 John 3.4]. In other words, when Paul wrote about 51 AD the true character of the lawless one was not yet properly expressed. It was hidden, a mystery. When it is revealed it comes into focus, as it were, and our eyes see ‘the man of lawlessness’. The description is intensely personal and some have there-fore concluded that a particular individual is referred to. But I think this is a mistake.
The doctrine of the last things should not be thought of as a mere appendage to our faith but as closely integrated with the redeeming work of Christ and to our present living as believers. The consummation will bring about the public unveiling of what Christ has achieved for his people, and therefore there can be no greater danger to professing Christians than to have the exclusive mediatorship of Christ obscured, blurred or even absent from their faith. If they fall from grace Christ will not profit them. They will be condemned as lawless, not justified as righteous.
This scene of time is the stage on which is fought out the conflict between Christ and Satan [cf. Rev 12.13]. The description of the man of sin emphasizes that there is to arise a deceitful enemy opposed to Christ, an enemy, represented in individual people, but basically soul-destroying heresy propagated under the guise of friendship to Christ. The personal nature of the description serves to emphasize the real source of the deception in the arch-enemy himself who oversows the good seed with tares. We wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers.
The lawless one is described as ‘Opposing and exalting himself above everything that is called God or is worshipped, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God displaying himself as being God’. This language reflects Daniel 11.36ff and is in the prophetic style which describes things according to their reality. It is quite wrong to conclude that the lawless one is literally an atheist who deifies himself, but take it spiritually and it is the sober truth. Heresy that is damning is the result of believing the liar and following the one who claims the allegiance due to God and who hates Christ with a malicious hatred.
Notice that the man of sin is not said to engage in battle by military might or political power. These means are not necessarily excluded from his operations but his primary task is spiritual deception so that those who believe him are damned. A Hitler or a Mao is not a danger to Christians in the same way as one who uses Christ’s name as if a friend but takes away what properly belongs to him. Like Judas Iscariot this arch-deceiver is called ‘the son of destruction’, a Semitic expression derived from Ps 41.9 or Ps 109.4-13; cf. John 17.12. It conveys the idea of the ultimate destiny of a professed friend who is really an enemy.
3. The apostasy
The man of lawlessness is able to carry out his work because of a falling away or apostasy, verse 3. His activities result in the deception of those who did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved, verse 10. Clearly this apostasy is of a religious character concerning the Jews, Christians or both. The apostasy provides the Opportunity for the open Operations of the man of sin. There seems no reason to think of the lawless one as anything other than the apostasy from Christ viewed as organized.
The apostasy is represented as taking possession of the church and holding well-nigh universal sway. This development corresponds to the decline in belief of saving truth and so is all the more deceptive. True servants of Christ must stand firm and hold to the apostolic tradition [2 Thess 2.15].
Paul warned the Ephesian elders against the grievous wolves which he knew would come among the flock. He knew that apostasy would be led by some of the elders of the church [Acts 20.29-30]. False apostles were a trial [2 Cor 11.13-15] while 1 Timothy 4.1ff notes that the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away [lit. apostatize] from the faith by making holiness a matter of external observance. Paul describes this as the teaching of deceiving spirits and demons because it means that the faith of Christ is abandoned however much his person is recognized. The Apostle Peter bears a similar testimony. In 2 Peter 2.1 he records that just as it was a characteristic of a former time for false prophets to arise, so it will be a characteristic of the Christian dispensation that false teachers will arise in the church, stealthily introducing soul-destroying heresies – even denying the Master who bought them. Many will follow these sensual teachers, he says.
In this light the significance of Peter’s earlier words is obvious. He had written that he would be diligent to ensure that after his death the truth he had taught would be preserved for their guidance [2 Peter 1.15 and perhaps Mark’s Gospel]. He contrasts his personal recollection of Jesus with the more sure prophetic word [2.19], and places Paul’s letters in the same category as the Old Testament Scriptures [3.16].
4. The restraint
The restrainer is referred to both as a something [v. 6] and a someone [v. 7], that is, a principle or power involving personal agency. The common view [going back to Tertullian c 200 AD] is that the principle of well ordered human rule is meant, as in the Roman Empire. If lawless-ness is restrained, how else than by law? However, this view has real force only if we regard the man of lawlessness as a revolutionary, anarch-istic movement of a political kind. I have already suggested that his character is more in the spiritual and religious realm. The man of law-lessness might be very insistent upon law although a subverter of God’s law. What then is the restraint?
I am impressed with a minority view which goes back through John Calvin to Theodore of Mopsuestia [c 350-428], and which holds that the gospel proclamation is the restraining agency. This would fit the context well. During the period up to the siege of Jerusalem in 66 AD Christ prevented the activity of Satan from utterly obscuring the truth but caused it to be proclaimed by the apostles to the whole world [cf Matt 24.14]. But within a few years Jerusalem was destroyed, the temple razed, ‘and the world’s obstinacy rose up against God’ [Calvin on Matt 24.34]. Apostasy in the church became evident. The tares in God’s field [Matt 13.38 – ‘the world’] were everywhere prevalent. At this point everything which was to be a factor in the time before the return of Christ was in operation. No events of some basically different kind were to arise. Christ and the glorious manifestation of the kingdom was not far from the doors but at them [cf Matt 24.33, Luke 21.31], i.e. Christ’s coming was the next event in the redemptive programme.
5. The destruction of the man of sin
How and when is the destruction of the apostasy to be accomplished? Certain it is that the ultimate elimination of Satan’s power awaits the coming of Christ, verse 8. Now, as I have rejected the conception of the man of sin as an individual it seems most probable that the slaughter with the breath of Christ’s mouth’ is a dispossessing of Satan’s power over men enmeshed in false Christianity by the renewed proclamation of the gospel. The original context of the words in Isaiah 11.4 favours this understanding of Christ ruling in the midst of his enemies. If this inter-pretation is not accepted then it could be said that the passage gives no information on the overthrow of the lawless one except that judgement and utter destruction come at the consummation.
But it does not follow that there is a close connection in time between the appearance of the man of sin and Christ’s coming, since it cannot be proved that the connection of the words serves more than an ethical purpose in keeping the reader in mind of the ultimate fate of the lawless one, just as Peter refers to the swift destruction which will come upon the false teachers without thinking in temporal terms [2 Peter 2.1ff].
The conclusion of our study of the man of sin passage is that apostasy in the church was predicted by Paul as by the other apostles. There is also no doubt that this apostasy has had its most subtle and powerful organization in the Western church dominated by the see of Rome. We may not say that the man of sin is exhausted in the papacy for he is found wherever the professed people of God do not receive the word of truth in truth, but nor may we scoff at a papal identification. The horror which the Reformers experienced at the profanation of the church of Christ is too often missed today because the glory of our blessed God and Saviour is dim to our eyes. The manifestation of evil in the guise of good is a danger to which the church is constantly subject and therefore she must constantly be on guard, always measuring her life and testimony by the Scriptures.
Although we find the language in the man of sin passage a little strange yet I cannot help observing that the form of expression used is very significant and full of meaning hard to convey in any other way. In standing for the truth and exercising constant watchfulness in a dangerous environment we are not only delivered from the many speculations on unfilled prophecy, but are assured that in our everyday life and testimony we are engaged in the overthrow of those principalities and powers which lead men captive, and which will be destroyed completely at the coming of Christ.
Finally, if there is a formal distinction between the ‘many antichrists’ of 1 John and Paul’s ‘man of sin’, it is that the former has reference more to those heretical movements which split off from the church, while the latter is the development of the same spirit of error within the pro-fessing church. On the Johannine passages B. B. Warfield has a very interesting article in Selected Shorter Writings, Vol I, 1970, p 356ff.