Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Man of Lawlessness

by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Th.D., Director, NiceneCouncil.com

Len, a reader of my last blog ("The Problem of Antichrist") noted: "One area that wasn't mentioned in your article (unless I missed it) was 2 Thessalonians 2 where Paul talks about the "falling away" and the "lawless one." This seems to be one of the first places that dispensationalists go to support their argument for the anti-Christ and all that goes with his rise to power."

Introductory Comments

He is correct. Dispensationalists have a handful of favorite passages to color in their gloom-and-doom with appropriately dark hues. And this is one of them. Unfortunately for them, scholars note this passage's exceptional difficulty. Augustine writes regarding a certain portion of the passage: "I confess that I am entirely ignorant of what he means to say." Renowned Greek linguist and Baptist scholar A. T. Robertson despairs of the task of interpreting this passage because it is "in such vague form that we can hardly clear it up." Not only so, but once again the term "antichrist" does not occur in this important (for dispensationalism) antichrist passage.

As is too often the case, an exceedingly difficult prophecy becomes a key text for dispensationalism. Note the following comments by dispensationalists.

• Constable observes that "this section of verses contain truths found nowhere else in the Bible. It is key to understanding future events and it is central to this epistle."
• According to Walvoord, the man of lawlessness revealed here is "the key to the whole program of the Day of the Lord."
• Of 2 Thessalonians 2 Chafer notes: "though but one passage is found bearing upon the restraining work of the Holy Spirit, the scope of the issues involved is such as to command the utmost consideration."
• Ryrie and Feinberg employ 2 Thessalonians 2:4 as one of the few passages used "to clinch the argument" for the rebuilding of the temple.

And once we read the passage carefully, we see that it is not referring to the distantly future second coming, but the soon-coming AD 70 event. Consider the following.

Expository Observations

Verses 1–2. Paul's reference "concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him" (2Th 2:1) refers to the AD 70 judgment on the Jews — the very judgment Christ emphasizes in the first portion of his Olivet Discourse (which strongly influences this passage), John focuses on in the Book of Revelation, and other writers consider in several other Scriptural passages.

Though Paul speaks of the second advent just a few verses before (1:10), he is not dealing with that issue here. In 2 Thess. 1:10 he even employs a different word for the coming of Christ (elthe) from what he uses in 2:1 (parousia). In chapter 1 the second advent brings "everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord" (1:9); here this coming results in temporal "destruction" (2:8). There the second advent includes "his mighty angels" (1:7); here the temporal judgment mentions nothing about these angels (2:1–12). Thus, the second advent provides an eternal resolution to their suffering; the AD 70 Day of the Lord affords temporal resolution (cf. Rev 6:10).

Furthermore, the "gathering together to Him" Paul mentions in 2 Thessalonians 2:1 seems to reflect Matthew 24:31. The word translated "gather together" here is episunagoge . Its cognate verb form is found in Matthew 24:31, where Christ ties the gathering to "this generation" (Mt 24:34). It signifies the elect's calling into Christ by means of the trumpeting in of the archetypical Great Jubilee (cf. 2Th 1:11; 2:14). Here it functions the same way. With the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, Christians will henceforth be "gathered together" in a separate and distinct "assembly" (episunagoge ; the church is called a sunagoge in Jas 2:2). After the temple's destruction God will no longer tolerate going up to the temple to worship (it will be impossible!), as Christians frequently do prior to AD 70.

Verses 3–7. Paul informs them that "that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition" (2Th 2:3). The word "falling away" is apostasia, which occurs in the New Testament only here and in Acts 21:21.

Historically, the word can apply to a revolt: either political or religious. But to which does it refer here? I believe that it speaks of the Jewish apostasy/rebellion against Rome. Josephus certainly calls the Jewish War against Rome an apostasia (Josephus, Life 4, 9, 10; J.W. 2:2:7; 2:16:4; 7:4:2; 7:6:1). Probably Paul merges the religious and political concepts here, though emphasizing the outbreak of the Jewish War, which results from their apostasy against God (Mt 22:1–7; Lk 19:41–44; 1Th 2:14–16). The emphasis must be on the revolt against Rome because it is future and datable, whereas the revolt against God is ongoing and cumulative. Such would be necessary to dispel the deception on which Paul is focusing. In conjunction with this final apostasy and Jerusalem's consequent destruction, Christianity and Judaism are forever separated and both are exposed to Rome's wrath.

The man of lawlessness is Nero Caesar. Paul clearly implies that something is presently (ca. AD 52) "restraining" (present participle) the man of sin "that he may be revealed in his own time" (2Th 2:6). The man of lawlessness is alive and waiting to be "revealed." This implies that for the time being, Christians could expect at least some protection from the Roman government: the Roman laws regarding religio licita are currently in Christianity's favor, while it remains a sect of Judaism. This begins to end after the malevolent Nero ascends the throne, for he begins persecuting Christianity in AD 64. Paul certainly enjoys the protection of Roman law (Ac 18:12ff) and makes important use of it in AD 59 (Ac 25:11–12; 28:19), when he seeks protection from the malignancy of the Jews. He expresses no ill-feelings against Rome when writing Romans 13 in AD 57–59, during the early reign of Nero.

When Paul writes 2 Thess. 2, he is under the reign of Claudius Caesar. He seems to employ a word play on Claudius' name. The Latin word for "restraint" is claudere, which is similar to "Claudius." While Claudius lives, Nero, the man of lawlessness, is powerless to commit political lawlessness. Christianity is free from the imperial sword until the Neronic persecution begins.

The evil "mystery of lawlessness" is "already working," though restrained in Claudius' day (2Th 2:7). This perhaps refers to the evil conniving and plotting of Nero's mother, Agrippina, who poisons Claudius so that Nero can ascend to the purple (Tacitus, Annals 12:62ff; Suetonius, Claudius 44).
The Roman emperor, according to Paul, "exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped" (2Th 2:4a). The phrase "so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God" is interesting. When an infinitive (kathisai, "to sit") follows
hoste ("so that"), it indicates a purpose intended, not necessarily a purpose accomplished. Nero intends or desires to present himself as God. We see the evil potential of emperor worship just a few years before, when the emperor Caligula (a.k.a. Gaius) attempts to put his image in the temple in Jerusalem (Josephus, Ant. 18:8:2–3; Philo, Embassy to Gaius).

Not only so but in Nero the imperial line eventually openly "opposed" (2Th 2:4) Christ by persecuting his followers. Nero even begins persecuting Christians, when he presents himself in a chariot as the sun god Apollo, while burning Christians in order to illuminate his self-glorifying party.

Verses 8–9. Verses 8 and 9 read: "And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His coming. The coming of the lawless one is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders." The lawless one is eventually openly revealed. The mystery form of his character gives way to a revelation of his lawlessness in Nero's wicked acts. This occurs after the restrainer [Claudius] is "taken out of the way," allowing Nero the public stage upon which he can act out his horrendous lawlessness.

In Christ's judgment-coming against Jerusalem, we also discover judgment for the man of lawlessness, Nero. Thus, Christians may take comfort in the promised relief from both Jewish and Neronic opposition (2Th 2:15–17). Not only does Titus destroy Jerusalem within twenty years, but Nero himself dies a violent death in the midst of the Jewish War (June 9, AD 68). His death, then, will occur in the Day of the Lord in conjunction with Christ's judgment-coming against Israel. Christ destroys Nero with "the breath of his mouth," much like Assyria is destroyed with the coming and breath of the Lord in the Old Testament (Isa 30:27–31) and like Israel is crushed by Babylon (Mic 1:3–5).

Thus, 2 Thess. 2 provides no assistance to the dispensational view of Antichrist. For more information, see fuller exposition of this text in my He Shall Have Dominion, published by NiceneCouncil.com's susidiary, ApologeticsGroup Media.