By Peter Amsterdam
May 9, 2023
After writing 2 Thessalonians chapter 1, which provided an introduction to his second letter to the church in Thessalonica, Paul moved on to the body of his letter in chapter 2.
Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.1
Paul begins by instructing the Thessalonians to not become unsettled or alarmed by a false teaching that had entered the community. He was responding to how the wrong understanding of the day of the Lord had affected the believers’ comprehension of the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ and the gathering of the church to Him. Paul appears to indicate that the false teaching may have entered the church by means of a false letter forged under his name, a letter seeming to be from us. He had already given instruction about the day of the Lord,2 but still questions continued, and some Thessalonians believed the incorrect teaching which affirmed that this day had already come.
Paul had already addressed the coming of the Lord and what it would entail in 1 Thessalonians 4:16–17:
For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.
The flawed teaching that the Thessalonians had received had caused confusion and distress among the believers. The instruction to not be quickly shaken meant that they shouldn’t waver in their beliefs; they shouldn’t be confused or alarmed, no matter what the source.
While Paul didn’t know specifically where the false teaching had come from, he called the Thessalonian believers to not disregard what he had taught them earlier. He seems to suspect that even with all the teaching he had given about carefully examining prophecies, it was still possible that false prophecies could have entered the church. In other New Testament writings, there are mentions of preachers who went among the churches and promoted heterodox teachings.
Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.3
Avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some.4
The Thessalonians had received teachings from Paul about the day of the Lord, and therefore had some understanding concerning it and hope in its coming.
For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.5
You are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief.6
Even though Paul had written them regarding their inquiries, still the questions continued, and some of the Thessalonians believed the false teaching that the day had already come or was imminent.
Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction.7
Due to his concern over the erroneous doctrine about the day of the Lord which had entered the church, Paul presented a clarification of the events that had to occur before the day of the Lord. In doing so, Paul pointed out that these events had not yet occurred, and therefore they were not on the verge of that day.
The other event which will happen before the day of the Lord is that the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction. Jesus also spoke of the coming of false prophets and lawlessness.
Many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.8
Jesus and Paul both indicated that Christians could expect that some believers would desert their faith before the end. In the face of the severe persecution that the church experienced in the first century and the temptation to return to their former lives, many believers abandoned their faith. This leaving the faith became an example for what was to be expected in the last times. Paul and his companions hoped that the Thessalonian church would not take part in such an abandonment.
[The man of lawlessness] opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.9
Paul goes on to give further information regarding the “man of lawlessness,” focusing on his unchecked pride. He will oppose every other deity, including those which are worshipped throughout the ancient cities as well as the God of the Christians. He will set himself up against anyone or anything that receives worship. He will raise himself up in self-exaltation over God. This man of lawlessness will oppose everything which is called divine—false gods as well as the true God. While this refers to the antichrist when projected to the endtime, it could also refer to someone living at the time Paul wrote this letter.
Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things?10
Paul was not giving the Thessalonians new information in his letter. While he was with them in Thessalonica, he had given them instructions about these matters. He reminded them of what he had said earlier. He implied that the believers had been taught enough to enable them to assess and reject the false teachings which had brought turmoil into the church. They needed to remember and apply what they had been taught by Paul and his team.11 Instead of using the first-person plural, which would refer to Paul and his partners, here he uses the first-person singular, which reminds the reader that he was the principal teacher. His use of the first person is also seen when Paul writes about the activity of Satan against his ministry12 and against the church.13
And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way.14
In the preceding verse, Paul mentioned that he had told the Thessalonians “these things.” Unfortunately, he did not explain some aspects of what he shared with the Thessalonian believers. So verse 6 is rather unclear to us today. What Paul is referring to when he writes of what is restraining him now and he who now restrains is not known, and various theories exist as to its meaning.
The Thessalonian Christians understood that there was something holding back the “man of lawlessness.” In verse 6, Paul noted that the Thessalonians knew of the existence of a power that restrained the man of lawlessness. Now he observes that this power, which is described as the mystery of lawlessness, is not simply a future threat but a present reality. The verb at work is also found earlier in 1 Thessalonians 2:13 and implies some kind of supernatural activity. Paul doesn’t suggest that this secret power is divine, but only that it is supernatural, and in this context is malignant and satanic (which will be seen in verse 9). Paul calls this power the mystery of lawlessness. This power aligns itself with the lawless one. Normally Paul uses the term translated as “secret power” to refer to the “mystery of God” that is now revealed in the gospel,15 but in this verse the “mystery” refers to an evil, satanic power.
Before the revelation of “the lawless one” (v.8), one more event must take place: Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way.16 Here, the one who restrains is presented as a person, with the reference being to the one demonically possessed. This figure anticipates the revelation of the “the lawless one.” All this signaled to the Thessalonians that the end was not immediately upon them.
And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming.17
After the one who restrains moves away from the scene, the lawless one comes to the fore. Earlier, this person was referred to as the man of lawlessness, the son of destruction.18 The text indicates that the veil will be removed so that he will be revealed to all. Paul informs the Thessalonians of the destruction of the lawless one, whom Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth. In spite of the lawless one’s appearance and his supernatural power, the epiphany of the Lord will be so mighty that it will destroy this evil one and his power.
(To be continued.)
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 2 Thessalonians 2:1–2.
2 1 Thessalonians 5:1–11.
3 2 John 1:7.
4 2 Timothy 2:16–18.
5 1 Thessalonians 5:2.
6 1 Thessalonians 5:4.
7 2 Thessalonians 2:3.
8 Matthew 24:11–13.
9 2 Thessalonians 2:4.
10 2 Thessalonians 2:5.
11 1 Thessalonians 2:9; 3:4; 4:1; 5:1–2.
12 1 Thessalonians 2:18.
13 1 Thessalonians 3:5.
14 2 Thessalonians 2:6–7.
15 1 Corinthians 4:1; Ephesians 1:9.
16 2 Thessalonians 2:7.
17 2 Thessalonians 2:8.
18 2 Thessalonians 2:3.