The destruction of the lawless one
In this section of his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul is combatting claims that the end times have already begun to occur. In response to this false information, Paul gives an account of the present times, insisting that there are still certain events which must take place before the Lord Jesus Christ can return and usher in the end of the age. Paul’s imagery of the anticipated eschaton (verses 1, 8-10) draws on common Jewish and early-Christian apocalyptic themes such as the gathering together of the elect at the Son of Man’s parousia (see Mark 13:27 and Matthew 24:31) and the appearance of false prophets and deceptive signs (see Mark 13:5-7; Matthew 24:4-6; Luke 21:8-9). Paul’s warning to the Thessalonians not to be deceived warns against the ready acceptance of the false claim that the day of judgement is already at hand (verse 3), but we are given no details of the specific proponents of these views, just a range of possible sources – spirit-inspired prophecy, speeches by other people, and letters claiming to be from Paul himself. For many scholars, such as Abraham Malherbe (The Letters to the Thessalonians, p. 417), the misunderstanding has most likely come from a failure to correctly comprehend Paul’s teaching that Christians are already members of the eschatological kingdom despite the fact that the end times have not yet come (see 1 Thessalonians 5:5, 8).
Paul claims that “lawlessness” (ἀνομία) is currently at work (verse 7), with the term probably referring here to a range of immoral behaviours (as in 1 John 3:4; Romans 4:7, which quotes LXX Psalm 31:1-2; Romans 6:19). Quite why the “lawlessness” is a “mystery” (μυστήριον) is uncertain, but Victor Furnish (1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, p. 155) suggests it may be because Paul believed that at the time the agent of lawlessness was still undisclosed (verse 3) and under restraint (verse 6). The identity of both the lawless one and the restraining force are debated. In the case of the former, it seems that a human person is referred to (for the contrary view, see Ernest Best, A Commentary, p. 284, 288), as he is denounced for exalting himself to godly status. The lawless one’s fate is described in language reminiscent of LXX Isaiah 57:3-4, where the Israelites are described at the “sons of lawlessness” and “destined for destruction” (see Victor Furnish, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, p. 155). There are various prototypes in Jewish apocalyptic tradition for the lawless one who desecrates God’s temple and claims divine status. For instance, Antiochus IV Epiphanes’s actions against the Jerusalem temple led to the Maccabean revolt of 166-160 BCE (see Daniel 8:24-25; 9:26-27; 11:31-39). However, the Roman general Pompey was also renounced as “the lawless one” for sieging Jerusalem in 63 BCE and violating the holy of holies (see Psalms of Solomon 17:11-18), and Gaius Caligula desired to be viewed as a god, even wanting his statue erected in the Jerusalem temple (Josephus, Jewish Wars II.184-186, 192-197) (on Gaius Caligula, see also the discussion of Philippians 2:5-11). But it is not certain that the temple referred to in verse 4 definitely refers to the Jerusalem temple – it could equally be an analogy for the church (as in 1 Corinthians 3:16 and 2 Corinthians 6:16), or God’s heavenly temple (Psalm 10:4).
Interestingly one of the most time-honoured suggestions for the identity of the restraining figure, who holds back the lawless one until the day of judgement comes, is that it refers to the Roman emperor and Rome’s political institutions (see Richard, First and Second Thessalonians, p. 337-340). This is the view of both Tertullian, Apology 32.1-2 and John Chrysostom, Homilies on 2 Thessalonians 4.1, and understands Rome as having a vital role in God’s overall cosmic plan (see Metzger, II Thess 2.1-12, p. 92-131, 271-295). A similar sentiment is evident in Romans 13:1-7, where Paul instructs the Roman church that the authorities are only in power at God’s behest, and are utilised by God to punish the wicked and reward the good. God is therefore able to use Rome as his tool for bringing about his ultimate aims for humanity. For a survey of the various theories for the identity of the restraining figure, including that it is Paul himself as a restraining force against inappropriate Gentile activity (!), see Abraham Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, p. 432-433.
The man of lawlessness himself has also been identified with one Roman emperor or another, particularly Nero, either while he was alive or in supernatural form after his death (see Malherbe, The Letters to the Thessalonians, p. 420). Could it be that the Roman authorities, in one form or another, were understood by Paul to be both the eventual signal of the onset of the end times and the temporary reason for its delay? It remains unclear, but it seems more feasible for Rome to be identified with the restraining force in light of Paul’s writings elsewhere, which make clear that while vastly inferior to God and Christ (Philippians 2:5-11), Rome and its emperor can serve a divinely appointed function (Romans 13:1-7) until God is ready to put eschatological proceedings in motion (for this view, see also Bruce, “Paul and the Powers that be,” p. 108-109). “The coming of the lawless one is in the work of Satan,” and so is distinct from Satan, but connected to him. It could well be that an emperor, such as Caligula or Nero, known for their madness and associated with persecution, is what Paul has in mind. However, it is equally likely that the “lawless one” is just an archetype, comparable to the Antichrist of Revelation.
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