The descriptions of “the man of lawlessness” in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 readily fit into the genre of apocalyptic literature, which “needs to be recognized, along with the degree to which their literary medium has shaped the message they give” (J. D. G. Dunn, Theology of Paul 304-305).
The Man of Lawlessness Described
“The [one] opposing and exalting himself above every so-called god1 or object of worship, so as to sit down in the temple of God, setting forth himself that he is God” (2 Thess. 2:4).2 At the time of writing, “the man of lawlessness” was already at work. The word for “temple” here is ναός, which is not the whole temple but the innermost sanctuary, representing the presence of God (cf. Rev. 7:15; 11:1, 19; 15:8; 16:17; 21:22). False religion, in drawing people away from God and his church, essentially takes the place of God.
“Do you not remember that, still being with you, I said these things to you?” (2 Thess. 2:5). In the next verse and in 3:7 there are reminders of what these Christians already know, as noted multiple times in the previous correspondence (1 Thess. 1:5; 2:1, 2, 5, 11; 3:3, 4; 4:2; 5:2). Here, however, the rhetorical “do you not remember” is comparable to “do you not know,” serving as a mild rebuke. During the inaugural evangelistic campaign, the missionaries had done extensive teaching (1:10; 1 Thess. 1:5–2:13; 3:4; 4:2, 11), particularly Paul (cf. Acts 17:2-3). The imperfect active indicative form of the verb ἔλεγον (“I said”) indicates that he had repeatedly spoken of these things (cp. Acts 20:27-31).
“And now the [thing] restraining [τὸ κατέχον – neuter], you know, for him to be revealed in his time, for the mystery of the lawlessness is already working; the one restraining [μόνον ὁ κατέχων – masculine] now, until he might be [taken] out of [the] midst [‘out of the way,’ cf. Col. 2:14]” (2 Thess. 2:6-7). The ESV offers a smoother translation: “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.” The adverb “now” [νῦν] indicates something current, of which the Thessalonians are presently aware. The verb κατέχω [to “restrain”] means to (a) hold back or detain; (b) hinder or restrain; (c) hold fast or keep secure; (d) possess or take possession of.
Contextually, “the [thing] restraining” may simply be “the love of the truth” (vv. 10, 12) that keeps false religion at bay, and “the one restraining” characterizes the one who loves the truth (vv. 13-15; cf. 2 Tim. 3:17; also Matt. 12:35a; 1 Cor. 2:15), refusing to yield to the enticement of false religion. The word “mystery” [μυστήριον] is descriptive of the subtle and deceptive nature of false religion (cf. v. 10a; Eph. 4:14; 5:6; Col. 2:8; 1 John 2:26), while the phrase “of the lawlessness” reveals its actual nature, i.e., contrary to the law of God (cf. Matt. 7:21-23; 13:41; 23:28; 24:11-12; Rom. 2:12, 20-23; 7:22–8:8).
The fact that this “is already working” indicates something happening at the time of writing (cf. Acts 20:27-31; Rom. 16:17-18; Jude 4; 1 John 2:26; 4:1, 3). After issuing a similar warning to the Ephesian elders, Paul commits them “to God and to the word of his grace” (Acts 20:29-32). What the Thessalonians “know,” having repeatedly been reminded, is that they have eagerly embraced the truth of God’s word (vv. 13-14; cf. 1 Thess. 1:5–2:13), “which also is working in you, the believing [ones]” (1 Thess. 2:13) as the restraining force against religious deception and corruption.
The Man of Lawlessness Destroyed
“And then the lawless [one] will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will destroy with the breath of his mouth, and will abolish by the appearing of his coming” (2 Thess. 2:8). The “lawless [one]” is clearly “the man of lawlessness” (v. 4), responsible for “the lawlessness” (v. 7). While many commentators maintain that the lawless figure will be revealed prior to the Lord’s return, this is an assumption not explicitly stated in the text. The restraining continues “until” [ἕως] the Lord’s return (vv. 6-7). Contextually the circumstances involve “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ …. the day of the Lord” (2:1-2), at which time “the man of lawlessness is revealed” (2:3), viz. “in the revelation of the Lord Jesus” (1:7). In other words, all will be exposed as Christ returns, and those drawn into the deception of false religion will finally see the error to which they have allowed themselves to be blinded; see esp. 1 Thess. 2:14-16. From the revealing of “the lawless one,” the text immediately speaks of his destruction.
False religion (personified) is doomed, “whom the Lord Jesus will destroy … and will abolish …” The principal character of the second coming is “the Lord Jesus” who executes the judgment (cf. 1:7; 1 Thess. 1:10; 4:16). The verb ἀναιρέω means to “take away, do away with, destroy” (BAGD 54-55), and the verb καταργέω means to “abolish, wipe out, set aside …. bring to an end” (BAGD 417). This will be accomplished “with the breath of his mouth [cp. Isa. 11:4] … by the appearing of his coming.” The apocalyptic imagery here reiterates 1:7b-8, “… in the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with angels of his power, in a fire of flame inflicting vengeance on the [ones] not knowing God and the [ones] not obeying the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” False religion will be annihilated, and those entangled in it will face the Lord in judgment.
Lest we get distracted by the fantastic descriptions of this extraordinary event, remember the original intent of the writing. G. Fee observes, “Everything about the passage suggests that Paul is here offering a word of encouragement to these persecuted believers, since the emphasis is now altogether on God’s ultimate, righteous judgment of their persecutors” (Thessalonians 290).
The Satanic Influence Behind the Deception
The description continues: “of whom is coming according to [the] working of Satan in all power and signs and wonders of falsehood” (2 Thess. 2:9). The present tense, “is coming,” reaffirms that “the mystery of the lawlessness is already working” at the time of writing (v. 7) and is spawning “the apostasy” (v. 3). Readers are now informed that all this is “according to [the] working of Satan.” Satan has already been active, attempting to thwart this good work at Thessalonica and elsewhere (1 Thess. 2:18). He “masquerades himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14). He “has blinded the minds of the unbelieving [ones], lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, shines forth” (2 Cor. 4:4b). Unbelievers have allowed themselves to fall into “the snare of the devil, having been captured by him [to do] his will” (2 Tim. 2:26; cf. 1 Tim. 3:7; 6:9). Believers, on the other hand, who are open to and enlightened by the gospel, “are not ignorant of his schemes” (2 Cor. 2:11). Satan’s devious work is not limited to sorcery, black magic, satanic cults, and pagan idolatry. He is behind every form of false religion, including so-called “Christian” movements that deviate from the narrow path of truth (cf. Matt. 7:13-23; 2 Pet. 2:1-2, 18-22; etc.).
The “power and signs and wonders” are not genuine miracles, like those confirming divine teaching (cf. Mark 16:20; John 2:23; 3:2; Acts 14:3; Heb. 2:3-4). Rather, these are “of falsehood,” i.e. “false miracles, signs, and wonders” (CSB), cf. Matt. 24:11, 24; Acts 8:9-11; 13:6; 19:13-16, 19; Rev. 13:13. Myths, legends, superstitions, amulets, relics, shrines, mysteries of the occult, and numerous elaborate claims have been propagated by false religion throughout history.
We read further, “and in every deceit of unrighteousness [to] the ones perishing, which instead they did not accept the love of the truth for them to be saved” (2 Thess. 2:10). The “every deceit” is the result of the aforementioned “falsehood” (v. 9; cf. v. 3). Linking this passage to the earlier discussion in 1:5-9 is another word with the δικ- root, viz. ἀδικία (“unrighteousness”). The judgment of God is “just” or “righteous” [δίκαιος] (1:5, 6) in taking “vengeance” [ἐκδίκησις] (1:8) and meting out the “penalty” [δίκη] (1:9) because of “unrighteousness” [ἀδικία] (2:10). Those deceived by unrighteousness are “the ones perishing,” the same who consider the message of the cross foolish, in contrast to the ones being saved who regard the same message as the power of God (1 Cor. 1:18; cf. 2 Cor. 2:15; Rom. 1:16).3
The reason for judgment is that “they did not accept [‘receive,’ ‘welcome’] the love of the truth …” This is in stark contrast to the Thessalonian Christians, “having received the word …” (1 Thess. 1:6); “you accepted … [the] word of God …” (1 Thess. 2:13). Refusing to welcome and love the truth is a rejection of what God requires “for them to be saved,” i.e., saved from divine wrath and everlasting destruction (1:6-9; cf. 1 Thess. 1:10; 2:16).
--Kevin L. Moore
1 Should θεός here be rendered “god” (CSB, ESV, ISV, NASB, NET, NLT, N/RSV) or “God” (ASV, N/KJV, NIV)?
2 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.
3 In 2 Cor. 4:3, we read: “But even if our gospel [preached by Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, 1:19; cf. 1 Thess. 1:5; 2 Thess. 2:14] is veiled [‘covered,’ ‘concealed’], it is veiled in those [who are] perishing.” Not everyone understands, appreciates, or amenably responds to the preaching of the gospel, viz. “those perishing,” whose prejudices and predispositions render them incapable of receptivity, unwilling to understand and obey, leading to their spiritual demise (cf. 2 Cor. 3:14-15; 1 Cor. 1:18, 23; 2:14; also Rom. 8:5-8).