Wednesday, 12 July 2017

The Man of Lawlessness (Part 1 of 3): Identification

     The return of Christ, the great apostasy, the man of lawlessness, and the strong delusion are all spoken of in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12. What does it all mean? The late British scholar William Neil regarded this text as “one of the most difficult passages in all the epistles …”1 Dr. Todd D. Still comments, “This passage is perhaps the most perplexing (and peculiar) in the Pauline letter corpus, laden as it is with interpretive conundrums.”2

Preliminary considerations

     Before this text says anything to me (or to anyone else in the 21st century), it has already spoken to those to whom it was originally addressed. If my interpretation of it has little or no relevance for the mid-first-century Thessalonian church, I have probably missed the point. Much of this information had already been communicated to these believers (2 Thess. 1:10; 2:5-6), so Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy could take for granted that certain details would already be known without having to be repeated. Therefore, we should not try to force precision of meaning that is not there, and avoid unnecessary speculation. It goes without saying that whatever conclusions are drawn must be in harmony with everything else revealed in the biblical record.

False Reports About the Day of the Lord

     But we are asking you, brothers, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our gathering together unto him, for you not to be quickly shaken in mind, nor to be troubled on account of a spirit, or on account of a word, or on account of a letter, as if from us, as if the day of the Lord has come” (2 Thess. 2:1-2).3 The return of Christ is a prominent theme in both 1 and 2 Thessalonians.4 By the time the second letter was written, previous teaching appears to have been misconstrued, and Paul and his companions are wondering about where the misinformation came from. Apparently there was an element in the church espousing some form of realized eschatology (cf. 2 Tim. 2:17-18), but the Thessalonian Christians had been taught a future eschatology. The day of the Lord is to be sudden and unexpected (1 Thess. 5:1-6), so for anyone to say it is already here is perplexing and disconcerting.
     No one should deceive you in any way, because [it will not be] unless the apostasy come first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction” (2 Thess. 2:3). Speaking of ἡ ἀποστασία the apostasy” (CSB, NASB), “the rebellion” (ESV, ISV, NIV), “the falling away” (ASV, NKJV) suggests that the Thessalonians have already been informed about it, thus no further explanation is needed or given. The expression refers to “a departure from truth previously accepted … involves the breaking of a professed relationship with God.”5 This apostasy is to occur sometime between the time of writing and the return of Christ.
     If it were important enough for Paul to have repeatedly spoken [ἔλεγον – imperfect active indicative] of these things (2 Thess. 2:5), surely the same teachings were provided to other congregations (cp. 1 Thess. 5:27; 1 Cor. 4:17; 7:17; 11:16; 14:33). About five years later, the apostle reminds the Ephesian church leaders of what he had invested three years, night and day with tears, constantly warning about, viz., “… grievous wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock, and from your own selves men will arise speaking corrupt things to drag away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:27-31). In view of the fact that similar warnings are issued throughout the NT, the same occasion – a major falling away from the faith – must be in view (cf. Matt. 7:13-23; 13:15; 25:31-46; Rom. 16:17-18; Eph. 4:14; 1 Tim. 4:1-4; 2 Pet. 2:1-2, 18-22; Jude 4; 1 John 4:1; Rev. 2:5; 3:16).
     The apostasy will have “come” in conjunction with “the man of lawlessness” who is to be “revealed.6 This enigmatic figure is also called “the son of destruction,” the same description applied to Judas Iscariot in John 17:12, indicative of a comparable fate, demeanor, or destructive behavior. In the ancient East the word “son” was often used to describe one’s character, disposition, nature, or conduct.7 The noun ἀπώλεια [“destruction”] refers either to the “destruction” or “waste” one causes, or to the “destruction,” “annihilation,” or “ruin” one experiences (BAGD 103), and it is possible that both nuances are intended here.

Identifying the Man of Lawlessness

     A number of commentators focus attention almost exclusively on an actual, historical person believed to be a recognizable leader of a great rebellion against God. However, any consensus on the identity of this mysterious character remains hopelessly aloof. Proposals have included Nero, Domitian, Genseric the Vandal, Mohammed, Pope John XII, Martin Luther, Napoleon, Hitler, Mussolini, ad infinitum. But identifying this figure as a single person in the events of history is untenable, since the man of lawlessness is to be present at the end of the world (v. 8) and his work had already started at the time of writing (v. 7). Among the more popular suggestions of modern exegetes are (a) the Antichrist, who attempts to destroy the work of Christ in the last days; (b) Satan; (c) the Roman emperor; (d) the Jewish high priest; (e) militant Jewish zealots; (f) the Roman Catholic papacy; (g) evil personified.
     I propose that instead of a specific person, “the man of lawlessness” is a representative figure epitomizing false religion. This would include anyone who happens to be leading such a movement, but the application is broader. It cannot be limited to just one individual or a single heretical group but is a personification of false religion in general.8
     When, for example, Paul affirms that scripture is profitable for “the man of God” (2 Tim. 3:17), is he speaking of only one person, or is he referring, in a representative way, to all people of God who benefit from scripture? Jesus said, “the good man out of his good treasure produces good things, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil things” (Matt. 12:35; Luke 6:45). Does this mean there is only one “good man” and only one “evil man,” or do these figures characterize everyone in each category? When Paul speaks of “the blessedness of the man to whom God accounts righteousness apart from works” (Rom. 4:6), which man? See also Matt. 4:4; 15:11; 18:7b; 21:28-32; Luke 4:4; John 2:25; Rom. 10:5; 14:20; 1 Cor. 2:14-15; Gal. 3:12; Eph. 4:13, 22, 24; Col. 3:9; Jas. 1:6-7.
     Any movement (or false teaching or false teacher) influencing and contributing to Christians being drawn away from the true faith is “the man of lawlessness.” This would apply to the Roman Imperial Cult (inclusive of emperor worship, cf. Rev. 13), Anti-Christian Judaism (cf. Heb. 10), Gnosticism (cf. 2 John 7), Islam, Roman Catholicism, denominationalism, various other world religions and cults, secularism, et al. Since “the man of lawlessness” is to be present at the time of the Lord’s return (v. 8), and his work (the great apostasy) was already starting in the first century (vv. 3, 7), false religion personified is a viable interpretation.
--Kevin L. Moore

     1 William Neil, The Epistle of Paul to the Thessalonians (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1950): 155.
     2 Todd D. Still, “Eschatology in the Thessalonian Letters,” RevExp 96 (1999): 200.
     3 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation. The Byzantine Majority Text reads “the day of Christ” in v. 2, while the NA28/UBS5 text reads “the day of the Lord.”
     4 1 Thess. 1:10; 2:19; 3:13; 4:15, 17; 5:2, 4, 10, 23; 2 Thess. 1:7-10.
     5 C. C. Ryrie, “Apostasy in the Church,” BibSac 121:481 (1964): 154-62.
     6 The aorist tense of “come” [ἔλθῃ] and “revealed” [ἀποκαλυφθῇ] “represents an activity as a total action, in its entirety without dwelling on its internal details” (K. L. McKay, “Aspect” 203-204). The text does not affirm that each occurs at the same moment in time. The two are certainly interrelated and overlap, irrespective of historical positioning. The Byzantine Majority Text reads ὁ ἄνθρωπος τῆς ἁμαρτίας (“the man of sin”), while the NA28/UBS5 text reads ὁ ἄνθρωπος τῆς ἀνομίας (“the man of lawlessness”). In favor of the latter reading, L. Morris reasons that because of Paul’s infrequent use of ἀνομία, copyists would be less likely to change the more common ἁμαρτία [“sin”] to ἀνομία [“lawlessness”] than vice versa (Thessalonians 219 n. 22). B. M. Metzger reasons further that γὰρ … ἀνομίας in v. 7 “seems to presuppose ἀνομίας here” (Textual Commentary [2nd ed.] 567).
     7 For example, “sons of Belial” (Judg. 19:22; 1 Sam. 2:12), “sons of might” (Psa. 29:1; 89:6), “son of wickedness” (Psa. 89:22), “sons of the sorceress” (Isa. 57:3), “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17), “sons of this world” (Luke 16:8), “sons of light” (John 12:36; Eph. 5:8; 1 Thess. 5:5), and “son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36).
     8 Personification is a common rhetorical device. N.B., e.g., wisdom (Prov. 1:20; 3:13-15; 9:1), the land (Joel 1:10), the nation of Israel (Jer. 31:4, 18), NT Christians (2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 4:13), riches (Matt. 6:24), sin (John 8:24; Rom. 6:16), death (Rev. 6:8), et al.

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