PP15: The Man of Lawlessness (II Thess. 2) Part 1

This is now the fifteenth post in our series on “A Partial-Preterist Perspective on the Destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.” This is the same title as a term paper I recently submitted to Northwestern College. All the previous posts can be found here, and it’s recommended that they be read in order before reading this post:

[1] https://kloposmasm.wordpress.com/2009/08/13/brief-explanation-of-partial-preterism/
[2] https://kloposmasm.wordpress.com/2009/08/13/pp2-references/
[3] https://kloposmasm.wordpress.com/2009/08/13/pp3-external-evidence-for-an-early-date-revelation/
[4] https://kloposmasm.wordpress.com/2009/08/14/pp4-internal-evidence-for-an-early-date-revelation-part-1/
[5] https://kloposmasm.wordpress.com/2009/08/14/pp5-internal-evidence-for-an-early-date-revelation-part-2/
[6] https://kloposmasm.wordpress.com/2009/08/14/pp6-internal-evidence-for-an-early-date-revelation-part-3/
[7] https://kloposmasm.wordpress.com/2009/08/14/pp7-internal-evidence-for-an-early-date-revelation-part-4/
[8] https://kloposmasm.wordpress.com/2009/08/14/pp8-daniels-70-week-prophecy-part-1/
[9] https://kloposmasm.wordpress.com/2009/08/15/pp9-daniels-70-week-prophecy-part-2/
[10] https://kloposmasm.wordpress.com/2009/08/15/pp10-jerusalems-destruction-foretold-in-the-olivet-discourse/
[11] https://kloposmasm.wordpress.com/2009/08/15/pp11-did-jesus-come-in-70-ad-part-1/
[12] https://kloposmasm.wordpress.com/2009/08/15/pp12-did-jesus-come-in-70-ad-part-2/
[13] https://kloposmasm.wordpress.com/2009/08/16/pp13-signs-of-the-close-of-the-age/
[14] https://kloposmasm.wordpress.com/2009/08/16/pp14-abomination-of-desolation/

We now turn from a discussion of the Olivet Discourse to the man of lawlessness spoken of in II Thessalonians 2. This will be a two-part study in which we will consider the relevance to the first-century Church of Paul’s prediction of a man of lawlessness and a rebellion. We will also consider the identity of this man of sin.

Adam Maarschalk


F. The Man of Lawlessness (II Thessalonians 2) [Part 1]

Just like the seven churches who first received the book of Revelation, Paul wrote to a church in Thessalonica that was under persecution (II Thessalonians 1:4-7). This persecution was evidently coming from the Jews, based on Acts 17:1-13 and I Thessalonians 2:14-16. Also the first Imperial persecution against Christians under Nero had not yet begun, since this book was written around 52 AD.[1] The Thessalonians would experience relief from their affliction, they were told, when Jesus came in vengeance, and to be glorified in and marveled at by His people (verses 7-10).

In this regard, Paul writes to a church that was concerned that they had missed this coming, for Paul writes: “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” (II Thess. 2:1-2). The nature of their expectation must be considered. For if their expectation of the Lord’s coming was that it would be visible, it would bring an end to the world, or it would result in the instant removal of all believers from the earth, it’s hard to imagine how they could be led to believe that these things had already occurred. Referring to their concern, David Lowman (2009 [1]) writes:

This Day of the Lord is commonly argued to be the Second Coming, but the context simply does not allow for it. As mentioned in a previous post, it would literally make no sense for the Thessalonians to write a letter asking if the Day of the Lord has passed if the Day of the Lord was the Resurrection or rapture. Should the Thessalonians expect Paul to still be around if the day of the Lord meant “rapture”? If the Day of the Lord truly was understood to be the “rapture” then writing to Paul would be fruitless! Now, if on the other hand, the Thessalonians believed the Day of the Lord to be the coming judgment against apostate Israel, then asking about that event would make sense. And if they had friends or relatives in the Judean area it would easily explain their concern that the Day of the Lord had passed.

When the term “day of the Lord” is used elsewhere in Scripture, it almost exclusively speaks of an instance of God’s judgment. Therefore, it should be easy enough to conceive of Paul using the term in this text to refer to a day of the Lord against Jerusalem, if that’s what the context demands.

Paul states that two events had to occur before the day of the Lord would come: [1] the rebellion, and [2] the revealing of the man of lawlessness (II Thess. 2:3). Paul reminded the Thessalonians that he had already discussed these things with them in person (verse 5), and his language indicates that we are not given all the details of their conversation. Apparently, Paul had privately discussed with them the identity of the man of lawlessness and the entity that was restraining him, because he says, “And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time” (verse 6). This points to a first-century fulfillment, as does Paul’s next statement: “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” (verse 7).

James Stuart Russell, whose book, Parousia, in 1878 had a profound effect on both Charles Spurgeon[2] and R.C. Sproul, wrote the following about the immediate relevance of this subject to the Thessalonians (Todd Dennis [26], 2009):

Is it not obvious that whoever the man of sin may be, he must be someone with whom the apostle and his readers had to do? Is he not writing to living men about matters in which they are intensely interested? Why should he delineate the features of this mysterious personage to the Thessalonians if he was one with whom the Thessalonians had nothing to do, from whom they had nothing to fear, and who would not be revealed for ages yet to come? It is clear that he speaks of one whose influence was already beginning to be felt, and whose unchecked and lawless fury would ere [before] long burst forth.

But why does not the apostle speak out frankly? Why this reserve and reticence in darkly hinting what he does not name? It was not from ignorance; it could not be from the affectation of mystery. There must have been some strong reason for this extreme caution. No doubt; but of what nature? Why should he have been in the habit, as he says, of speaking so freely on the subject in private, and then write so obscurely in his epistle? Obviously, because it was not safe to be more explicit. On the one hand, a hint was enough, for they could all understand his meaning; on the other, more than a hint was dangerous, for to name the person might have compromised himself and them…

But how striking are the indications that point to Nero in the year when this epistle was written, say A.D.52 or 53. At that time Nero was not yet ‘manifested;’ his true character was not discovered; he had not yet succeeded to the Empire. Claudius, his step-father, lived, and stood in the way of the son of Agrippina. But that hindrance was soon removed. In less than a year, probably, after this epistle was received by the Thessalonians, Claudius was ‘taken out of the way,’ a victim to the deadly practice of the infamous Agrippina; her son also, according to Suetonius, being accessory to the deed. But ‘the mystery of lawlessness was already working;’ the influence of Nero must have been powerful in the last days of the wretched Claudius; the very plots were probably being hatched that paved the way for the accession of the son of the murderess. A few months more would witness the advent to the throne of the world of a miscreant whose name is gibbeted in everlasting infamy as the most brutal of tyrants and the vilest of men.

Kurt Simmons (2009 [2]) relates that there was no shortage of early church writers who agreed that Paul spoke of events in his own generation:

This has long been recognized as referring to Claudius Caesar and the restraining power of the religio licita…[3] Victorinus [???-303 AD], in his commentary on the Apocalypse, states:  “[John tells us that the beast] was in the kingdom of the Romans, and that he was among the Caesars. The Apostle Paul also bears witness, for he says to the Thessalonians: ‘Let him who now restraineth restrain, until he be taken out of the way; and then shall appear the Wicked One, even he whose coming is after the working of Satan, with signs and lying wonders.’ And that they might know that he should come who then was the prince, he adds: ‘He already endeavours after the secret of mischief’ – that is, the mischief which he is about to do he strives to do secretly; but he is not raised up by his own power, nor by that of his father, but by command of God.”

Victorinus here connects the “beast” from the abyss with the Roman empire and the “Wicked One” with the one who was prince when Paul wrote (Nero), and would follow his father (Claudius) to the throne.

Augustine (A.D. 354-430) is even more explicit: “Some think that these words refer to the Roman empire, and that the apostle Paul did not wish to write more explicitly, lest he should incur a charge of calumny against the Roman empire, in wishing ill to it when men hoped that it was to be everlasting. So in the words: ‘For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work’ he referred to Nero, whose deeds already seemed to be as those of Antichrist” (emphasis in original).

[1] This date has been determined, in part, because the authors (Paul, Silas, and Timothy; see II Thess. 1:1) were all together in Corinth at that time (Acts 18:5), where Paul dwelt for 18 months (Acts 18:11).

[2] Charles Spurgeon had this to say in his review of Russell’s book: “Though the author’s theory is carried too far, it has so much of truth in it, and throws so much new light upon obscure portions of the Scriptures, and is accompanied with so much critical research and close reasoning, that it can be injurious to none and may be profitable to all” (The Sword and the Trowel [magazine], October 1878 issue).

[3] This is Latin for “tolerated religion,” and it meant that adherents of a certain religion could enjoy various benefits under the Roman Empire, including exemption from following the official Imperial Cult. In Paul’s time, Judaism was the only tolerated religion in Rome, although Tiberius (who ruled from 14-37 AD) sought to change this during his time. Claudius (ruler from 41-54 AD), feeling much the same way, actually protected the Christians from the Jews, restraining them from more openly persecuting the Christians as they wished to do. Suetonius records that Claudius even banished the Jews from Rome at one point for rioting over the spread of the Christian faith (cf. Acts 18:2). When Claudius was poisoned by Agrippina, Nero’s mother, Judaism again enjoyed royal favor under Nero. Nero’s wife, Poppaea, was a Jewish proselyte, and Nero himself expressed interest in the Jewish religion.