How to Be Ready for the End Times—Part 2: Be Strong and Courageous
(2 Thessalonians 2:6–17)
And you know what restrains him now, so that in his time he will be revealed. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains will do so until he is taken out of the way. Then that lawless one will be revealed whom the Lord will slay with the breath of His mouth and bring to an end by the appearance of His coming; that is, the one whose coming is in accord with the activity of Satan, with all power and signs and false wonders, and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false, in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness. But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth. It was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us. Now may our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us eternal comfort and good hope by grace, comfort and strengthen your hearts in every good work and word. (2:6–17)
A hallmark of false doctrine is its attack on the Person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Throughout history, mystics, rationalists, legalists, cultists, and other heretics have assaulted Christ’s deity, humanity, and the singular efficacy and sufficiency of His saving work. The Reformation definition of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone was affirmed against the backdrop of attacks on biblical soteriology. Satan apparently devotes his personal efforts not to tempting individual Christians but to devising false systems of religion, which teach lies about Christ (1 John 2:22; 4:3; 2 John 7). He is disguised as an “angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14). His demon doctrines deceive countless millions, keeping them from the life-giving gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
There is coming a satanic false religion that will dominate the world like no other in history (cf. Rev. 17). Its object of worship will be the most powerful, evil, deceitful person to ever live: the man of lawlessness, the Antichrist. He will be the culmination of Satan’s long war against God, the last and most malevolent manifestation of the antichrist spirit (1 John 4:3). Like his evil master, Antichrist will disguise himself as an “angel of light” and deceive the whole lost world (Rev. 12:9; 13:14).
As noted in the previous chapter of this volume, Paul wrote about Antichrist, called the man of lawlessness and son of destruction, because the Thessalonians had been deceived by the lie that their fears were true, that they had missed the Rapture and were in the judgment of the Day of the Lord. Seeking to correct their error, Paul called on them to remember what he had previously taught them, reassuring them that the Day of the Lord had not come. His argument was simple and irrefutable: Antichrist has not appeared, and his appearance is a necessary precursor to the Day of the Lord. He must appear and commit the ultimate act of apostasy, the abomination of desolation, before the Day of the Lord arrives.
Paul gave six specific exhortations to avoid fear about the end times. Believers must not be deceived, forgetful, ignorant, unbelieving, insecure, or weak. The previous chapter of this volume covered the first two exhortations; this chapter will discuss the last four.
Do Not Be Ignorant
And you know what restrains him now, so that in his time he will be revealed. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains will do so until he is taken out of the way. Then that lawless one will be revealed whom the Lord will slay with the breath of His mouth and bring to an end by the appearance of His coming; that is, the one whose coming is in accord with the activity of Satan, with all power and signs and false wonders, and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, (2:6–10b)
Having discussed the act of apostasy by which the Antichrist will reveal himself for who he really is, Paul takes a deeper look at the man himself. He lists four aspects of Antichrist’s career: his revelation, destruction, power, and influence.
And you know what restrains him now, so that in his time he will be revealed. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains will do so until he is taken out of the way. Then that lawless one will be revealed (2:6–8a)
As the phrase and you know indicates, the Thessalonians understood what force currently restrains Antichrist because Paul had told them when he was with them. Therefore, he did not repeat it here—a fact that has led to endless speculation as to what it is. The Greek verb translated restrains (katechō; “to hold back,” “to hold down,” “to suppress”) appears in this text as a neuter participle, prompting commentators to suggest numerous options as to the identity of that restraining force.
Some believe that the preaching of the gospel keeps Antichrist in check. Eventually, they argue, the gospel will be fully proclaimed (cf. Matt. 24:14) and the restraint will be removed. Other suggestions for the restrainer include the nation of Israel, the alleged binding of Satan by believers, the church’s influence as salt and light in the world (cf. Matt. 5:13–14), human government (cf. Rom. 13:1–4), the general principle of law and morality in the world, the Roman Empire, and even Michael the archangel (cf. Dan. 10:21).
But none of those opinions is satisfactory. The most significant problem with all of them (except the last) is that they are human forces. Humans preach the gospel; humans make up the nation of Israel; humans attempt to bind Satan; humans comprise the church; humans run the world’s governments; humans agree on principles of law and morality; and humans made up the Roman Empire. But human power, ingenuity, and institutions cannot restrain the supernatural power of Satan that seeks to release Antichrist. And the one supernatural person in the list, Michael, does not have the power to restrain Satan (Jude 9). The most logical of those choices, the church, has never been able to restrain even human evil. It may do so to some extent in the lives of its members, but the outside world continues to grow worse and worse—a situation that will especially characterize the end times (2 Tim. 3:13). If no human or angelic power restrains, that leaves only the power of God to hold back the purpose of Satan for his Antichrist.
And God does the restraining so that in his time he will be revealed. Satan, of course, does not want to operate on God’s timetable. If he could, he would have revealed Antichrist long before now. He longs for the false messiah, through whom he will rule the earth, to appear. But nothing—not even the purposes of hell—operates independently of God’s sovereign timetable. Job confessed, “I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2). In Isaiah 46:10 God declares, “My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure.” Therefore, the man of lawlessness will not appear until the time predetermined by God.
God will not allow Antichrist to be revealed until all the redeemed, whom He chose for salvation in eternity past (2:13; cf. Matt. 25:34; Eph. 1:4; 2 Tim. 1:9; Rev. 13:8; 17:8), are gathered into the kingdom (cf. Rom. 11:25). Evil will not overstep its divinely ordained bounds. The true Messiah was revealed “when the fullness of the time came, [and] God sent forth His Son” (Gal. 4:4); the ultimate false messiah will likewise be revealed in God’s perfect time.
Though Antichrist may be restrained, evil will not be; in fact, the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Mustērion (mystery) describes something “which has been kept secret for long ages past” (Rom. 16:25) and is incapable of being known unless revealed by God. The true character of lawlessness is already at work (cf. 1 John 3:4); and “even now many antichrists have appeared” (1 John 2:18; cf. 4:3). Evil, lies, hypocrisy, immorality, and false religion permeate the world and grow increasingly worse, so that every generation is more wicked than those before (2 Tim. 3:13), but sin’s ultimate manifestation is yet to come. When the restraint is removed and Antichrist appears, the true character of evil will be manifested. It should be noted that not only will the man of lawlessness be revealed, but God will also release demons from being bound in hell to inundate the earth (Rev. 9:1–19).
The change in gender from the neuter participle translated “what restrains” in verse 6 to the masculine participle rendered he who … restrains is significant. The sovereign, divine force that currently restrains Antichrist is exerted by a person—the Holy Spirit (cf. John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13 where Jesus used a masculine pronoun with the neuter noun translated “Spirit”). Only He has the supernatural power to hold Satan in check. The Holy Spirit has always battled wickedness in the world. Addressing the wicked pre-Flood generation, God declared, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever” (Gen. 6:3). Stephen issued this stinging rebuke to the leaders of Israel: “You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did” (Acts 7:51). The Holy Spirit also opposes evil by “convict[ing] the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). He will continue His restraining work until the midpoint of the Tribulation. The removal of the Holy Spirit’s restraint therefore cannot be identified with the Rapture of the church, since that event takes place three and a half years earlier, before the Tribulation.
The phrase taken out of the way must not be interpreted to mean that the Holy Spirit will be removed from the world. That is impossible, since He is omnipresent. Nor could anyone be saved during the Tribulation (cf. Rev. 7:14) apart from His regenerating work (John 3:3–8; Titus 3:5). The phrase refers not to the removal of the Holy Spirit from the world, but rather to the cessation of His restraining work.
Summarizing Paul’s teaching on this issue, William Hendriksen wrote:
Accordingly, the sense of the entire passage (verses 6 and 7) seems to be this: Satan, while perfectly aware of the fact that he cannot himself become incarnate, nevertheless would like to imitate the second person of the Trinity also in this respect as far as possible. He yearns for a man over whom he will have complete control, and who will perform his will as thoroughly as Jesus performed the will of the Father. It will have to be a man of outstanding talents. But as yet the devil is being frustrated in his attempt to put this plan into operation. Someone and something is always “holding back” the deceiver’s man of lawlessness. This, of course, happens under God’s direction. Hence, for the time being, the worst Satan can do is to promote the spirit of lawlessness. But this does not satisfy him. It is as if he and his man of sin bide their time. At the divinely decreed moment (“the appropriate season”) when, as a punishment for man’s willingness to cooperate with this spirit, the “some one” and “something” that now holds back is removed, Satan will begin to carry out his plans. (New Testament Commentary: Exposition of Thessalonians, Timothy and Titus [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981], 182–83. Emphasis in the original.)
Romans 1:18–25 gives a clear and oft-repeated historical example of the removal of restraint so that sin is unleashed:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.
Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
The three statements that “God gave them up” or “over” (vv. 24, 26, 28) describe the removal of divine restraint and the flood of immorality, homosexuality, and perverted thinking and behaving that drowns those so judged (cf. Ps. 81:11–12; Prov. 1:23–31; Hos. 4:17).
For the third time in this passage (cf. (vv. 3, 6), Paul notes that the lawless one will be revealed when the Holy Spirit’s restraint ceases. Antichrist will expose the depths of his evil nature by desecrating the temple and proclaiming himself to be God. God’s judgments, which will begin during the first half of the Tribulation, will intensify dramatically as the Day of the Lord arrives in all its judgmental fury (cf. Rev. 4–19). But Antichrist’s reign of terror will be short-lived.
whom the Lord will slay with the breath of His mouth and bring to an end by the appearance of His coming; (2:8b)
Just as Antichrist will be revealed at God’s appointed time, so also is the moment of his destruction divinely ordained. At the height of his power, when he seems invincible, he will meet his end. Daniel 7:26 says, “His dominion will be taken away, annihilated and destroyed forever”; Daniel 11:45 notes that “he will come to his end, and no one will help him.” Revelation 17:11 declares that Antichrist “goes to destruction,” and that destruction is graphically described in Revelation 19:20: “And the beast was seized, and with him the false prophet who performed the signs in his presence, by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image; these two were thrown alive into the lake of fire which burns with brimstone.”
The most hellish and powerful ruler in human history will be effortlessly crushed; the Lord will slay him with the mere breath of His mouth. The term slay does not mean that the Lord will kill Antichrist (the niv translates it “overthrow”), since Revelation 19:20 says that he will still be alive when he is cast into the lake of fire. Robert L. Thomas notes:
Some have supposed a discrepancy between the fate of these two [the beast (Antichrist) and the false prophet] and that of the man of lawlessness in 2 Thess. 2:8 …, but harmonization of the two accounts of Christ’s return is quite easy. The verb … anelei,“destroy” used by Paul [in 2 Thess. 2:8] does not necessarily mean physical death. It can also refer to relegation to the lake of fire because the literal force of … anaireō [the root form of anelei] is “I make an end of.” (Revelation 8–22: An Exegetical Commentary [Chicago: Moody, 1995], 397)
The concept that the Lord will destroy His enemies with the breath of His mouth stems from the Old Testament. Isaiah 11:4 says that the Lord “will strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, and with the breath of His lips He will slay the wicked.” Isaiah 30:33 adds, “For Topheth has long been ready, indeed, it has been prepared for the king. He has made it deep and large, a pyre of fire with plenty of wood; the breath of the Lord, like a torrent of brimstone, sets it afire” (cf. Hos. 6:5). Revelation uses the similar picture of a sword coming out of the Lord’s mouth to destroy His enemies (1:16; 2:16; 19:15, 21).
The parallel statement and bring to an end by the appearance of His coming adds a slightly different dimension to Antichrist’s destruction. Katargeō (bring to an end) literally means, “to render inoperative,” “to abolish,” or “to render ineffective.” Not only will the Lord slay (destroy) Antichrist’s person, He will also bring to an end his empire. Christ will annihilate both the man and his enterprise by the appearance of His coming, a reference to the visible manifestation of Christ at His second coming (Rev. 19:11–21).
So Antichrist will rule from the midpoint of the Tribulation until Christ’s return—1,260 days (Rev. 12:6), or forty-two months (Rev. 13:5), both of which equal three and a half years (cf. Dan. 9:27). During that brief reign, so suddenly ended, he will exercise power unparalleled in human history.
that is, the one whose coming is in accord with the activity of Satan, with all power and signs and false wonders, and with all the deception of wickedness (2:9–10a)
Antichrist’s great power will not be his own but will be in accord with the activity of Satan. Energeia (activity), the root of the English word “energy,” describes power in action. It usually refers to God’s power (e.g., Eph. 1:19; 3:7; Phil. 3:21; Col. 1:29; 2:12), but here it describes Satan’s power. Antichrist’s power and signs and false wonders will not only be deceptive tricks, like falsifying his own death and resurrection (Rev. 13:3, 12, 14; 17:8, 11), but also actual manifestations of Satan’s supernatural power. Power (miracles; cf. Matt. 7:22; 11:20, 21, 23, etc.) refers to supernatural acts; signs point to the one who performs them; wonders describes the astonishing results. Antichrist’s miracles will reveal his supernatural power and create wonder, shock, and astonishment. Pseudos (false) modifies all three terms; Antichrist’s miracles, signs, and wonders are false not in the sense that they are fakery but that they lead to false conclusions about who he is. They will cause people to believe the lie that he is a divine being and worship him. John saw that Antichrist’s deluded followers “worshiped the beast, saying, ‘Who is like the beast, and who is able to wage war with him?’ ” (Rev. 13:4; cf. (vv. 12–15). Antichrist will mislead the world with all the deception … wickedness has at its disposal; he will muster all of evil’s undiluted, unrestrained, seductive power to tempt the world to give him unprecedented influence over it.
for those who perish, (2:10b)
Antichrist’s malevolent, deceptive, deadly influence will extend to all those who perish. Only God’s elect will not be taken in (Matt. 24:24). The unregenerate, being children of the arch-liar Satan (John 8:44), will inevitably fall for the lies of his emissary (cf. 1 Cor. 2:14; 2 Cor. 4:3–4). Through him, Satan will deceive the whole world (Rev. 12:9); all those who “[receive] the mark of the beast and those who [worship] his image” (Rev. 19:20; cf. 2 Cor. 4:4).
Do Not Be Unbelieving
because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false, in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness. (2:10c–12)
Specifically, unbelievers will be deceived by Antichrist and perish because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. The phrase the love of the truth appears only here in the New Testament, and adds a compelling thought to Paul’s argument. The unregenerate are eternally lost, not because they did not hear or understand the truth, but because they did not love it. The truth includes both “the word of truth, the gospel” (Col. 1:5), and the Lord Jesus Christ, who is truth incarnate (John 14:6; cf. 1:17; Eph. 4:21). Unbelievers do not welcome either Jesus or the gospel He proclaimed. Their antipathy to the truth is not intellectual, but moral, and their self-imposed blindness leaves the unredeemed under a damning level of satanic deception. It is not surprising, then, that Antichrist will deceive the entire lost world.
The Bible clearly teaches that those who go to hell do so because they reject the truth. Speaking of Jerusalem’s rejection of the truth, Jesus lamented, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling” (Matt. 23:37). John 3:19–20 says, “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” To the unbelieving Jews Jesus declared, “You do not have His word abiding in you, for you do not believe Him whom He sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life” (John 5:38–40). He reiterated that truth later in John’s gospel:
Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.… But because I speak the truth, you do not believe Me. Which one of you convicts Me of sin? If I speak truth, why do you not believe Me? He who is of God hears the words of God; for this reason you do not hear them, because you are not of God. (John 8:24, 45–47)
Because the unredeemed did not receive the love of the truth they “do not know God and … do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (1:8). They willfully choose to love their sin, believe Satan’s lies, and hate the gospel and the Lord Jesus Christ. They are like those Jewish leaders described in John 12:42–43 who “believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they were not confessing Him, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the approval of men rather than the approval of God.” In Matthew 10:37 Jesus taught that salvation involves loving Him above all else: “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.”
The terrifying reality is that God will seal the fate of those who hate the gospel by sending upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false. Though, as noted above, Antichrist will deceive people with satanically empowered false miracles, signs, and wonders, his deception only will succeed because it fits into God’s sovereign purpose. He will sentence unbelievers to accept evil as if it were good and lies as if they were the truth. Those who continually choose falsehood will be inextricably caught by it. In the words of Proverbs 5:22, “His own iniquities will capture the wicked, and he will be held with the cords of his sin.” They will be abandoned by God to the consequences of their choice to reject the gospel.
The story of Pharaoh is a grim reminder that God will judicially harden the hearts of those who persist in hardening their hearts against the truth. Because Pharaoh hardened his heart (Ex. 8:15, 32; 9:34; 1 Sam. 6:6), God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, fixing him in a path from which he could never return (Ex. 4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8).
In Isaiah 6:9–10, a passage quoted repeatedly in the New Testament (Matt. 13:14–15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:40; Acts 28:26–27; Rom. 11:8), God said to Isaiah, “Go, and tell this people: ‘Keep on listening, but do not perceive; keep on looking, but do not understand.’ Render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their eyes dim, otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and be healed.” God told Isaiah that He would sovereignly prevent hard-hearted rejecters of the truth from responding to his preaching. Similarly, Jesus spoke in parables not only to reveal spiritual truth to believers but also to conceal it in judgment on unbelievers (Matt. 13:11–13; Luke 8:10). There comes a day that those who persistently reject the truth will be unable to believe it; God will harden their hearts and fix them in the path they have chosen.
God’s use of Satan and Antichrist as instruments of His judgment finds a parallel in the Old Testament. Through the prophet Micaiah, God pronounced judgment on the wicked king Ahab:
Micaiah said, “Therefore, hear the word of the Lord. I saw the Lord sitting on His throne, and all the host of heaven standing by Him on His right and on His left. The Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab to go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said this while another said that. Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord and said, ‘I will entice him.’ The Lord said to him, ‘How?’ And he said, ‘I will go out and be a deceiving spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ Then He said, ‘You are to entice him and also prevail. Go and do so.’ Now therefore, behold, the Lord has put a deceiving spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; and the Lord has proclaimed disaster against you.” (1 Kings 22:19–23)
Because of Ahab’s rebellion and unfaithfulness, God allowed Satan to deceive him through false prophets. In the future, God will again use Satan as an instrument of His judgment, in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness. Satan will, through Antichrist and the false prophet, delude the world into believing the lie that Antichrist is God. Unbelievers will be confirmed in that belief because they will choose not to love the truth, but rather to take pleasure in wickedness.
As indicated earlier, Romans 1 also illustrates God’s judicial abandonment of unrepentant sinners: “Even though they knew God [vv. 19–20], they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened” (v. 21). Because of that, the passage declares three times that “God gave them over” (vv. 24, 26, 28) to the consequences of their own sinful choices (vv. 24–28; cf. Gen. 6:3; Judg. 10:13; 2 Chron. 15:2; 24:20; Matt. 15:14; Acts 7:38–42; 14:16).
Do Not Be Insecure
But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth. It was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2:13–14)
Paul’s fifth exhortation to eliminate fear of the future is to understand the great doctrine of salvation. With a few words, the apostle sweeps the reader across the vastness of God’s redemptive plan to affirm the believer’s security in that plan. Again, Paul’s intent is not pedagogical but pastoral. Those who reject the truth that believers are eternally secure cannot look forward with confident hope to Christ’s coming. To believe that Christians living in unconfessed sin when the Lord returns will go to hell can only engender dread and fear—especially since sinless perfection in this life is unattainable (1 Kings 8:46; Ps. 143:2; Prov. 20:9; Eccl. 7:20; 1 John 1:8, 10).
But the Thessalonians did not need to fear they had lost or could lose their salvation, because God’s choice of them is irrevocable. Salvation began with God’s loving choice in eternity past and will continue until glorification in the future (Rom. 8:29–30). Jesus emphatically declared the utter impossibility that any of God’s elect should ever be lost:
All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.… This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.… No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. (John 6:37, 39–40, 44)
My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. (John 10:27–29)
That glorious truth caused Paul to always give thanks to God for the Thessalonians, knowing that they were brethren beloved by the Lord. In contrast to the unredeemed, who refuse to love and obey the truth, are those who willingly do both; in contrast to those whom God judges are those He redeems; in contrast to those who believe Satan’s lies are those who believe God’s truth; in contrast to those who follow Antichrist are those who follow Christ.
God’s work of salvation began with His sovereign, uninfluenced, undeserved love. That love was the basis for His election of believers (Eph. 1:4–5). God’s electing love is not conditioned on any merit in its recipients, as Moses reminded Israel: “The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples” (Deut. 7:7).
Flowing out of God’s predetermined love is His sovereign choice of believers, whom He has chosen … from the beginning for salvation. God “chose us in Him before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4); He “has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity” (2 Tim. 1:9). The redeemed are those whose names were “written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain” (Rev. 13:8; cf. 17:8). For that reason, the New Testament commonly refers to believers as the “elect” (Matt. 24:22, 24, 31; Mark 13:20, 22, 27; Luke 18:7; Rom. 8:33) or the “chosen” (Matt. 22:14; Rom. 11:7; Col. 3:12; 2 Tim. 2:10; Titus 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1).
The doctrine of God’s sovereign, elective love has several practical benefits. It crushes human pride (Titus 3:5), since God gets all the credit for salvation. It exalts God (Ps. 115:1), as He receives praise for His love. It produces joy (1 Peter 1:1–2, 6, 8), as believers rejoice in their salvation. It grants unimaginable privileges (Eph. 1:3). It promotes holiness in the lives of the elect (Col. 3:12–13). Finally, and most relevant to Paul’s purpose in this passage, it provides security (Phil. 1:6).
God’s sovereign election of believers becomes operative in their lives through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth. Sanctification is the work of the Spirit that sets believers apart from sin to righteousness (cf. Rom. 15:16; 1 Cor. 6:11; 1 Peter 1:2). This miracle starts at salvation and includes a total transformation, so that the believer is born again (John 3:3–8) and becomes a new creature (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15). The sanctification that begins at regeneration does not, of course, mean that believers do not sin (see the discussion above). But it does ensure that those set apart from sin to God will lead lives of progressive sanctification, of increasing holiness toward Christlikeness (John 17:17; Rom. 6:1–22; 2 Cor. 3:18; Gal. 5:16–25; Phil. 3:12; Col. 3:9–20; 1 Thess. 4:3–4; 5:23; 1 Peter 1:14–16; 1 John 3:4–10).
The human factor in God’s sovereign, loving election and regeneration is faith in the truth. Salvation is “by grace … through faith” (Eph. 2:8). It is those who “believe in the Lord Jesus [who] will be saved” (Acts 16:31). To the Romans Paul wrote, “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation” (Rom. 10:9–10). The truth that salvation is by faith in the true gospel permeates the New Testament (e.g., Mark 1:15; John 1:12; 3:15–16, 36; 5:24; 6:40, 47; Acts 10:43; Rom. 1:16; 1 Tim. 1:16; 2 Tim. 3:15; 1 Peter 1:9; 1 John 5:1). The Spirit regenerates those who hear and believe the truth by granting them repentance (Acts 11:18; 2 Tim. 2:25) and the gift of faith (Eph. 2:8–9).
The next element in God’s redemptive plan reaches back chronologically before the third. The apostle’s declaration It was for this He called you through our gospel refers, as always in the New Testament epistles, to God’s effectual call of believers to salvation (e.g., Rom. 1:6, 7; 1 Cor. 1:2, 9, 24, 26; Gal. 1:6; Eph. 4:1, 4). The gracious call of the Holy Spirit is irresistible (Rom. 8:30); the gospel is not merely words and facts but “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).
All of those gospel realities lead to the ultimate goal of God’s redemptive plan—that believers may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ (cf. 1:10, 12). That firm statement of the security of salvation reveals that God loved, chose, called, and transformed believers for the purpose of eternally reflecting the glory of Christ to them and through them (cf. 1 John 3:1–2; Rom. 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:42–49; Phil. 3:21). Since no purpose of His can be thwarted (Job 42:2), nothing can separate believers from His saving love (Rom. 8:35–39).
Based on this sovereign scheme, there was no need for the Thessalonians to be insecure about their salvation, anxious about the Lord’s return, or fearful that they were in the Day of Judgment of the ungodly. They, like all believers, were not destined for judgment but for glory, for “God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:9).
Do Not Be Weak
So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us. Now may our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us eternal comfort and good hope by grace, comfort and strengthen your hearts in every good work and word. (2:15–17)
Paul concluded his discussion with a sixth exhortation to the Thessalonians, to stand firm and hold to the traditions which they were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from Paul and his companions (cf. 1 Thess. 3:8). He gave similar exhortations to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 15:58; 16:13), the Ephesians (Eph. 6:11, 13, 14) and the Philippians (Phil. 4:1). He wanted the Thessalonians not to be weak or vacillating but to hold their spiritual ground and keep their grip on the truth. Specifically, the apostle urged them to hold to the traditions which they were taught. The concept of tradition has been loaded down with a lot of cultural and ecclesiastical baggage over the centuries. But Paul did not have in mind a body of extrabiblical tradition that is equal to God’s revelation in Scripture; in fact, the Bible condemns such human tradition (Isa. 29:13; Matt. 15:3, 6; Mark 7:8–9, 13; Col. 2:8). The Greek word translated traditions literally means “things handed down” and refers here to divine revelation (cf. 3:6; 1 Cor. 11:2), whether given by word of mouth or by letter. The Thessalonians were to hold fast to what God had handed down, both orally and in writing, through Paul and the other apostles. Believers must hold fast to the “faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3; cf. 1 Tim. 6:20; 2 Tim. 1:14).
As he did in his first epistle (1 Thess. 3:11–13) and would frequently do in his subsequent epistles to other churches (e.g., Rom. 16:25–27; 1 Cor. 16:23), Paul gave a benediction, praying that God would comfort and strengthen the church. Paul understood that they could not obey his exhortation in their own strength but needed instead to depend on God’s power. He expressed that balanced view of the Christian life when he wrote to the Colossians, “For this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me” (Col. 1:29; cf. 1 Cor. 15:10).
The pronoun translated Himself stands in the emphatic position in the Greek text, which could be translated, “Now may Himself our Lord Jesus Christ and God our Father.” The pronoun governs both Lord Jesus Christ and God our Father, viewing both as the source of comfort. That provides powerful evidence of Christ’s deity; He is fully equal with the Father in person, power, and respect.
Jesus and the Father loved believers from all eternity. Because of that love, which permanently and irrevocably granted believers eternal comfort and good hope by grace at salvation, the apostle prayed that both Jesus Christ and God the Father would comfort and strengthen the Thessalonians’ hearts in every good work and word by this unshakable promise of future glory.
As they anticipate the return of Jesus Christ for His own, believers must not be deceived, forgetful, ignorant, unbelieving, insecure, or weak. They will not experience the terrible judgment of the Day of the Lord, because their salvation is secure. God loved them, chose them, redeemed them, and would glorify them. They must therefore be strong and courageous, “looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus” (Titus 2:13).
The Mystery of Lawlessness
2 Thessalonians 2:5–8
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 (2 Thess. 2:7)
As we study the important teaching by the apostle Paul in 2 Thessalonians 2 on the return of Christ, we might easily overlook an important word in verse 7. Embedded in Paul’s teaching of the dreadful events that will come in the appearing of the Antichrist is a small word that connects directly with us today. The word is now: “Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way” (2 Thess. 2:7). Such a statement reminds us that biblical eschatology pertains to us by showing not only what God has planned for future times but also what God is doing now to shepherd history to his predetermined goal. Along with whetting our desire for the return of our Lord from heaven, biblical teaching about the end times is given to make us wise about the days in which we currently live, moving forward under God’s sovereign control to the glorious appearing of Jesus Christ.
The Restrainer of the Antichrist
One challenge in understanding the teaching of this chapter is that Paul interacts with material that he had taught his readers in person but that he does not repeat in this letter. One of these matters is the “restrainer” to which Paul refers in 1 Thessalonians 2:6–7 and that has kept Satan from unleashing the “man of lawlessness” to bring tribulation on the church. “Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things?” Paul asks. “And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time” (vv. 5–6). At the time of Paul’s writing, this restraint was keeping the Antichrist in check, and since these final events have yet to take place almost two thousand years later, we must presume that the same restraint is still operating.
The natural question to ask concerns who or what this restraint is that is holding back the Antichrist and his great apostasy. One factor in answering is to observe that in 2 Thessalonians 2:6 Paul describes the restrainer in the neuter gender, so that it is translated impersonally: “what is restraining him.” In verse 7, however, Paul uses the masculine gender and speaks of a person: “he who now restrains it.” Any solution will therefore have to account for both an impersonal and a personal description. Moreover, any answer will need to reflect the fact that Paul does not plainly identify the restrainer, but appeals to his in-person teaching while in Thessalonica (v. 5). The Thessalonians know what the restraint is, but we do not know with the same clarity. With this in mind, the most important thing for us to realize is that some power is at work restraining Satan from fully venting his fury through the coming of the Antichrist. Knowing this, Paul’s readers were not to be confused into thinking that Christ had already returned (v. 2).
In seeking to identify the restrainer, G. K. Beale lists seven primary options, three of which are most worthy of note. One approach identifies the restraining power with the Roman Empire and its system of law and order, personified by the emperor. The thought behind this answer is that the power of law is the ideal restrainer of the man of lawlessness. Since Paul teaches in Romans 13:1–5 that government power is established by God for upholding righteousness, and since Paul himself was protected by righteous rulers on some occasions (including during the period when this letter was likely written; Acts 18:12–16), then the restrainer might have been civil authority.
A second option holds that the restrainer is the Holy Spirit. This is the view held by dispensational Christians, whose teaching includes a secret rapture before Christ’s return. Part of the rationale for the secret rapture is that with the departure of Christians, the Spirit will no longer be in the world. It is in this way that the restrainer is seen to be removed. The major problem with this approach, as we have seen, is that the idea of a secret rapture is utterly contrary to Paul’s description of the second coming in both 1 and 2 Thessalonians. Moreover, while it is true that the Holy Spirit indwells Christians, it is inaccurate to consider his presence bottled up as if Christians were containers in which the omnipresent Spirit could be restricted. Even if Christians were all removed, there is no reason why the Spirit would not continue to exercise his power on earth (see Ps. 139:7–12).
The third main option for the restrainer of the Antichrist is the preaching of the gospel. This idea is attractive in light of Jesus’ teaching that before his return “the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations” (Mark 13:10). In this view, the personified “restrainer” of verse 8 is God himself, who controls the man of lawlessness according to his own redemptive-historical schedule. By God’s will, the present age that began during Paul’s lifetime and continues today is the time for the spreading of the gospel and the ingathering of believers for salvation. The time will come when God will prepare to bring this age of salvation to a close and his restraining hand will be removed, permitting Satan to operate with unusual power in the career of the man of lawlessness. It was Paul’s own preaching of the gospel that was pushing back the forces of darkness in Asia Minor and Greece, and by God’s power that same gospel will hold back a complete rebellion until the time appointed from heaven.
One reason why this last option is probably best is its agreement with a similar passage in Revelation 20:1–3, where John wrote:
I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while.
Notice that in John’s vision there is a restraint that has the effect of curtailing Satan’s activities, which will be removed in the last days. Premillennial Christians take the “thousand years” to represent a literal period during which Christ reigns after his second coming, after which there is a brief rebellion before the final day of judgment. One problem with this view is that Matthew 25:31 clearly places the final judgment at the same time as Christ’s return from heaven: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.” This teaching does not seem to allow for a thousand years between Christ’s return and the final judgment. Moreover, in the visionary literature of the book of Revelation, numbers should be taken symbolically, not literally. It seems best, therefore, especially in light of its correspondence with Paul’s teaching, to identify the “thousand years” of Revelation 20 with the church age. This view is known as amillennialism, so named because of its teaching that the thousand years of Revelation 20 is symbolic for the church age rather than a literal thousand-year period.
Premillennial scholars object to this teaching, since Revelation 20:3 depicts Satan as being completely under wraps. This, they argue, cannot describe any scenario in this present age. This objection fails to note, however, what effect the binding of Satan is said to have: “that he might not deceive the nations any longer” (Rev. 20:3). This deceiving work exactly fits Paul’s description of what Satan and the Antichrist will do once the restraint is removed (2 Thess. 2:9–12). In the meantime, during the age of the Great Commission, which commands Christians to take the gospel throughout the world (Matt. 28:18–20), Satan is kept from effectively hindering that mission by means of deceit. Thus Jesus rejoiced when his seventy-two witnesses returned from preaching the gospel throughout Israel, saying, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18). Jesus understood the binding of Satan to involve the free rein for the gospel to be preached in all the world. Cornelis P. Venema writes: “Satan is bound so that he can neither prevent the spread of the gospel among the nations nor effectively deceive them. This vision confirms the teaching that the period between Christ’s first coming and his second coming is one in which the gospel of the kingdom will powerfully and effectively go forth to claim the nations for Jesus Christ.” The personified restrainer whom Paul mentions in 2 Thessalonians 2:7—“he who now restrains it”—appears in John’s vision in the form of the angel who came from heaven with “the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain” (Rev. 20:1). This angel probably represents God’s sovereign will, just as the chain signifies God’s binding power. Venema writes of this image: “The angel is properly equipped to execute God’s purpose to bind and restrict the activities and wiles of Satan.” G. K. Beale concludes: “At the very end of the age, God will remove the angel (or its restraining influence), and ‘all hell will break loose.’ ”5
Comparing Revelation 20:1–3 and 2 Thessalonians 2:6–7 argues strongly in favor of viewing the gospel mission of the church as the restraint on Satan’s plans, under God’s sovereign plan for history. If this is the case, then we can see how urgent is the church’s commission to do everything possible to spread the gospel during this present age. There are many kinds of work that the church and Christians are called to do, but the work of this age, which is restraining Satan from deceiving the nations, is the work of proclaiming the gospel. Realizing this priority will cause Christians and churches to rethink the priority they are placing on preaching the gospel, witnessing to unbelievers, and supporting missionary causes. Surely, if Satan is now bound by God for the sake of the gospel, then evangelism and missions should be at the forefront of any biblically zealous church’s priorities, plans, resource allocations, and also prayers.
Lawlessness at Work
In depicting the binding of Satan, Revelation 20:3 uses strong images, such as a pit into which the devil is cast and sealed. The effect is that he is unable to “deceive the nations any longer” until the gospel age is over. It would be mistaken, however, to conclude that this binding keeps the devil from engaging in any form of warfare against God and his people. Revelation 12 takes up similar imagery and language, showing Satan as conquered and cast down from heaven to earth (Rev. 12:7–9). This symbolic depiction of history also shows, however, that a defeated and cast-down Satan is still a terrible and violent dragon. John writes: “When the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child” (v. 13). Though kept from successfully opposing the gospel by deceiving the nations, Satan remains a deadly and active enemy filled with venom against the church. Despite being cast down, Satan makes continual warfare against God’s people and in opposition to the gospel. The fact that this warfare cannot succeed in this age, since Satan’s binding effectively inhibits his effectiveness, does not mean that there is a shortage of evil that Christians need to confront.
Paul makes this very point about the activity of Satan by saying that “the mystery of lawlessness is already at work” (2 Thess. 2:7). In Paul’s usage, a “mystery” is not a puzzle to be solved but rather a truth that is not capable of clear understanding until its revelation in the coming of Christ. This mystery relates to Daniel’s prophecy of the “abomination that makes desolate” (Dan. 11:31). The prophet foresaw idolatry within God’s temple as the work of the Antichrist. By speaking of the “mystery” of the Antichrist’s work, Paul is saying that Daniel would not have foreseen exactly how this would come about. In particular, in saying that “the mystery of lawlessness is already at work,” the apostle indicates that what Daniel foresaw about the end of history is also a threat that is presently at work within history. Beale writes: “Paul sees that, though this fiend has not yet come so visibly as he will at the final end of history, he is nevertheless already at work in the covenant community through his deceivers, the false teachers.” This teaching agrees with John’s warning that “as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come” (1 John 2:18). Even now, behind the scenes, the same work that will come to mighty expression before the end is opposing the gospel. John Stott writes:
His anti-social, anti-law, anti-God movement is at present largely underground. We detect its subversive influence around us today—in the atheistic stance of secular humanism, in the totalitarian tendencies of extreme left-wing and right-wing ideologies, in the materialism of our consumer society which puts things in the place of God, in those so-called “theologies” which proclaim the death of God and the end of moral absolutes, and in the social permissiveness which cheapens the sanctity of human life, sex, marriage, and family, all of which God created or instituted.
In fact, the lawless work of Satan has been at work throughout history, starting with his deception of our first parents in order that they would fall into sin (Gen. 3:1–7). Even during times when the church is advancing behind mighty gospel works, the agenda of the enemy is striving to keep pace. This opposition is often noted during revivals, when the Holy Spirit’s power is bringing many people to Christ. Satan is also there, distracting with false conversions, infiltrating with false doctrines, and tempting with the false allure of numerical success in ministry. Similarly, in ordinary times of ministry, the devil is always trying to make inroads in order to divide, deceive, or distract people from the gospel fruits of faith and love. In the midst of a wedding service, for instance, the mystery of lawlessness is at work. In gatherings for prayer, in services of worship, and in seminary classrooms, Satan is seeking to lay seeds for his ill-intended fruit. John Bunyan depicted the danger in Pilgrim’s Progress by placing beside the path to the Porter’s Lodge two chained lions, which though roaring could not quite reach Christian as he passed by. Likewise, God is holding Satan back for the sake of the gospel, yet still he roars and, as Peter warned, “prowls around like a roaring lion” (1 Peter 5:8), seeking to devour those who wander off the path of obedience to God’s Word.
Knowing that this lawlessness is at work, believers must not merely look to the future day of trouble but also watch for its precursors now and stand guard over the precious things of God. This was Paul’s concern, so he urged his readers not to be taken in by false teachers. If we respond to his end-times teaching by exclaiming, “I am so glad not to live in the times of the Antichrist!” we fail to heed the warning of “the mystery of lawlessness … already at work” (2 Thess. 2:7). If we do not guard our speech, watch our hearts, and live in careful obedience to Scripture, we may well feel the sting of Satan’s bite and suffer great loss to our churches, our families, and our work because of our carelessness and complacency.
In the Splendor of His Coming
While God is currently restraining our enemy for the sake of the gospel, the day will come when he removes his restraint. “Then,” Paul says, “the lawless one will be revealed” (2 Thess. 2:8). The apostle uses a verb form of the word apokalupsis to speak of this revealing—a word (previously used of Christ’s second coming) that indicates the display of something previously present but hidden to sight (1:7). The mystery of lawlessness has been at work all along, but then the man of lawlessness will appear to have his day.
As we saw in our study of 2 Thessalonians 2:1–4, the coming of the Antichrist will lead to tribulation for the church and deception of the world so that a general rebellion against God will drive the church underground. Christians need to know that God has ordained this day of trouble for the world. More importantly, we need to know that the Antichrist’s revealing will signal the coming of Christ: “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” (v. 8).
The Greek word translated as “kill” is anaireo, which literally means to “take up” so as to remove; it was used of those condemned to be executed. Revelation 20:10 reveals that in Christ’s return, “the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur … [to] be tormented day and night forever and ever.” Leon Morris argues that in verse 8 emphasis is placed on the name “the Lord Jesus” in expressing “the glory of Him who first came in lowliness. Though He had once been despised and rejected, at the supreme moment of history He will be seen in all His glorious majesty.”
The majesty of Christ will be heightened by the ease of his victory over Satan and his Antichrist. Jesus “will kill with the breath of his mouth” (2 Thess. 2:8). The main idea here is simply the indomitable power that Christ wields merely by his breath. But in Revelation, Christ is first revealed with “a sharp two-edged sword” coming from his mouth (Rev. 1:16), the apparent meaning of which is the gospel Word with its power to either save or condemn. Revelation 19 then presents Christ as the conqueror on a white horse, adding that from “his mouth comes a sharp sword” (19:15). With these precedents, we should think of Christ as opening his mouth to overthrow Satan by means of his sovereign Word. In Christ’s coming, all creation will be reminded that the Savior who died on the cross is the Creator Son, who by merely speaking wields almighty power over every creature, small and great. The same voice that cried “Peace! Be still!” on the Sea of Galilee, so that the winds and waves obeyed (Mark 4:39), will speak with commanding power over evil in this world, and Satan’s power will crumble before him.
As Paul foresees it, Satan, the Antichrist, and all who had joined in the great apostasy against the church will come to nothing merely “by the appearance of his coming” (2 Thess. 2:8). The “coming” of Christ (Greek epiphaneia) will display such radiant splendor that as light floods a dark room and immediately subdues every shadow, so will the coming of Christ in glory conquer the entirety of creation with holiness. The Bible proclaims that Christ’s glory is so great that in the courts of heaven even the glorious seraphim cover their faces before him (Isa. 6:2). For believers, the effect of Christ’s appearing will be our own transformation into glory: John says that “when he appears,” believers will “be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). The same appearing of Christ will cause Satan to take up the words once spoken by Isaiah the prophet, when he became aware of his sinfulness before the glory of Christ: “Woe is me! For I am lost” (Isa. 6:5). Satan’s destruction will be followed by the judgment of all who worshiped idols and joined in the great rebellion against God. William B. Collyer writes of that coming day:
But sinners, filled with guilty fears, behold his wrath prevailing;
For they shall rise, and find their tears and sighs are unavailing:
The day of grace is past and gone; trembling they stand before the throne,
All unprepared to meet him.
The Present Day of Grace
As we conclude our study of Paul’s teaching on the awesome events preceding Christ’s return, we should take note, first, of the absolute sovereignty of God that this passage displays. Far from drawing the conclusion that Satan’s power is something to shake the foundation of a Christian’s faith, exactly the opposite should result from Paul’s teaching. The apostle can foretell these events because God has foreordained them. Having announced the exact course of the coming of the Antichrist and his great rebellion, God is the One who controls the future and determines its outcome.
In the sure and certain hope of God’s victory, Christians should joyfully submit to God’s care, doing everything in our power to serve him and give praise to his glorious grace. More important even than knowing what is going to happen is knowing who has ordained events by his sovereign will. D. Michael Martin writes: “For the people of God, then, peace and assurance come not from a full knowledge of the times and seasons but from a personal knowledge of the God who rules the times and seasons.” Paul has removed the veil enough for us to know about the coming of the lawless one and the great tribulation of God’s people. In these prophecies, we see even more clearly the sovereign control of the God who holds our salvation and the certain defeat of all that we might fear in the day of Christ’s glorious return.
Second, having been made wise not only about the future man of lawlessness, but also about the present “mystery of lawlessness,” Christians are reminded of our great resource in opposing the evil one now. Elsewhere the apostle James tells us, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7). Earlier Paul said that the way to resist the devil is by putting on “the breastplate of faith and love” and “for a helmet the hope of salvation” (1 Thess. 5:8). Now Paul reminds us of the prevailing power of God’s Word. We will see Satan destroyed at Christ’s coming by “the breath of his mouth” (2 Thess. 2:8). Martin Luther powerfully expressed this hope in his most famous hymn:
And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God has willed his truth to triumph through us.
The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo! his doom is sure;
One little word shall fell him.
Do you doubt the sufficiency of that “one little word”—God’s Word, the Bible—for ministry today? Then consider its effect in the coming of Christ! Let the sword of our Bibles never become rusty through disuse, but let us practice wielding God’s Word for our own salvation and the defense of Christ’s church.
Finally, how important it is, in light of what Paul has revealed concerning history, for each of us to be saved through faith in Christ now. I earlier compared Satan’s woeful demise when Christ appears to the reaction of the prophet Isaiah when he was confronted with a vision of Christ’s majestic holiness. Isaiah responded in the way that all sinners must respond—either now in repentance or in his return with hopeless dismay—when their eyes are opened to see the holiness of Christ: “Woe is me! For I am lost” (Isa. 6:5). How important that you should see your need of forgiveness now, in the day of grace when you can still be saved through faith in Jesus! Whereas Satan will be destroyed by the appearing of Christ’s glorious holiness, Isaiah was saved by calling in faith in the grace of God revealed in Christ. He cried, “My eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (v. 5).
Two things happened when Isaiah responded to the vision of Christ in faith. The first is that he was cleansed of his sins by the atoning blood of Jesus. Isaiah 6:6 depicts this by saying that “one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar.” This was a way of saying that the atoning sacrifice was applied to Isaiah’s sin: “he touched my mouth and said: ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for’ ” (Isa. 6:7). In this present day of grace, before the gospel restraint is removed, you, too, may be forgiven and cleansed by believing in Jesus—by realizing your sin and trusting his death to atone for your guilt.
Second, Isaiah heard God asking who would go forth to serve him with the gospel: “And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here am I! Send me’ ” (Isa. 6:8). We have seen the holy glory of Christ, experienced the cleansing of our sin by his blood, and now realize what is at stake in the world and what the future holds in the sovereign plan of God. Every Christian should therefore enlist in the service of the Sovereign Lord, each of us answering the call that God sets before us, in whatever way God gives us opportunity to advance his gospel. The cause is glorious, the end is certain, and the present need is great. How is God calling you to serve the cause of his gospel? Seeing in God’s Word the same vision that Isaiah saw of a sovereign, holy, victorious Christ enthroned with grace, surely we, too, must answer every call to pray, to give, to witness, and to serve, “Here am I! Send me.”
8. And then will be revealed—that is, when that impediment (τὸ κατέχον) shall be removed; for he does not point out the time of revelation as being when he, who now holds the supremacy, will be taken out of the way, but he has an eye to what he had said before. For he had said that there was some hinderance in the way of Antichrist’s entering upon an open possession of the kingdom. He afterwards added, that he was already hatching a secret work of impiety. In the third place, he has interspersed consolation, on the ground that this tyranny would come to an end. He now again repeats, that he4 who was as yet hidden, would be revealed in his time; and the repetition is with this view—that believers, being furnished with spiritual armour, may, nevertheless, fight vigorously under Christ, and not allow themselves to be overwhelmed, although the deluge of impiety should thus overspread.2
Whom the Lord. He had foretold the destruction of Antichrist’s reign; he now points out the manner of his destruction—that he will be reduced to nothing by the word of the Lord. It is uncertain, however, whether he speaks of the last appearance of Christ, when he will be manifested from heaven as the Judge. The words, indeed, seem to have this meaning, but Paul does not mean that Christ would accomplish this in one moment. Hence we must understand it in this sense—that Antichrist would be wholly and in every respect destroyed,4 when that final day of the restoration of all things shall arrive. Paul, however, intimates that Christ will in the mean time, by the rays which he will emit previously to his advent, put to flight the darkness in which Antichrist will reign, just as the sun, before he is seen by us, chases away the darkness of the night by the pouring forth of his rays.
This victory of the word, therefore, will shew itself in this world, for the spirit of his mouth simply means the word, as it also does in Isaiah 11:4, to which passage Paul seems to allude. For the Prophet there takes in the same sense the sceptre of his mouth, and the breath of his lips, and he also furnishes Christ with these very arms, that he may rout his enemies. This is a signal commendation of true and sound doctrine—that it is represented as sufficient for putting an end to all impiety, and as destined to be invariably victorious, in opposition to all the machinations of Satan; as also when, a little afterwards, the proclamation of it is spoken of as Christ’s coming to us.
When Paul adds, the brightness of his coming, he intimates that the light of Christ’s presence will be such as will swallow up the darkness of Antichrist. In the mean time, he indirectly intimates, that Antichrist will be permitted to reign for a time, when Christ has, in a manner, withdrawn, as usually happens, whenever on his presenting himself we turn our back upon him. And, undoubtedly, that is a sad departure of Christ, when he has taken away his light from men, which has been improperly and unworthily received,2 in accordance with what follows. In the mean time Paul teaches, that by his presence alone all the elect of God will be abundantly safe, in opposition to all the subtleties of Satan.
8 After this time has elapsed, the Lord Jesus will personally come to earth to “overthrow” the lawless one “with the breath of his mouth” and abolish (katargeō, GK 2934; NIV, “destroy”; NASB, “bring to an end”) him “by the splendor of his coming.” By putting the lawless one to death, the Lord will also halt his program of deceiving the world. “The breath of his mouth” could be a figurative reference to a word spoken by Christ, but a literal sense is satisfactory. The breath of God is a fierce weapon (Ex 15:8; 2 Sa 22:16; Job 4:9; Ps 33:6; Isa 30:27–28; cf. Milligan, 103; Best, 303).
“The splendor of his coming” is his other means of conquest. “Splendor” (epiphaneia, lit., “appearance,” GK 2211) occurs in the Pastoral Epistles as a practical equivalent for the term parousia (1 Ti 6:14; 2 Ti 1:10; 4:1, 8; Tit 2:13). This “appearance” phase of the parousia differs from the “gathering” phase (2 Th 1:1). It concludes and climaxes the period of tribulation instead of beginning it. The visible presence of the Lord Jesus in the world will put an immediate stop to an accelerated diabolical program.
8 The “and then” with which this clause begins appears to stand as an emphatic way of saying, “and not before,” over against whatever was currently circulating in Thessalonica that Paul noted at the beginning (v. 3). It is only after the events enumerated in verses 3b–4 have occurred that the Rebel himself will be “unveiled.” But having got that far, and in typical fashion, Paul immediately shifts his focus onto Christ. To be sure, at the proper time “the lawless one will be revealed”; but Paul is simply incapable of giving him top billing. Thus the rest of the sentence (through v. 10) is composed of two relative clauses, where the “whom” of our verse 8 and the “whose” of verse 9 describe, in turn, first (v. 8), what will happen eventually to the Rebel himself, and, second (vv. 9–10), the nature of the Rebel’s coming that is responsible in turn for his being overthrown by the Lord at his coming.
So what Paul says first about the Rebel is that he will eventually be slain by Christ at his Parousia. The rest of this clause is a moment of rare intertextuality in Paul’s letters, rare because he here uses kyrios (“Lord”) to refer to Christ in a passage whose primary language carries overtones of Jewish messianism. As with 1 Thessalonians 1:10 (q.v.), this appears to be an allusion to Christ as Messiah, speaking of him as presently in heaven awaiting his role in the final judgment of the wicked. In making this point, Paul does two things.
First, he picks up the language of Isaiah 11:4 (LXX) and applies it to Christ’s (second) coming:
|Whom the Lord will slay with the breath of his mouth and
will abolish at the manifestation of his Coming
|and he will strike the land with the word of his mouth, and
with the breath of his lips he will slay the ungodly
Here Isaiah had prophesied that the coming “shoot from the stump of Jesse” would be characterized by righteousness and justice that will include his slaying of the wicked with “the breath of his mouth.” With help from Psalm 32:6 (for the form of the phrase “the breath of his mouth”) Paul combines the two lines of Isaiah’s poetry into one and attributes this messianic future judgment to “the Lord = Jesus.”
But, second, Paul is not finished; so reflecting his own Semitic (and biblical) background, he turns his own prose into a moment of Semitic poetry, so that the rest of Paul’s sentence functions in very much the same way that synonymous parallelism does in the Psalter. Thus the second part clarifies the first by Paul’s speaking of the Rebel’s destruction in terms of Christ’s “abolishing” him at his (Christ’s) coming. That this is a poetic moment is demonstrated both by the redundancy of this clause in its own right, and by the (otherwise unnecessary) amplification of the “coming” itself. In plain prose Paul could easily have said simply, “at his coming”; but in this more poetic moment, the singular reality is amplified into “the manifestation of his coming,” where “manifestation” is intended to emphasize not just the fact of his coming, but especially its unmistakable and evidential character. That is, Christ’s coming will hardly be “secret,” since this word disallows such an option; rather, Christ’s Parousia will be openly manifest to all, both those who await his coming and those who will be “abolished” when he comes.
At the same time, the poetic nature of this sentence seems to disallow altogether that these two lines of (now poetic) prose intend two different events. Indeed, it is the nature of such synonymous parallelism in Hebrew poetry that the second line usually simply elaborates or intensifies what is said in the first line. Thus it is the poetic nature of this clause that reinforces for the Thessalonian believers that their present persecutors are destined for divine judgment; they will be “slain” by Christ and thus “abolished” at his coming.
Finally, one should note that the poetic nature of this sentence, and especially Paul’s deliberate borrowing of language from the Greek translation of Isaiah, likewise disallows speculation as to whether “the slain” are truly “abolished” in terms of ongoing existence. Given what Paul says elsewhere about the future of the wicked, one should probably not press what he says here beyond his immediate intent: to reassure a persecuted minority that God has not forgotten either them or their persecutors. Just as the Thessalonian believers have a sure future, so also do their persecutors, but not a future that they should look forward to!
The doom of the Antichrist (v. 8)
At some point in history, ‘the lawless one will be revealed’. This third description of the Antichrist is a Hebraism signifying a lawless man and emphasizing his rejection of sound doctrine and true worship and his moral declension (1 Tim. 4:1–5). It is also the third time that Paul has said that he will be ‘revealed’: the Greek word apokalupsis means ‘an uncovering in a moment of time’. The Antichrist is an eschatological figure (Mark 13:14) who will be uncovered in a moment at the end of time; but his decreed end is that he will be utterly consumed and destroyed. The verbs ‘will consume’ and ‘destroy’ (v. 8) doubly emphasize that his power and influence will be extinguished when he is defeated and Christ is victorious. ‘The breath of His [Christ’s] mouth’ will be enough to render the lawless one impotent. The phrase ‘the brightness of His coming’ speaks of the Second Coming of the Saviour and his descent to earth with his angels to judge the world in fulfilment of biblical prophecy (Isa. 11:4; 2 Thes. 1:6–7; 1 Thes. 4:16; 5:2). Paul predicts God’s ultimate verdict on the ‘lawless one’ and Satan and speaks of the glory that Jesus Christ will display at his Parousia, which will reveal his deity. He first came in lowliness and was despised and rejected, but he will come a second time with his attendant angels in glorious majesty (Matt. 24:29–31).
2:8 / And then the lawless one will be revealed. This is the third time that Paul has spoken in these terms (cf. vv. 3, 6). The expression the lawless one (ho anomos) now replaces “the man of lawlessness,” but the same person is meant. Paul gives no details beyond what is said (2:4) concerning his activities or concerning how long he will be active. From the revelation of the lawless one, Paul moves at once to speak about his destruction; he does this not in a separate statement, but as a further description of him, as though he is characteristically the one whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow (for the title Lord, see note on 1 Thess. 1:1). The sovereignty of God is again to the fore in this verse, while its language is largely dependent on lxx Isaiah 11:4. The verb rendered overthrow (anaireō) is a particularly strong one, “annihilate,” and the qualifying phrase, with the breath of his mouth, only here in the nt, underlines the ease of his annihilation—the Lord Jesus will utterly destroy him. As Luther poses it in A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, “A word shall quickly slay him.” Parallel with this and forming with it one clause descriptive of the lawless one is the statement that the Lord will destroy him by the splendor of his coming (see disc. on 1 Thess. 2:19 for parousia). Taken in isolation, destroy might be regarded as an over-translation of the verb katartizō. “To render inoperative” is more the sense, and the suggestion has been made that Paul was now backing off from the first statement. The lawless one would not be annihilated but made powerless. The difficulty lies in knowing how precisely Paul was using these words, but the parallelism with anaireō is probably decisive in accepting destroy. So the splendor of his (Jesus’) coming marks the end of the lawless one and of the evil that he represents. It cannot stand in the presence of the Lord. Two words are employed in this phrase, epiphaneia and parousia. When used alone, each signifies his coming, but in combination they are best expressed as in niv. Epiphaneia often carries with it the idea of splendor (used of Jesus’ second coming in 1 Tim. 6:14; 2 Tim. 4:1, 8; Titus 2:13 and of his first in 2 Tim. 1:10).
8. Translate, “the lawless one”; the embodiment of all the godless “lawlessness” which has been working in “mystery” for ages (2 Th 2:7): “the man of sin” (2 Th 2:3).
whom the Lord—Some of the oldest manuscripts read, “the Lord Jesus.” How awful that He whose very name means God-Saviour, should appear as the Destroyer; but the salvation of the Church requires the destruction of her foe. As the reign of Israel in Canaan was ushered in by judgments on the nations for apostasy (for the Canaanites were originally worshippers of the true God: thus Melchisedek, king of Salem, was the “priest of the most high God,” Ge 14:18: Ammon and Moab came from righteous Lot), so the Son of David’s reign in Zion and over the whole earth, is to be ushered in by judgments on the apostate Christian world.
consume … and … destroy—So Da 7:26, “consume and destroy”; Da 11:45. He shall “consume” him by His mere breath (Is 11:4; 30:33): the sentence of judgment being the sharp sword that goeth out of His mouth (Rev 19:15, 21). Antichrist’s manifestation and destruction are declared in the same breath; at his greatest height he is nearest his fall, like Herod his type (Is 1:24–27; Ac 12:20–23). As the advancing fire, while still at a distance consumes little insects [Chrysostom] by its mere heat, so Christ’s mere approach is enough to consume Antichrist. The mere “appearance of the coming” of the Lord of glory is sufficient to show to Antichrist his perfect nothingness. He is seized and “cast alive into the take of fire” (Rev 19:20). So the world kingdoms, and the kingdom of the beast, give place to that of the Son of man and His saints. The Greek for “destroy” means “abolish” (the same Greek is so translated, 2 Ti 1:10); that is, cause every vestige of him to disappear. Compare as to Gog attacking Israel and destroyed by Jehovah (Ez 38:1–39:29), so as not to leave a vestige of him.
with the brightness of his coming—Greek, “the manifestation, (or appearance) of His presence”: the first outburst of His advent—the first gleam of His presence—is enough to abolish utterly all traces of Antichrist, as darkness disappears before the dawning day. Next, his adherents are “slain with the sword out of His mouth” (Rev 19:21). Bengel’s distinction between “the appearance of His coming” and the “coming” itself is not justified by 1 Ti 6:14; 2 Ti 1:10; Tit 2:13, where the same Greek for “appearing” (English Version, here “the brightness”) plainly refers to the coming itself. The expression, “manifestation (appearing) of His presence,” is used in awful contrast to the revelation of the wicked one in the beginning of the verse.
Ver. 8.—And then; namely, so soon as he that restraineth is taken out of the way. Shall that Wicked; or, that lawless one, in whom the mystery of lawlessness is realized; not different from, but the same with, the “man of sin, the son of perdition.” Be revealed; appear unveiled in all his naked deformity. No longer working secretly, but openly, and in an undisguised form; no longer the mystery, but the revelation of lawlessness. The apostle now interrupts his description of the man of sin by announcing his doom. Whom the Lord; or, as the best-attested manuscripts read, whom the Lord Jesus. Shall consume; or rather, shall slay (R. V.). With the spirit (or, breath) of his mouth. Various interpretations have been given to this clause. Some refer it to the Word of God, and others to the Holy Spirit, and suppose that the conversion of the world is here predicted; but this is evidently an erroneous interpretation, as the doom of antichrist is here announced. Others refer the term to a cry or word, and think that the sentence of condemnation pronounced by the Lord Jesus on the wicked is intended. But the words are to be taken literally as a description of the power and irresistible might of Christ at his coming—that the mere breath of his mouth is sufficient to consume the wicked (comp. Isa. 11:4, “He shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked”). And shall destroy (or, annihilate) with the brightness (or, appearance) of his coming. The two words, epiphany and parousia, which are elsewhere used separately to denote the coming of Christ, are here employed. There is no ground for the assertion that the first is the subjective and the second the objective aspect of Christ’s coming (Olshausen). The brightness of Christ’s coming is not here expressed; but the meaning is that the mere appearance of Christ’s presence will annihilate the wicked.
8. καὶ τότε, “and then”—when the restrainer has been removed.
ἀποκαλυφθήσεται ὁ ἄνομος, “the lawless one will be revealed.” For the third time the passive of ἀποκαλύπτειν is used to denote the epiphany of the counterfeit Christ, lawlessness incarnate. But he is revealed only to be destroyed.
ὃν ὁ κύριος [Ἰησοῦς] ἀνελεῖ τῷ πνεύνατι τοῦ στόματος αὐτοῦ, “whom the Lord [Jesus] will destroy with the breath of his mouth.” This clause is based on Isa 11:4, LXX, where the coming Prince of the house of David is to “smite the earth with the word of his mouth (τοῦ στόματος αὐτοῦ) and destroy (ἀνελεῖ) the wicked one (ἀσεβῆ) with breath (πνεύματι) through his lips.” There “the wicked one” is generic; here he is the particular individual (ὁ ἄνομος) in whom the mystery of lawlessness is made public.
καὶ καταργήσει τῇ ἐπιφανείᾳ τῆς παρουσίας αὐτοῦ, “and will bring (him) to an end with the dawning of his Advent.” This is the only NT occurrence of ἐπιφάνεια outside the Pastoral Epistles, where it used once (2 Tim 1:10) of the first coming of Christ and four times (1 Tim 6:14; 2 Tim 4:1, 8; Tit 2:13) of his Advent in glory (παρουσία does not occur in the Pastorals). If ἐπιφάνεια (“manifestation”) were synonymous with παρουσία here, the construction would be pleonastic; it more probably means “dawning,” as in Polybius, Hist. 3.94.3, τὴν ἐπιφάνειαν τῆς ἡμέρας (“the dawn of day,” “daybreak”). The bright dawn of Christ’s Parousia will consume the man of lawlessness; we may compare the “flaming fire” of 1:7, 8.
This picture of the warrior Messiah has OT precedent (cf. Isa 11:4 quoted in preceding comment; Isa 66:15, 16 and Mal 4:1 quoted in comment and explanation on 1:8; also Yahweh’s portrayal as a man of war in Isa 42:13, 25; 59:15b–19; 63:1–6). It passed into apocalyptic imagery, as in the Ascension of Isaiah (4:14), where “the Lord will come with his angels and with the armies of the holy ones from the seventh heaven with the glory of the seventh heaven, and he will drag Beliar into Gehenna together with his armies,” and in the detailed picture of Rev 19:11–21, where the “Word of God,” mounted on a war-horse, smites his enemies with the sharp sword proceeding from his mouth and throws the “beast” (corresponding to the man of lawlessness) and his agent the false prophet into the lake of fire and brimstone.
The outbreak of the rebellion (2:6–8)
Paul does not specify what form the rebellion will take. But the word he uses for it, apostasia (3), meant in classical Greek either a military revolt or a political defection, whereas in the lxx it applied to religious apostasy, namely Israel’s rebellion against God. Presumably Antichrist’s revolt, therefore, being directed against God and Law, will even infiltrate and engulf the nominal church.
Not yet, however. For the rebellion will not take place until the chief rebel has emerged (3). And, Paul adds, you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time (6). Paul’s preoccupation here is with the time of the rebellion. He uses a series of time references, in order that the Thessalonians may grasp the order of events: ‘Now you know what is restraining him, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. For already the mystery of lawlessness is at work secretly; but the one who now restrains it will continue to do so until he is removed. And then the lawless one will be revealed’ (6–8). Two processes are now already going on simultaneously. On the one hand the secret power of lawlessness is … at work surreptitiously and subversively. On the other hand, the restraining influence is also at work, preventing the secret rebelliousness from breaking out into open rebellion. Only when this control is lifted will first the revolt and then the Parousia take place.
The nature of what is holding him back (6), which is later personalized as the one who now holds it back (7), has caused commentators many headaches. Once again we stand at an initial disadvantage, because Paul’s Thessalonian readers knew what the restraining influence was (6), since he had regularly taught them about these things (5), whereas we have not had the benefit of the apostle’s initial instruction. It is not altogether surprising, then, that even the great Augustine, reacting against unprofitable conjectures, declared, ‘I frankly confess I do not know what he means.’
Before we are in a position to weigh the possible interpretations, it may be helpful to bring together the four facts about the ‘restraint’ which Paul clarifies. First, it is at work now and is effectively stopping the outbreak of the rebellion. Secondly, ‘it’ may also be referred to as ‘he’ (7). The restraint is both neuter and masculine, something and someone, a pressure and a person. Thirdly, at the right time this ‘it’ or ‘he’ will be removed, and the removal will trigger the final timetable, namely the revelation first of Antichrist and then of Christ. Fourthly, there must be some reason, in addition to the Thessalonians’ knowledge, which prompts Paul to write about the restraint and its removal in such guarded, roundabout and even cryptic terms. Here, then, are our four guidelines. The ‘restraint’ must be socially effective, capable of a personal manifestation, historically removable and delicate enough to be talked about in whispers and enigmas. Three main explanations have been proposed.
First, the restraining power is the Holy Spirit and the work of the church. In this case, the ‘he who restrains’ would be the Spirit himself, while the ‘it who restrains’ would be the church he indwells. Certainly Jesus intended his people, like salt in meat, to exercise a restraining influence on society. But why should Paul write of the Spirit and the church in such enigmatic terms? And the concept of the church being ‘removed’ before the rebellion would mean that it would not be there to greet Christ on his return.
The second suggestion is that the restraint is Paul and the preaching of the gospel. One or two of the early fathers held this view, and Calvin wrote: ‘Paul declared that the light of the gospel must first be spread through every part of the world …’. Again, ‘I hear Paul speaking of the universal call of the Gentiles’. The ‘restraint’ on this showing is the necessary ‘delay’ until the world is evangelized. Oscar Cullmann took up and developed this theme, emphasizing Paul’s unique role as the apostle to the Gentiles. In this case the masculine ‘restrainer’ is ‘a self-designation of the apostle’ and the neuter ‘restraint’ is his ‘missionary preaching’.39 But if the reference is to himself and his evangelism, why should he need to be so cryptic about it? Besides, did he really see himself at the centre of the eschatological stage, so that the rebellion awaited his removal from the scene? And how could his removal (presumably by death) be reconciled with his apparent hope of surviving until the Parousia (1 Thes. 4:13ff.)?
The third and most widely held view is that the restraining influence is Rome and the power of the state. Tertullian seems to have been the first church father to enunciate this: ‘What obstacle is there but the Roman state …?’ Not that the reference need be limited to the Roman Empire; every state, being the guardian of law and order, public peace and justice, meets the case equally well. It is true that in Revelation 13 the state is portrayed as satanic, and that when it appears in this guise it can hardly be conceived as the restrainer of Antichrist. Indeed, it is this which led Cullmann to declare the interpretation of the state as the restrainer ‘the least probable hypothesis’. Nevertheless, Paul regarded the state as God’s agent for the punishment of evil.42 In fact, there are four main arguments in favour of this interpretation:
- It makes good sense. As Plummer wrote, ‘the natural restrainer of lawlessness is the law, and in the first century the great organizer and executor of the law was the Roman Empire’. He even wrote that this explanation fits so well that ‘it is almost a waste of time to look for any other’.44
- It tallies with Paul’s known view and experience of the state. He and Silas as Roman citizens had recently experienced Roman justice both in Philippi and at the hands of the politarchs in Thessalonica itself, and the proconsul Gallio’s fair handling of a potentially ugly situation in Corinth might be fresh in Paul’s mind. Further, he would soon be expounding to the Romans his conviction that the state was God’s servant to punish evil and promote good.46
- The combination of the neuter and the masculine is easily explained. ‘Think’, wrote Hendriksen, ‘of the empire and the emperor, of justice and the judge, of law and the one who enforces it.’
- The enigmatic reference would be explicable, since there were obvious prudential reasons for not openly and explicitly predicting that the state would be ‘taken out of the way’ or ‘removed from the scene’ (reb).
Meanwhile, even during the period of restraint, and before the lawless one is revealed, the secret power of lawlessness is already at work (7a). ‘The secret power’ translates to mystērion. It cannot here bear its usual meaning in Paul’s writings of ‘a truth once hidden but now revealed’, since it is still secret and is contrasted with the coming ‘revelation’ of the man of lawlessness. Before he is revealed openly, however, the lawlessness he embodies is operating secretly. His anti-social, anti-law, anti-God movement is at present largely underground. We detect its subversive influence around us today—in the atheistic stance of secular humanism, in the totalitarian tendencies of extreme left-wing and right-wing ideologies, in the materialism of the consumer society which puts things in the place of God, in those so-called ‘theologies’ which proclaim the death of God and the end of moral absolutes, and in the social permissiveness which cheapens the sanctity of human life, sex, marriage and family, all of which God created or instituted.
Were it not for some remaining restraints (which preserve a measure of justice, freedom, order and decency) these things would break out much more virulently. And one day they will. For when the restraint is removed, then secret subversion will become open rebellion under the unscrupulous leadership of the lawless one who will be revealed (8a). Then we can expect a period (mercifully short) of political, social and moral chaos, in which both God and Law are impudently flouted, until suddenly the Lord Jesus will come and overthrow him with the breath of his mouth and destroy him by the splendour of his coming (8). ‘There is no long battle’, writes Ernest Best, ‘victory comes at once.’
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, J. (2010). Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians (pp. 334–336). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 Thomas, R. L. (2006). 2 Thessalonians. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, pp. 472–473). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 2, pp. 397–398). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
 Stott, J. R. W. (1994). The message of Thessalonians: the gospel & the end of time (pp. 167–171). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.