It has been a while, but I want to continue to work through some of the hard questions that members of my congregation sent to me earlier this year. One question was, “Who is the man of lawlessness in II Thessalonians 2:1-12?” To answer this question we must begin by asking what is going on in I Thessalonians 4-5 and in II Thessalonians 2. Throughout this article I am going to lean on Keith Mathison’s interpretation in his book Postmillennialism. Most readers assume that whenever “the day of the Lord” is mentioned, such as in II Thessalonians 2:2, that it means Christ’s second coming. However, there are numerous indicators that II Thessalonians 2 is not talking about Christ’s second coming, but rather he is talking about Christ coming in judgment upon Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
In I Thessalonians 4-5 the modern reader believes he is reading about the same event described in two different ways. Chapter 4:13-18 clearly refers to the final day and the resurrection from the dead. Paul talks about Jesus bringing with him those who sleep, the Lord descending from heaven, and all of us being caught up with Him in the clouds.
But is 5:1-11 referring to the same event, the second coming? There are several indicators that chapter 5 is not referring to the second coming of Christ.
First, in chapters 4-5 Paul is answering a series of questions or responding to news he had gotten from Timothy about the church in Thessalonica (3:6). He discusses sexual immorality (4:1-8), brotherly love (4:9-12), and the second coming (4:13-18). There does appear to change the subject in 5:1. Paul uses the same phrase he uses in 4:9 to change the subject from sexual immorality to brotherly love. Context indicates that he could be changing the subject.
Second, much of the language used in 5:1-4 is used by Jesus in Matthew 24. I do not have time to go into here, but Matthew 24 is not referring to the end of the world, but to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. At the end of this post I link to several other blog posts to prove this point.
Third, if the day of the Lord is the second coming then why would the Thessalonians believe it had already come in II Thessalonians 2:2? Why would Paul need to convince them that they Day of the Lord had not come, if that day was referring to Christ’s return and all believers being “caught up” with him in the air? Read II Thessalonians 2 and ask yourself how this makes any sense if Paul is talking about the end of the world?
In short I Thessalonians 4 refers to the 2nd coming and Paul assures his readers of their resurrection and their joining with Christ. I Thessalonians 5 and II Thessalonians 2 do not refer to the 2nd coming, but instead refers to Christ coming in judgment upon Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
Who is the Man of Lawlessness?
In II Thessalonians 2:1 and following Paul is telling these Christians that the destruction of Jerusalem has not yet occurred. They had gotten some letter or messaging stating the Christ had come in judgment upon their enemies (2:2). He then says two things must occur before the Day of the Lord. There must be an apostasy/rebellion and the man of lawlessness must be revealed. What can we determine about this man of lawlessness?
- He is a political leader. The language used in 2:4 is used in the Old Testament of wicked political rulers (See Isaiah 14:4-21, Ezekiel 28:2-19, and Daniel 11:36).
- He is being restrained right now and the Thessalonians know what is restraining him (2:6). This means he is alive when Paul is writing around 51-52 A.D.
- Despite being restrained he is already at work ( vs. 7).
- His reign will be marked by great wickedness (vs. 9-10).
- He will be killed by God after he is let loose (2:8).
Mathison believes this refers to Nero, who when II Thessalonians was written, was not yet Emperor, but soon became Emperor after his mother killed the current emperor. Nero was known for his extraordinary wickedness. During his reign the Jews rebelled against Rome. This could be the rebellion referred to in vs. 3. Rome then began to wage war on the Jews. This is called the Jewish War. During this war, in A.D. 68, Nero died. This is one of the most plausible explanations. Though I am not convinced it fits with verse 4, where the man of lawlessness is said to sit in the temple of God. It is possible this man of lawlessness was a Jewish leader who lead Israel in rebellion against Rome.
Whoever the exact man was, this much is clear, II Thessalonians 2 is not referring to a future man of lawlessness. This man was around when Paul wrote, but restrained. He has already passed off the scene. There is no man of lawlessness coming in the future.