The Agora
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Man of sin

Who is the "man of sin", or "lawlessness", referred to in 2Th 2:3? The pope? Garner Ted Armstrong? Jerry Falwell? Some Middle East demagogue yet to appear on the scene? The Bible text does not give a name. But there is much information given for us to consider.

Immediate context

The context concerns "the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling to meet him" (v 1), a subject also discussed in 1Th 4:13 -- 5:11. Paul tells the brethren "not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited, either by spirit or by word, or by letter purporting to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come" (2Th 2:2), a warning previously given by Jesus himself (Mat 24:4,5,10,11,23-27). Apparently, there was false and hurtful information being rumored in Thessalonica. So Paul was putting things straight, saying: "So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word or mouth or by letter" (2Th 2:15), and Paul seems to have begun specially marking his letters so as to establish their authenticity (2Th 3:17).

Paul's message was obviously immediately applicable to his readers (else why would he write it?); however, the subject matter also clearly refers to the Second Coming of Christ (2Th 2:8; 1:7,10). Therefore, both present and future situations were being discussed. For example, Paul writes that God "deems it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you" (a present happening to the Thessalonians: 2Th 1:4), "when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels" (still a future event: 2Th 1:10). So when the verb tenses in 2Th 2 are found to be both present and future (thus allowing both a first century and a Last Days interpretation), it is not surprising.

We should expect, therefore, that "the man of lawlessness" (1) refers to some wickedness in Paul's day, and (2) also points forward to something similar in our own day.

Key Clue and Overall Context

"For that day [of the Lord's coming] will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition" (v 3). Since Judas is also called "the son of perdition" (Joh 17:12), we are given a key Bible clue as to the character of this man of lawlessness. Like Judas, he is outwardly a disciple, but in reality he is a betrayer, a thief, a "devil" (ie, liar), a false apostle, a "satan" (ie, adversary) against the truth (Joh 6:70; Luk 22:3). "The coming of the lawless one by the activity of Satan will be with all power and with pretended signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are to perish...." (2Th 2:9,10). 2Co 12:12 describes the work of a true apostle in terms almost identical with this verse, indicating that Paul is here exposing the work of a false apostle. This reinforces the idea that this "man of lawlessness" appears at first to be a powerful believer, but who is instead revealed to be a traitor.

This description is also a remarkable likeness to Jesus' prediction in Mat 24:24 about false prophets arising and showing great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray even the elect. Jesus' warning also emphasizes how important it is for us to understand these scriptures, lest we be led astray. At this point, what Paul wrote to the Corinthians is very relevant:

"And what I do I will continue to do, in order to undermine the claim of those who would like to claim that in their boasted mission they work on the same terms as we do... Such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ... No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light" (2Co 11:12-14). These words confirm that Paul was warning against a group of undermining brethren (not an individual) who were labeled "satan" (cp 1Th 2:18,16; 3:5). These deceivers are comparable to John's "antichrist", a group, not an individual (cp 1Jo 4:1,3; 2:18,19; 2Jo 1:7). Like Jesus and John, Paul is keen to warn the brethren and expose this false movement.

Further confirmation is found in Gal 2:4, where Paul laments the treacherous work of false brethren "secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy out our freedom in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage". He did not yield for a moment, but strongly resisted the intrusion of these "Judaizers", members of the "circumcision party" (Gal 2:12; cp Acts 11:2; 15:1,5), who were preaching a different gospel (Gal 1:6-9; cp 2Co 11:4,5). Paul was contending for the loyalty of the Galatians and against the circumcision party "that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you" (Gal 2:5,14). He was now doing the same with the Thessalonians, declaring that "God chose you from the beginning to be saved through sanctification of the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel...." (2Th 2:13,14).

Summarizing so far, we started with the "son of perdition" clue, and have established an overall context of Paul's writing, namely, his struggles against the false-brethren Judaizers. This provides a very helpful background to understand the terms and ideas next encountered in the 2Th 2 passage.

First-Century Application

"[He] opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God" (2Th 2:4). Understanding a few terms will help here. The "temple of God" often refers to the household of believers, and not necessarily to a physical building (Eph 2:21; Joh 2:19, 1Co 3:16). "Proclaiming himself to be God" is merely claiming divine authority, not divinity itself (this is the sense of the Greek text). Therefore this verse is confirming what was found to be characteristic of the Judaizing brethren: they proclaimed to know and teach the way to salvation (through circumcision) and openly opposed Paul on the matter (Acts 15:1-5), claiming they were also "apostles" (2Co 11:5; 12:11,12).

"Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you this? And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way" (2Th 2:5-7). Little is recorded in Acts 17:1-9 concerning what Paul said to the Thessalonians, but we do have his first letter to them. We can glean some clues from his words in 1Th 2:3-6,18, and especially 1Th 3:2-5. Timothy was Paul's fellow servant sent to establish them in their faith and to exhort them to resist the Judaizing tempters (cp 2Co 11:3-5). The "mystery" or "secret" is now understandable in light of the foregoing. Men from within the ranks of believers were already assaulting the truth of the gospel. Paul was one of the few who perceived the treachery of these false apostles and was steadfastly restraining their pernicious work. When he died, however, their evil work would go unchecked.

This interpretation is verified by reference to Acts 20:29-31, where Paul warns the Ephesian elders: "I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert...."

Last Days Application

"And then the lawless one will be revealed, and the Lord Jesus will slay him with the breath of his mouth and destroy him by his appearing and his coming" (2Th 2:8). Verse 8 really comes in thought immediately after v 3, for it speaks of when the lawless one will be revealed, and that exposure/destruction occurs with the Coming of Jesus. V 4 is just a descriptive elaboration upon the man of lawlessness, while vv 5-7 are actually an aside or parenthetical remark. Here in 2Th 2:8 the destruction of the man of lawlessness is the same as that mentioned earlier in 2Th 1:8-10: "Inflicting vengeance upon those who... do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord... when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints..." The plural "they" illustrates that the "man of lawlessness" represents a group, not a single individual. Christ's coming was obviously a future event, even in Paul's time, although he would not guess that another 2,000 years would pass.

The "appearing and coming of the Lord" is a phrase similar to that in 2Ti 4:1, and entails the judgment of the living and the dead (cp 1Th 4:14,15), which means the reward of the faithful and the condemnation of the faithless (2Ti 4:8). "And with all wicked deception for those who are to perish, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends upon them a strong delusion, to make them believe what is false, so that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness" (2Th 2:10-12). These are very sobering words. Thinking about Judas, it underscores how terrible it was to be a "son of perdition". Clearly Judas chose to be a thief, a betrayer, and ultimately a man who could see no way for repentance; and so he hanged himself. Judas refused to "love the truth" (ie accept Jesus and his instruction); therefore, he could not be saved (Acts 4:12). Judas was a child of the devil, a man of sin, a man of lawlessness (1Jo 2:4-10) who "did not believe the truth" (Joh 8:44; Rom 1:25), and therefore placed himself outside, making his condemnation inevitable (Joh 13:30; Rev 22:15).

Think about people like Judas. They are those within the circle of disciples who "had pleasure in unrighteousness" (2Ti 3:1-5, a reference to the ecclesial world!). In 1Ti 6:3-10, it speaks of those within the church whose incessant controversial activity and base suspicions and slander label them as men "bereft of the truth", and whose seeking to be rich (in status too?) caused them to "wander from the faith". This is a "Last Days" sign (2Ti 4:1).

Who are candidates for the Last Days "man of sin"? Men who fit the description given in Scripture! That means looking within Christendom. It means whole organizations or sects could be involved. It suggests that no denomination is excluded. So the various accusations over the years -- "it's the Jesuits", "it's the World Council of Churches", "it's the Southern Baptist Conference liberals", etc -- may all be correct! But Scripture does not name anyone explicitly (how could it?). As Judas was not revealed until the last moment by Jesus, so the modern "men of sin" will not be revealed until Christ's coming. Until then, wheat and tares (weeds) will be allowed to "grow together until the harvest", and then Christ will have his reaper angels gather and burn the evildoers, leaving the righteous to shine in the kingdom (Mat 13:28-30,40-43).

Personal Application

2Ti 3:8-13 describes men "of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith, men who also oppose the truth" ; these "impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceivers and deceived....". And 2Ti 4:3,4 describes people who "will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears will accumulate to themselves teachers to suit their own liking, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths". So "men of sin" inevitably and successfully attract a following, who are convinced in the "rightness" of their leader. How can a disciple not be deceived? By using the truth of Scripture (2Ti 3:14-16; 1Ti 4:1-5). The warning to us is plain: Understand and live God's truth for yourself:

"Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers" (1Ti 4:16). Recognize those in your midst who are manifesting the Judaizing beliefs and behavior, and resist/oppose them, with meekness and love, as did Paul and Timothy (2Ti 2:22-26; 4:5). The Lord will rescue such disciples from every evil and save them for his heavenly kingdom (2Ti 4:18).

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