“You know what is restraining [the man of lawlessness] 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” (vv. 6–7).- 2 Thessalonians 2:5–7
Continuing our look at 2 Thessalonians 2, let us begin today’s study with a quick summary of what Paul has said in verses 1–4. As we have seen, the Apostle teaches that Jesus had not yet returned when Paul wrote his second epistle to the first-century church at Thessalonica and that our Lord cannot come back until two things have happened. First, there must be a great rebellion or apostasy. Second, the “man of lawlessness” must take his seat “in the temple of God” and set himself against every “so-called god or object of worship.” This man, this Antichrist, will establish himself as the only being to be worshiped in all of creation.
Figuring out the identities of the rebellion and the man of lawlessness is not easy. Some have suggested that Paul refers to the great rebellion of the Jews against their Messiah, Jesus, culminating in the revolt against Rome that ended with the defilement and destruction of the temple. This interpretation fits well with what we know of the first-century setting, for the Roman emperors claimed to be deities worthy of worship, allowing for virtually any of them to be identified as the man of lawlessness. Others have suggested that Paul speaks of a great apostasy of professing Christians who reject Christ when the final Antichrist reveals himself and demands worship. Perhaps it is best to say that these two views are not necessarily opposed to one another. It very well could be that a Roman emperor is in view in 2 Thessalonians 2 but that he is a type or foreshadowing of the Antichrist who is yet to come but who must come before Jesus consummates His kingdom.
Whoever the man of lawlessness is, Paul tells us in 2 Thessalonians 2:5–7 that he will not be revealed until “he who now restrains” the mystery of lawlessness is out of the way. Here again we run into the difficulty of identifying this restrainer. Some commentators have suggested that the restrainer is some powerful military or political force who will decline and fall just before the man of lawlessness rises to his position. Others believe Paul means that the restrainer is the Holy Spirit, who will at some point stop holding back the fullness of wickedness and allow a specific archenemy of Christ to come to power. Either way, the existence of a restrainer confirms God’s sovereignty over the events of the end. He will not allow the man of lawlessness to rise until the time He has decreed from all eternity (see also Matt. 24:36–51).
Over the centuries, many people have sought to identify the Antichrist and have developed theories as to who he is and when he will come. It is worthwhile to try to figure out who Paul might be thinking of when he speaks of the “man of lawlessness,” but we should not spend too much effort on this. We should be content to know that God knows who this man is and that the Antichrist cannot operate outside the Lord’s sovereign plan.
Passages for Further Study
1 John 3:4