The apostle Peter once wrote that “there are some things in [Paul’s letters] that are hard to understand” (2 Pet. 3:15). One can’t help but wonder if he had 2 Thessalonians 2 in mind. The “rebellion” (2:3), the “man of lawlessness” (2:3, cf. 2:8), the restrainer (2:6–7)—who or what are these things?
It appears Paul is reminding the Thessalonians of what he had taught them earlier (2 Thess. 2:5–6). If only we could’ve been there to record that sermon! We may not be able to fully resolve every question that arises from this chapter, but enough is clear for us to receive the comfort and encouragement that Paul wanted to give the Thessalonians through this part of his letter.
Summing Up Paul’s Instruction
In the chapter’s opening, Paul explains his reason for writing. It appears the Thessalonians had become unsettled by a teaching (allegedly Paul’s) “that the day of the Lord has come” (2 Thess. 2:2). Paul not only disavows the teaching, but reminds the Thessalonians what he had earlier taught them. The day of the Lord has not yet come, with all of the future blessing that believers in Christ eagerly await. Paul doesn’t want to frighten the Thessalonians; he wants to comfort them by reassuring them of their future hope that lies in the gospel.
Paul doesn’t want to frighten the Thessalonians; he wants to comfort them by reassuring them of their future hope that lies in the gospel.
To do that, Paul proves that Christ’s return (“the day of the Lord”) has yet to happen. There are, he says, certain things that must happen first. The “rebellion” must “come first,” and “the man of lawlessness”—that is, the “son of destruction”—must be “revealed” (2 Thess. 2:3). He will be “revealed in his time,” Paul continues, though for the present something “is restraining him” (2:6). But one day, he who now restrains the mystery of lawlessness will be removed (2:7). Then “the lawless one will be revealed,” and the Lord Jesus will destroy him at his appearing “with the breath of his mouth” (2:8).
Examining Three Puzzling Phrases
Paul mentions three things that deserve a closer look.
1. The Rebellion (2 Thess. 2:3)
The underlying Greek word is apostasia, from which we get “apostasy.” In light of the context of the whole chapter, “apostasy” expresses Paul’s meaning well. He is likely thinking of some kind of future, marked rejection of God’s truth within the visible church.
2. The Man of Lawlessness (2 Thess. 2:3)
The second thing is the “man of lawlessness” (2 Thess. 2:3), also referred to as the “son of destruction” (2:3) or “the lawless one” (2:8, 9). Paul is clear both that this person has yet to appear, and that he is someone other than Satan (2:9). A clue to his identity lies in verse 7, where Paul says “the mystery of lawlessness is already at work.” “Lawlessness” is common to both the man and the mystery (2:3, 7), but while the man of lawlessness is future, the mystery of lawlessness is present.
Lawlessness is common to both the man and the mystery (2:3, 7), but while the man of lawlessness is future, the mystery of lawlessness is present.
So what does Paul mean by the “mystery of lawlessness”? The word “mystery” does not mean a puzzle or riddle we must try and solve, like Sherlock Holmes or Father Brown. In the Bible, the word “mystery” refers to something that God had formerly concealed but has now revealed. Paul is saying that God has made known to us, in his Word, a present “lawlessness” that will come to climactic expression in the “man of lawlessness.” Since the “man of lawlessness” will be active within the church (the “temple of God,” 2:4), the present “lawlessness” is likely at work within the church as well. If so, then the false teaching Paul is opposing (2:1–2) is Exhibit A of that “lawlessness” in the Thessalonian church.
But, of course, the “man of lawlessness” is not yet here. Which leads to Paul’s third point.
3. The Restrainer (2 Thess. 2:7)
There is a restrainer, keeping the man of lawlessness back. Who or what is it? Paul speaks of this restrainer in both personal terms (“he who now restrains it,” 2:7) and impersonal terms (“what is restraining him now,” 2:6), so the restrainer could as easily be a “what” as a “who.” One recent commentary has identified seven mainstream proposals as to the restrainer’s identity, ranging from the civil magistrate (the Roman empire/emperor; “the principle of law and order and the political leaders in general”) to the church (the presence of gospel proclamation, Paul, or the Holy Spirit) to angels (demons and Satan, the archangel Michael).
What’s important is that the restrainer does precisely what God intends for him/it to do, and for as long as God intends for him/it to do it.
It’s impossible to be certain, but since Paul is thinking of lawlessness that transpires within the church, the restrainer is probably also found within the church. Paul may be thinking, then, of the gospel message, the Word of God, ministers of the Word, the government of the church, the Spirit who indwells the church, or some combination of any of these. In any case, what’s important is that the restrainer does precisely what God intends for him/it to do, and for as long as God intends for him/it to do it. Nothing, Paul says, that takes place in the church—now or later—falls outside the providence of God.
Message of Hope
And that point helps us to see Paul’s underlying message of comfort and hope. In all of the distressing events that befall the church, God is sovereign. He is all-powerful. Even when things seem at their worst for the church, when the “lawless one” is revealed, Jesus will appear and effortlessly bring him to nothing (2 Thess. 2:8).
And our sovereign, all-powerful God is also gracious. He has set his saving love upon us, he has called us through the gospel, and we will “obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess. 2:13–14). Because he holds us firm in the grip of his grace (2:16), we may “stand firm and hold to” the Word of God he has given us through his apostles (2:15), abounding “in every good work and word” (2:17).
That is the good news of 2 Thessalonians 2: God is on his throne, and we are in his hands.