· Who is “the man of lawlessness”? The problem for the present-day reader is one of identification.
· Both of Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians are in response to questions about the return of Christ. In the first century, the faith of early Christians was energized by the lively hope and expectation of the imminent return of the Lord. His resurrection was a sign that the power of death was defeated (Ac 2:24), and that these “last days” (Ac 2:17), inaugurated by his life, death and resurrection, would soon come to the end (1Co 7:29) in the glorious Second Coming of Christ (Ac 3:20). Paul shared with others the belief that this culmination might happen within their lifetime (1Th 4:15).
· In light of these convictions, certain events raised troubling questions for the Christians in Thessalonica. Would those Christians who died be excluded from the glorious event of Christ’s Second Coming (1Th 4:13-14)? Paul’s answer is that at Christ’s coming those who belong to him, even they have died, will be resurrected and gathered in one fellowship with those who are still living (1Th 4:16‑17).
· In 2 Thessalonians, we hear about fears stirred up among believers by some within the church who claimed that the “day of the Lord” had already come (2:2). Such a claim was unsettling and alarming, for it implied that they had been excluded from the event of Christ’s return and “shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power” (1:9). Paul calls that claim deceitful (2:3), asserting that certain events which precede Christ’s coming have yet to occur.
· In describing these events (2:3-10), Paul first mentions “the man of lawlessness”. He is apparently the key figure in a general rebellion (2:3) who exalts himself both above the so-called gods of heathen worship and “sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God” (2:4). His coming “will be in accordance with the work of Satan” and accompanied by “all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders” (2:9), as well as “every sort of evil” (2:10). He is “doomed to destruction” (2:3) at the hands of the Lord Jesus (2:8).
The depiction of “the lawless one” within the
context of a rebellion against God is similar some related passages in the Old
Testament. The “lawless one” is anticipated in the vision of Daniel 11, where a
future ruler is said to exalt himself above all gods (11:36-37) and to
desecrate the temple (11:3). Jewish Christians would also have remembered that
the Maccabaean revolt against the Syrian overloads in 167-164 B.C. was provoked
by the Syrian monarch Antiochus IV, who claimed that he was “God manifest” and
defiled the temple. Other adversaries of
About a decade before Paul wrote to
Thessalonica, the emperor Caligula had attempted to erect a statue of himself in the
· This figure is similar to the Antichrist in John’s epistles, a figure associated with the end of history (“the last hour”), who denies both God and Christ (1Jn 2:18‑22). Like the lawless one, the Antichrist is a deceiver (2Jn 7). And just as “lawlessness” is at work already prior to the historical revealing of “the man of lawlessness”, so the “spirit of antichrist” is already at work prior to the personal, incarnate form of that spirit (1Jn 4:3).
· Paul’s words about the appearing of the “man of lawlessness” prior to the second coming of Christ express the belief that demonic opposition to God, already present in the world, though in a restrained way, will ultimately reach a peak and become incarnated in a historical person who will lead a massive anti-Christ movement.
· For Christians in the first century, the spirit of antichrist, if not the Antichrist himself, was seen as personified in the persecuting Caesars. Frequently throughout church history, both secular and religious leaders have been identified as this “man of lawlessness” or “antichrist”. All these attempts to pinpoint the lawless one have clearly been unsuccessful, revealing that such undertakings are likely presumptuous and futile. When he is revealed, believers will recognize this final incarnation of evil. In the meantime, they are called to be resist the spirit of lawlessness and challenge the evil’s domination.
· Paul mentions the antichrist, not so we might identify him specifically, but so we might be prepared for anything that threatens our faith. If our faith is strong, we do not need to be afraid of what lies ahead, because we know that this lawless one has already been defeated by God, no matter how powerful he becomes or how terrible our situation seems. God is in control, and he will be victorious over the antichrist. Our task is to be watchful, be prepared for Christ’s return and to spread the gospel so that more people will also be prepared.