Man of Lawlessness - The Issue

SYNOPSIS Someone fed disinformation to the Thessalonians about the nearness of the “day to the Lord,” causing alarm among the congregation 2 Thessalonians 2:1-2.  

Álvaro Serrano on Unsplash
Álvaro Serrano on Unsplash
In his second letter to the Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul addressed a claim that the “Day of the Lord has set in,” one that caused alarm among members of the congregation. Apparently, the rumor was spread by a “spirit,” "word" (logos), or a "letter, as if by us.” The last description is a verbal link between the start and close of the literary unit ("Stand firm, and hold fast the instructions which ye were taught—whether through discourse or through our letter" - 2 Thessalonians 2:15).

Paul listed two events that must occur BEFORE the parousia or “arrival” of Jesus:
  1. The “revealing of the man of lawlessness.”
  2. The “apostasy.”
The entire chapter deals with the subjects of the “Day of the Lord,” the “man of lawlessness,” and the coming “apostasy.” Additionally, it instructs the congregation on how to respond to questionable claims about the "Day of the Lord" and this coming deceiver.

(2 Thessalonians 2:1-2, 13-15) – “But we request you, brethren, in behalf of the Presence of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our gathering together unto him, That ye be not quickly tossed from your mind, nor be put in alarm — either by spirit or by discourse or by letter as by us, as that the day of the Lord hath set in…But we are bound to give thanks unto God continually concerning you…for that God chose you from the beginning for salvation, in sanctification of spirit and belief of truth, — Unto which he called you, through means of our glad-message, for possession of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Hence, then, brethren, stand firm and hold fast the instructions which ye were taught—whether through discourse, or through our letter.”

Rather than heed such rumors about the imminent arrival of Jesus, Christians must “hold fast the instructions which you were taught—whether through discourse or through our letter.” The point is to adhere to the apostolic tradition they have received and not to listen to any voices that deviate from it.

In the first chapter of the letter, Paul prepared the ground for this controversy. He began with thanksgiving for the faithfulness of the Thessalonian saints despite outside resistance (“We are boasting in you among the assemblies of God over your endurance and faith in all your persecutions and tribulations”). They had suffered at the hands of their neighbors; however, God would recompense “tribulation to them that trouble you.” In contrast, He would grant “release” to the beleaguered Christians of Thessalonica at the “revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven.”
On that "day," the Lord will take vengeance against the persecutors of the church who, indeed, “a penalty will pay, everlasting destruction from the face of the Lord…whenever he will come to be made all-glorious in his saints and to be marveled at in all who believed — because our witness unto you was believed — in that day.”
Chapter 1 echoed themes from the first letter to the Thessalonians in which he praised them for having “received the word in much tribulation,” but also, with joy in the Holy Spirit. In this way, they became imitators of the churches of God in Judaea; for you suffered the same things of your own countrymen, even as they did of the Jews.”

Paul earlier exhorted the Thessalonians not to be moved “by these tribulations, for yourselves know that we are appointed for this.” “Tribulation” caused by opposition from without the congregation is a theme common to both letters (1 Thessalonians 1:6, 2:14, 3:3-7).

In his previous letter, Paul prayed for God to establish the hearts of the Thessalonians in holiness before Him, “at the arrival [Parousiaof our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones.” On that day, they would be his “crown of glorying at the arrival [Parousia] before our Lord Jesus.” At his “arrival” or Parousia, Jesus will “descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel” (1 Thessalonians 2:19, 3:13, 4:16).

Only a few months had transpired between the two letters. Considering the subject matter, the same future “coming” or parousia of Jesus must be under discussion in each of the preceding passages. Noteworthy are the different Greek terms that Paul applies to this “coming”; the “arrival” or Parousia, the “revelation” or apokalupsis of Jesus, and the “coming” or erchomai (1 Thessalonians 2:19, 3:13, 4:16, 5:2, 2 Thessalonians 1:10, 2:2, 2:9).

2 Thessalonians 2:1-2

But we request you, brethren,—in behalf of the Presence of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together unto him, That ye be not quickly tossed from your mind nor be put in alarm — either by spirit or by discourse or by letter as by us, as that the day of the Lord hath set in” (source:  The Emphasized Bible).

Presence” or “arrival” translates the Greek noun parousia, the term applied most often to the coming of Jesus in the two letters to the Thessalonian. It denotes “arrival” or “presence”; not the process of “coming” but the actual arrival of someone (1 Corinthians 16:17, 1 Thessalonians 2:19, 3:13, 4:15, 5:23, 2 Thessalonians 2:1, 2:8).

Our gathering together to him” translates the Greek noun episunagogé. Whatever this “gathering” is, Paul connects it to the “arrival” of Jesus - It is an event that coincides with the "Day of the Lord." Episunagogé is related to the verb episunagō, “to gather together.” It occurs only in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-2 and in the book of Hebrews (“not forsaking the assembling together of ourselves” - Hebrews 10:25).

The verb episunagō occurs in the ‘Olivet Discourse’ when Jesus describes the “gathering of his elect” at his “coming” (Matthew 24:31, Mark 13:27 [“Then shall he send his angels and gather together his elect from the four winds”]). This “gathering” is the same one Paul now declares is to occur at the “arrival” or parousia of Jesus (compare, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).

That you be not quickly tossed from your mind or troubled.” The verb rendered “troubled” is throeō, which occurs only here and on the lips of Jesus at the start of his ‘Olivet Discourse.’ Paul is echoing a warning from Jesus about coming deceivers that he gave in his ‘Olivet Discourse.’ Note the verbal parallels:
  • (Matthew 24:6) – “And ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that ye be not troubled: for these things must needs come to pass; but the end is not yet.”
  • (Mark 13:7) – “And when ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars, be not troubled.”
Jesus warned his disciples not to be alarmed by deceivers spreading "reports of wars" and other calamities as evidence of the nearness of the “end.” Wars, earthquakes, and famines do not constitute proof that the “end” is at hand. Likewise, Paul now warns that any claim that the “Day of the Lord” is at hand is false - That day cannot come before certain events transpire.

Whether by spirit or by discourse or by letter, as by us.” The phrasing indicates Paul is unsure how, precisely, this disinformation was spread. “Spirit” is ambiguous but may refer to the exercise of a gift of the Spirit. “Discourse” or logos can refer to several types of verbal communication, a sermon, exhortation, discussion, etc. The significance of “letter” is obvious. The description “as by us” suggests a communication that someone claimed originated with Paul.

The day of the Lord.” Paul links this day to the “arrival” of Jesus and the gathering of the elect. The “day of the Lord” is a common term in the Hebrew Bible for a time of visitation by God, the “day of Yahweh,” often in judgment but, also, to vindicate the righteous (seeIsaiah 2:12, Joel 1:15, 2:1, 2:31, 3:14, Malachi 4:5).

Paul used this same phrase in his previous letter to the Thessalonians:
  • (1 Thessalonians 5:1-2) - “Yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night.”
The analogy of a “thief in the night” is from a saying of Jesus recorded in Luke 12:39 about his future coming:
  • And this know, that if the good man of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched, and not have suffered his house to be broken through. Be, therefore, ready also: for the Son of man cometh at an hour when ye think not” (cp. 2 Peter 3:10).
In Paul’s letters, the “Day of the Lord” becomes the “Day of Jesus Christ,” a time of vindication for the righteous and judgment on the wicked. Note the following examples:
  • (1 Corinthians 1:8) – “Who shall also confirm you unto the end, that ye may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
  • (1 Corinthians 5:5) – “To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.”
  • (2 Corinthians 1:14) – “As also ye have acknowledged us in part, that we are your rejoicing, even as ye also are ours in the day of the Lord Jesus.”
  • (Philippian 1:6) – “Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.”
  • (Philippian 1:10) – “That ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ.”
  • (Philippian 2:16) – “Holding forth the word of life; that I may rejoice in the day of Christ, that I have not run in vain, neither laboured in vain.”
Has set in” translates the Greek verb, enistemi, a compound of en (“in”) and histémi (“to stand”) with the basic sense, “to stand in, set in.” Here it is in the perfect verb tense. Elsewhere, Paul uses it for the sense of “the present.” Note the following examples:
  • (Romans 8:38) – “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor the things present, nor things to come.”
  • (1 Corinthians 3:22) – “Whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or the things present, or things to come.”
  • (1 Corinthians 7:26) – “I suppose therefore that this is good for the present distress.”
  • (Galatians 1:4) – “Who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil world.”
In this context, has set in points to an (alleged) imminent event or one that has already commenced. Unfortunately, Paul does not detail exactly how the Thessalonians conceived of this scenario.

In this opening statement, Paul presents the problem - Someone has fed disinformation to the Thessalonians about the nearness of the “day to the Lord.” This has caused some alarm in the congregation.

Paul will next begin to defuse the situation. That day cannot arrive until certain events occur. It is important when evaluating the passage to remember that Paul is not providing “signs” by which a believer can ascertain the approach of the end; rather, he presents evidence for why the “day of the Lord” cannot yet occur.


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