Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: 1 and 2 Thessalonians (Pt 3)

Part 3: “Day of the Lord”: 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12

This discussion is on the second of two eschatological sections in 1 and 2 Thessalonians dealing specifically with “the day of the Lord” (h(me/ra kuri/ou). The first, 1 Thess 4:13-5:11, was discussed in Part 2; for a study of the other eschatological passages in the Thessalonian letters, cf. Part 1 and the special note on 1 Thess 2:14-16. It is worth surveying, however briefly, the background of this expression “day of the Lord”.

The Day of the Lord—the “Day of YHWH”

The expression “day of the Lord” (h(me/ra kuri/ou) in the New Testament was inherited by early Christians from the Old Testament and Jewish tradition. The original expression in Hebrew is hw`hy+ <oy, “day of YHWH”. It developed among the Israelite Prophets of the 8th-5th centuries B.C., especially in the context of the various nation-oracles preserved in the Prophetic books. The expression referred to a time of judgment (i.e. punishment) which YHWH would bring upon the various peoples—including his own people Israel. Originally, the usage was not eschatological, though it did indicate an imminent judgment that would come in the (near) future. Gradually, the expression took on more eschatological significance, something we begin to see already in the (later) Prophets. The “Day of YHWH” would be framed as a judgment on the surrounding nations, collectively, coinciding with the deliverance/rescue of God’s people—the faithful ones, at least—at some future time. The key occurrences of the expression in the Prophets are: Isaiah 13:6; Amos 5:18-20; Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14; Obadiah 15; Zephaniah 1:7-8, 14; Jeremiah 46:10; Ezek 13:5; 30:3; and Malachi 4:5.

The corresponding expression in the New Testament is actually relatively rare, occurring just 5 times—Acts 2:20 (citing Joel); 1 Cor 5:5; 1 Thess 5:2; 2 Thess 2:2; 2 Pet 3:10. However, it is implied in many other passages, often using the shorthand “the day”, or the Christian formulation “the day of Christ”, etc. As such, Paul references it frequently; the various occurrences will be discussed throughout these articles on the Eschatology of Paul. We have already examined its use in 1 Thess 5:2 (Part 2 of this article), where it provides clear evidence for the uniquely Christian dimension given to the expression—namely, the end-time coming (parousia) of Jesus back to earth. Three components, or lines of tradition, helped to create this distinct interpretation of the “day of the Lord” among early Christians:

    • The Messianic traditions derived from Malachi 3:1ff; Daniel 7:13-14; 12:1ff, etc, which variously express the idea of a divine/heavenly representative of YHWH appearing to rescue His people and usher in the Judgment.
    • The firm belief in Jesus as the Messiah (“Anointed One”), especially his identification with the Davidic ruler and heavenly deliverer figure-types. Since Jesus did not fulfill all that was expected/prophesied of these Messianic figures during his time on earth, he would have to return at some future time to do so. This naturally coincided with the divine-representative motif above.
    • The eschatological “Son of Man” sayings of Jesus, in which he identifies himself with this heavenly figure who will appear at the end time.

2 Thessalonians 2:1-12

So it is that we turn to 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12, one of the most famous (and difficult) eschatological passages in the New Testament. Outside of the Eschatological Discourse, and the various visions in the book of Revelation, it is perhaps the only passage which offers any detailed information about end-time events that were expected to occur prior to the coming of Jesus. On the one hand, the basic scenario described is clear enough; at the same time, however, for Christians and other readers today, it is highly problematic (and controversial), for two main reasons:

    • Much of the wording and syntax used by the author (Paul) is difficult to intepret; at several points, the basic meaning and translation continue to be hotly disputed.
    • As with other examples of the imminent eschatology of early Christians, it is hard to square with our vantage point today, from which we must take into account the passing of 1,900+ years. However, this aspect of the modern interpretive problem is even more acute in 2 Thess 2:1-2, since it, like the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse, involves the Jerusalem Temple, a building which was destroyed in 70 A.D.
Verses 1-2

“I would ask of you, brothers, over the (com)ing to be alongside [parousi/a] (us) of our Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed, and our gathering together at (that time) about him, unto your not being shaken [i.e. for you not to be shaken] from (the) thought—not through a spirit (speaking), and not through a (normal) account, and not through a (message) sent upon (you) as (though it were) through us—as (if it were) that the Day of the Lord has (now) stood in (on you).”

Paul makes use here of fairly complex syntax, which can perhaps be a bit misleading or confusing when rendered literally (as I have attempted to do here). To bring out the basic line of the statement, the intervening modifying clause has been highlighted above. We might restate the principal statement, in more conventional English, as follows:

“I would ask of you, brothers, regarding the coming of our Lord Yeshua (to us) and our gathering together around him, that you would not be shaken by thinking…that the Day of the Lord is now present.”

The verb in the last clause of verse 2 is e)ni/sthmi (“stand in”), perfect e)ne/sthken (“has stood in”, i.e. entered), similar in meaning to h&ggiken (“has come near”). In other words, the idea is that the “Day of the Lord” has now come, and the Thessalonians are experiencing it. Paul rather forcefully urges them that they should not be shaken by this thought, since it is not correct. Much has been made of the supposed eschatological issue being addressed here, with considerable speculation by commentators. For my part, the matter seems clear and simple enough, in light of the previous message in 1:6-10 (discussed in Part 1). The suffering and persecution experienced by the Thessalonians is considered to be part of the end-time distress facing believers (according to the imminent eschatology held by Paul, along with most Christians at the time). Apparently, some were referring to this as the “Day of the Lord” (cf. above), indicating, it would seem, a lack of understanding of the precise meaning of the expression. The “Day of the Lord” refers ostensibly to the end-time Judgment on the wicked, not believers. While Christians will experience suffering during the end-time period of distress, the “Day of the Lord”, as such, represents the moment of deliverance for them, even as it is the moment of judgment/punishment for the wicked (non-believers). It also coincides with the appearance of Jesus, who, as God’s Anointed, will usher in the great Judgment.

All of this was generally explained by Paul in 1:6-10, but now he gives a more precise formulation, to the effect that the “Day of the Lord” will not occur until the return of Jesus. He also goes on (in 2:3ff) to explain something of the specific events expected to take place during the period of distress. While he and his audience are thought to be living in this period, it is not yet over; certain things are yet to happen, though they could occur suddenly, at any time.

(On the highlighted clause above, see the concluding note at the end of this article.)

Verses 3-4

“No one should deceive you (then), not by any turn! (For it is) that, if there should not first come the standing away from (the truth) [a)postasi/a]—(by this I mean that) the man of lawlessness [a)nomi/a] should be uncovered, the son of ruin [a)pw/leia], the (one) stretching out against and lifting (himself) over all (thing)s counted as God or (worthy of) reverence, (even) as to his sitting in the shrine of God, showing (of) himself from (this) that he is God.”

As noted above, it would seem that some among the Thessalonians were saying that the experience of suffering and persecution meant that the “Day of the Lord” had come. Paul warns forcefully that they should not be deceived (vb e)capata/w) into thinking this. In my view, the importance of this point for Paul is that the “Day of the Lord” signifies the end-time Judgment that awaits the wicked, and the precise moment for that has not yet come. Paul begins to explain this with a conditional sentence that he never finishes: “(For it is) that if there should not first come a standing away from (the truth)…”. If we were to complete the thought, it would presumably be something like “…then the Day of the Lord cannot come“. Instead of finishing the sentence, he expounds the significance of this “standing away” (a)postasi/a, often transliterated in English as “apostasy”).

This noun is extremely rare in the New Testament, occurring just twice, the only other instance is found in Acts 21:21 where it is used in the religious sense of departing from the truth (and from God); this also characterizes the rare usage in the LXX as well. However, a)postasi/a can also be used in the political sense of standing away from an agreement, with the more forceful and violent connotation of “rebellion”, etc. Here the reference is to a widespread departure from God—not only from the true Christian (and Jewish) belief, but even in the more general sense of reverence or recognition of anything divine at all. As bad as things might be in society at the time of writing, it was soon expected to become much worse.

This dramatic “standing away” is associated with the coming of a particular (ruling) figure, referred to by a pair of titles:

    • “the man of lawlessness” (o( a&nqrwpo$ th=$ a)nomi/a$)
      [Some manuscripts instead read “man of sin” …th=$ a(marti/a$.]
    • “the son of ruin/destruction” (o( ui(o\$ th=$ a)pwlei/a$)

The noun a)nomi/a (literally something, or the condition of, being “without law” [a&nomo$]) is relatively common in both the LXX and the New Testament, though appearing in the latter only 15 times. It is used by Jesus in the Matthean version of the Eschatological Discourse (24:12), and several other instances where there is a definite eschatological context (Matt 13:41; 1 John 3:4). It tends to be used in the general sense of wickedness and violation of the proper order of things established by God (and society).

Here the expressions “man of lawlessness” and “son of ruin/destruction” likely reflect the Old Testament “son[s] of Beliyya’al” (and “man/men of Beliyya’al”). The derivation of the Hebrew lu^Y~l!B= (b®liyya±al) remains uncertain, but it generally signifies an association with death, chaos, disorder, and may also reflect a mythological personification of Death/Chaos itself. A “son of Beliyya’al” refers to someone who acts in a manner characteristic of Beliyya’al, violating the social and religious order of things, tending toward wickedness and violence (and destined to meet a bad or violent end). On several occasions, Hebrew lu^Y~l!B= is translated in the LXX by a)nomi/a (or the related a)no/mhma), “without law, lawlessness”. In 2 Cor 6:14f, a)nomi/a is parallel with Beli/ar, a variant transliteration in Greek (i.e. Beli/al, Belial) of Hebrew lu^Y~l!B=. In the Qumran texts and other Jewish writings of the period, Belial/Beliar is a title for the Evil One (i.e. the Devil/Satan), but is also used in the eschatological context of an evil/Satanic figure or ruler who will appear at the end-time. As such, it fed into the early Christian “Antichrist” tradition, and is almost certainly in view here as well.

This person is also characterized by the participial phrase:

    • “the one (who is)…upon every thing counted as God or revered”; two verbal participles fill the ellipsis:
      — “laying/stretching out against” [a)ntikei/meno$]
      — “raising/lifting (himself) over” [u(perairo/meno$]

Thus, in two different directions, he challenges the Divine. This is dramatically depicting by the image of this “man of lawlessness” sitting in the Temple:

“…(even) as to his sitting in the shrine of God, showing (of) himself [i.e. demonstrating] from (this) that he is God.”

In many later manuscripts, this pretension to deity is made even more clear with the addition of w($ qeo/n (“as God”): “…sitting as God in the shrine of God”. According to the ancient religious worldview, temples were the dwelling places of God, especially the sanctuary or inner shrine, where the specific image/manifestation of the deity was located. For the Jerusalem Temple, the inner shrine housed the golden box (“ark”) which represented the seat or throne of YHWH. Thus, by sitting in the shrine, the “man of lawlessness” puts himself in the place of God. The significance of this image from the standpoint of New Testament eschatology will be discussed in a separate note.

Verses 5-7

“Do you not remember that, (in) my being yet (facing) toward [i.e. when I was still with] you, I related these (thing)s to you? And now you have seen the (thing) holding down (power) unto [i.e. leading toward] the uncovering of him in his (own) time. For the secret of lawlessness already works in (the world), only until the (one) holding down (power) now comes to be out of the middle.”

Apparently Paul had previously discussed these things with the Thessalonian congregations, but they may not have entirely understood his teaching. In my view, Paul likely held to a traditional eschatological framework similar to that of the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse. I will be discussing this in the aforementioned supplemental note; on the Eschatological Discourse, cf. my earlier 4-part article in this series. Verses 6-7 are notorious and represent for commentators one of the most difficult and debated passages in the New Testament. I have discussed the verses in some detail in an earlier article, and here will summarize the results of that study.

    • The verb kate/xw literally means “hold down”. It can be used either in the transitive sense of holding someone down (i.e. restraining them), or the intransitive sense of holding down a position or control. In my view, the latter best fits the context of the passage.
    • This verb is used here twice, as two articular participles—one neuter (to\ kate/xon, “the [thing] holding down”) and one masculine (o( kate/xwn, “the [one] holding down”). The latter is correctly understood as a person. The neuter expression refers to the “secret [musth/rion] of lawlessness”, characterizing the current time prior to the rise of the Man of Lawlessness, while the masculine refers to a person “holding down power” during this same time.
    • Lawlessness already prevails in this current time (i.e. the end-time), but in a secret way, so that many people (i.e. believers) are not always immediately aware of its power and influence—i.e. it does not operate in the open. With the appearance of the “Lawless One” (= Man of Lawlessness) the cover will be removed, and lawlessness will no longer work in a hidden manner.
    • The phrase “come to be out of the middle [e)k me/sou]” could mean either that: (a) someone will appear from the middle, or (b) someone will be taken out of (i.e. removed) from the middle. The latter is to be preferred, and understood of the one “holding down power” prior to the appearance of the Lawless One.
    • Probably the reference here is to the current Roman emperor and his imperial administration. If Paul is indeed the author (writing c. 50 A.D.), then the current emperor would be Claudius, but the same basic idea would apply even if the letter were pseudonymous (as some critics think) and/or written at a later time. He may be anticipating the sudden rise of an emperor far more wicked, along the lines of Gaius (Caligula) who embodied and prefigured some of the same characteristics. This wicked ruler would either follow the current emperor or appear sometime soon thereafter. However, it should be made clear that he will be no ordinary emperor or ruler.
Verses 8-10

“And then the lawless (one) will be uncovered, whom the Lord [Yeshua] will take up/away [i.e. destroy] with the spirit/breath of His mouth and will make inactive in the shining of his coming along [parousi/a] upon (the earth), (and) whose coming along is according to the working of (the) Satan in him in all lying power and signs and marvels, and in all (the) deceit of injustice for the (one)s going to ruin, against whom (it is that) they did not receive the love of the truth unto their being [i.e. so that they might be] saved.”

This is another long and complex sentence, with a modifying intermediate statement, which can cause considerable confusion when not read carefully. Again I have highlighted the intermediate portion so as to make clear the primary line of the sentence. The point of confusion is in the sequence of the Lord’s coming (parousia) followed immediately by the coming (parousia) of the Lawless One. In Greek, this portion reads:

th=$ parousi/a$ au)tou= ou! e)stin h( parousi/a
“…of his coming to be alongside, of whom the coming to be alongside is…”

One might easily misread the relative pronoun ou! (“of whom, whose”) as referring to the Lord (Jesus), when in fact it refers back to the Lawless One. If we were to translate the primary line of the sentence, in more conventional English, it might be:

“And then the Lawless One will be uncovered… and (his) coming is according to the working of Satan, in all power and false signs and wonders, and in all the deceit of injustice for the ones perishing, (those) who did not receive the love of the truth so that they would be saved.”

The nouns e)pifanei/a (“shining forth upon”) and parousi/a (“[com]ing to be alongside”) both were common early Christian terms for the end-time appearance of Jesus on earth. The same noun parousi/a (parousia) is here also applied to the Lawless One, clearly indicating that his “coming” is an evil parody of Jesus’ return. And, just as the exalted Jesus will come with power and glory, so this Lawless One comes with great power, given to him by the working of Satan. There will be supernatural events and miracles associated with the Lawless One; they are called “false” (yeu=do$) not because they are illusory, but because they deceive people into thinking that they come from a Divine source. Paul, like most Christians of the time, would have admitted the reality of Satanic-inspired miracles.

The use of the verb de/xomai (“receive”) in verse 10 can also be misleading, as though implying that, for those deceived by the Lawless One, it was from God that they did not receive the “love of the truth”. Rather, the middle voice here indicates that it was they themselves who were unwilling to accept (i.e. love) the truth. God’s action in this regard is described in the verses that follow.

Verses 11-12

“And, through this, God will send to them (something) working wandering in (them), unto their trusting th(at which is) false, (so) that they might be judged, all the (one)s not trusting in the truth but thinking good of injustice (instead).”

Here, in verses 11-12, we finally have described the coming of the “Day of the Lord”, i.e. when God acts to judge/punish the wicked. The beginning of this Judgment is that the wicked—all who did not trust in the truth of the Gospel—will be made (by God) to trust in something false instead. The implication is that they will trust in the Lawless One. There is here no mention of persecution of believers by the Lawless One, but this is likely to be inferred, based on parallels in the Eschatological Discourse and Revelation 13, etc. The period of the Lawless One’s rule presumably will be short, but characterized by intense and widespread wickedness and injustice, though, in all likelihood, those deceived by him would not be aware of this negative aspect. The period is brought to an end with the coming of Jesus (“the Lord”), who will destroy the Lawless One (v. 8, described in Messianic language from Isa 11:4b, etc).

There can be no doubt that the description of the Lawless One / Man of Lawlessness relates in some way to the “Antichrist” tradition, even more so than the vision of the creature from the Sea in Revelation 13 (cf. the recent note on this passage). In point of fact, the actual term a)nti/xristo$ (antichristos, “against the Anointed”) is used neither in 2 Thess 2:1-12 nor Revelation 13, but occurs only in the Johannine letters (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 7) where it has a rather different meaning or application. One should therefore be extremely cautious about referring to the Lawless One here simply as “the Antichrist”. However, in terms of the fundamental meaning of the word (“against the Anointed”, “in place of the Anointed”), the term a)nti/xristo$ is entirely appropriate to the description of the Lawless One, since he clearly is described in a way that imitates Jesus Christ. In his sitting in the shrine of God, the Man of Lawlessness symbolically takes the place of God and His Anointed. I will be discussing the Antichrist tradition in more detail in a special upcoming article.

Appendix: On Verse 2 and the Composition/Date of 2 Thessalonians

In verse 2 (cf. above), as part of Paul’s attempt to convince the Thessalonians that their experience of suffering/persecution did not mean that the “Day of the Lord” had come, he mentions, in summary form, three different ways they might mistakenly come to think this:

    • dia\ pneu/mato$, “through a spirit (speaking)”
    • dia\ lo/gou, “through a (normal) account”
    • di’ e)pistolh=$, “through a (message) sent upon (you)” [i.e. a message sent in writing = letter, epistle]

The first means a spirit speaking through a human oracle or prophet; since the information is basically incorrect, it could not be the Holy Spirit, but some other kind of “spirit”. The second just means ordinary human speech. The third specifically means a message sent in writing (e)pistolh/, transliterated in English as epistle). It is qualified here to include any letter claiming to be from Paul and his associates (“…as [if] through us”). Some commentators take this to mean that Paul (or the author) is referring to a letter previously sent to the Thessalonians, usually identified with 1 Thessalonians, on the assumption that it was the earlier letter. This has an important bearing both on the date of 2 Thessalonians and the precise point being made in 2 Thess 2:1-12. Both questions depend on whether one regards 2 Thessalonians as a genuine Pauline letter or as pseudonymous.

1. For commentators who accept Pauline authorship of 2 Thessalonians, if the e)pistolh/ in verse 2 refers to 1 Thessalonians, then it is possible that the discussion in 2:1ff relates to the eschatology of the earlier letter (esp. 4:13-5:11, cf. Part 2). It is often thought that, based on the imminent eschatology in 1 Thessalonians, the Thessalonian believers—some of them, at any rate—mistakenly believed that Day of the Lord had come, or was about to come. Paul corrects their misunderstanding, pointing out that certain events still need to take place before Jesus returns.

2. Many who view 2 Thessalonians as pseudonymous believe that the author is here intentionally contradicting or ‘correcting’ the imminent eschatology of Paul in 1 Thessalonians, and that 2 Thessalonians was written, in imitation of the first letter, primarily for that purpose. It is assumed that 1 Thessalonians is being discredited (as a true account of Paul’s teaching) by the use of the phrase w($ di’ h(mw=n (“as [though it were] through us”). The author would have held an eschatological chronology comparable perhaps to the developed form of the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse (i.e. in Matthew and/or Luke), and likely dating from a similar period (c. 80 A.D.?). For more on the relationship between 2 Thess 2:1-12 and the framework of the Eschatological Discourse, cf. the upcoming supplemental note.

October 15: Revelation 13:5-10

Revelation 12:18-13:10 (Continued)

The first part of this vision (13:1-4), describing the “wild animal” (qhri/on) that comes up out of the Sea, was examined in the previous note. If we were to outline the vision itself, it would be:

    • Appearance and description of the creature (vv. 1-4)
    • Action of the creature—making war on believers (vv. 5-8)
    • Concluding exhortation for believers (vv. 9-10)
Revelation 13:5

“And a mouth speaking great (thing)s and insults (against God) was given to him, and (the) e)cousi/a was given to him to do (this for) forty [and] two months.”

Just as the mouth (sto/ma) of the Dragon poured out destructive waters against the Woman (i.e. the People of God), so the mouth of the Sea-creature (which resembles the Dragon) sends out (“speaks”) prideful and arrogant things that are against God. Like the vision as a whole, this detail comes from Daniel 7 and the description of the fourth beast (vv. 8, 11, 25). There it is one particular horn (i.e. one king) which has such a mouth; here, it is not one horn or head, but the creature itself. Most commentators would identify the arrogant-speaking horn/king with Antiochus IV Epiphanes, particularly in light of the detail in other passages (9:24-27; 11:36-39). The description in Rev 13:5ff specifically echoes that of Dan 7:25, with the combination of three details: (1) speaking words against the Most High, (2) afflicting the holy ones, and (3) his power limited to a period of 3½ years (“time, times and half a time”).

The power to rule and act comes from the Dragon (v. 4), and yet the passive e)do/qh, “was given”, here (and in v. 7) is better understood as the so-called “divine passive” with God as the implied agent. In other words, it is God who ultimately gives to the creature, in the sense of allowing or permitting it, the ability to act as he does. The noun e)cousi/a (untranslated above) indicates both the authority and ability to do something. This authority is limited (by God) to a period of “forty-two months”, which is another way of referring to the symbolic 3½ years that marks the end-time period of distress (12:14 [Dan 7:25], etc).

Revelation 13:6

“And he opened up his mouth unto insult(s) toward God, to insult His Name and His Tent—the (one)s setting up (their) tent [i.e. dwelling] in heaven.”

As previously noted, blasfhmi/a means insult, usually in the religious sense as an insult toward/against God (i.e. “blasphemy”), often so implied but here made explicit. In particular, the creature insults God’s name and his tent (skhnh/, i.e. dwelling-place). In v. 2, the creature is said to have upon his head names insulting to God; now, it is God’s own name that he insults. These are flip sides of the same basic image. In the ancient world, as part of a quasi-magical way of thinking, a person’s name was identified closely with the person himself (or herself)—that is, as an embodiment of the essential identity, nature, and character of the person. Thus an attack on God’s name was effectively an attack on God Himself.

The “tent” of God refers back to the old tent-shrine (i.e. ‘Tabernacle’) tradition from Israelite history, realized anew in Jerusalem Temple. References to the Temple in the book of Revelation locate it in heaven, as a figure for the dwelling of God (and the People of God). At the time the book was written, the Jerusalem Temple had likely been destroyed; however, even before its destruction, there was an early Christian tendency to identify the true Temple with believers (i.e. the People of God)—both collectively and individually (1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:21; Rev 3:12). This was more or less done in the earlier vision of 11:1-2ff, and the identification is even more explicit here. Admittedly, in some manuscripts there is a conjunction kai/ (“and”), which makes “the ones setting up their tent in heaven” distinct from the actual “Tent” of God; however, the phrase is better viewed as an explanatory statement interpreting the Tent/Dwelling of God. It refers to all the People of God, especially in its heavenly aspect, which can encompass both Angels and believers (particularly those put to death for their faith).

Revelation 13:7

“And it was given to him to make war with the holy (one)s, and to be victorious (over) them, and e)cousi/a was given to him upon [i.e. over] every offshoot (of the human race), and (every) people and tongue and nation.”

Here again is the divine passive (e)do/qh, “it was given”), i.e. God permits/allows the creature to have control and authority over people on earth, including believers. In that the creature “makes war with the holy (one)s”, it shows that he acts as the Dragon’s ally in making war on believers (12:17), and that the visions in chapters 12 and 13 are certainly so connected. There is a different nuance of the verb nika/w (“be victorious [over]”) here compared with how it was used earlier in 12:11. There believers are said to be victorious over the Dragon, but now the Dragon is victorious over them. The latter sense of being victorious is secondary, and temporary—it refers to the creature’s ability to attack believers, leading to their imprisonment and being put to death (cf. on vv. 9-10 below). This temporary “victory” of the Dragon and his allies actually ends up in final/permanent victory for the People of God.

Again God allows the creature to have e)cousi/a over all of humankind—every race and nation—indicating his authority and governing control. This means both that: (a) the creature is allowed to attack believers everywhere, and (b) he exercises full control (and rule) over people on earth. That this generally characterizes the Roman Empire, from the standpoint and worldview of people (living in the Empire) at the time, seems clear enough. Attempts to extend the universality of the creature’s rule to cover an ethic/geographic extent of humankind that accords with our vantage point today are questionable at best. We must read the text primarily in terms of the worldview that would have prevailed at the time. Application to the situation of believers today, while important, should be a secondary concern in our interpretation.

Revelation 13:8

“And they shall kiss toward [i.e. worship] him, all the (one)s putting down house [i.e. dwelling] upon the earth, (every one) for whom his name is not written in the paper-roll [i.e. scroll] of Life—(that) of [i.e. belonging to] the Lamb, the (one) having been slain—from the casting down [i.e. founding] of the world.”

The worship/veneration of the Sea-creature (and the Dragon) was mentioned in verse 4, and likely reflects the Imperial cult that had been established, and was widespread throughout the Empire, by the end of the first century. On this, cf. the discussion in the previous note, as well as the earlier notes on the letters to the churches (chaps. 2-3). It is clear, however, that the author/seer now envisions a much more serious (and widespread) situation, whereby everyone on earth venerates the Sea-creature and his rule. Only (true) believers in Christ do not succumb to the influence and power of the creature (cf. the concluding discussion below). This is framed in terms of predestination (to use the classic theological term)—those who are true believers, and thus will not worship the Sea-creature, have had their names already written down in the “scroll of Life”. This idiom draws upon two basic lines of tradition: (1) the Old Testament image in Exod 32:32; Psalm 69:28, etc, and (2) the idea of citizens, i.e. in the Greco-Roman world, being registered as belonging to a particular city. The “city” for believers in the book of Revelation, of course, is the heavenly New Jerusalem (cp. Phil 3:20ff; Heb 12:22-24). The eschatological (and Judgment) context of the “scroll of Life” image can be seen, e.g., in Daniel 12:1, and again in the book of Revelation (20:11-15; 21:27).

The syntax of v. 8b is a bit confusing, and can be read two different ways, based on how one relates the final phrase “from the casting down [i.e. founding] of the world”. Does it modify the expression “the Lamb the (one) having been slain” immediately preceding, or the earlier phrase “…written down in the scroll of Life”? The first option implies that Jesus was slain (or destined to be slain) from the beginning of creation; this idea is expressed in 1 Peter 1:19-20, but is otherwise not to be found in the New Testament. The second option is to be preferred, based on the clear parallel in Rev 17:8. This means that believers have been destined for (eternal) Life since the beginning of creation. We must, however, be cautious about reading modern concepts (and questions) regarding “predestination” into passages such as this. While a basic belief in predestination is found throughout the New Testament, it goes hand in hand with another basic belief—that human beings are able to choose to accept or reject the truth (of God and Christ). Difficulties arise when attempts are made to place these two beliefs within a more detailed, systematic philosophical and theological framework; such difficulties, to be sure, remain today, and go far beyond the scope of these notes.

Revelation 13:9-10

“If any(one) holds an ear (to hear), he must hear (this). If one (is set) into being taken by spear-point, (then) he goes away into being taken by spear-point; if one (is set for) his being killed off in a sword (strike), (then so he is) to be killed off in a sword (strike). Here is (to be found) the remaining under [i.e. endurance] and the trust of the holy (one)s.”

The exhortation in verse 9 follows the pattern used at the conclusion of the letters to the congregations (2:7, etc). For the prediction in v. 10a, I have attempted to rendered it as literally as possible. The terseness of the syntax, with its repetition of phrases, makes for very awkward English. However, the basic line of expression may be paraphrased more smoothly as: “If one is destined to be taken by spear-point, he will go off captive at spear-point; if one is destined to be killed by the sword, he is killed by the sword”. This goes back to the idea of predestination in verse 8 (cf. above). Just as believers are (pre)destined for eternal Life, so they are also destined to face persecution. For many, but certainly not all, this will include both (a) imprisonment (“taken by spear-point”) and (b) being put to death (“in a sword [strike]”). The specific idiom utilizes military language, which is appropriate to the basic idea of the creature “making war” on believers.

As the concluding words make clear, it is this experience of persecution—to the point of imprisonment and death—that marks the character of true believers. This is expressed by two common terms, both of which take on greater significance in this period of testing and distress:

(1) u(pomonh/, literally “remaining under”, i.e. enduring, staying strong, keeping faith, etc. It characterizes believers in 1:9, and again throughout the letters to the churches (2:2-3, 19; 3:10). The same basic declaration here is repeated at 14:12.

(2) pi/sti$, “trust”. This of course means trust (i.e. faith) in Jesus Christ. As such, it is one of the most common Christian terms in the New Testament; however, somewhat surprisingly, it is rather rare in the book of Revelation, occurring only three other times: twice in the letters to the churches (2:13, 19) and in the parallel declaration at 14:12.

Concluding note

In conclusion of our discussion of this vision, it is worth asking whether, or to what extent, the author/seer thought that it was possible for believers to be influenced by the Sea-creature. Clearly, no true believer could actually worship the creature; but, if there was no real danger of being tempted or adversely influenced, it is hard to explain the repeated warnings and exhortations throughout the book. If we accept a basic, underlying identification with the Roman Empire and its Imperial cult, etc, then the Sea-creature represents an extension (and intensification) of something believers living in Asia Minor (and elsewhere) had to deal with on a daily basis. So pervasive was the pagan Roman (Imperial) culture, that it would have been hard for Christians to avoid, and, in doing so, there would have been consequences. Unwillingness to participate in the cultural and civic events would have put believers at odds with the society around them, even if they never ended up being imprisoned or put to death by the authorities. There are many different levels of persecution that believers may face.

Ultimately, this ties back to the idea of predestination expressed in verses 8-10 (see above). The persecution experienced by believers, as part of the time of distress, is for them a period of testing, and, indeed, this persecution will reveal just who the true believers are. Jesus says as much in the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse, that “the (one) remaining under [vb u(pome/nw, i.e. enduring] unto the completion, that (person) will be saved” (Mk 13:13 par). The deception from political and (pseudo-)religious leaders in the time of distress will be so great that even the Elect (i.e. true believers) might almost be led astray by it (v. 22 par). This will be discussed further in the upcoming notes on the second vision of chapter 13 (vv. 11-18).

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October 14: Revelation 12:18-13:4

Revelation 12:18-13:10

The vision in chapter 12 had a three-part structure (cf. the previous notes); in chapter 13, it is a dual-vision, of a “beast” (qhri/on) that comes up out of the Sea, and the Earth, respectively. These visions in chaps. 12-13 are clearly connected, but the precise relationship depends upon how one reads the short narrative statement in 12:18. There is a small but important textual variant in this verse:

“And he stood [e)sta/qh] upon the sand of the Sea.”
“And I stood [e)sta/qhn] upon the sand of the Sea.”

The first is the reading of Ë47 and the key uncials a A C, along with significant portion of the ancient versions (Latin/Vulgate, Armenian, Ethiopic, and the Harclean Syriac). The second has the support of uncials P 046 051, is the majority reading (i.e. of most minuscules), and the Coptic and Philoxenian Syriac versions (cf. Metzger/UBS, Textual Commentary [2d edition], p. 673). Based on this second (majority) reading, the seer simply is transferred to a different visionary location to observe the next vision. The first reading, however, provides a clearer transition from the prior vision, with the verb e)sta/qh (“he stood”) certainly referring to the Dragon (dra/kwn, “Fabulous Creature”) of chap. 12. This reading is to be preferred, based on the wide geographic distribution (in the versions), and its attestation in some of the earliest/best manuscripts. What does this mean for an interpretation of the vision?

In verse 17, following the failed attack of the Dragon/Snake on the Woman in the desert (cf. the previous note on the vv. 13-17 episode), it is said that the Dragon “went (away) from there to make war with the (one)s remaining (out) of her seed”, that is, on her other children (after Jesus), i.e. believers. Reading verse 18 as a continuation of v. 17, we have an image of where the Dragon went: namely, to the seashore (lit. “the sand of the sea”). We may also infer from this that he goes to the edge of the sea as part of his intended purpose—to make war on believers. In the second episode of the chap. 12 vision (vv. 7-12, cf. the prior note), the Dragon also makes war, but in heaven. There he has heavenly allies, Angelic beings (a&ggeloi, “Messengers”) fighting on his side. Similarly, on earth, even though these rebel Angels were thrown down with him, the Dragon also has earthly allies fighting on his side.

In this regard, it is worth noting the traditional use of Dragon/Serpent or ‘sea-monster’ imagery to describe wicked or hostile earthly rulers (Ezek 29:3-6; 32:2ff; Jer 51:34, etc). Particularly significant in relation to the visions of Revelation is the allusion in the Psalms of Solomon 2:29 (mid-1st century B.C.), often thought to be part of a description of the Roman general Pompey. Nero also was compared to a serpent (Sibylline Oracles 5:28-29; Plutarch Moralia 367F). The application of this sort of imagery to the Roman Empire likely informs the symbolism of the visions here. Cf. Koester, p. 559, and the works he cites.

The Dragon positions himself at the boundary between the land and the sea; we may interpret here the “sand” (a&mmo$) as a strip of territory between the Earth and Sea, allowing him to observe (and oversee) events in both locales. The first vision in chapter 13 is focused on the Sea.

Revelation 13:1

“And I saw a wild animal [qhri/on] stepping up out of the Sea, holding ten horns and seven heads, and upon his horns (were) ten strips bound round [diadh/mata], and upon his heads (were) name[s] of insult [blasfhmi/a] (to God).” (v. 1)

The vision involves a creature that comes out of the Sea. The word qhri/on, typically translated “beast”, more properly refers to a wild animal. It is a general term, but, as many wild animals are untamed and can be dangerous, the negative aspect is certainly in view here. Let us consider each of the components of this image.

First, it comes up out of the Sea (qa/lassa). In ancient thought, the sea often symbolized chaos and disorder, including the threat to life and existence. The water of the sea/ocean frequently stood as a vast boundary at the edge of the inhabited world. It could threaten human dwelling with tidal waves and flooding, and was often dangerous for those traveling it (by boat). It was dark, with unknown depths, home to many mysterious creatures, including any number of dangerous animals and large “monsters”, all of which were only ever partially visible. Even more significant is the image of water in the ancient Near Eastern cosmology. In the beginning, there was only a dark mass of water (Gen 1:2), out of which the universe proper took shape—as a sphere (or hemisphere) surrounded by water. Cosmological myths frequently involved the deity establishing the ordered world by subduing or defeating the Sea (i.e. the primordial waters). The Sea could be personified as a human deity or by fabulous mythic creatures, often Serpent-like in appearance. I will be discussing this further in an upcoming article in the “Ancient Parallels” series.

Also relevant to the imagery here in the vision is the fact that the Roman Empire owed much of its power to its control of the sea, both from a military and commercial standpoint. The book of Revelation draws upon both of these aspects. The Mediterranean, in particular, was the Roman sea (“our sea”, mare nostrum, cf. Caesar Gallic War 5.1.2; Koester, p. 580).

However, ultimately this scene of the animal coming up out of the sea is patterned after the vision in Daniel 7:2-8. There are two features of this sea-creature’s appearance described here in verse 1:

    • “ten horns” (ke/rata de/ka)—the horn of an animal was seen as a symbol of power, being frequently used of royalty, etc, in the Old Testament (and elsewhere, cf. the Messianic significance in Lk 1:69), but here the image comes specifically from the vision of the fourth beast in Daniel 7:7ff.
    • “seven heads” (kefalai/ e(pta/)—multi-headed (including seven-headed) creatures are familiar from Near Eastern and Greco-Roman tradition, such as the Typhon/Typhoeus monster (Hesiod Theogony 821ff; Plutarch Moralia 359E, 362F, etc).

These attributes match those of the Dragon (12:3), and clearly demonstrate the sea-creature’s close relationship to the evil Serpent-figure. Subsequently, in chapter 17, these heads and horns are interpreted as seven kings (also seven hills/mountains), and ten vassal rulers, respectively. Most commentators readily accept the imagery, with the explanation in 17:9-14, as a reference to the Roman Empire, even as the fourth beast of Daniel 7 was identified with Rome already in the 1st century A.D. (cf. 2/4 Esdras 12:11). This association is generally admitted, even by those who would insist on a future (modern-day) interpretation of the visions, leading to the theory of a new or “revived” Roman Empire in our own time, occasionally identified with the current European Union, etc; however, on the whole, these represent a highly questionable attempt to reinvent the ancient setting of the book. There are sounder ways of applying the imagery of the visions to the situation of believers in modern times, as will be discussed further on in this series of notes.

There are two other features associated with the horns and heads of this creature:

    • Upon the horns: “ten strips bound around (them)” (de/ka diadh/mata)—the translation “crowns” is somewhat misleading (and inaccurate), the diadh/ma more properly referring to a strip of cloth (such as silk) wrapped completely around the head. It was a sign of kingship, but was typically not worn by the Roman emperors. This detail also matches the description of the Dragon in 12:3.
    • Upon the heads: “name[s] of insult (to God)” (o)no/ma[ta] blasfhmi/a$)—there is textual uncertainty as to whether this is a single name or multiple names; in light of the parallel in 17:3 the plural is more likely. The word blasfhmi/a generally means “insult(s)”, but in the LXX and New Testament is typically used in the religious sense of an insult to God. The parallel here with the ‘diadems’ implies that these “names” are honorific (divine) titles which properly belong to God. Cf. further on verse 4.
Revelation 13:2

“And the wild animal which I saw was like a leopard [pa/rdali$], and his feet (were) as a bear’s, and his mouth (was) as a lion’s. And the Fabulous Creature gave to it his (own) power, and also his ruling-seat and (his) great e)cousi/a.”

The hybrid animal imagery, typical of such mythic creatures, is basically a combination of the attributes of the four beasts in Daniel 7. They all represent some of the fiercest and most powerful characteristics of earthly animals. Almost certainly there is also an intentional contrast with the animal-imagery in the throne visions of chapters 4 and 5. Especially important is the detail that the Fabulous Creature (‘Dragon’), whom the sea-creature so clearly resembles, gives to it his own evil power. That is to say, it has Satanic power, according to the mythic personification of the Dragon as the Evil One and embodiment of the forces of evil. This granting of power (du/nami$) gives to the wild animal a personal life and and ability beyond even that normally possessed by such a mythic creature. This power includes both (1) the Dragon’s own qro/no$ (“ruling seat”), and (2) e)cousi/a, a word difficult to translate, but generally signifying a person’s authority and ability to act. This description is of the greatest significance, for it means that, in addition to the creature as a symbol of earthly rule (i.e. kings and emperors), it also possesses the evil power that controls and dominates the current Age.

Revelation 13:3

“And one out of his heads (was) as having been slain unto death, and (yet) his strike of death was attended to [i.e. healed]. And the whole earth wondered, (following) behind th(is) wild animal…”

From the identification of the heads as kings (i.e. emperors, cf. 17:9ff), the statement in verse 3 implies that a king/emperor has died (or seemed to die, was close to death) after being struck by a sword, but then was restored to life. This may be interpreted several ways:

    • It is an historical allusion, most likely to Nero, who suffered a violent death (Suetonius Nero 49:3-4), and after which rumors persisted that had not died or had returned from the dead. Already in the first century, a number of people had claimed to be Nero (Tacitus Histories 2.8-9; Dio Cassius 66.19.3; Suetonius Nero 57; Koester, p. 571).
    • It symbolizes the rule of the Roman Empire, in which, with the (sometimes violent) death of each emperor, a new one rises to take his place, each considered to be a new Caesar and Augustus.
    • The detail here simply exemplifies the (apparent) miracle-working power possessed by the creature, by which he is able to enthrall the world and lead it astray (cp. 2 Thess 2:9-10).

The statement may well be an allusion to an early form of the Nero-legend, but, if so, it is used here for a very distinct purpose—namely, to establish a general parallel with the death and resurrection of Jesus. The verb sfa/gw (“slay”), often used in the context of ritual (i.e. sacrificial) slaughter, occurs almost exclusively in the book of Revelation (8 of 10 occurrences in the NT). In the throne-vision of chapter 5 (vv. 6, 9, 12) it is used of the Lamb (Jesus), even as it is here in chapter 13 (v. 8). Indeed, 5:6 has the identical expression “as having been slain” (w($ e)sfagme/non). Thus the apparent death and recovery of the head/king serves as an evil parody of Jesus’ death and resurrection, even as the coming (parousia) of the “man of lawlessness” in 2 Thess 2 is an evil parody of the parousia of Jesus.

When it says that “the whole earth wondered”, it is presumably due to the (miraculous) recovery of the head/king, but also in that it reflects the amazing power of the creature taken as a whole. All throughout history the occurrence of miracles (whether real or false) has caught the attention of people, causing them to follow after the gifted leaders and wonder-workers who take advantage of such miracles. However, even without any supernatural aid, the public is apt to follow after powerful political and religious leaders. To follow “behind” or “in back of” (o)pi/sw) often signifies becoming a loyal and devoted disciple or ally. Here it is said that “the whole earth” became a loyal follower, a summary description that certainly would reflect the near-universal extent of Roman rule, i.e. of the whole inhabited earth (as known to people at the time).

Revelation 13:4

“…and they kissed toward [i.e. worshiped] the Fabulous Creature, (in) that he gave the e)cousi/a to the wild animal, and they (also) kissed toward the wild animal, saying, ‘Who is like th(is) wild animal, and who is able to make war with him?'”

In addition to following after the sea-creature, the world also worships the Fabulous Creature (Dragon), the verb proskune/w (lit. “kiss toward”) being the regular NT Greek idiom for the act of worship/veneration. It might be better to say that, in becoming loyal followers of the sea-creature, the people on earth actually are worshiping the Dragon, whether they are aware of it or not. Most commentators recognize here a thinly veiled reference to the Imperial cult, well established in Asia Minor by the end of the 1st century A.D., with temples and ritual honoring the emperor, alongside other deities. Beginning with Augustus, and thereafter, the emperor was considered to be divine, referred to as both “god” and “son of god”, along with other divine (and semi-divine) titles—”lord, master, savior”, etc. A primary purpose of the Imperial religion was to establish and affirm loyalty to the Empire (and its administration), especially in the provinces. In Asia Minor, at some of the very cities addressed in the book of Revelation, the Imperial cult had a prominent position. Already in 29 B.C., a major provincial temple to Augustus and the goddess Roma (personification of Rome) was built at Pergamum, with similar kinds of temples at Ephesus and Smyrna, etc, in the years and decades following (cf. Koester, p. 582). That this Imperial worship was considered to be evil and “Satanic” by the visionary/author of Revelation is clear enough, both here and throughout the book. Indeed, Pergamum, a major site of the cult, is described as the place “where the ruling-seat of the Satan (is)” and “where the Satan puts down house [i.e. dwells]” (2:13).

Interestingly, there is no act of overt religious worship described in v. 4; rather, what is expressed is more a general attitude by the people, revealing an underlying adoration that exalts the creature in a manner that should be reserved for God. The question “Who is like th(is) wild animal?” resembles traditional expressions praising God, such as in Exodus 15:11; 1 Kings 8:23; Psalm 35:10; 71:19; 113:5, etc. Here there may also be an allusion to Ezek 27:32, foreshadowing the parodic lament in chapter 18. The idea that no one was like the emperor is a common part of the tradition panegyric honoring him; note, for example, the declaration regarding Nero calling him “Our Apollo, our Augustus… no one is victorious (over) you!” (Dio Cassius Roman History 62.20.5). This leads to a main reason for the creature being unsurpassed by all others—that he is invincible in battle: “Who is able to make war with you?”. The military success of the Roman Empire in the 1st century scarcely requires comment. Apart from some difficulties (and defeats) at the furthest borders, Roman control over the provinces was largely unchallenged. The rebellion in Judea (66-70 A.D.) was brutally crushed, along with a number of similar uprisings. Such success and ability to conquer, in the popular mind, would seem to be a sure sign of divine power and blessing at work.

The remainder of this vision (vv. 5-10) will be studied in the next daily note.

References marked as “Koester” above, and throughout this series, are to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014).

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“Secret of Lawlessness”: 2 Thess 2:6-8; Rev 17:5, 7

Having discussed the context of the expression “secret of lawlessness” (to\ musth/rion th=$ a)nomi/a$) in 2 Thess 2:7 in the previous study, here I will examine a bit further the interpretation of 2 Thess 2:6-8, as well as a similar use of the term musth/rion in Revelation 17:5, 7.

2 Thessalonians 2:6-8

Assuming that my analysis of vv. 6-8, and, in particular, the use of the verb kate/xw, is on the right track (cf. the previous study), it may be possible to discern something of what Paul has in mind, specifically, in this passage. Let us briefly examine each portion:

Verse 6

“Now you have seen/known the (thing) holding down (power)”—This indicates that Paul’s readers should be able to recognize what this is that currently “holds down (power)” [to\ kate/xon]. The neuter suggests that the reference is to a particular condition, situation, or tendency currently at work and in a position of power in the world.

“unto his being uncovered”—The preposition ei)$ indicates the purpose or direction (“so that”, “toward”) of the thing holding down power. It is possible that a temporal sense is also implied (“until”). The verb here is a passive infinitive of a)pokalu/ptw (“remove the cover from, uncover”). In Greek the syntax of an infinitive + accusative can be very difficult to translate; often it is necessary to render it as a possessive + participle (or gerund) construction—as in this instance: “his being uncovered”. Perhaps a more literal translation is to be preferred: “the removing of the cover (from) him”. Clearly the “he/him” (au)to/n) is different from the thing (currently) holding down power (to\ kate/xon is neuter). The nearest reference point is the “man of lawlessness” (some MSS “man of sin”) in vv. 3-4.

“in his (own) time”—That is, when the time is right for the “man of lawlessness” to be revealed. The expression may also connote the idea that, in a sense, this time belongs to him, i.e. a ‘time of lawlessness’. For the use of kairo/$ (“time, season”) in a definite eschatological context, or suggesting a time of evil and testing, cf. Mark 1:15; 13:33 par; Matt 16:3; 26:18; Luke 4:13; 8:13; 19:44; 21:8, 24, etc; and for a similar use of “hour” (w%ra), cf. Mark 13:11, 32; 14:35, 41; Luke 12:40, 46; 22:53, etc.

Verse 7

“For the secret of lawlessness is already working in (the world)”—The adverb h&dh (“already”) indicates “even now”, currently (in Paul’s own time). On the expression “the secret of lawlessness” (to\ musth/rion th=$ a)nomi/a$), cf. the prior study. The present verb e)nerge/w means that the secret is (currently) active, i.e. at work (e&rgon), in (e)n) the world (and the present Age).

“only until the (one) holding down (power) now”—In my view, this is the best way to read this portion of the difficult clause in v. 7. The temporal aspect is indicated by the formula “only…now until” (mo/nona&rti e%w$). This means that there is someone holding down power now (currently, that is, in Paul’s time), but will only continue to do so for a (short) period of time. On a similar Pauline use of clauses with e%w$ (or w($) in the postpositive position, cf. Rom 12:3; 1 Cor 3:5; 6:4; 7:17; 2 Cor 2:4; Gal 2:10, etc (Wanamaker, p. 255).

“should come to be out of the middle”—The use of gi/nomai (“come to be”) with the preposition e)k (“out of, from”) could be taken to mean that either the “one holding down (power)” or the “lawless one” will appear in/from the midst/middle (of things?); however, the expression e)k me/sou (“out of the middle”) rather suggests someone or something being removed. When the one (currently) holding down power is ‘removed’, then the way will be clear for the lawless one to appear.

Verse 8

“and then the cover will be (removed) from the lawless (one)”—This renders quite literally the verb a)pokalu/ptw (“remove the cover from”, “uncover”, i.e. disclose, reveal, etc); the passive form probably should be understood as a “divine passive” (with God effectively as the one who acts). The adverbial particle to/te (“then”) fills out the temporal sequence from verse 7h&dh (“already”), a&rti (“now”), to/te (“then”). The substantive adjective “the lawless (one)” (o( a&nomo$) gives personal expression to the impersonal “lawlessness” (a)nomi/a) in v. 7, and is certainly synonymous with the “man of lawlessness” in vv. 3-4. In 1 Cor 9:21 Paul uses the adjective a&nomo$ in the specific (literal) sense of those “without the Law”—that is, without the Torah, i.e. Gentiles (cf. also Acts 2:23). Normally, however, it is used in the more general sense of persons who do not adhere to established law and custom—in society at large this means crime and rebellion (Luke 22:37), while, from a religious standpoint, typically immorality is indicated (2 Peter 2:8); in 1 Tim 1:9 both aspects are combined. The character and action of this person is described in vv. 3-4.

“whom the Lord [Yeshua] will take up…in the shining (forth) of his (com)ing to be alongside upon (the earth)”—The terms e)pifa/neia (“shining upon”, i.e. appearance, manifestation) and parousi/a (“[com]ing to be along[side]”) both had a history of eschatological and apocalyptic usage by the time Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians, and they are combined here, in especially exalted language for dramatic effect. The word parousi/a (parousía) in particular quickly turned into a technical term for the end-time appearance (return) of Christ. In the previous study, I commented on the intentional parallel (and contrast) drawn between the coming (parousia) of Christ and the coming (parousia) of the “lawless one”. The rest of verse 8, describing the punishment and fate of the lawless one, is drawn from the traditional language and (Messianic) imagery of Isaiah 11:4.

Summary

Here I would suggest the following thumbnail interpretation of what Paul is describing, and perhaps envisions, in vv. 6-8:

  • The secret of lawlessness—This is the power of sin, evil and opposition to God, which has been, and is currently (h&dh, “already”) at work in the world. It is a “secret” (musth/rion) in the sense that its presence and activity is largely hidden to people at large—they are unaware of it and how it functions. Also, its true nature, and full manifestation, are kept away from people—this will only be revealed at the end time. It is generally to be equated with the working of “the Evil (One)”, i.e. Satan, and the various (invisible) evil powers that control and influence the fallen world. It is also possible to view the “secret” in terms of the timing and duration of this lawless/evil period within the hidden plan/will of God (see esp. the Qumran text 1QS 4:18-19).
  • The (thing) holding down power—This is best understood as worldly power, taken as a whole, specifically the ruling power in Paul’s time: the Roman imperial government and authority (i.e., the Roman Empire). While often viewed in a negative light by early Christians (as in the book of Revelation, cf. below), the Roman Empire was not evil per se. However, the exercise of worldly power was generally seen as being opposed to the way of God and Christ. Though it is related to the “secret of lawlessness”, the thing “holding down power” (to\ kate/xon) is not identical with it.
  • The (one) holding down power—If the general identification with the Roman Empire as “the (thing) holding down (power)” is correct, then “the (one) holding down power” (o( kate/xwn) probably should be taken as a reference to the current Roman Emperor. When Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians (late 40s/early 50s, c. 50 A.D.?), the ruling Emperor would have been Claudius. The Emperor would rule until such time has he “came to be (removed) from the midst”. Perhaps an imperial coup or assassination was imagined, for which there certainly had been precedents, and would hardly be surprising; however, ultimately such historical processes were controlled by God himself.
  • The lawless (one)—The removal (?) of the current ruler would allow for the “cover to be removed” (by God), thus revealing “the lawless one” (o( a&nomo$). This figure would fulfill more completely the prophecies by Daniel (in 9:20-27; 11:31; 12:11, etc), of the coming wicked ruler which had already been embodied by Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the mid-2nd century B.C. Jesus’ own eschatological teaching in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 13 par) seems to follow the same basic line of interpretation (note the allusion to Dan 9:27 in v. 14). Prior to the reign of Claudius, Gaius (Caligula) had come close to living and acting out many of these expectations; so, it was not at all unreasonable to expect that the next ruler (or one soon coming) would be even more wicked and godless. Almost certainly, from the early Christian standpoint, the idea of an Antichrist-ruler of the end-time was largely modeled after the pattern of Roman rulers such as Pompey, Gaius, Nero, and (possibly) Domitian. For more on this, cf. the discussion on Revelation 17:5, 7 below. However, Paul makes clear that this is no ordinary political ruler, but a truly evil figure, empowered and inspired by Satan.

Revelation 17:5, 7

These two references have a contextual setting that is similar, in many ways, to that of 2 Thess 2:1-11. Chapters 17-19 of Revelation serve as the climax to the division of the book which spans chapters 12-19. I outline this division as follows:

    • Chs. 12:1-14:5—The faithful (people of God), symbolized as a woman who is attacked by the dragon (and its beasts)
      • 12:1-17—Vision of the Woman giving birth; the labor pains, etc, relate to the war made on her children (believers, people of God) by the dragon (the Devil and his Messengers)
      • 12:18-13:18—Vision of the two beasts, which are ‘offspring’ of the dragon
      • 14:1-5—Vision of the 144,000, the faithful ones who have endured the dragon’s attacks (implied)
    • Chs. 14:6-16:21—Judgment of God upon the world (Babylon) and the wicked
      • 14:6-13—Vision of the (Angelic) announcement of Judgment
      • 14:14-20—Vision of the Man with the sickle, about to reap the harvest (of the Judgment)
      • 15:1-8—Heavenly vision that introduces the pouring out of God’s wrath
      • 16:1-21—Vision of the Seven Bowls of God’s wrath poured out on the world
    • Chs. 17-19—Wicked/worldly power, symbolized as a woman seated upon the beast
      • 17—Vision of the Woman (prostitute) identified as “Babylon”, with an interpretation
      • 18—Oracle (Hymn) on the fall of Babylon
      • 19:1-10—Heavenly vision and hymn (on the fall of Babylon)
      • 19:11-21—Vision of the Rider on the White Horse and the defeat of the Beast

Two women are set in (contrasting) parallel with each other—one representing the faithful people of God, the other symbolizing the wicked of the world—each flanking a great cluster of visions describing the end-time Judgment. This second woman is depicted in chapter 17 under the figure of a prostitute (pornh/). All the rulers and inhabitants of the earth are said to have had intercourse (euphemistically, “soaked from her wine”) with this prostitute (v. 2). As part of the actual vision (vv. 3-6a), we find this detail:

“…and upon the (space) between her eye(s) [i.e. her forehead] a name has been written (which is) a secret [musth/rion]: ‘Babylon the Great, the mother of prostitutes and stinking (thing)s of the earth'”

In Greco-Roman literature of the period we read of prostitutes adopting the names of colorful characters (e.g. Demonsthenes, Oration 59.19; Juvenal, Satires 6.123), as well as wearing bands around their foreheads (Herodotus, Histories I.199.2). In Jeremiah 3:3, the expression “forehead of a prostitute” (hn`oz hV*a! j^x^m@) to indicate blatant immorality is likely proverbial. While it is possible that a prostitute might write a name upon her forehead band, here in Rev 17:5 the name should be understood as one applied (by God) to her in the vision. The main aspect of the “secret” has to do with the identification of the prostitute as Babylon. In verse 7, the secret involves the woman herself (the Angel speaking):

“And I will utter to you the secret [musth/rion] of th(is) woman and of the beast th(at is) bearing [i.e. lifting/carrying] her, the (one) holding seven heads and ten horns.”

Here the “secret” involves the explanation or interpretation of the vision, much as the “secret of the Kingdom of God” in Mark 4:11 par involved the explanation of Jesus’ parables to his circle of followers. Of greater influence for the book of Revelation is the use of the Aramaic zr` (“secret”) in reference to the vision-interpretations given to Daniel (Dan 2:18-19, 27-30, 47; 4:9); in these passages God is said to reveal to Daniel the secrets hidden in the visions.

By combining the name of prostitute (“Babylon”) with the explanation of the visionary details provided in 17:7ff, it seems fairly clear that this woman is meant to symbolize the wicked/worldly power associated with Rome (i.e. the Roman Empire). An association between Rome and Babylon was already traditional by the end of the New Testament period, as indicated by the setting in other Apocalyptic writings (2/4 Esdras 3:1-2, 29-31; 16:1; 2 Baruch 10:2; 11:1; 67:7; Sibylline Oracles 5:143, 159); “Babylon” in 1 Peter 5:13 is probably also a cipher for Rome. The association was natural, since both Rome and Babylon were the center of great empires (i.e. the Babylonian empire of the 7th/6th century B.C.), and both invaded/conquered Judea and Jerusalem, destroying the Temple in the process. The identification with Rome would seem to be confirmed by the interpretation of the beast in vv. 7ff and the imagery of the hymn in chapter 18. The explanation of the “seven horns” as “seven mountains” (v. 9) certainly suggests the seven hills traditionally connected with the city of Rome. Moreover, chapter 18 describes a great commercial empire with control of the seas. With such an identification, the “seven kings” (another interpretation of the horns) would presumably represent rulers of the Empire, five of whom have died and a sixth who is currently living (ruling?). The author and/or audience of the book may have known just who these six rulers (Emperors?) were, but today we can only guess; various proposals have been made, none of which are entirely convincing.

It is important to point out that, even if the primary association of the woman (and the beast) is with the Roman Empire, that is simply because it was the clearest and strongest manifestation of wicked/worldly power at the time that the book of Revelation was written (as in the case of 2 Thessalonians, cf. above). Clearly, the evil power and influence of the beast(s)—and, in turn, the dragon (identified with the Devil/Satan)—transcends the specific connection with Rome. The heads/horns of the beast represent power and authority which rightly belongs to God, but which the beast and the worldly rulers he controls have appropriated for themselves. Similarly, God is typically seen as residing upon a mountain in ancient (Near Eastern) religious and mythological imagery; the association with the symbolic (sacred/divine) number seven only strengthens this idea. There are two interesting (contemporary) examples in this regard:

    • In 1 Enoch 18:6-8 the heavenly vision includes seven great mountains, the central of which stretches “to heaven like the throne of God”. These seven mountains are connected more closely with God’s throne in chapters 24-25. First Enoch was probably composed variously over a considerable span of time, from the 3rd century B.C. to the 1st cent. A.D.; it was popular and influential on Jewish thought (and apocalyptic/messianic thought, in particular) at the time of the New Testament. Chapters 37-71 may date from the early 1st century A.D., being contemporary with the earliest layers of Christian tradition. An important theme of the book (especially in chaps. 37-71) is how the kings of the earth will face God’s Judgment for their (arrogant) refusal to submit themselves to His authority, and for their mistreatment/persecution of God’s people.
    • In the 1st Oration, or Discourse, of Dio Chrysostom (on Kingship), we find a vision of two great mountain peaks (66-84)—one is the Royal peak, associated with Zeus, upon which is a beautiful and dignified woman, representing true and proper kingship; the second is the peak of Tyranny, upon which is seated another woman (representing Tyranny) and described in a manner reminiscent of Revelation 17-18. Dio would have been in his prime c. 90 A.D., about the time often assumed for the composition of the book of Revelation.

The prostitute is carried, born aloft, by the beast, meaning that she is supported by him. His horns and heads are a natural, if grotesque, outgrowth of the beast’s evil life and power.

For some of the references cited above (and others), cf. Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014), pp. 674-8.
References marked “Wanamaker” above are to Charles A. Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians, The New International Greek Testament Commentary [NIGTC] (Eerdmans/Paternoster Press: 1990).