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.
“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.)
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.