Justification by Faith: Romans 1:17

This Saturday (October 31) is the date commemorating the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, marking Luther’s posting of the so-called “Ninety-five Theses” on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. Intended for an academic debate, these propositions, many of a highly technical nature, had an influence which went far beyond their original purpose, and Martin Luther himself came to be the leading figure of the early years of the Reformation. In celebration of this time, I am launching a series of brief studies, posted periodically on Fridays (“Reformation Fridays”) over the coming months, dealing with some of the key tenets of Protestantism.

These Reformation-themed studies will each focus on a particular principle or belief central to the Reformation and the Protestant Tradition, examining the Scriptural basis for it. One or two key, representative Scripture passages or verses will be chosen, and given a critical treatment. This will demonstrate how Biblical criticism applies to theology and doctrine. On the one hand, we can see the way that established doctrines developed from particular interpretations of Scripture. At the same time, it is important always to take a fresh look as such beliefs, examining them anew in the light of Scripture.

Justification by Faith

The first Reformation tenet we will explore is justification by faith, as summarized in the famous slogan sola fide (“faith alone”)—that is, salvation comes only through faith in Christ, and not as a result of human work and effort. The fourth article of the Augsburg Confession gives the following statement (brackets represent explanatory text in German):

“…men can not be justified [obtain forgiveness of sins and righteousness] before God by their own powers, merits, or works; but are justified freely [of grace] for Christ’s sake through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and their sin’s forgiven for Christ’s sake, who by his death hath satisfied our sins.” (translation from P. Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, vol. 3)

There is a long history behind this theological formulation, but, to a large extent, the primary idea comes from the New Testament, perhaps best seen by the declaration in Ephesians 2:8-9:

“For by (the) favor (of God) you are (one)s having been [i.e. who have been] saved, through trust—(and) this (does) not (come) out of you, (but is) the gift of God, (so) that no one should boast (of it).”

The word translated “favor” above is xa/ri$ (cháris), usually rendered “grace”; that translated “trust” (pi/sti$, pístis) is more commonly rendered “faith”. We are saved through trust in Christ, but this does not come from our own ability or effort; rather, it is a result of the gift and favor shown to us by God.

The very expression “justification by faith” clearly shows the dependence on Paul’s letters (especially Galatians and Romans), with his repeated (and distinctive) use of the verb dikaio/w (dikaióœ) and the related noun dikaiosu/nh (dikaiosýn¢) and adjective di/kaio$ (díkaios). As a transitive verb, dikaio/w fundamentally means “make (things) right”, or “make (something) just”, sometimes in the formal (legal) sense of “declare (something to be) just”, “provide justice”, etc. Paul draws heavily upon this legal usage, applying it in a religious sense. We will be looking at two key examples which are essential to the doctrine of “justification by faith”. The first comes from the opening section of Romans, the concluding declaration in Rom 1:17. A seminal moment for the Reformation occurred during Luther’s study of Romans in his years spent as an Augustinian monk; he began to meditate more deeply on this verse, leading to a kind of revelatory moment (and conversion experience) for him, as he describes in the 1545 Preface to his writings in Latin. He expounded this verse, and the theological and religious principle drawn from it, a number of times in his published works; and other Reformers also inspired by it, followed him as well. Thus, Romans 1:17 may serve as a kind of keystone verse for the Protestant Reformation, and is deserving of careful study. In fact, Paul’s statement is considerably more complex than it seems at first glance, especially when reading it in translation, and through the lens of Protestant theology.

Romans 1:17

The particular words in Rom 1:17 which so struck Luther, are actually a quotation from the Old Testament (Habakkuk 2:4). This is just one of several elements in the verse which need to be examined; let us consider them in order. To begin with, verse 17 marks the conclusion of the opening section (introduction) of the letter, and further explains the statement by Paul in v. 16 that the “good message” (Gospel) is “the power of God unto salvation for every(one) trusting (in Jesus)”. There are three parts to this explanation in v. 17:

    • “For the justice of God is uncovered in it”
    • “out of trust (and) into trust”
    • “even as it has been written…”—the citation from Hab 2:4

1. “For the justice of God is uncovered in it”—The word translated “justice” is dikaiosu/nh, part of the dikai- word-group mentioned above, and related to the verb dikaio/w. It is notoriously tricky to translate in English. Perhaps the best rendering would be something like “right-ness” or “just-ness”, but, as there is nothing truly equivalent in English, most translators opt for “justice” or “righteousness”. However, both of these can be misleading in modern English—”justice” has a predominantly socio-legal meaning, while “righteousness” a religious meaning, and one that is seldom used in English today, also having the negative connotation of self-righteousness.

Another difficulty involves the genitive construction (“…of God”): is it a subjective or objective genitive? That is to say, does it represent an attribute of God (i.e. something he possesses) or something which comes from him (i.e. as an object to us)? In Phil 3:9, Paul refers to the justice/righteousness that comes “from God” (e)k qeou=, ek theou), and given to believers; while in 2 Cor 5:21, believers become the “justice/righteousness of God” in Christ. There the expression may be taken as an objective genitive, and so many commentators understand it in Rom 1:17 as well—the Gospel communicates justice/righteousness to us. Certainly, that is how Luther and the Reformers came to understand it—righteousness as a gift from God, especially in the legal/declarative sense implied by Paul in much of his writing. Luther translates the expression in Rom 1:17 as “die gerechtigkeit die vor Gott gilt” (the justice/righteousness that counts before God). However, the overall context of Romans here strongly suggests that Paul is primarily using a subjective genitive—i.e. justice/just-ness as a divine characteristic. It is parallel to the “anger of God” (org¢ theou) in v. 18, which is also said to be “uncovered” and specifically directed against injustice (a)diki/a, adikía). Similarly, we may note the expressions “the trust(worthiness) of God” (h¢ pistis tou theou) and “the truth(fulness) of God” (h¢ al¢theia tou theou) in 3:3, 7. It is an attribute expressing the character of God, but especially in terms of his action toward humankind.

What does it mean to say that the justice of God is “uncovered” in the Gospel? The verb a)pokalu/ptw (apokalýptœ) literally means “take the cover (away) from”, indicating something previously hidden or unknown. It relates to the character of God as one who makes things right, and specifically involves the salvation brought about through the person and work of Jesus. In v. 16, the Gospel—the message/announcement of this saving work—is called “the power of God”, an expression parallel to “the justice of God”. The Gospel reveals the plan of salvation for humankind, and, in so doing, makes known the very nature and character of God himself.

2. “out of trust (and) into trust”—This phrase can also be somewhat difficult to interpret. It is meant to qualify and explain the earlier phrase. The justice of God is revealed in the Gospel. How, or in what manner does this occur?—”out of [e)k] trust and into [ei)$] trust”. Trust is both the source (“out of”) and goal (“into”). Of course, when Paul uses the word pi/sti$ (“trust”), he is referring to trust, or faith, in Jesus. Trust leads to the communication of God’s justice/righteousness to us, in the person of Christ, which, in turn, also leads to (greater) trust as we are united and grow in him. Paul uses similar syntax in 2 Cor 3:18: “from glory into/unto glory”. Likewise in the Greek of Psalm 84:8, the prepositions ek and eis in sequence would seem to indicate the passage from one point, or degree, to another.

3. The citation of Hab 2:4—Paul quotes this as follows:

“But the just (one) will live out of trust”
o( de\ di/kaio$ e)k pi/stew$ zh/setai
ho dé díkaios ek písteœs z¢¡setai

Part of New Testament (textual) criticism involves a careful study and comparison of the text of the Old Testament as it is quoted/cited by the author (or speaker). There are three forms of this verse in the Greek version (Septuagint/LXX) of the Old Testament, two of which differ from Paul’s quotation in the use of the 1st person possessive pronoun (occurring at different points):

“But the just (one) will live out of my trust”
“But my just (one) will live out of trust”

The Hebrew of Hab 2:4, by contrast, reads:

“but the righteous (one) will live by his firm (loyal)ty”
hy#j=y] otn`Wma$B# qyD!x^w+
w®ƒaddîq be°§mûn¹¾ô yihyeh

The LXX is a reasonably accurate translation of the Hebrew, except for the use of the 1st person pronoun, which could indicate a slightly different reading of the underlying Hebrew (1st person suffix instead of 3rd person). The 1st person pronoun means that the righteous person lives as a result of God’s faithfulness. The Hebrew, by contrast, means that the person lives because of his/her own loyalty to God. The original context of the prophetic oracle clarifies this meaning. Judgment is coming upon Judah by means of foreign military invasion (by the Babylonians or “Chaldeans”, 1:6ff); only those who are faithful to YHWH will survive the attack (“will live”). Here, faithfulness refers to the binding agreement (covenant) established between God and the people Israel, with the Torah representing the terms of the agreement. The righteous/loyal Israelite remains firmly committed to the covenant, and obedient to the Torah, even as the rest of the society has fallen into disobedience and sin. This is similar to the faithful remnant motif found in many of the prophetic oracles—only the faithful ones will be saved from the coming judgment.

Considered in this light, it is interesting to see how Paul interprets the verse here in Romans. First, he preserves the original formulation from the Hebrew, i.e. that the trust/loyalty is that of the righteous person, and not God. Even though his Greek has no personal pronoun (“his”), that basic meaning is still implied, as in the reading of LXX manuscript 763* which matches Paul’s version. Second, Paul also retains something of the judgment-setting from Habakkuk, not in verse 17 itself, but in vv. 18ff which follow, referring to “the anger of God” (parallel to “the justice of God”) which is being uncovered. Only believers in Christ will escape the coming Judgment. However, it must be admitted that Paul has a deeper sense of the verb “will live” in mind; in addition to the negative context of the Judgment, there is the positive sense of what it means for the believer, even now in the present, to live in Christ. As expressed in 6:4ff, and other passages, the believer experiences new life in Christ, quite apart from the eternal life which one inherits after death and the Judgment. Though he does not state it here at this point in Romans, this sense of life in Christ is understood primarily through the presence of the Spirit.

More significantly, what Paul does not explain immediately in verse 17 is how the just/right (díkaios) character of the believer relates to the justice/righteousness (dikaiosýn¢) of God. In quoting Hab 2:4, the adjective díkaios is used without indicating exactly what makes the person “just”. In the Old Testament religious context of the oracle, a person’s just/righteous character is demonstrated by loyalty to the covenant and faithful obedience to the Torah. Paul, of course, turns this completely around, through a complex logic and series of arguments, expressed primarily in Galatians, and here in Romans. A person’s righteousness is the result of trust in Christ, rather than faithfulness to the Torah. Paul’s teaching in this regard is extremely complicated, and must be studied with considerable care, to avoid misunderstanding or over-simplification. For a detailed examination and discussion, I recommend you explore the articles on Paul’s view of the Law in my earlier series “The Law and the New Testament”.

There is an interesting comparison to be made between Paul’s interpretation of Hab 2:4 and that found in the Community of the Qumran text (Dead Sea Scrolls). In the surviving commentary (pesher) on Habakkuk (1QpHab), 2:4 is interpreted as follows:

“…(it) concerns all observing the Law in the House of Judah, whom God will free from the house of judgment on account of their toil and of their loyalty to the Teacher of Righteousness”

Two criteria are combined: (1) proper observance of the Law, etc (“their toil”), and (2) loyalty to the person called “Teacher of Righteousness”, the leading/founding figure of the Community, viewed as an inspired prophet and teacher. Paul would reject the first criterion, but the second is a bit closer to his own approach. Both the Qumran Community and early Christians defined salvation in terms of faith in a person.

One final point of interpretation involves the syntactical position of the expression ek písteœs (“out of trust”)—from Paul’s standpoint, does it modify the subject (ho díkaios, “the just [one]”) or the verb (z¢¡setai, “will live”)? In other words, is the emphasis on the person being considered just because of his/her trust, or does the person live as a result of that trust? Compare: (1) “the (person who is) just out of (his/her) trust will live”, or (2) “the just (person) will live out of trust”. The latter is to be preferred, especially if Paul understood the original meaning of the Hebrew text. If so, then Rom 1:17 is not so much as statement of “Justification by Faith” as it is of “New Life by Faith”. Paul, however, would certainly affirm both sides of the equation, as, indeed, he does through the central phrase “out of trust (and) into trust”, indicating both source (“from the just-ness of God”) and goal (“eternal life in Christ”).

As you meditate and study this verse, begin looking ahead through Paul’s letter to the Romans, reading from 1:18 on into the beginning of chapter 4. In the next study, we will explore a second key verse related to the doctrine of “Justification by Faith”—the quotation of Genesis 15:6 in Rom 4:3 (also Gal 3:6).

2 Thess 2:3-4 and Early Christian Eschatology

As previously noted in the studies on the eschatology of 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Paul appears to have shared, with other first-century believers, a traditional outlook on the end times. In his letters he does not go much beyond this, and only offers a presentation of this eschatology in any real detail in 1 and 2 Thessalonians. In my view, Paul held to an eschatological framework similar to that of the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” (cf. my earlier 4-part study on the Discourse). Even though the Eschatological Discourse likely represents an early Christian (traditional-literary) arrangement of Jesus’ teaching, this does not mean that the basic framework was not shared by Jesus himself. In fact, there is every reason to think that it was, in general, shared by many Jews and Christians of the time.

The simplest form of the Synoptic Discourse is the Markan version (chap. 13), which has the following framework:

    • A single period of “distress” which precedes the coming of the end, presented from three different points of view:
      (1) The world and humankind generally (vv. 5-8)
      (2) The disciples of Jesus (vv. 9-13)
      (3) The people of Judea specifically (vv. 14-22)
      [Probably the destruction of the Temple signifies the end/climax of this period]
    • The end of the current Age, marked by the appearance of the Son of Man and the gathering/deliverance of the Elect [i.e. the final Judgment] (vv. 24-27)

The Matthean and Lukan versions develop and expand this somewhat. It is worth noting that Paul, in 1 and 2 Thessalonians (assuming the latter is genuinely Pauline), was writing c. 50 A.D., only 20 or so years after Jesus’ own teaching, and well before any of the Synoptic Gospels were written. The points of correspondence between the eschatology of 1-2 Thessalonians and the underlying traditions of the Discourse are:

    • He seems to believe (and affirm) that the suffering and persecution believers are experiencing at the time is part of the end-time period of distress (1 Thess 1:6ff; 2:14ff; 2 Thess 1:4-12). This corresponds with Jesus’ teaching in Mk 13:9-13 par. Paul uses the key term qli/yi$ (“distress”) in 2 Thess 1:4, 6 (also 1 Thess 1:6; cf. Mk 13:19, 24 par; Rev 7:14 etc.
    • Paul’s controversial words in 1 Thess 2:14-16, regarding the judgment facing Jewish opponents of the Gospel, likely reflects the idea of specific suffering that is to come upon the people of Judea (and Jerusalem) as part of the end-time period of distress (Mk 13:14-22 par). I discussed this in an earlier note.
    • The teaching in 1 Thess 4:13-17 (cf. the discussion in Part 2) is said to derive from Jesus’ own words (“word/account of the Lord”, v. 15), that is, transmitted through early Gospel tradition. It is essentially an expanded form of Mk 13:26-27 par, naturally identifying the coming of the “Son of Man” with the return of Jesus (cf. also 1 Thess 1:10; 2:19; 3:13; 2 Thess 1:7; 2:1).
    • The instruction in 1 Thess 5:1-3ff also echoes Jesus’ proverbial teaching in Mk 13:32-37 par, esp. Matt 24:42-44).
    • 2 Thess 2:1-12 contains much detail in common with Jesus’ description of the end-time period of distress (Mk 13:5ff, 14, 19-22 par).

It is the last point, in particular, that I wish to discuss here. Having already examined 2 Thess 2:1-12 in Part 3 of the article on 1-2 Thessalonians, it is necessary to look at verses 3-4 in a bit more detail, and in light of the framework of the Eschatological Discourse.

2 Thessalonians 2:3-4

One of the events which, according to Paul, must occur before the final Judgment of God (against the wicked) arrives, is the appearance of a person called “the man of lawlessness” (o( a&nqrwpo$ th=$ a)nomi/a$, v. 3) or “the lawless (one)” (o( a&nomo$, v. 8). While this descriptive title could be understood in a general sense, Paul’s exposition in vv. 3-10 strongly suggests that it refers to a political leader of some sort. At the time of writing (c. 50 A.D., assuming Pauline authorship), this likely would have meant a Roman emperor. We would have a clearer sense of what Paul had in mind, and the passage would be easier to interpret, were it not for two factors: (1) the difficult language/syntax in vv. 6-7, and (2) the role of the Temple in verse 4. I discuss the meaning of the Greek of vv. 6-7 in Part 3 and earlier notes (cf. also below). Here it is necessary to look specifically at the role of the Temple, since it marks a defining act by the “man of lawlessness”. Verse 4:

“…the (one) stretching himself out against, and lifting himself over, all (thing)s being counted as God or reverenced, even as to his sitting in the shrine [nao/$] of God, showing himself from (this) that he is God.”

Most commentators are in agreement that Paul here is drawing upon an early Christian use of the prophecies in the book of Daniel, of a wicked foreign ruler who would come and desecrate the Temple (9:26-27; 11:31-39; 12:11). The original context of these prophecies is as a reference to the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the events of 167-164 B.C., in which the sacrificial ritual in the Jerusalem Temple was halted/abolished, being replaced by a form of pagan worship. This act of desecration was specifically identified with the difficult Hebrew wording of 9:27 — “and upon the wing [[nk] of despicable (thing)s he lays waste”, or, perhaps: “and upon the wing of despicable (thing)s (the one) laying waste (comes)”. In Greek, this phrase was translated as “and upon the Temple there will be a stinking (thing) of desolations [bde/lugma tw=n e)rhmw/sewn]”. The earliest interpretation is found in 1 Maccabees 1:54, following the Greek rendering—the “stinking thing of desolations” [bde/lugma tw=n e)rhmw/sewn] is identified with a pagan altar that Antiochus IV had set upon the altar in the Temple (v. 59, also 4:43), and upon which, it would seem, unlawful/unclean pagan sacrifices were offered (cf. 2 Macc 6:5). In his Commentary on Daniel (11:31), Jerome states that Antiochus IV had set up an image of Jupiter (Zeus) Olympius in the Jerusalem Temple; however, the source and basis for this tradition is unclear.

Both Jews and Christians in the 1st century B.C./A.D. had cause to re-interpret the Daniel prophecy, applying it to their own time (a century or two later). Since no definitive judgment/defeat of the wicked occurred in the years immediately following 164 B.C., his meant that the prophecy still had to be fulfilled in some manner. The Dan 9:27 tradition, with a variation of the same Greek expression “stinking thing of desolation” (bde/lugma th=$ e)rhmw/sew$), is used in the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse (Mark 13:14):

“But when you should see the stinking thing of desolation having stood where it is necessary (that it should) not [i.e. where it ought not to be]…”

The aside which follows, coming either from the Gospel writer or an earlier traditional notice, suggests an interpretation, unstated in the text, that is presumed to be understood by Christians of the time (c. 60 A.D.?). Matthew’s version preserves the same cryptic notice but otherwise makes the Daniel reference (24:15) more clear (differences/additions in italics):

Therefore when you should see ‘the stinking thing of desolation’ that was uttered through Danîyel the Foreteller (now) having stood in the holy place…”

Jesus’ disciples, along with other Christians of the time, c. 35-60 A.D., are warned that the appearance of “the stinking thing of desolation” standing in the Temple sanctuary marks the beginning of a time of terrible distress for the people of Judea. While the original reference in the Synoptic Discourse (Mark/Matthew) may have been well-understood by the first readers, its precise interpretation is unclear for us today. However, the idea of something standing in the Temple suggests perhaps a statue or similar (pagan) construction. The tradition preserved in Jerome’s commentary on Daniel (cf. above) indicated that Antiochus IV had set up an image of Jupiter (Zeus) Olympius in the Temple. This was echoed c. 40 A.D. by the emperor Gaius’ (Caligula), as part of his establishment of the imperial cult, intending that his statue was to be placed in the Jerusalem Temple, transforming it into an imperial shrine (Josephus, Antiquities 18.256-307). Jesus’ use of Dan 9:27 indicates that he is predicting something similar to happen at the end-time, and it could conceivably relate to the historical actions/intentions of the emperor (c. 40 A.D.).

However, in Luke’s version of the Discourse, the Dan 9:27 reference has been completely recast as a reference to the (Roman) invasion of Jerusalem, in which the presence of a pagan army would both desecrate and destroy the Temple:

“And when you shall see Jerusalem encircled by foot-soldiers, then you should know that her desolation [e)rh/mwsi$] has come near.” (Lk 21:20; cf. also 19:41-44)

This of course was accurately fulfilled in 70 A.D. The Lukan version of the Discourse expands the chronological scope somewhat, allowing for a period during which Jerusalem (and the Temple) would be “trampled under (the feet of) the nations”. The length of time involved is not clear, though from the author’s standpoint (probably writing c. 70-80) it would have to be at least a number of years (though scarcely the 1,900+ years looked at from our vantage point today).

Returning to 2 Thessalonians 2:4, Paul seems to accept a rather different interpretation of the Dan 9:27 / Mk 13:14 tradition—what stands in the Temple sanctuary is not a statue, but a person; it is not a pagan army, rather, it is a wicked pagan ruler. Almost certainly, Paul would have understood this as Roman emperor, perhaps one fulfilling the pattern of the wicked Gaius (Caligula) who had intended his own image to be set up in the Temple (cf. above). This would have occurred just ten years or so (c. 40 A.D.) before 2 Thessalonians was written. It would not have been difficult to see it as a foreshadowing of something that would be done by an even more wicked ruler.

There are actually a number of foreign (Greco-Roman) figures whose lives and actions fed into the idea of a wicked end-time ruler along the lines of this “man of lawlessness”. In addition to Antiochus IV and Gaius (Caligula), we may note the Roman general Pompey (106-48 B.C.). It was he who first subjugated Judea to Roman rule (64/63 B.C.), placing it as a tributary under the governorship of Syria. According to many scholars, the so-called “Psalms of Solomon” were written not long after Pompey’s conquest, and that he is the pattern for the wicked/foreign ruler of the end-time envisioned in several of the Psalms. There are some interesting parallels between 17:11-22 and 2 Thess 2:3-4, both conceptually and in the Greek wording used. The Pompey figure is also called “the lawless one” (o( a&nomo$) and his rule is characterized as an especially wicked time of sin and turning of the people away from God. The book of Revelation, written some time after 2 Thessalonians, appears to contain similar allusions to Nero, and, perhaps, other emperors as well (Vespasian?, Domitian?).

In summary, we may note the following points:

    • Paul predicts the rise of a wicked ruler who would stand/sit in the Temple sanctuary, as a fulfillment of the Dan 9:26-27 prophecy (as understood through the Eschatological Discourse [Mk 13:14 par], etc).
    • This wicked ruler would appear toward the end of the period of distress (qli/yi$) in which Paul and his readers were already living (c. 50 A.D.). This may correspond with the conjunction of the time of persecution of believers (13:9-13) and suffering in Judea (13:14-22) outlined in the framework of the Discourse.
    • The reign of this wicked ruler, though relatively brief, would be one of intense wickedness and evil, with supernatural signs and miracles that would deceive people and lead them astray. This also echoes the description of the end-time distress for Judea in Mk 13:14-22, though Paul does not seem to limit the geographic extent so narrowly (in spite of the Temple reference).
    • The destruction of this wicked ruler is described in traditional Messianic language (allusion to Isa 11:4, etc), transferred to the Christian idea of Jesus’ return.
    • From a chronological standpoint, Paul is speaking of something he expects to happen soon, i.e. not long after 50 A.D., when the letter was written. This would generally fit the time frame (of approx. 20 years) before the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. In this regard, Paul is fully in accord with the earliest Christian eschatology as expressed in the New Testament—i.e. of the “last days” as a period more or less corresponding to the first generation of believers (30-40 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection).

The fundamental problem with this Pauline chronology is the same as that which we have seen already with the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse and the eschatology of the New Testament as a whole. While many of the expected/predicted events and details were accurately fulfilled in the 1st century A.D., the end—i.e. the return of Jesus and final Judgment—did not occur at that time. Paul’s apparent predictions in 2 Thess 2:3ff involve the Jerusalem Temple, as do those of Jesus in the Eschatological Discourse. The Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. which makes it impossible for the event described in 2:4 to be fulfilled—at least not in a concrete historical sense. This has led many traditional-conservative (and Evangelical) commentators to interpret and apply the passage in a more figurative or symbolic sense; this may be done several different ways:

    • as a conflict with the “antichristian” forces of evil, etc, without any specific eschatological significance for the believer today; while this may be a valid application, it effectively negates the clear eschatological context of the passage.
    • as a similar conflict, but an eschatological setting (of sorts) is preserved by viewing the “last days” broadly as the entire period (of nearly 2,000 years) from the time of the apostles to the present day.
    • the specific Temple setting, etc, is figurative but the passage does refer to an actual person who will appear at some point yet in the future (i.e. after 2020 A.D.); as predicted, this ruler will stand in direct opposition to God and Christ and will deceive the world (part of the wider Antichrist tradition).
    • [Some Christians would preserve a literal fulfillment by relying upon the idea that the actual Jerusalem Temple will be rebuilt in the future. While a rebuilding of the Temple does feature in Jewish eschatology to some extent, the idea is almost entirely absent from the New Testament; there is no suggestion, either in 2 Thess 2:3ff or in the Eschatological Discourse, that a rebuilt Temple is in view.]

Only the third approach does justice to the eschatology of the passage, but it founders in the general disregard (admittedly out of practical necessity) for the imminence of Paul’s eschatology clearly expressed throughout 1-2 Thessalonians. As discussed at many points in this series, the basic conflict between the imminent eschatology of the New Testament and the 1,900+ years (and counting) that have since passed, is a problem for which there is no easy solution. It will be addressed more extensively as the series draws to a close.

For more on the Temple in Jewish and early Christian eschatology, see my earlier article on the subject. On the prophecy of Daniel 9:25-27, in particular, consult my note in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, as well as the article here on the Eschatological Discourse.

The “man of lawlessness” of 2 Thess 2:3-11 will be discussed further in an upcoming special article in this series on the “Antichrist” tradition.