Notes on Prayer: 2 Thessalonians 1:11-12; 2:16-17

2 Thessalonians 1:11-12; 2:16-17

In the previous study, we looked at Paul’s references to prayer in 1 Thessalonians, and saw how they were focused on two primary themes: (1) Paul’s relationship to the Thessalonian believers, and (2) Paul’s (apostolic) ministry as a missionary and preacher of the Gospel. The Thessalonians were asked to pray for Paul (and his fellow missionaries) in their ministry work, while Paul prays for the Thessalonians, in relation to his work of preaching the Gospel—that is, he gives thanks to God and makes request for the Thessalonians, that they will continue to demonstrate the positive results of their acceptance of the Gospel.

We see much the same in 2 Thessalonians, both in the introduction (exordium, 1:3-12) and the concluding exhortation (3:1-15). These sections bracket the central section of the letter (probatio) that deals with the specific issue addressed by Paul. Thus, the references to prayer in 2 Thessalonians are more integral to the deliberative rhetoric of the letter. The main issue of the letter, on which Paul wishes to persuade the Thessalonians, involves a point of eschatology—the nuance of which is difficult to recapture at this far remove. The eschatological emphasis is clearly expressed in the introduction. The thanksgiving (1:3-4) mentions the suffering and persecution faced by believers (part of the end-time period of distress); the exordium proper (1:5ff) makes abundantly clear that the end-time judgment by God is at hand, and that the return of the Lord (the exalted Jesus) will soon occur. It is in this light that Paul speaks of praying for the Thessalonians:

“(It is) unto this [i.e. for this reason] that we speak out toward (God) always over you, that you might hold up (as worthy) of th(is) calling, and (that) our God would fulfill every good consideration of goodness and work of trust in power, so (that) the name of our Lord Yeshua would be honored in you, and you in him, according to the favor of our God and (our) Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed.” (vv. 11-12)

The main focus of his prayer, according to this statement, is summarized by the phrase “that you might hold up (as worthy) [a)ciw/sh|] of th(is) calling”. The verb a)cio/w derives from the context of something being measured (in value) on the balance-scales, bringing up the balance to match a specific weight/value. What believers are measured against is the calling (klh=si$)—that is, the call of God to salvation. For early Christians, salvation was understood primarily in an eschatological sense—i.e., being saved from the coming Judgment—and that is very much the sense here, as the context of vv. 3-12 makes quite clear. Specifically, we read in the preceding verse (v. 10):

“…when he should come—to be honored among his holy (one)s, and to be regarded with wonder among the (one)s (hav)ing trusted, (in) that they trusted our witness to you—on that day.”

Note the clear eschatological context: “when he should come (i.e. return of the exalted Jesus from heaven)…on that day”. His appearance means judgment and punishment for the world, but salvation for those who have trusted in the Gospel—the preaching of the Gospel here specifically defined in terms of the ministry work of Paul and his colleagues (“our witness to you,” cf. above). The focus of Paul’s exhortation for the Thessalonians is that they will remain faithful to the end, showing themselves worthy of the salvation that is to come. Through this faithfulness, the exalted Jesus (together with God the Father) will be given honor when he appears.

The specific eschatological issue addressed by Paul in chapter 2 continues to be debated by commentators. It involves the expression “the day of the Lord” (h( h(me/ra tou= qeou=), and, in my view, Paul’s concern is to draw a clear distinction between the end-time suffering believers are enduring and the “day of the Lord”. Both are end-time events, but they should be treated as distinct stages in the eschatological sequence. The suffering of believers is part of the end-time ‘period of distress [qli/yi$]’ which precedes the “day of the Lord” proper. The latter denotes the moment when God appears (through His Messianic/heavenly representative [Christ]) to usher in the great Judgment on humankind; at this time, the wicked/faithless ones will be punished, while the righteous (believers) will be rescued and saved. Paul introduces this eschatological discussion in vv. 1-2 (the partitio, where he makes his point), before demonstrating and arguing the proof (probatio) of it in vv. 3-15.

The latter portion of the probatio (vv. 13-15) is framed as a declaration of thanksgiving (to God) and an exhortation (for believers) to remain faithful until the moment of Christ’s return. This exhortation is followed by a wish-prayer (peroratio) for the very purpose (and goal) he had expressed:

“Now he—our Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed—and God our Father, the (One hav)ing loved us and (hav)ing given us a calling along of the Ages, and a good hope in (His) favor, may He call along your hearts and make (you) firm in every work and good account.” (vv. 16-17)

The “calling along” (para/klhsi$, vb parakale/w) is related to the “calling” (klh=si$) in 1:11 (cf. above), and this calling is to be understood as the call to salvation—i.e., the hope (e)lpi/$) of deliverance from the coming Judgment. Through the favor (xa/ri$) of God, we, as believers, were called to salvation (eternal life); and Paul’s prayer is that God (along with the exalted Jesus) would continue to “call along” our hearts all the way to the end, strengthening us (vb sthri/zw) in every important way. Such strengthening and help is necessary due to the suffering believers face—and will continue to face—during the end-time period of distress.

The closing exhortation and conclusion to the letter (chap. 3) follows this same thematic emphasis, but adds the aspect of the Thessalonian believers also praying for Paul (cf. above). The persecution faced by Paul and his fellow missionaries is part of the same end-time suffering faced by the Thessalonians themselves. The two sides of the prayer-relationship—between Paul and the Thessalonians—are captured in verses 1-2:

“For the remainder [i.e. in conclusion], may you speak out toward (God), brothers, over us, (so) that the account of the Lord might run (unhindered), and might be honored, even as (it gives honor) to you, and that we might be rescued from the improper and evil men—for (there is) not trust (present) among all (people).”

The Antichrist Tradition: Part 3

In the first two parts of this study (1 & 2) I examined the Old Testament and Jewish background of the Antichrist tradition—or, stated more precisely, the eschatological themes and motifs which influenced and helped shape that tradition. Now, here in Part 3, it remains to explore the New Testament writings themselves.

The meaning and significance of the adjective a)nti/xristo$ (antíchristos, “against the Anointed”) was discussed in Part 1. This adjective occurs five times in the New Testament, and all in the letters of John (1 Jn 2:18 [twice], 22; 4:3; 2 Jn 7). Moreover, the author of 1 and 2 John uses it (and inteprets it) in a way that is quite different from the customary usage (based on the developed Antichrist tradition). The irony in the New Testament is that the passages typically thought to refer to the Antichrist do not use the term a)nti/xristo$ at all, while the passages that do use it are not referring to the traditional Antichrist-figure, or at least not primarily so. This will be discussed further below.

There are four sections of the New Testament that may be said to relate in some way to the later Antichrist tradition, and which likely played a role in its development:

    1. The Eschatological Discourse of Jesus in the Synoptics (Mark 13 par)
    2. 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12
    3. Revelation 13, and the chapters following (esp. 17:7-14)
    4. The References in 1 and 2 John
    5. Early Christian References outside the New Testament

I have already discussed these passages in considerable detail in earlier articles in this series (and in the daily notes on the book of Revelation). Thus, I will not present a full exegesis here, but will focus instead on only those details or features which relate to the Antichrist Tradition.

1. The Eschatological Discourse of Jesus (Mark 13 par)

I have examined the “Eschatological Discourse” at length in an earlier four-part article (Pts 1, 2, 3, 4). It is, of course, unique to the Synoptic Tradition, set during the final period of Jesus in Jerusalem (Mark 13, par Matt 24-25, Luke 21:5-36). I will use the Markan version as the primary point of reference.

The heart of the Discourse relates to the end-time period of distress (qli/yi$, v. 19; cp. Rev 7:14, etc), presented in three sections—vv. 5-8, 9-13, and 14-23. Some might see this as a chronological sequence of events, but I believe it is better to view them as different aspects of the same period of distress, describing:

    • Its affect on humankind as a whole (vv. 5-8)
    • Its affect on Jesus’ disciples (believers), in terms of their witness/mission (vv. 9-13)
    • Its affect on the people of Judea, especially those in and around Jerusalem (vv. 14-23)

Each of these sections contains at least one important theme which relates to the subsequent Antichrist Tradition. In fact, in each case it is the leading theme of the section, stated or expressed in the initial verse.

Section 1: The rise of “false Messiahs” and “false Prophets” (Mark 13:5f, also vv. 21-22)

This is the leading theme of the section, framed in a general way in verse 5:

“You must look (to it that) no one should lead you astray [planh/sh|]”

The warning follows in verse 6, though the matter is stated more clearly later in verse 22:

“For there will rise false Anointeds [yeudo/xristoi] and false Foretellers [yeudoprofh=tai]…” —that is, false Messiahs (Christs) and false Prophets.

These persons will deceive and lead humankind astray (thus the emphasis at the start of the first section), and even, if possible, actual disciples of Jesus (believers, vv. 22b-23). The issue of false Christs (Messiahs) is stated two ways, in verses 6 and 21, respectively:

“Many will come upon my name, saying that ‘I am (he)’….” (v. 6)
“…if anyone should say to you ‘See, here (is) the Anointed…'” (v. 21)

The first statement suggests that people will claim to be Jesus himself. However, the Matthean version reads differently, no doubt intended to clarify the situation:

“For may will come upon my name, saying ‘I am the Anointed‘…” (24:5)

This almost certainly reflects the meaning of Jesus’ statement in its original context—people will claim to be the Messiah (Christ), not Jesus himself. Of course, for early Christians, claiming to be the Christ would essentially be the same thing as taking Jesus’ place, since only he is the true Anointed One (Messiah or Christ). In this regard, the noun yeudo/xristo$ (pseudóchristos, “false Anointed”) is close in meaning to the adjective anti/xristo$ (antíchristos), with the prefix a)nti/ (antí) in the sense of “in place of”, “in exchange for” —i.e., an imitation or false version.

There is also a close connection between the idea of “false Messiahs” and “false Prophets“, though this may not be immediately apparent to the average reader today. We are not accustomed to thinking of the Messiah as a prophet; however, there were a number of different Messianic figure-types in Jewish thought during this period, as I discuss at length in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”. These figure-types include several kinds of Anointed Prophet, most notably those patterned after the figures of Moses and Elijah (cf. Parts 23 of “Yeshua the Anointed”). In Jesus’ own lifetime, and especially during the period of his ministry in Galilee, he tended to be identified as an Anointed Prophet as much (or more so than) as a Messiah of the Davidic-ruler type. In Luke 4:17-21ff, Jesus explicitly identifies himself with the Anointed herald of Isa 61:1ff; also, in the transfiguration scene (Mark 9:2-8 par), Jesus is associated directly with both Messianic Prophet-figures—Moses and Elijah. More examples could be given (cf. the aforementioned articles).

Josephus notes several instances of would-be Messianic/Prophetic figures, spanning from the time of Jesus (the reign of Pilate, c. 36 A.D.) down to the aftermath of the Jewish War (post 66-70 A.D.)—cf. Antiquities 18.85; 20.97, 169-172; War 7.437ff. In each of these instances it would seem that an end-time “Prophet like Moses” (Deut 18:15-18) was primarily in view—that is, a miracle-working Messianic Prophet, patterned after Moses, who would lead his people into the ‘Promised Land’.

It is not only the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse that connected the Jewish War and destruction of the Temple with the coming of the end; the War itself appears to have been fueled, in part at least, by eschatological and Messianic expectations (Josephus War 6.312f; cf. also Tacitus Histories 5.13.2, and Seutonius Vespasian 4.5). In such an environment, in the face of rebellion, war, and upheaval, it is hardly surprising that “false prophets” and “false Messiahs” might appear, even as predicted by Jesus in the Discourse. Indeed, false prophets were an element of the end-time period of distress and wickedness, according to the eschatological pattern in the Jewish apocalyptic writings (discussed in Part 2). In a more developed form, this would be understood in terms of the influence of Belial and his “spirits of deceit”, inspiring the false prophets. This is most significant in light of how the term “antichrist” is used in the letters of John (cf. below).

Section 2: An intense persecution of Believers (Mark 13:9ff)

The end-time period of distress would also be a time of suffering and persecution for Jesus’ disciples (believers), as summarized in verses 9-13, and also in other Gospel passages. Beginning with his death, the disciples would enter into an “hour of darkness”, a time of testing (peirasmo/$) that would continue until his future return. What Jesus predicts in this section of the discourse was in fact fulfilled, during the first century, among his disciples (and the first generation[s] of believers), as is well-documented, for example, in the book of Acts, the letters of Paul, and in the book of Revelation. While 1st-century Christians certainly believed they were already living in an end-time period of distress, the persecution was expected to become much more intense, and the suffering more acute, as the end drew nearer.

This expectation of greater persecution and suffering, by the surrounding population as well as the governmental authorities, certainly informs the subsequent Antichrist Tradition. We will see it expressed more precisely in 2 Thessalonians 2 and Revelation 13ff (cf. below). It also represents a continuation of the earlier Jewish (and Old Testament) traditions—of the “wicked tyrant” motif, the theme of the hostility shown by the (wicked) nations, and so forth (Parts 1 & 2). In particular, the development of the “wicked-tyrant” type-pattern, shaped by the figure of Antiochus IV in the book of Daniel, included prominently the idea of the wicked ruler’s oppression and persecution of the righteous, even to the point of brutally attacking their religious beliefs.

Section 3: The “stinking thing of Desolation” (Mark 13:14)

The third section of the Discourse, describing the suffering of the people in Judea and Jerusalem (including believers), opens with a somewhat cryptic reference to the tradition in Daniel 9:27 (also 11:31; 12:11):

“And when you should see the ‘stinking (thing) of desolation’ [bde/lugma th=$ e)rhmw/sew$] having stood where it is necessary (that it should) not (be)…then the (one)s in Yehudah must flee into the mountains…” (Mk 13:14)

Matthew’s version clarifies the situation somewhat, while retaining the aside “the (one) reading must have (it) in mind”, making the reference to Daniel explicit:

“So (then), when you should see the ‘stinking (thing) of desolation’, the (thing) uttered through Daniel the Foreteller, having stood in the holy place…” (24:15)

Matthew’s description brings the statement in line with the context of the Daniel references, in which the “disgusting thing[s] bringing desolation” clearly involve the Temple sanctuary and its sacrificial offerings. Commentators continue to debate the exact nature and identity of “the disgusting thing bringing desolation” (<m@ovm! JWQV!h^). It is especially problematic in light of the actual wording in Dan 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)”

This does not make particularly good sense in the context of the verse, complicated further by the interpretation/translation in the Greek versions:

“and upon the Temple there will be a stinking (thing) of desolations [bde/lugma tw=n e)rhmw/sewn]”

The Hebrew suggests a person, whereas the Greek, perhaps understanding the “wing” [[nk] to be the side or pinnacle of the Temple (cf. Lk 4:9), seems to indicate something (an idolatrous object?) placed on the Temple structure. 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 light of this, some critical commentators have proposed emending the Hebrew [nk (“wing”) to <nk (“their place”), with the expression then being <nk lu (“upon their place”, cf. Dan 11:38), i.e. the pagan altar with its sacrifices in place of the prescribed sacrificial offerings of the Temple (Collins, Daniel, p. 358). This is very reasonable, but it involves the always questionable step of emending the text; it also depends on the particular interpretation of vv. 26-27 as describing the reign of Antiochus IV.

In the (original) context of the Daniel prophecy, this desecration of the Temple was fulfilled by the actions of Antiochus IV, the very embodiment of the “wicked tyrant” motif. The use of the same prophecy, by Jesus (and early Christians) in the first century A.D., indicates a belief that it would be fulfilled (again), presumably by another wicked (foreign) ruler, following the type-pattern of Antiochus. I have previously mentioned several possibilities for how this might have been understood by early Christians, assuming an expectation of its fulfillment in the general time-frame of the first century:

    • The emperor Gaius’ (Caligula) establishment of the imperial cult, including his statue which was to be placed in the Jerusalem Temple, transforming it into an imperial shrine (c. 40 A.D., Josephus, Antiquities 18.256-307).
      In his Commentary on Daniel (11:31), Jerome states that Antiochus IV had similarly set up an image of Jupiter (Zeus) Olympius in the Jerusalem Temple.
    • The destruction and despoiling of the Temple by Titus in 70 A.D.
    • The transformation of Jerusalem into a (pagan) Roman city (Aelia Capitolina) in the reign of Hadrian, following the suppression of the Jewish (Bar-Kochba) revolt in 132-135 A.D.

The first two are the most relevant (and plausible). Indeed, in the Lukan version of the Discourse, the Daniel prophecy appears to be interpreted in terms of the siege of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple:

But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by swaths of soldiers, then know that her desolation [e)rh/mwsi$] has come near” (Lk 21:20)

This emphasis receives confirmation from the statement by Jesus in 19:41-44, located at the fateful moment of his approach to Jerusalem. If we accept vv. 43-44 as authentic, then Jesus, on at least one occasion, prophesied a horrific military siege of the city. The wording is similar to both the prediction of the Temple’s destruction (21:6 par), as well as that here in v. 20. The destruction of the Temple by pagans (i.e. Romans) would, in and of itself, represent a terrible act of desecration. It would also mean that Jesus’ prediction was accurately fulfilled in the war of 66-70 A.D. For more on this, cf. the earlier article on the Eschatological Discourse, esp. Part 3 on the Lukan version. We may thus isolate three aspects of this prophecy which relate to the Antichrist tradition:

    • According to the Hebrew (MT) of Dan 9:27, it refers to the actions of a person—i.e. the wicked tyrant Antiochus IV and his forces
    • The idea of the desecration of the Temple by including a pagan altar (and/or statue), thereby turning it into a pagan shrine; this certainly could be understood in relation to the establishment of the Roman Imperial Cult (cf. below)
    • The destruction of the Temple by hostile pagan forces, led by a wicked (foreign) ruler

2. 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12

(This section is an abridgment of the earlier article in this series.)

In 2 Thess 2:1-12, the description of the figure called “the man of lawlessness [o( a&nqrwpo$ th=$ a)nomi/a$]” (verse 3, v.l. “man of sin […th=$ a(marti/a$]”) and “the lawless (one) [o( a&nomo$]” (v. 8) is often assumed to be a reference to ‘the Antichrist’ —that is, to the Antichrist tradition. Much can be said in favor of this, at least in a general sense, since the portrait of this “lawless one” does more or less follow the contours of the later tradition. It also continues the earlier line of tradition (the “wicked tyrant” motif, etc) preserved in Jewish apocalyptic writings of the period (Part 2); cf. especially the use of the same expression (“lawless one”) for the wicked tyrant in Ps Sol 17. The description here begins in verse 3:

“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]…”

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”).

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”). On the original Hebrew term lu^Y~l!B= (b®liyya±al) and the name Belial, cf. the discussion in Part 2. 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=. As previously discussed, 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. This “man of lawlessness” is further described as:

“…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.” (verse 4)

The wording in v. 4a echoes the language and imagery of the “wicked tyrant” motif, going back to the Old Testament Prophets (cf. Part 1). Only here, this figure takes the divine pretensions a step further, by sitting in the Temple sanctuary (“the shrine of 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. In this regard, the adjective anti/qeo$ (“opposed to God, in place of God”), corollary to anti/xristo$, certainly would apply to him.

“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.” (vv. 5-7)

For a detailed discussion of the difficult syntax in this passage, cf. the earlier article. Here are the most important things to note:

    • 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 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 (cf. below). The author (Paul) may be anticipating the sudden rise of an emperor far more wicked, along the lines of Gaius (Caligula) who embodied and prefigured the “wicked tyrant” motif. 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.” (vv. 8-10)

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. This person will thus be a “false Christ” and “false Prophet”, a development of the expectation expressed by Jesus in the Eschatological Discourse (cf. above).

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 (cf. below). 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).

Most commentators are in agreement that Paul is drawing upon the same tradition from Dan 9:27 that is alluded to in the Eschatological Discourse (Mk 13:14 par, cf. above). If so, he seems to accept a rather different interpretation of this tradition—what stands in the Temple sanctuary is not a statue, but a person (cf. the actual Hebrew in Dan 9:27 MT, noted above); it is not a pagan army, rather, it is a wicked pagan ruler. Almost certainly, Paul would have understood this as a 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 (assuming Paul was indeed the author). It would not have been difficult to see it as a foreshadowing of something that would be done by an even more wicked ruler.

This portrait of the “lawless one”, while following in the line of Jewish and early Christian tradition, brings out several particular points of emphasis which, when taken together, can be viewed as representing a kernel of the subsequent Antichrist tradition:

    • The divine pretensions of this wicked ruler reach the point where he is in the position (i.e. in the Temple sanctuary) of being worshiped by the people as God.
    • He is a personal embodiment of a wider manifestation of the forces of evil (“the secret of lawlessness”) at work in the end-time, and in the current wicked Age.
    • He will work miracles and wonders that are directly inspired by Satan, by which humankind will be led astray; this is close to the developed Jewish tradition of the personal manifestation of Belial (with his spirits of deceit) at the end-time.
    • His appearance (and activity) directly imitates the coming (parousia) of Jesus (the Christ)—thus, he can rightly be referred to as “antichrist” (against, or in place of, the Anointed).

3. Revelation 13ff (esp. Rev 17:7-14)

The visionary symbolism of the book of Revelation is extremely complex, and I have devoted a lengthy series of detailed notes to its exposition. The portions most relevant to the Antichrist Tradition are the chapters dealing with the ‘beast’ (lit. “wild animal”, qhri/on) that comes up out of the Sea. This symbolism is introduced in chapter 13 and continues into the final Judgment visions of chapters 19 and 20. Space here does not permit anything like a thorough study of these references (for this, you must consult the daily notes, beginning with those on chapter 13; cf. also the summary note on the chapter). I will be focusing here specifically on several details in chapter 13, along with the interpretation given in chap. 17 (vv. 7-14) on this ‘beast’ (Sea-creature) and its heads.

To begin with, this symbolism—of the Sea-creature and the corresponding Earth-creature (13:1-4ff, 11-12ff)—stems from two primary lines of Old Testament and Jewish tradition:

    • The vision in Daniel 7, of the four ‘beasts’ that come up out of the Sea (vv. 2-8); in the interpretation that follows (vv. 15ff), these beasts are said to be “kingdoms” which, correspondingly, arise out of the Earth (v. 15). The fourth beast, in particular, resembles the Sea-creature of Revelation.
    • The apocalyptic/eschatological tradition of Leviathan (from the sea) and Behemoth (from the earth), as primeval/mythic creatures who embody the forces of darkness and chaos, wickedness and disorder. See, e.g., the references to this tradition in 1 Enoch 60:7-8, 24-25; 2 Baruch 29:4; and 2/4 Esdras 6:49-52 (in Part 1); the latter two are more or less contemporary with the book of Revelation. On the ancient (and Old Testament) background to this tradition, cf. my earlier supplemental article and the summary note on Rev 13.

The “antichrist” aspect to this symbolism derives largely from the “wicked tyrant” motif in Daniel 7, etc, with the original/historical type-pattern of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (cf. the discussion in Part 1). The Sea-creature, with its horns and heads, acts (and speaks) much like the “little horn” in Daniel 7-8. However, in the vision(s) of Revelation 13, there has been a considerable development of the symbolism, both in terms of its specific (and contextual) detail, and in the way it brings together nearly all of the eschatological themes and motifs expressed (earlier) in the Eschatological Discourse and the description of the “lawless one” in 2 Thess 2:1-12 (discussed in Sections 1 and 2 above). Note the following, more or less in order of their occurrence in chapter 13:

    • The Sea-creature resembles the evil Dragon (i.e. the Satan/Devil)—cp. 13:1 with 12:3—thus emphasizing its Satanic/demonic nature and character, being a kind of manifestation of Satan himself (cf. further below).
    • Specifically the Dragon (Satan) gives the creature its authority, i.e. power to act (verse 2, cp. 2 Thess 2:9)
    • The Sea-creature’s diadems, names, and its apparently fatal wound (from which it lives again), all play into the idea that it is a wicked imitation, an evil parody, of the exalted Christ; cf. on 2 Thess 2:3-12 above
    • Humankind is drawn to worship the Sea-creature, i.e. as God (vv. 4ff, cp. 2 Thess 2:4); this is also part of his names, etc, which are an insult to God (vv. 1, 5-6)
    • The Sea-creature “makes war” on the holy ones (vv. 7ff)—i.e., attacking and persecuting believers, even to point of putting them to death

All of these “antichrist” elements are put into effect through the work of the Earth-creature (vv. 11-18), with two aspects being especially emphasized: (a) the worship of the Sea-creature, and (b) the persecution of believers. However, based on the tradition in Daniel 7, it is clear that the Sea-creature is not a person, but a kingdom. Thus, contrary to what is often assumed, chapter 13 does not refer specifically to a wicked ruler (personal Antichrist), but to a wicked kingdom or system of government (which, of course, would be headed by a king, etc). I would interpret the Sea-creature as representing the forces of evil at work on earth—that is, in the kingdoms of the world. The Earth-creature represents the local manifestation of this power, i.e. in particular aspects of society and government, both political and religious. This local government enables the forces of evil to dominate and influence humankind, on a practical level.

Most commentators recognize that the primary point of reference, from the standpoint of the historical background of the book of Revelation, is the Roman Empire—the preeminent world-power of the time. In particular, the work of the Earth-creature is manifest in the Imperial Cult, which had become pervasive and well-established throughout the empire by the end of the 1st century A.D. The refusal of Christians to participate in the various aspects of the Cult—including veneration of the emperor (and his image)—would be a prime reason for their being persecuted and put to death. At the time the book of Revelation was written, such persecution by the authorities was still infrequent and sporadic, but it would become far more widespread and intense in the decades and centuries to come. The Earth-creature is also referred to as a “false prophet” (16:13; 19:20), indicated as well by its miracle-working power (13:13-15; cf. Mk 13:22 par; 2 Thess 2:9-10). In its own way, the Earth-creature is an evil imitation of Christ (“false Christ” = “anti-Christ”), resembling the Lamb (Christ) but speaking and acting like the Dragon (Satan).

It is in the heads (and horns) of the Sea-creature that we find the “wicked tyrant” motif expressed most directly. However, this aspect of the creature is alluded to only briefly in chapter 13—specifically, regarding the head which had, apparently, received a death-blow but was restored to life (v. 3). On the one hand, this detail is part of the evil parody of Jesus—the Lamb who was struck to death and came to life again (v. 8; 5:12, etc). At the same time, many commentators feel that it also reflects the historical circumstances of the “heads” (i.e. kings/emperors) of the Sea-creature (i.e. the Roman empire). This comes more firmly into view in chapter 17, with the interpretation (vv. 7-18) that follows the vision (of the Prostitute seated on the Sea-creature) in vv. 1-6. An interpretation of the heads of the creature occurs in vv. 7-14.

Revelation 17:7-14

I have discussed this passage in some detail in earlier notes. On the basic assumption that the heads (kings) are Roman emperors, various attempts have been made to identify the kings in vv. 10ff with a specific sequence of emperors. The text states clearly that “five have fallen” and “one is” (i.e. is currently living, at the time the book was written); this would imply a sequence of 5 emperors, followed by a sixth (the current emperor). I outline several scholarly theories in the notes; however, in terms of the Antichrist tradition, it is the wording in vv. 10b-11 that is most important. Though it would have been accepted that the author and audience were living the end-time, the book envisions at least a short period of time yet before the end, and it is expected that would yet be two more emperors:

    • a seventh (v. 10b), of which little is said except that he has “not yet come” (ou&pw h@lqen); his reign will be brief— “it is necessary for him to remain (for only) a little (time)”
    • an eighth (v. 11), the final ruler—this is the figure who best fits the ‘Antichrist’ type-pattern, i.e. the wicked world-ruler of the end-time

The language used to describe this eighth emperor is elusive, but significant:

“And the wild animal [i.e. the Sea-creature] that was, and is not, indeed he is the eighth, and is out of the seven, and he goes away into ruin” (v. 11)

I discuss this wording in one of the earlier notes; I take it to mean that this ruler, while appearing like one of the emperors, is actually an embodiment of the Sea-creature itself—in other words, a kind of Satanic or demonic incarnation. The phrasing here, along with idea of the death-blow and restoration of one of the heads (13:3), may also indicate that the book of Revelation is drawing upon the legend of Nero‘s return, as many commentators assume. I discuss this in a supplemental note. This does not mean that the author believes in the legend per se, nor that the visions confirm it as true, but simply that Nero is being used as a type-pattern for the wicked end-time ruler, much as Antiochus IV had been earlier. This concept of a ‘demonic emperor’ seems to correspond generally to the description in 2 Thess 2:3ff, as I understand it (cf. above).

4. The References in 1 and 2 John

As noted above, the term a)nti/xristo$ (antíchristos) occurs only in the letters of John—in 1 Jn 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 Jn 7. I discuss these passages in the current article in this series on the Letters of John, so I will only touch upon the matter briefly here. The main issue involves the author’s statement in 1 Jn 2:18:

“Little children, it is (the) last hour, and, even as you (have) heard that ‘against the Anointed [a)nti/xristo$] comes’, (so) even now many (who are) against the Anointed [a)nti/xristoi] have come to be—from which we know that it is (the) last hour.”

This is the earliest surviving occurrence of the adjective a)nti/xristo$, and yet the author treats it as a term known to his readers, requiring no explanation. Indeed, he seems to be referring to an eschatological tradition that would have been familiar to them. The question is whether this is to an early form of the Antichrist Tradition, as many commentators assume. If it does refer to the tradition of a wicked world-ruler of the end-time, then the author actually contradicts it—or, at least, he re-interprets it rather dramatically. I tend to think that this Johannine tradition of “(the) Antichrist” is itself somewhat different than the later Tradition; I would formulate it according to two possibilities:

    • A personal (or personified) manifestation of evil—a Satanic spirit-being (or Satan himself)—in which case, it would resemble the end-time appearance of Belial/Beliar, described in other writings of the period.
    • A more abstract manifestation of the forces of evil, though with the possibility of being further manifested/localized in (personal) spirit-beings. This would be closer to the symbolism of the Dragon and Sea-creature, etc, in the book of Revelation.

Throughout, the author is clearly talking about a spirit of “Antichrist” (against the Anointed), akin to the idea of Belial/Beliar and his “spirits of deceit”, i.e. evil/deceptive spirits who are the source of false prophecy (= the false teaching about Jesus). The world in the current Age was already under the control of the Evil One (the Satan/Devil/Belial), but this wicked control and influence would become even more pervasive and powerful as the end drew nearer. This was a basic premise of early Christian eschatology, and the wickedness of the end-time certainly included both hostility to believers and false teaching/prophecy about Christ himself. The author is saying that this end-time opposition to Christ (“against Christ, anti-Christ”) is being manifest in persons who claim to be Christian, but who he regards as false believers—and false teachers/prophets who effectively deny the truth about Jesus (as the Messiah and Son of God). He thus considers them to be “antichrists”, and a fulfillment of the eschatological expectation.

5. Early Christian References outside the New Testament

When we turn to the extra-canonical writings of early Christians, in the period c. 90-150 A.D., there is little evidence for either the use of the term a)nti/xristo$ or the Antichrist tradition itself. As far as I am aware, a)nti/xristo$ occurs only once in these writings, in the epistle of Polycarp (d. 155 A.D.) to the Philippians (7:1). It is essentially a citation of 1 John 2:22 / 4:3 (cf. above), and clearly follows the Johannine tradition in its use and meaning of the term, and shows no indication of a development of the Antichrist Tradition as such. Noteworthy, perhaps, is his characterization of the person who holds the ‘false’ (antichrist) view of Jesus as “the firstborn of the Satan”. This tends to confirm the basic idea of “antichrist” as a kind of incarnation of Satan.

The “Teaching (of the Twelve Apostles)”, or Didache, offers perhaps the earliest evidence for the Antichrist Tradition in the 2nd century. At the close of this work, in chapter 16, there is an eschatological warning to believers, expressed in traditional early Christian terms (going back to the eschatological sayings of Jesus). It describes the end-time period of wickedness and distress, warning of the coming of false prophets, etc (v. 3-4). At the climax of this period we read:

“…and then shall be made to shine forth [i.e. shall appear] the (One) leading the world astray [kosmoplanh/$, i.e. World-Deceiver], (appearing) as (the) Son of God, and he will do signs and marvels, and the (whole) earth shall be given along into his hands, and he will do (thing)s without (regard for what is) set down (by law), (thing)s which have never come to be out of [i.e. since the beginning of] the Age.”

While generally following the sort of description given by Paul in 2 Thess 2:3ff (of the “lawless one”), clearly there has been a measure of development, and we are approaching here something closer to the later Antichrist Tradition.

Finally, mention should be made of the apocalyptic pseudepigraphon known as the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah. Like the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (discussed in Part 2), and other surviving pseudepigrapha, it represents a Christian re-working of earlier Jewish material. The main eschatological portion is in chapter 4, which includes a detailed description of the end-time coming of Beliar (= Belial). While this follows Jewish eschatological traditions regarding Belial (cf. in Part 2), these traditions have been developed and sharpened significantly, placing the portrait of Beliar in a Christian context that provides perhaps the clearest (and earliest) evidence for the Antichrist Tradition proper. Scholars tend to date the Ascension of Isaiah from the first half of the 2nd century A.D. The details and aspects most worth noting are (cf. Peerbolte, Antecedents, pp. 199-200):

    • Beliar descends in the form of a lawless king, i.e. incarnate as a wicked human ruler (v. 2)
    • He persecutes the Christians (v. 3)
    • He holds universal power, i.e. he is true world-ruler (vv. 4-5)
    • He pretends to be the Beloved, i.e. Jesus Christ—an imitation of Christ (v. 6)
    • He leads the whole world astray, even causing believers to fall away (vv. 7-9)
    • His statue is erected in all cities, by which he is worshiped (v. 11)
    • The period of his reign is approximately 3 ½ years (v. 12)

This is much closer to the standard idea of “the Antichrist” than anything we find, for example, in the book of Revelation. And, while there is certainly a line of development, from the New Testament to this 2nd century portrait, we must be cautious about reading this (later) portrait back into the New Testament itself.

November 18: Revelation 17:9-11

Revelation 7:7-18, continued

An initial interpretation of the chapter 17 vision (the Woman on the Sea-creature) was given in verses 7-8 (discussed in the previous note); it is explained in more detail here in verses 9ff. Given the challenges and difficulties in understanding the rich symbolism of the book’s visions, special care should be given to those few passages, in the book itself, where an interpretation is provided. It is somewhat surprising that more attention is not given to these verses for an explanation of the Creature (or “Beast”) from the Sea as a symbol. A careful examination would all but eliminate some of the more outlandish lines of interpretation that have been offered in recent times. We might echo the opening words of the heavenly Messenger in verse 9: “Here a mind holding wisdom (is needed)”.

Verse 9

“Here a mind holding wisdom (is needed). The seven heads are seven mountains, at which (place) there the woman sits upon them. And they are (also) seven kings…”

They Messenger states the matter clearly: the seven heads of the Sea-creature represent seven mountains and also seven kings. Let us consider each of these.

Mountains—Before rushing into fanciful explanations in attempts to identify these “mountains” (or “hills”, o&rh), one ought to first examine carefully what the imagery would have meant to the author and original readers of the book. Anyone living in the Roman Empire during the latter part of the first-century A.D. likely would have been familiar with the representation of Rome as a woman seated on seven hills. It is clearly depicted so on many coins of the period (cf. the example here below).

Thus most readers of the book would have recognized the symbolism as referring to the Roman Empire. The “seven hills” of Rome itself was a traditional designation, already well-established by the end of the first century (e.g., Propertius, Elegies 3.111.57; Ovid, Tristia 1.5.69-60; Statius Silvae 4.1.6; cf. Koester, p. 677, 690). Though the specific identification of exactly seven hills has varied somewhat (cf. the diagram below), the tradition of seven dominates, being much more significant than the geographical data.

However, while the identification with Rome is clear enough, this does not represent the full extent of the symbolism. In both ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman tradition, mountains were symbolic of earthly kingdoms and their kings. In the prior note on the seventh bowl-vision (16:17-21), I discussed how this symbolism applied to the Judgment of the nations, along with the image of “Babylon” as the “Great City”. Both the waters of the Sea and the mountains of the Earth represent the worldly power of the nations in its wicked and evil aspect. We might note, in this regard, some interesting examples from Greco-Roman and Jewish literature, such as in Dio Chrysostom (Oration 1.78-84) where tyranny is personified as a woman sitting on a mountain. According to the imagery of 1 Enoch 18:6-8 (also 24:1ff) there are seven mountains in heaven where God’s throne is located; an important (eschatological) theme in 1 Enoch involves the failure of the wicked nations (and their rulers) to acknowledge properly the authority of God, seeking instead to take over His rule on earth themselves. Cf. Koester, p. 677.

Kings—This corresponds entirely with the mountain-symbolism, as noted above. More importantly, this line of interpretation follows that of the vision in Daniel 7, though there it is the horns of the creature, rather than its head(s), which represent particular rulers of the kingdom (as also here in vv. 12ff). With regard to the specific relationship between mountain and king, there are two possible ways that the imagery may be understood:

    • Each mountain represents a kingdom (i.e. nation or city-state), along with its ruler (king)—the seven collectively represent the nations as a whole, and/or a sequence of nations (as in the visions of Daniel 2 and 7)
    • As the seven mountains represent the seven hills of Rome, so the kings are Roman emperors

The second option better fits the immediate context of the interpretation in chap. 17.

Verse 10

“…the five are fallen, the one is, the other (has) not yet come—and, when he should come, it is necessary for him to remain (only) a little (while).”

The wording here plays on that of verse 8, referring to the Sea-creature as one who “was, and is not, and is about to (come…)”. As I discussed in the previous note, that phrase is an evil parody of the description of God Himself (as well as Jesus Christ) in 1:4,8; 4:8 (also 11:17; 16:5). Now the same phrase is given a new interpretation in terms of earthly kingdoms and kings. This is in keeping with the symbolism of the book, whereby many symbols have both heavenly and earthly aspects. Here the ‘heavenly’ aspect of the Sea-creature, representing the forces of evil, lies in its opposition to God, imitating the Divine power and presence so as to lead the entire world astray. On the earthly level, this reflects the influence and control of nations (and their kings) by the same forces of evil. For the readers of the book of Revelation, the current pinnacle of earthly power, ruling a vast empire, is Rome, the city on seven hills. As such, most critical commentators would identify the first six “kings” in verse 10 with first-century Roman emperors. The wording of the text itself indicates that five kings have died (“fallen”), and one is currently alive and ruling (“is”). On this basis, various attempts have been made to identify the six kings with specific emperors; of these, two are the most viable, depending upon when the book was written (cf. Koester, p. 73):

    1. Augustus
    2. Tiberius
    3. Gaius (Caligula)
    4. Claudius
    5. Nero (54-68 A.D.)
    6. Galba (68-69 A.D.)
    1. Gaius (Caligula)
    2. Claudius
    3. Nero
    4. Vespasian (69-79 A.D.)
    5. Titus (79-81 A.D.)
    6. Domitian (81-96 A.D.)

The first option, which assumes a date for the book of c. 69 A.D., has several advantages:

    • It includes all of the 1st-century emperors to that point, beginning with Augustus
    • Nero is the last of the five who died, which would give special emphasis to the idea that he might return
    • The brief reigns of four emperors in 68-69 could reflect the expectation that the coming emperor would reign only a “little while”

Most critical commentators would not date the book quite so early, preferring a time closer to 90-95 A.D., during the reign of Domitian. This would be the second option above, which may be preferred for the following reasons:

    • The period begins with the reign of Gaius (Caligula), the most notoriously wicked of the emperors (along with Nero); it thus marks the period of Imperial rule as especially wicked and opposed to God.
    • It allows more time for the return-of-Nero legends to develop and influence the Sea-creature imagery in chaps. 13ff
    • It retains a climactic position for the destruction of Jerusalem (and the Temple), an important eschatological keystone (and time indicator) for early Christians
    • The limited persecution indicated in the book would seem best to fit the reign of Domitian, and a late first-century time-frame
Verse 11

“And the wild animal, that was and is not, even he (himself) is the eighth (king), and is out of the seven, and leads under [i.e. goes away] into ruin.”

This is perhaps the most important part of the interpretation, and it shows rather clearly, I think, how this unusual symbolism fits together. It reflects a line of tradition expressed some time earlier (by Paul) in 2 Thessalonians. I have discussed the famous eschatological passage in 2 Thess 2:1-12 as part of an article in the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”. I would isolate the basic tradition as follows, guided by the expressions in 2 Thess 2:6-7ff:

    • “the (thing) holding down (power)”:
      The Roman Imperial government, embodying the “secret of lawlessness” currently at work in the world
      = the Woman on the Sea-creature as the “secret” of the forces at evil in the world, along with the first five heads (kings) of the creature
    • “the (one) holding down (power)”:
      The current/reigning Roman emperor, who soon will be removed (i.e. taken “out of the middle”)
      = the sixth king who currently is, and/or the seventh who is coming
    • “the lawless (one)”:
      A Satanic, demonic-inspired ruler (emperor) who will control all people
      = the eighth king

Based on the wickedness of the Roman Imperial government, manifest especially in several of the emperors (Gaius, Nero), it was easy enough for early Christians to envision an even more wicked ruler, following after the pattern of Gaius and/or Nero, coming to power over the Empire. The Old Testament Scriptures had already provided the eschatological template for this figure, from the visions in Daniel 7 and 9 (and again in chaps. 11-12), referring primarily to the historical figure of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. At the same time, other nation-oracles played on the same general idea of a wicked foreign ruler who speaks and acts against God, and who might dare to assume the role and authority of God on earth. In certain strands of Jewish tradition in the first centuries B.C./A.D., it is the Evil One himself (i.e. Belial) who is embodied in the form of this wicked end-time ruler. Ultimately this is the basis for the “Antichrist” tradition among early Christians, a subject I will be discussing in detail in an upcoming article. I would maintain that both 2 Thessalonians and the book of Revelation attest a belief, among Jews and Christians of the period, that the final (Imperial) ruler of the end-time will be a truly demonic figure, if not Belial himself.

Because this idea is so critical to the interpretation of the vision in chapter 17, I feel it is necessary to discuss the matter a bit further, which I will do, in the next two notes, beginning with an exposition of vv. 12-14.

References marked “Koester” above, and throughout these notes, are to Craig L. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014).

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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.

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.

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

1 and 2 Thessalonians

Most New Testament scholars are in general agreement that the two letters to the Thessalonians are the earliest of the surviving letters of Paul, written c. 49-51 A.D. As such, they would date from perhaps 5-10 years before the great letters of Corinthians, Galatians, and Romans. The Thessalonian correspondence is certainly much simpler in form and style, and likely represents the kind of letter Paul typically would have sent to the various communities of believers. It is for just this reason, however, that 1 and 2 Thessalonians are less well-known, lacking the polemic and extensive ethical and doctrinal discussions found in the other letters. Yet, as it happens, the two Thessalonian letters contain the strongest eschatological emphasis throughout, and provide the clearest statements of Paul’s eschatological views.

It should be mentioned that a fair number of critical commentators have doubts regarding Pauline authorship of 2 Thessalonians, and believe it to be pseudonymous. For my part, in the case of 2 Thessalonians, I do not find such arguments especially convincing. In these studies, I treat 2 Thessalonians as genuinely Pauline, without any real reservation. At several points, however, mention will be made of the critical view. There is also the question of the sequence in which the two letters were written. Commentators have tended to follow the canonical order; however, the canonical order of the letters is based primarily on length, and has no real bearing on when they were written. Strong arguments can be made for 2 Thessalonians being written before 1 Thessalonians. I will touch upon these briefly on a couple of occasions in these notes.

Due to the length of this article, it will be divided into three parts:

    1. A survey of key references in 1 & 2 Thessalonians
    2. The eschatological section in 1 Thess 4:13-5:11
    3. The eschatological section in 2 Thess 2:1-12

I save discussion of 2 Thess 2:1-12 for last, due to the fact that it is the most complex (and controversial) passage for readers today.

Eschatological References in 1 & 2 Thessalonians

Apart from the two main sections mentioned above (to be studied in Parts 2 & 3), there are five relevant passages which are eschatological in orientation or emphasis—1 Thess 1:10; 2:19; 3:13; 5:23; 2 Thess 1:6-10. The eschatological context of 1 Thess 2:14-16 will be treated in a separate note.

1 Thessalonians 1:10

The statement in 1:10 represents the conclusion of the introductory section (exordium) of the letter (1:2-10). In it, Paul gives thanks to God and praises the Thessalonians for their willingness to accept the Gospel and their continued faithfulness. The climax comes in vv. 9-10:

“For they (them)selves [i.e. believers in the surrounding regions] give up a message [i.e. report] about us, what kind of way in we held toward you, and how you turned around toward God, away from the images, to be slave (instead) to (the) living and true God, and to remain (waiting) up (for) His Son out of the heavens, whom He raised out of the dead, Yeshua, the (one) rescuing us out of the coming anger.”

Verse 9 is a roundabout way of describing the mission work (i.e., preaching of the Gospel) of Paul, etc, among the Thessalonians, and their subsequent conversion, coming to faith in Jesus. This leads into a kind of early credal statement in vv. 9b-10, the eschatological orientation of which is central to its formulation. Like all believers, these Thessalonians are exhorted to remain faithful, and to wait for the (end-time) return of Jesus. Note the way this is formulated:

  • “His Son
    • whom He raised out of the dead
  • Yeshua
    • the one rescuing us from the coming anger”

The parallelism is clear enough: (1) Jesus is identified as God’s Son, and (2) the resurrection of Jesus (by God) from death is parallel to the rescue of believers (by Jesus) from Judgment. For early Christians, the end-time Judgment was frequently referred to as the “anger” (o)rgh/) of God, that is, an expression and manifestation of His anger against the wickedness and evil in the world. This goes back to Old Testament and Jewish tradition, especially the “Day of YHWH” theme in the Prophets, and was inherited as a mode of (eschatological) expression by the first believers, being attested in early Gospel tradition through the preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus (cf. Matt 3:7 par; Lk 21:23; Jn 3:36, etc). It is used frequently by Paul in this eschatological sense, as we shall see. On the emphasis of the coming end-time Judgment in early Christian preaching, cf. the two-part article on the Eschatology in the book of Acts (Pts 1 & 2).

All of the basic elements of early Christian eschatology are present here:

    • The return to earth of the exalted (resurrected) Jesus (“from out of the heavens”)
    • That this coming will coincide with the end-time Judgment by God (i.e. His “anger”)
    • That Jesus will function as the heavenly deliverer who will rescue the faithful ones (i.e. believers) at the end-time
    • That this coming, together with the Judgment, is imminent.

The sense of imminence is implicit, both in the overall phrasing, but also, in particular, with the participle “coming” (e)rxome/nh$); elsewhere, this is expressed more precisely as the Wrath/Judgment that is about (vb. me/llw) to come (Matt 3:7 par; Acts 17:31, etc).

1 Thessalonians 2:19

Within the narration (narratio) section of the letter, as part of Paul’s expression of his wish to see the Thessalonians again, he makes mention of the (heavenly) reward that awaits believers when Jesus appears (from heaven):

“For what is our hope or delight or crown of boasting—or, not (to say) even you (yourselves)—in front of our Lord Yeshua in his (com)ing to be alongside (us)? For (indeed) you are our honor and delight!” (vv. 19-20)

Proper English syntax would require a rearrangement of the clauses in v. 19, but the idea is clear enough. Paul, along with other faithful missionaries, will be able to stand before Jesus in the time of Judgment, with hope and expectation of heavenly reward (“crown [ste/fano$]”, “esteem/honor [do/ca]”). Again, an imminent eschatology is implied—Paul expects to be alive at the coming of Jesus and the time of Judgment (for more on this, see the discussion on 4:13-18 in Part 2).

1 Thessalonians 3:13

1 Thess 3:11-13 represents the transition (transitus) between the narration (2:1-3:10) and main section (probatio, 4:1-5:22) of the letter. It takes the form of an exhortation and wish-prayer for the Thessalonians which effectively summarizes the themes introduced in the letter thus far. The prayer element is two-fold, addressing both God the Father and Jesus (the Lord):

“(That) He (Him)self—our God and Father, and our Lord Yeshua—would put down our way straight toward you…” (v. 11)

It is perhaps best to understand both God and Jesus being referenced together by the title “Lord” (ku/rio$) in verse 12:

“…(and that for) you, the Lord would make (your) love unto one another (grow all the) more and go over (and above), and unto all (people), even as we also (experience this) unto you…”

The first part of the prayer-wish focused on what God and Jesus together will do, the second part on what they will do for the Thessalonians (emphatic “you”). The exhortation aspect comes into view in the closing verse 13, framed in terms of the result/effect of the prayer (emphatic preposition “unto” [ei)$]), and what Paul hopes/expects will take place among the Thessalonian believers:

“…unto the setting firm of your hearts, without blame, in holiness in front of our God and Father, in the (com)ing to be alongside [parousi/a] (us) of our Lord Yeshua (along) with all his holy (one)s.”

This hope is quite clear: that the Thessalonians will remain strong in faith, living exemplary (holy) lives, until the moment when Jesus appears on earth. The ethical dimension—indicated by blame, holiness, etc—is related to the correspondence of the Jesus’ return with the end-time Judgment. As in 1:10, the noun parousi/a (parousia, lit. “being alongside”) is used, already (as of 50 A.D.) a technical term among early Christians for the end-time return of Jesus, requiring no further explanation. The “holy ones” are best understood here as heavenly beings (“angels”), rather than human believers; this reflects apocalyptic and eschatological tradition of the time (Mk 8:38 par; 13:27 par; Matt 13:39, 41, 49; 25:31; Dan 4:34; 7:18; 8:13; Zech 14:5; 1 Enoch 1:9, etc).

1 Thessalonians 5:23

At the close (peroratio) of the letter, we find a similar exhortational wish-prayer by Paul. It more or less restates the aim and purpose in 3:13, casting it in a comparable eschatological context:

“And (that) He (Him)self, the God of peace, would keep you complete(ly) holy and whole in (every) part—spirit and soul and body—without blame in the (com)ing to be alongside (us) of our Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed, (and so) watch over (you).”

Here the active role and work of God in keeping the Thessalonians “without blame” (a)me/mptw$) is emphasized, presumably achieved through the Holy Spirit, though this not specified. The verb a(gia/zw is probably better understood as “keep holy” rather than “make holy”, parallel with the emphatic use of the verb thre/w (“[keep] watch [over]”). Again the noun parousi/a is used for the end-time return of Jesus, assumed to be imminent—i.e. the Thessalonians to whom he is writing are expected to experience it.

Thus we have four distinct eschatological statements by Paul in 1 Thessalonians, all formulated in a similar way, and included as a natural component of everything he is discussing in the letter. In no other surviving letter by Paul are so many eschatological references made, in such a commonplace way. When combined with the major discussion in 4:13-5:11, as well as his statements in 2:14-16 (cf. the separate note), the eschatological emphasis in the letter is unmistakable.

2 Thessalonians 1:5-10

There is a parallel in 2 Thessalonians to the wish-prayers of 1 Thess 3:11-13 and 5:23. It is part of the introductory section (exordium, cf. on 1 Thess 1:10 above), and precedes the more famous eschatological discussion in 2:1-12 (to be studied in Part 3 of this article). As it happens, 1:3-10 comprises one long complex sentence, which, for practical reasons, it is necessary to break up for our study.

In 1:4, as part of his opening thanksgiving, Paul mentions the Thessalonians’ experience of being pursued (diwgmo/$ [pl.]) by adversaries and feeling pressure or “distress” (qli/yi$ [pl.]). The latter noun came to be a kind of technical term in early Christian eschatology, largely by way of Daniel 12:1 (LXX), with qli/yi$ rendering Hebrew hr*x*, a word with a comparable range of meaning (i.e. “pressure, stress, distress”). It is used by Jesus in the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse (Mark 13:19, 24 par), and again, even more famously, in the book of Revelation (Rev 1:9; 2:9-10, 22; 7:14). Thus, there is every reason to assume that Paul understands the suffering of the Thessalonian believers as having eschatological significance—a sign of the “last days”, and that the end was fast approaching.

This would seem to be confirmed by the way Paul connects this suffering with God’s judgment (kri/si$) in vv. 5ff:

“in (this is) a showing of the just Judgment of God, unto your being brought into value of (belonging to) the Kingdom of God, under which also you suffer…”

The verse begins with the compound noun (e&ndeigma) that is difficult to translate; literally it means “(something) in (which) it is shown (that…)”. Elsewhere in his letters, Paul uses the related noun e&ndeici$ (Rom 3:25-26; 2 Cor 8:24; Phil 1:28). Referring back to verse 4, it means that the persecution and “distress” experienced by the Thessalonian believers is an indication, or demonstration, that the (end-time) Judgment of God is taking place. Indeed, the believers are said to be suffering under this very Judgment—the feminine relative pronoun (h!$) relates to the feminine noun kri/si$ (“judgment”). However, this experience of the Judgment is not the same as it will be for the wicked; rather, for believers, it makes them worthy of belonging to (or entering/inheriting) the Kingdom of God. The rare verb katacio/w, an intensive compound of a)cio/w, is based upon the image of bring the scales into balance—i.e., as in weighing out the value of something (cf. on the adjective a&cio$). Elsewhere in Old Testament tradition, this dual aspect of God’s Judgment is expressed by the image of fire (cf. below), in which the metal of value is purified, while the dross is burned away.

Paul’s declaration continues in verse 6:

“… (so) if (then it is) just alongside God (as indeed it is) to give forth distress in exchange to the (one)s bringing distress for you…”

Here God’s Judgment is defined in terms of retributive justice—giving out punishment that matches the crime (the so-called lex talionis principle). The people oppressing the Thessalonian believers will soon be oppressed (by God) in return; actually, it is their own wickedness that brings about their suffering. The conditional particle (ei&per) assumes that the condition described is true—this retribution is indeed just (di/kaio$), and reflects the justice of God. The statement in verse 7 continues the main clause of v. 6, referring to what God gives out in exchange (vb a)ntapodi/dwmi):

“…and to you, the (one)s being distressed (along) with us, a letting up (of that distress), in the uncovering of the Lord Yeshua from heaven with (the) Messengers of his power…”

In other words, God will effect a transfer of the distress, removing it from the believers and onto the persecutors instead. This is expressed here as a “letting up” (a&nesi$) of the distress for believers; however, also implicit is the idea that believers will not experience any of the remainder of the Judgment, which will be focused entirely on the wicked. The image of Jesus coming to earth from heaven, in power, accompanying by heavenly Messengers (“Angels”), is derived from traditional apocalyptic motifs, and, in particular, the eschatological “Son of Man” sayings by Jesus recorded in the Gospel tradition (e.g., Mk 8:38 par; 13:27 par; Matt 13:39, 41, 49; 25:31). This appearance of Jesus is specifically referred to as an “uncovering” (a)poka/luyi$), a word frequently used in the Pauline letters (Rom 2:5; 8:19; 1 Cor 1:7; etc), though not always in an eschatological sense. Currently, Jesus resides with God the Father in heaven, and thus is “hidden”; at his end-time appearance, he will suddenly become visible, manifest to all humankind—i.e. the cover is taken away. His appearance also marks the onset of the Judgment proper, utilizing the common judgment-motif of fire:

“…in flaming fire, giving a working out of justice to the (one)s not having seen [i.e. known] God and to the (one)s not hearing under [i.e. being obedient to] the good message of our Lord Yeshua…”

It has been suggested that the first part of this verse alludes to Isaiah 66:15-16, and, indeed, the wording of Isa 66:15b [LXX] is very close: “…to give forth [a)podou=nai]…a working out of justice [e)kdi/khsi$]…in flaming fire [e)n flogi\ puro/$]”. The focus of this Judgment moves from the ones oppressing believers to unbelievers in general, expressed by two participles:

    • Perfect participle of ei&dw (“see”, often = “know”), “having seen/known”, here with the negative particle (mh/): “the ones having not seen/known God”. The implication of the perfect tense is that, even before the proclamation of the Gospel, they have had no knowledge of God, thinking and behaving in a wicked manner.
    • Present participle of u(pakou/w (“hear under”), i.e. listen obediently under someone with authority. This too is expressed with a negative particle, and with the Gospel as the object: “the ones not hearing under the good message”. In other words, not only did they have no knowledge of God before, but they also refused (or were unable) to accept the Gospel message of Jesus, such as was proclaimed (to the Thessalonians) by Paul.

The description of the fiery punishment on the wicked/unbelievers continues in verse 9:

“…who will pay (the) just (penalty), destruction of the Age, from the face of the Lord and from the splendor [do/ca] of his strength…”

The noun di/kh, often translated “justice”, more properly means the “just/right thing”, and here with the verb ti/nw (signifying the paying of a price) must be understood as the “just/right penalty“. The expression o&leqro$ ai)w/nio$ is typically translated “eternal destruction”, but this loses the important eschatological idea of the destruction of the current Age; thus I render the adjective ai)w/nio$, as I do consistently, rather more literally as “of the Age(s)”. The wicked will perish, being caught up in the destruction at the end of the current Age. The expression “face of the Lord” is an Old Testament idiom (referring to YHWH); here, in its early Christian context, it refers to the exalted/risen Jesus as Lord (ku/rio$). As the heavenly (and Anointed) representative of God, Jesus will oversee the great end-time Judgment. This idea of Jesus as Judge is a key component of early Christian eschatology (Acts 17:31; 2 Tim 4:1, 8; 1 Pet 4:5f, etc; along with the eschatological “Son of Man” sayings in the Gospel, cf. above).

It is a concise statement of Jesus’ appearance that concludes the passage (v. 10):

“…when he shall come, to be treated in [i.e. with] honor among his holy (one)s, and to be regarded with wonder among all the (one)s trusting—(in) that our message upon [i.e. to] you was trusted—in that day.”

The subjunctive e&lqh| (“he should come”, “he would come”) is governed by the temporal particle o%tan (“when”); since the coming of Jesus is certain, in the mind of Paul and the other believers, I render the phrase here as “when he shall come…”. The only question is exactly when he will come. The result (and purpose) of his coming is expressed with a pair of articular infinitives:

    • e)ndocasqh=nai, from the compound verb e)ndoca/zw, meaning “be [regarded] in honor”, the passive here indicating that a person is to be treated/regarded with honor.
    • qaumasqh=nai, also a passive infinitive, of the verb qauma/zw (“wonder [at]”), here meaning that a person will be treated with wonder (i.e. amazement, admiration, etc).

Two groups correspond to these two verbs:

    • Jesus will be treated with honor “among his holy ones” (e)n toi=$ a(gi/oi$ au)tou=); as in 1 Thess 3:13 (cf. above), the “holy ones” are the heavenly beings (Messengers/Angels) who accompany him.
    • He will be regarded with wonder “among all the ones trusting” (e)n pa=sin toi=$ pisteu/sasin); this, of course, refers to earthly beings, believers in Christ. This may also reflect the same idea as in 1 Thess 4:15ff (cf. also Mk 13:27 par, etc), that Jesus, at his coming, will gather together all believers everywhere.

The long, complex sentence, concludes with the emphatic summary phrase “in that day”. This relates to the important discussion to follow in 2:1ff, regarding the meaning of the expression “the day of the Lord”. Here, Paul identifies the coming of Jesus, and the ushering in of the Judgment on the wicked, as “that day” (i.e. the day of the Lord). This will be considered further in the study on 2:1-12 (in Part 3).

As noted above, 1:3-10 represent a single long sentence in Greek, a fact which is totally obscured in nearly every English translation. Readable English requires that such long sentences be broken up into shorter units, much as I have done above; however, it is important to remember that, in actuality, a single continuous statement is being made. With that in mind, and in conclusion to this portion (Part 1) of the article on 1-2 Thessalonians, I wish to give here a continuous translation of the entire passage:

“We ought to give thanks to God always (for His) favor, about you, brothers, even as it is brought in balance [i.e. is proper], (in) that your trust grows over and the love of each one of all of you toward the other (grow)s more (and more), and how we (our)selves even (are able) to boast in you among the congregations of God, over your remaining under, and (your) trust, in all the (time)s of your being pursued, and the (moment)s of distress in which you (are) hold(ing) up, (that) in (this is) a showing of the just Judgment of God, unto your being brought to (the) value of (belonging to) the Kingdom of God, under which also you suffer; if (then it is) just alongside God (as indeed it is) to give forth distress in exchange to the (one)s bringing distress for you, and to you, the (one)s being distressed (along) with us, a letting up (of that distress), (so it will be) in the uncovering of the Lord Yeshua from heaven with (the) Messengers of his power, in flaming fire, giving a working out of justice to the (one)s not having seen [i.e. known] God and to the (one)s not hearing under [i.e. accepting] the good message of our Lord Yeshua, (these people) who will pay (the) just (penalty), destruction of the Age, from the face of the Lord and from the splendor of his strength, when he shall come, to be treated in [i.e. with] honor among his holy (one)s, and to be regarded with wonder among all the (one)s trusting—(in) that our message upon [i.e. to] you was trusted—in that day.”

A detailed syntactical breakdown and diagram of this passage is certainly warranted, and worth doing, but it rather goes beyond the scope this article. I would encourage readers and students to pursue such an analysis on their own.

In the next part of this article, we will examine 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and 5:1-11; for a study on 1 Thess 2:14-16, cf. the special supplemental note.

“Secret” in Paul’s Letters: 2 Thess 2:7

This study, dealing with the occurrences of the word musth/rion (“secret”) in the New Testament, examines 2 Thessalonians 2:7 and a very distinctive use of the term.

2 Thessalonians 2:7

In 2 Thess 2:1-12, Paul addresses an eschatological issue: regarding whether the “day of the Lord” might have already come. The expression “day of the Lord” was inherited from Old Testament and Jewish tradition—a reference to the time, at the end of this current Age, when the Lord (YHWH) would appear to bring judgment upon the world and deliver the faithful among his people. By the time of the New Testament, the concept was closely tied to Messianic expectation—the end-time appearance of an “anointed” ruler and/or representative of God, whose appearance will precede or usher-in the Judgment. Jesus was universally accepted by early Christians as the “Anointed One” (Messiah/Christ)—for the associations between Jesus and the main Messianic figure-types, cf. the notes and articles in my series “Yeshua the Anointed”—and the uniquely Christian contribution to the traditional eschatological picture was that Jesus would return (as God’s representative) to deliver his people (believers) and oversee the administration of the final Judgment. Paul, like virtually all believers of the time, expected that the end-time Judgment and return of Jesus were imminent, to occur very soon, and so it was understandable that the experience of intense suffering and persecution (the “birth pains”) might lead Christians to think that the Judgment was in the process of taking place. Paul wishes to make clear, in vv. 3ff, that certain events must still occur before the final Judgment comes. He is drawing upon a traditional eschatological framework—taken primarily from Daniel 7-12, especially 9:20-27, and the various apocalyptic works inspired by it (cf. my article on this passage). Jesus’ own eschatological teaching, as recorded in Synoptic tradition (Mark 13 par), draws from this line of tradition as well.

Before discussing 2 Thess 2:7 in context, it is worth pointing out the considerable difficulties for modern-day Christians in studying and evaluating these eschatological passages in the New Testament (which I address in the upcoming series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”). A wide range of interpretations (and systems of interpretation) have developed over the years—some more plausible than others—in order to make sense of the relevant passages. There is special difficulty associated with 2 Thess 2:3ff, since it, perhaps more than any other in the New Testament, appears to be a prophecy regarding specific historical events, set (so it would seem) in Paul’s own time, and involving the presence of the Jerusalem Temple (v. 4)—in other words, prior to 70 A.D. There are three main interpretative approaches, as with most of the eschatological passages:

    • Imminent-Historical—The events should be taken at face value, as a prophecy of things which would soon happen (perhaps within a few years), assuming the existence of the Jerusalem Temple (i.e. prior to its destruction)
    • Futurist—Again the prophesied events are taken more or less at face value, but in a future time (where, apparently, a functioning Temple in Jerusalem has been rebuilt).
    • Symbolic—According to this view, Paul uses specific traditional-historical eschatological imagery (“man of lawlessness”, “the Temple”, etc) to refer to more general spiritual/religious tendencies (apostasy, rebellion against God), which have been occurring, and which will occur with greater intensity (today/in the future), as the end approaches.

There are strengths and weaknesses to each approach, some more serious than others. In my view, only the first deals honestly with the text (and the historical context) of the passage as we have it, though, admittedly, it raises important questions regarding 2 Thess 2:3ff as a genuine (historical) prophecy. For the purposes of this study, I assume that Paul basically has his own time in mind (including the pre-70 Temple), without making any judgment on the wider theological/doctrinal issues. The key portion is vv. 6-8. Paul has already made reference to a “standing away (from God) [a)postasi/a, apostasía, i.e. ‘apostasy’]” which immediately precedes the end, as well as the appearance of the “man of lawlessness [o( a&nqrwpo$ th=$ a)nomi/a$]” (some MSS read “man of sin” […th=$ a(marti/a$]). There is a tendency by many Christians to identify this figure automatically with the “Antichrist” of subsequent tradition, blending 2 Thess 2 together with the epistles of John and the book of Revelation; however, while the underlying concept of antichrist is appropriate to the context here, it is important to limit our examination to what Paul himself says. This “man of lawlessness” is expounded by two phrases in vv. 3-4:

    • “the son of ruin/destruction” (o( ui(o\$ th=$ a)pwlei/a$)
    • “the one (who is)…upon every thing counted as God or revered”; two verbal participles fill the ellipsis:
      —”laying/crouching down against” [a)ntikei/meno$]
      —”raising/lifting (himself) over” [u(perairo/meno$]

In other words, this person looks to attack, and to raise himself over, every proper religious idea people may have. This tendency culminates in the dramatic action of seating himself in the Temple sanctuary (nao/$) to demonstrate his own deity (v. 5). Verses 6-8 set the historical/chronological context for these events. Especially important (and difficult) is the use of the verb kate/xw (lit. “hold down”); there are two ways this can be understood—(1) holding someone down, in the sense of restraining or impeding him, or (2) holding down (i.e. having control of) power or a position. These two options lead to three basic ways of interpreting vv. 6-8 (for a good survey, cf. Wanamaker, pp. 249-58):

    • The lawless one and/or “secret of lawlessness” holds back (delays) the coming of Christ and the end judgment—i.e. it will not happen until the lawless one first appears
    • Someone/something holds back (restrains) the coming of the lawless one
    • The “secret of lawlessness”, including someone in particular, holds down (possesses) power until the time when the “lawless one” appears

In my view, the last of these approaches best fits the context and grammar of the passage. Here is a literal rendering of vv. 6-9 with this in mind:

“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—and then the lawless (one) will be uncovered, whom the Lord [Yeshua] will take up/away [i.e. destroy] with the Spirit 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.”

There is some confusion in the syntax due the reference of two different “comings” (lit. “coming to be along[side]”, parousi/a parousía)—that of the Lord (v. 8), and that of the “lawless one” (v. 9). This is rather easier to recognize in the original Greek, since the two relative pronouns (indicated by italics above) relate, by way of modifying clauses, to “the lawless one” at the beginning of v. 8:

    • “Then will be uncovered the lawless one [o( a&nomo$]
      • whom [o^n] the Lord will take up/away…and
      • whose [ou!] coming to be along [parousi/a] is…”

There can be little doubt that the juxtaposition of the coming of the Lord and the Lawless One is intentional, meant as a definite contrast—the coming of the Lawless One, who will show/proclaim himself as God, is an evil parody of the true coming of the Lord. Some manuscripts read “the Lord Yeshua” (o( ku/rio$ )Ihsou=$) , while others simply “the Lord” (o( ku/rio$). In the original Scriptural (Old Testament) tradition, it was God (YHWH) himself who would appear in Judgment at the end-time, though this was often understood as occurring through a heavenly/angelic representative—the “Messenger (Angel) of the Lord”, as (it would seem) in the original setting of Malachi 3:1ff. In subsequent Jewish thought, much of this role was taken by the Messiah, especially the figure-types of the Davidic Ruler and (heavenly) “Son of Man”. The imagery in verse 8b is drawn primarily from Isaiah 11:4, a popular ‘Messianic’ passage of the time.

Another important aspect of vv. 6-8 involves the expression “the secret of lawlessness” (to\ musth/rion th=$ a)nomi/a$) in verse 7. A similar expression (“secret[s] of sin”) is known from the Qumran texts (1QM 14:9; 1QH 5:36; 1Q27 1.2,7); and note also “secret of evil/wickedness” (musth/rion kaki/a$) in Josephus War 1.470 (cf. Wanamaker, p. 255). The word a)nomi/a (along with the adjective a&nomo$) essentially means “without law”, that is, without possessing or adhering to proper law and custom. From the societal standpoint, this results in “lawlessness” and is tantamount to anarchy and rebellion. In a religious sense, being “without law” generally refers to immorality; however, from a Jewish (and Christian) perspective, since the Law (Torah) is tied to the idea of the agreement established between God and his people, “lawlessness” is effectively the same as rebellion against God. Note the way that this dynamic is expressed in the eschatological context of vv. 6-8:

    • The (thing) holding down (power) [to\ kate/xon, neuter participle] (v. 6)
      • The secret of lawlessness [to\ musth/rion {neuter} th=$ a)nomi/a$] (v. 7a)
    • The (one) holding down (power) [o( kate/xwn, masculine participle] (v. 7b)
      • The lawless one [o( a&nomo$, masculine] (v. 8)

The parallel is clear and obvious, shifting from the neuter (a condition or tendency) to the masculine (a person or [personal] figure). The relationship can also be expressed as a chiasm, as follows:

    • The secret of lawlessness—i.e. of sin, evil and opposition to God
      —The (thing) holding down power
      —The (one) holding down power
    • The lawless one—directly empowered/inspired by Satan, opposed to God

The use of the verb kate/xw suggests a temporary situation—the holding down of power until [e%w$] the (final) manifestation of lawlessness in the “lawless one”. More to the point, the use of the term “secret” (musth/rion) indicates that this lawlessness is, to some extent, hidden during the current state of things (in Paul’s time). At the very least, we can infer that the true nature, and full extent, of this lawlessness is hidden from the awareness of ordinary people, though Paul definitely states that it is “at work in” (e)nergei=tai) the world (v. 7a). Again, there is a strong sense here of an evil parallel (and parody) with the Gospel:

    • The secret of God, which has been hidden away from the world
      —only now made known through the appearance and work of Christ
    • The secret of lawlessness, likewise hidden (at least in its full extent)
      —only to be made known through the appearance and (Satanic) work of the lawless one

A bit more must be said of this “lawless one” in the context of vv. 6-8; this will be done in the process of addressing the use of musth/rion in Revelation 17:5, 7, in the next study.

References marked “Wanamaker” above are to Charles A. Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians in The New International Greek Testament Commentary [NIGTC] series (Eerdmans/Paternoster Press: 1990).