NT Eschatology—Letters 05
Brothers and sisters, we have a request for you concerning our Lord Jesus Christ’s coming and when we’re gathered together to be with him. We don’t want you to be easily confused in your mind or upset if you hear that the day of the Lord is already here, whether you hear it through some spirit, a message, or a letter supposedly from us. Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way. That day won’t come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless person is revealed, who is headed for destruction. He’s the opponent of every so-called god or object of worship and promotes himself over them. So he sits in God’s temple, displaying himself to show that he’s God. You remember that I used to tell you these things while I was with you, don’t you? Now you know what holds him back so that he can be revealed when his time comes. The hidden plan to live without any law is at work now, but it will be secret only until the one who’s holding it back is out of the way. Then the lawless person who will be revealed. The Lord Jesus will destroy him with the breath from his mouth. When the Lord comes, his appearance will put an end to him. When the lawless person comes, it will happen through Satan’s effort, with all kinds of fake power, signs, and wonders. It will happen with every sort of wicked deception of those who are heading toward destruction because they’ve refused to love the truth that would allow them to be saved. This is why God will send them an influence that will mislead them so that they’ll believe the lie. The result will be that everyone will be judged who is not convinced by the truth but is happy with injustice.
Last time, we noted that Jesus stated there would be thirteen signs before his return and Paul, in this second letter to the Thessalonians, stated only two of those signs remained—the rebellion and the revealing of the “lawless person.” This time around, we’re going to look a little closer at this “lawless person” and the clues to his identity.
There aren’t that many passages that give commentators more trouble than this one. Several people have claimed that the “lawless person” (or “man of sin,” the “son of perdition” KJV) is the Pope or the Roman Church as a whole or some person or system still in our future. None of which is anywhere close to what Paul meant!
Think about it. As we noted last time, Paul wrote this letter in late 50 or early 51 CE. All of the people or systems I mentioned above weren’t even in place when Paul wrote to the Thessalonians. Therefore, we’re on solid ground to flatly dismiss any interpretation that points beyond a first century person or system. The person Paul has in mind would have to be someone both he and the Thessalonians were aware of—someone alive when he wrote this letter. Notice all of the present tense verbs (as opposed to future tense verbs) Paul uses:
“He is the opponent…”
“He sits in God’s temple…displaying himself...”
“...what holds him back…”
“The hidden plan to live without any law is at work now…”
These all point to a very real and present danger to the first century followers of Jesus. So much so that Paul warned them about this person previously (verse 5) and has to speak in coded messages here. And even though the “lawless person” was presently being restrained (vv 6-7), he would soon be revealed. The question we need to ask ourselves is who was the biggest threat to the followers of Jesus during this time?
There were two threats against the followers of The Way in the New Testament—the Jews and the Romans. Paul, himself, had been part of the Jewish problem for a while (see here), but he wasn’t alone (eg. Acts 14.2; 17.7). However, Paul wasn’t worried about the Jews. He continually spoke out against them and their ways (rightly or wrongly). This leads us then to consider that this was a Roman influence. That would make sense. The Thessalonians wouldn’t be worried about Jews—unless they stirred up the Romans against them. And that’s exactly what happened in Acts 17.1-8:
Paul and Silas journeyed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, then came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. As was Paul’s custom, he entered the synagogue and for three Sabbaths interacted with them on the basis of the scriptures. Through his interpretation of the scriptures, he demonstrated that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. He declared, “This Jesus whom I proclaim to you is the Christ.” Some were convinced and joined Paul and Silas, including a larger number of Greek God-worshippers and quite a few prominent women.
But the Jews became jealous and brought along some thugs who were hanging out in the marketplace. They formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They attacked Jason’s house, intending to bring Paul and Silas before the people. When they didn’t find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city officials. They were shouting, “These people who’ve been disturbing the peace throughout the empire have also come here. What’s more, Jason has welcomed them into his home. Every one of them does what is contrary to Caesar’s decrees by naming someone else as king: Jesus.” This provoked the crowd and the city officials even more.
So, the one they would have to worry about, the one who would be the biggest threat, would be a Roman. A Roman whose life was public. A Roman who was coming into power. And that Roman would be none other than Nero.
Nero succeeded his adopted father, Claudius, as the Roman Emperor in 54 CE. (By the way, Nero’s mother most likely killed Claudius so Nero could become Caesar.) According to Christian and secular historians, he was the first Roman Emperor to persecute Christians and under his reign, both Peter and Paul were executed.
Like previous Caesars, Nero considered himself a “god” and demanded worship and solidarity. His lawless ways were notorious, even for his time. He had his mother murdered. After the fires of Rome in 64 CE, he burned Christians alive and used them to “light” his garden parties. He would tie young girls and boys to stakes and attack them wearing the costume of a great beast. The list of his crimes goes on and on.
It is this person to whom Paul was referring. Nero would come to power only a few years after this letter. He fits historically and logically as the person to whom Paul was referring. To seek elsewhere is to simply ignore such a momentous fact. You can find more about him here.
And we would not be alone in our view of this. Throughout church history, many a revered scholar and theologian interpreted this lawless person as Nero. In the book, The Parousia, James Stuart Russell cites many learned persons who hold this view:
This is the most ancient interpretation of the passage relating to the man of sin. Chrysostom, commenting on the mystery of iniquity, says, “He (St. Paul) speaks here of Nero as being the type of the Antichrist; for he also wished to be thought a god.” This opinion is also referred to by Augustine, Theodoret, and others. Bengel, referring to the obstacle to the manifestation of the man of sin, says: “The ancients thought that Claudius was this check: hence it appears they deemed Nero, Claudius’ successor, the man of sin.” Moses Stuart has collected a great number of authorities for the identification of Nero with the man of sin. He remarks: “The idea that Nero was the man of sin mentioned by Paul, and the Antichrist spoken of so often in the epistles of St. John, prevailed extensively and for a long time in the early church.” And again: “Augustine says: What means the declaration, that the mystery of iniquity already works? . . . Some suppose this to be spoken of the Roman emperor, and therefore Paul did not speak in plain words, because he would not incur the charge of calumny for having spoken evil of the Roman emperor: although he always expected that what he had said would be understood as applying to Nero.”
That’s it for now. Click here for the next post in this series.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC