2 Thessalonians 2. 1-12

Whereas the last section was manageably brief, expounding just half a verse, this one, I fear, is inordinately long, examining half a chapter. The mystery we are studying, too, is the exact antithesis of the last one, ‘the mystery of lawlessness’ (2 Thess. 2.7) contrasted with the ‘mystery of godliness’. In the previous verse, ‘the mystery of godliness’ proved to be a man, the man Jesus Christ, revealing the full holiness of God. In this passage, ‘the man of lawlessness’ comes first (v.3), and then is shown to be a mystery that is already at work in the world, the mystery of evil. Paul’s use of ‘musterion’ here is very much in line with what we have seen in previous examples. Just as God’s holiness had been partly revealed in the OT through the written Law and the words of the prophets, but was not fully revealed in human terms until Jesus appeared and lived it out in a perfectly holy life, so ‘the mystery of lawlessness’ has long been at work in the world, but will, Paul says, before the return of Jesus be fully revealed in human form - the ‘man of lawlessness’, whose time has not yet come, but surely will come. This whole passage (1-12) is Paul’s response to some false teaching apparently current among the Thessalonians that “the day of the Lord has come” (v.2) - a heresy similar to that which Paul refers to in 2 Timothy 2.18 that “the resurrection has already happened”. Paul had already given the Thessalonians clear oral teaching on the second coming and the end times, and so, with a hint, perhaps, of exasperation, he asks them: “Do you not remember that when I was still with you I used to tell you this ?” (v.5) In this passage, therefore, he merely alludes to some things which he has told them before, but does not explain them again for our benefit. In the words of Leon Morris (Tyndale Commentary, p.123): “The result is that this passage is probably the most obscure and difficult in the whole of the Pauline correspondence” - and there is no lack of difficulty or obscurity earlier in his letters! The main problem concerns Paul’s statement in verse 6 that his readers “know what is holding back” the appearance (or ‘the revealing’) of the man of lawlessness until his appointed time; his Thessalonian readers may know, but modern readers have no idea. The problem is further compounded in the next verse, where Paul uses the same present participle of the same verb (‘katechō’, to ‘hold back’), but this time in the masculine rather than the neuter form, not “what is holding back” but “who is holding back”. How can this restraining power be both personal and impersonal ? Morris goes on to say that the problem has “given rise to the most extravagant speculations”. Fear not! I have no intention of adding any of my own. All we can say, in the words of the hymn, is “we may not know, we cannot tell”. What, I hope, will be more profitable, and much closer to the central purpose of these word-studies, is to look at some of Paul’s vocabulary in this passage. From this, two points will emerge, the first, I hope of interest, and the second of central importance in the understanding of these verses in particular, and of apocalyptic prophecy in general.

2 Corinthians 7.6-7, 2 Corinthians 10.10, Matthew 24.4,27,37,39

The first thing I find striking about Paul’s vocabulary here is the number of verbal echoes of Jesus’ prophecies of the last days and of his own coming, as recorded in the three synoptic gospels - the three passages known collectively as ‘the synoptic apocalypse’. The first word to note here is ‘parousia’ (v.1), translated as ‘the coming’ in NIV. The word occurs 24 times in the NT, and of these 17 refer specifically to the second ‘coming’ of the Lord Jesus Christ. But 6 times Paul uses the word of the ‘presence’ (its original meaning) or ‘arrival’ of friends or fellow-workers. So he says “I rejoice at the presence of Stephanas” (1 Cor. 16.17 - the present tense of ‘rejoice’ here makes ‘presence’ preferable to ‘arrival’, pace both AV and NIV); and, later, “God comforted me” (past tense!) by the arrival of Titus” (2 Cor. 7. 6 & 7). Further on in this letter (10.10) Paul quotes his critics at Corinth as saying of him: “his letters are weighty and powerful, but his physical presence” (lit.,“the presence of his body”) “is weak”, thus using ‘parousia’ in the same way that we might speak, in hushed tones, of a heavyweight champion’s ‘imposing physical presence’. In our passage, ‘parousia’ occurs 3 times, and will feature in each of the two points I am making. For now, the relevant point is that in Matthew 24, his version of the ‘synoptic apocalypse’, ‘parousia’ occurs 4 times, once in the question that Jesus’ disciples ask him (“what will be the sign of your coming?”, v.3), and three times in his long answer (vv. 27.37,39). The word does not occur anywhere else in the gospels.

‘episunagōgē’, ‘episunagō’
Hebrews10.25, Matthew 23.37, Luke 17.37

There is another noteworthy word linked with ‘parousia’ in verse 1: “We ask you, brothers and sisters in Christ, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to him ---”. In Greek, “gathering together to” is a single noun, though a double compound, ‘epi-sun-agōgē. The last two parts of this word should be readily recognisable as the origin of ‘synagogue’, which, like ‘church’, refers primarily to the congregation, the people ‘gathered together’, and only later to the building where they meet. The initial ‘epi’ just means ‘to’ or ‘towards’, and is not strictly necessary here, since Paul repeats it as a separate preposition before “him”. Nor, I think, is it really necessary in the only other instance of the word in the NT, in Hebrews 10.25, where the writer tells his readers not to “give up the gathering of yourselves together” - unless, perhaps, he is subtly reminding them that the purpose of gathering together is not primarily to meet with each other in fellowship, but to “gather together to” Christ in worship. This noun, however, is derived from the similarly double-compound verb ‘episunagō’, which is found 8 times in the NT, all in the synoptic gospels, and three of them in the passages relevant to our enquiry. We will look at the others first. Twice it is used of the crowds ‘thronging together’, round the door of the house where Jesus was (Mark 1.33, presumably the house of Peter’s mother-in-law), and round Jesus himself, “so that they were treading on each other” (Luke 12.1). If the connotations here are rather negative, its use by Jesus in his lament over Jerusalem is wonderfully warm and tender: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, that kills the prophets and stones those sent out to her, how often I have wanted to gather together your children to me as a hen gathers together her chicks under her wings - but you refused” (Matt. 23.37, Luke 13.34, who does not repeat the verb). The emotional warmth of this verse should carry over to its next appearance in the following chapter, Jesus’ prophecy of his ‘parousia’, when “he will send out his angels with a great trumpet, and they will gather together to him his elect” from the four corners of the earth: meekness and majesty, the meekness of the mother hen and the majesty of the Son of God coming “with power and great glory” (Matt. 24.31, Mark 13.27). There is another link between these two verses which is worth briefly noting, the verb ‘apostellō’, to ‘send out’, the word from which ‘apostle’ is derived. In the former verse, the OT prophets are described as “those sent out”, and in the latter, God will “send out” his angels: all those whom God ‘sends out’ are, in a sense, his apostles. So a third link is implicit: the earthly city of Jerusalem rejected both the prophets and the apostles, and was destroyed in judgement; but the angelic ‘apostles’ on the last day will ‘gather together’ the elect, those who have responded in obedience and faith to the apostolic message, into the heavenly Jerusalem, indestructible and eternal. The final occurrence of ‘episunagō’ comes right at the end of Luke’s version of the ‘synoptic apocalypse’, the rather enigmatic saying, in answer to his disciples’ question “where?” (presumably, “where will you return ?”): “Where the carrion is, there the eagles are gathered together to it” (Luke 17.37, found also in Matt. 24.28, where the verb is just the single compound ‘sunagō’). A little earlier, I forswore speculation, but it does seem to me significant that Paul uses such a rare word as ‘episunagōgē’ in connection with the parousia, when the verb from which it is derived is used three times in two quite different contexts in Jesus’ teaching on the same subject. Further examples follow.

Luke 6.48, Acts 4.31,16.36, Matthew 24.29

The first example, in fact, follows hard upon the heels of the previous one, in verse 2: Paul urges the Thessalonians “not to be suddenly shaken from your understanding [of the truth], nor to be alarmed” about the ‘parousia’. The two verbs he uses here deserve a quick look. The first is ‘saleuō’ to ‘shake’, used 15 times in the NT, 8 of them by Luke (4 each in the gospel and in Acts). He uses this word to describe the house built on the rock that the floods could not ‘shake’ (Luke 6.48), and, by contrast, of the upper room which was ‘shaken’ after the young church’s first prayer meeting (Acts 4.31), and of the prison in Philippi which was ‘shaken’ by an earthquake as Paul and Silas sang hymns of praise (16.26). More to the point, it is used in all three versions of ‘the synoptic apocalypse’: “the stars will fall from the heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken” (Matt. 24.29, Mark 13.25, Luke 21.26, second clause only). Jesus is, in fact, quoting from several OT prophecies, none of which uses ‘saleuō’ in their LXX version. What is particularly significant about Paul’s use of ‘saleuō’ here is that it is the only time he uses the word anywhere, and that it is the only one of its 15 occurrences (with the possible exception of Acts 2.25, quoted from Psalm 16.8) that refers to a mental and emotional, rather than a physical, shaking.

Matthew 24.6

The other verb used in verse 2, a virtual synonym of ‘saleuō’, is passive in form, ‘throoumai’, to ‘be alarmed’, or ‘troubled’. This is a much rarer word, used only 3 times in the NT, the other 2 being right at the beginning of Jesus’ teaching on the end-times: “You are going to hear of wars and rumours of wars; see that you are not alarmed, for this must happen” (Matt. 24.6, almost the same in Mark 13.7). The use of these two words together suggests that Paul has been reading one or more of these gospel records of Jesus’ teaching, or a ‘proto-gospel’ (the mythical ‘Q’, perhaps, another ‘sub-atomic particle’ which has never been seen but whose existence is inferred from other evidence !), and so uses ‘throoumai’ just as Jesus did, but when he wants to reinforce it with a synonym he half-remembers ‘saleuō’ from a quite different context in Jesus’ discourse, and uses that, even though he has to use it in an unusual sense. I hope this suggestion may be regarded as another ‘educated guess’, rather than ‘extravagant speculation’! What is, of course, a matter of speculation is the form in which Paul had access to this ‘synoptic apocalypse’. It is also worth noting that we have, in Paul’s use of language, and of his sources, a similar pattern to that which we saw (p.11) in his use of the LXX version of Exodus 34 when writing 2 Corinthians 3.12-16, when he directly quotes some words from their correct context, but also uses others from the same paragraph but used in a quite different context, perhaps half-remembered from his reading of the whole passage.

‘planō’, ‘planētēs’, ‘planos’, ‘planē’
1 Corinthians 6.9
2 John 7, Matthew 18.12-13, 22.29, 1 Corinthians 6.9, 15.33, James 1.16, Revelation 12.9

There is one further instance of this pattern in our present passage. All three versions of ‘the synoptic apocalypse’ begin with the same warning in virtually the same words: “See that no one leads you astray; for many will come in my name saying ‘I am the Christ’, and will lead many astray” (Matt. 24.4-5, Mark 13.5-6 - omitting “the Christ”, Luke 21.8). The verb used in all three passages is ‘planō’, to ‘lead astray’, or ‘deceive’; in the passive (used by Luke) it means to ‘wander’, then to ‘wander’ or ‘stray’ from the truth. This is a common verb, used 39 times in the NT, 7 of these in the ‘synoptic apocalypse’. There are 3 nouns derived from ‘planō’: ‘planētēs’, ‘a wanderer’, from which ‘planet’ is derived, since a planet is (or appears to be) a ‘wandering star’; ‘planos’, ‘a deceiver’, and ‘planē’, ‘wandering’ or ‘error’. ‘planētēs’ occurs only once, in Jude 13, where teachers of antinomianism are described (among many other colourful epithets!) as ‘wandering stars’ - and so unreliable for navigation. ‘Planos’ occurs 5 times, once, remarkably, of Jesus himself: the Chief Priests and Pharisees try to persuade Pilate to seal Jesus’ tomb, because “that deceiver said, while still alive, ‘After three days I will be raised’” (Matt. 27.63). More appropriately, and more relevant to our context, John in his second letter says: “Many deceivers have gone out into the world who do not confess (‘homologō’) that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh: this is the deceiver and the antichrist” (v.7). ‘planē’, ‘deception’, is used 10 times, only one of them in the gospels, in the same passage in Matthew 27: if Jesus’ disciples steal his body and proclaim him risen, “the last deception will be worse than the first” (v.64). James, in the last verse of his epistle (5.20), says that someone who “turns a sinner from the ‘wandering’ (‘planē’) of his way will save his soul from death”. Closer to home, Paul in his first letter to the Thessalonians (2.3) tells them that “our proclamation of the gospel was not with deceit or dishonesty or deception”. Of the verb’s 39 occurrences, 20 are active and 19 passive. In the passive, it can mean to ‘wander’ physically, to ‘go astray’, and is used three times in this sense in the parable of the one sheep in the flock of a hundred that ‘goes astray’ (Matt. 18.12-13 - in Luke’s version, the sheep is ‘lost’, 15.4,6). Here, of course, physical wandering stands for spiritual straying; in Hebrews 11.38, the heroes of faith, “of whom the world was not worthy”, are described as “wandering in deserts and on mountains”, the ‘wandering’ of a pilgrim in an alien land rather than of a sheep from the sheepfold. Mostly, though, ‘planō’ in the passive means to ‘be deceived’, and so to ‘go astray’, from the way of truth or (or ‘and so’) from the path of righteousness. So Jesus, in answer to the Sadducees’ question about the resurrection, which they did not believe in, when they asked whose wife a woman would be in the next life if she had married seven brothers in succession in this life, tells them: “You are deceived”, or “You have gone astray, since you do not know the scriptures” (Matt. 22.29). Three times Paul tells his readers “Do not be deceived”, or “Do not go astray”, and in each instance it is ignorance about the holiness of God and his hatred of sin which is what he is warning them about (1 Cor. 6.9, 15.33, Col. 6.7). James, too, uses the same two (Greek) words, also in the context of falling into sin, though here it is one’s own sinful desires that can deceive (1.16). When ‘planō’ is used in the active, it is usually false prophets that are the subject (as in Jesus’ warnings) or false teachers (e.g. ‘Jezebel’ in Rev. 2.20). But probably the best known of all the uses of ‘planō’ is in 1 John 2.8: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves”; the sad truth is that man’s almost limitless capacity for self-deception makes the work of false prophets and false teachers that much easier. The supreme deceiver, though, is Satan himself, whom Jesus refers to as “a liar and the father of lies” (John 8.44). In Revelation he is given his full title: “the great dragon, the ancient serpent, the one called ‘Devil’ and ‘Satan’, he who leads the whole world astray” (‘planō’, Rev. 12.9). This, in fact, is the first of 7 occurrences of ‘planō’ after the sounding of the 7th trumpet, all of which refer to Satan and his agents.


This extended, but by no means exhaustive, look at ‘planō’ and its derivatives leads us back to base, 2 Thessalonians 2, and we shall find that the Satanic links in Revelation are particularly relevant here. But the first point to notice is how, once again, Paul seems to be half-remembering the ‘synoptic apocalypse’. As mentioned earlier, ‘planō’ occurs 7 times in these 3 passages, as Jesus warns his disciples not to be ‘deceived’ or ‘led astray’ by false Christs. Paul, too, tells his readers “do not let anyone deceive you” (v.3), but he uses the more literal and prosaic verb ‘exapatō’, a compound of the simple ‘apatō’, the prefix ‘ex-‘ suggesting that they may be deceived ‘out of’ the truth. Paul is the only NT writer who uses this compound verb, 6 times, so it is no surprise to find him using it here. But the memory of all those instances of ‘planō’ in what I am suggesting is his source still lingers, it seems, at the back of his mind, for in verse 11 he uses the related noun ‘planē’ in a most striking phrase, and a most striking statement: upon those who refuse to accept his truth God sends “a deception (‘planē’) working powerfully within them so that they believe the falsehood [of the man of lawlessness]”.

‘energeia’, ‘dunamis’
(i) God at work

Ephesians 1.19, Galatians 2.8, 3.5, Philippians 2.3, 1 Thess 2.13, 1 Corinthians 12.11

We move now from speculation about Paul’s sources in this passage, interesting (to me, at least) but ultimately academic, to exposition of his teaching. This again will require a careful look at some of the words he uses to refer to ‘the man of lawlessness’, for we will discover that they are more usually used to refer, not to the antichrist, but to Christ himself. We will look first at the noun ‘energeia’ and its associated verb, ‘energō’, which between them appear 3 times in our passage. It is not hard to see that these words are the sources of the English words ‘energy’ and ‘energise’; literally, the verb means to ‘work within’, and the noun, not surprisingly, ‘an inner working’ - a working which is always powerful. This is the word used in verse 11, quoted at the end of the previous paragraph, translated “working powerfully within”; a more literal translation would be “a powerful inward working of deception”. This noun is often combined, or associated, with the more normal Greek word for ‘power’, ‘dunamis. It is significant that we get two English words from ‘dunamis’, ‘dynamite’ and ‘dynamo’. Dynamite represents a sudden explosive power which is visible to all, and in this sense ‘dunamis’ is often used in the plural in the NT, especially the gospels, of miracles. A dynamo, by contrast, provides the steady flow of inner energy, vital but unspectacular, which maintains the Christian in his walk with Jesus - keeping the legs going and the light shining. This latter sense is exactly the meaning of the noun ‘energeia’. Only Paul uses this word in the NT, 8 times, 2 of them here. The other 6 all refer to the inward working of God’s power, most gloriously at work in Jesus in raising him from the dead, the same power, Paul says, which is now at work “in us who believe” (Eph. 1.19). His own apostleship to the gentiles is only possible because of “the inward working of his power” (3.7, ‘energeia’ plus ‘dunamis’) This reference to Paul’s apostleship leads us on to the verb ‘energō’, used 21 times in the NT; two of these occurrences are in Galatians 2.8, where Paul writes: “The God who ‘energised’ Peter for his apostleship among the Jews also ‘energised’ me for my apostleship to the gentiles.” This reminds us, as all too often we need to be, that we can only ‘work effectively in’ the world for Jesus if we are allowing him to ‘work effectively in us’. Paul expresses this crucial truth in another verse which uses ‘energō’ twice: “It is God who is working powerfully in you so that you may both want to do his will, and that you may have the inner power to do it” (Phil. 2.13). How, then, does Jesus ‘energise’ us ? He does so both by his word and by his Spirit. Paul gives “thanks to God continually” (literally, ‘continuously’, but in view of all the other churches on his prayer-list, this seems unlikely!) that the Thessalonians accepted his preaching as “the word of God, which is ‘powerfully at work in’ you who believe” (1 Thess. 2.13). This, presumably, is why he tells the Colossians: “Let the word of Christ make its home in you, [for it will bless you] richly” (3.16). The Holy Spirit, too, is an ‘energiser’. To the Corinthians, in his teaching on the gifts of the Spirit, he sums up his plea for unity by saying that “in all these gifts it is one and the same Spirit who is ‘working powerfully within’ you” (1 Cor. 12.11). And he asks the “foolish Galatians”, with some exasperation, one feels, whether “the God who ministers to you the gift of his Spirit, and powerfully works miracles (‘energō ‘ + ‘dunamis’, plural) among you” does so “because you are keeping the Law, or because you have heard [the gospel] and are putting your faith [in Christ]” (3.5).

(ii) Satan, sin and death at work
2 Corinthians 4.12, Romans 7.5, Ephesians 2.2

In 4 of the 21 instances of ‘energō’, however, it is not the power of God which is at work, but the power of sin and of Satan and of death. This double use of ‘energō’ is only one of a number of reminders we have in scripture that “no man is an island, entire unto himself”, not in the sense that Donne used this image, but in the sense that no one is entirely autonomous. Yes, we have free will, which makes us responsible for our choices; but in effect we have only two alternatives, to allow God to ‘work powerfully in’ our lives through his word and his Spirit, or, wittingly or unwittingly, to surrender to Satan and allow his power to ‘work powerfully in’ us. When Paul, in 2 Corinthians 4.12, says that “death is powerfully at work in me”, he is talking of the physical sufferings he has endured in his apostleship, and the physical death of which these are the forerunners and the reminders, so that his words are true not just of himself but of the whole human race. Paul rejoices that, though physically he is dying, as we all are, spiritually he is alive in Christ, and the more he suffers physically the more brightly the life of Christ within him shines out. Elsewhere, though, he looks back at life before Christ, or away to those ‘living’ without Christ: “when we were in the flesh”, he tells the Romans (7.5), “physically alive but spiritually dead, the sinful passions provoked by the Law were powerfully at work within us (‘energō’), and the fruit they yielded was death” - and this time he means spiritual death, separation from a holy God. The Ephesians, too, he reminds of their sinful lives ‘B.C.’, lives lived “under the authority of Satan, the ruler of the air, whose spirit is now powerfully at work among the children of unbelief” (2.2).

Godliness and lawlessness
Galatians 5.17
These last 4 uses of ‘energō’, and particularly the final one, bring us back to our passage in 2 Thessalonians 2, and, at last, to ‘musterion’: “the mystery of lawlessness is already powerfully at work [in the world]” (v.7). This is the only time Paul uses ‘musterion’ to refer to evil rather than to ‘godliness’ and God’s plan of salvation, just as this is the only passage where ‘parousia’ is used of the ‘coming’ of the antichrist rather than of the Christ. We saw that ‘godliness’ is a mystery, in the Pauline sense, because it was partly revealed in the OT, in the written law and the words of the prophets, and, in glimpses, in the lives of the heroes of faith; but the mystery was not fully revealed until it was incarnated in the sinless life of Jesus, and is now revealed to the world in the lives of the faithful only insofar as they allow the Spirit of Jesus to ‘work powerfully in’ them. In the same way, ‘the mystery of lawlessness’ has been at work in the world ever since Genesis 3. Until then, there had been rebellion in heaven by Satan and his angels, but not on earth, as Adam and Eve lived in sinless fellowship with God. But then came the first ‘incarnation’, Satan taking upon himself the form of a serpent and ‘dwelling’ for a time on earth, long enough to accomplish our fall, just as Jesus ‘tabernacled’ among us long enough to achieve our salvation. And just as Jesus is ‘powerfully at work in’ the world today, in believers in the person of his Holy Spirit, so too is Satan, “whose spirit is now powerfully at work amongst the children of unbelief” (still Eph. 2.2). This struggle between ‘godliness’ and ‘lawlessness’ is a daily, lifelong reality in the hearts and wills of all Christians, as we know only too well - though it is a sign that we are indeed ‘alive in Christ’, since if we were not there would be no struggle. Paul describes it in Galatians 5.17 as a tug-of-war between the flesh, our old but not exstinct human nature, and the Spirit: these two are “opposed” to each other - a word we will come across again before long. But this inner struggle is only a microcosm of the cosmic war between God and Satan which Paul is describing in our passage. He tells us that the world is awaiting not just one ‘parousia’ but two: before the coming of Christ in glory, we must expect the coming of the ‘man of lawlessness’. Not until then will the full horror of lawlessness be revealed; now it is still a mystery.


Matthew 5.38, 1 Thess 5.15, Mark 10.45, 1 Peter 5.8

Paul develops both the parallel and the antithesis between Christ and the antichrist in this passage, and there are several other words that he uses for this purpose that will repay study. But first, we need to look at the word ‘antichrist’ itself - though in fact Paul does not use it here, or anywhere: it is used only by John. The Greek original is virtually identical, ‘antichristos’, but it is important to remember, when meeting this term, that the Greek preposition ‘anti’ (not to be confused with the Latin ‘ante’, ‘before’) can mean two quite different things: when followed by a dative it means ‘against’, and it is this meaning that gives us all those English ‘antis’; but when followed by the genitive it means ‘instead of’, or ‘in return for’, as in “an eye for an eye” (Matt. 5.38), or in Paul’s injunction “see that you pay back no one evil [in return] for evil” (1 Thess. 5.15). In fact, the preposition on its own, as opposed to (!) its use in compounds, is only used with the genitive case in the NT; perhaps its most significant usage is in the saying of Jesus recorded by both Matthew and Mark: “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many”, where both its (genitive) meanings are appropriate, “instead of many” (Jesus our substitute), and “in return for - or in exchange for - many” (Jesus our redeemer, Mark 10,45, Matt. 20.28). The ‘anti-christ’, therefore, may operate in two quite different ways: he may present himself either as an adversary of Christ, or as a substitute for him. In the same way, his master, Satan, has two main strategies, which we might label ‘confrontation’ and ‘infiltration’. Peter, in his first letter, warns us that “your adversary the Devil prowls around like a roaring lion, on the lookout for anyone he may swallow up” (5.8 - Greek, more logically, says ‘swallow down’). Paul, on the other hand, is battling with ‘false apostles’ in Corinth, who, he says, can “make themselves look like apostles of Christ - and no wonder ! For Satan himself can make himself look like an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11.13-14).

Luke 13.17, 21.14-15

In our passage we see ‘the man of lawlessness’ operating in both these modes. In verse 4 he is described as ‘the adversary’, which is the basic meaning of the name ‘Satan’ in Hebrew. The Greek word used here is the present participle (‘present continuous’, alas!) of the verb ‘antikeimai’, which we met a little while ago in Galatians 5.17, where Paul says that “the flesh and the Spirit are opposed to each other”. Here the ‘anti-’ prefix clearly means ‘against’. This verb appears only 8 times in the NT, and is another in a longish list of words which are only used by Luke and Paul. In 6 of its occurrences it is used, as here, in participle form with the article, so acting as a noun. Both Luke’s two uses are worth a brief comment. In Luke 13.17 we read that “all Jesus’ opponents were put to shame”. He had just healed a woman with curvature of the spine - on the Sabbath, thus arousing the indignation of the ruler of the synagogue and others in the crowd. Jesus replies that the woman had been “bound by Satan” for 18 years: “was it not right that she should be freed from her bondage on the Sabbath ?” Those who “opposed” Jesus were also ‘bound’ under the control of Satan, the supreme ‘opponent’ of God, but they, too, were released from their bondage, “ashamed of themselves” - shame, perhaps, being the first step on the road to repentance and faith. - by this combination of Jesus’ power (‘dunamis’) and his teaching. Its other use in this gospel, 21.14-15, takes us back to Jesus’ prophecies of the end-times and the great tribulation, and to his promise of his presence and help in such times of trouble. When they were arrested, Jesus says, “you are to resolve in your hearts not to prepare your defence in advance, for I will give you both the wisdom and the utterance which all your opponents will not be able to withstand or contradict” - another small piece of evidence that Paul had this ‘synoptic apocalypse’ in mind, and even, perhaps, in writing, when he wrote this passage to the Thessalonians. The uses of this verb are also an important reminder that when we are confronted by opponents of our faith, we need to see that their opposition comes ultimately from the supreme adversary himself, and that only the supremer power of Christ can free them from a bondage which is even more crippling than curvature of the spine - hardness of heart.

‘sēmeion’, ‘teras’
Matthew 24.24, 26.48, Luke 2.12, John 2.11

But though the ‘man of lawlessness’ will be an implacable adversary of God, he will be no atheist. Verse 4 goes on to tell us that, when he has invaded God’s temple and usurped his throne, he will declare, not “There is no God! Do as you please!”, but “I am your God: worship me!” Furthermore, when we reach verse 9, we find that this ‘antichrist’ will not be declaring “There is no supernatural: miracles cannot happen. Science is the only reality!” No, he will not be denying the supernatural but exploiting it to convince those who have not believed in Christ to believe in him instead - the ‘Christ-substitute’. Here again it seems clear that Paul has in mind Jesus’ prophecies of the end-times: “For there will arise false christs and false prophets (both single words in Greek, beginning with ‘pseudo-’), and they will perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray (‘planō’), if possible, even the elect” (Matt. 24.24, Mark 13.22). These are the only two occurrences of ‘pseudochristos’ in the NT, and Jesus’ teaching here, echoed by Paul, suggests that the antichrist will not just be an outright ‘opponent’ of Jesus and his people, but also a subtle impostor. To achieve this purpose he will work ‘signs and wonders’. The Greek for ‘sign’ is ‘sēmeion’, from which ‘semaphore’ and ‘semantics’ are derived. This is a very common and key NT word, used 77 times in all (perhaps that is a ‘sign’ in itself, though 2 of them, it must be said, occur in the last part of Mark 16, and so are probably not canonical). Of these, 7 are found, ‘significantly’, in Revelation. Often, it just means a ‘sign’, such as Judas’s kiss to ‘signpost’ Jesus in the dark to the arresting soldiers (Matt. 26.48), or, at the other end of his life, the ‘sign’ to the shepherds, “a baby lying in a manger” (Luke 2.12). It is John who uses the word most (17 times), and for him, a ‘sign’ is not just a miracle but a miracle with a meaning: the turning of the water into wine was “the beginning of the signs which Jesus performed and revealed his glory”(2.11); and the “second sign” was the healing of the royal official’s son (4.54). In 16 of its appearances, as in the 2 verses cited from the ‘synoptic apocalypse’ above, ‘sēmeion’ is coupled with ‘teras’, a ‘wonder’; while ‘sēmeion’ on its own, as we have seen, is not necessarily a miraculous sign, when combined with ‘teras’ it clearly is. In all occurrences of this phrase, both nouns are in the plural. More significantly, the only 3 instances where these ‘signs and wonders’ are not the mighty works of God , through his Son or through his apostles empowered by his Spirit, are the two in Jesus’ warning of ‘false christs’ quoted earlier, and this reference to the deceptions of ‘the man of lawlessness’ in 2 Thessalonians 2.9 - further evidence that Paul is consciously echoing Jesus’ teaching.

'signs and wonders' in Acts

Acts 2.43, 4.30, 5.12, 6.8, 14.3, 15.12

Of the remaining uses of ‘signs and wonders’ 9 are in the Book of Acts. On the Day of Pentecost, the birthday of the church, the apostles not only spoke in tongues, but also “many signs and wonders were performed” by them (2.43). And so, in their great prayer meeting two chapters later, they pray that God will “stretch out his hand in healing, and that signs and wonders may be performed” in the name of Jesus (4.30). Their prayer is quickly answered, for in the next chapter (5.12) “many signs and wonders were performed by the hands of the apostles among the people”. This double reference to “hands” is suggestive, in two ways. Firstly, it reminds us that only if God ‘stretches out’ his hand in power and blessing can the hands of the apostles be empowered; and secondly, it suggests that these ‘signs and wonders’ were mostly miracles of healing effected by the laying-on of the apostles’ hands. We also read of ‘signs and wonders’ being performed by Stephen (6.8), who then shows that such miraculous intervention by God’s outstretched hand has good OT precedent by describing the many miracles of the Exodus as “the signs and wonders in the land of Egypt” (7.36). In the second half of Acts Paul and Barnabas at Iconium follow in the footsteps of Peter and Stephen in Jerusalem: “The Lord bore witness to their preaching of the gospel of grace by granting that signs and wonders be performed by their hands” (14.3: look! no “hands” in NIV!) Nor was this an isolated event, it seems, for at the Council of Jerusalem they “recounted what great signs and wonders God had done among the gentiles through them” (15.12).

Acts 2.22

But the Acts reference which is most relevant to 2 Thessalonians 2 occurs in Peter’s Pentecost sermon. He begins by stating that this remarkable outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit is the fulfilment of the prophecy of Joel, which he quotes at length, including the statement “I will give wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below” - the only occasion where ‘wonders’ come before ‘signs’, and the two words are slightly separated (2.19). He then goes on to show that this promise of God was fulfilled in Jesus: “Jesus of Nazareth was a man authenticated to you by God by means of miracles (‘dunamis’) and signs and wonders which God performed through him in the midst of you all” (2.22). The relevance of this to our passage is twofold. Firstly, Paul adds ‘dunamis’ to ‘signs and wonders’, just as Peter did, to show that the ‘man of lawlessness’ will try to mimic Christ as closely as possible in his performance of miracles - but Paul punctures this impressive display by ending the verse (9) with ‘pseudous’ (used in the genitive as an adjective): he is a ‘pseudochrist’ and his miracles are ‘signs and wonders of falsehood’, another echo of Jesus’ teaching. The second point is particularly interesting, and introduces us to another rare NT word, ‘apodeiknumi’. Used in the passive in Acts 2.22, it is the word I translated ‘authenticated’ (NIV ‘accredited’). God ‘demonstrated publicly’ (the basic meaning of the word) throughout his ministry that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ by his miracles, or ‘signs’, as John refers to them. This same word is used here, in verse 4, in the active, of the ‘man of lawlessness’, who will enthrone himself in God’s temple and “authenticate himself that he is God”. This word is only used 4 times in the whole of the NT, so it is remarkable that Paul uses it here to establish yet another link between Christ and the antichrist, the one ‘authenticated’ by God, the other ‘self-authenticated’ - for what that is worth.

God in control
Revelation 13.13-14

What Paul foretells here, based on what Jesus himself foretold, is similar to what John foresaw in Revelation 13.13-14: “a beast with two horns, looking like a lamb” (so a ‘pseudochristos’) “but speaking like a serpent” (a sign of its real nature, and parentage,) “performed great and miraculous signs (‘semeia’, plural form) actually causing fire to descend from heaven onto the earth in the sight of mankind; and so it led astray (‘planō’) the inhabitants of the earth because of the signs that were given it to do”. Is this power “given” by God or by Satan ? The answer, I think, is “both”. Paul says that the ‘man of lawlessness’ will work “signs and wonders in all power” by the ‘energeia’ of Satan - his ‘power at work within’ him. This is one of the two uses of ‘energeia’ in this passage, but the only one of its 8 NT uses which refers to the power of Satan rather than to the power of God. But in this passage Paul also makes it clear that, although the Devil and his agent have great power, they are both ultimately subject to the supreme power of almighty God, and that any power that they have can be said to be “given” to them by God for a limited time and for a specific purpose. And this, of course, is the constant theme of Revelation. God is on the throne and in control, despite all that Satan can do to make us doubt it: 12 times in this book God is referred to as “the one who sits on the throne”. Paul makes this same point in a different way by saying, twice, that the ‘man of lawlessness’ is being “held back”, though, as said earlier, we do not know by what (the first occurrence of the participle of the verb ‘katechō’, to ‘hold back’, is in the neuter), or by whom (the second is masculine), since that is something Paul told the Thessalonians in person, but has not told us in his letter. What we do know is that this antichrist will be ‘revealed’ (‘apokaluptō’, used 3 times in this passage - vv. 3,6,8) only when God withdraws his restraining power. When he does appear and hold his mass meetings, the programmes should have, printed at the bottom, “The Man of Lawlessness appears by kind permission of Almighty God” - but I don’t suppose they will! And here is another parallel between Christ and the antichrist to which Paul draws attention. In verse 6 he tells us that God is holding back the ‘man of lawlessness’ so that “he may revealed at his appointed time”: God is in sovereign control not only of the powers of Satan but also of the timetable of history.


Mark 1.15, John 7.6,8, Matthew 26.18, Luke 21.8, Romans 5.6, 1 Tim 6.15

The Greek word I translated “appointed time” in verse 6 is ‘kairos’; it is a key word in the NT, and very common, occurring 87 times. We will just look at those few, 7 in all, which refer to Jesus. He begins his ministry in Mark’s gospel (1.15) by declaring: “The appointed time has now fully come, and the kingdom of heaven is at hand”; and from then on, God’s timetable, which was also Jesus’ timetable, moved on inexorably towards the cross. When, in John 7, his brothers urge him to go up to Jerusalem to make himself known, he twice tells them “my appointed time is not yet here” (v.6), and “my time has not yet fully come” (v.8) - the verb here, as in Mark 1.15, is ‘plerō’, to ‘fulfil’. But two years later (probably) he is in Jerusalem, and he sends two of his disciples ahead to prepare the upper room for the Passover meal with the message “my appointed time is near”(Matt.26.18). This makes an interesting parallel with Jesus’ warning to his disciples in the ‘synoptic apocalypse’ we have visited a number of times: “See that you are not led astray. Many will come in my name, saying ‘It is I’ and ‘the appointed time is near’” (Luke 21.8).This, presumably, will be ‘the appointed time’ for the coming, not of Christ, but of the antichrist, ‘the man of lawlessness’. Paul uses ‘kairos’ in relation to Christ 3 times, most memorably in Romans 5.6: “Indeed, while we were still unable to help ourselves, at [God’s] appointed time Christ died for the ungodly” - this is the same ‘kairos’ he knew was at hand when he made arrangements for his last supper with his disciples. Paul expresses this same idea, without using ‘kairos’, in Galatians 4.14, though using the idea of ‘fullness’ or ‘fulfilment’ (‘plerōma’) that we saw in Mark 1.15 and John 7.8: “But when the time was fully come, God sent out his Son---”. Similarly, though this time without actually mentioning Jesus, he opens his letter to Titus by saying that he is “in hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised before time began, but at his own appointed time he revealed his word by the proclamation of the gospel” (vv.2-3). In the same way, Jesus’ ‘parousia’ will be at “God’s own appointed time”, as he tells Timothy (1 Tim. 6.15). In both these last two verses, the word for “his own” is ‘idios’ (a person’s ‘idiom’ is his own particular manner of speech); this idea is also expressed in 2 Thessalonians 2.6, where the ‘man of lawlessness’ is being held back “so that he may be revealed at his own appointed time”, but here Paul uses the reflexive pronoun, ‘the appointed time of himself”, just as he does when he says that he “authenticates himself” (v.4): if Jesus is ‘the Man for others’, the ‘man of lawlessness’ is just out for himself.

‘epiphaneia’ 'epiphanēs'
Acts 2.20, Matthew 24.25-6

Paul’s admonition to Timothy, just quoted, leads us to another word which deserves a brief look. In the phrase I translated “the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (AV and NIV concur !), the Greek word is not ‘parousia’ but ‘epiphaneia’. This word, in its anglicised form ‘epiphany’, has been appropriated by the church to refer to Jesus’ first ‘appearing’, specifically to the gentiles as represented by the magi. In the NT, however, ‘epiphaneia’ is used, on all its 5 appearances (all in Paul’s letters beginning with a ‘T’!) to refer to Jesus’ second coming, and so is a synonym for ‘parousia’, though with slightly different connotations. Its related adjective ‘epiphanēs’ means ‘clearly visible’ or ‘conspicuous’; it occurs just once in the NT, and that in a quotation from the LXX. It is part of the prophecy of Joel quoted by Peter on the Day of Pentecost, coming immediately after the ‘signs and wonders’ references we looked at earlier: “The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the day of the Lord comes, great and conspicuous” - or, perhaps, “unmistakeable”. This may be why Paul uses ‘epiphaneia’ in 2 Thessalonians 2.8, coupled with ‘parousia’: “Then [when God removes ‘the restraining power’] the lawless one will be revealed, and the Lord Jesus will destroy him by the breath of his mouth and render him powerless by the lightning-brilliance (‘epiphaneia’) of his coming (‘parousia’)”. My translation of ‘epiphaneia’ here (AV and NIV do not concur !) is influenced by Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 24, his version of ‘the synoptic apocalypse’ which, as we have seen, lies behind much of Paul’s thinking and vocabulary in this passage. In contrast to all the false reports and false claims of his coming there will be “in those days” (v.25), the real thing will be ‘unmistakeable’: “For as the lightning comes from the East and is clearly visible all the way to the West, so will be the coming (‘parousia’) of the Son of Man” (v.26). The words “is clearly visible” are my translation of the Greek verb ‘phainomai’, from which ‘epiphaneia’ is derived. In our passage, then it seems that Paul is both comparing and contrasting Christ and the “lawless one”. Both are due to make their ‘appearance’ (‘parousia’) on earth, both at the time appointed for them by God (‘kairos’). But this will be Christ’s second coming; he will not need to ‘authenticate himself’ by ‘signs and wonders’, as will ‘the lawless one’; no, his coming will be in a world-wide blaze of lightning-glory that none can miss or mistake - an ‘epiphaneia’.

‘apostasia’, 'apostasion'
Judges 22.22, Matthew 5.31, Acts 21.21

If this much is gloriously clear - ‘unmistakeably’ clear - much still remains a ‘mystery’, yet to be revealed. How long, for instance, will there be between the ‘parousia’ of ‘the lawless one’ and the ‘epiphaneia’ of Jesus? In verse 8 the interval is only a comma: “the lawless one, whom Jesus will destroy”, but earlier, in verse 3, Paul makes it clear that the ‘parousia’ of Christ cannot happen until the coming of ‘the man of lawlessness’ and ‘the apostasy’ - the Greek word is almost identical, ‘apostasia’ - or ‘the rebellion’ (NIV, better than ‘a falling away’ in AV, which ignores the definite article). This word is used in the LXX of ‘rebellion’ against God (e.g. Judges 22.22), but its only other appearance in the NT is, ironically enough, in Acts 21.21, where it is said that Paul himself is reported to teach ‘apostasy from Moses’. There is, however, a closely related word, ‘apostasion’, which is used 3 times in the NT, all quoting Deuteronomy 24.1, which means ‘divorce’ (Matt. 5.31, 19.7, Mark 10.4). Since the relationship between God and his people is regularly described in the OT in terms of a marriage (a ‘mystery’ which we will explore more fully later), this adds an extra sense of faithlessness and betrayal to the sense of ‘apostasy’.

"the apostasy" and "the elect"
Matthew 24.24, Mark 13.22

Paul tells us more about ‘the apostasy’ in verses 10-12, and, once again, behind Paul’s teaching there lies Jesus’ prophecy. As we have seen, both Matthew’s and Mark’s version of this begin in the same
way: “many will come in my name, saying ‘I am the Christ’, and will lead many astray” (‘planō’, Matt. 24.5, Mark 13.6). But this ‘many’ does not include ‘the elect’, as Jesus’ “if possible” implies in the later expansion of his first statement, saying that these ‘pseudochrists’ would perform “signs and wonders so as to lead astray even the elect, if that were possible” (Matt. 24.24, Mark 13.22). In all 4 of these gospel verses, to ‘lead astray’ is ‘planō’ in Greek; we saw earlier that at the start of this chapter Paul tells his readers not to be ‘led astray’, as Jesus told his disciples, but uses the verb ‘exapatō’ , to ‘deceive’, instead of ‘planō’. Now, in verse 10, he does much the same, using the related noun ‘apatē’, ‘deceit’, to describe ‘the lawless one’s’ leading of the world into apostasy. This ‘deceit’ in verse 10 is closely linked to the “signs and wonders of falsehood” of verse 9 - not even a comma separates the two. We could, then, freely translate both verses together as follows: “The coming of the lawless one will be accompanied by every kind of miracle and by signs and wonders, which he will perform in the power of Satan at work within him, all deceitful lies to draw into wickedness those already on the road to death because they did not open themselves to a love of the truth which leads to salvation and life”. From this, and from Jesus’ words quoted above, we can infer that “the elect” are those who love the truth: the Christian faith must involve both head and heart. Some give intellectual assent to the truth of the gospel without ever letting the love of Jesus flood their hearts by the power of his Spirit (Rom. 5.5), so that their belief is stillborn, and remains just the dead embryo of true faith. As James dryly observes (2.19), “even evil spirits” are believers in that sense. For others, their faith is mostly a matter of the emotions, whether the warm glow of self-righteousness, or a series of spiritual highs experienced in large gatherings with loud music, or aroused by ‘signs and wonders’; such people rarely trouble their heads with questions about truth. Both kinds of unbalanced faith - both the loveless and the brainless - will be at risk of being deceived and led astray by the ‘lawless one’ at his coming.

"God gave them up"
Romans 1.24,26,28

After the shock of seeing ‘energeia’ associated with Satan in verse 9, it is, at first sight, reassuring to see it right next to ‘God’ in verse 11; but in fact a further disconcerting surprise lies in store for us. Yes, in his elect God works powerfully to energise them, as we have seen, for godly living and Christian service; but here, for those who are “on the road to death”, God sends “an ‘energeia’ of ‘planē’, “an inward-working power of deception”. Here, at last, Paul uses the noun, ‘planē’, derived from the verb ‘planō’, which is used so often in Jesus’ prophecies of the end-times; but now “the inner power” which “leads astray” is not exercised by pseudochrists but by God himself, leading them to “believe the lie”, the lying deceptions of the signs and wonders worked by the lawless one. Those who refuse to accept God’s truth inevitably end up believing Satan’s lie, and here Paul attributes that inevitability to the hand of a sovereign God who controls even the ‘powerful working’ of Satan and makes it a part of his plan - just as he did with Judas (of whom more anon). Paul expresses the same truth in Romans 1, where three times (vv. 24,26,28) he writes of mankind collectively that “God gave them up” - or “handed them over” - to the wickedness that they themselves had chosen wilfully to indulge in. Nor is this just Paul’s theology: we find the same pattern and the same truth in Exodus, where the refrain “Pharaoh hardened his heart” (7.13,22, 8.15,19,32) mutates into “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (9.12, 10.20). As someone has memorably put it, “the best words we can ever say to God are ‘Thy will be done’, and the worst words we can ever hear God saying to us are ‘Your will be done’”.

Romans 8.18">Luke 17.30, Romans 8.18, 1 Peter 5.1

We saw, a while back, that the essential meaning of ‘mystery’ is spelt out by Jesus himself in several passages, one of which (Matt. 10.26) is: “There is nothing hidden which will not be revealed” (also Luke 12.2). The Greek word here, ‘apokaluptō’, literally means to ‘remove a veil’, so that Jesus’ words could be translated “there is nothing veiled that will not be unveiled”. Paul uses this verb three times in our passage, all referring to the ‘revealing’ or ‘unveiling’ of ‘the man of lawlessness’ (vv. 3,6,8). This is yet another instance of Paul’s using a word usually associated with Christ to refer to the antichrist. As we have already seen, both the ‘mystery of godliness’(1 Tim. 3.16) and the mystery of the gospel (Romans 1.17, Eph.3.5) have already been revealed, in the sinless life and sacrificial death of Jesus. But ‘apokaluptō’ is also associated with his ‘parousia’, his second coming. In Luke 17.20-37, another passage which foretells ‘the coming of the kingdom’, and so, apparently, a source of Paul’s teaching here, Jesus draws a parallel between the judgement which fell on the world in the form of the flood, and the judgement which fell on Sodom and Gomorra in the form of fire, and concludes “even so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed (‘apokaluptō’)” (v.30). Jesus’ ‘parousia’ will be a day of judgement for ‘the many’, but for the elect it will be a day of glory, and so both Paul (Rom.8.18) and Peter (1 Peter 5.1) talk about “the glory which is going to be revealed”. But in our passage, Paul makes it clear, three times over, that before the revelation of that awesome and glorious day must come the revelation, not of “the Son of Man”, but of “the man of lawlessness, the son of destruction” (v.3).

‘The son of destruction’: ‘apōleia’

John 17.12, Matthew 12.39-41, Luke 11.29-32, Hebrews11.17-19, 1 John 2.16

Paul, then, is clearly drawing a parallel (though the two parallel lines are going in opposite directions) between the ‘parousia’ of Jesus and the ‘parousia’ of the antichrist, between ‘the mystery of godliness’ and ‘the mystery of lawlessness’. I have, so far, consistently referred to this antichrist figure as ‘the man of lawlessness’, but Paul, as we finally saw at the end of the last paragraph, gives him another epithet, ‘the son of destruction’, and this provokes an interesting speculation. This phrase is found only once elsewhere in the NT, in Jesus’ majestic prayer to his Father recorded in John 17. In the central section he prays for his disciples: “Holy Father, protect them --- when I was with them, I protected them --- and guarded them, and none of them was lost except ‘the son of destruction’, so that scripture might be fulfilled” (vv.11-12). Translation here is a challenge - which I have failed ! The Greek noun translated ‘destruction’, ‘apōleia’, is related to the verb ‘lose’, ‘apollumi’ (the verb which gives us the name ‘Apollyon’, the ‘Destroyer’, in Rev. 9.11); NEB makes this point well: “None of them is lost except the man who must be lost” - but at the cost of losing “the son”, and so the parallel which I am suggesting that Paul is making with “the Son of Man”. NIV scores by translating “the man doomed to destruction” in both its appearances, so making clear the parallel I now want to explore - a parallel that develops the double use of ‘mystery’. If a mystery is a truth that is partly revealed over many ages so that it may be fully revealed at the appointed time (‘kairos’), then we would expect ‘the mystery of lawlessness’ to have manifested itself in many ways through long ages before its final manifestation in ‘the man of lawlessness’. The coming of Christ and the truth of the gospel of grace are foreshadowed in a number of ways in the OT, most clearly in prophecy. In the same way, the coming of the antichrist is clearly foretold in the prophecies of Jesus himself, which, in turn, reflect the prophecies of Daniel; these prophecies Paul echoes here, and are repeated, with dramatic and graphic illustrations, in Revelation. But, more subtly, the coming of Christ was also prefigured by the lives and exploits of a number of the ‘heroes of faith’ of the OT, who can be thought of as ‘types’ of Christ. Jesus himself cites the prophet Jonah’s three days and three nights in the belly of the whale as a foreshadowing of his own forthcoming death and resurrection (Matt. 12.39-41, Luke 11.29-32); in the same way, the writer to the Hebrews sees Isaac, Abraham’s ‘only-begotten son’ (‘monogenēs’), as a type of Jesus, and another pointer to the resurrection, since “in a parable” his father received him back “from the dead” (11.17-19). There are many other examples besides. Is it fanciful, then, to see Judas as a ‘type’ of the antichrist ? Perhaps this is what Paul is suggesting by using the phrase “son of destruction” to describe him. Similarly there are many events in the OT which foreshadow the future. Jesus, in the verses referred to earlier, saw both the flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra as events pointing forward to his own parousia and the last judgement: many will be ‘lost’ but the elect will be saved, as were Noah and Lot and their families. If we may read the sacred history of the OT in this way, then perhaps we should read secular history similarly, as God’s ‘parable’; it has certainly supplied us with plentiful ‘types’ of the antichrist and his monomaniac despotism. As we saw earlier, the word ‘antichristos’ is used 5 times in the NT, all by John in his letters; 4 times it appears in the singular, ‘the antichrist’, presumably the same phenomenon as Paul’s ‘the man of lawlessness’. But in 1 John 2.18 he moves, tellingly, from the singular to the plural: “Children, it is the last hour; as you have heard, Antichrist is coming - and now indeed many antichrists have come; --- they went out from us, but they were not of us”. These antichrists, then, were both a present reality in the 1st Century church to which John is writing, but they are also forerunners of the real thing, revealing in part what he will be like, but leaving the full Satanic horror a mystery still to be revealed.

"the apostasy": Judas and Satan
John 13.30, Matthew 24.9-10

John’s additional comment here, “they went out from us but they were not of us” (v.19), shows that these ‘antichrists’ were apostates: for a time, they seemed to be part of the church, but they never truly belonged or believed. Jesus’ parable (Matt. 13.24-30, explained 36-43), warns us that, for a while, the “wheat” (“the sons of the kingdom”, v.38) and the “weeds” (“the sons of the Devil”) grow in the field together and are hard to tell apart. The Devil himself, of course, was an apostate, an angel who rebelled against the kingship of God and so fell from heaven. It is not, therefore, surprising that his “sons” display the family likeness, most conspicuously “the son of destruction”, Judas Iscariot, who, for three years, seemed to be ‘of’ the twelve, but finally “went out” from them (John 13.30 - the same Greek verb as in 1 John 2.18, above) into the darkness and did the Devil’s work. Nor is it a surprise to find that the coming of the ultimate “son of destruction” will be associated with “the apostasy” (2 Thess. 2.3). There is, perhaps, another echo of the ‘synoptic apocalypse’ here: In Matthew 24.9-10, Jesus forewarns us that “then” (in the last days) “they will hand you over to affliction and will kill you --- and then many will be ‘scandalized’ and will hand each other over”. To “be scandalized” is to trip up in one’s faith, and ultimately to turn back, or to ‘apostasise’. This is what happened in Jesus’ parable to the seed sown on stony ground, which had no root-growth, and so shrivelled in the fiery heat of persecution (Matt. 13.21). The Greek verb for to ‘hand over’, ‘paradidōmi’, used twice in the previous quotation from Matthew 24, is also the verb regularly translated to ‘betray’ in the context of Judas ‘handing over’ Jesus to the Jewish authorities. In the next verse (11), Jesus continues: “And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray (‘planō’); and because of the great increase of lawlessness (‘anomia’) the love of many will grow cold”. This increase in lawlessness will, presumably, be the result of the appearance (‘parousia’) of “the man of lawlessness” himself.

"the abomnation of desolation"
Matthew 24.15, Mark 13.14, Luke 21.20

Before we finally take our leave of this difficult passage and of “the mystery of lawlessness”, there is one more echo of the ‘synoptic apocalypse’ that deserves attention. In verse 4, Paul writes that ‘the man of lawlessness’, “the adversary, the one that will raise himself far above every god that is named or worshipped, will go so far as to enter God’s temple and take his seat there, and to declare (the word I earlier translated ‘authenticate’) that he himself is God”. This seems to be Paul’s interpretation of Daniel’s prediction of “the abomination of desolation set up in the temple”, which Jesus in turn quotes as a sure sign of the coming end. In Matthew 24.15 he says: “When you see ‘the abomination of desolation’ spoken of by the prophet Daniel standing in the holy place ---”. Mark’s version is slightly different: “When you see ‘the abomination of desolation’ standing where it ought not to---” (13.14). But the most significant difference between these two versions is undetectable in translation: both writers use the same word for ‘standing’, in Matthew the participle is in the neuter, correctly agreeing with the neuter noun ‘abomination’ (about which more later), but Mark uses the masculine form of the participle, implying that it is not just a graven image that will stand in the holy place in an earlier and partial fulfilment of this prophecy, but a man - maybe “the man of lawlessness” himself - in its final fulfilment. This switch from the masculine to the neuter form of the participle (or vice versa) is intriguingly reminiscent of the similar switch in our passage, previously noted, from verse 6 (“that which holds him back”, neuter form of the participle) to verse 7 (“he who holds him back”, masculine). Luke, as often, is even less synoptic: “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that her ‘desolation’ is near” (21.20). There is still an echo of Daniel in the mention of ‘desolation’, but for Luke Jesus is here foretelling the siege and destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.


2 Kings 23.13, Revelation 17.4-5, 22.27, Luke 16.15, Gen 3.5

Before long, we will need to take a deep breath and dive into the prophecies of Daniel - if only into the shallow end ! - to find out how all these prophetic passages fit together, and, more generally, to establish an important principle of the interpretation of scriptural prophecy as a whole. First, though, it may be helpful to look briefly at the two Greek words translated ‘abomination, and ‘desolation’. The first of these is ‘bdelugma’, an onomatopoeia aptly expressing the sudden feeling of disgust and revulsion of someone unexpectedly confronted by a nauseating stench - the stench of corruption. The basic verb from which it is derived, ‘bdeō’, means (translating politely) to ‘break wind’. It is one of a small group of words used in the LXX to describe behaviour which is an ‘abomination’ to the Lord, especially idolatry. So in 2 Kings 23.13, Josiah, in his clean-up operation in Jerusalem, demolished the high places built (by Solomon, to his shame), among others, to “Molech the ‘abomination’ of Ammon”. In the NT it is used 6 times; 3 of these are in Revelation, 2 in quick succession in a passage we have already visited because of its ‘mystery’, describing the whore of Babylon: “she held in her hand a cup full of the abominations of her filthiness and her fornication. Her name was written on her forehead: ‘Mystery, Babylon the Great, mother of whores and of the abominations of the earth’” (17.4-5). The third instance in Revelation is, by comparison, rather less exciting - but much more encouraging: of the holy city, the new Jerusalem, it is written that “no one at all shall enter it who commits an abomination or a falsehood” (22.27). It is not difficult to link these two ideas: in God’s eyes idolatry is spiritual prostitution, just as apostasy (‘apostasia’) is marital infidelity (‘apostasion’, ‘divorce’). God is a jealous God, and anything which alienates the affections of his beloved people is an ‘abomination’ to him. The synoptic gospels each contain an instance of ‘bdelugma’, Matthew and Mark in quoting Daniel, as we have seen; Luke (less synoptic, but not to be left out) uses the word in a different context: speaking to the Pharisees, Jesus says “you are those who present themselves before men as righteous, but God knows your hearts; because pride in man is an abomination before God” (16.15). Pride here is, literally, “the high”, and this reminds us of the ‘man of lawlessness’ who will “excessively raise himself up” (or ‘hyper-extend himself’! v.4). Pride can go no higher than to claim to be God, and it is typical of Satan, and so of his agents, that his first ever temptation, to Eve, was to “be like God” (Gen. 3.5). So for the ‘man of lawlessness’ to enthrone himself in God’s temple as an idolatrous ‘object of worship’ (‘sebasma’, v.4) will be the ultimate ‘abomination’.

‘erēmōsis’, ‘erēmos’
Lev 26.30-35, Matthew 12.25, Luke 11.17

The Greek word for ‘desolation’ is better connected and more common than ‘bdelugma’, if rather less colourful. The adjective ‘erēmos’ means ‘lonely’ or ‘deserted’, like the place to which Jesus “withdrew privately” with his disciples in Matthew 14.13 (=Mark 6.31ff.). This place is still described as ‘erēmos’ two verses later, though by then Jesus has been followed there by a crowd of more than 5,000, so perhaps ‘remote’ is a good translation here. ‘erēmos’ occurs 49 times in the NT, but of these 34 are accompanied by the definite article, turning the adjective into a noun meaning ‘the desert’ or ‘the wilderness’, as in references to the Sinai desert, where the Israelites wandered for 40 years (John 3.14, 6.31,49, Heb. 3.8,17), or to the Judean desert, where Jesus was tempted for “forty days and nights” (Matt. 4.1, Mark 1.12-13, Luke 4.1), or to the desert where John the Baptist, as prophesied, lived and preached (Matt. 3.1-3, Mark 1, 3-4, Luke 1.80, 3.2,4). This adjective, as so often in Greek, spawns a verb, ‘erēmō’, to ‘make deserted’, or to ‘lay waste’, as in Jesus’ saying that “every kingdom that is divided against itself is laid waste” (Matt. 12.25, Luke 11.17). This verb in turn produces the abstract noun ‘erēmōsis’, the object of our quest and the subject of this mini-study, which means ‘a laying waste’; ‘desertification’ would be a more contemporary translation. In the NT this occurs only 3 times, in the synoptic references to Daniel’s prophecy, but in the OT, with its numerous accounts of the sackings of cities, it is frequently employed by the LXX translators, not least in referring to the ‘desolation’ of Jerusalem itself after the Babylonian invasion. Daniel’s great prayer in chapter 9 is motivated by his reading of the words of Jeremiah, in the letter sent to the Jewish exiles in Babylon (29.4-23), prophesying that “the desolation of Jerusalem would last for 70 years” (Daniel 9.2). But behind even the prophecies of Daniel and Jeremiah lie the curses of Leviticus 26, the words not of a (mere) prophet, but of the Lord God if Israel himself . The previous chapters have set out God’s law, from majestic principles to minutest details. This chapter, in the pattern of a peace-treaty of the ancient world, presents both the advantages of keeping the covenant and the penalties for breaking it - for being unfaithful. Verses 1-13 propose a host of glorious blessings for a faithful and obedient Israel. Verse 14 begins with one of the bible’s many great ‘but’s, but this one introduces, not God’s plan of salvation, as in Romans 5.8, or Ephesians 2.4, but his stark warnings of the curses that will follow faithlessness: “But if you will not hearken to me---” (AV). Then follows a series of 4, mostly natural, disasters designed to bring Israel back to the path of obedience. But finally, if all these fail, there comes (vv.27ff) what might be seen as ‘the nuclear option’ - complete devastation. In the LXX version of verses 30-35 there are no fewer than 8 occurrences of ‘erēmos’ and its related family of words: Jerusalem will be laid waste. Furthermore, in the long siege that will precede the final destruction, “ye shall eat of the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters” (v.29, AV). This is recorded as happening during the siege of Samaria (2 Kings 6.28-9), and prophesied as being about to happen in the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem (Jer. 19.9); it is also recorded by the historian Josephus as having happened during the Roman siege of Jerusalem in AD 70.

‘The abomination' and 'the desolation’

So from this study of the two words individually it seems that the phrase “the abomination of desolation” is not just a hendiadys (“the abominable desolation”), but rather refers to the ultimate judgement of God on the apostasy of Israel, in which ‘devastation’ of the city is compounded by ‘desecration’ of the Temple. Both nouns have their full effect, but it is important to distinguish between them. ‘Devastation’ is God’s judgement on a faithless people, pronounced at the very beginning of the covenant history of Israel. The agent of this devastation will be “my servant Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon” (Jer. 25.9). But in the course of the ‘devastation’ of Jerusalem, Nebuchadnezzar looted the golden drinking-vessels and other ornaments of the Temple (2 Kings 24.13), and Belshazzar then ‘desecrated’ them at his ill-fated feast (Dan. 5.1-4). So immediately after prophesying that “my servant Nebuchadnezzar” would devastate Jerusalem, Jeremiah also prophesied God’s judgement on “the king of Babylon and his nation, the land of the Babylonians, for their guilt” (25.12). Babylon is, therefore, both the agent of God’s judgement and the object of God’s wrath. This pattern can be seen to be repeated in both the “sons of destruction” we met earlier. Judas Iscariot, in ‘handing over’ his Master to his long-prophesied death, was an agent of God’s judgement on the sin of mankind, a judgement visited on Christ on the cross. He was also doing what God himself did, who “did not spare his own Son, but ‘handed him over’ on behalf of us all” (Rom. 8.32). But, as we have seen, ‘paradidōmi’, besides to ‘hand over’, can also mean to ‘betray’, and in betraying his Lord for money, and perhaps, too, from envy, Judas committed maybe the greatest act of ‘abomination’ and ‘desecration’ in history, and so made himself the object, as well as the agent, of God’s wrath. “The man of lawlessness”, too, will, remarkably, be an agent of God’s judgement on “all those who have not believed the truth but have taken pleasure in wickedness” (2 Thess. 2.12). But his attempt to usurp the place of God will be an ‘abomination’ which will bring upon him his own judgement, the “destruction” which, as a “son”, is rightly and inevitably his inheritance.

“The abomination of desolation” in Daniel
Dan 9.27, 11.31, 12.11

And so to Daniel, where the expression “the abomination of desolation” occurs three times. The first comes in the prophecy given to him by the angel Gabriel (9.27), the second (11.31), towards the end of his long vision of “a man dressed in linen”, which may well be Jesus himself, and the third, the words of the same speaker, comes right at the end of the book (12.11). Of the three, the middle one (11.31) is the easiest to locate in subsequent history. Verses 2-35 of this chapter are a remarkably detailed history of events in Egypt and the Middle East, from the invasion of Greece by Xerxes (v.2), the empire of Alexander (who “will do as he pleases”, v.3), right up to - or down to - King Antiochus Epiphanes, “the king of the North” (the Seleucid empire in Syria), and a “contemptible person” (v.21, NIV). After a failed attack on Egypt (“the South”, vv.29-30), he will “vent his fury against the holy covenant” (v.30), and “desecrate the temple fortress, and abolish the daily sacrifices. Then they will set up ‘the abomination of desolation’” (v.31). This refers to the attempt by Antiochus, ultimately thwarted by the Maccabes, to hellenize Israel, which involved the banning of all the rituals of the Mosaic law, and culminated, in 168 BC, in the setting up of an altar to Olympian Zeus in the Temple and offering sacrifices on it. Jerusalem may not have been physically ‘devastated’ (though many of the faithful were killed), as it had been by Babylon, and would be again by Rome, but such idolatry was clearly ‘an abomination’ to God.

'types': past events as indicators of things to come

The first of the three occurrences of this phrase comes after Daniel’s prayer in chapter 9 (4-19), prompted by his reading Jeremiah’s prophecy that the Babylonian exile would last for 70 years. Gabriel does not exactly confirm this prophecy, but gives him another series of prophecies based on ‘sevens’, “weeks of years”. This has spawned reams of speculation and calculation, but little certainty. It does seem, however, that verse 24 refers to the atoning work of Christ, which would indeed “finish transgression, put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness”. This suggests that, likewise, “the anointed one will be cut off” (v.26) also refers to the crucifixion, so that “the destruction of the city and the sanctuary” (that is, both ‘desolation’ and ‘desecration’) in the same verse refers to the siege and sack of Jerusalem in AD 70, which saw the end of the Jewish sacrificial system, and the setting up of the “abomination of desolation” (v.27). Chapter 12, though, seems to move on to the end-times, verses 2-3 clearly referring to the resurrection of the dead, so that verse 11 most likely refers to the coming of the antichrist and his setting up of “the abomination of desolation”, this time, no mere statue but the ‘man of lawlessness’ himself, “standing where he ought not to” (Mark 13.14).

'bifocal' prophecy

At this point, we need to remember the ‘concertina’ characteristic of much apocalyptic prophecy: events which are to unfold over many years are compressed into a few verses, the details of each event so folded into each other that only the event itself can reveal which detail belongs with which event. The Messianic prophecies are the most conspicuous example of this principle, with the details of Christ’s first and second comings so interwoven that only history itself could disentangle them. The writer of the BST commentary on Daniel, Ronald Walker, makes this point very helpfully: “Within the sphere of salvation history, coming events cast their shadow before. Thus, in the lesser preliminary events, God produces beforehand a series of events typical of what is ultimately going to come” (p.166). It is particularly important to remember this principle when reading the ‘synoptic apocalypse’. Here, Matthew Henry’s words on Matthew 24 pre-echo those of Ronald Walker: “The prophecy primarily respects the events near at hand - the destruction of Jerusalem; but this prophecy also, under the type of Jerusalem’s destruction, looks as far forward as the general judgement” (H&S version, p.218). We have already seen how individual characters in the OT can be viewed as ‘types’ of Christ, and, perhaps, how Judas can be seen as a ‘type’ of the antichrist; now we need to understand how historical events can be ‘types’ of future events. The destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar is a type of the desecration of the Temple by Antiochus, and both combine to provide a type of the destruction and desecration of Jerusalem and its Temple by the Romans. All three events reflect the Levitical warning of God’s judgement upon his faithless people, and all three look forward to God’s judgement on those who, though within the visible church, apostasise because they do not believe and love the truth (2 Thess. 2.10-12). Just as the flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra are types of God’s coming judgement on a rebellious world, so are the successive destructions of Jerusalem types of his judgement on a rebellious church. Jesus’ ‘synoptic apocalypse’ is bi-focal, folding together details of the siege of Jerusalem and of the end-times which it was to foreshadow.

I will conclude this lengthy study with a short poem, a pithy and pointed comment on God’s repeated warnings to his people, and the threefold destruction of their city, God’s city, Jerusalem. The poem is by Steve Turner, and appeared in Crusade magazine in March 1980:

History repeats itself;
Has to:
No one listens.

Next->the mystery of the resurrection body