I recently commented on a Facebook post in a Christian theological group. The poster was asking about the identity of the restrainer in 2 Thessalonians 2 and whether it was the Holy Spirit, the church, an angelic force or something similar. I commented that for over 30 years I have believed that the restrainer is something evil not good. My comment was the only one that didn’t identify the restrainer as something positive. Since I hadn’t looked in the past, this time I decided to review some commentaries, including the Ancient Christian Commentary that I have. The church fathers also saw the restrainer in a similar manner as the Holy Spirit or similar with some viewing the retraining force as the government. I did find a solitary comment in a Dallas Theological Seminary commentary that said some people saw the restrainer as satanic or evil but they stated this wasn’t a tenable viewpoint. I will let you decide.
Over the years when I have shared my view with people many said it made sense of the passage. To explain why I believe what I do I will dig into the passage below and you decide if it makes scriptural sense.
1 Now, brethren, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, we ask you, 2 not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as if from us, as though the day of Christ had come. 3 Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, 4 who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God. 5 Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? 6 And now you know what is restraining, that he may be revealed in his own time. 7 For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only He who now restrains will do so until He is taken out of the way. 8 And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His coming. 2 Thessalonians 2:1–8 (NKJV)
This passage is about the end time return of Jesus and gathering of the church to Him. Paul gives the Thessalonians an indicator of when the church would be gathered. The timing is tied to a falling away that happens in conjunction with the man of sin being revealed. Paul is here echoing Jewish thought and Messianic expectations. The teaching in Judaism in Paul’s day was that there would be a great apostasy and an anti-Messiah, a great deceiver, just prior to the Messianic age. Thus, Paul is affirming a belief he was culturally familiar with but applying it to Jesus and the church.
In this passage the temple in verse 4 is a focal point. The Greek word translated as temple is just that, temple. It is the word used to refer to the temple in Jerusalem throughout the gospels. The exception being how Jesus uses the term to refer to His physical body. As we move into the letters in the New Testament the word temple refers to the church, the body of believers both individually and corporately. There is a good deal of teaching in the church that the lawless one/antichrist will take a seat in a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem so many see the temple reference in verse 4 as referring to a physical temple.
There is a problem with this interpretation. When Paul wrote 1 and 2 Thessalonians, some of his earlier letters, along with Galatians, the temple in Jerusalem was still standing (it was destroyed by Rome in 70 AD). Yet consistently Paul referred to the individual believer or corporate church as the temple, not a physical structure in Jerusalem. 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:19, 2 Corinthians 6:16 and Ephesians 2:21 present this view. Jesus uses the same type of language.
18 So the Jews answered and said to Him, “What sign do You show to us, since You do these things?” 19 Jesus answered and said to them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 Then the Jews said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?” 21 But He was speaking of the temple of His body. John 2:18-21 (NKJV)
Paul is consistent in using the term temple to refer to the church (individually or corporately) but those who believe Paul was referring to a physical structure in 2 Thessalonians 2 would have us believe Paul suddenly changed his use of the term. That approach violates the context. If we think of the temple as the church then we can make sense of Paul’s reference in 2 Thessalonians. First a little history.
In the intertestamental period during the time of the Maccabees, Antiochus IV Epiphanes (his name means God Manifest) a Greek ruler desecrated the temple in Jerusalem by sacrificing a pig on the altar, the abomination of desolation (Daniel 11:31, Matthew 24:15). Matthew 24 deals with tribulation and persecution which Jesus referenced as future. The one referenced by Daniel with Antiochus was the template.
Now back to Thessalonians. Expecting a rebuilt temple and someone sitting in it claiming to be God or the Messiah is one option. Another option is that this scenario plays out in the church, His temple in this age. For someone to take on that role would require great deception within the church, the working of darkness. However, we wouldn’t expect someone to stand up in the church and declare, “I am the man of lawlessness, please follow me!” People within the church would need to be deceived to follow someone like that. This leads us to the restrainer or restraining force.
In Greek restrains and restraining are the same word, katecho. The word means to hold back, hinder or prevent. Revealed is apokalupto, meaning to reveal, uncover or disclose. A very literal meaning is to ‘take off the cover.’ Applying this think of the man of lawlessness working undercover, being hidden and then revealed when the cover is taken off. Think of the restrainer as the cover, hiding what is taking place. For decades I have looked at this passage as describing the work of a demonic principality or principalities covering up or hiding the work of the lawless one in the church and preventing many of us from seeing what is really happening. I have seen the ‘restrainer’ as restraining us from seeing the truth rather than preventing the work of evil. After all the theme of 2 Thessalonians 2 is Paul warning about the danger of being deceived.
We have historical examples. In the early decades of Protestantism and the ongoing conflicts with Roman Catholicism this is exactly what was described. Protestants leaders saw the Pope or Papacy as the false Christ leading a deceived church. Much of the ‘rift’ between Catholicism and Protestantism was repaired in the 20th century with Vatican II and the Charismatic movement spilling across conflicting church boundaries. Without regard to what we may think of the issue I share it to highlight a pattern. There have been many movements in church history where movement A has viewed movement B as heretical and vice versa.
A current example is ‘progressive Christianity,’ which denies most of the basic tenets of Christianity but claims that it is Christian. Those who have embraced the movement have ‘fallen away’ from basic scriptural truth. We walk in wisdom by exercising discernment. As noted in an earlier post, for decades I have defined discernment as ‘seeing the reality that lies behind appearances.’ Discernment is what is needed to apply what Paul taught in 2 Thessalonians.
In 2 Corinthians 2:11 Paul spoke of not being ignorant of Satan’s devices and in 11:14 spoke of Satan transforming himself into an angel of light, not looking like the darkness he actually represents. I see this pattern in church history, Satan actively working in the church and his work being hidden from many. In operating this way he is sitting in the temple of God mocking God by deceiving His people. Just like Antiochus mocked by sacrificing a pig, something unclean, on the altar in the temple. Movements like ‘progressive Christianity’ mock God by working in His church to affirm what He denies and deny what He affirms.
Whenever Satan’s work is revealed, our eyes are no longer restrained from seeing how he is deceiving us. So, let us exercise discernment and in intercession ask the Father to open our eyes so that in His church we see the reality that lies behind appearances and love the truth and take pleasure in it (2 Thessalonians 2:10-12). This is our protection in these times.