Let’s work through the text to see how it fits to equate the Rebel with Simon bar Giora, the leader of the Jewish rebels against Rome —
(2 Thess. 2:3-4 ESV) 3 Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first
If I’m right, the “rebellion” is the rebellion of the Jews in AD 66-70. “Rebellion” is the natural — even literal — word for Paul to use.
As shown by N. T. Wright in Jesus and the Victory of God, Jesus prophesied during his ministry in a failed effort to warn the Jews against just such a rebellion. Therefore, this was both rebellion against God and Rome. And Paul would have seen it especially as rebellion against God since Jesus himself had begged his people not to do this.
and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction
Jesus uses “lawlessness” in Matt 24 to speak of the fall of Jerusalem —
(Matt. 24:11-12 ESV) 11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12 And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.
And Jesus uses “son of destruction” to refer to Judas —
(Jn. 17:12 ESV) 12 While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled.
Whether this is an intentional reference or a coincidence is hard to say — but Paul is plainly using extreme language to paint this individual as opposed to Jesus.
For reasons we’ll get to, I think Simon bar Giora, the leader of the Jews in their rebellion, is the best candidate.
4 who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God
Again, you have to think like Paul. If you were to ask Paul: who is exalted against every so-called god or object of worship, what would his answer be? Plainly, the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. This is Paul’s understanding of Messiahship. Therefore, when Simon bar Giora named himself the Messiah, this is the claim he made — according to Paul and, in fact, according to the Scriptures.
Did he take his seat in the Temple? Indeed, according to Livius.org,
[W]hen Titus’ men had taken [the palace], the last defenders managed to hide themselves in the sewer system. John was among them, and was among the first to surrender. Simon remained in hiding for some time, but finally made a dramatic appearance on the place where the Temple had stood, dressed in a white priestly tunic and his royal, purple mantle.
He could have stood at the grounds of the palace, where the king of Jews lived, but he preferred to stand on the site of the Temple, the house of the Lord.
[S]imilarly Simon Bar-Giora (War 4.503–44, etc.) about A.D. 69 gained the obedience of his fellow citizens ‘as to a king’ (510). Such language in a Jewish context suggests messianic pretensions.
R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2002), 528.
So there’s a legitimate case to be made. Now let’s test it against the rest of the passage.
(2 Thess. 2:5-7 ESV) 5 Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? 6 And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. 7 For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way.
The Jewish rebellion had been fomenting since the time of Jesus and was gaining considerable momentum by the time Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians. Why not rebel now? Why doesn’t Rome move on Jerusalem — a city increasingly filled with Zealots and talk of rebellion — now? Because God is in control of the timing, and Jesus said the destruction would occur within the present generation (40 years). Why delay? Surely to give the Jews time to repent of their rebellion (Matt 23:36; 24:34).
Notice that Paul doesn’t say that the “man of lawlessness” is already at work. He referred to the “mystery of lawlessness.” Bar Giora was not yet involved in the planning to rebel. But the lawlessness itself was already growing strong among the Jews of Judea.
A “mystery” is a truth that is not yet revealed.
The term “mystery” is almost always used in the New Testament in speaking of truths which are hidden to people generally but which are made known to Christians.
Paul Ellingworth and Eugene Albert Nida, A Handbook on Paul’s Letters to the Thessalonians, UBS Handbook Series, (New York: United Bible Societies, 1976), 170.
The Christians in Jerusalem understood Matt 24 as a warning to flee Jerusalem before the Romans surrounded it — and they did, sparing their lives. The unbelieving Jews remained and were trapped behind a siege wall the Romans built around the city — so that they all died (500 a day by crucifixion!) or were sold into slavery.
(2 Thess. 2:8 ESV) 8 And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming.
In the earlier posts on Matt 24, we saw that Jesus himself described the destruction of Jerusalem as a parousia — coming — by Jesus (Matt 24:30). It’s not the Second Coming, but it was Jesus himself bringing God’s wrath on God’s people, the Jews, for their rebellion — just as was true when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple centuries earlier. God says he used Nebuchadnezzar as instruments of his wrath. The same was true in 70 A.D.
Simon ben Giora was killed by the Romans shortly after the rebellion, as part of their victory parade in Rome. Rome is thus “breath of [Jesus’] mouth.” This language is borrowed from Isa 11:4.
(Isa. 11:1-4 ESV) There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. 2 And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. 3 And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, 4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
So the meek and poor prevail, while the rest shall be killed. And thus the Christians, too meek to rebel against Rome, are saved from Roman destruction, while the rest died or were enslaved.
(2 Thess. 2:9-10 ESV) 9 The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, 10 and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.
A star resembling a sword
A bright light shining around the altar and the temple
A vision of chariots and soldiers running around among the clouds and all cities of Palestine.
Earthly phenomena (reported by priests)
A great noise
The sounds of a great multitude saying, “Let us remove hence.”
“Those who are perishing because they rejected the gospel” are, of course, the Jews who rebelled.
(2 Thess. 2:11-12 ESV) 11 Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, 12 in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
This is a hard lesson, but one repeatedly taught in the OT and NT. God wishes the line between belief and unbelief to be clear. He wants no middle ground. And so we see here, as in Rom 1, for example, that God pushes those who reject him to make their rebellion clear. This is especially true in Rom 11, speaking of the Jews’ rejection of Jesus —
(Rom. 11:5-11 ESV) 5 So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. 6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. 7 What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, 8 as it is written, “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day.” 9 And David says, “Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them; 10 let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and bend their backs forever.” 11 So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather, through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous.
Again, this is one very difficult lesson, but it’s entirely consistent with Paul’s lesson in 2 Thess 2. Just remember: (1) God urgently wanted the Jews to repent, even sending Jesus to them to urge a change in heart, and (2) the Jews rejected God (by rejecting Jesus) before God sent them a “strong delusion.” And they were repeatedly warned. Indeed, as shown by Wright in Jesus and the Victory of God, much more of the NT is about giving this very warning than we normally assume.