The language Paul uses for the Rebel is borrowed from Daniel’s description of Antiochus Epiphanes and Eze 28:2.
Eze 28:2 condemns the king of Tyre for claiming to be god.
The desecration of the Temple by Antiochus Epiphanes, who ruled over Judea as a consequence of Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Medo-Persian Empire, is well known and described in the apocryphal book 1 Maccabees (a surprisingly good read).
He attempted to exterminate Judaism, banning circumcision and taking over the Temple for idolatrous practices, including sacrificing pig flesh on the altar and giving the Temple courts over to ritual prostitution.
This led to a rebellion and the independence of Judea until the Romans conquered Jerusalem in the first century BC.
The Holy Place had been entered by Antiochus in the third century BCE, by Pompey in the first century BCE, and by the Roman emperor Caligula in 41 CE. What cannot be known from our distance is whether in the present passage Paul expected this to happen yet another time, or whether he was simply using well-known “anti-Christ” events to describe the Rebel’s self-deification. More likely it is the latter, since by the time Paul wrote this letter the temple in Jerusalem no longer held any importance to him, except in a symbolic way to remind others of God’s past presence with his people.
Gordon D. Fee, The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009), 283–284.
(The story of Caligula being thwarted by the Jews is a great story of passive resistance to a God-less government.)
Fitting history and scripture together
Here I part company with Fee (but with the greatest of respect for his work). I’m not sure that Paul would agree that the Temple no longer held meaning for him. He knew, as an apostle and from Jesus’ own prophecies, that the Temple would be destroyed, but it was still God’s Temple when Paul wrote this letter — and Paul would not have counted it as meaningless by any means. However, he would have seen it as necessarily falling before the Second Coming because Jesus had said (as reported in Matt 24) that the Temple would be destroyed before Judgment Day. So it would make perfect sense for Paul to be speaking of the Destruction of Jerusalem.
After all, there is an obvious timing problem here. Caligula’s entry into the Temple clearly predates Paul’s letter. The Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, about 15 years later, and has not been rebuilt. At the Second Coming, there will be no physical temple, as the New Jerusalem will descend to earth and —
(Rev. 21:22 ESV) 22 And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.
So the only times when the Temple could be desecrated by the Rebel would be before its destruction in 70 AD or sometime in the future when the Jews rebuild their Temple — which is presently quite impossible but who knows what happens in the future.
But in my opinion, a future physical Temple is very unlikely because God’s dealings with the Temple always speak to his pleasure with the Jews. That is, the destructions of the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar and Titus both indicated God’s severe displeasure with the Jews. Allowing the Temple to be rebuilt would mean that God is no longer displeased. And this would seem to imply that the Jews come to faith in Jesus — which is entirely possible and may even be prophesied depending on how you read any number of OT prophecies and Rom 11. But if they’ve come to believe in Jesus, what would a physical temple do? What would be the point? Jesus is clearly the Temple — and he has no need of a physical structure.
Many American Christians conclude that this means the Temple will be rebuilt, the sacrificial service will be reinstituted, and this will be a major step toward the Second Coming — all of which contradicts Paul’s statement in 1 Thess that Jesus’s return will be like a thief in the night — a surprise.
Jesus’ prophecies regarding the destruction of the Temple also refer to the desecration of the Temple by Antiochus Epiphanes — as a sign that it’s time for the Christians to leave Jerusalem. Therefore, it’s tempting to connect Paul’s prophecy with Jesus’ prophecy — although this produces its own difficulties.
If we take the leader of the Jewish rebellion as the Rebel (appropriate terminology for a letter written largely to Gentiles), maybe it’ll all come together.
According to Livius.org,
Besides the Zealots of Eleaser son of Simon and the private army of John of Gischala, a new leader had come to power, Simon bar Giora (“son of the proselyte”?). He was supported by men from Idumea [Edom], the southern part of Judaea that the Romans had reconquered only recently. John and Simon had different agendas. The first strove only for political freedom and minted silver coins with the legend “Freedom of Zion”. Simon, on the other hand, stood at the head of a messianic movement; his copper coins have the legend “Redemption of Zion”.
The story of Simon bar Giora is fascinating — and he claimed to be the Messiah and king of the Jews. While others contended for the rule over the Jews, by the end of the war, Simon was clearly the leader of the rebels. So I’m thinking that Simon is the Son of Destruction/ Man of Lawlessness. Indeed, he was brutal, merciless, egotistical leader who rose to power on sheer arrogance and chutzpah and ultimately led the Jews to their own destruction.