It’s my view, contrary to much Protestant teaching, that in 2 Thessalonians, Paul is speaking of the Destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, not some as-of-yet future war involving a Jerusalem Temple not yet built and a rebellion to happen in the unknown future.
In support of this view, I’d like to suggest some broad points and then we’ll cover the text verse by verse.
- As I argued in an earlier series of posts, Jesus’ prophecy in Matthew 24 deals, first, with the destruction of Jerusalem and, then, with the Second Coming.1 Thessalonians: A Look Back at Matthew 24, Part 1; 1 Thessalonians: A Look Back at Matthew 24, Part 2; 1 Thessalonians: A Look Back at Matthew 24, Part 3. It would make all kinds of good sense for Paul to follow the same outline. While Matthew had not yet been written, Paul’s teaching to his converts surely included much of the material now found in the Gospels.
- I reject the Scofield study Bible dispensational theories in which an elaborate timeline is built from various apocalyptic passages, all leading up to a great war in which God’s armies defeat Satan’s armies with the sword. This is not the gospel, and it wasn’t taught by anyone until the 19th Century or so. Other dispensational theories go back to the early church fathers, but the one made popular in the Left Behind series is only about 150 years old, anti-gospel, and ignores the OT roots of the words of Jesus, Paul, and John.
- Paul expected to be understood, and so we should look for understanding in history, the OT, the Gospels, and the Revelation.
- Although we rarely teach this in Sunday school class or from the pulpit, there’s substantial material in the Gospels and the rest of the NT addressing the coming destruction of Jerusalem. It’s hard to imagine that such a momentous event, which Jesus shed tears over, would not be a significant theme of the NT. But since the destruction of Jerusalem is not recorded in the NT and because we are largely insensitive to the Jewish point of view (which is a bad thing), we don’t see this. If we understood that there are many references to the Destruction of Jerusalem in the NT, we would naturally assume that 2 Thess 2 is about exactly that — and so start with that assumption.
We are blessed that a turncoat Jewish general, Josephus, joined the Roman side of the rebellion and recorded the events in great detail, as an eyewitness. Josephus’s account of the destruction of Jerusalem is a good read and gives us a great deal of background that’s helpful in interpreting these passages.
And we are fortunate that, not long ago, N. T. Wright wrote his monumental Jesus and the Victory of God. Here is a key section —
2. The Coming Great Disaster
We begin with some further words about the message of judgment. The story Jesus told is often thought of as an invitation to experience the joys of the coming salvation, with notes of judgment screened out. … In fact, when we read through the synoptic tradition (and John, for that matter) we find a great deal of warnings of coming judgment, in all strands of the traditions, and all pointing in one direction. Jesus, I shall now argue, predicted that judgment would fall on the nation in general and on Jerusalem in particular.
That is to say, he reinterprets a standard Jewish belief (the coming judgment which would fall on the nations) in terms of a coming judgment which would fall on impenitent Israel. The great prophets had done exactly the same. Jerusalem, under its present regime, had become Babylon.
The evangelists stressed the theme of judgment on present Israel,but they certainly did not invent it. Jesus seems to have adopted the theme from John, who predicted ‘wrath to come’, saying that membership in physical Israel was no guarantee of a share in the age to come. Very much in the mould of Amos, or indeed of Qumran, John insisted on redrawing the boundaries of Israel; for him, only those who repented and submitted to baptism would be included. The story Jesus told about Israel’s immediate future seems to have developed directly from this point.
N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1996), 322–323.
The Son of Destruction
Now, with that in mind, let’s try going verse by verse for a while.
(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, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, 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.
Okay. I confess. I took on this series in part to sort through this passage. I mean, I covered Revelation earlier this year (not that the Revelation can ever be completed covered, you know), and this doesn’t fit — not obviously.
And who on earth is the man of lawlessness/son of destruction? And what is the rebellion (or apostasy) that Paul refers to? And given that the Temple has been utterly destroyed, what does it mean for this personage to sit in the Temple of God?
- “Destruction” refers to the fate of this person (the Rebel).
- “Rebellion” is a better translation than apostasy. The Greek refers to a falling away, but modern Christians tend to use “apostasy” to refer to a doctrinal disagreement — which is not necessarily the point, not that it couldn’t be. The word has a more general meaning —
After all, nothing in the context indicates that believers will be deceived by the “lawless one.” Therefore, this noun, which was rendered “falling away” in the KJV, in more recent English translations has been correctly rendered “rebellion.” In secular Greek, in fact, the word was used to refer to a political or military revolt, not in the sense of “falling away” from a position once held, but of a rebellion against a power or deity to whom one was not committed.
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), 281.
Contrary to much speculation over the years, Fee points out that nothing in this passage predicts a falling away by the saved. Rather —
(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.
— it’s “those who are perishing” who refused the gospel who are deceived. If we didn’t come to this passage assuming some sort of connection with the Revelation, we’d quite naturally take Paul to use “they refused to love the truth and so be saved” to be referring to be unbelieving Jews.
One more point: Nothing in 2 Thess calls this Rebel the Anti-Christ of 1 John or the beast of Revelation 13. It’s sheer presumption to make these claims. I’m not saying that it can’t be true — but we can’t just assume because it sounds so very cool (and it does).