PMT 2013-044 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
This is my fourth and final installment (for the time being!) on Paul’s Man of Lawlessness. Though it is a difficult passage, it serves as a foundation stone to peculiar dispensational beliefs involving the rebuilt temple and the re-institution of animal sacrifices. I have been showing, however, that this passage is dealing with first century concerns, not last century ones. We will see this further in today’s installment.
The Restrainer at Work
In 2Th. 2:7 we read: “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.” When Paul writes 2 Thessalonians 2, he is under the reign of Claudius Caesar. In this statement he even seems to employ a word play on Claudius’ name. Let’s see how this is so.
The Latin word for “restraint” is claudere, which is similar to “Claudius.” 1 Interestingly, Paul shifts between the neuter and masculine forms of “the restrainer” (2Th 2:6, 7). This may indicate he includes both the imperial law and the present emperor when referring to the “restrainer.” While Claudius lives, Nero, the man of lawlessness, is powerless to commit political lawlessness. Christianity is free from the imperial sword until the Neronic persecution begins.
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Remarkably, imperial law keeps the Jews so in check that they do not kill James the Just in Jerusalem until about AD 62, after the death of the Roman procurator Festus and before Albinus arrives (Josephus, Ant. 20:9:1). So then, with these events the “mystery of lawlessness” is being uncovered as the “revelation of the man of lawlessness” occurs. That is, we are witnessing Paul’s anticipation of the transformation of the Roman imperial line into a persecuting power in the person of Nero.
The evil “mystery of lawlessness” is “already working,” though restrained in Claudius’ day (2Th 2:7). This perhaps refers to the evil conniving and plotting of Nero’s mother, Agrippina, who famously poisons Claudius so that Nero can ascend to the purple (Tacitus, Annals 12:62ff; Suetonius, Claudius 44).
He exalts himself
The Roman emperor, according to Paul, “exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped” (2Th 2:4a). Apparently Paul is highlighting the fact that Nero intends or desires to present himself as God. We can see the evil potential of emperor worship just a few years before, when the emperor Caligula (a.k.a. Gaius) attempts to put his image in the temple in Jerusalem (Josephus, Ant. 18:8:2–3; Philo, Embassy to Gaius). Philo tells us that “so great was the caprice of Caius [Caligula] in his conduct toward all, and especially toward the nation of the Jews. The latter he so bitterly hated that he appropriated to himself their places of worship in the other cities, and beginning with Alexandria he filled them with images and statues of himself.” 2
But Caligula is not Nero. So how can Nero be the Man of Lawlessness of whom Paul states: “so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God.” He never did such a thing. To resolve this potential problem we need to understand Paul’s phrasing here. When an infinitive such as kathisai (“to sit”) follows the consecutive particle h ste (“so that”), it indicates a purpose intended, not necessarily a purpose accomplished. We see this operating in a clear case in Lk 4:29. There the Jews led Jesus to a hill “so as to cast him down (hoste katakremnisai auton).” 3 The angry Jews intended to cast Jesus down the hill, “but passing through their midst, He went His way” (Lk 4:30).
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The future emperor Titus, for all intents and purposes, accomplishes this enormity, when he concludes the temple’s destruction set in motion by Nero. Titus actually invades the temple in AD 70, with the following result: “And now the Romans . . . brought their ensigns to the temple, and set them over against its eastern gate; and there did they offer sacrifices to them, and there did they make Titus imperator, with the greatest acclamations of joy” (Josephus, J.W. 6:6:1). This parallels Matthew 24:15 and functions as Paul’s abomination of desolation, which occurs in “this generation” (Mt 24:34).
Not only so but in Nero the imperial line eventually openly “opposed” (2Th 2:4) Christ by persecuting his followers. Nero even begins persecuting Christians, when he presents himself in a chariot as the sun god Apollo, while burning Christians in order to illuminate his self-glorifying party: “their death was aggravated with mockeries, insomuch that, wrapped in the hides of wild beasts, they were torn to pieces by dogs, or fastened to crosses to be set on fire, that when the darkness fell they might be burned to illuminate the night” (Ann. 15:44).4
Destroyed at the bright coming
Second Thessalonians 2:8–9 reads: “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. The coming of the lawless one is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders.” 5 The lawless one is eventually openly revealed. The mystery form of his character gives way to a revelation of his lawlessness in Nero’s wicked acts. This occurs after the restrainer [Claudius] is “taken out of the way,” allowing Nero the public stage upon which he can act out his horrendous lawlessness.
In Christ’s judgment-coming against Jerusalem, we also discover judgment for the man of lawlessness, Nero. Thus, Christians may take comfort in the promised relief from both Jewish and Neronic opposition (2Th 2:15–17). Not only does Titus destroy Jerusalem within twenty years, but Nero himself dies a violent death in the midst of the Jewish War (June 9, AD 68). His death, then, will occur in the Day of the Lord in conjunction with Christ’s judgment-coming against Israel. Christ destroys Nero with “the breath of his mouth,” much like Assyria is destroyed with the coming and breath of the Lord in the Old Testament (Isa 30:27–31) and like Israel is crushed by Babylon (Mic 1:3–5).
- F. F. Bruce, New Testament History, 310.
- Philo, Embassy to Gauis, 43, as cited by Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2:6:2.
- E. W. Best, First and Second Thessalonians, 286–290. Dana and Mantey, A Manual Grammar, 214.
- Gentry, Before Jerusalem Fell, 279–284.
- Such imperial arrogance would produce alleged miracles as confirmation. Vespasian is called “the miracle worker, because by him “many miracles occurred.” Tacitus, Histories 4:81; Suetonius, Vespasian 7.