June 22, 2021
While there are many tricky verses in the Bible, it’s clear that some of them were never intended to give us so much trouble. Paul’s mysterious mention of the “restrainer” in 2 Thessalonians 2 is a perfect example, but perhaps we have been looking at it the wrong way.

Reading somebody else’s mail is impolite if not illegal. But if the letters are fifty, a hundred, or over a thousand years old, it is a very different sort of spying.

One of the biggest problems we have when reading the Bible is our habit of forgetting that although it was written for us, it wasn’t written to us. As a result, we are prone to taking things out of context. When we assume that the things we read apply directly to us, we can misinterpret them, and if we misinterpret them, we also misapply them. If we want to apply the Bible to ourselves, we must interpret it properly first.

This relates to one of the best developments in theology over the past few decades, which is a renewed desire to understand the New Testament in its first-century context. When we read the gospels and the letters to the churches (which include the seven letters in Revelation), before we come to any conclusions we must first ask who it was written to, and why it needed to be written. A better understanding of the context can put a different spin on our interpretation. Sometimes it can even change it entirely.

A letter is always written with a specific audience in mind, so the author assumes that some things are common knowledge between author and reader. In other words, not everything is spelled out. Although these ancient documents were not written to us, they were still preserved by God for the saints of all eras, so they were intended to be understood, even if this takes a little spadework. God gives us enough clues in other Scriptures to figure out the tricky parts.

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 exposed, the son of destruction, 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. Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. 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. 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. (2 Thessalonians 2:5-8)

Paul was writing to Christians in Thessalonica who were afraid that Jesus had already returned and they had somehow missed it. If we look with fresh eyes at what he says to them, we should notice that if they were thinking about the return of Jesus in the way that we do, Paul does not reply in the way that we might expect. He doesn’t scold them for being so stupid as to ask whether they had inadvertently overlooked the end of the world! Nor does he tell them that they are being ridiculous because it was an event that was still thousands of years away.

It is clear that both Paul and the Thessalonians had in mind something that was imminent—“COMING SOON”—and that could have happened already without them knowing. So, Paul simply tells them about certain events that had to occur first, things that they themselves would be able to watch out for.

This is where we must remember that we are reading somebody else’s mail. Paul does not mention these things in a way that implies that all readers in all ages should watch out for them.

So, there are two questions for us. Firstly, why was it necessary that these events must occur before Jesus came again in judgment? Secondly, what was the “mystery of lawlessness” that was already at work, and how did it relate to these first-century Christians?

The answer to these questions is quite obvious once it is pointed out, but the main reason the passage has caused so much contention is the way in which it has been translated. I suspect that the translation would have been different if the translators had perceived what Paul was actually saying.

Who is the restrainer?

The issue hinges upon two words. The first is “restrain” and the second is “reveal.”

Restraint is an important concept in the Old Testament. It is the job of a righteous ruler to restrain evil, even though evil will never be completely destroyed this side of the final judgment.

When Samuel saw Saul, the Lord told him, “Here is the man of whom I spoke to you! He it is who shall restrain my people.”  (1 Samuel 9:17)

The role of the Church is to deal with the sinful human heart. When that fails, and the sin is not nipped in the bud through self-examination, sins can grow into crimes. That is where the role of the State begins. The priest must deal with evil in the “Garden” and the king is called to deal with evil in the “Land.”

While kings must show mercy, justice must be done in cases where there is no repentance. In this way, they represent God, who is patient with sinners but will not wait forever.

God restrained or “held back” the plague (Numbers 16:48-50, 25:8, 2 Samuel 24:21-25, Psalm 106:30) but sometimes He restrained good things, holding back His blessings (such as the fruit of the land and the fruit of the womb, as He did in Genesis 3) in order to discipline His people as a father disciplines his sons (Genesis 16:2; 20:18; Isaiah 66:9; Deuteronomy 11:17; 1 Kings 8:35; 2 Chronicles 6:26; 7:13; Job 12:15).

But Paul uses a word that he also used in Romans 1, where it is translated as suppress.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (Romans 1:16)

The word “reveal” is the same word used in the title of the book of Revelation, so the translation is not incorrect. But the word also means to uncover or expose, so in Revelation it has a double meaning related to the reason for the prophecy: it serves as a two-edged sword, bringing blessings upon the faithful and curses upon the wicked. Jesus, who was exposed naked on the cross, suffering for all the sons of Adam as the Son of Man, would soon be revealed from heaven to expose God’s enemies. All the good things done in secret would be rewarded openly (Matthew 6:1-6), and all the bad things done in secret would be news headlines.

“Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.” (Luke 12:2-3)

In other words, the coming judgment would remove all of the veils, all the disguises, open all the closed doors, and reveal the true nature of everyone and everything. The godly who had been slandered would be cleared of blame, and the hypocrites who slandered them would be shamed and blamed.

If this man was not the one being restrained but the one doing the restraining, then Paul is calming their fears by telling them that the end could not come until the “Garden” sins became “Land” crimes. In that case, they would likely read him as saying,

“And you know what is suppressing now so that he may be exposed in his time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now suppresses will do so until he is out of the way. And then that lawless one will be exposed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming.”

If we take the historial context into account, we see that Paul is also showing them how God would expose the conspiracy.

As part of God’s legal case against the rulers of Jerusalem, the apostles’ prophetic testimony was something that those rulers continually tried to silence.

Firstly, they tried persecution, beginning with the stoning of Stephen under the pretense that he had broken the Law of Moses by blaspheming God. But that tactic scattered the disciples from Jerusalem and spread the Gospel even more widely.

Secondly, they then tried the more subtle strategy of false teaching under men who “came in unnoticed” (Jude 1:4). That is why most of the New Testament letters condemn false teachers, and why Hebrews warns Jewish Christians against returning to Judaism, which would soon see its obsolete ministry terminated.

Thirdly, Paul follows up his condemnation of the lawless man with a commendation of the steadfastness of these saints as legal witnesses for Christ. Not only would Christians not be deceived by the mass delusion that was coming, but their own truth-telling would expose this satanic lie (2 Thessalonians 2:11-15; Ephesians 5:11).

In context, the lawless man was a reference to the Herods, those who had stolen God’s throne in the Sanctuary of the Temple in the way that Adam stole God’s authority in the Garden of Eden. The phrase “man of lawlessness” describes an “Adam” who sat in the seat of Moses (like the Pharisees) as a judge and yet considered himself to be above the Law, committing murder and adultery. These sins are worthy of the death penalty under the Law, and have always been sins that rulers of the world easily fall into—even King David.

Worse than this, the Herods considered their own words to be the voice of God, as we learn from God’s judgment of Herod Agrippa after he had James the brother of John executed, an act that pleased the Jews because it silenced the Gospel.

On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last. But the word of God increased and multiplied. (Acts 12:21-24)

The event that immediately preceded Jesus’ coming in judgment with a two-edged sword in His mouth against the kings of the land would be the exposure and removal of the Herods and their Temple. Although the Romans ended up as co-conspirators, the main enemies of the Gospel were the Jewish rulers and those who sided with them. The Gospel would be suppressed until the one doing the suppressing was taken out of the way.

The imminent trouble would be a repeat of the events in Acts 12, but on a much grander scale. The first judgment was a sign of the latter. But the lie that made it possible this time was also more elaborate. The “falling away” from the truth was all based on the promotion of the idea that Jesus had been a false prophet.

If the apostles could not be silenced, at least they could be discredited. After all, Jesus had predicted that the Temple would be destroyed and yet, here it was, not only still standing but also nearing its glorious completion. Character assassination of God was precisely the tactic used by the serpent in Genesis 3.

To avoid exposure, successful propagandists release a cloud of squid ink, accusing their enemies of the things which they themselves are doing. As the “Church” rulers of Jerusalem, the Pharisees despised the prostitutes and tax collectors instead of inviting them to repent and shelter under God’s mercy; but the “State” of Jerusalem, under the dynasty of the Herods, would soon be exposed as a corporate prostitute and tax collector, a woman in priestly robes who was “in bed” with Rome in order to maintain its local power. The birth of Jesus was rightly seen by Herod the Great as a threat to his rule. That threat was now full grown in the “birth” of the Christian Church and its message: salvation no longer depended upon animal sacrifices and all believers were now part of the true priesthood.

We know from the information wars of the modern era that suppressing the truth while pushing propaganda can be more effective than outright conflict. But without printing presses or the internet, the only way to suppress the truth is to starve its messengers of resources. Satan did that by co-opting the Roman state against Christians under Emperor Nero. This “friendship” against Jesus, like the one forged between Herod and Pilate over the execution of Jesus, not only gave the conspiracy away, but also led to the Herods’ downfall.

Sheep and goats

It also helps us to understand the end of Matthew 25, a prophecy that describes Jesus separating the nations as sheep and goats. Many see this passage as an exhortation to care for the poor and the oppressed, but it is actually a judgment of the Gentiles after the first-century judgment of the Jews. It is not about individuals but nations, that is, principalities and powers. The suffering of the saints exposed and shamed the rulers in the same way that Jesus did (Ephesians 6:12; Colossians 2:15).

The word “nations” is the same word as “Gentiles.” The clue to the meaning of the passage is found earlier in Matthew, when Jesus first sends out His disciples to the houses of the nation of Israel, commanding them not to go to the Gentiles.

“Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me… And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.” (Matthew 10:40, 42)

That water for the thirsty appears again in Matthew 25, so Jesus is saying that all those rulers who refused to help Jesus’ messengers were on the wrong side of history. What they did was the equivalent of blacklisting or “cancel culture.” The Christians who were expelled from the Temple and the synagogues, no longer permitted to exchange their money for Temple shekels in the “Garden,” would also be unable to buy or sell in the “Land” (Revelation 13:17).

As the true Son of God and Son of Man, Jesus would come to the “Garden” of the Temple in Jerusalem in the same way that God came to the Garden of Eden to inspect Adam for spiritual fruit. He came in “the wind of the day,” and the word “wind” also means “spirit” and “breath.” This explains why Paul describes Jesus as coming with the breath of His mouth and John sees it as the flaming sword of Eden.

Jesus gave up His “breath” on the cross and sent His “breath” to the saints on the Day of Pentecost, but the false “god-man” would have his breath taken away.

It is significant that although the Herods were destroyed, Judaism remains. God later also exposed the murderous corruption of the Roman Catholic Church. Yet both Judaism and Roman Catholicism remain. The reason is that God can use all forms of rule as means of restraining evil—even Islam. But it also shows us that God, in His mercy, can avoid destroying the wicked by exposing them first, giving them a chance to repent, just as He did with Adam and Eve, and with Israel. Those whom God spares also serve as “memorial pillars” in history—like Lot’s wife—a warning to us so that we might not repeat their errors.

Michael Bull is a graphic designer in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney in Australia, and author, most recently, of Schema, A Journal of Systematic Typology, Vol. 5. He blogs at Bible Matrix.

This is article is reproduced from Theo magazine.

Image: James Tissot, Hérode

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