Who Is the Man of Lawlessness? (2 Thessalonians 2)

This article is part of the Tough Passages series.

3Let 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,4who 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.5Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things?6And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time.7For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way.8And 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.9The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders,10and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.
—2 Thessalonians 2:3–10

Those Opposed to the Gospel

Paul does not appear to know the precise circumstances that have brought about the Thessalonians’ erroneous beliefs about the day of the Lord, but in verse 3 he does suspect nefarious activity. Paul labels any teaching opposed to the eschatological message of his gospel as an effort at deception (cf. 2 Thess. 2:10; Eph. 5:6; Col. 2:8). He then reasons that the day of the Lord has not yet begun, since the world has not yet experienced the “rebellion” and the “man of lawlessness,” both of which must precede the day of the Lord.

The Greek word for “rebellion” (apostasia) occurs in the Septuagint OT and in the NT to speak of rebellion against God and his law (Josh. 22:22; 2 Chron. 29:19; Jer. 2:19; Acts 21:21). When the disciples asked Jesus about the signs and timing of his second coming, Jesus responded that false messiahs and prophets would precede his return, as would tribulation against the church (Matt. 24:4–13, 23–28; Mark 13:5–13, 21–23; Luke 21:8–19). Paul teaches elsewhere that the rise of “deceitful spirits and teachings of demons” and also “times of difficulty” will be indicative of the last days (1 Tim. 4:1; 2 Tim. 3:1; cf. 2 Pet. 3:3–7; Jude 17–19). As in 1 Thessalonians, Paul’s instruction on such matters is likely informed by Jesus’ own eschatological teaching (cf. comments on 1 Thess. 4:15–16; 5:1).

In a similar way, Jesus taught that one of the signs prior to his return would be the advent of the “abomination of desolation” in the “holy place” of the temple (Matt. 24:15; Mark 13:14). Jesus cites the teaching of Daniel, who prophesied that this abomination would profane the Jerusalem temple (Dan. 9:27; 11:31; 12:11). Paul draws on this tradition as he discusses the “man of lawlessness,” who is the “son of destruction” in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 and the “lawless one” in 2 Thess. 2:8–9. The Septuagint Greek translation of Isaiah 57:3–4 similarly speaks of the “sons of lawlessness” who are “children of destruction” (cf. John 17:12) and the “seed of lawlessness” (cf. also Ps. 88:23 LXX [English 89:22]). Following a common Semitic idiom, a “man of lawlessness” would refer to a person whose life is characterized by his opposition to God’s rule and reign.

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ESV Expository Commentary

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Further descriptors are applied to this lawless one. He will be “revealed” (Gk. apokalyptō; also 2 Thess. 2:6, 8), employing terminology Paul reserves most often for the activity of God in making known something hidden (e.g., Rom. 1:17–18; 8:18; Eph. 3:5). The passive voice in verse 3 of “is revealed” makes it difficult to discern whether God is the one doing the revealing or if this is the work of an evil agent (such as Satan; cf. comment on 2 Thess. 2:9–10).

The man of lawlessness both opposes and exalts himself over every “so-called god or object of worship.” Paul elsewhere employs the Greek word for “opposes” as a title for Satan, the “adversary” (1 Tim. 5:14). The only other use of the Greek word for “exalts himself” (hyperairō) in Paul bears connotations of conceit (2 Cor. 12:7), as it likely does here. Paul is careful to say “every so-called god,” indicating the false deities of pagan worship. The term for “object of worship” (Gk. sebasma) refers to pagan idols (cf. Acts 17:23). This man of lawlessness seeks to make himself the central person of worship, beyond any other religious objects or personages in his day.

Beyond that, the man of lawlessness exalts himself over the very worship of God Almighty. The lawless one’s efforts to receive worship result in his taking “his seat in the temple of God.” Commentators debate which temple is envisioned here, with most opting for the Jerusalem temple, though others suggest the Thessalonians would imagine an important temple in their city, and still others argue the temple is a reference to the church as the “temple of God” (e.g., 1 Cor. 3:16–17; 6:19; 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:21). However, Paul’s reliance in this context on OT imagery and Jesus’ eschatological instruction implies that “temple of God” refers to the Jerusalem temple. This connects well with the lawless one’s action in the temple—“proclaiming himself to be God.” The man of lawlessness promotes himself in place of God Almighty as the central deity to be worshiped. That still leaves open the question of whether a future physical temple will be in play or if this is prophetically symbolic of some other coming reality (cf. more below).

Paul here draws on OT Danielic imagery concerning a ruler opposed to God and his people (cf. Dan. 7:24–27; 8:23–26; 11:20–45; esp. 11:28–39). The Danielic background is particularly striking in comparison to the man of lawlessness in verse 4. We read in Daniel of a king who “shall exalt himself and magnify himself above every god, and shall speak astonishing things against the God of gods,” and “shall not pay attention to any other god, for he shall magnify himself above all” (Dan. 11:36–37). In Daniel it is this king who sets up the “abomination that makes desolate” in Jerusalem (Dan. 11:31). Other prophets also speak of rulers calling themselves god (e.g., Isa. 14:12–15; Ezek. 28:1–10).

The central interpretive debate in these two verses concerns the identity of this man of lawlessness. In response to this complex question, we should distinguish between what we can know with some certainty and what we can only suspect.

Two key historical events are known. First, Daniel’s prophetic imagery points to Antiochus IV of Seleucia, who styled himself Epiphanes (“god manifest”), invaded Jerusalem, despoiled the temple, commanded the burning of the Scriptures, forbade the covenant rite of circumcision, put to death many faithful Jews, and ultimately instituted pagan sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple (167 BC). Remarkably, a major Jewish literary source from the period appeals to Danielic language by labeling the pagan altar Antiochus set up in the temple as the abomination of desolation (1 Macc. 1:54; 6:7). The resulting Maccabean revolt eventually led to Jewish priests and kings again being in control in Jerusalem. Yet, nearly two hundred years later, Jesus applies the “abomination of desolation” language to the future (Matt. 24:15; Mark 13:14), revealing that the Danielic imagery establishes a pattern of opposition to God’s rule preceding the eschatological judgment of God. Paul draws on Jesus’ eschatological instruction by similarly applying this Danielic imagery to events yet to occur.

Second, before Paul writes 2 Thessalonians, events have already presaged Roman imperial opposition to Jewish worship of God. In particular, the emperor Gaius Caligula ordered soldiers to erect a cult image of himself in the Jerusalem temple, despite widespread Jewish opposition (AD 40–41; Josephus, Antiquities 18.261–309). In God’s providence, however, Gaius died while the image was still en route, so it was never installed. Paul almost certainly knows this history, and it may well be in his mind as he writes. Still, Paul’s argument works only if the man of lawlessness has not yet appeared, since the absence of the lawless one’s arrival proves that the day of the Lord is yet to come.

With that background, we can briefly list various specific interpretations that have been suggested over the years concerning this man of lawlessness. Many have looked to a future, yet unknown, person who will seek to exalt himself in this way. Some have suggested that this lawless one must refer to Satan himself or to one of his demons, but Satan is mentioned later as a separate figure (2 Thess. 2:9). The most natural inference from this text and its Danielic imagery is that a human ruler is intended. Some have suggested that this refers to a nation-state (rather than to a particular individual), with the Roman Empire being the most likely candidate; however, the imagery itself repeatedly points to an individual rather than an entire state. Others have specifically considered his sitting in the temple (2:4) to refer to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple at the hand of Titus (AD 70), but the specifics of that event do not align with an individual’s calling himself God while seated in the temple precincts. Similar objections could be made against any of the subsequent religious shrines built atop the Jerusalem Temple Mount, whether the Hadrianic Temple of Jupiter (built around AD 135) or the current Dome of the Rock (built around 691). This reminds us of another related debate, namely, is a specific physical temple required in order for the prophetic expectation to be satisfied? If so, then many contend this would require a future rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple prior to the advent of the lawless one. Yet others would suggest a more metaphorical understanding of the lawless one’s session in the temple.

This commentator anticipates a yet-future appearing of a human lawless one, whose manifestation amid false signs and prophecies will precede Jesus’ return and final judgment. Whether or not there will be a physical temple in Jerusalem is not yet foreseeable. The more fundamental goal of this commentary on such matters, however, is to encourage humility with regard to all such speculation. God is faithful to his prophetic promises, yet the actual fulfillment of these promises often surprises. In the first advent of our Lord, Jesus’ fulfillment of OT prophecy, while comprehensible and wonderful in hindsight, was not anticipated properly by even the most faithful Jewish students of Scripture. Who in the Judaism of Jesus’ day, having studied OT prophecy thoroughly, would have predicted that the Messiah would be God incarnate? Or that he would come, be crucified, be raised, ascend, and then delay his return to establish his kingdom fully by at least two millennia? Thus, though it seems best to assume that the man of lawlessness is still to be revealed, the specifics of how that might look (including what is meant by his session in the temple) will likely surprise the best of interpreters. Only in hindsight will we understand the full intent of the prophetic word.

Remain Consistent and Confident

Verse five provides further reason to recommend humility to all modern interpreters. Paul remarks, “Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things?” Clearly, the original audience already knew more Pauline eschatological teaching than we presently have. Although Paul and his colleagues were compelled to leave Thessalonica sooner than they wished (Acts 17:10), they were able to begin instructing the Thessalonians concerning the events of Jesus’ return. Paul assumes the Thessalonians recall that instruction. Therefore, Paul often speaks in abbreviated ways about matters that we may wish he had written about in greater detail.

Paul insists that his teaching remains consistent with the message they knew from the beginning. He thus seeks to instill confidence regarding his present argument. In particular, they have previously been informed about the coming of the man of lawlessness.

Who or What Restrains

When Paul declares, “You know what is restraining him now,” we again confront our lack of firsthand knowledge. Paul’s original audience “knew” such matters based on Paul’s prior instruction (2 Thess. 2:5), but we are left to infer as much as we can to the best of our abilities. This is particularly difficult, and one of the most avid debates among modern commentators concerns the question of who or what is restraining the lawless one’s appearance.

Before considering the options, note that verse 6 speaks of some entity (neuter gender in Gk.) that is restraining the lawless one, while verse 7 shifts to the masculine gender, implying that the restrainer is some person (“he who now restrains it”). It seems that some personal entity must cease his restraining action in order for the lawless one to be revealed. This could be metaphorical for a group of people, but it seems likely Paul has a single individual in mind.

Interpreters have considered multiple options for this “restrainer.” Many suggest that God himself restrains such evil, perhaps especially in the person of the Holy Spirit. Others believe Paul has some earthly agents in mind, and perhaps the Roman emperors or the empire itself held back the lawless one in Paul’s day. This is possible, though such postulations often require a metaphorical expansion of “he who now restrains” to indicate an entire nation or a series of emperors rather than a single individual. Some have even suggested that Satan is the one restraining his own lawless agent until the proper moment (cf. 2 Thess. 2:9–10). However, the mention in verse 6 of “in his time” seems to speak more of God’s sovereign timing that governs the removing of restraint. An intriguing recent monograph argues that Paul believed the restrainer to be an angel of God, noting that, in Daniel, the lawless ruler who establishes the abomination of desolation (Dan. 11:20–45) is followed immediately by Daniel’s prophecy that Michael the archangel would “arise,” unleashing a time of trouble prior to the deliverance of God’s people (Dan. 12:1–4).1 With this list of options, it appears most likely that God himself controls the timing and the restraint, holding back the advent of the lawless one until the proper moment. God may then be the restrainer (perhaps specifically as the Holy Spirit) or may act through the agency of an angelic restrainer.

What can be stated clearly is that the appearance of the lawless one is entirely in keeping with God’s sovereignty (cf. comment on 2 Thess. 2:11–12). Therefore, the Thessalonians need not fear that the world is out of control. Rather, the lawless one will appear “in his time” and will be conquered by the Lord Jesus at the proper moment (2 Thess. 2:8).

Already at Work

Although the lawless one is yet to come, “the mystery of lawlessness is already at work.” This is consistent with the concept of evil elsewhere in the NT. John states simultaneously that the “antichrist is coming” and that “now many antichrists have come” (1 John 2:18; cf. 1 John 2:22; 4:3; 2 John 7). Although Paul prophetically anticipates the rise of a particular figure who will embody deceptive opposition to God, he admits readily that the same forces of deception and lawlessness are already prevalent in society. Paul has experienced such evil, as has the persecuted church in Thessalonica.

To the extent that the lawless one comes with “false signs and wonders” and “deception” (2 Thess. 2:9–10), it is helpful to remember that Jesus predicted that many false messiahs and prophets would arise over time but that the church will nevertheless endure and give witness (Matt. 24:4–5, 11–13, 23–25). Thus we live in an age when simultaneously the Spirit enables the church to proceed with its mission and lawlessness is at work.

The verbs Paul applies here to lawlessness is the same as language he uses elsewhere of God and Christ. If in 2:7 lawlessness is “at work” (Gk. energeō; cf. Rom. 7:5; Eph. 2:2), so also the word of God is “at work” in believers (1 Thess. 2:13; cf. Eph. 1:11, 20; 3:20; Phil. 2:13). Similarly, if in 2 Thess. 2:9 the lawless one will “come” (Gk. parousia), so also Jesus “comes” (2 Thess. 2:1, 8; cf. comment on 2 Thess. 2:9). The man of lawlessness will be “revealed” (Gk. apokalyptō; 2:3, 8), just as Paul elsewhere speaks of the revelation of Jesus and his gospel (cf. comment on 2:3–4). Finally, the word “mystery” is here applied to lawlessness (for similar evil mysteries, cf. Rev. 17:5, 7), but elsewhere Paul speaks of God as the author of the mysteries of the gospel (e.g., Rom. 16:25; 1 Cor. 4:1; 15:51; Eph. 3:3–4; Col. 1:26–27; 1 Tim. 3:9, 16). Clearly the lawlessness of Satan seeks to mimic the good work of God in Christ. Yet since God is the one who reveals such mysteries and is sovereign over their timing, it is not surprising to find Paul confident in God’s control over the advent of the mystery of lawlessness (cf. 2 Thess. 2:11–12).

Lawlessness in the present age (“now”) is not yet as bad as it could be. Only when “he who now restrains it” is removed will the lawless one arise (2:7). Various views on this restrainer’s identity were discussed in the preceding verse. Here we note that “until he is out of the way” is an English idiom for the more particular Greek phrase “until he comes from the middle.” The restrainer interposes himself between the people of this age and the fullest expression of evil represented by the lawless one.

Jesus Will Reign

Paul returns to the revelation of the lawless one (cf. comment on 2 Thess. 2:3–4), which will occur subsequent (“then”) to the restrainer’s ceasing his action of holding back such evil. However, lest the Thessalonians become concerned about the power of such evil, Paul quickly assures them that the Lord Jesus will “kill” and “bring to nothing” the lawless one.

Jesus will destroy the lawless one by the “breath of his mouth.” In the OT, God kills with his fiery breath (Job 4:9; cf. Isa. 30:33). Isaiah prophesied that the messianic “shoot from the stump of Jesse” would kill the wicked “with the breath of his lips” (Isa. 11:1, 4). The word “breath” here ( pneuma) is the same word used for the Holy Spirit, so there may be some indication of the Spirit’s involvement. In any case, the OT messianic resonances are clear: the Messiah’s judgment prevails against all lawlessness.

The Thessalonians (and all Christians) need not worry about the approaching time of lawlessness, for Jesus remains Lord, and he will conquer in due time.

Remember Jesus’s Warning

Empowered by Satan, the lawless one will arrive accompanied by false wonders and signs, thus deceiving unbelievers; but even this is under God’s sovereign control (2 Thess. 2:11–12).

Paul again applies to the lawless one and Satan terms typically reserved for God’s activity in Christ. The “coming” (Gk. parousia) of the lawless one in verse 9 is placed immediately alongside the parousia of Jesus (2 Thess. 2:8; cf. also comment on 2 Thess. 2:1), and Satan’s “activity” uses a term often employed for God’s work (energeia; cf. comment on 2 Thess. 2:7). Satan mimics God’s work by causing a lawless one to appear, though ultimately Satan’s designs will fail (cf. 2 Thess. 2:8)

Paul lists two sets of means through which Satan deceives the masses. The first set constitutes “all power,” along with “false signs and wonders”; the second set consists of “all wicked deception.” Concerning the first set, “power” and “signs and wonders” often serve as evidence of God’s work in the gospel of Christ (for “power,” cf. 1 Cor. 2:4–5; 1 Thess. 1:5; 2 Thess. 1:11; for “signs and wonders,” cf. Rom. 15:19; 2 Cor. 12:12). So, Satan continues mimicking the gospel and God’s work. We are again reminded of Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, in which he warns of coming false messiahs and prophets who perform “signs and wonders” in order to lead others astray (Matt. 24:23–25; Mark 13:21–23). Jesus’ teaching has set the pattern for apostolic discussions of eschatology. In this regard, this passage is linked with the portrayal of the beasts and the false prophet in the book of Revelation (Rev. 13:11–18; 16:13–14; 19:19–20).

The man of lawlessness is so convincing to the masses that Paul emphasizes that he appears with “all wicked deception.” However, even amid such deception, Paul carefully records that only “those who are perishing” will be fooled (cf. Rev. 13:8). This word for “perishing” (Gk. apollymi ) refers to those whose destruction awaits them. Paul uses apollymi elsewhere to depict those who reject the gospel of Christ (1 Cor. 1:18; 2 Cor. 2:15; 4:3). Because these followers of lawlessness have failed to love the truth of Christ’s gospel, they are perishing. The Thessalonians need not worry that they may be numbered among those who will be deceived by the man of lawlessness, since they already know and love the truth.

Notes:

  1. Colin R. Nicholl, From Hope to Despair in Thessalonica: Situating 1 and 2 Thessalonians, SNTSMS 126 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), esp. 225–249.

This article is adapted from ESV Expository Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Volume 11) edited Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar.



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