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We ask you, brothers, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling with him, not to be shaken out of your minds suddenly, or to be alarmed either by a "spirit," 2 or by an oral statement, or by a letter allegedly from us to the effect that the day of the Lord is at hand. Let no one deceive you in any way. For unless the apostasy comes first and the lawless one is revealed, 3 the one doomed to perdition. (2 Thes 2:1-3, NABRE)

Here, the epistle appears to contradict Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians, which states that return of Jesus was imminent and that he would come without warning.

It speaks of a sign, the apostasy, and of the lawless one who must come before the return of Jesus. How should these be interpreted?

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    – Dan
    Jan 9 '15 at 17:31
  • Where did Paul state the return of Christ was imminent in 1 Thessalonians? Feb 12 '15 at 5:57
  • @JesusSaves One good reference is verse 4:17: "Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord." Paul ("we") expected to be among those alive when Jesus came. Feb 12 '15 at 6:59
  • Revelations itself ends with the famous words Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus, which are clearly supportive of an imminent return. Nevertheless, this verse is preceded by some twenty-odd chapters worth of prophecies, detailing what exactly is supposed to happen before the aforementioned imminent return actually occurs. The same goes for Matthew 24, echoing the very same belief, but also resonating with the same parts of Second Thessalonians you deem problematic. Whereas 1 Thessalonians strengthens the faithful in hope, 2 Thessalonians calls for wisdom and discernment.
    – Lucian
    Aug 1 '17 at 14:39
  • That the lawless one, the man of sin, is against marriage has to mean that he is for non-legalized sex. But that is not enough, he must also be in such authority position that he can legalize against, maybe even outlaw, marital unions, for the bible’s prophetic words to come true. May 4 at 12:32
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I'm not sure there is a contradiction between the two letters, in 1 Thess 5:1 Paul says "But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you." (NKJV) in 5:4 he says, "But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief." and 5:6 says, "Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober." It seems to me that whilst Paul is emphasising the imminence of Jesus' return implicit in his words are things that can be watched for, in 2 Thess 2:3 he seems to be detailing some of those things he previously told them to watch for because they had received news that the Jesus had already returned (2 Thess 2:2).

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I've spent some time wondering about this passage also, and will share my current exegesis, without trying to say any other answer is wrong. There may be many interpretations of this dense passage.

Background

First, let's understand the background.

The Church in Thessalonica was worried that the Day of the Lord had already come, and they were left behind (yes, like Nicolas Cage). So what Paul is describing to the Thessalonians is how they know they have not been left behind, and this does not necessarily contradict the notion that the day of the Lord will come without warning, although there was general expectation of apostasy in the latter days (e.g. 2 Peter 3.3) but such a situation is sufficiently vague that it does not provide practical warning as to the specific time of the Lord's return, and thus the notion of Christ coming as a "thief in the night" is still a message of coming unexpectedly and so still can create panic that you've been left behind.

Exegesis

Do not let anyone 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, who opposes and who exalts himself over every so-called god or object of worship, so that he sits down in the temple of God, proclaiming that he himself is God. Do you not remember that while we were still with you, we were saying these things to you? And you know that which restrains him now, so that he will be revealed in his own time. For the mystery of lawlessness is at work already; only the one who now restrains will do so until he is out of the way, and then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will slay with the breath of his mouth, and wipe out by the appearance of his coming

In order to try to understand the "Man of Lawlessness", let's first think about the "mystery of lawlessness". We know

  • It is already in the world and was at the time of the Thessalonians, so it is not a person but rather a spirit, or force, or philosophy

  • It is being restrained, but the restrainer will be taken away.

Now there are two popular interpretations for "the restrainer", either the church or the Holy Spirit. I favor the Holy Spirit as a spiritual restrainer for the spiritual force of lawlessness (and also if it was the church, then the Thessalonians would view themselves as the restrainer, and this passage and their concerns wouldn't make sense).

We know that the Holy Spirit was poured out on man on the day of Pentecost, and this passage is suggesting that before Christ comes back, that Spirit will be removed, thus no longer restraining the mystery of lawlessness, allowing the mystery of lawlessness to become the "man of lawlessness".

If we accept this association for the restrainer, then we have a ready interpretation for the son of destruction:

the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and who exalts himself over every so-called god or object of worship, so that he sits down in the temple of God, proclaiming that he himself is God.

Of course we are each the Temple of God, it is not a building made with human hands. Within that temple, the holy spirit is a witness testifying to us and convicting us, but when that witness is removed -- think of humanity with no conscience or restraining force, no "inner voice" crying out to convict us. That leads to man completely believing he is God, with no nagging conscience or fear. This, to me, is the definition of "man of lawlessness".

Summary

Thus when the day of the Lord comes, the Spirit will return to the Father, along with the saints who will meet him in the air, and Christ will come in glory and splendor, destroying those still left on earth by the splendor of his coming. Those still left on the earth are those that God gave over to a "powerful delusion" because they didn't love the truth, and without the Holy Spirit to convict them, there is no possibility of breaking out of that delusion. The delusion is that man is God -- which is the essence of lawlessness.

This is something the Thessalonians would notice. They do not view themselves as God. They know the Holy Spirit is still in them. So they don't need to worry that they have been left behind.

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The online New American Bible introduction to Second Thessalonians acknowledges: "Increasingly in recent times, however, the opinion has been advanced that 2 Thessalonians is a pseudepigraph, that is, a letter written authoritatively in Paul's name, to maintain apostolic traditions in a later period, perhaps during the last two decades of the first century. [my emphasis]" Mary Ann Getty-Sullivan, The Quick Reference Guide to the Catholic Bible (online), agrees, saying the author's style imitates Paul's and even copies phrases of 1 Thessalonians. This is, in fact, the majority view among biblical scholars. Burton L. Mack says in Who Wrote the New Testament, page 112, that 2 Thessalonians lacks the personal warmth, reminiscences and references characteristic of the authentic letters of Paul. Almost one-third of it is a verbatim copy from the first letter, the signature is suspicious, and the eschatology reflects a development of Christian apocalyptic thinking of the kind that took place only after the Roman-Jewish War around the turn of the first century.

Second Thessalonians can be read as a response to Paul' First Letter to the Thessalonians. Paul thought the coming of Jesus was imminent and had told the Thessalonians that this would happen in his own lifetime, as is especially clear in 1 Thessalonians 4:17: “the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who remain, will be caught up together with them to meet the Lord in the air.” In 1 Thessalonians, the end will come like a "thief in the night," with Jesus appearing when people least expect it.

Decades later, and after the death of Paul, Jesus had not yet returned. The author of 2 Thessalonians argues that the end is not coming right away, and because certain things have to happen first, they will know when Jesus is coming.

2 Thessalonians 2:1-2 says that regarding the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, a false letters written in Paul’s name had said that the day of the Lord is at hand - an apparent reference to First Thessalonians, asking that the Thessalonians not be deceived. First there must be some signs, including the appearance of the antiChrist, "the one doomed to perdition."

If 2 Thessalonians 2:2 is really a reference to 1 Thessalonians, as it appears, then both epistles can not be genuine - either 1 Thessalonians is false or 2 Thessalonians is, and we know the majority of biblical scholars say that 2 Thessalonians was not really written by Paul (regardless of whether verse 2:2 is referring to 1 Thessalonians). The (2 Thess 2:3) apostasy will not happen and “lawless one”, the anti-Christ, will not appear.

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  • @Jas3.1 As for asking the Q, I had previously answered a vaguely similar Q but it was moved to Christianity site, where a hermeneutical answer is not suited, so I asked a new question so that I could use my answer here. So to this extent you were right. However, the system appears to encourage answering your own question, so it did not appear I had done anything deserving of criticism under site guidelines. Jan 9 '15 at 22:10
  • Who are those scholars with the weighty opinions whom you refer to in the last paragraph of your answer? What makes their opinion weighty and the opinion of theologians and scholars who believe that Paul DID write Thessalonians not so weighty? Isn't it simply a matter of liberal versus conservative? (In other words, it's a matter of differing presuppositions; e.g., liberals tend to discount the reliability of the text, assuming that it cannot possibly be error-free, whereas conservatives see no reason why the text can't be error-free.) religioustolerance.org/chr_ntb3.htm Don Feb 8 '15 at 23:35
  • @rhetorician I innocently assumed that readers would recognise that "weight of scholarly opinion" means "majority," no more and no less. For your benefit, I have amended this accordingly. The remainder of your comment seems off topic. Feb 9 '15 at 0:53
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    Wikipedia says "Theology might be undertaken to help the theologian: understand more truly their own religious tradition, ... challenge (ex. biblical criticism) or oppose (ex. irreligion) a religious tradition or the religious world-view. Sorry I had to leave some of the definition out. The last one is important: <<challenge biblical criticism>> This means many theologians (whom you might call conservative scholars) are already committed to challenging critical thought even before they review the evidence. Feb 9 '15 at 4:21
  • 1
    Wikipedia says "The research of biblical scholars is frequently called biblical criticism. It does not presuppose, but also does not deny, belief in the supernatural origins of the scriptures." This is consistent with what you call "liberal scholars." Feb 9 '15 at 4:24
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I've broadened out the passage we are discussing by one additional verse to provide more context:

[2Th 2:1-4 NKJV] (1) Now, brethren, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, we ask you, (2) not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as if from us, as though the day of Christ had come [ἐνέστηκεν]. (3) Let no one deceive you by any means; for [that Day will not come] unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, (4) who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God.

This is a clear allusion to Daniel:

Daniel 11:36 Brenton Septuagint 36 And he shall do according to his will, and the king shall exalt and magnify himself against every god, and shall speak great swelling words, and shall prosper until the indignation shall be accomplished: for it is coming to an end.

This is also the Beast of the Sea:

[Rev 13:6-7 NLT] (6) And he spoke terrible words of blasphemy against God, slandering his name and his dwelling--that is, those who dwell in heaven. (7) And the beast was allowed to wage war against God's holy people and to conquer them. And he was given authority to rule over every tribe and people and language and nation.

Notice the word that I highlighted in 2 Thessalonians 2:2, ἐνέστηκεν. That is the perfect active indicative of ἐνίστημι. That form is only used here, differentiating it from other examples of "is at hand" in the NT. Thayer's says that in this form..

...in perfect, pluperfect, 2 aorist, and in middle (properly, as it were to stand in sight, stand near) to be upon, impend, threaten: 2 Thessalonians 2:2...

I take that to indicate that although Paul was expecting the Lord's arrival in his own lifetime, there was still something that needed to happen first. He's saying that those who say that all of the signs were completed were not speaking the truth; there was one more.

Since Paul's letter is positioned prior to the arrival of Titus and his army, that was to make Jerusalem desolate/emptied of Jews, it was not time head for the Judean hills:

[Luk 21:20-24 NLT] (20) "And when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then you will know that the time of its destruction has arrived. (21) Then those in Judea must flee to the hills. Those in Jerusalem must get out, and those out in the country should not return to the city. (22) For those will be days of God's vengeance, and the prophetic words of the Scriptures will be fulfilled. (23) How terrible it will be for pregnant women and for nursing mothers in those days. For there will be disaster in the land and great anger against this people. (24) They will be killed by the sword or sent away as captives to all the nations of the world. And Jerusalem will be trampled down by the Gentiles until the period of the Gentiles comes to an end.

That was Jesus' response to this:

[Luk 21:7 NLT] (7) "Teacher," they asked, "when will all this happen? What sign will show us that these things are about to take place?"

For more information, please visit my Quora Space.

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Who would meet the Lord Jesus Christ at His return?

I Thess. 4:16-17 NKJV
16For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord.
(Holy Bible: New King James Version. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982.)

Who would meet the Lord Jesus Christ at His return? Paul said, "we who are alive and remain". In whom do they remain? Paul said, "in Christ." (cf. Matt. 24:13). Did the Apostle Paul say that those who were referred to in the expression, "we who are alive," were those who remained in Christ in Paul's own time? No he did not.

What would occur before the end of the world?

Matt. 24:3-4, 11 KJV
3And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? And what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world? 4And Jesus answered and said unto them, Take heed that no man deceive you.
11And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many.
(The Holy Bible: King James Version. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1962.)

What would occur before the end of the world? Jesus said, "many false prophets shall rise." How many deceived? Jesus said, "many". Hence many [though not all] would turn away from the faith. This statement of our Lord Jesus Christ is what the Apostle Paul was referring to in his epistle. 

What doctrines would lead to the falling away of the faith?

I Tim. 4:1, 3 KJV
1Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils;
3Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.
(Holy Bible: New King James Version. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982.)

What doctrines would lead to the falling away of the faith? Paul said, "doctrines of devils." What's one example? Paul said, "Forbidding to marry". What's another example? Paul said, "commanding to abstain from meats". Are marriage and meats two things to be avoided? Paul said, "God hath created to be received". Observance of these two doctrines are signs that the falling away of the faith has taken place.

Are there those who practice these doctrines today?

Hist. Dict. of Cath., p. 91
CELIBACY. (From Lt caelebs, “unmarried.”) Abstention from marriage and sexual activity. ... A movement toward celibacy of the clergy is first seen in the early fourth century. ... It remains the norm in the Roman Rite: married men may not be ordained priests, though they may be ordained deacons. No one may marry after ordination.
(Historical Dictionary of Catholicism. By William J. Collinge. Second Edition. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2012.)

Are there those who practice these doctrines today? Yes, there are. Who practice these doctrines today? The Catholic Church.

What is commanded among the clergy of the Catholic Church? According to Collinge, "Abstention from marriage". Is this a doctrine of God? No. Who's doctrine is this? The Apostle Paul said of the Devil.

What about the doctrine commanding to abstain from meat? 

The Code of Canon Law, p. 173
Canon 1251. Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
(The Code of Canon Law. Collins Liturgical Publications: Piccadilly, London, 1983.)

What about the doctrine commanding to abstain from meat? The Catholic Church also practices this. 

What abstinence was to be observed on all Fridays? According to Canon 1251, "Abstinence from meat". This is why fish on Fridays was a staple of Catholic homes for centuries, until the doctrine was amended to only be in effect for the Fridays of Lent. Is this, however, a doctrine of God? No. Who's doctrine is this? The Apostle Paul said of the Devil. 

Who would teach these doctrines? Who would cause the falling away from the faith?

II Thess. 2:3-4 BBE
3Give no belief to false words: because there will first be a falling away from the faith, and the revelation of the man of sin, the son of destruction, 4who puts himself against all authority, lifting himself up over all which is named God or is given worship; so that he takes his seat in the Temple of God, putting himself forward as God.
(The Bible in Basic English. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2006.)

Who would cause the falling away from the faith? Paul said, "the man of sin". How can they be identified? Paul said, "he takes his seat in the Temple of God." Who do they put themselves forward as? Paul said, "as God". 

How does one put themself forward as God? What was the strict instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ so that nobody would take the place of God?

Matt. 23:9 NKJV
9Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven.
(Holy Bible: New King James Version. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982.)

What was the strict instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ so that nobody would take the place of God? Jesus said, "Do not call anyone one earth your father." Why not? Jesus said, "for One is your Father". Who is that? Jesus said, "He who is in heaven". Hence, that title is reserved only for the God in heaven. The one who uses that title puts themself forward as God.

Are there those today who are called father?

Radio Replies 3, p. 168
Catholics rightly, therefore, call the priest "father," not to the exclusion of their Father in heaven, but as a manifestation on earth of the supreme Fatherhood of God in the spiritual order, …
(Radio Replies [Third Volume], by Rev. Dr. Leslie Rumble, M.S.C., Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc, 1979.)

Are there those today who are called father? According to Rumble, "Catholics rightly, therefore, call the priest 'father'". Who's fatherhood have they taken? According to Rumble, "the supreme Fatherhood of God in the spiritual order". Hence, the Catholic priests fulfill the prophecy of the man of sin.

When would the falling away from the faith occur? What was already at work during the time of the Apostles?

II Thess. 2:6-7 BBE
6And now it is clear to you what is keeping back his revelation till the time comes for him to be seen. 7For the secret of evil is even now at work: but there is one who is keeping back the evil till he is taken out of the way.(The Bible in Basic English. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2006.)

What was already at work during the time of the Apostles? Paul said, "the secret of evil is even now at work". Yet, why had the falling away from the faith not yet come? Paul said, "there is one who is keeping back the evil." Until when would the restrainer be able to hold the evil back? Paul said, "till he is taken out of the way". 

What would occur after the Apostles departed? 

Acts 20:25, 29-30, 37-38 Lamsa
25And now I know that you, among whom I have traveled and preached the kingdom of God, shall see my face no more.
28Take heed therefore to yourselves and to all the flock, over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you overseers, to feed the church of Christ which he has purchased with his blood. 29For I know this, that after I have departed, fierce wolves will attack you, which will not spare the flock. 30Also from among yourselves, men shall arise, speaking perverse things to draw away disciples after them.
37And they all wept bitterly, and they embraced him and kissed him; 38but they were most distressed because of the words he spoke, that they would not see his face again. And they accompanied him to the ship.
(Holy Bible from the Ancient Eastern Text: George M. Lamsa’s Translation from the Aramaic of the Peshitta. Philadelphia USA: A.J. Holman Co., 1968.)

What would occur after the Apostles departed? Paul said, "men shall arise." What kind of men would arise? What kind of things would they say? Paul said, "perverse things to draw away disciples after them". These are the false prophets that had been forewarned, who, for the time being, were being held back. 

Where would they come from? Paul said, "from among yourselves". Who was the Apostle Paul speaking with? What was their charge inside of the Church of Christ? Paul said, "The Holy Spirit has appointed you overseers". Hence, those charged with taking care of the Church would also be responsible for its falling away from the faith. 

[What about those brethren who stood their ground? Paul said, "fierce wolves will attack you, which will not spare the flock". Hence, those who did not fall away from the faith would be put to death. Who were referred to as wolves who would not spare the flock? Government officials (Ezek. 22:27) and false prophets (Matt. 7:15). This is a topic all its own, and I don't want this answer to get too long.]

What kind of departure would precipitate all of this? Would this occur after Paul's literal departure? Paul said, "I know that you," shall, what? Paul said, "shall see my face no more". What was the response of the brethren upon hearing this? Luke wrote, "they all wept bitterly".

How come? What did the Apostle Paul mean that he would depart? 

II Tim. 4:6 Lamsa
6From henceforth I am ready to die, and the time of my departure is at hand.
(Holy Bible from the Ancient Eastern Text: George M. Lamsa’s Translation from the Aramaic of the Peshitta. Philadelphia USA: A.J. Holman Co., 1968.)

What did the Apostle Paul mean that he would depart? Paul told Timothy, "I am ready to die". Hence, for as long as the Apostles were still alive, the falling away from the faith would not yet occur. However, according to the prophecy of the Apostle Paul, it is when they would be taken away, that it would no longer be held back. 

Hence, according to history, what occurred after the Apostles had died? 

The Church in History, p. 44
The Apostolic Age came to a close around the year 100. The apostles were followed by the Apostolic Fathers. From their writings we can see that the signs of deterioration were disturbing the Church. In the course of the next four hundred years that deterioration increased steadily.
(The Church in History, by Kuiper, B.K., Grand Rapids, Michigan, U.S.A.: W. M. B. Eerdmans’ Publishing Co., 1951.)

According to history, what occurred after the Apostles had died? According to Kuiper, "The apostles were followed by the Apostolic Fathers". What could be seen in their writings? According to Kuiper, "signs of deterioration were disturbing the Church". What would happen over the course of the next four hundred years? According to Kuiper, "that deterioration increased steadily".

Hence, the falling away from the faith led by those who were supposed to take care of the Church was coming into fulfillment, and it continues to be fulfilled to this day.

This event together with many other signs will eventually lead to the end of the world, or the Second Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 


Read here and here for more answers related to the topic I discussed.

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