The Lawless One in Thessalonians

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Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. 4 He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. 5 Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you?
(2 Thessalonians 2:1–2 NIV)

Key Observation: Watch out for counterfeit gods.

Paul now introduces a new character and we wish he’d told us even more, because what we get is somewhat vague. We don’t get a name and we don’t get a specific time about this person’s arrival. Maybe the recipients already had some of the details. After all, Paul mentions that he told them about “these things” before. He may not have felt the need to add detail about someone the congregation was already familiar with.

So what do we know? For starters, Paul calls this fellow “the lawless one” and “the one destined for destruction.” Then he describes a series of actions this lawless one will take. He will exalt himself as an object of worship, use the temple as the place of that worship, and even declare himself to be God. In other words, he’s a counterfeit, so don’t be fooled.

Now I want to urge some caution regarding the identity of this figure. Many have speculated about his identity. Some think he is the antichrist spoken of elsewhere in the Bible. I’m very hesitant to use that language because Paul doesn’t use that language. The term “antichrist” comes from 1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; and 2 John 7. And John’s use of antichrist language doesn’t quite match Paul’s description of the lawless one. For example, Paul describes a single figure—one person. First John mentions a plurality of antichrists (2:18). Beyond that, John describes people who are former members of the community he’s writing to (1 John 2:19). Paul gives no hint that this lawless one will arise out of the Christian community. Paul and John are dealing with two different topics. Let’s not conflate them.

So, if we can’t nail down the identity of this figure, what do we do with this passage of Scripture? I suggest we spend time thinking about counterfeits and pay attention to the command that opens verse 3: don’t be deceived. Counterfeits are fundamentally deceptive. They aren’t the real thing, but they’re designed to make you think they are. Now if you want to be able to spot a counterfeit, you don’t want to spend all your time looking at the counterfeits. After all, there could be an infinite number of variations. No, if you want to be able to identify a counterfeit, you need to spend all your time focused on the one real thing—the thing the counterfeit is imitating. And in this case, the real thing is Jesus.

Many people spend a lot of time trying to identify the various end-time figures in the Bible. Who is the man of lawlessness? Can we figure it out? Does this person fit the description? Does that one? Wouldn’t it be better, though, to use all that time differently? Wouldn’t it be better to spend that time focused on the reality instead of the counterfeit? Wouldn’t it be better to focus on Jesus? Of course it would. If you spend your time growing in knowledge and love of Jesus, you probably won’t have any trouble identifying false gods when they present themselves.

Questions for Reflection

  1. What sorts of things distract you from Jesus?
  2. What can you do today to refocus yourself on Jesus?
  3. What are the counterfeit gods in our society? In your life?

Did you enjoy this entry? Discover our OneBook: Daily-Weekly Bible studies, of which this entry is a part. The Letters to the Thessalonians by Matt O’Reilly leads readers through some of our earliest existing writings in the New Testament. As such, they offer a unique glimpse into some of the most pressing issues as the gospel began to spread across the ancient world. In this eight-week study, you’ll be introduced to Paul’s inspired work. Discover how the gospel of Jesus will give you the strength you need as you eagerly await his promised return to make our world right again. Get your videos and book from our store here.

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Matt O’Reilly (PhD) is Lead Pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, Alabama, and a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians. He is the author of Paul and the Resurrected Body: Social Identity and Ethical Practice and The Letters to the Thessalonians. Connect at mattoreilly.net or follow @mporeilly.

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