2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 – Rebellion, Lawlessness, and Deception before the Return of Jesus Christ
SummaryIn response to a group of Christians panicked by speculation that "the day of the Lord is already here," the letter insists that other struggles will precede the return of Christ. This passage aims to reassure a suffering church that it is part of a larger, epic contest in which God confronts and defeats evil.
Living in the throes of sustained persecution, believers might reasonably question, "Where is God? When will Jesus help us?" The fear mentioned in 2:1-2 suggests that some members of a first-century Christian community answered these questions by saying that Jesus had already come (and perhaps somehow did not help them, because of neglect or an intent to punish them) or that "the day of the Lord" was immediately upon them. The response that 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12 gives--a confusing discourse about the "rebellion," "mystery of lawlessness," and "powerful delusion" that must precede Christ's return--may not have soothed readers' anxieties but only redirected them. The passage suggests that conditions will worsen before they improve.
General, archetypal language describes an era of open revolt against God. "Rebellion" here is less about a political uprising, more about human apostasy that denies the power and privileges that belong to God. The description of "the lawless one" (or, more literally, "the person of lawlessness") recalls language from other biblical texts that characterize certain political leaders as enemies of God (for example, Isaiah 14:13-14; Ezekiel 28:1-10; Daniel 11:21-45). It also loosely resembles other New Testament depictions of figures that stand in opposition to Christ (for example, Mark 13:21-22; 1 John 2:18; 4:3; 2 John 7; Revelation 13), but any such connections are hardly explicit. The power that currently restrains the lawless one may be God, an angel, or some recognizable historical or political force, but 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7 certainly does not give enough detail to settle the matter. Perhaps the passage speaks generally, figuratively, and not with reference to particular, discernible figures.
These verses refuse to trivialize evil, and at the same time they portray God's opponents as no match for God's power. The passage endeavors to speak comfort to a community enduring great suffering, insofar as the text acknowledges evil's power to inflict damage while promising that God will not ultimately allow evil to have free reign. The experiences of the persecuted church, then, are not evidence that God is absent or unconcerned. They constitute a piece in an overarching drama in which God will ultimately prevail in a primal struggle against evil.
Needless speculation about the figures and timeline named in this drama threatens to distort the purpose of the passage and wrench it out of its context within a letter addressed to a particular struggling fellowship of early Christians. At the same time, there are enduring difficulties about this passage, especially the suggestion that God participates in the delusions that result in some people rejecting the truth (2:11). That kind of claim is not unique, for it recalls other biblical passages that speak of God hardening human hearts. In 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12, as in many other similar passages, God is not the only factor involved in unbelief. First comes people's own rebellious refusal to embrace the truth.