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Q50 : Revelation of the Man of Sin

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Q50 : Revelation of the Man of Sin

Would it be possible for you to clear up one question I have?

It is regarding 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4

I have tried to understand this portion in light of the teaching of Scripture on the imminent return of our Lord Jesus Christ. I understand the words 'that day will not come' are a Greek ellipsis and are implied within the context of the Scriptural text. However, from reading John MacArthur's comments in an article from the Masters Seminary on this passage (pericope) , I was left rather confused as John had to resort to a lengthy technical explanation that in reality left me with the impression, that even though the Apostle Paul seems to be saying that the man of lawlessness will be revealed prior to our being gathered to Him (Jesus Christ), the text means something entirely different.

  1. Does this text actually teach that the man of sin (lawlessness in the NIV) will actually be known by the true Church prior to the rapture?
  2. If so can this also fit it with your comments regarding the rebuilding of Babylon and the 'no prior' prophetic events leading to the rapture? (By this I mean, if the rebuilding of Babylon can by God's grace be accomplished so as to not conflict with Christ's imminent return without any prior prohetic events, can the 'man of sin' also be revealed to the elect without this fact conflicting with the doctrine of the imminent return of Jesus Christ to rapture His Church?)
A50 : by Tony Garland

The passage of scripture in question reads as follows:

Now we request you, brethren, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our gathering together to Him, that you may not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one in any way deceive you, for [it will not come] unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God. Do you not remember that while I was still with you, I was telling you these things? And you know what restrains him now, so that in his time he may be revealed. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains [will do so] until he is taken out of the way. And then that lawless one will be revealed whom the Lord will slay with the breath of His mouth and bring to an end by the appearance of His coming; [that is,] the one whose coming is in accord with the activity of Satan, with all power and signs and false wonders, and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. (2 Thessalonians 2:1-10, NASB)

I've chosen to quote the NASB here rather than the NKJV (or KJV) because it utilizes the critical Greek text which reads ' the day of the Lord has come' rather than 'the day of Christ had come' which makes it easier to see that Paul is teaching about the relative timing of two different events (2Th. 2:2).

  1. The first event is our gathering together to Him, that is, the Rapture of the Church when believers are caught up to meet the Lord in the air:

    For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive [and] remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For 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. Then 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. Therefore comfort one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:15-18)

    This event is said by Paul to be a comfort and must be distinguished from the 'day of the Lord' or 'day of Christ' which brings judgment.

  2. The second event is the day of the Lord or day of Christ. This is a day of judgment and wrath — when Christ returns upon a sleeping world as a thief (1Th. 5:2).

    But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as others [do], but let us watch and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and [as] a helmet the hope of salvation. For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, (1 Thessalonians 5:4-9)

    The day which comes as a thief is the Day of the Lord which brings judgment and wrath, but true believers are not appointed to experience the wrath of this day (Rev. 3:3; 16:15). They avoid this wrath by being caught up by the first event mentioned in the passage.

Kelly notes the importance of understanding the distinction between these two events:

The misleaders at Thessalonica were not so infatuated as to imagine that the Lord had come, and by His presence gathered to Himself on high all the saints, whether departed, or alive and waiting for Him. Even they never dreamt that He had descended into the air, and translated all the once suffering children of God to be with Him glorified in heaven. Since it was patent to all eyes that the saints in Thessalonica, and their brethren through-out the world, were still on earth, they could hold no such suicidal thought as that the deceased saints were already raised from their graves, and themselves were left behind. The truth is that they were not thinking about the Lord’s presence: their delusion was not on this score at all, but about 'the day of the Lord,' as verse 2 makes clear and indisputable. They did conceive that His 'day' was not merely 'at hand,' which is true, but 'present,' which is false. Identify 'the coming' with 'the day' of the Lord, and all is confusion; distinguishing between them, you forthwith receive light, and need put no strain on the words, which are instructive in proportion to the discernment of their exact force. [1]

The sequence of events in 2 Thessalonians is as follows:1

  1. The falling away, or apostasy (2Th. 2:3).
  2. The restrainer is taken out of the way (2Th. 2:6-7).
  3. The man of sin is revealed (2Th. 2:3,8).
  4. The day of the Lord (2Th. 2:3).

It would appear that the Thessalonian believers were concerned that they were already in the Day of the Lord, but had received prior teaching that the Lord Jesus Christ was to have returned for them before that day. Thus, their consternation and confusion (2Th. 2:2).

By describing the sequence of events prior to the Day of the Lord, Paul is demonstrating that the day could not yet have arrived and therefore, the Thessalonians had not missed the promised 'any moment' return of Christ for the Church.

As to whether the man of sin will be known by the true Church prior to the rapture — I do not believe this passage teaches one way or the other. If one holds the view that the 'restrainer' is the Holy Spirit ministering through the body of Christ (a view I hold), then one could conclude that the Rapture would occur prior to the revealing of the man of sin. But this can not be said with certainty from this passage alone as the identity of the Restrainer is not known for certain.

All the passage teaches with certainty is that there are a number of conditions that characterize the arrival of the Day of the Lord and if those conditions are not present, the Day of the Lord cannot be underway. However, there is a strong implication from the reaction of the Thessalonian believers that the coming of Christ for His Church was expected before the Day of the Lord — that the Thessalonians did not expect to experience the events of the Day of the Lord.

Even if one does not identify the Restrainer as the Holy Spirit ministering through the body of Christ in the world, another passage, Daniel 9:27, implies that the man of sin will be known with certainty once he signs a covenant with Israel which starts the seven-year period of the last of Daniel's 70 weeks - the start of the Day of the Lord, the Tribulation. Thus, from Daniel it appears that the man of sin is known at the start of the Day of the Lord, but from Thessalonians we know that the Church is taken to meet the Lord prior to the Day of the Lord. This implies that the Church is not present to positively identify the man of sin.

This makes good sense because the Church is never told to watch for the man of sin, but to always keep her eye on her Lord - the Lord Jesus Christ. I believe God has planned it this way - that the Church will not be present when the man of sin is revealed: we are wasting our time when we attempt to identify him in the Church age. More than that, we are taking our eye off of Christ and looking for the wrong man. Our focus is ever and entirely to be on the imminent return of our Lord, not the counterfeit christ which the world is destined to pander to.

As to the rebulding of Babylon, this is essentially like the gathering of Israel. It is a large-scale development which biblical history predicts and which is a general indicator that God's prophetic schedule is moving toward end-time events. Just like the gathering of Israel, it has no specific time schedule in biblical revelation nor can one say where it should be in relation to the return of Christ for the Church. Christ could have taken the Church in Paul's day, he could take the Church tonight, or he may not come for another thousand years (as unlikely as that seems, there is nothing biblically to preclude it). Therefore, the Church age and the continued development of Israel as a nation - or the commercial development of Babylon - may overlap for an extended period without affecting the imminency of Christ's return. However, in regard to the revelation of the man of sin, there is biblical teaching that associates his revealing with the Day of the Lord which the Church will avoid. Thus I do not believe the imminent return could occur after his revealing.

Notice this very important point: If it can be said that the Church will be present to identify the man of sin, then it follows that Christ's return for the Church can not be imminent. If this were true, than we could confidently assert that Christ cannot come tonight!. This would destroy imminency and have numerous deleterious effects. Most importantly, we would no longer need to watch moment-by-moment since His return would not be possible. Nor could it have been possible in Paul's day.

This is a key problem for views which place the Rapture sometime within Daniel’s 70th seven, such as the 'pre-wrath' Rapture view. By its very nature, it denies imminency. If the Church is not taken until part-way through the final seven, but the final seven cannot start until a key covenant is signed, then it follows that Christ can not return until after the covenant is signed. But, if Scripture teaches an imminent return of Christ—which I believe it does—then this completely destroys the plausibility of the pre-wrath Rapture view regardless of other technical details. (This is the reason why those who advocate a Rapture within the final seven ardently argue that the New Testament does not teach a truly imminent return of Christ—they hold that he cannot come “at any moment.”)

Thus, before investing much time in alternative theories concerning the timing of the Rapture, focus first on what these views have to teach concerning whether Christ can come for His Church at any moment. If they deny this vital and clear teaching, then there seems little point in considering what other merits these views claim since the imminent return of Christ (for the Church at large) is a foundational New Testament teaching.

All we can say with certainty is:

  1. There is no precondition for Christ's return for the Church. It remains possible at any moment until it actually happens. I believe this is by God's purposeful design to keep the saints of every age focused on our Lord.
  2. Christ will take the Church prior to the Day of the Lord. This was clearly the expecation of the Thessalonian Church which Paul had evidently taught them.
  3. The Church avoids the Day of the Lord because it involves an unprecedented outpouring of God's wrath which believers are promised worthy to escape.
  4. The event which begins the Day of the Lord is that which begins the 70th week of Daniel. At the start of this week, the man of sin will be known by the covenant he signs (Dan. 9:27).
  5. The Rapture of the Church could occur at any time prior to the Day of the Lord. It could happen many years prior — as would have been the case if the Lord had returned in Paul's day. The Day of the Lord is not tied to the Rapture except that the Rapture is known to precede it by an indeterminate amount of time - possible short, possibly long.

[1] W. Kelly, 1 and 2 Thessalonians (Galaxie Software, 2005), p. 109.


Endnotes:

1.But see the answer to Question 262a which explores possible subtleties in the relationship of these events.


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