What follows are some reasons I think it is preferable or at least possible to think of the “man of lawlessness” of 2 Thessalonians 2 as being the Jewish high priest, priesthood, or additionally some power behind them such as Herod or the former high priest Ananias.
First, we should be alert to the fact that God operates covenantally, and that “judgment [begins] at the household of God” (1 Pet. 4:17). God is concerned with all sin, but is most concerned with faithful worship. This is operative in the pattern of what the Bible calls the “abomination of desolation.” Often interpreters connect this abomination with actions of invading Gentile nations. But everywhere that God threatens to—and actually does—depart from his house, leaving it “desolate,” it is the apostasy of his own people that is the precipitating factor. The pattern is this: God’s people practice abominations, God leaves his house desolate, and then it is left unprotected for Gentile armies to attack. So we should look to identify these abominations as activities on the part of God’s people. We see this pattern in Ezekiel 8-10 where it is the idolatry of Israel that causes God to leave his house desolate. We see it again in Matthew 21 when Jesus cleanses the temple and then leaves it desolate of his presence. We should be prepared again to see it when Jesus vindicates his name in AD 70, understanding that the Jewish and Judaizing persecution of the church serves as the primary antagonist, with Rome playing a secondary role.
Second, there was already an essential element of disobedience to God in the second temple high priesthood. God had declared in the restoration covenant that only Zadokite priests could come near to serve him (Ezek. 40:46). Beginning at least with Menelaus in 172 BC, the high priests were no longer Zadokite, not even under the Hasmoneans. Although the New Testament does not call attention to this, it is likely that this disobedience, which included the murder of the high priest and the buying and selling of the priesthood, was the abomination that left God’s house desolate so that Antiochus Epiphanes could later walk right in. There were continuing abuses of the high priesthood after Jesus.
Third, there are some subtle hints elsewhere concerning the one who “takes his seat in the temple of God.” Hebrews 10 stresses that every priest “stands daily at his service,” and that Jesus is the only priest who has “sat down,” by virtue of his permanent and final sacrifice. By contrast, Jesus condemns the scribes and Pharisees for sitting in “Moses’ seat” (Matt. 23:2). Now, these are not all priests. And it is likely that this is speaking of their office of teaching and judging (as in Exodus 18:13), rather than a physical seat, and certainly not a seat in the temple. But it is a hint of an inappropriate “seatedness” on the part of the Jews, and the very context in which Jesus prophesies the final desolation of Jerusalem.
Fourth, very much of what is happening in the run-up to AD 70 is a sort of revival of Judaism, as the threat of Christianity catalyzes them, as the temple is completed and the last great Passover celebrated. This, I believe, also connects to 2 Thessalonians 2, in that the “false signs and wonders” were experienced by the Jews, and the “strong delusion” was a characteristically Jewish delusion: the thought that “God has blessed us with a great revival and will give us ultimate victory over the Romans and the Christians.” Again, it is the apostate house of God that is in focus, and the foremost representative of that house before God is the high priest.
Fifth, there are several senses in which we can identify the high priest as “proclaiming himself to be God.” First, in putting Jesus on trial and putting him to death, the Jews, and especially the priesthood, had exalted themselves over God and made themselves out to be the final arbiter, to be God. Second, in continuing to persecute Jesus’s body, the church, the Jews continued in this position. Third, in proclaiming “we have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15) but then revolting against Rome, the Jews revealed themselves to be aspiring to the same sort of idolatry of self-willed power exhibited by Rome.
Finally, we can understand the “one who restrains” the Jewish persecution of Christians as being the Roman rulers. Throughout the New Testament it is the Roman authorities who come to the aid of Christians over against Jewish persecution. It is only at the very end that Rome as well begins to turn upon the Christians, establishing the temporary unholy alliance of beasts (until Rome eventually devours Babylon-Jerusalem) that we see in Revelation.
James Jordan, to whom I am indebted for almost every single idea above, suggests that it is actually the church’s preaching that served as the restraint on lawlessness. Elsewhere Jordan suggests that the “mystery of lawlessness” is a sort of Girardian scapegoating mechanism, whereby the Jews were suppressing their own guilt (and ironically adding to it) by scapegoating Jesus and his church.
We tend to speak of “day of the Lord” univocally, but Scripture uses it in a layered fashion: First, it can refer to Jesus’s weekly visitation of his people: “Lord’s day” and “day of the Lord” are essentially the same (e.g., Isa. 58:13). On the Lord’s day Jesus visits his church, walking among the lampstands (Rev. 1ff) and welcoming but also evaluating her. Second, it can refer to archetypal times when Jesus visits his people in judgment and vindication in a peculiar way, such as Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Jerusalem (Isaiah 2) or Jesus’s destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 (2 Thess. 2). Third, we can use it to refer to other times in history that fit this same pattern, when Jesus visits in judgment and vindication in a special way. Finally, we can use it in a sort of “capital letter” sense to refer to the final visitation of Jesus (1 Cor. 5:5) at “the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power” (1 Cor. 15).
An interesting pattern to observe is how often the “day of the Lord” is connected to Jesus visiting his church. It is true that all nations will experience days of the Lord (Ezek. 30:3). Jesus is visiting to vindicate the faithful and to bring low his enemies, but judgment begins at the house of God. Apostate Israel is brought into exile. Apostate Jerusalem (the “Babylon” of Revelation, “where their Lord was crucified”—Rev. 11:8 together with 18:10ff) is destroyed. There is a special warning in this for the church, in that the day of the Lord will bring about destruction both without and within the church. We see this even in the weekly visitations as Jesus warns the lampstands, and if we consider the double-edged sword of the weekly Lord’s supper in 1 Cor 11.
Finally, if we think about a prophetic pronunciation that the day of the Lord is coming (whether we are thinking about its coming soon to our nation, or at the end of history), we can say that Jesus’s visitation is inevitable. We do not call people to repent so that they can somehow postpone Jesus’s coming; we call people to “die” in repentance so that they can pass through the coming fire and flood, and experience the resurrection that will certainly take place on the other side.
Revelation 3:20 is a well-known verse:
Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. (Revelation 3:20 ESV)
In spite of the many artistic and evangelistic portrayals of this verse, the context establishes that Jesus is actually knocking at the door of his church, not at the door of individuals. Doug Wilson comments on this, saying that “This is, in the first instance, the door of the church at Laodicea, and then by extension, any church that has people who have drifted into a lukewarm approach to Jesus.”
From elsewhere in Revelation we can establish that a worship service contains prophetic preaching (trumpets) and singing. But those are not present in this verse. Instead, Jesus’s highest intention in meeting with his people is to share a meal with them.
Thus, weekly communion: why open the door but refuse the meal?
Genesis 1 defines a day:
God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. (Genesis 1:5 ESV)
Exodus 20 gives us another point of reference:
Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:9-11 ESV)
Certainly it makes more sense to hold that these texts are not equivocating, that “a day is a day,” rather than some unspecified lengthy period of time.
Creation is a real-life story, not a machine. For it to have an honest-to-goodness literary backstory rather than a mechanistic one is just what we should expect.
What follows are some random thoughts relative to the legalization of homosexual marriage in the United States.
As I wrote a year and a half ago, Jesus’s own thoughts on matters like sex, shrimp and sacrifice are a matter of public record. Jesus’s church rightfully shares his judgment on all sexual sin. More than that, the church is called to disciple the nations, “teaching them to observe all that [Jesus] commanded” (Matthew 28:19-20). The church calls upon all rulers to obey God and “punish those who do evil and . . . praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:14) — not the reverse. A necessary part of this is to rightfully judge evil and good, so that we do not “call evil good and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20).
Adam Ford makes helpful clarifications about the non-hateful Christian response, along with some wise insight into how much love is really being conveyed by all these rainbows everywhere. It is partly because a Christian fervently hopes to share a table at the heavenly feast with his opponents that he strenuously opposes their position. It is because a Christian has already wholly set aside her will to autonomous self-determination that she believes there is any possibility of inviting others to join herself in doing so.
In all this, the West is moving towards a Girardian dénouement. All individuals and societies must be justified. They will either be justified by God or must justify themselves. Self-justification takes place only by scapegoating others. It is clear that the new normal is not a classically liberal mutual understanding but is seeking to justify itself by scapegoating those who are opposed to it. There is no category for opposition other than “hatred,” and the cure for such hatred begins with steep fines. To their credit, some activists recognize this dangerous path; Camille Paglia has long been just such a breath of fresh air.
In some ways this is just one of many other ways in which Jesus’s church has been and will be scapegoated. But we all know that scapegoating does not end with steep fines; it must progress to the “death” of the scapegoat in order to feel wholly self-justified; otherwise the scapegoat is a constant bit of sand in the teeth reminding society that it is not justified. And this is also why the scapegoating can become such a pile-on—everyone desires to be justified. Scapegoating is a powerful agent of unification, surpassed only by Jesus the great scapegoat himself. All this is why everything must come to a crisis. Because of the power of unity and justification, the crisis must be almost as drunkenly, giddily grotesque as Lewis’s That Hideous Strength.
The crisis can be resolved either by the “death” of the scapegoat (e.g., as with the church under communism in the past century) or the “death” of the society (in repentance, as with Jonah’s Nineveh). Even in the death of the church there is great hope for the church because that is always the seedbed of future growth of Jesus’s kingdom. Scapegoating does not produce either enduring unity or enduring justification, and society will continue its search until it finds permanent justification in Jesus. So whatever may come, the church can continue to confidently call people to repentance, and confidently endure any kind of suffering knowing that Jesus will cause it to bear fruit.
It is important, however, that the church does not justify the scapegoating. We must be like Job before his scapegoating “friends.” We are confident we are justified; and in this matter we are in the right and we are not actually filled with hatred, full stop. It must be clear that the scapegoating is unjustifiable. It can even be made clear where and how the scapegoaters and their scapegoating are ridiculous. Scapegoating is shameful in itself and it always exists to cover up more shame—shame that has a proper covering only in repentance and the death of king Jesus.
Lastly, here are some bracing thoughts from Toby Sumpter. In the meantime, carry on singing the Psalms!
I really appreciate author N. D. Wilson, partly because his young adult fiction books are so much fun, and partly because of his joy-ridden perspective on life.
Here’s a great interview, round table, and lecture from him that I recently enjoyed. Thanks to John for passing this along!
While 1 Thessalonians 5 is applicable to all of the Christian life, it has repeated overtones of the weekly public worship service:
- Weekly public worship is one of the several kinds of “day of the Lord” that we can speak of
- As seen in 1 Corinthians, drunkenness and sobriety is particularly applicable to the Lord’s supper
- Our response to church leaders is especially important in the liturgical setting
- Admonishment, encouragement, rejoicing, prayer, thanksgiving, prophecy, and testing-discernment all take place in public worship
- The command to “always rejoice” has particular application to public worship; in Jesus’s presence we have a sort of weekly heavenly furlough from our battle in the world, and are “not [to] be grieved, for the joy of Yahweh is your strength” (Neh. 8:10)
- The focus of the Spirit’s work, and the occasions where we have the most danger of quenching the Spirit, are in the “one another” settings of the whole body of Christ such as public worship
Verse 18 carries similar overtones: in all, give thanks. Translating this as “in all circumstances” or “in all things” is certainly correct; we would not limit its application to public worship. However, it has an intensive application to public worship, where we corporately give thanks to God. Furthermore, as we allow the habits of the Lord’s supper to get into our bones—actually giving thanks for the bread and for the wine—we will recognize, as the church has throughout history, that thanksgiving is an appropriate synecdoche for the Lord’s supper.
Thus, weekly communion: in all worship, eucharist!