Unpacking the text
1. He tells the Thessalonians that Jesus will not return “until the rebellion occurs, and the man of lawlessness is revealed” (2:3). So, we have two things to work with—the rebellion and the revealing of the man of lawlessness who is also referred to as “the man doomed to destruction” (v. 3). The rebellion is not just a general rebellion (as in the days of Noah), it’s an apostasy (actually the apostasy)—a departing from the truth. It’s not initially clear what the relationship of this is to the man of lawlessness. Is the man of lawlessness produced by the apostasy or does his appearance coincide with it?
2. Verses 6-8 answer this question. Paul says, “The secret power of lawlessness is already at work” (v. 7). He is referring here to the apostasy rather than the man of lawlessness because v. 5 tells us the Thessalonians knew there was something “holding him back” (i.e., the man of lawlessness). When this is “taken out of the way” (v. 7), “the lawless one will be revealed” (v. 8). But something was already at work and that was the apostasy. The fact that Paul refers to it as the secret power would suggest that it was in an embryonic stage.
3. It also tells us that the man of lawlessness is produced by the apostasy. Think about a tornado watch. We know that means that a tornado isn’t present—but conditions are conducive for one developing. That’s exactly what Paul is saying here. The lawless one (who must come on the scene before Jesus returns), had not been revealed. Whatever it was that was retraining him (that Paul and the Thessalonians knew about), was still at work.
4. Now that we’ve dealt with the relationship of the man of lawlessness to the apostasy, we need to address the man of lawlessness relationship to the return of Jesus.
While there appears to be an imminency to the man of lawlessness’ appearance (it’s connected to something that was already happening), there’s nothing to suggest that Jesus’ appearance was close. Read the text and see if this isn’t true. The return of Christ would destroy the man of lawlessness, but there’s nothing that says the return of Christ was near when Paul wrote. It’s just not there! It’s an assumption we make.
5. We do this because we assume the man of lawlessness refers to a person. And, if that person was imminent in Paul’s time, then the return of Jesus would have to be as well since it would bring about the destruction of the man of sin. It’s a case where the conclusion is sound, but the premise (that the man of lawlessness is a person) is flawed.
6. Our western minds naturally gravitate toward the idea of the man of lawlessness being a literal person—but the phrase doesn’t have to have that meaning! It can mean whatever the Spirit through Paul choose for it to mean. Writers of the biblical witness are under no obligation to say things the way we think they should! We need to settle that in our minds once and for all.
7. Could the man of lawlessness be a personification of sin? An example of sin being personified can be found in Genesis 4:7, where it says, “But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” Sin is pictured as a person (or perhaps even an animal), waiting outside the door of someone’s home in order to attack them. In reality, sin is no such thing. It has no independent existence. It exists only as we bring it into being through attitudes and actions that violate God’s law (Romans 4:15).
8. However, to personify sin makes it more real and concrete. It gives us a way to think about it that is less slippery. I think Paul uses the term man of lawlessness because personifying it makes it sounds more threatening, ominous, and wicked than simply referring to it as sin. He wants to stress the heightening of apostasy and sinfulness and he chooses to do it by speaking of a man of lawlessness who sets himself up in the temple of God and proclaims to be God. None of this is literal (see Matthew 23:2 where Jesus speaks of the Pharisees and teachers of the law sitting in the seat of Moses when they were literally doing no such thing).
9. Returning to our tornado illustration, Paul tells us that when whatever it is that retrains the man of lawlessness is taken away, he will appear. When the conditions of a tornado watch don’t always produce a funnel cloud but when they do, the watch becomes a warning, and they begin tracking the tornado. Paul says that conditions were such when he wrote that they could produce the man of lawlessness and eventually they would. He is the destructive tornado.