Having recognized their susceptibility to error in this matter, Paul gives this beloved church a written account of the teachings he had given while with them in person. He isolated a peculiarly egregious opponent of the gospel to expand the general statements of 1:6-9. The “man of lawlessness” also is a “son of destruction.” This means that as an entity thoroughly given over to lawlessness he is doomed from the beginning, he embodies all the elements that God will judge and to which he will bring “the penalty of eternal destruction” (1:9) when he comes to be “glorified in his saints on that day” (1:10).
What is the environment in which this will happen? The “apostasy” must come first. Some interpreters make this falling away refer to the “rapture,” a literal physical falling away from the earth, with the tribulation following. The concern that Paul has for gearing up their knowledge for discernment of truth seems to point to a coming apostasy from the truth. The falling away involves heresy, unrighteousness, deceit, and idolatry. The Thessalonians must be solid in their grasp of truth, for, as John said, this spirit of antichrist already is in the world (1 John 4:1-3). Paul’s understanding is the same, “The mystery of lawlessness is already at work” (7).
This apostasy will be in coordination with the “man of lawlessness” (3). It seems that already this figure is present and will come to a critical time of unveiling. Verses 6 and 8 also use the word “revealed” or “unveiled” for the time that the work and intent of this figure begins to exert power. A. T. Robertson observed, “The implication is that the man of sin is hidden somewhere who will be suddenly manifested just as false apostles pose as angels of light (II Corinthians 11:13ff), whether the crowning event of the apostasy or another name for the same event.” Daniel describes such a figure in Daniel 7:25, again in 8:23-25, and in 11:36. This person, or institution, becomes a law unto itself—“And the king shall do as he wills. He shall exalt himself and magnify above every god and shall speak astonishing things against the God of gods” (Daniel 11:36).
This posture of autocracy and self-deification coincides with the fallenness of humanity and its propensity to rebellion and to reject the law of God and any true fear of his power and holiness: “Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart; … there is no fear of God before his eyes” (Psalm 36:1; cf Romans 3:18). For this reason, so many are brought into the orbit of this purveyor of lies, lawlessness, and deceit. Paul’s juxtaposition of the descriptions “man of lawlessness,” and “son of destruction” shows that he will not prevail but will be destroyed. This truth of certain destruction for the reigning proponent of lawlessness is expanded in verse 8: “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.”
Paul goes into some detail to set forth the perversity and destructiveness of this one called the man of lawlessness. It seems that this seizing of power includes social, political, and religious spheres of influence. The totalitarian impulse comes to full flower in the claims and exhibitions of control in this person or office. For a season, the truly destructive and despotic root of sin is granted its time to be revealed. Godlessness and scoffing at the divinely-revealed standards of true life and righteousness will be granted a moment, as it were, to flourish, so that the verdict of destruction will be seen as perfectly fitted for the sinful perversity of rebellion.
The man of lawlessness, in the style of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 3:1-7 or Darius in Daniel 6:6-9, claims all the power and prerogatives of a god. He makes himself the final point of loyalty for all his subjects. He opposes every object of worship other than himself, exalts himself above them and even inserts his own authority above the God of the Bible (4). “He shall speak words against the Most High, and shall wear out the saints of the Most High, and shall think to change the times and the law” (Daniel 7:25).
This being, either an individual or institution, is fully coordinated with the purpose and plot of the great fallen angel Satan. He claims, falsely like Satan, to have final power and authority over this world (Matthew 4:8-10). It seems to be so at times because of the conglomerate perversity that frequently rises to the place of prominence in large portions of society (Ephesians 2:1-3). There Satan is called “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now is at work in the sons of disobedience.” In 2 Corinthians 4:4, Paul called Satan “the god of this world” in his operations to blind the minds of unbelievers. The man of sin, “whose coming is in accord with the activity of Satan,” (9) uses the angelic strength of Satan to mimic divine power pointing to these as signs of his authority, but, though impressive to the carnal mind, they are but “false wonders” (9).
Some commentators make this the development of civil institutions that oppose Christian truth or persecute Christians. Such may be of the same nature as this man of lawlessness, but the chief attack of this “man” is upon specifically Christian truth from within the framework of Christian worship–“takes his seat in the temple of God.” The description does not seem to isolate this person to a single individual but a collection of individuals committed corporately, perhaps purposely or by identical outlook, to an opposition to holiness, absolute moral law, and the perfection and finality of revealed truth. This principle already was at work in the apostle’s time (3, 7). Peter warned against it in 2 Peter 2, as did Jude (3, 4), and John (1 John 4:1-6). In letter 2 John emphasized unity with those “who know the truth” and the necessity of “walking in truth” for “many deceivers have gone out into the world.” He admonished resistance to anyone who “does not abide in the teaching of Christ” (1, 4, 7, 9). In 3 John we learn that “your truth” must be consistent with “the truth” and that the clear evidence of true faith is “walking in the truth” (3, 4, 12). Wherever such departure from truth has become confident, chronic, and insistent we find one who is in accord with the intentions of the “son of destruction.”
Dr. Tom Nettles is widely regarded as one of the foremost Baptist historians in America. He joined the faculty of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary after teaching at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was professor of Church History and chairman of that department. Previously, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. He received a B.A. from Mississippi College and an M.Div. and Ph.D. from Southwestern. In addition to writing numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles has authored or edited nine books including By His Grace and For His Glory, Baptists and the Bible, and Why I Am a Baptist.
Courses taught: Historical Theology of the Baptists, Historical Theology Overview, Jonathan Edwards & Andrew Fuller.