The Man of Sin (1)
Martha asked about the Man of Sin. The text is 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12. Some Thessalonians were distressed because they had been urged to believe that the day of the Lord had already come (2:2). Half believing it, I suppose they would wonder what had become of their loved ones that had died, the ones Paul said in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 Christ would bring with him? There was no sign of them.
Paul assures them that the day of the Lord hadn’t come and he reminds them of what he used to teach them while he was with them. And what was that? He taught them that an apostasy would come and that it would be connected with "the man of lawlessness" who would be destroyed by the Lord at his coming (2:3,8). For that to be true the apostasy would have to come first, come to focus in "the man of sin" and then he would be destroyed at the coming of the Lord.
It’s clear from this that Paul is banking on their realizing that the apostasy hadn’t yet developed and that the "man of lawlessness" had not yet appeared in order to be destroyed by the Lord’s coming.
[All kinds of interesting things develop here and one of them is this: The Thessalonians must not have connected the coming of the Lord with the literal destruction of the earth and heaven. If Paul had taught that when the Lord comes the earth was literally to be burned up, why would he bother to talk of an apostasy and the rest? Why didn’t he just say something like, "How can you believe the Lord has already come when the earth has not been burned up?]
The "man of sin" will be revealed in connection with apostasy, he is presently restrained, but he will be fully revealed when the "restrainer" is removed and the Lord will destroy him at his coming. Those appear to be explicitly affirmed by the text.
I think there are two things we need to keep in mind while wrestling with this section. One is that the rise of the "man of sin" is imminent when Paul writes. I say that because he says, "the secret power of lawlessness is already at work" (2:7) and were it not for some "restrainer" the Man of sin would be out in the open. There’s no suggestion that Paul wrote that on Thursday and that by Sunday of the following week the "man of lawlessness" should be standing in a temple somewhere but some degree of imminence is surely conveyed. Since Paul had already told the Thessalonians who or what "the restrainer" was it’s difficult to see the restrainer as some still future person or structure. Especially since the restrainer was already at work nearly two thousand years ago. I think the commentators sense this imminence element since they identify the restrainer as perhaps Paul, the gospel proclamation to the nations (compare Matthew 24:14), the ordered society created by Rome, the Roman empire and such like.
Assuming the imminence of the lawless one’s appearance generates some tensions for us. One commentator sees the imminence, takes it that this is some specific individual who was to be destroyed at the Lord’s coming and concludes that Paul taught that the Lord was soon to return. He says that the only reason we don’t accept that is because we don’t want Paul to be mistaken about the coming of the Lord. I think the commentator is correct to speak of the lawless one’s imminence, I think he is mistaken in saying that he was some individual and I think he is mistaken to think that what Paul said implied that the Lord was returning very shortly.
The second one is this, Paul doesn’t say that the appearance of the "man of lawlessness" coincides with the time of the Lord’s coming. He says you can be sure that the Lord’s coming is yet future because the apostasy hasn’t taken place and the "Man of sin" has not yet been fully revealed. The most common way of reading this section is something like this. "The Lord hasn’t come yet and the proof of it is that there has been no major apostasy and the Man of Sin has not appeared. You see the Man of Sin is to appear just prior to the return of Christ."
I can see that that makes sensible reading but maybe it isn’t what Paul said. The crucial link is missing. Paul says nothing here that would lead us to think, "The Man of Sin is to appear just prior to the return of Christ."
The Lord hasn’t come yet
The apostasy hasn’t yet occurred
The Man of lawlessness has not yet been (fully) revealed
These two events must occur before Christ returns
Christ will destroy him when he returns.
That looks like a summary of the basic proposals in the text and there’s no mention or indication that the Lawless one’s full manifestation occurs just prior to the coming of the Lord.
What is it that makes us think that the text does suggest this about the Man of Sin’s appearance? I think the primary motivation is that we take the Man of lawlessness as a particular individual. It certainly reads like it’s a particular individual. If it’s a particular person we don’t want him appearing sometime, say in the first century, and living long enough to be around when Christ comes, say in the 21st century. This would mean we have an individual somewhere in our midst who’s about 2,000 years old.
So we don’t want the Man of sin to come on the scene in the first century because we would have to choose between having this very old man or that Paul was wrong about the coming of the Lord. The question of imminence appears to me to be of critical importance. It seems we should choose between:
There is no imminence in the text—neither the coming of Christ nor the rise of the Man of sin is imminent.
There is imminence in the text—the revelation of the Man of sin.
There is imminence in the text—both the revelation of the Man of sin and the coming of the Lord.