Harry Whittaker
Five Minutes To Twelve

12. The Man Of Sin

What might be called the traditional interpretation of Paul's unique prophecy in 2 Thessalonians 2 goes something like this. The Man of Sin is the pope, revealed as head of a mighty corrupt system of religious apostasy. He calls himself God on earth, and makes many other comparable claims, the spiritual despot over the lives of many millions. Development in this direction was already under way, as Paul wrote (it is asserted), but as yet real progress was slow because restrained by a greater power (that of imperial Rome?) which would brook no rival. When this apostasy flowered it would be accompanied by a wide variety of signs and wonders designed to bolster up its authority, so that men unwilling to accept the spiritual authority of the gospel would find this a titillating alternative, until the great day of the manifestation of Christ in glory who will sweep away the Man of Sin and all his system with an exercise of divine power.

In some respects this interpretation seems to answer to the details in Paul's prophecy extraordinarily well. But there are also other considerations, which should cause the modern student of the Word to pause and question.

For instance, it should be recognized honestly that as soon as Martin Luther's Reformation (which was less than half a reformation) took place, this Scripture and Daniel 7 and the Babylon prophecies in Revelation were immediately and for the first time given papal applications. They were all splendid rods with which to beat the back of the pope. And of course the Catholic experts were not slow to assert - and demonstrate- that the boot was on the other foot, Martin Luther was the Man of Sin! From the dispassionate viewpoint of the Truth in Christ all this now looks very much like Satan rebuking Sin.

This "traditional" interpretation, then, should be seen for what it is-an inheritance from men who themselves were a long, long way from the Truth concerning many fundamental principles - principles which the young Christadelphian takes in his stride today, and should thank God fervently for. The question has to be asked in all solemnity: What likelihood is there that Protestant divines who blithely and erroneously dogmatised about the trinity, and the devil, and the nature of Christ, and the immortal soul, and hell-fire, a present kingdom of God, and episcopacy, and baptism, and a good many more teachings, should be given a marvellous insight into the most intricate mysteries of Bible prophecy such as to make them the authorities, guides and instructors of the faithful remnant who hold to the Truth in the Last Days? Any decently instructed class of Christadelphian teenagers could explain the real truth regarding these errors still held in Protestantism, and could provide the simple Bible evidence! But come to the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation - and Thessalonians - and the tables are turned: the learned fool becomes the instructor of those blessed with rich insight into God's purpose in Christ! Is there not something rather odd about these paradoxical circumstances?

Further, when examined in greater detail this conventional Man of Sin exposition begins to look a trifle threadbare. Why should Paul spend so much time and effort (2 Th. 2: 5) warning his new converts about the corruption of their new-found faith, long centuries later?

Why should he speak of this Man of Sin as "sitting in the temple of God"? Without exception the apostles used this expression only regarding the Household of Christ. Would any believer of the Truth accept the Vatican or St. Peter's as being "the temple of God"? But the received exposition requires this! These Thessalonian converts had learned that "the most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands." But by the time the popes had reached the point where their fantastic claims to divine authority began to be plausible (is not A.D. 608 the classic date?), the Truth had as good as disappeared from sight, and the pope was sitting enthroned not in the temple of God but over a system which was already rotten right through.

Again, with very obvious intention to call Judas to mind, Paul described the Man of Sin as "the son of perdition" (John 17: 12). What appropriateness, at all, is there in this? Judas was close to Christ, an able and trusted helper, "the one of the twelve" (Mark 14: 10 Gk.). No pope has ever been within a thousand spiritual miles of being a true disciple, later turned false (Psalm 55: 13,14). Then did Paul's marvellous aptness of phrase desert him here?

Another expression lines up with this: ´´whose coming is after the working of Satan, with all power and signs and lying wonders." It is impossible not to be reminded of Paul's description elsewhere of his own ministry: "Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in signs, and wonders and mighty deeds" (2 Cor. 12: 12). In the Greek text the words are identical except for the inclusion, in Thessalonians, of the word "lying", and the substitution there for “in-working" in place of Paul's "thorough working". So again the most obvious explanation would appear to be that Paul was describing the personal activity of one who claimed apostolic status, but only in order to undermine the whole fabric of the Ecclesia, the true temple of God, from within.

The verb tenses in this prophecy have been given but scant attention, have even been man-handled. Most of the way, Paul wrote in the future tense. Then why the exceptions in verses 9, 10, 12?: "they received not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness. . . for this cause God is sending them an in-working of error. " A worthwhile explanation of this prophecy will find room for remarkable features of this kind. The most natural conclusion to draw is that Paul had his eye on some movement of stubborn refusal to accept the truth in Christ, which was current in his own time and had already shown its hostile attitude in very effective fashion.

From this point it is now possible to proceed more positively:

That phrase "an in-working of error" (compare v.7, 9) provides significant help. It certainly has a marvellous aptness as allusion to the Lord's parable of the leaven (Matthew 13: 33). This is made all the more likely by the fact that there are at least six or seven other references to that gospel elsewhere in 2 Thessalonians - and a great many more than that in 1 Thessalonians! The sequence in Matthew 13 should be pondered. First, a parable about the preaching of the gospel; then another about the malicious sowing of tares - a deliberate attempt to wreck the good work by secret internal hostile activity; then a parable about leaven spreading its corrupting influence till "the whole is leavened." Without exception every allusion in the Bible to leaven makes it a symbol of that which is evil.

This sequence, which continues through the chapter, is a prophecy of the fate of the gospel. At the time Paul wrote, the sinister process of defeating Christianity from within was already being carried through with Judaist hypocritical efficiency and devilish success.

A year or two earlier Paul had warned about "false brethren unawares brought in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage" (Gal. 2: 4). Men of this kidney had deliberately followed Paul and Barnabas round the newly-formed Galatian churches in order to undo all their work, skilfully persuading inexperienced Gentile converts that they must not only believe the gospel of Christ but also accept all the obligations of the Law of Moses.

The same influential unscrupulous set had practically won over Peter and Barnabas at Antioch to their gospel of salvation by works of the Law (Gal. 2: 11-14). A year or two later the same clique were to attempt identical subversive tactics at Corinth, with almost complete success. The ecclesia there was ultimately saved to the Truth, but only after many a heartache for Paul and his helpers.

At the back of Paul's amazing and uncharacteristic self-vindication in 2 Corinthians 11, was the need to assert himself against his detractors who had travelled to Corinth in his steps. "Such are false apostles, deceitful workers, fashioning themselves into apostles of Christ ("all power and signs and lying wonders"!). And no marvel; for Satan himself (their leader) fashioneth himself into a messenger of light" (11: 13,14). Their derogation of Paul was clever and quite unprincipled: "his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible... he terrifies you by letters... rude in speech" (10: 9,10; 11: 6). The tactics are familiar. They have even been known in the ecclesias of the twentieth century: damn a healthy movement by besmirching the character of its protagonists. The method is as old as human nature.

Even though Paul had only been a few months in Thessalonica, and a few more away from it, the efficient machine of the opposition had already gone into action, creating a minor crisis among the new brethren by means of a forged letter, purporting to have come from Paul himself: "We beseech you...that ye be not soon shaken in mind (the same Greek word as in Acts 17: 13) or be troubled, neither by spirit (i.e. one claiming to speak by Holy Spirit guidance; cp. the usage in 1 John 4: 1-3; 1 Tim. 4: 1), nor by word, nor by letter as from us" (2 Th. 2: 2). For this reason it became necessary for Paul to provide undeniable authentication to his own epistles: "The salutation of me Paul with mine own hand, which is the token in every epistle: so I write" (3 : 17). Having had bitter samples of the opposition's tactics before, Paul had forewarned his new converts: "Remember ye not, that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things?" (2: 5). Their very existence in Christ was at stake. No wonder, then, that he gave them this rather bitter forecast of yet greater evil impending. (For more details of this sort: "Acts" H.A.W. App. 3).

Thus the picture emerges of a devilish influence at work in the early church deliberately seeking to bring to ruin the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles. The evidence for this is hardly to be contested. Then was this movement, and more particularly its leader, the Man of Sin whom Paul warned against?

There is no single phrase in the prophecy, which does not answer to this hypothesis.

Obviously the leader, whom Paul calls "Satan, transforming himself into an angel of light" (2 Cor. 11: 14) was a man of great personality and impressive qualifications, or how could he have undermined so quickly and easily Paul's standing in that ecclesia? Obviously he was able to parade such qualifications as would at least rival those of Paul. (It is tempting to make guesses as to his identity. There is one N.T. character who is a good candidate). He was of near apostolic status. If not actually having Holy Spirit powers of his own (2 Th.2: 2-9; Heb. 6: 4-6), his cleverness and unscrupulous methods enabled him to match the "signs of the apostle" which had been seen in Paul. He dwelt in "the temple of God', being accepted in many ecclesias as a believer of good standing.

But how would it be possible for even such a man to "shew himself that he is God" (verse 4)? Here the Greek word occurs without the definite article, as at the end of John 1:1. This rules out any claim to divinity, of the kind that has been made for the popes, and brings the claim to a lower level of divine authority, such as would be natural in anyone claiming Holy Spirit power and such as Paul himself normally claimed for his own work.

"The mystery of iniquity doth already work," Paul warned; that is, the wicked secret movement is already busy among you Thessalonians as, earlier, in so many other places. But at present its influence and effectiveness were kept in check by Paul himself-"he that letteth, hindereth". Who but Paul, would have dared to withstand Peter to the face? Before many years he was to be 'taken out of the midst." And then the malevolent hostility, already evident enough to Paul, though not to his apostolic colleagues in far-off Jerusalem, would show itself in its true colours.

Those Greek tenses mentioned earlier now present no difficulty whatever. Al1 the other details in this short prophecy will now be seen to chime in readily with the exposition set out here.

But, it may be objected, all these suggestions fall to the ground before one big fact- the prophecy describes a power which will be in existence till the coming of the Lord: "whom the Lord will consume with the spirit of his mouth, and destroy with the brightness of his coming" (v.8).

It is agreed that the words do require this Man of Sin to meet with dramatic judgment from the Lord in person. But the idea that therefore he must have a continuous existence right up to the Last Days is pure (sic) assumption. The words mean no more than this - that this man, thoroughly responsible to the Lord of Glory, will certainly be raised in the Last Day, and condemned for his cynically evil work among the inexperienced saints whom he misled in the first century. In an earlier passage in the same epistle (1: 6-10) the same idea is readily traceable: "It is a righteous thing with God to recompense tribulation to them that trouble you; and to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power."

Here it is time to pause. There is possible (so it is submitted here) a detailed exposition of the Man of Sin prophecy with reference to a Jewish conspiracy to wreck the early church, and especially its Gentile extensions, from within. It is a fulfilment, which has strong New Testament pointers to support it, which was marvellously relevant both to the man who wrote it and those who received its warnings, and it fits into its context as a hand into a glove.

Yet even now there are other facets of the prophecy, which give it a yet greater fascination and instruction for saints in Christ today.

Since the Letters to Thessalonica are shot through with a strong emphasis on the Second Coming, it does not seem unreasonable to look for a further fulfilment of the Man of Sin prophecy in the present era, on similar lines to that already suggested.

How far does one have to look i n order to identify a movement of the kind Paul had to contend against? - one which is strongly Judaist in its emphasis, exclusive in its concept of fellowship, aggressive in its conversionism, lopsided in its enthusiasm for sacrifices rather than the Sacrifice, more at home with Moses and the Law than with Jesus and the Gospels, incomparably zealous for the pronouncements of the "rabbis", and better at interpreting Scripture by tradition rather than by Scripture.

Those who live in "the uttermost parts of the earth" are best fitted to judge whether or not Paul's searing prophecy about the Man of Sin has relevance to their own circumstances. And having made their assessment, they will be at least able to thank God for this fulfilment, however depressing it may be, of another sign of the nearness of their Lord's coming.

Paul, you should have been with us in this hour also.

Next Next Next