COMMENTARY ON SECOND THESSALONIANS
2 Thess 2:5 "Remember ye not, that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things? 6 And now ye know what withholdeth that he might be revealed in his time. 7 For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way." (2 Thessalonians 2:5-7)
The passage before us has been unduly corrupted by men, if, indeed, "unduly" can be assigned to corruption. Admittedly, the text has the tone of difficulty. This has moved some to ignore it, leaving it to the be expounded by those with even less understanding than themselves. There are periods in history when religious men have especially veered away from difficult texts, preferring to deal with rudimentary things, mainly those pertaining to Law and human relationships. There is no advantage to this approach, for it opens the door for deceivers, who dare to wrap their own corrupt ideas in texts of Scripture. Our text is an example of how such a thing happens. In my judgment, this is the text, or at least one of them, to which Peter referred: "As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other Scriptures, unto their own destruction" (2 Pet 3:16). Peter said these words within the context of the coming of the Lord and the consequent passing away of the natural order (vs 10-14). Those who "wrest," or "twist" NKJV bring destruction upon themselves: "unto their own destruction." This is precisely what both covenants declared would happen to those daring to distort Scripture (Deut 4:2; Rev 22:18-19). Therefore, though "hard to be understood," care must be taken not to misrepresent the meaning of Scripture. Finally, it is imperative that we correlate this text with the rest of Scripture.
I TOLD YOU THESE THINGS
" 5 Remember ye not, that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things?" Other versions emphasize how the telling of "these things" was continual, not a one-time or infrequent proclamation: "I was telling you these things?," NASB and "I used to tell you these things?" NIV The teaching of reference was, then, repetitive. It was deemed essential to the proper instruction and culturing of the people of God.
CENTERED IN THE PERSON OF CHRIST. "These things" relate to the second appearing (Heb 9:28) of our blessed Lord. That was a common theme in Apostolic preaching. It is vital to recognize that proper repetitive teaching always centers in the Person of Christ. Some brief textual comparisons will serve to illustrate this. In the Epistles "Jesus Christ" occurs 168 times, "Christ Jesus" 57 time, "Lord Jesus" 19 times, and "the Lord" 160 times, for a total of 404 times. This does not include "Savior" (19 times) and "Son of God" (16 times). "Family" occurs a single time, and then it refers to the saved (Eph 3:15). "Husbands" is found 12 times, "wives" 11 times, "money" 1 time, "youth" 1 time, "home" 4 times, "household" 5 times, and "house" 18 times. Of the 71 times "children" is used, only 15 refer to domestic relationships. The heart of all true doctrine is Jesus Christ. What He has done overshadows all the works of all men through all ages. What He is currently doing is declared to be the supreme and most effective work. The heart of all references to the future relates to the Lord Jesus Christ: His coming, the gathering of His people unto Himself, and the thrusting of the wicked from His presence. He is the One who will "judge the world in righteousness" (Acts 17:31). He is the One whose name has already been exalted above every other name, and who will be unveiled in a glory so great it will drown out all other glories (1 Tim 6:15-16). All of the holy angels will rally around Him when He comes (Matt 25:31). All of the nations of the world will be gathered before Him (Matt 25:32). Every knee will bow to Him, and every tongue will confess that He is Lord (Phil 2:10-11).
While the emphasis of Christ Jesus ought to be apparent, there has been such a deterioration in religion that this is not longer the case at all. Jesus has been upstaged by emphases on the church, the home, and the country. Health, finances, domestic relationships, and rules for living have been given greater prominence than the Son of God Himself. While all of these things do have a place in "sound doctrine," they are always in view of the Lord Jesus Christ and His imminent return. They are never an emphasis, never the acid test of spirituality, and never the basis for Divine approval.
The "things" that were the thrust of Paul's preaching and teaching related to the Lord Jesus Christ. He was the heart and core of all of the Apostle's teaching. He never brought the people to a point where the place of Jesus lost its prominence. No person who gave heed to his teaching experienced Jesus receding into the background of theological thought. Everything obtained value by virtue of its association with the Son of God. Anything that lost value did so because it was not related to the Lord's Christ. There is such a unanimity in this perspective that it cannot be questioned.
We are living in a time when professed Christians have been robbed of a proper perspective of Jesus. Within the professed church, the level of comprehension concerning His Person, death, resurrection, exaltation, intercession, and reappearing is not at an acceptable level. We are living in a time that cries out for the centrality of Jesus in word and thought.
CHRIST'S COMING IN RELATION TO THE WICKED. The particular facet of Jesus which Paul often declared was His coming in relation to the wicked. He taught Jesus would "bring to light the hidden things of darkness" (1 Cor 5:4), "subdue all things unto Himself" (Phil 3:21), bring "sudden destruction" upon the wicked (1 Thess 5:3), and "take vengeance on them that know not God, and obey not the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ" (2 Thess 1:8). Jesus will not only return to be "glorified in His saints," and "admired in all them that believe," but to punish the ungodly with "everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power" (2 Thess 1:9-10). When the people of God are gathered into their eternal abode, the wicked will be punished with "unquenchable fire" (Matt 3:12). When all stand before the Lord of glory, He will say to the wicked, "Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matt 25:41).
This proclamation is fundamental to "sound doctrine." It serves to make our sufferings tolerable, knowing the Lord will handle our case. It empowers us to be merciful toward our enemies, praying for and blessing them. It also has an effective ministry in drawing us away from unlawful involvement with the children of this generation. Such teaching helps to keep the saints alert and sensitive to the will of the Lord. It needs to be declared.
KNOWING WHAT RESTRAINS HIM NOW
" 6 And now ye know what withholdeth that he might be revealed in his time." Because of the seeming ambiguity of this text, all manner of strange doctrines have arisen around it. Other versions read, "And now you know what is restraining, that he may be revealed in his own time." NKJV "And you know what restrains him now, so that in his time he may be revealed," NASB and "And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time." NIV
Note the use of the neuter gender here: i.e., "what," not "who." The next verse speaks of a personality: "the one who holds back," NIV and "he who now restrains." NASB This one, however, speaks of something holding back the revelation of "the man of sin" not someone.
Considering that "the man of sin" or "son of perdition" was a corrupt universal religious leader, first unveiled in the Pope, the restraining influence is considered to be political Rome. Until the government of Rome fell, the rise of papal Rome did not take place. This does strictly comport with the historical formalization of corrupt Christianity. Rome fell in 476 A.D. to the German chieftain Odoacer. It is historically acknowledged that the papacy rose to prominence only after that political fall. "The 6th to the 16th century marked the rise of the papacy to the position of unique prominence within the Christian community that, despite vicissitudes, it has since retained." GOLIER ENCYCLOPEDIA Until that time, the Roman emperors would not allow religious dominance. This perspective has been generally understood since church father John Chrysostom (346-407 A.D.). Yet, I do not believe this exhausts the meaning of the text. Nor, indeed, does it appear proper to bend prophecies around mere historical occurrences. While the thought just mentioned will be developed further in the next verse, it seems to me that a matter of greater importance is being set forth in this text.
GOSPEL PREACHING. During the reign of imperial Rome, something took place that was prophesied by the Lord Jesus Himself. "And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come" (Matt 24:14). This referred to the opening of "the door of faith" to the Gentiles (Acts 14:27). With remarkable aggressiveness, the early church rapidly spread the Word of God throughout the world. Before the completion of the book of Acts (around 63 A.D.), the following places had heard the Gospel of Christ. Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:4), Greece (20:2), Africa (8:27-39), Syria (15:23), Italy (18:2), Egypt (2:10), Asia (19:10), Arabia (Gal 1:17), and Asia Minor, the area around Turkey (18:23). By the time Paul wrote Colossians, he said the Gospel had "been proclaimed to every creature under heaven" NIV (Col. 1:23). By this, I understand he meant the sound of the Gospel had girdled the globe.
The point of our text is that God would not allow the venom of religious corruption to rise to prominence until the Gospel had gone out to the Gentiles as He promised. The Gospel of Christ would penetrate foreign regions before a falling away would come. That should be apparent from the term "falling away." Satan could not elevate his fabrication of the church until the good news was published to the nations. He could not stop the day of Pentecost from occurring, and he could not stop the spread of the Gospel to the Gentile world! At one particular part of Paul's life, his enemies said that "almost throughout all Asia" he had "persuaded and turned away much people" from idolatry (Acts 19:26). Because of Paul, within the brief framework of two years, "all they which dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks" (Acts 19:10).
During this time, the "falling away" of which Paul has spoken did not take place. And why not? Does any one suppose it was because Satan did not press to produce a great falling away? Indeed not! He was held back by the Word of the Lord, until the good news of the Gospel was published abroad! When Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, the Word was in the process of being spread throughout the Gentile world., just as Jesus said it would.
The call of the Gentiles was not something left solely in the hands of men. Jesus had declared He had the preeminent role in this grand enterprise. "And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd" (John 10:16). Satan could not upstage that determination! His diabolical purposes were restrained until the Great Shepherd could penetrate into the formerly desolate nations of the world through the preaching of the Gospel. The early church saw this beginning with the conversion of Cornelius, showing how "God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name" (Acts 15:14). The dreaded "man of sin" or "son of perdition" was not allowed to rise until the Gentile world was visited with the Gospel of salvation. Both history and Scripture confirms this to be the case.
THE MYSTERY OF INIQUITY IS AT WORK
" 5 For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way." The NASB reads, "For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains will do so until he is taken out of the way." The word "letteth" is an old English word for restrain, and is defined in the modern dictionary as "to delay, hinder." MERRIAM-WEBSTER The text, then, declares that the "son of perdition" cannot rise to prominence until a hindering influence is removed. In distinction to the preceding verse, this influence is ascribed to a personality, rather the purpose of God. It is to be understood that the hindering person or position exercises his influence by the immutable will of God.
What some men say about this text. Today, because there has been so little substantial preaching concerning the coming of the Lord, men have greatly corrupted this text. It is taught by some that the Holy Spirit is the One who is restraining the rise of "the man of sin." It is alleged that the Holy Spirit will be removed from the world when the church is raptured out of it, thereby giving rise to the Antichrist. An imaginative bit of theology, indeed! It supposes that the world can remain without the saints. It also represents saints as being warned about evil influences in this world, to which they will never be exposed.
It also ought to be noted that a view, such as the one just described, were it true, represents a new teaching. Nowhere else is such a thing clearly taught in the Word. The idea must be violently forced into the text of Scripture. There is no text that clearly makes such a statement or represents such an event. Only human interpretations can produce such a dogma. Suffice it to say, no valid doctrine, or teaching, can be shrouded in mystery. Doctrine exercises no power over the hearts and souls of men as long as it remains mysterious.
This is to be compared with "mystery of godliness," which centers in Christ Jesus and His great salvation (1 Tim 3:16). The "mystery of iniquity" focuses on Satan's intentions. Both mysteries must be revealed to be known. Both revelations are under the governorship of Jesus.
MYSTERY OF INIQUITY. Here, the very circumstances that would give rise to Satan's premier leader were already at work. The NIV refers to the "secret power of lawlessness." The foundations were being laid for the coming apostasy or falling away. Satan is a shrewd strategist, crafting schemes to divert the saints from glory, and doing so to the full extent that God allows. If this was true in the first century, what of our own time?
ALREADY WORK. Although unable to carry out his intentions fully, the devil was leading men to believe they could have a form of godliness while denying its power. The seeds of this corruption were seen in the fall of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5), the church in Ephesus losing its first love (Rev 2:4), and the church at Galatia returning to a system of Law (Gal 4:9-10). It was seen in the rise of Hymaneus and Philetus (2 Tim 2:17;18), Diotrephes (3 John 9-10), and preachers who "mind earthly things" (Phil 3:19).
HE WHO LETTETH. Others translations read "he who restrains," NASB "he who holds back," NIV and "he who is keeping down now." BBE As I have said, some teach this refers to the Holy Spirit. However, I know of no text that represents the presence of the Holy Spirit as restraining evil. In Noah's day, He was represented as striving with men (Gen 6:3). He was present, travailing with humanity, yet iniquity broke forth in unprecedented measures. The Spirit is represented as convicting the world (John 16:8-11), and leading the saints (Rom 8:14). Further, it does not appear likely that the Holy Spirit would be referenced in such vague terms.
The emphasis here is not on WHO does the restraining, but on the continued restraint of the wicked one who will be revealed: i.e., "the one who now holds it back will continue to do so." NIV I understand this to refer to the Roman empire in general, and the rule of law in particular. The government of Rome was noted for its legal system. So much so, indeed, that Paul himself could "appeal to Caesar" (Acts 25:11). That system, embodied in the Caesar's, restrained the rise of "the man of sin," who himself sought the dominancy.
TAKEN OUT OF THE WAY. The language refers to Divine intervention. It is God alone who "changes the times and the seasons; He removes kings and raises up kings" (Dan 2:21). Whether this refers to the fall or the Roman empire, or a decline of civil law during the latter times, the meaning of our text is the same. God uses means to restrain the outbreak of religious corruption, thereby protecting His saints. Too, the falling away and the revelation of "the man of sin" are not the last events on the horizon of time. Ultimately the revelation of the Son of God is the ultimate disclosure! We are to live convinced that Jesus is governing for the advantage of the saints until that time. Severe corruption will not break forth prematurely, and Divine restraint will not continue one second beyond the will of God. Admittedly, this a difficult passage. Yet, it has discernible facets that bring advantage to us.