Before the “Day of the Lord” arrives, the “lawless one” will be revealed who will deceive many with “signs and lying wonders.”
According to Paul, the day when Jesus “arrives” to gather his elect will not come until the “apostasy” takes place and the “man of lawlessness” is unveiled. And in 2 Thessalonians, he also refers to this dark figure as the “son of destruction” and the “lawless one.” He will use “signs and lying wonders” and “deceit” to destroy all those who “refuse the love of the truth.”
In his letter, the two events are connected. Whether the “apostasy” prepares the way for the “lawless one” or he causes believers to apostatize after his “arrival” amounts to the same thing. Apostasy is the goal – (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12).
The references to “lawlessness” echo the words of Jesus from his discourse on the Mount of Olives – “And because of lawlessness being brought to the full, the love of the many will grow cold” – (Matthew 24:10-12).
The Greek verb rendered “brought to the full” means to “abound, multiply, bring to fulness.” It is related to the noun and verb translated elsewhere as “fulfill.” Here, it points to a time when “lawlessness” will become dominant. The same idea is present in Paul’s description of the “mystery of lawlessness” that is working even now and will continue to do so until the proper time when the “lawless one” is revealed – (2 Thessalonians 2:6-7).
The clause, “son of destruction,” occurs only twice in the New Testament – here and on the lips of Jesus when he applied it to Judas Iscariot – “And not one of them perished except the son of destruction.” And Judas certainly is the epitome of the ultimate apostate – (John 17:12).
Whether Paul had that saying in mind, he certainly drew on a passage from Daniel when describing the “lawless one” who will “oppose and exalt himself against all that is called God or that is worshipped.” This clause alludes to the king and “contemptible one” in Daniel who profaned the sanctuary, installed the “abomination of desolation,” and “exalted and magnified himself above every god, and spoke marvelous things against the God of gods” – (Daniel 11:22-36).
The passage from Daniel referred originally to the Hellenic ruler who used flattery and deceit to cause many in Israel to apostatize, and he also persecuted those who resisted his agenda, namely, Antiochus IV. In Daniel, he is called the “little horn,” the “king of fierce countenance,” and the “contemptible one.” When “transgressions had come to the full,” he “waged war on the saints,” “destroyed the saints,” and “perverted” those Israelites who betrayed the “holy covenant.” All this made him the perfect model for Paul’s “man of lawlessness” who will cause many to apostatize – (Daniel 7:21-26, 8:22-25, 11:1-4, 11:30-36).
In an ultimate act of blasphemy, this man “sat in the sanctuary of God” (ton naon tou theou). There is no record that Antiochus IV even entered the Temple in Jerusalem, though he certainly did profane it when he erected an altar to Zeus Olympias on the altar of burnt offering, the so-called “abomination that desolates.”
Paul’s description may refer to the “lawless one” violating the inner sanctuary of the Temple in Jerusalem. However, elsewhere he shows little interest in that structure, and instead consistently applies “sanctuary of God” and similar terms to the church. We should also bear in mind that this man’s purpose is to cause believers to apostatize – (1 Corinthians 6:19, 2 Corinthians 6:16, Ephesians 2:21).
Whether this refers to the literal temple or metaphorically to the church, this figure will be “revealed” when he “seats himself” in God’s “sanctuary,” and that will be the moment when his identity will be made clear, at least to those who have wisdom and discernment. When the “mystery of lawlessness” has reached the designated “season,” then this man will be “revealed” for what he is – (2 Thessalonians 2:7-8).
There is a close parallel to Paul’s description of the “mystery of lawlessness” in John’s first epistle, where he described the “spirit of antichrist” that is already at work in the world. As evidence of its presence, he pointed to the deceivers that had arisen within many Christian congregations, false teachers he labeled “antichrists” – (1 John 2:18-22, 4:1-3).
The “revelation” of the “lawless one” will constitute his “arrival” or parousia. Here, Paul uses the same Greek noun he applies to the “arrival” of Jesus in the next verse. This suggests that this man’s appearance will mimic the “arrival” of Christ. His “revealing” will be characterized by “all power and signs and lying wonders” designed to deceive “all those who refuse the love of the truth.” By “lying wonders” Paul does not mean fake miracles, but “signs and wonders” intended to deceive.
This echoes Christ’s own warning about “false prophets” and “false messiahs” that will work “signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.” It also is conceptually parallel to the “false prophet” in the book of Revelation who employs miraculous “signs” to deceive men so they render homage to the “beast from the sea” – (Matthew 24:24, Revelation 13:11-16).
In contrast, when Jesus “arrives” (parousia), he will slay the “lawless one” with the “spirit of his mouth” and paralyze him with the “manifestation of his arrival” – (2 Thessalonians 2:8-9).
The “lawless one” will be “energized by Satan” to use “all deceit of unrighteousness” to cause those who will not “receive the love of the truth” to perish. Paul stated this as part of his discussion about the “apostasy” and the “man of lawlessness.” This does NOT refer to humanity in general, but to Christians who “believed not the truth.” What caused him to write this were the voices who were disrupting the church with false claims about the “day of the Lord.”
In contrast, Paul had full confidence that the Thessalonians would remain faithful and attain salvation because they continued to “hold fast the traditions you were taught whether by word or epistle of ours,” unlike those who were “troubling” the church with erroneous teachings about the coming of Jesus “either by spirit, or by word, or by epistle as from us.”
Paul’s conclusion stresses the necessity to adhere to the apostolic tradition, the teachings of Jesus, and his apostles. Following them is how one embraces the “love of the truth,” avoids apostasy, and attains salvation on the day when Jesus “arrives” to “gather” his people to himself. And that “tradition” includes the Apostle’s instructions about the “apostasy” and the “man of lawlessness.”