Our Past and Future Hope – Chapter Six: The Man of Sin and That Which Restrains

2 Thessalonians 2

This is chapter six of Our Past and Future Hope: Reintroducing a Traditional Faith-Building Eschatology by Jason Giles. The Contents page is here.

The paperback and Kindle versions are now available here.

The PDF/Epub ebook version is available here.

Many secular scholars today believe Jesus and Paul are failed prophets, and their eschatology was one of ‘imminence’ and urgency that failed to be realized. The Day of the Lord and the Kingdom of God were preached, but they did not come as promised, according to these scholars.

The Thessalonian church was dismayed for much the same reason- they also thought Paul was saying that the coming of Christ was imminent, so much so that he had already returned and they had somehow missed it. But Paul was quick to address this misunderstanding (or devious twisting of his words from others):

Now, brothers, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to him, we ask you 2 not to be quickly shaken in your mind, and not be troubled, either by spirit, or by word, or by letter as if from us, saying that the day of Christ has already come. 3 Let no one deceive you in any way. For it will not be, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of destruction, 4 he who opposes and exalts himself against all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, setting himself up as God. 5 Don’t you remember that, when I was still with you, I told you these things? 6 Now you know what is restraining him, to the end that he may be revealed in his own season. (2 Thessalonians 2:1-6, WEB)

The coming of Christ was not imminent in the way they understood it to be- there were significant events that had to happen first. Namely, there would be an apostasy, or falling away from true faith in Christ, and the ‘man of sin’ would be unrestrained by whatever was holding him back, setting himself up as God in the temple of God.

These major events could be intimated long before they happened by a good understanding of Daniel chapter 7. If this man of sin is the same character as the little horn of Daniel 7, then there would have to be tremendous upheaval in the Roman Empire before he could appear. If you followed along in the last chapter of this book, you can see how that played out in history.

But we have the benefit of hindsight. Paul understood enough from the prophecy in Daniel to be able to share a significant future event before it happened: something was holding back the coming of the man of sin, and had to be taken out of the way first. Something that he couldn’t mention by name or they would all get in trouble (if it was the Holy Spirit who restrained the man of sin, he could just say so). Something that he was able to tell them in person, but only hint at in a letter (“Don’t you remember that, when I was still with you, I told you these things?”). Something that wouldn’t be wise to write down explicitly with all of the eyes of the Empire on them: The Roman Empire would be gone before the man of sin could be revealed.

Here was a marker that was impossible to miss. Rome was thought to be eternal- how could such a mighty empire fall? But it had been foretold centuries before, recorded in Scripture in Daniel’s dream of the four beasts. It was plain to see that the fourth beast, the Roman Empire, would be split apart into ten kingdoms, and that the little horn who opposes God and persecutes the saints would grow in power and take over three of them, marking the beginning of his campaign of apostasy.

Apostasy and the New Temple

The apostasy of the man of sin was another marker to watch out for. This Antichrist would be a “power rising out of the church, for that is the meaning of apostasy. It refers to an enemy, not from without but one who rises up from within.”1 He would not just rise up from within the church, but also attempt to take it over, exalting himself “against all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, setting himself up as God” (2 Thessalonians 2:4). This verse brings up another important topic- which temple is Paul talking about here? While the Temple in Jerusalem would still be around for a few more years when he wrote this letter, it has now been destroyed for over 1,950 years.

In the New Testament, the temple- the house of God, where he is worshiped- is no longer a building in Jerusalem, even if it were still standing. After Jesus had cleansed the old Temple in Jerusalem, the Jews there asked him:

“What sign do you show us, seeing that you do these things?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews therefore said, “It took forty-six years to build this temple! Will you raise it up in three days?” But he spoke of the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he said this, and they believed the Scripture, and the word which Jesus had said. (John 2:18-22, WEB)

Jesus is the Most Holy (Daniel 9:24), the chief cornerstone of God’s new temple, which we who follow him are a part of:

For through him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and of the household of God, being built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief cornerstone; in whom the whole building, fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together for a habitation of God in the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:18-22, WEB)

Paul repeats this truth more than once, and explains that it was foretold long ago:

What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols?
For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said:

“I will live with them
and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
and they will be my people.” (2 Corinthians 6:16, emphasis mine)

And again:

Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple. (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)

The time has come that Jesus spoke of, when worship would no longer be in a specific building or place, because together we are the temple in which God is worshiped:

Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour comes, when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, will you worship the Father. You worship that which you don’t know. We worship that which we know; for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour comes, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such to be his worshippers. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth. (John 4:21-24, WEB)

Therefore, the temple in which the man of sin attempts to set himself up as the ultimate authority is the church, the entire body of believers, the new temple. How fittingly this prophecy describes what the Papacy has done, and still declares itself to be! Antichrist does not set himself up in a future rebuilt third temple building and proclaim to be God- but after Rome fell, the Papacy rose within the ensuing power vacuum and declared itself to be the head of the entire church. Not long after that, it acquired civil authority over three out of ten kingdoms that were left in the ruins of the Empire. It then proclaimed itself to be ‘God on earth, head of all kingdoms, both civil and spiritual.’ All of this was foretold by Scripture, and is verified by historical facts.

The Lost Interpretation

This understanding of the passage in 2 Thessalonians 2 used to be common knowledge among Christians who have the benefit of historical hindsight. But as the traditional interpretation has diminished and been nearly forgotten in the last century, these passages have become a greater enigma than ever. Somehow, even the early church could make greater sense of them than we can today, and they did so centuries before the events came to pass! We know this because some of their writings are preserved, and many showed remarkable foresight into the events that would herald the rise of the man of sin. Fred Miller gathered most of the following quotes in his commentary,2 and I have added a few other relevant quotes. All of these works can be read in their context online for free.

Irenaeus (130 – 202 AD)

In his book Against Heresies, Irenaeus wrote about how “John and Daniel have predicted the dissolution and desolation of the Roman Empire, which shall precede the end of the world.”3 He understood “what shall happen in the last times, and concerning the ten kings who shall then arise, among whom the empire which now rules [the earth] shall be partitioned.”4 When Irenaeus wrote this, the Roman Empire was at the strongest and most peaceful time in its history. How could he have known that ‘Eternal Rome’ would fall and be replaced by ten kingdoms? Only by understanding the prophecies in Daniel and Revelation.

Irenaeus also had insight into the nature of the little horn’s kingdom. Out of those ten kingdoms Rome would be broken up into, Antichrist would arise, and he “shall slay three, and subject the remainder to his power, and that he shall be himself the eighth among them.”5 As shown in the previous chapter of this book, history affirms the papal kingdom did just that. Irenaeus also knew that Antichrist, or the man of sin, would be an apostate. Referencing the passage of Scripture about the man of sin, Irenaeus wrote that “the apostle therefore clearly points out his apostasy, and that he is lifted up above all that is called God, or that is worshipped… and that he will endeavour in a tyrannical manner to set himself forth as God.”6 How well Irenaeus understood the prophecies, as the papacy indeed rose from within the church, and claimed such titles as ‘God on earth’ throughout its history.

Irenaeus went even further. He speculated that the mark of the beast- the number 666- was probably code for the name ‘Roman,’ or in the Greek, Lateinos:

It is not through a want of names containing the number of that name that I say this, but on account of the fear of God, and zeal for the truth: for the name Evanthas (ΕΥΑΝΘΑΣ) contains the required number, but I make no allegation regarding it. Then also Lateinos (ΛΑΤΕΙΝΟΣ) has the number six hundred and sixty-six; and it is a very probable [solution], this being the name of the last kingdom [of the four seen by Daniel]. For the Latins are they who at present bear rule: I will not, however, make any boast over this [coincidence].7

He calls ‘Roman’ a probable solution to the gematria of 666 (we will look into this more in the next chapter of this book). This solution would continue to be put forth by early Christian writers as likely, because “Roman is the name of both the empire, the beast, and a citizen, a single person, who is also a Roman.”8 Remarkably, Irenaeus had such insight into the identity of the Antichrist hundreds of years before he appeared.

Tertullian (155 – 220 AD)

Tertullian wrote about the coming man of sin when he commented on the passage in 2 Thessalonians:

‘For that day shall not come, unless indeed there first come a falling away,’ he means indeed of this present empire… ‘only he who now hinders must hinder, until he be taken out of the way.’ What obstacle is there but the Roman state, the falling away of which, by being scattered into ten kingdoms, shall introduce Antichrist upon (its own ruins)?9

Understanding the connection between 2 Thessalonians 2 and Daniel 7, Tertullian explicitly mentions the Roman Empire as being that which prevents the coming of the man of sin, knowing that it will be split into ten kingdoms.

Hippolytus (170 – 235 AD)

Hippolytus of Rome has been called one of the most important second-third century Christian theologians, and his commentary on Daniel is the oldest Christian biblical commentary to survive in its entirety. He understood the identity of the four beasts through interpreting the book of Daniel:

The golden head of the image and the lioness denoted the Babylonians; the shoulders and arms of silver, and the bear, represented the Persians and Medes; the belly and thighs of brass, and the leopard, meant the Greeks, who held the sovereignty from Alexander’s time; the legs of iron, and the beast dreadful and terrible, expressed the Romans, who hold the sovereignty at present; the toes of the feet which were part clay and part iron, and the ten horns, were emblems of the kingdoms that are yet to rise; the other little horn that grows up among them meant the Antichrist in their midst; the stone that smites the earth and brings judgment upon the world was Christ.10

He also put this understanding together with his interpretation of 2 Thessalonians 2: “And so who is ‘He who restrains until now,’ except the fourth beast, which, when it is set aside and is taken from the midst, the deceiver shall come?”11 He knew the Roman Empire had to be taken out of the way, when ten kingdoms would appear in its ruins- only then would the man of sin start to appear. “These things, then, shall be in the future, beloved; and when the three horns are cut off, he will begin to show himself as God.”12

Like Irenaeus before him, Hippolytus attempts to explain the mark of the beast. In fact, he “takes for granted that all the church understood that Lateinos is the name of the beast”:13

The wound of the first beast was healed and he (the second beast) was to make the image speak, that is to say to become powerful; and it is manifest to all, that those who at present still hold power are Latins. If then we take the name as the name of a single man it becomes Latinus. Wherefore we ought neither to give it out as if this were certainly his name, nor again ignore the fact that he may not be otherwise designated.14

This shows that Hippolytus was looking for an Antichrist that would point to the wounded first beast- the ruins of the Roman Empire- and cause it to be revived under the same identity, keeping the name ‘Latinus.’ This foresight is stunning, as centuries later the Papacy did arise and ‘give breath’ (Revelation 13:15) to the beast under the name of the Holy Roman Empire. The wounded Roman Empire received new life!

Scholia (ca. 250 – 300 AD)

Following in the same vein, an unnamed person wrote notes called ‘scholia’ in the margins of Hippolytus’ writings. This person also understood the identity of the four beasts, and explicitly concluded that no other united world empires would arise after the Roman Empire:

“And behold a fourth beast.” Now, that there has arisen no other kingdom after that of the Greeks except that which stands sovereign at present, is manifest to all. This one has iron teeth, because it subdues and reduces all by its strength, just as iron does. And the rest it did tread with its feet, for there is no other kingdom remaining after this one, but from it will spring ten horns.

“And it had ten horns.” For as the prophet said already of the leopard, that the beast had four heads, and that was fulfilled, and Alexander’s kingdom was divided into four principalities, so also now we ought to look for the ten horns which are to spring from it, when the time of the beast shall be fulfilled, and the little horn, which is Antichrist, shall appear suddenly in their midst…15

The author of the scholia understood that just as the kingdom of the Greeks was divided into four principalities, the same type of symbol of ten horns on the fourth beast revealed that the Roman Empire would be split into ten principalities. Only then would Antichrist appear among them.

As time went on, it became clear that these prophecies would not be fulfilled quickly. Even still, because of God’s past faithfulness in fulfilling prophecies, he knew they would surely come to pass:

So that we ought not to anticipate the counsel of God, but exercise patience and prayer, that we fall not on such times. We should not, however, refuse to believe that these things will come to pass. For if the things which the prophets predicted in former times have not been realized, then we need not look for these things. But if those former things did happen in their proper seasons, as was foretold, these things also shall certainly be fulfilled.16

St. John Chrysostom (347 – 407 AD)

Chrysostom wrote about 2 Thessalonians 2, and why Paul was not able to speak plainly about ‘that which withholds’:

One may naturally enquire, what is that which withholds, and after that would know, why Paul expresses it so obscurely. What then is it that withholds, that is, hinders him from being revealed? Some indeed say, the grace of the Spirit, but others the Roman empire, to whom I most of all accede. Wherefore? Because if he meant to say the Spirit, he would not have spoken obscurely, but plainly, that even now the grace of the Spirit, that is the gifts, withhold him… But because he said this of the Roman empire, he naturally glanced at it, and speaks covertly and darkly. For he did not wish to bring upon himself superfluous enmities, and useless dangers. For if he had said that after a little while the Roman empire would be dissolved, they would immediately have even overwhelmed him, as a pestilent person, and all the faithful, as living and warring to this end. And he did not say that it will be quickly, although he is always saying it — but what? “that he may be revealed in his own season…”17

He points to the clearness of the prophecies in Daniel as the reason they can be sure that the Roman Empire will end before the man of sin is revealed:

But [Paul] did not also wish to point [Antichrist] out plainly: and this not from cowardice, but instructing us not to bring upon ourselves unnecessary enmities, when there is nothing to call for it. So indeed he also says here. “Only there is one that restrains now, until he be taken out of the way,” that is, when the Roman empire is taken out of the way, then he shall come. And naturally. For as long as the fear of this empire lasts, no one will willingly exalt himself, but when that is dissolved, he will attack the anarchy, and endeavor to seize upon the government both of man and of God… And these things Daniel delivered to us with great clearness.18

Careful study of the Scriptures made it clear to Chrysostom that Antichrist would claim both civil and ecclesiastical power in the anarchy that followed the removal of the Roman Empire. This is precisely what would happen, as history confirms!

Jerome (ca. 342 – 420 AD)

Jerome confirms the same interpretations as all of the previous, and even at such an early date calls it the ‘traditional interpretation’:

We should therefore concur with the traditional interpretation of all the commentators of the Christian Church, that at the end of the world, when the Roman Empire is to be destroyed, there shall be ten kings who will partition the Roman world amongst themselves. Then an insignificant eleventh king will arise, who will overcome three of the ten kings… after they have been slain, the seven other kings also will bow their necks to the victor.19

About 50 years after Jerome’s death, the Roman Empire would fall, and ten kingdoms would quickly be formed in its place.

Regarding 2 Thessalonians 2, Jerome explains how the man of sin exalts himself in God’s new temple- the church- and why Paul could not speak openly of the Roman Empire’s downfall:

The man of sin… “sits in the temple of God” — either in the temple of Jerusalem, as some think, or in the church, as we think more correctly — he might sit and show himself, as if he were Christ and the son of God. If, he says, the Roman Empire is not devastated and if the antichrist does not come first, Christ will not come, who is going to come to destroy the antichrist. You remember, he says, that these things which now I write in a letter, I said in person when I was with you, and I said to you that Christ will not come unless the antichrist had preceded him. “And now you know what detains him, so that he might be revealed in his time,” that is, you fully know what the reason is that the antichrist does not come in the present time. He does not mean to speak openly of the Roman Empire’s destruction, which its rulers think is eternal…. For if openly and brazenly he had said: “The antichrist will not come until the Roman Empire is destroyed,” a reasonable cause for persecution against the church, which was rising at that time, seemed to spring up.20

Pope Gregory the Great (ca 540 – 604)

There are many other early church examples of the foresight afforded to those who understood the traditional interpretation of Daniel, Revelation, and 2 Thessalonians. “Justyn Martyr, Origen, Cyril of Jerusalem, Lactantius, Ambrose, Austin, and others, left writings with similar views.”21 As a final example, we should understand what an early Pope himself thought about apostasy and the coming Antichrist.

By the time of Pope Gregory I, the Western Roman Empire had fallen and been partitioned into ten kingdoms. The Roman bishops were beginning to be recognized as leaders in the power vacuum that ensued- “in 443, Leo the First declared that the bishops of Rome were direct successors of Peter and, therefore, heirs to unique powers over heaven and hell.”22 In 533, Emperor Justinian I published an edict that acknowledged the Pope as ‘Head of all the Churches.’ Despite this, Gregory shunned these lofty titles and styled himself ‘Servant of the Servants of God.’

Gregory was concerned when Bishop John ‘the Faster’ of Constantinople accepted the title ‘Ecumenical Patriarch’ from Emperor Maurice. Gregory understood the title to mean ‘Universal Patriarch’ and warned Maurice just how dangerous this was:

“Is it not the case that, when Antichrist comes and calls himself God, it will be very frivolous, and yet exceedingly pernicious? If we regard the quantity of the language used, there are but a few syllables; but if the weight of the wrong, there is universal disaster. Now I confidently say that whosoever calls himself, or desires to be called, Universal Priest, is in his elation the precursor of Antichrist, because he proudly puts himself above all others.”23

It was expected that the man of sin would try to exalt himself from within the church, and Gregory saw it happening in his day.

Emperor Maurice ignored Pope Gregory’s warning, and John continued to claim the title. Even further, just a few short years after Gregory’s death, Emperor Phocas appointed Boniface III as the new Pope, declaring him the ‘Head of all Churches’ and ‘Universal Bishop.’ This cemented Papal supremacy over the entire church, and eventually, they claimed authority over all earthly kings and kingdoms. It happened just as the Scriptures foretold.

Traditional Vs. Modern Interpretation

As with most of the prophecies we’ve looked at, the modern popular interpretation pushes the events of 2 Thessalonians 2 into the future: the apostasy is “the departure from the Christian faith of professing (not genuine) Christians soon after the Rapture;”24 the removal of the restrainer is the Holy Spirit ‘taken out of the way’ during the three and a half year tribulation after the Rapture; the man of sin is the Antichrist who will proclaim himself to be God in a rebuilt third Temple. If the little horn of Daniel 7 is still future, then it only follows that this passage would also be unfulfilled.

This view begs the question- if the Holy Spirit is the one who restrains, why didn’t Paul just say so? There was no reason to be so cryptic if that were the case.

Where else in the Scriptures is such an event mentioned? Clearly the earliest expositions of this passage have been linked with the prophecy of the four beasts in Daniel 7. Even futurists admit that the Roman Empire is what came before the ten kingdoms- only then does Antichrist appear. Yes, if the Roman Empire is what had to be taken out of the way, there would be a great need to use careful hints in the way that Paul did. The earliest Christian writers saw this, and it was the sign they were looking for.

Their incredible insight into the prophecies was spot on- the Roman Empire fell and was split into ten kingdoms. The man of sin was an apostate- he came from within the church- claiming authority over all churches. He slowly grew in power, eventually gaining kingship over three of the ten kingdoms. He even kept the name ‘Roman’. The brutal facts of history show how he opposed God and the saints from there. Even apart from Revelation, all of this could be guessed at from careful study of Daniel 7 and 2 Thessalonians.

The book of Revelation does give us more details on these events, however, and it is there that we will go next.

  1. Fred Miller, “Revelation: A Panorama of the Gospel Age”, 48. ↩︎
  2. Miller, ibid, 46. ↩︎
  3. Irenaeus, “Against Heresies”, Book 5, Chapter 26, Epilogue.
    Available online at https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103526.htm ↩︎
  4. Irenaeus, ibid, 5:26:1. ↩︎
  5. Irenaeus, ibid, 5:26:1. ↩︎
  6. Irenaeus, ibid, 5:25:1. ↩︎
  7. Irenaeus, ibid, 5:30:3. ↩︎
  8. Miller, ibid, 43. ↩︎
  9. Tertullian, “On the Resurrection of the Flesh”, chap. XXIV.
    Available online at https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0316.htm ↩︎
  10. Hippolytus, “On Christ and Antichrist”, 28.
    Available online at https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0516.htm ↩︎
  11. Hippolytus, “Commentary on Daniel”, 4:21:3.
    Available online at https://docplayer.net/83945705-Hippolytus-of-rome-commentary-on-daniel-t-c-schmidt-1-st-edition.html ↩︎
  12. Hippolytus, “On Christ and Antichrist”, 53. ↩︎
  13. Miller, ibid, 50. ↩︎
  14. Hippolytus, “On Christ and Antichrist”, 50. ↩︎
  15. Scholia on Daniel (Philip Schaff, Trans.), “Ante-Nicene Fathers – Volume 5”, 7:7.
    Available online at https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf05.iii.iv.i.x.iii.html ↩︎
  16. Scholia, ibid, 7:7. ↩︎
  17. St. John Chrysostom, “Homily 4 on Second Thessalonians”, 2 Thessalonians 2:6-9.
    Available online at https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/23054.htm ↩︎
  18. Chrysostom, ibid, 2 Thessalonians 2:6-9. ↩︎
  19. St. Jerome (Gleason Archer, Trans.), “Commentary on Daniel”, Daniel 7:8.
    Available online at https://www.tertullian.org/fathers/jerome_daniel_02_text.htm ↩︎
  20. Jerome, “A Letter to Algasia.”
    Available online (including an English translation with the Latin below it) at https://epistolae.ctl.columbia.edu/letter/1291.html ↩︎
  21. Miller, ibid, 55. ↩︎
  22. Dan Graves, “Article #19 – Precursor of Antichrist.”
    Available online at https://christianhistoryinstitute.org/incontext/article/gregory-the-great ↩︎
  23. Gregory the Great (James Barmby, Trans.), “Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 12”, Book VII, Letter 33.
    Available online at https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/360207033.htm ↩︎
  24. Thomas Constable, “Constable’s Expository Notes”, 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4.
    Available online at https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/2-thessalonians-2.html ↩︎