God’s Sovereignty and the Antilord
2 Thessalonians 2:5–7 5 Do you not remember that while I was still with you, I was telling you these things? 6 And you know what restrains him now, so that in his time he will be revealed. 7 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 importance of studying eschatology
“do not be ignorant”
Theological ignorance is not a virtue and eschatology should not be neglected.
How to study eschatology
Stick to the basics before diving into the depths.
Undeniable sanctifying realities:
The world will end
There is a heaven to gain and a hell to shun
There will be a literal return of Jesus Christ to this earth
There will be a final conflict
There will be a final resurrection
There will be a final judgment
There will be a new heaven and earth
Two Signs Of The Victory Of God
These two points are designed to comfort the church during the interadvent period as we await the return of Jesus to crush the head of the serpent. Consequently these signs are currently in operation. This can be considered a part of realized eschatology where the presence of the future victory of God and His people are felt here and now in the present as a comfort to the people of God. Both of these signs could be said to be subordinate to the overall doctrine of the sovereignty of God and to theodicy (the relationship between God and evil). As we read here in Paul, we get a sense of God’s total sovereignty over the Devil, Antichrist and the reality of sin which is operating in the world presently and afflicting the Church.
We first see the sovereignty of God in the restraining of the antichrist. That is, in terms of his immergence on the stage of world history, the antichrist is presently being withheld from the world because Satan is being restrained in the world. There is probably a correlation between the binding (or restraining) of Satan and the restraining of the antichrist. The fact that Paul had mentioned that his teaching on eschatology was nothing new to the Thessalonians suggests that they knew precisely what Paul meant when he said, “you know what restrains him now” (νῦν τὸ κατέχον οἴδατε). This phrase presents another difficult interpretive challenge to the student of Scripture sense we, unlike the Thessalonians, are not told specifically what or who is restraining now. Several things need to be considered.
First, the identity was not the point of Paul’s teaching. Whether it is God, the State under God’s control, the Holy Spirit, the preaching of the gospel by the Church, or as my own position will seek to explain, a supernatural agent of God, specifically an angel; the point is that God is in control of antichrist arrival. Second what make the passage complex is that Paul seems to shift from a neuter concept to a personal concept. He speaks about “what restrains” (neuter) in v.6a, and of “he who now restrains” (masculine) in v.7b. Third, the switch between neuter and masculine gender in the Greek text makes it even more difficult to pin down with precision what Paul was referring to. What this means is that Thessalonians itself does not exegetically provide us with the explanation as to the identity of the restrainer.
Historically the Church has held to countless options here. Dispensationalists maintain that the restrainer is the Holy Spirit and that He restrains the antichrist through the Church and once the Church has been raptured, the restraining influence will be “taken out of the way” (v.7b) giving way to the rise of antichrist. However, because the rapture seems to be synonymous with the Day of the Lord, the parousia, the second coming etc. (cf. 2.1, 8). Furthermore it is difficult to comprehend how the Holy Spirit can be “taken out of the way” given His omnipresence and especially since the Beast in Revelation makes war with the Saints (Church), who are Spirit filled, all the way up to the second Advent (Rev. 13.6-7). Dispensationalists have answered this objection by suggesting that during the Tribulation believers will go back to an OT economy where they will not be regenerated or indwelled by the Holy Spirit. Instead they will be saved through their testimony and martyrdom. However, I reject both of these conclusions. I believe that OT believers were both regenerate and indwelled with the Spirit (cf. Dt. 10.16; 30.6; Jer. 4.4; 1 Pet. 1.11) and in light of the book of Hebrews, a return to an OT economy in anyway seems completely out of step with the entire purpose of the new covenant which was precisely to set the old order aside (Heb. 8.13; cf. 2 Cor. 3.7-11). This position is therefore untenable for many theological reasons. The only qualification may be that the Spirit is indeed involved in restraining antichrist in as far as He is God and it is at God’s behest that His agents e.g. angels fulfill their divine mission and God given roles in His world to battle evil (cf. Dan. 10.13).
Some have argued that the State, like Rome or the U.S. are presently restraining the rise of evil and thus antichrist. This was William Hendriksen’s view. The only other qualification here is that some like Hendriksen believe that the state and its civil authority is ultimately under the jurisdiction and influence of angels. It is difficult to see how human civil government can restrain the personal, immaterial force and power of Satan and if anything, civil governments are already under Satan’s influence (cf. 1 John 5.19). However, it seems that this passage may be talking about both a dynamic on the one hand (thus the use of the neuter) and a divinely commissioned agent or angel on the other (thus the use of the more personal masculine). The Greek word for “restrain” (κατέχω) seems to have a possible connection to the LXX in Daniel where the angel Michael opposes the “Prince of Persia” (a demonic figure).
The word used there is ‘to seize, to resist, or hold against, or prevail [i.e. against]’ (ἀντέχω) (see, Beale, 1-2 Thessalonians, 216-217). Ironically, John MacArthur argues against this position by insisting that angels cannot restrain Satan. However, Scripture actually completely contradicts this very thing ironically, in Premillennialists own favorite text, Rev. 20.1-3:
Revelation 20:1–3 1 Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding the key of the abyss and a great chain in his hand. 2 And he laid hold of the dragon, the serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years; 3 and he threw him into the abyss, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he would not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were completed; after these things he must be released for a short time.
A biblical theology of this ‘restraining’ phenomenon shows the cosmic powers at work here, the struggle between the angelic forces of God and the demonic forces of Satan. The resisting of demons in Daniel (), the casting out of demons by Jesus (), the binding of the strongman’s house (Satan) by Jesus (), the restrainer of Paul here in Thessalonians 2, and the inevitable binding of Satan by the angel in Revelation 20 seems to point in the direction that what Paul might have had in mind was the dynamic of God’s power through an angelic warrior (e.g. Michael) under God’s delegation to oppose, resist and restrain in the spirit-realm, the heavenly realms, Satan and hinder his desire to unleash antichrist on the world. Perhaps Paul did not identify that angel and if he did, he may have said Michael or one of God’s angels in general. Is it possible that Paul had Daniel’s words in mind when he wrote this, and that Daniel, to a more veiled degree than Paul saw what Paul now writes about when He wrote of a future conflict at the end of His prophecy?:
Daniel 12:1 1 “Now at that time Michael, the great prince who stands guard over the sons of your people, will arise. And there will be a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time; and at that time your people, everyone who is found written in the book, will be rescued.
This “restraining” phenomenon however is not ultimate or exhaustive. Paul quickly points out the limitations of such a restraint on antichrist. Whoever and however this restraining of antichrist may be, it is temporary and limited.
Simply because the “man of lawlessness” (ὁ ἄνθρωπος τῆς ἀνομίας, v.3) is presently being restrained does not preclude the idea that “lawlessness” (ἀνομίας) has itself ceased, it has not. For as Paul says, “the mystery of lawlessness is already at work” (τὸ γὰρ μυστήριον ἤδη ἐνεργεῖται τῆς ἀνομίας). Why is “lawlessness” here cast as a “mystery?” This is connected to the fact of the revelation of the man of sin. Until the man of sin is fully revealed, we will not see the true origin of sin’s persistence in the world, that sin is rooted in a demonic and Satanic influence that covers humanity. Its almost as if Paul is saying until antichrist is revealed, mankind will not see the full force and nature of sin. As it is, today many people deny the reality of sin both is causes and its remedy. When antichrist comes mankind will see the true nature of evil that it comes from the ‘evil one.’
Paul’s point however is a reminder to all that we need not underestimate or misunderstand the gravity of the present evil age simply because we are awaiting the man of sin. Sin is “already at work” (ἤδη ἐνεργεῖται). It is as if the antichrist’s tentacles are already beginning to wrap around this fallen world and seeks its destruction even now through heresy, sensuality, all manner of immorality and lawlessness. But the supreme evidence that the “mystery of lawlessness” is already active among us is in the world’s opposition to the gospel and the Church. That is because the principle of lawlessness is connected to the lawless one. Knowing this therefore, the Church can take courage as it identifies and interprets its present peril and persecution as part of God’s sovereign design to bring His purpose to pass, a purpose that ends with the victory of God and the final vindication of His people.
God is also sovereign over the timing over the appearance and destruction of antichrist (v.8). This simply reminds us that, “his time” when as v.8 says, “that lawless one will be revealed” is a “time” appointed by God. This should remind us that God is in total control not only of redemptive history, the story that concerns His people, the promises that He has made to save His people (cf. Acts 7.17); but also the purpose and timing of antichrist led opposition to the Church. That too is something that is ordained and decreed by God and follows God’s hand and plan. We can see this very thing when Jesus was crucified and as well as His Church’s persecution:
Acts 4:25–28 25 who by the Holy Spirit, through the mouth of our father David Your servant, said, ‘Why did the Gentiles rage, And the peoples devise futile things? 26 ‘The kings of the earth took their stand, And the rulers were gathered together Against the Lord and against His Christ.’ 27 “For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.
Not only the rise of antichrist, the manifestation of the great antilord’s sinister agent, but also the end-time deception that will prevail in the world- all of which has been ordered by the Lord (2.9-12). If God ordered the passion of His Son, to pass under the fire of persecution and suffering and to fall under the sword of His wrath, we are not greater than our Master. If they persecuted Him, by sovereign decree, they will persecute His people. But as with His Son, God controls the extend and the severity of the affliction of our adversaries:
Revelation 17:14–18 14 “These will wage war against the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them, because He is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those who are with Him are the called and chosen and faithful.” 15 And he said to me, “The waters which you saw where the harlot sits, are peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues. 16 “And the ten horns which you saw, and the beast, these will hate the harlot and will make her desolate and naked, and will eat her flesh and will burn her up with fire. 17 “For God has put it in their hearts to execute His purpose by having a common purpose, and by giving their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God will be fulfilled. 18 “The woman whom you saw is the great city, which reigns over the kings of the earth.”
We may ask, ‘why does God allow, indeed, ordain such things?’ But if we have been paying attention to the story of redemption from the outset, we will understand that this final end-time conflict for the mountain-supremacy of God, Har Magedon, is prefigured every stage of adversity suffered by the people of God. Babel, the Flood, Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Rome are but precursors to the final conflict. And in every such stage of redemption the people of God were put in a place where all human hope had run out. God is in the business of orchestrating redemption in such a way so as to magnify His power and His glory so that we never forget where true power and salvation lies (cf. Jon. 2.9; 1 Cor. 1.30).
As we consider the impending reality of antichrist on this world, the realized eschatological reality of antichrist already at work; this entire conversation has an evangelistic thrust for in reality this should pose a great warning to all. The essence of this warning is capture by John in the book of Revelation:
Revelation 12:12 12 “For this reason, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them. Woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, knowing that he has only a short time.”
This should remind us all that what is coming upon this earth by way of “woe” is nothing less than the advent of the would be antilord who’s only goal is to destroy God’s people on earth because he cannot destroy them in heaven. Consequently, his descent upon the world gives rise to the immergence of antichrist and with antichrist will come a time of unparalleled deception, soul-damning deception and total spiritual anarchy on earth. But this should also remind us of what Paul is saying here, whether we see these things happening or not, the principle, the mystery of lawlessness, is already at work. Therefore, if we recognize the nature of our struggle we will discover the nature of our deliverance and strength.