THE MAN OF SIN
PART I: THE PROPHECY
by David Vaughn Elliott
We are all sinners. Yet, one man in all history is singled out as "the man of sin... the son of perdition." Not a lovely description. Why talk about him? Yet, the Word of God does talk about him.
Most students of Scripture, past and present, see a connection between "the man of sin" of 2 Thessalonians 2 and the "little horn" of Daniel 7. They also see a connection with one or more of the beasts in Revelation 13 and with "the great harlot" and "Babylon" in Revelation 17 and 18. From ancient times, these outstanding prophecies have been lumped together under the common title "antichrist."
In spite of such agreement, views regarding the fulfillment vary widely. Is this enemy of God someone in the past, present or future? The most popular view today, futurism, says that he is yet in the future. To the opposite extreme are a growing number today, preterists, who believe that he is a relic of ancient history. Howbeit, for hundreds of years, the vast majority of Bible believers unswervingly proclaimed that "the man of sin" is a present reality.
WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE?
Since there are so many conflicting views, why bother to try to figure out who "the man of sin" is in 2 Thessalonians 2? To ask that question betrays an ignorance of the text. This is not just some idle study out of vain curiosity. Eternal issues are at stake here.
Number One: Christ versus "the man of sin" (verses 1-3). It is our Lord Jesus Christ on the one side, and "the man of sin" on the other. Paul assures his readers that Christ is coming, but that "the man of sin" is also coming. The best and the worst. The Son of God versus a son of the devil (verse 9). Nothing less is involved than the eternal battle between the forces of good and evil. The eternal battle between God and Satan.
Number Two: "not shaken" versus "falling away" (verses 2-4). Some people think the study of prophecy has little to do with "practical" Christianity. How much more practical can you get than holding fast or falling away? The problem is that many believers think that "falling away" relates only to drunkenness, adultery, forsaking the assembly and the like. However, Paul speaks of being "shaken" by not knowing if "the day of Christ" is past or future. Paul speaks of "the falling way" which involves "worship" in "the temple of God." We need to investigate what this is all about.
Number Three: "the love of the truth" versus "not receive the love of the truth" (verse 10). Love God. Love Jesus. Love your brother. Love your spouse. Love your neighbor. Love your enemy. Also--love the truth. To some people, "love" means "sex." To others, "love" means "unconditional acceptance" of whatever another person believes or does. Enter "love of the truth." That love is not at all popular in our relativistic-materialistic society. It is not at all popular with the do-it-if-it-makes-you-feel-good club. If you love the truth, you will search for it as diligently as for a hidden treasure (Proverbs 2:1-4).
Number Four: "truth" versus "deception," "delusion" and a "lie" (verses 10,11). Living the Christian life is more than morality. It has to do with what we believe. It has to do with truth versus error. In the Garden of Eden, it was God's truth versus Satan's lie. It still is. Eve wanted the "freedom" of "choice." Paul tells Timothy that Eve was deceived. So are millions today by "the man of sin." We are not dealing here with idle prophetic curiosity. We are dealing with nothing less than the issue of truth versus lies. Jesus is truth. Satan is the father of lies. That is what this prophecy is all about.
Number Five: "saved" versus "condemned" (verses 10, 12). Eternity is involved in "the man of sin" prophecy. Saved or lost; blessed or condemned. Many Christians sidestep various issues by retorting: "Well, it isn't a matter of salvation." However, the issues of this prophecy are very much "a matter of salvation." This prophecy has very much to do with understanding the characteristics of those who are saved and those who are condemned. The issue is live and real.
Number Six: holiness versus "unrighteousness" (verse 12). Yes, morality does count. You cannot believe right and live wrong. At issue here are those who have "pleasure in unrighteousness." Reminds us of "lovers of pleasure" in 2 Timothy 3:4. Sin is fun; you had better believe it. Fun now; pay later. If it were not fun, why would people bother with it? Moses chose to suffer with the people of God rather than "enjoy the passing pleasures of sin" (Hebrews 11:25). "The man of sin" has to do with fun religion. Fun because you can have one foot in a church and another foot in the world. They "worship" yet have "pleasure in unrighteousness."
These are six solid reasons why "the man of sin" prophecy merits serious study on the part of every person who cares about his relationship with the God of the universe and His precious Son.
MUST BE BASED ON SOUND DOCTRINE
The interpretation of prophecy must always agree with sound doctrine. Example: if Christians are no longer obligated to keep the Sabbath, then the seal of God in Revelation 7 cannot possibly be Sabbath keeping. The doctrinal issue must be settled before attempting to interpret prophecy.
The prophecy at hand has several doctrinal issues that must be clarified in the light of New Testament Scripture. Among the most important issues is the meaning of "the temple of God," since that is where "the man of sin" will sit.
WHICH "TEMPLE OF GOD"?
Six centuries before Christ, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia devastated the temple in Jerusalem. Howbeit, three great prophets of God, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Daniel, foretold the rebuilding of Jerusalem with its temple. Ezra and Nehemiah recorded the history of the fulfillment.
Nevertheless, Daniel and Jesus prophesied the destruction of this second temple. That was powerfully fulfilled in 70 A.D. (See Index by Subject, especially under heading "70 Weeks of Daniel 9.") There is not one Bible prophecy foretelling a rebuilding of Jerusalem's temple after its destruction in 70 A.D.
Those who claim the temple will be built again at some future date base their views solely on inference. Their arguments run like this: "Since the man of sin will sit in the temple of God, the temple in Jerusalem has to be built again in order to fulfill that prophecy."
What proof is there that "the temple of God" in 2 Thessalonians 2 is to be a physical temple in physical Jerusalem? Indeed, there are at least three reasons for rejecting that interpretation. First is the fact already mentioned that no Scripture makes a direct prediction of rebuilding after 70 A.D.
Secondly, one must consider the nature of the Jerusalem temple in the New Testament. Everyone understands that the temple in Jerusalem was the temple of God when Jesus arrived on the scene. Jesus himself said of the temple, "Do not make My Father's house a house of merchandise!" (John 2:16). It was in the temple that animals were sacrificed and their blood shed for the remission of the people's sins. However, Jesus came into the world to offer His own body and blood as the perfect sacrifice for sins. Thus, at the moment of His death, God acted in an unprecedented manner: "Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked" (Matthew 27:51). In this graphic fashion God declared that when Jesus died, He was finished with that physical temple.
Following the rending of the veil, the term "house of God" never again refers to the temple in Jerusalem. A physical temple has not existed now for over 1900 years. Any physical temple built today would be a slap in the face to Jesus, who shed His blood to do away with the temple's animal sacrifices. The second temple, which existed in Jesus' day, was once the temple of God and then ceased to be. A third temple, if built, would not for one second of time be a temple of God.
This brings us to the third point. Notice how clear 1 Timothy 3:15 states it: "that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth." Scripture could not say any more clearly what the "house of God" is today. God's church.
The same is true of the expression "temple of God." Examination shows that after Jesus' death, "temple of God" never again refers to the physical temple in physical Jerusalem. Rather, it refers to the church of God. It seems that our brethren in Corinth were not quite clear on this point. Thus Paul asked them, "Do you not know that you are the temple of God and [that] the Spirit of God dwells in you?" (1 Corinthians 3:16). Today we would ask people a similar question: "When you study prophecy about the 'temple of God,' do you not know that since Jesus' death the people of God are the 'temple of God'? Do you not know that the 'house of God' is the church of God?"
This is sound doctrine. Using sound doctrine as the basis for the study of prophecy, the careful student of the New Testament will realize that when 2 Thessalonians 2 speaks prophetically of "the temple of God," it must be a prophecy about the church. Something very bad is going to happen to Jesus' church.
WHAT IS APOSTASY?
There are more doctrinal issues that must be clarified in the light of Scripture before attempting to find the fulfillment of "the man of sin" prophecy. The matter of the "temple of God" is only the first.
Second, there is the question of the meaning of the expression "the apostasy." Actually, several versions make it clear when they render the word "the falling away." That is exactly what apostasy means.
A man can not fall from a cliff if he has never been on the cliff. A child cannot fall from a train she never boarded. Since this prophecy has something to do with "the temple of God," the church, it is therefore predicting a falling away from the true church. It is a prophecy about apostasy, a prophecy about a departure from the faith "once for all delivered" (Jude 3). The prophecy cannot be talking about Judaism, because it preceded the church of Christ. It cannot be talking about Islam, because it is a wholly distinct religion unrelated to the Gospel of Christ. We have to study church history to search for "the falling away."
Notice also that the prophecy is not about just any falling away. It prophesies "the" falling away, "the" apostasy. That would seem to tell us that to find fulfillment we must look for the most important false church in all history.
Connected with the idea of falling away is "the lawless one." That is to say, he would turn his back on the law of Christ and establish his own laws. A person is a "law breaker" for breaking just one law. However "lawless one" conveys the idea of someone who repeatedly and in large measure opposes the commandments of the New Testament. This prophecy, then, is not dealing with just any slight variation from the true Gospel. It foretells a departure of major proportions.
Paul wrote this more than 1900 years ago. Before thinking that "the man of sin" might be future, a believer must search 1900 years of church history to see if the prophecy has already been fulfilled. It is only when people ignore 19 centuries of Christianity that they can be deceived into thinking that fulfillment is in the future.
ONE MAN OR A GROUP OF MEN?
Third, there is the question of how many people are involved. The text says "the man" of sin. However, in Bible prophecy, one person often represents an entire body of people. For example, most students agree that the four beasts in Daniel 7 represent Babylonia, Persia, Greece and Rome. Each beast represents an entire empire. Daniel 7 clearly says as much. In verse 17, it says "Those great beasts, which are four, [are] four kings." Yet, in further exposition, in verse 23 it says, "The fourth beast shall be a fourth kingdom on earth." So, a beast represents a man and both represent a kingdom. This Bible symbolism is not nearly as strange as some seem to think it is. Ever hear of Uncle Sam? What about the elephant and donkey representing the Republicans and Democrats?
This same type of symbolism is found in Revelation 17. Who would argue that "the great harlot" is a prophecy of a red-light-district prostitute? Indeed, the prophecy itself clears up any doubt when verse 18 says, "And the woman whom you saw is that great city which reigns over the kings of the earth." One woman represents an entire city. She represents especially the power of the leaders of that city to exercise control over many nations.
Both Daniel and Revelation thus make clear that a prophetic individual may well represent an entire city or an entire empire, especially the governmental powers.
A MATTER OF RELIGION
Fourth, "worship" is involved in this prophecy. Whatever political power he may have, "the man of sin" is a religious figure. He presents himself as God. Moreover, he does this in the temple of God, which is the church.
God does not want just any religion. The very first murder in the human race was for religious motives. "The LORD respected Abel and his offering, but He did not respect Cain and his offering. And Cain was very angry" (Genesis 4:4,5). The first sin of Cain was not murder, not even hate for his brother. Cain's first sin was false worship.
The Bible is filled with accounts of religious conflict. Jesus, for example, told the Samaritan woman, "You worship what you do not know" (John 4:22). Jesus said of the religious leaders of his day, "in vain they worship Me, teaching [as] doctrines the commandments of men" (Matthew 15:9). "The man of sin" is all about false worship.
MIRACLES BY SATAN
Fifth, the apostate church here foretold would be "the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders" (2 Thessalonians 2:9). This eliminates many apostate people and organizations as candidates for "the man of sin." "The man of sin" works miracles. Satan working miracles is nothing new to the Bible. As early as the time of the Exodus, Pharaoh's magicians were capable of duplicating Moses' signs of turning rods into snakes, of turning water into blood and of producing a plague of frogs (Exodus 7:8 to 8:19). Yes, Moses by the hand of the Almighty outdid them. However, make no mistake about it. These pagan magicians worked real miracles.
There are numerous ways God's people can distinguish between the miracles of God and the miracles of Satan. One way is exactly that recorded in Exodus 8:18: "Now the magicians so worked with their enchantments to bring forth lice, but they could not." They had worked many miracles, but they came to the point where they tried again and they failed. Anyone who tries to work a miracle and fails is not of God, no matter what other miracles he has worked. Because God's miracle workers do not fail. They do not blame other people for their failures.
Sixth, do not overlook the fact that "strong delusion" (verse 11) is a part of the picture. Do not expect the people of the world to be convinced easily that some false church is "the man of sin." Do not expect the ecumenical movement to believe it. Do not expect those who put unity above purity of doctrine to believe it. "The man of sin" is very religious, he works miracles, he seems to many to be the true church of our Lord. Multitudes will be deceived, strongly deluded.
STARTED IN PAUL'S DAY
Paul made it clear that in his day "the mystery of lawlessness is already at work" (verse 7). Therefore, in searching for the fulfillment of this prophecy, we must look for some principle, some spirit, some activity that was already at work in the first century. It makes no sense to start our search with the year 2000 and work backward. It makes even less sense to theorize about some future possibility. How can we believe that something, which was already at work in Paul's day, has not been able to break out into the open for over 1900 years?
Rather, the sensible thing is to start our search with the first century and move forward in time. We must examine the movement of church history from its origin. We must search for something that was already working in Paul's day that in time became the full-blown apostate church. When we find that, if it fulfills all the details of the prophecy, then we have found "the man of sin."
DESTROYED WHEN JESUS COMES
Verse 8 of our text is very clear: "the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will... destroy with the brightness of His coming." Clearly "the man of sin," the antichrist, comes before Jesus returns.
Strange as it may seem, the popular futurist view says just the opposite and uses this text as a basis. "They" say that the antichrist will be manifested in all his power after the "rapture."
Futurists accomplish their twist by making "the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" (verse 1) as one event, "the day of Christ" (verse 2) a second event, and "His coming" (verse 8) a third event. They claim the text teaches four events in this order: the rapture, the man of sin, the tribulation and the Second Coming of Jesus. Did Paul say all that?
"They" claim that the "coming" in verse 1 is "the rapture" and that the "coming" in verse 8 is "the Second Coming" seven years later. However, the Greek word for "coming" in the two verses is identical. If they are two different comings, then verse 1 is the Second Coming and verse 3 is the Third Coming. However, since no one accepts the idea of a third coming, "they" avoid such an expression. Instead, they invent the theory of "two phases" to the "second" coming. (See Insight #78 for a full treatment of "The Rapture.") At this time, the discussion will be limited to 2 Thessalonians 2.
Their theory holds that "the day of the Lord" (or "day of Christ") is neither the Second Coming nor the Third Coming. Rather, they say, it is something in between. As in the case of "temple of God," they lean heavily on Old Testament usage while sidestepping New Testament usage.
Without leaving 2 Thessalonians 2, let us examine the question. In verse 1, Paul introduces the topic for discussion: "the coming of our Lord Jesus." Now if that is "the rapture," it is the only verse from verses 1 to 12 that speaks of the "rapture." In such a case, "they" put Paul in the position of saying he would talk about one topic but instead he talked about another.
But if you take "the day of Christ" (or "the day of the Lord") in context, then certainly "the coming" of our Lord Jesus Christ is "the day" of our Lord Jesus Christ. In verses 1 and 2, Paul is simply saying that in regard to Jesus' coming, don't think that it has already happened. Verse 3 says why they should not believe that: because "the man of sin" must come first. Verse 8 explains that the man of sin will be destroyed by the "coming" of Jesus. Obviously, therefore, "the man of sin" comes before Jesus comes. Now, if the "coming" in verse 8 is not the same "coming" as in verse 1, then Paul said he was going to talk about one thing but tricked us by talking about another thing.
These then, are the things to consider about "the man of sin" prophecy before ever going beyond the Biblical text. Once we have learned all we can from the Bible itself, only then are we ready to launch out into history in search of fulfillment.
(Scripture in the preceding article is taken from the New King James Version. Copyright (c) 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)