Already in the first century the church was faced with the question of how to understand the apostle Paul’s description of the coming apostasy and revelation of the man of lawlessness as recorded in II Thessalonians 2:1-12. Events continually surfaced that seemed to correspond to what Paul had described concerning a certain individual who would appear on the scene of history prior to Christ’s second return. In the mid 4th century, John Chrysostom (344-407) began asking questions that are still being asked to this very day. He wrote,
Here Paul discuses the Antichrist and discusses great mysteries. What is the “falling away”? He calls him Apostasy; so he will destroy many and make them fall away…And he calls him “the man of sin.”…But who is he? Satan? By no means. Rather he is a man in whom Satan fully works…He will abolish all the gods and will order men to worship him instead of God. He will be seated in the temple of God, not that in Jerusalem only, but also in every church.
Fascinatingly, Chrysostom recognized the mysterious nature of Paul’s description of a man who will one day seat himself “in every church.” For over 2000 years the church has been eagerly waiting for the final parousia of the Lord Jesus Christ, but nothing to date has come close to fulfilling the cosmic magnitude and eschatological consummation of all things that Paul describes in II Thessalonians 2:1-12. How then are we to understand the description of the Antichrist as given in 2 Thessalonians 2?
There has always been an attempt to play pin-the-tail on the Antichrist. The Reformers believed that the Pope as the Antichrist referenced by the apostle John. I can remember many Christians in the 1980s referring to Ronald Reagan as the possible Antichrist because his first, middle, and last name each had 6 letters—thus correlating to the number of the beast 666. And about this time a series of dreadful movies were being distributed among Christian depicting those who were not good enough to make the rapture and “left behind” as going through terrible torments at the command of the Antichrist—guillotine and all.
Before we address how the apostle intends for us to understand the revelation of the man of sin, it's important to understand the context into which this question is raised. 2 Thessalonians 2 is known as Paul's mini-apocalypse. It is fully of highly symbolic, apocalyptic language to describe a phenomenon of something that has been present throughout the whole of redemptive history. It is extremely important to begin with the big picture if we are to have a proper understanding of what the apostle is describing. Paul’s purpose is to reveal enough information to comfort the Thessalonians and to comfort us that when the day of the Lord comes, we will know—none of God’s people will be left behind. The whole design of 2 Thessalonians 2 is to provide comfort and protection so that God’s people are not deceived by what is going to transpire before Christ comes.
In verses 1-2 we read, “Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us saying that the day of the Lord has already come.” In his first epistle Paul had written to the Thessalonians about the coming of Christ. Chapters 4-5 of 1 Thessalonians provide great detail about what is going to happen when Christ returns. The Thessalonians were comforted with the truth that when the Lord comes (could be at anytime), he will bring with him those believers who have died, their bodies will be raised, and those who remain will also be changed in a moment (1 Cor. 15) and will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.
At some point between the writing of his first and second letters, some group of people, some mockers within the church at Thessalonica began to trouble them with the lie that Christ had already come--that Christ had already performed the great gathering together as Paul described in the first epistle, and that they had missed it. Putting this in present day terms, the Thessalonians were faced with the heresy of Preterism—the idea that Christ returned for judgment in AD70 when the temple was destroyed and fulfilled all eschatological reference to the second coming of Christ. Understandably, the Thessalonians were greatly troubled by this false teaching.
In the second epistle, Paul addresses this falsehood. He writes, “I do not want you to become alarmed and troubled, whether by Spirit, or by Word, or by letter, as though it is from us.” Now it appears that Paul had no idea about who was going around saying this, but he knows about it, and he says, “it’s not from us, the apostles, those whom have been entrusted this authority by God.” Paul counters this attack by now discussing in his second epistle what is going to happen when Christ comes to those who are presently troubling them with falsehood. In 2 Thess. 1:6, he wrote,
...since it is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you and give to you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire to take vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when he comes in that day to be glorified in his saints.
What Paul is now doing in this second epistle is assuring the church that the day of the Lord has not come because the unbelievers who are presently persecuting them have not yet been judged. Such a judgment will coincide with the second coming. When Christ comes there will be a resurrection of the just and the unjust (Acts 24), and, therefore, the Thessalonians didn’t have to worry about missing Christ’s coming or being left behind because its one major event, one second coming. Incidentally, the idea of a secret rapture of the church is completely incompatible with Paul’s point here. When Christ is revealed from heaven, every eye will see him, the trumpet will blast, and he will be glorified in his saints as, at that time, he renders judgment on those who do not believe. This is how Paul was assuring the Thessalonians that day of Christ could not have come.
Now we turn to Paul's description of the Antichrist.