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MAN OF LAWLESSNESS: HISTORICAL SETTING

Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. —  August 20, 2012 — 2 Comments

Paul’s prophecy regarding the “Man of Lawlessness” in 2 Thessalonians 2 is often used by non-postmillennial eschatological systems as a rebuttal to any optimistic outlook on the flow of history. If this man arises and dominates the world, and will not be overthrown until Christ returns, then the postmillennial hope cannot be valid.

But does Paul’s prophecy undercut postmillennialism? It absolutely does not. In this article and the next few, I will provide a study of this pesky text. I have had several bloggers mention that they would like to see how the postmillennial system handles it.

In that Christianity is an historical religion, we must look at its foundational texts (the Bible!) historical. More often than not, a careful historical analysis of a text will remove some of the difficulties of interpreting the text. I believe this is true

The Thessalonian epistles are among Paul’s earliest writings, vying with Galatians (depending on the North/South Galatia debate [1]) and James as the earliest written portions of the New Testament. Paul writes these within just a few weeks of each other, and not long after his visit to Thessalonica (1 Thess. 2:17 [2]). On his Second Missionary Journey (Acts 16-18) Paul travels from Philippi to Thessalonica, then to Berea, and Athens for brief visits. He then moves on to Corinth, where he writes the Thessalonian epistles. At Corinth he is alone until Silas and Timothy arrive (Acts 18:1, 5).

In 1 Thessalonians Paul mentions he has just been to Philippi (2:2), and to Athens (3:1) where Timothy arrives (3:6). The salutations of the letters mention Paul, Timothy, and Silas together (1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1). Archaeologically we know that the Gallio of Acts 18:12-17 was proconsul in Corinth from A.D. 51-53. Thus, the dates of the letters would be about A.D. 51-52. Luke’s record of the place and circumstances of Paul’s writing in Acts provides background information extremely helpful in casting light on the obscure passage before us.

During Paul’s visit to Thessalonica he preaches to the Jews that Jesus is the Messiah (Acts 17:1-3). Though some Jews believe, his preaching riles others to mob action (17:4-5). The mob even drags “some of the brethren to the rulers of the city” complaining: “These who have turned the world upside down have come here too. Jason has harbored them, and these are all acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king — Jesus” (17:6-7). After taking security from Jason and the others, the civil rulers let them go (17:9), allowing Paul to depart safely to Berea. The Jews do not so easily quiet, however, for “when the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was preached by Paul at Berea, they came there also and stirred up the crowds” (17:13). This results in the immediate dismissal of Paul to Athens (17:14-15).

Paul stays in Athens only three or four weeks.[3] He soon travels to Corinth (Acts 18:1), where he remains for eighteen months (18:11). But again serious Jewish antipathy arises. Interestingly, at Corinth Paul meets Aquila and Priscilla, Christians who are among the Jews Claudius Caesar banishes from Rome (18:2) [4]. According to Roman historian Suetonius: “As the Jews were indulging in constant riots at the instigation of Chrestus, [Claudius] banished them from Rome.” This reference to “Chrestus” is undoubtedly a Latin variant for the name “Christ.”[5]

Upon meeting these saints, who had suffered from Jewish riots against Christians in Rome, Paul sets about boldly preaching to the Jews in Corinth: “Jesus is the Christ” (Acts 18:5; cp. 17:3). Again the Jews violently oppose his message, organizing resistance [6] against him and blaspheming to such an extent that he determines to turn from the Jews to the Gentiles  (18:6). Matters worsen for him because of his remarkable success with a certain prominent Jewish leader, Crispus “the ruler of the synagogue” (18:8). Though Paul seldom baptizes, he baptizes Crispus (1 Cor. 1:14-16; Acts 18:8). Due to the intensity of the opposition, the Lord promises his special protection so that he will remain in Corinth (18:9-11).

All of this explains the strong language against the Jews in the Thessalonian epistles. It uncovers some of the more subtle concerns therein. In his first letter he writes:

For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God which are in Judea in Christ Jesus. For you also suffered the same things from your own countrymen, just as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they do not please God and are contrary to all men, forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they may be saved, so as always to fill up the measure of their sins; but wrath has come upon them to the uttermost” (1 Thess. 2:14-16).

He complains of Satanic resistance to his ministry, which according to the context, probably indicates Jewish opposition (1 Thess. 2:18, cp. 15-16 [7]). He seems to allude to Jewish opposition in 2 Thessalonians 1:4ff, where he mentions the Thessalonians’s perseverance and afflictions for their faith (1:4ff; cp. Acts 17:4-6). This also may be motivating his request that the Thessalonians pray for his deliverance from such “unreasonable and wicked men” (3:2; cf. Acts 17:4-6, 13; 18:6; 1 Thess. 2:14-16).

This Jewish context is important for understanding the situation confronting Paul. In the next blog I will show that 2 Thessalonians contains strong allusions to the Olivet Discourse, which speaks of the destruction of the Temple and the judgment of the Jews (cp. Matt. 23:35—24:2; cp. Acts 17:3; 18:5).[8] As Carson notes, the Olivet Discourse “is undoubtedly a source of the Thessalonian Epistles.”[9]

Notes

1. Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (3rd ed.: Downer’s Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1970), 457-465. D. A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 290-294.

2. William Hendriksen, I and II Thessalonians (NTC) (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1955), 15. Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 566-567, 579. John A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), 53.

3. . F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts (NICNT) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, rep. 1980 [n.d.]), 364.

4. Suetonius, Claudius 25:4. Cp. Dio Cassius, History 60:6; Orosius, History, 7:6:15ff.

5. Michael Grant, ed., Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, trans. by Robert Graves (London: Penguin, 1979), 202. See: Bruce, New Testament History, 297-299; Richard L. Niswonger, New Testament History (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 113-114.

6. The Greek term antitassomenon (“opposed”) in Acts 18:6 is a military term and indicates organized resistance.

7. Cf. Matt. 12:43-45; John 8:44; Rev. 2:9; 3:9. In 2 Corinthians Paul mentions Satanic blinding to the gospel (4:4) in the context of making reference to the veil blinding the Jews regarding the New Covenant (3:15; cp. Heb. 8:8-13). He then discusses his own grievous persecution (4:7-18).

8. Page attempts to draw the parallel with Revelation 20, comparing the restraint and deception of Satan and the flaming coming of Christ with the deception, restraint, and coming here. Sydney H. T. Page, “Revelation 20 and Pauline Eschatology,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 23:1 (March, 1980): 31-44.

9. D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” in Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 8:489. See also: G. Henry Waterman, “The Sources of Paul’s Teaching on the 2nd Coming of Christ in 1 and 2 Thessalonians,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 18:2 (June, 1975): 105-113.

 

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Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

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Ken is a Presbyterian pastor and the author or co-author of over thirty books, most on eschatology. He has been married since 1971, and has three children and several grandchildren. He is a graduate of Tennessee Temple University (B.A., 1973), Reformed Theological Seminary (M.Div., 1977), and Whitefield Theological Seminary (Th.M., 1986; Th.D., 1988). He currently pastors Living Hope Presbyterian Church (affiliated with the RPCGA) in Greer, SC. Much of his writing is in the field of eschatology, including his 600 page book, He Shall Have Dominion: A Postmillennial Eschatology and his 400 page, Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation (his Th.D. dissertation). He contributed chapters to two Zondervan CounterPoints books on eschatological issues: Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond (edited by Darrell L. Bock) and Four Views on the Book of Revelation (edited by C. Marvin Pate). He also debated Thomas D. Ice in Kregel's The Great Tribulation: Past or Future? His books have been published by American Vision, Baker, Zondervan, Kregel, P & R, Greenhaven Press, Nordskog, Wipf & Stock, and several other publishers. He has published scores of articles in such publications as Tabletalk, Westminster Theological Journal, Evangelical Theological Society Journal, Banner of Truth, Christianity Today, Antithesis, Contra Mundum, and others. He has spoken at over 100 conferences in America, the Caribbean, and Australia. He is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and a Church Council Committee member of Coalition on Revival.

2 responses to MAN OF LAWLESSNESS: HISTORICAL SETTING

  1. Dear Mr. Gentry,

    I recently heard a lecture by Walter Vaith on the subject of the 4th Beast, which he identifies as the Catholic church and describes “beast” fulfillments all the way into the 1700ʻs. France and Catholic Pope are identified as the Beast but Iʻm confused. Is the man of lawlessness the same as the beast? Is Nero s separate character? Who is the beast from the Bottomless pit? Nero or Papacy? Or are these different characters? Thank you!

  2. This is possible but it flies in the face of traditional interpretation of these passages and may contradict well-accepted second coming passages in the Thessalonian passages.

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