Note of the Day – July 31

Today’s note, dealing with the occurrences of the word musth/rion (“secret”) in the New Testament, examines 2 Thessalonians 2:7 and a very distinctive use of the term.

2 Thessalonians 2:7

In 2 Thess 2:1-12, Paul addresses an eschatological issue: regarding whether the “day of the Lord” might have already come. The expression “day of the Lord” was inherited from Old Testament and Jewish tradition—a reference to the time, at the end of this current Age, when the Lord (YHWH) would appear to bring judgment upon the world and deliver the faithful among his people. By the time of the New Testament, the concept was closely tied to Messianic expectation—the end-time appearance of an “anointed” ruler and/or representative of God, whose appearance will precede or usher-in the Judgment. Jesus was universally accepted by early Christians as the “Anointed One” (Messiah/Christ)—for the associations between Jesus and the main Messianic figure-types, cf. the notes and articles in my recent series “Yeshua the Anointed“—and the uniquely Christian contribution to the traditional eschatological picture was that Jesus would return (as God’s representative) to deliver his people (believers) and oversee the administration of the final Judgment. Paul, like virtually all believers of the time, expected that the end-time Judgment and return of Jesus were imminent, to occur very soon, and so it was understandable that the experience of intense suffering and persecution (the “birth pains”) might lead Christians to think that the Judgment was in the process of taking place. Paul wishes to make clear, in vv. 3ff, that certain events must still occur before the final Judgment comes. He is drawing upon a traditional eschatological framework—taken primarily from Daniel 7-12, especially 9:20-27, and the various apocalyptic works inspired by it (cf. my recent article on this passage). Jesus’ own eschatological teaching, as recorded in Synoptic tradition (Mark 13 par), draws from this line of tradition as well.

Before discussing 2 Thess 2:7 in context, it is worth pointing out the considerable difficulties for modern-day Christians in studying and evaluating these eschatological passages in the New Testament. A wide range of interpretations (and systems of interpretation) have developed over the years—some more plausible than others—in order to make sense of the relevant passages. There is special difficulty associated with 2 Thess 2:3ff, since it, perhaps more than any other in the New Testament, appears to be a prophecy regarding specific historical events, set (so it would seem) in Paul’s own time, and involving the presence of the Jerusalem Temple (v. 4)—in other words, prior to 70 A.D. There are three main interpretative approaches, as with most of the eschatological passages:

  • Imminent-Historical—The events should be taken at face value, as a prophecy of things which would soon happen (perhaps within a few years), assuming the existence of the Jerusalem Temple (i.e. prior to its destruction)
  • Futurist—Again the prophesied events are taken more or less at face value, but in a future time (where, apparently, a functioning Temple in Jerusalem has been rebuilt).
  • Symbolic—According to this view, Paul uses specific traditional-historical eschatological imagery (“man of lawlessness”, “the Temple”, etc) to refer to more general spiritual/religious tendencies (apostasy, rebellion against God), which have been occurring, and which will occur with greater intensity (today/in the future), as the end approaches.

There are strengths and weaknesses to each approach, some more serious than others. In my view, only the first deals honestly with the text (and the historical context) of the passage as we have it, though, admittedly, it raises important questions regarding 2 Thess 2:3ff as a genuine (historical) prophecy. For the purposes of this note, I assume that Paul basically has his own time in mind (including the pre-70 Temple), without making any judgment on the wider theological/doctrinal issues. The key portion is vv. 6-8. Paul has already made reference to a “standing away (from God) [a)postasi/a, apostasía, i.e. ‘apostasy’]” which immediately precedes the end, as well as the appearance of the “man of lawlessness [o( a&nqrwpo$ th=$ a)nomi/a$]” (some MSS read “man of sin” […th=$ a(marti/a$]). There is a tendency by many Christians to identify this figure automatically with the “Antichrist” of subsequent tradition, blending 2 Thess 2 together with the epistles of John and the book of Revelation; however, while the underlying concept of antichrist is appropriate to the context here, it is important to limit our examination to what Paul himself says. This “man of lawlessness” is expounded by two phrases in vv. 3-4:

  • “the son of ruin/destruction” (o( ui(o\$ th=$ a)pwlei/a$)
  • “the one (who is)…upon every thing counted as God or revered”; two verbal participles fill the ellipsis:
    —”laying/crouching down against” [a)ntikei/meno$] —”raising/lifting (himself) over” [u(perairo/meno$]

In other words, this person looks to attack, and to raise himself over, every proper religious idea people may have. This tendency culminates in the dramatic action of seating himself in the Temple sanctuary (nao/$) to demonstrate his own deity (v. 5). Verses 6-8 set the historical/chronological context for these events. Especially important (and difficult) is the use of the verb kate/xw (lit. “hold down”); there are two ways this can be understood—(1) holding someone down, in the sense of restraining or impeding him, or (2) holding down (i.e. having control of) power or a position. These two options lead to three basic ways of interpreting vv. 6-8 (for a good survey, cf. Wanamaker, pp. 249-58):

  • The lawless one and/or “secret of lawlessness” holds back (delays) the coming of Christ and the end judgment—i.e. it will not happen until the lawless one first appears
  • Someone/something holds back (restrains) the coming of the lawless one
  • The “secret of lawlessness”, including someone in particular, holds down (possesses) power until the time when the “lawless one” appears

In my view, the last of these approaches best fits the context and grammar of the passage. Here is a literal rendering of vv. 6-9 with this in mind:

“And now you have seen the (thing) holding down (power) unto [i.e. leading toward] the uncovering of him in his (own) time. For the secret of lawlessness already works in (the world), only until the (one) holding down (power) now comes to be out of the middle—and then the lawless (one) will be uncovered, whom the Lord [Yeshua] will take up/away [i.e. destroy] with the Spirit of His mouth and will make inactive in the shining of his coming along [parousi/a] upon (the earth), and whose coming along is according to the working of (the) Satan in him in all lying power and signs and marvels.”

There is some confusion in the syntax due the reference of two different “comings” (lit. “coming to be along[side]”, parousi/a parousía)—that of the Lord (v. 8), and that of the “lawless one” (v. 9). This is rather easier to recognize in the original Greek, since the two relative pronouns (indicated by italics above) relate, by way of modifying clauses, to “the lawless one” at the beginning of v. 8:

  • “Then will be uncovered the lawless one [o( a&nomo$]
    • whom [o^n] the Lord will take up/away…and
    • whose [ou!] coming to be along [parousi/a] is…”

There can be little doubt that the juxtaposition of the coming of the Lord and the Lawless One is intentional, meant as a definite contrast—the coming of the Lawless One, who will show/proclaim himself as God, is an evil parody of the true coming of the Lord. Some manuscripts read “the Lord Yeshua {Jesus}” (o( ku/rio$ )Ihsou=$) , while others simply “the Lord” (o( ku/rio$). In the original Scriptural (Old Testament) tradition, it was God (YHWH) himself who would appear in Judgment at the end-time, though this was often understood as occurring through a heavenly/angelic representative—the “Messenger (Angel) of the Lord”, as (it would seem) in the original setting of Malachi 3:1ff. In subsequent Jewish thought, much of this role was taken by the Messiah, especially the figure-types of the Davidic Ruler and (heavenly) “Son of Man“. The imagery in verse 8b is drawn primarily from Isaiah 11:4, a popular ‘Messianic’ passage of the time.

Another important aspect of vv. 6-8 involves the expression “the secret of lawlessness” (to\ musth/rion th=$ a)nomi/a$) in verse 7. A similar expression (“secret[s] of sin”) is known from the Qumran texts (1QM 14:9; 1QH 5:36; 1Q27 1.2,7); and note also “secret of evil/wickedness” (musth/rion kaki/a$) in Josephus War 1.470 (cf. Wanamaker, p. 255). The word a)nomi/a (along with the adjective a&nomo$) essentially means “without law”, that is, without possessing or adhering to proper law and custom. From the societal standpoint, this results in “lawlessness” and is tantamount to anarchy and rebellion. In a religious sense, being “without law” generally refers to immorality; however, from a Jewish (and Christian) perspective, since the Law (Torah) is tied to the idea of the agreement established between God and his people, “lawlessness” is effectively the same as rebellion against God. Note the way that this dynamic is expressed in the eschatological context of vv. 6-8:

  • The (thing) holding down (power) [to\ kate/xon, neuter participle] (v. 6)
    —The secret of lawlessness [to\ musth/rion {neuter} th=$ a)nomi/a$] (v. 7a)
  • The (one) holding down (power) [o( kate/xwn, masculine participle] (v. 7b)
    —The lawless one [o( a&nomo$, masculine] (v. 8)

The parallel is clear and obvious, shifting from the neuter (a condition or tendency) to the masculine (a person or [personal] figure). The relationship can also be expressed as a chiasm, as follows:

  • The secret of lawlessness—i.e. of sin, evil and opposition to God
    —The (thing) holding down power
    —The (one) holding down power
  • The lawless one—directly empowered/inspired by Satan, opposed to God

The use of the verb kate/xw suggests a temporary situation—the holding down of power until [e%w$] the (final) manifestation of lawlessness in the “lawless one”. More to the point, the use of the term “secret” (musth/rion) indicates that this lawlessness is, to some extent, hidden during the current state of things (in Paul’s time). At the very least, we can infer that the true nature, and full extent, of this lawlessness is hidden from the awareness of ordinary people, though Paul definitely states that it is “at work in” (e)nergei=tai) the world (v. 7a). Again, there is a strong sense here of an evil parallel (and parody) with the Gospel:

  • The secret of God, which has been hidden away from the world
    —only now made known through the appearance and work of Christ
  • The secret of lawlessness, likewise hidden (at least in its full extent)
    —only to be made known through the appearance and (Satanic) work of the lawless one

A bit more must be said of this “lawless one” in the context of vv. 6-8; this will be done in the process of addressing the use of musth/rion in Revelation 17:5, 7, in the next daily note.

References marked “Wanamaker” above are to Charles A. Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians in The New International Greek Testament Commentary [NIGTC] series (Eerdmans/Paternoster Press: 1990).


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