A Commentary by John Stott
2 Thessalonians 2:3b-5. The leader of the rebellion (continued).
This process of reinterpretation and re-application within Scripture itself, from Daniel through Jesus to Paul and John, gives an important flexibility to our understanding. Of particular significance is John’s explicit and authoritative statement that the expectation of a single Antichrist has been fulfilled (or at least partly so) in the numerous false teachers who were denying the Incarnation in his day. This prepares us for the conclusion that the biblical prediction of the Antichrist may during the course of church history have had (and still have) multiple fulfilments, and that we would be unwise to look for only one in such a way as to pronounce all the others false.
In the post-apostolic centuries of the church Christians have practised considerable ingenuity in trying to identify one of their contemporaries as the man of lawlessness. After the demise of the persecuting emperors and the conversion of Constantine, the Roman emperor no longer seemed a suitable candidate. At first one or other of the Vandal leaders, who raided Roman provinces and finally sacked Rome (AD 455), looked anti-Christian enough to be Antichrist. In the Middle Ages, especially at the time of the Crusades, the Western church identified the man of lawlessness as Muhammad, because he had ‘stolen’ the Christian holy places and caused many eastern Christians to commit ‘apostasy’. Towards the end of the Middle Ages some of the Franciscans saw in the corrupt popes and their proud pretensions an expression of the one who would ‘exalt himself’ and ‘set himself up in God’s sanctuary’, while at the beginning of the thirteenth century Emperor Frederick II and pope Gregory IX found satisfaction in calling each other the Antichrist. The early Reformers (Wycliffe in England, the Waldensians in Italy and John Hus in Bohemia) all referred the prophecy to the Pope, or rather to particular popes on account of their corruption, whereas -with greater exegetical insight – the sixteenth-century Reformers, including Luther, Calvin and Zwingli on the continent, Knox in Scotland and Cranmer in England, believed that the papacy itself was Antichrist. The Roman Catholic leaders of the Counter-Reformation then returned the compliment by identifying Luther as ‘the man of sin’. The identification of the Pope as Antichrist continued at least into the seventeenth century. The Westminster Confession (1646), for example, affirms that the Lord Jesus Christ is the head of the church, and not the Pope, who is rather ‘that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself, in the church, against Christ and all that is called God’.
During the last two centuries, political rather than religious leaders have been put forward as possible Antichrists. Candidates have included Napoleon Bonaparte (because of his arrogant absolutism), Napoleon III, Kaiser Wilhelm, Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin, and certainly strong elements of both godlessness and lawlessness have been seen in these men.
How should we react to what F.W.Farrar called ‘that vast limbo of exploded exegesis? Certainly, not by a contemptuous dismissal of prophecy, of the ‘legend’ of Antichrist, which ‘is now to be found only among the lower classes of the Christian community, among sects, eccentric individuals and fanatics’. If that were the case, I for one would be happy to be numbered among the ‘lower classes’ of eccentrics and fanatics! Instead, we should take careful note of the development of the Antichrist expectation within Scripture itself, how Daniel referred to Antiochus Epiphanes, how Jesus, Paul and John in Revelation reapplied the prophecy of Daniel, that is, how they recognized successive embodiments of godlessness and lawlessness, and how John in his Letters saw the false teachers as ‘many antichrists’, spreading their heresy around, much as Jesus had talked about ‘pseudo-Christs’ (Mt.24:24). As Hendriksen has put it, ‘history…repeats itself. Better, prophecy attains multiple fulfilment’. Yet all these, together with other evil leaders down the centuries, have been forerunners or anticipations of the final ‘man of lawlessness’, an eschatological yet historical person, the decisive manifestation of lawlessness and godlessness, the leader of the ultimate rebellion, the precursor of and signal for the Parousia. I agree with Geerhardus Vos that ‘we may take for granted…that the Antichrist will be a human person’. And whether we still believe in the coming of Antichrist will depend largely on whether we still believe in the coming of Christ.
Tomorrow: 2 Thessalonians 2:6-8. b). The outbreak of the rebellion.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.