A Commentary by John Stott
2 Thessalonians 2:6-8. b). The outbreak of the rebellion.
Paul does not specify what form the rebellion will take. But the word he uses for it, *apostasia* (3), meant in classical Greek either a military revolt or a political defection, whereas in the LXX it applied to religious apostasy, namely Israel’s rebellion against God. Presumably Antichrist’s revolt, therefore, being directed against God and Law, will even infiltrate and engulf the nominal church.
Not yet, however. For the rebellion will not take place until the chief rebel has emerged (3). And, Paul adds, *you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time* (6). Paul’s preoccupation here is with the time of the rebellion. He uses a series of time references, in order that the Thessalonians may grasp the order of events: ‘*Now* you know what is restraining him, so that he may be revealed *at the proper time*. For *already* the mystery of lawlessness is at work secretly; but the one who *now* restrains it will *continue* to do so *until* he is removed. And *then* the lawless one will be revealed’ (6-8). Two processes are now already going on simultaneously. On the one hand *the secret power of lawlessness is…at work* surreptitiously and subversively. On the other hand, the restraining influence is also at work, preventing the secret rebelliousness from breaking out into open rebellion. Only when this control is lifted will first the revolt and then the Parousia take place.
The nature of *what is holding him back*(6), which is later personalized as *the one who now holds it back* (7), has caused commentators many headaches. Once again we stand at an initial disadvantage, because Paul’s Thessalonian readers knew what the restraining influence was (6), since he had regularly taught them about these things (5), whereas we have not had the benefit of the apostle’s initial instruction. It is not altogether surprising, then, that even the great Augustine, reacting against unprofitable conjectures, declared. ‘I frankly confess I do not know what he means.’
Before we are in a position to weigh the possible interpretations, it may be helpful to bring together the four facts about the ‘restraint’ which Paul clarifies. First, it is at work now and is effectively stopping the outbreak of the rebellion. Secondly, ‘it’ may also be referred to as ‘he’ (8). The restraint is both neuter and masculine, something and someone, a pressure and a person. Thirdly, at the right time this ‘it’ or ‘he’ will be removed, and the removal will trigger the final timetable, namely the revelation first of Antichrist and then of Christ. Fourthly, there must be some reason, in addition to the Thessalonians’ knowledge, which prompts Paul to write about the restraint and its removal in such guarded, roundabout and even cryptic terms. Here, then, are our four guidelines. The ‘restrain’ must be socially effective, capable of a personal manifestation, historically removable and delicate enough to be talked about in whispers and enigmas. Three main explanations have been proposed.
First, the restraining power is *the Holy Spirit and the work of the church*. In this case, the ‘he who restrains’ would be the Spirit himself, while the ‘it who restrains’ would be the church he indwells. Certainly Jesus intended his people, like salt in meat, to exercise a restraining influence on society. But why should Paul write of the Spirit and the church in such enigmatic terms? And the concept of the church being ‘removed’ before the rebellion would mean that it would not be there to greet Christ on his return.
The second suggestion is that the restraint is *Paul and the preaching of the gospel*. One or two of the early fathers held this view, and Calvin wrote: ‘Paul declared that the light of the gospel must first be spread through every part of the world…’. Again, I hear Paul speaking of the universal call of the Gentiles’ (Mt.24:14). The ‘restraint’ on this showing is the necessary ‘delay’ until the world is evangelized. Oscar Cullmann took up and developed this theme, emphasizing Paul’s unique role as the apostle to the Gentiles. In this case the ‘masculine ‘restrainer’ is ‘a self-designation of the apostle’ and the neuter ‘restraint’ is his ‘missionary preaching’. But if the reference is to himself and his evangelism, why should he need to be so cryptic about it? Besides, did he really see himself at the centre of the eschatological stage, so that the rebellion awaited his removal from the scene? And how could his removal (presumably by death) be reconciled with his apparent hope of surviving until the Parousia (1 Thess.4:13ff.)?
Tomorrow: 2 Thessalonians 2:6-8. b). The outbreak of the rebellion (continued).
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.