The Thessalonian church had an issue that Paul felt compelled to address. Some, as it were, had come to believe a false teaching that presented the idea that Jesus’ Second Coming had already taken place. Paul was surprised that this teaching had been able to take root within the body of believers at Thessalonica, given the fact that he had clearly addressed the subject of Eschatology (the study of the End Times) while he was with them. That, in and of itself, is an interesting fact considering that Paul was only with them for three short weeks (how many missionaries today would emphasize Eschatology to that degree during a three week church plant?). Let’s look at 2 Thessalonians chapter 2 to see what Paul has to say.
1 “Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, 2 not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. 3 Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, 4 who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.” (ESV)
Let’s break that down a bit. In other words, Paul is basically saying:
Don’t be upset and don’t be deceived by a teaching that presents that Jesus has already come back, because that event (the Second Coming) will NOT take place until these two things happen: 1. The great falling away (See Matthew 24:10-12), and 2. the antichrist being fully revealed, sitting in the temple proclaiming himself to literally be God (See Daniel 9:27, Matthew 24:15-16).
Paul continues in verse 5, saying, “Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? 6 And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. 7 For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. 8 And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming.”
What we need to remember when we are interpreting these verses is that the subject of this passage is the Second Coming. Paul is confronting head-on the idea that the Second Coming had already happened, by reminding the Thessalonians of what they had already talked about when he was with them; i.e. that a couple things needed to happen before Jesus came back (the falling away and the revealing of the man of sin). In verse 5, some tend to deviate from Paul’s initial train of thought and bring in other ideas as to what/who the infamous Restrainer is. Some have presented the idea that the restrainer is the Holy Spirit, who will be taken from the earth when the saints are “raptured”, removing all moral restraint on the earth and allowing the antichrist (the one who is apparently being restrained) to be fully revealed. It is my personal belief that this is a flawed idea on a few different levels. While it is not my plan to dissect this view (or any of the others) and the beliefs surrounding it, what I will do is offer an alternative interpretation to this passage; one that I feel keeps more with Paul’s initial train of though, and in doing so, remains more in the actual context of the passage.
Before I do that though, we’ll need to brush up on our Greek a bit, as the translation of this passage presents a few challenges. The word in question is the one that is often translated “taken out” in verse 7, which in the Greek is ginomai (ghin’-om-ahee) and really doesn’t mean “taken out” at all. In fact by definition ginomai actually means:
1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being 2) to become, i.e. to come to pass, happen 2a) of events 3) to arise, appear in history, come upon the stage 3a) of men appearing in public 4) to be made, finished 4a) of miracles, to be performed, wrought 5) to become, be made
That one translation dramatically changes the possible interpretation of the verse. With that in mind, as well as what I said about keeping with Paul’s initial train of thought, let me present what I think is the best interpretation of this passage that I have heard.
I believe the thing that Paul is saying is being restrained is in fact the Second Coming of Christ. This fits with what Paul says in verses 1-4, reminding the Thessalonians that the Second Coming would not take place until the other two things (the falling away, and the antichrist being revealed) happened first.
The “he who now restrains,” I believe speaks of the antichrist, who will do so (restrain the Second Coming) until he is fully in the midst (ginomai), NOT “taken out of the way” as the word is commonly interpreted (don’t ask me why).
With that in mind, here is how I would read verses 6-8:
6 And you know what (what=the falling away and the man of sin being revealed) is restraining him (Jesus) now so that he (Jesus) may be revealed in his time (at the Second Coming). 7 For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he (he=the antichrist) who now restrains it (it=the Second Coming) will do so until he (he=the antichrist) is out of the way (actual translation=fully in the midst, “ginomai”). 8 And then the lawless one (the antichrst) will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming.”
This interpretation stays with Paul’s train of thought better than any other I know of, and I think is the most straight-forward interpretation of this passage, without inserting unrelated ideas and beliefs into the passage itself.