By Dr. Matthew A. Tsakanikas
Great Apostasy: Part I How Can the Man of Lawlessness Ascend God’s Throne?
Saint Augustine gave multiple explanations for why a passage of scripture may be difficult to understand. Some of these included: due to a copyist’s error; it could be due to a faulty translation; it could be that it simply exceeds the understanding of the exegetes; or, it could be because it was destined for future times to understand. Since Saint Paul is clear that the man of lawlessness will be revealed “in his time” (2 Thess 2:6), it would seem that this prophecy was for future times to understand and not Saint Paul’s time. Additionally, Saint Peter is clear that “no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation” since only the Spirit can reveal it (2 Pet 1:20-21). He further warns us that in Saint Paul’s letters “there are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist…” (2 Peter 3:16).
Attempting to avoid ignorance and unstableness, this essay hopes to explore the context of Saint Paul’s and the Church’s mind concerning how a “man of lawlessness” can “take his seat in the temple of God” and “proclaim himself to be God” (2 Thessalonians 2:3-4). A primary rule of Catholic exegesis is “faith in Christ,” that Sacred Scripture must be read first and foremost in the same Holy Spirit by which it was written (cf. Verbum Domini #25 & #34; Dei Verbum #12). This includes a proper grounding in the historical culture of the author, his theological context, and the known faith of the Church in her liturgies which preceded the sacred writings and followed them.
Explaining what would lead to the Second Coming, Saint Paul advised his listeners:
Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling to meet him, we beg you, brethren, not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited, either by spirit or by word, or by letter purporting to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. 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 perdition, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you this? And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. [2 Thessalonians 2: 1-6]
The above passage follows by a few months Saint Paul’s first ever extant letter to the Thessalonians (written about 51 A.D.). He is adding explanation to his comments from the First Letter to the Thessalonians; explaining not to expect the Second Coming until many things are in place. In his first letter, Paul gives clear teachings about what leads to the Lord’s Second Coming: do not give in to immorality “because the Lord is an avenger in all these things [violations of the moral law] as we solemnly warned you” (1 Thess 4:6). He then speaks of the Second Coming (4:13-18) and reminds them: “When people say, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a woman with child, and there will be no escape” (5:3).
The key to contextualizing this prophecy in Second Thessalonians about the “man of lawlessness” and his coming “in his time” requires understanding how one could take his seat in the temple of God as part of this future rebellion. To examine this question, this essay would like to demonstrate that Paul’s prophecy was for the distant future, secondly, examine in Pauline and ecclesial faith what it means to take one’s seat in God’s temple or the throne of God, and finally, Part II will examine when taking a seat in God’s temple is a sign of rebellion so serious that it necessitates Christ’s return in glory.
Saint Paul points to a future time for “the rebellion” that leads to the “man of lawlessness”
Since Paul is writing almost 20 years before the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and since Paul knows Jesus prophesied that the Second Temple would be destroyed in the lifetime of some of Jesus’ original disciples (cf. Mark 13:2, 14, 30), Paul would have perceived already that the Second Coming could not happen until after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed per Jesus’ prophecy and promises. Per the prophecies of Daniel 2:35 [the kingdom of the Messiah] and 7:11 [Caesars’ Rome as the 4th beast], Paul would not have believed the Second Coming was related to a man entering the Second Jewish Temple since that was no longer the true temple, it was going to be destroyed soon [70 A.D.], Rome had not yet been overcome by Christ’s kingdom, and Jesus’ glorified and risen body was the true Temple for Saint Paul.
In First Timothy, Paul is clear: “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, through the pretensions of liars whose consciences are seared…” (1 Timothy 4:1-2). In Second Timothy, Paul repeats the same need for bishops to always be correcting the faithful from selfish and immoral living “in season and out of season”: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itchy ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths” (cf. 2 Tim 4:2-4).
The great rebellion of Second Thessalonians is for a later time: after the Second Temple is destroyed, after the Roman Empire is converted, and after the Gospel is preached throughout the whole earth so people know to expect Christ’s Second Coming. Only after that, does the possibility begin that the whole world will fall away from the authentic Gospel and thus enter into the great rebellion or apostasy which precedes “the man of lawlessness” and the Second Coming in glory.
More to the point, Saint Paul would have been aware of Saint Peter’s advice about the Second Coming since in Saint Peter’s Second Letter Peter seems to be addressing those who were misrepresenting Saint Paul’s writings (cf. 2 Pet 3:16); probably the very letters to the Thessalonians which prophesied the Second Coming [see “Second Peter: The Transfiguration Is the Interpretive Key to the Second Coming”]. It was because of prophecies related to the coming destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem also getting conflated with the Second Coming that Peter had to state: “that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise…” (2 Pet 3:8-9). Paul’s prophecy must be taken up into Peter’s greater authority (2 Peter 1:19) that the Second Coming could be a very distant future.
What does it mean to sit in God’s Temple or sit on God’s throne?
Paul understood that Jesus was the true Temple from Jesus’ own words about his resurrected body: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will rebuild it.” Believing these words, in the letter to the Hebrews, Pauline theology is clear that Jesus is greater than an earthly high-priest and that Christ ministers in the true Temple which the baptized can enter while still on earth through the Church’s liturgies. “We have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the sanctuary of the true tent which is set up not by man but by the Lord…Christ has obtained a ministry which is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises” (Hebrews 8:1-2, 6).
More importantly Pauline theology teaches that we have access to sit with Jesus on his throne: “Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain [veil], that is through his flesh [the Eucharist], let us draw near with a true heart…” (Hebrew 10:19-22). In the Liturgy which Jesus established in his Church, “You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God…and to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant” (Hebrews 12:22-24).
Paul understands that receiving Holy Communion is to “sit on the throne of God” for at least three reasons: his teaching in Hebrews about the baptized entering the holy of holies, his teaching in First Corinthians 11, and the apostolic teaching found in the Book of Revelation 3:20-21 in which receiving Holy Communion is shown as sitting on God’s throne.
This brief essay will not give a detailed exegesis on how the Mount Zion of Hebrews 12:22 is the same Jerusalem that comes down from heaven in Revelation 21:10 when the Lamb of God is made present (cf. Rev 14:1 & 21:22; 1 Cor 5:7-8). It trusts the reader understands something of the Church’s teachings on the mystery of Holy Communion. In the meantime, permit this essay to simply point to the fact that in First Corinthians 11 Saint Paul teaches that one needs to be ready to meet the Lord with a clear conscience at Holy Communion (1 Cor 11: 27-32) or he will be chastened (11:30-32). Paul’s thoughts on Holy Communion are the same line of thought as in First Thessalonians when he tells Christians to be ready to meet the Lord by keeping authentic love via proper sexual morality [marriage] because the Lord is an “avenger” of sin (1 Thess 4:1-6).
It is the Book of Revelation, written to Christians already worshipping according to Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist, it presupposes that Christians understand Paul’s theology in Hebrews. In the Book of Revelation, Jesus speaks to the Church of Laodicea and says:
Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, that you may be rich, and white garments to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen, and salve to anoint your eyes that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and chasten; so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. He who conquers, I will grant him to sit on my throne, as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne… [Revelation 3:18-22]
Explaining Revelation 3:18-22 and sitting on God’s throne
Figuratively, to purchase gold is to come to the Church for baptism and be “clothed in Christ”: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal 3:27). Gold is a symbol of divinity and it is through baptism that we are clothed in Christ’s divinity (“sharers in the divine nature” 2 Pet 1:4) and prepared to receive Jesus in Holy Communion where Christ increases his glory and indwelling. In Second Corinthians, Paul writes: “Our inner man is being renewed daily, preparing us for an eternal weight of glory…We long to put on our heavenly dwelling…so we may not be found naked…but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life [glory/divinity/the Spirit]” (2 Corinthians 4:16-5:5).
The references to Christ coming into us and dining with us is when we meet him as the “lamb of God” in Holy Communion (cf. 1 Cor 5:8) and pass through the veil/curtain (Hebrews 10:20) into the true Holy of Holies by the power of the Spirit. At that moment Christ has taken us in the mystery of faith (by the Spirit) to where he sits at the right hand of the Father, even before he returns visibly in glory. For this reason, while implementing the mystery of his body and blood (the “mystery of faith”) at the Last Supper, Jesus said: “And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (Jn 14:3). This is not only about after our deaths, but building eternal life into us through Holy Communion.
Christ is clear that he sits with his Father on his throne in Revelation 3:22. In Holy Communion, Christ is clear: “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood, abides in me and I in him” (Jn 6:56). To receive this great “mystery of faith” is therefore to be seated on the Father’s throne in Christ through a great mystery. The translation of the Greek “mysterion” into Latin is “sacrament”. In the Sacrament of Holy Communion, the baptized momentarily take their seat in God’s Temple until they finally receive it permanently after death…if they have persevered in faithfulness to Christ and his doctrines (which are about loving in truth).
What would “The Rebellion” look like and who would fulfill the “Man of Lawlessness”?
…..continued in Part II