Prior to the return of Jesus, the “man of lawlessness” will be revealed when he seats himself in the “sanctuary of God” – 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4.
According to Paul, Jesus will not return until two events take place, the “apostasy” and the “revelation of the man of lawlessness.” The two are inextricably linked. This malevolent figure will cause many believers to apostatize. And not only will he be “revealed,” that unveiling will take place “in the sanctuary of God” where he will “sit down.”
In the congregation in Thessalonica, false reports were circulating that the “day of the Lord has set in,” and the Greek verb indicates the belief that this event had “commenced” already. Paul responded by pointing to two prophetic events that must occur before that day arrives:
- (2 Thessalonians 2:3-4) – “That day will not set in, except, first, the apostasy comes, and there be revealed the man of lawlessness, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself on high against everyone called God or any object of worship, so that he, within the sanctuary of God, will sit down, showing himself that he is God.”
The term “revelated” translates the Greek verb apocalyptô, meaning “unveiled, disclosed, revealed.” It is related to the noun apocalyptô, the term from which the English “revelation” is derived. The verb denotes the disclosure of something that was previously hidden, an idea that fits the context nicely. And this man will not appear until the “mystery of lawlessness” has finished preparing his way, “and then the lawless one will be revealed” – (2 Thessalonians 2:8).
The clause “he will sit down in the sanctuary” corresponds to the verb “revealed”; that is, his “seating” will mean his “revelation,” the time when his identity will be unveiled, at least for those with “eyes to see.” The sentence tells us when and where this figure will be unveiled. This does not mean he will be an unknown figure prior to that day, but that his identification as the “man of lawlessness” will remain hidden until that time.
In fact, his “revelation” will be the Satanic counterpart to the “revelation of Jesus” described in the first chapter of the letter:
- “And to you that are afflicted, rest with us, at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with the angels of his power in flaming fire, rendering vengeance to them that know not God, and to them that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus” – (2 Thessalonians 1:7-8).
At the end of the age, Jesus will be “revealed from heaven” accompanied by angels and mighty displays of power. In contrast, the “man of lawlessness will be revealed” when he “sits down in the sanctuary of God.” Likewise, his “arrival” or ‘parousia’ will counterfeit that of Jesus:
- “And then will be revealed the lawless one, whom the Lord Jesus will slay with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the manifestation of his arrival [parousia]; even he, whose arrival [parousia] is according to the energizing of Satan, with all power and signs and lying wonders” – (2 Thessalonians 2:8-9).
The passage from the letter’s first chapter anticipates the discussion in the second chapter. When Jesus is “revealed from heaven,” not only will he vindicate his saints, but he will also “render vengeance on them that know not God, and on them that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” And that will include the destruction of the “lawless one.”
On that day, what determines vindication or condemnation is obedience or disobedience to the “gospel of Jesus.” This corresponds to the exhortation at the end of the second chapter to “stand fast” in the “traditions” taught by Paul and the apostles, which is necessary to avoid apostasy and “everlasting destruction from the face of the Lord.”
None of this means the “lawless one” will appear in the sky in some spectacular display of power. The text itself states that he appears “in the sanctuary.” Yet, on some level, his public unveiling mimics the “revelation of Jesus from heaven.” Just as Jesus will arrive with angels and in “flaming fire,” so the “lawless one” will arrive with “lying signs and wonders.”
The Greek phrase rendered “sanctuary of God” occurs five times in Paul’s letters, including the present passage (ton naon tou theou). Naos means “sanctuary” and, in biblical Greek, refers to the inner sanctum, and not to the entire Temple complex (Greek, hieron). He applied this term to the church and Christians four times in his letters to the Corinthians, and once in Ephesians he used naos by itself for the church, the “holy sanctuary to the Lord”- (1 Corinthians 3:16, 3:17, 6:19, 2 Corinthians 6:16, Ephesians 2:19-22).
The scriptural source for the “man of lawlessness” is Daniel with its malevolent persecutor of the Jewish people, the one who is called the “little horn,” the “king of fierce countenance,” and the “contemptible person.” This ruler “exalted himself above every god and spoke marvelous things against the God of gods.” He waged “war against the saints,” causing many in Israel to apostatize, desecrated the “sanctuary” by erecting in it the “abomination that desolates,” and banned the daily burnt offering. All this made him the perfect model for Paul’s “man of lawlessness” – (Daniel 7:21-25, 8:9-13, 8:23-26, 9:26-27, 11:30-36).
This “man of lawlessness” is linked by Paul to the coming “apostasy,” which translates the Greek term apostasia, meaning “defection, apostasy, falling away, departure, abandonment.” Consistently in the Greek scriptures, it is applied to the abandonment of the true faith, and in Paul’s theology, that is found only in the faith of Jesus Christ.
The purpose of the “lawless one” will be to cause apostasy. He will be energized by Satan with “all power and signs and lying wonders, and with all deceit of unrighteousness for them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth.” These words echo the warning of Jesus that “false prophets” and “false messiahs” will appear before his return who would employ “great signs and wonders in order to deceive, if possible, even the elect” – (2 Thessalonians 2:9-12, Matthew 24:24).
The “man of lawlessness” will “sit down in the sanctuary.” The description points to his further mimicking of Jesus. “Sit down” translates the Greek verb kathizô, the same verb used each time the New Testament quotes Psalm 110:1, where Yahweh said to his Messiah, “sit down at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.” Thus, for example, in Hebrews, after he “achieved the purification of sin,” Jesus “sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high.” Moreover, the New Testament claims that Jesus reigns even now from God’s “right hand” – (Matthew 22:44, Acts 2:34-36, 7:55).
As he is seated in the “sanctuary,” the “man of lawlessness” opposes God and presents himself as if he is divine. In short, on some level, he is a counterfeit Messiah, perhaps even claiming to reign on behalf of God. That he will “sit down” also demonstrates his presumptuousness. In the ancient Tabernacle, only the high priest entered the “holy of holies” once each year to stand before the “mercy-seat” and apply the blood of sacrificial animals, and he NEVER “sat down” in the sanctuary.
This section of the letter concludes with the exhortation to “stand fast in the traditions” taught by Paul, “whether by word or by epistle of ours.” This last clause regarding the means of communication links the conclusion to the start of the section, and it affirms its primary concern is NOT with deception propagated by outsiders, but with efforts by deceivers from within to mislead believers.
In this context, and considering Paul’s usage elsewhere, the best conclusion is that “sanctuary of God” refers to the church. When he is “revealed,” the “man of lawlessness” will be active within the church. The passage warns Christians to watch for the rise of this deceiver from within their own ranks, the one who will counterfeit the true Christ and lead many saints astray.