The mystery of lawlessness is at work even now preparing the way for the Lawlessness One – 2 Thessalonians 2:5-7.
Paul has explained why the “Day of the Lord” has not commenced. Two events must precede it, the “apostasy,” and the “revelation of the man of lawlessness.” Now, he will describe the “mystery of lawlessness” that has been operating behind the scenes to set the stage for the “arrival” of the “son of destruction” who will oppose God and employ “signs and wonders” to deceive many.
Paul told the Thessalonians about “these things” when he was with them. The demonstrative pronoun rendered “these” refers to the two things listed in verses 3-4, the unveiling of the “man of lawlessness” and the commencement of the “apostasy”:
- (2 Thessalonians 2:5-8) – “Do you not remember that, being yet with you, these things I said to you? And now you know what is possessing, to the end, he may be revealed in his season. For the mystery of lawlessness already is working, only there is one who is possessing now, until he comes out of the way; then will be revealed the Lawless One, whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of his mouth and destroy with the manifestation of his arrival [parousia].”
The term “possessing” translates the Greek participle katechon, which is in the Greek present tense to signify ongoing action, that is, “what is retraining.” The verb occurs approximately twenty times in the New Testament, most often with the sense “hold fast, keep, possess.” Note the following examples:
- (Matthew 21:38) – “This is the heir; let us kill him and possess his inheritance.”
- (Romans 1:18) – “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness.”
- (Romans 7:6) – “We are delivered from the law in which we were held fast.”
- (1 Corinthians 7:30) – “And they that rejoice, as though they rejoiced not; and they that buy, as though they possessed not.”
- (1 Thessalonians 5:21) – “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.”
And the same participle is in the neuter gender; it refers to “what is possessing.” In the Greek sentence, it is paired with the “mystery of lawlessness,” and like the participle, “mystery” is also in the neuter gender, which explains why “possessing” is neuter and not masculine. In other words, the “mystery of lawlessness” is the thing that is “possessing” at the present time.
In his description, Paul is continuing to use imagery from the “little horn” from the seventh chapter of Daniel. As he often does, he uses the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament. And this is also his source for the verb katechō and several other terms he uses in the present passage:
- (Daniel 7:8, 18-26) – “There came up in their midst [anebé en mesō] another horn, a little one, before which three of the first horns were plucked up by the roots… But the saints of the Most-High will take the kingdom and possess [katechō] the kingdom forever…. I beheld, and the same horn made war with the saints, and prevailed against them until [heōs] the Ancient of days came and judgment was given to the saints of the Most-High. And the season [kairos] came that the saints possessed [katechō] the kingdom…And as for the ten horns, out of this kingdom will ten kings arise, and another will arise after them; and he will be diverse from the former, and he shall put down three kings. And he will speak words against the Most-High and wear out the saints, and he will think to change the seasons and the law.”
And the Septuagint version uses katechō to translate the Aramaic verb chacan, which means to “possess, take possession.”
“To the end, to reveal him in his season [kairos].” “To the end” represents a purpose clause in Greek, and that purpose is to prepare for the unveiling of this lawless figure. This is confirmed by the next clause – “for the mystery of lawlessness already is working.” Note the use of another present tense verb, “is working.” Thus, at present, the “mystery of lawlessness” is working in the world to prepare for the arrival of this figure.
“In his season” means there is a set time when this event will occur. Just as the “little horn” was authorized to inflict the saints for a “season, seasons, and part of a season,” so the “man of lawlessness” will be allotted a specific and limited “season” in which to implement his deceptive plans.
“Only at present, until he who possesses comes out of the midst [heōs ek mesou].” The verb ginomai or “comes out” means to “come, become, to come to be.” Here again, Paul echoes the passage from Daniel, in this case, when the “little horn rose up in the midst” to remove the three “horns” – (Daniel 7:8).
The subject of the clause is the man “who possesses,” and not the “mystery of lawlessness” or his unveiling. Precisely what Paul means by “out of the midst” is not clear, but it likely refers to the moment when the “man of lawlessness” will seat himself in the “sanctuary of God.” That is when his identity will be “revealed.”
And this understanding is confirmed in the next clause – “then shall be revealed the lawless one.” Thus, the “mystery of lawlessness” is preparing the way for the revelation of this figure, and Paul has been describing the things that must occur BEFORE the “Day of the Lord” – The “apostasy” and the “revelation of the man of lawlessness.”
In Daniel, the “little horn” was an illegitimate king who appeared from the legitimate line of succession of the ten kings. He “possessed” the kingdom UNTIL the time came for God to vindicate His “saints,” which produced his overthrow and the “possession” of the kingdom by the “saints.” Similarly, after the “arrival” of the “man of lawlessness,” he will be destroyed at the “arrival” or ‘parousia’ of Jesus.
While his language is somewhat cryptic, the scenario Paul presents is straightforward. The “Day of the Lord” and the return of Jesus to gather his saints will not occur until the “apostasy” has occurred and the “man of lawlessness” has been “revealed” when this malevolent figure will take his seat in the “sanctuary of God” and deify himself.
At present, the “mystery of lawlessness” is at work preparing for the unveiling of the “Lawless One” when he comes “out of the midst,” that is, at his “unveiling.” And his “unveiling” is the same as his “arrival” or ‘parousia.’ Afterward, Jesus will appear and destroy this “lawless one” at his own ‘parousia.’ Put another way, the “arrival” of the “Lawless One” is the counterpart to the “arrival” of Jesus in glory.
The association of this figure with the “apostasy,” the “sanctuary of God,” and the use of “signs and wonders” to deceive, along with the contrast between his “arrival” and that of Jesus, all warn us that this figure is coming to deceive believers, to mimic Christ in some way, and in the end, to cause as many saints as possible to apostatize from the faith.