2 Thessalonians 2:6-7

How does one go about interpreting such a difficult passage?

I suggest that the best way is to look at context, first in this chapter, secondly in the whole of 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and thirdly in other NT passages that appear to touch on the same topic.

Rather than quote the Greek text, I’ll make a literal rendering of the two verses:

And you-all know what is holding down (the man of lawlessness) until he is uncovered in his own time. You see, the secret of lawlessness is already at work. It is just that there is an agent holding him down now (and he/it will continue to do so) until (that agent) is taken away.

The initial ”and” links to the previous verse where Paul is reminding them that he has already told them about the events of the last times before the return of Jesus. We cannot know what Paul told them, but the closest we can get is to look at what he just reminded them about in the previous verses. The topic is introduced in v. 1, namely ”the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him.” Paul covered the same topic in 1 Thess 4:13-17, where in v. 17 we read ”we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”

Now, in 2:2 Paul is telling his audience not to be alarmed by rumours that the ”coming of the Lord and our gathering to him”, or the ”day of the Lord” as he calls it here, has already taken place (and therefore they were left behind). It doesn’t matter whether such rumours or false teaching have come through a ”spirit” (meaning a prophecy), or a word (probably a word of knowledge), or a letter purported to be written by ”us” (Paul or other apostles).

In 2:3 he continues to tell them that they should not be deceived to believe such rumours/teaching. Why? Because something has not yet happened, namely the rebellion/apostasy and the uncovering/revealing of the man of lawlessness. This topic is similar to 1 John 2:18 ”you all have heard that antichrist shall come.” Not only is he coming, but ”even now is already in the world.” It is reasonable to equate the man of lawlessness with antichrist.

In 2:4 Paul explains how the activities of this evil person will become more and more rebellious against God and end in him exalting himself to be God. This is a process from the initial uncovering to the final height of rebellion followed by judgment, a process that covers many chapters in Revelation, although the focus there is on judgment.

In 2:5 there is a break, and in 2:6 Paul returns to the topic of verse 3, namely that something needs to happen before the coming of Jesus (in the air) and the gathering of the believers with him. That this man of lawlessness is to be revealed does not mean that his evil acts have reached the end point. It is a process that has already started, although in a hidden and secret way as verse 7 tells us. Satan and this man of lawlessness that he controls love to conceal their wickedness under an enticing cloak of light. But at a time set by God his wickedness is to be revealed. It appears that this revealing will be immediately or soon followed by the ”gathering up”, which again will open the door for an increase of wickedness.

There is little doubt that ”what is holding him down” in v. 6 refers to the same entity as ”the agent who is holding him down” in v. 7. The word ”hold down” can also mean ”restrain, suppress” like when you hold down a violent man or hold on to a wild dog in a leash. The dog may be growling and snarling, but until it is released or unleashed, it cannot fully do what it wants to do. The question is what is this entity. A good commentary will list the various suggested options, but most of them are unlikely to be correct. Some have suggested that it might refer to the Holy Spirit. I don’t think this is correct. Morris says about this suggestion:

It seems definite enough to exclude some suggestions as to the identity of the restrainer, for example, that which views him as the Holy Spirit (so the Scofield Reference Bible). While it would be easy to think of the Spirit as restraining the forces of evil, it is impossible to envisage him as being “taken out of the way.” Such an idea does not appear in Scripture.

If we look again at the main topic from verse 1, there is an entity that will be ”taken out of the way”, namely the believers which is also described as ”the body of Christ”. It seems to me to be the best solution to an enigmatic passage. The body of Christ has a restraining effect on the evil in this world, both by actions and prayers, and only when that Body is removed does the antichrist have no opposition left here on earth. Or said differently, God has allowed him to be unleashed.

As with most eschatological concepts, there is not likely to be consensus or agreement. It is just that I wanted to suggest something that I have not seen very often in commentaries, but an option that in my view fits the context of the chapter.

13 Comments

  1. Daniel
    Posted April 29, 2011 at 12:31 am | Permalink

    I think you are correct on a number of points. The first being “As with most eschatological concepts, there is not likely to be consensus or agreement.”

    The way some write on other sites one would conclude there are many Believers who do not believe the Body of Christ will be removed at all at any time. Be that as it may, your exegesis of the verse does seem to be the simplest and natural reading of the text.

    I find it interesting that the Apostle introduces his concept with oida. Does this imply that he was referring to some body of pre-existing knowledge the Thessalonians possessed, possibly from his three-week stay with them?

  2. Iver Larsen
    Posted April 29, 2011 at 5:58 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Daniel.

    You asked about oida. Yes, verse 5 says that Paul had explained about this topic when he was with the Thessalonians in person. Our problem is that we were not there to hear it, so we have to deduce some of it from what he repeats or reminds them of in these two letters.

    I did not say much about the significance of the neuter form TO KATECON τὸ κατέχον in v. 6 and the masculine form hO KATECWN ὁ κατέχων in v. 7.

    Such a participle with the article can function in two ways. It can be part of a noun phrase and in that case it modifies the head noun and is often best translated by a relative clause in English, e.g. Mat 7:13 “wide is the road the one-leading to destruction” or in normal English “the road that leads to destruction”. The Greek word for road happens to be feminine for no particular reason, and therefore the participle is also feminine. An example with the neuter participle is Rev 11:7 “the beast the one-coming-up from the abyss” or “the beast that is coming up from the abyss”. The Greek word for “beast” happens to be neuter, so the participle is neuter.

    The participle can also function as a predicate, and in that case the gender agrees with the noun it describes. For instance John 6:63 “The Spirit is the lifegiving-one”. Again a relative clause is better English: “The Spirit is the one who gives life.”

    The other way a participle with article can function is what is called substantive. That is, it stands on its own without modifying a head noun or being a predicate.

    For instance, Mat 13:43 says: “The one-having ears let-hear”. The default gender to use in substantives is masculine no matter whether the person hearing is a man or woman. This causes a problem for English, because English has lost gender distinctions except in its pronoun system. The RSV and NIV translated it as “He who has ears, let him hear.” But this is a bit inaccurate, because it may imply that it is only men who hear, an implication that is not there in the Greek text. It is a product of a literal translation. More recent translations have avoided this wrong implication. One way to do that is what the new NIV has done: “Whoever has ears, let them hear.” Most recent translations have done something similar. NET: “The one who has ears had better listen!” NLT: “Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand!” CEV: “If you have ears, pay attention!”

    The same applies to 2 Thess 2:7: “The one-holding-down … will be taken away”. The NIV says “until he is taken out of the way”, but there is no “he” in the Greek text. The new NIV did NOT remove the “he” here, but GNB tried to avoid it by saying: “until the one who holds it back is taken out of the way.”

    I checked all active nominative singular participles with article in the NT. There are 354. 19 of these are feminine, but none of these are used substantively. Well, it could be argued that one of these is substantive, namely Luk 1:45, but I would rather say it is a vocative with the woman addressed being very clear: “You (Mary) who has believed.. is blessed.” 9 of the participles are neuter, the vast majority masculine. A few of the neuter participles have an implied “thing” in singular or “things” in plural.

    Coming back to 2 Thes 2:6 the neuter implies that there is a “thing”, some concept or power that restrains the man of lawlessness. It does not have to refer back to a neuter noun in Greek like body or spirit. Similarly, the substantive masculine participle in 2 Thes 2:7 does not have to refer back to a masculine noun. What we can say is that the neuter form is more abstract and the masculine more concrete. I am suggesting that the neuter form refers to the spiritual, restraining power of the believers, while the masculine refers to the believers as a group, a unit. The singular is used because of that unit. (We have a singular neuter in Luk 9:17: “the (thing) having-remained of the fragments (of bread) filled 12 baskets.”) Since the Holy Spirit indwells the believers and not the unbelievers, in a sense you could say that the Holy Spirit is also taken away, when the body of Christ is taken away. But the Holy Spirit can still do its/his work in the world after this event. It/he is not limited to work through believers.

  3. Posted April 29, 2011 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    Iver, I am one of those Daniel refers to who “do not believe the Body of Christ will be removed at all at any time”. See what I wrote here and here (and of course today will tell us if this prediction is correct). That is basically because I don’t see any biblical support for the concept. In the first of the posts I just linked to I explained that Matthew 24 does not imply this. And whatever 1 Thessalonians 4:17 refers to, it is something which follows the public return of Christ and so cannot be relevant to 1 Thessalonians 2:6-8.

    I see, Iver, you have also fallen into one of the oldest still current doctrinal errors, one which is explicitly corrected by the Apostle John but is still very popular today, of identifying the Antichrist as just one individual. See this post. At least in this error you are in the good company of the pope!

    I am sure that anyone who didn’t come to the 2 Thessalonians passage without the prior doctrinal position that the church would be raptured would never even consider the possibility that “the one who restrains” is the church. To rephrase your quote from Morris: While it would be easy to think of the church as restraining the forces of evil, it is impossible to envisage it as being “taken out of the way.” Such an idea does not appear in Scripture.

    Now I wish I could offer a convincing alternative interpretation, but for the moment I can’t. But I do have one relevant observation, concerning the words in verse 7 which you rendered “is taken away”. This “literal” rendering is very misleading because it suggests that there is a passive verb and an external agent responsible. But a truly literal translation would be “becomes out of middle”. The RSV rendering “is out of the way” is good. This is important because your rendering effectively rules out the interpretation that the restraining one is God himself, who will at some time in the future choose to remove his restraining presence. I’m not saying this is the correct interpretation, just that it should be considered seriously.

  4. iverlarsen
    Posted April 29, 2011 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    Peter,

    Yes, I know you don’t believe in the rapture, so I did not use the term, since I don’t want to go into a theological discussion with you on this topic. I can see that anyone who comes to the passage with your prior doctrinal position cannot see what to many of us is obvious and the only interpretation that truly respects the context. This is also what I was taught from my background, and you know what that is, but that is not a compelling reason for me. By the way, Antichrist is one, but that does not mean that there are not many smaller antichrists of which some have already appeared.

    Concerning the middle-passive form GENHTAI γένηται, the grammatical subject is the restrainer. Are you familiar with the newer understanding of Greek grammar which operates with a two-way split between active on one side and middle-passive on the other? If you have been reading the b-Greek list you should be. The old-fashioned idea of deponency is quickly losing its supporters among Greek grammarians. I agree that other renderings apart from the “be taken out of the way” of KJV, NIV, NET, GNB etc. are possible e.g. “until … happens out of the midst.” But that is so literal that it is not English. I have no great objection to the ambiguous “is out of the way”, but I am in no doubt that there is an outside agent implied that removes the restrainer. Can you give me any example where the grammatical subject for this middle-passive verb is also the semantic agent? The restrainer is the semantic Patient, and the Agent is not specified, but can hardly be any one but God himself. I am afraid the NLT is misleading when it says “steps out of the way”, and I can only guess at the theology behind it. It was inherited from the old Living Bible.

  5. Posted April 29, 2011 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    Iver, you put my point better than I did: “I can see that anyone who comes to the passage with your prior doctrinal position cannot see what to many of us is obvious …”, that there is nothing at all to suggest that the church is in mind here. There is no mention of the church anywhere in the context and not even a hint elsewhere in Scripture that the church will be taken out of the way before the return of Jesus.

    Antichrist is one

    On what authority do you make this statement which is explicitly contradicted by the Bible?

    Meanwhile I know about “the newer understanding of Greek grammar which operates with a two-way split between active on one side and middle-passive on the other”, although I don’t keep up with b-Greek. What that means is that even explicitly passive verbs do not imply an agent. How much less a verb like ginomai which basically means “become”! So if you are “in no doubt that there is an outside agent implied”, that must be because of your doctrinal presuppositions. What the passage says, in good colloquial English, is “gets out of the way”. Of course that might mean that he/she/it will be pushed rather than fall, but there is nothing at all in the text to suggest that.

  6. iverlarsen
    Posted April 29, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    Peter,

    I already referred to the context of 2 Thess 2:1 which talks about the church/believers being “gathered to him.” This is the same event as in 1 Thess 4:17 that I also referred to, a verse that you apparently have trouble understanding because of your particular theological tradition. When Jesus comes in the air, the church will be gathered and meet him in the clouds in the air. At this stage Jesus does not set foot on the ground. If so, there would be no need to meet him in the air. I think you are mainly opposing the idea of a silent rapture. If that is your point, I agree. I believe in the rapture, but it is not going to be silent. I guess you also deny that the return of Jesus will be in two stages? But I would prefer to discuss this with you in person some time. We are not likely to come to any agreement here.

    Is your comment about Antichrist based on a particular interpretation of 1 John 2:18? This word only occurs in 1 and 2 John, although the concept is found in other NT passages, including Revelation and 2 Thess 2. This verse says: “And as you have heard that Antichrist is to come, even now many antichrists have already come.” John is not denying what they have heard (from Paul maybe or John himself?) He is only saying that many people are antichrists in the sense that they have the spirit of Antichrist. They deny both the Father and the Son (2:22). In 4:3 the spirit of Antichrist is described as denying Jesus as having come in the flesh, as the gnostics did. Again, he repeats: “you have heard that he (Antichrist) is to come.” And even now that spirit is already here as are many antichrists. We need to distinguish three different related concepts: Antichrist as the final Satanic opposer of Christ, who is not yet revealed. The spirit of Antichrist which is the denial of who Christ is. And many antichrists who have that spirit, that is, who deny who Christ is and oppose him. It is the same three-fold concept you find in Satan, a satanic spirit and small satans/devils. It is the same three-fold concept of the Man of Lawlessness, a spirit of lawlessness and many lawless people.
    I am afraid I fail to see the problem.

  7. iverlarsen
    Posted April 29, 2011 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Peter,

    I just noticed that you talked about “the church being taken away before the return of Jesus.” I did not say that, and I don’t know where that idea comes from.

  8. Posted April 29, 2011 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    Iver, you are right that we are unlikely to agree. My main point is that in our translations we should be allowing room for different interpretations of the passages, and not forcing or excluding interpretations as happens when e.g. you render genetai “becomes” with the English passive “is taken”.

    When I rejected the idea of “the church being taken away before the return of Jesus”, I was of course referring to the final return of Jesus to earth in glory, not to the mythical idea of Jesus partly but not quite returning.

    As for the Antichrist, I will accept that there is some room for different interpretations. But you seemed to be ruling this out with your claim that “Antichrist is one”. Even if the man of lawlessness can also be properly called the Antichrist, I think we really should prefer the usage of the apostle John, in which there are many antichrists.

  9. Posted April 30, 2011 at 1:17 am | Permalink

    Of course the language is really about the “coming” of Jesus, and he’s only had a partial coming so far. ;)

  10. Iver Larsen
    Posted April 30, 2011 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    Peter,

    Yesterday I did not take the time to read the posts on your own block. But I did so this morning in order to better understand your presuppositions and theological tradition.

    I have a few suggestions for you. Try to search for and listen to Bible teachers from the denomination that you have recently gotten a closer connection to.

    Consider the suggestion that the rapture which is taught among other places in Matt 24, Luk 17, 1 Cor 15, 1 and 2 Thessalonians is figuratively portrayed in Rev 4:1 where John is taken to heaven at the call of the trumpet. The same trumpet call is found in Matt 24:31. Paul talks about the same rapture inaugurated by a trumpet call in 1 Cor 15:52 and 1 Thes 4:16. (It corresponds to the Jewish festival of New Year which is also marked by a trumpet call. A new “year” begins for the believers, but soon after there is the great Jewish Yom Kippur, a time for repentance. One of the reasons for the rapture is to give the non-Christian Jews a second chance to read the NT and realize that Jesus was in fact the Messiah. Many Jews will become believers in this period as they repent. The book “The Seven Festivals of the Messiah” is an excellent source for understanding the relationship between Jewish feasts and spiritual fulfillment of them. The book suggests that Yom Kippur is finally fulfilled in the coming of Jesus to Mount Zion, and this would be the mass conversion of Jews at the end of time that Paul spoke about in Romans. The following Feast of Shelters is then finally fulfilled in the millennium.)

    Consider the possibility that the second coming of Jesus has two stages. First, he comes in the clouds and in the air but does not proceed to earth. This is when the dead believers are resurrected and the remaining ones changed in the twinkling of an eye and caught up or gathered to come to Jesus and then proceed to Heaven. The angels are active in this gathering from all corners of the earth. This happens unexpectedly like a “thief in the night” or like the flood at the time of Noah, but not silently or secretly. Just before this first stage, the man of lawlessness will be revealed, but it will take a few years for him to gain support and increase in power in this world. He will not set himself up to be God at the time he is revealed. Many people suggest, partly from Daniel, but mainly from Revelation, that there is a 7 year period, divided in two halves which will be a time of punishment for unbelievers but also a time where people are given a second chance to repent. Many do so, and many will be killed because of it. This period is covered non-chronologically in Rev 4-19. Then Satan is bound and the millenium occurs.

    I am not offering this for us to disucss it here, but as suggestions for prayerful consideration and further studies.

  11. Posted April 30, 2011 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    Iver, I think we need to agree to differ on this. I have been giving these matters “prayerful consideration and further studies” and the result has been a hardening of my position against the kind of teaching you are putting forward. I am not a member of the denomination you refer to, although I hold it in high regard.

  12. Jim
    Posted March 2, 2013 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    Well I Believe In The Rapture, Hence:

    1 Corinthians 15:52

    It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed.

    You Can Say No Rapture, But This Clearly States The Dead Will Be Raised !

    That Is A Rapture My Friends!

  13. Posted March 2, 2013 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Jim, you and I both believe that the dead will be raised. And you can believe in the Rapture if you like. But, at least as explained by popular preachers, the Rapture is nothing to do with the dead being raised, but is about the living being taken up to heaven. And, as far as I can see, that concept is not supported by 1 Corinthians 15, nor by any other NT verse, as I explained in previous comments here and in the linked posts on my own blog.


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