Having briefly examined the teachings of the Apostles collectively as to the religious character of the last days, we proceed to examine those passages in each where mention is made of an individual man as the great enemy of God and of His Son at the time of the end. And, as St. Paul speaks most fully and distinctly on this point, we begin with him.
This Apostle, in his second Epistle to the Thessalonians (written about 54 or 55 A. D.), speaks of the apostasy or falling away, out of which would come "the man of sin," "the son of perdition," "that wicked." This man, it is said by Prof. Eadie, " the fathers as a body identified with Antichrist." (Com. on Thessalonians.) As a chief source of our knowledge respecting him, the right understanding of St. Paul's words is of the highest importance in our enquiry.
It is not necessary here to go into exegetical details, we need note only the chief points of the Apostle's statement: These are, First, The working of the mystery of iniquity in his day. Secondly, The apostasy, or falling away. Thirdly, The coming of the man of sin, or of the lawless one. Fourthly, The hindrance to his revelation. Fifthly, His destruction at the Lord's coming.
First, " The mystery of iniquity," or, as in the R. V., " the mystery of lawlessness." (2d Thess. ii, 7.)
Here two things are affirmed by the Apostle, the fact of a lawless spirit already working in the Church, and that this working was " a mystery." A mystery is not a thing in itself unknowable, but something hidden from the general knowledge and revealed only to the initiated. (Arcanum iniquitatis, Tertul.) Thus the Lord spoke of " the mysteries of the kingdom" which His disciples alone could know; from others they were hidden. (Matt. xiii, 11, Eph. iii, 3.) It is said by Campbell ("Four Gospels"), "The spirit of antichrist hath begun to operate, but the operation is latent and unperceived." And it is said by Bishop Wordsworth in loco, "What St. Paul was thus describing was then a mystery, and not as yet revealed, but working inwardly." It was made known to the Apostle by the Holy Ghost because of his position as a ruler under Christ over the Church. In like manner the Apostle John saw the spirit of antichrist already active. (1 John iv, 3.) Both discerned, what was hidden from others, that there was already working a spirit of lawlessness, a rejection of apostolic authority, which, if fully developed, would set aside the rule of the Head, and make the Church her own lawgiver and ruler; and in its last manifestation would reject not only Christ's authority, but all authority of God over men. Out of it would come "the lawless one," who would make his own will the supreme law of his action. As said by Bishop Ellicott: "In the apostasy of the present, the inspired apostle sees the commencement of the fuller apostasy of the future."
But, in what form did this incipient lawlessness so early manifest itself? We have only to read St. Paul's Epistles to find the answer.* In almost all of them we find complaints that his apostolic authority was not recognized, and that he could not effectually fulfill his ministry. As the fundamental condition of all true obedience in the Church there must be love. The Lord said: "If ye love Me, keep my commandments." Obedience based on any other motive was seeming, not real. And St. Paul himself speaks of the ministers of the Church as able to build it up only in or through love. (Eph. iv, 16.) As this point will again meet us, we need not dwell upon it here. It is sufficient to say that in the loss of " the first love," we find the hidden root of the lawlessness, the first workings of which the apostles saw. Secondly. The apostasy, or falling away.f This means, generally, a falling away from some given standard; a defection. Here it means a falling away from the true standing of the Church as appointed by God. This meaning is confirmed by the use of the word elsewhere (Acts xxi, 21), "Thou teachest the Jews to forsake Moses " ; literally," apostasy from Moses." The word is used by St. Paul (1st Tim. iv. 1), " Some shall depart from the faith," "shall apostatize from the faith." This general meaning leaves undetermined the degree of the apostasy or falling away, whether a total or partial denial of the truth. In its culmination, as represented in the man of sin and in his adherents, it is undoubtedly a total denial of the Christian faith.
* See Bernard, "Progress of Doctrine in the New Testament," Lecture viii: "In the Epistles we seem, as it were, not to witness some passing storms which clear the air, but to feel the whole atmosphere charged with the elements of future tempest and death. Every moment the forces of evil shew themselves more plainly. . . New assaults are being prepared, new tactics will be tried, new enemies pour on, the distant hills are black with gathering multitudes."
t As to the meaning of this term in the Fathers, see Todd's note, p. 206; in Vul. discemo; Tertullian, abscemo.
He denies both the Father and the Son. The Apostle distinguishes two forms of the apostasy, one being the corruption of Christianity, the other its absolute rejection. At the first, the working of evil was rather in the heart than in the intellect; and was seen not so much in the loss of truth as in the loss of love. The great Creeds of the Church, and their continued repetition in the past, are the witness that " the Spirit of truth" has worked powerfully in it, preserving the form of sound words, and true rites of worship. But fulness of truth can be held only where is fulness of love; and Church history teaches us that many were early infected with doctrinal error, and rejected more or less of the truth without absolutely denying the Father or the Son. But any falsehood cherished, like the unclean spirit of the Lord's parable, soon takes to itself seven other falsehoods; and thus it is that at the end, when the development of truth and falsehood is completed, we have the absolute truth and the absolute lie standing face to face. Antichrist and his adherents will contemptuously reject whatever the Church has believed respecting the Father and the Son, and all the articles of her faith.
But the falling away, beginning with the loss of love, is not to be confined to doctrine; it embraces the whole spiritual life; and therefore the whole external order of the Church. There cannot be a loss of life without a corresponding decay in the entire ecclesiastical constitution, its ministries, its sacraments, its activities, and also, in practical godliness.
We may now ask in what relation does the mystery of lawlessness stand to the apostasy? Are they to be distinguished or identified? There seems no good reason to doubt that they are essentially the same, the same spirit ruling in both. The distinction is one of development, the lawlessness of the first days culminating in the apostasy of the last. What St. Paul saw in his day was but the beginning of the apostasy, manifesting itself in disobedience to Christ's rule, and discernible only by the Apostles in the light of the Holy Ghost. As it progressed, there would enter into it other elements, so that at the end "the lawless one" is, also, "the man of sin," "the son of perdition,"— the representative of all that is evil in man. That this initial lawlessness is for a time checked by some hindrance, so that the lawless one does not appear until the end, does not show that the mystery of lawlessness did not continue active after the Apostle's day, but only that its activity was, and continues to be, partially repressed.
We must, therefore, reject the interpretation of those who separate "the mystery of iniquity" from "the falling away" as essentially distinct in nature, and separated by a long period of time; and who affirm that the apostasy is caused by the man of sin, and cannot take place till he appears. This point will meet us again.
The question arises here, does the Apostle in the use of the article, "the apostasy," refer to some apostasy already predicted, and known to the Thessalonians? This is most probable. This knowledge may have come from the Lord's predictions known to them, where He speaks of the spiritual condition of the Church just before His return, or from the previous teachings of the Apostle, or from words of prophecy spoken in the Church, or possibly from traditional interpretations of Old Testament prophecies. (See 2 Thess. ii, 5.)
Again, The numerical extent of the apostasy. It is clear that the Apostle expected that many would be infected by the spirit of lawlessness already working, and fall away from their heavenly standing. In other and later epistles, he expresses his fear that the Church will fall as Eve fell, and that he could not present the disciples as a chaste virgin unto Christ. (2 Cor. xi, 2—.) He often speaks as if many of those he had gathered were unfaithful. Thus he says, writing to the Philippians (iii, 18), "Many walk, of whom I have told you often, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ." Again (ii, 21) "All seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ's." To the elders of Ephesus he said (Acts xx, 29): "I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them." In his last Epistles he speaks of "the perilous times" to come and of those who would yield to the temptations, in terms that imply large numbers.
Thirdly. The Man of Sin. ("Man of lawlessness." Westcott & Hort.) The question which first meets us is, Does the Apostle speak of an individual, or of a series of persons, or of anti-christian principles? As we have seen, it was the early belief that he spake of a person, and this is justified by his language. The use of the article in the designations, "the man of sin," "the son of perdition," "the lawless one," does not of itself show that an individual must be meant, but, taken in connection with the other parts of the Apostle's description, it makes this conclusion certain. It is said by Bishop Ellicott: "Antichrist, in accordance with the almost uniform tradition of the ancient church, is no mere set of principles, or succession of opponents, but one single personal being." This man seats himself in the Temple of God, showing himself that he is God. This could not be said of a polity, much less of principles, and not naturally of a series of persons, but of one person only. There is, also, a clear contrast drawn between Christ and this His rival; as Christ has His revelation " in His day," so the man of sin is to be revealed in "his own time." As Christ has His coming, irapowla, so the man of sin has his coming, irapovaia. As the Lord received power from the Father to do His works, so he is endowed by Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, and he is to be destroyed by Christ at His coming.
All this points decisively to a person, and as we shall see, this is confirmed by all that we find in the other Epistles, and in The Revelation. But this does not forbid that the antichristian spirit may have been working in individuals all along from the beginning, and so there have been already many antichrists, as said by St. John in his Epistle.
If, then, St. Paul speaks here of the last antichrist in whom the antichristian spirit culminates, we next ask, In what relation does he stand to the apostasy? It is said by some, and in general by Roman Catholic commentators, that he is its cause; He leads the Church astray by the miracles and signs he is able to do in confirmation of his lies. The apostasy, therefore, does not really begin until he appears, and so is still future. But we have already noted that the beginning of the apostasy was seen by the Apostle in the mystery of lawlessness then working. There was then, indeed, some restraining power, something that hindered its full development; and we may say that so long as this hindrance remains, the apostasy is not fully manifested. The mystery of lawlessness still continues. In this sense it is still future. The last and greatest of the antichrists has not yet come. But it is nevertheless true that he is not the cause of the apostasy; on the contrary, he is its product. The spirit of lawlessness is consummated in the lawless one, and he cannot, therefore, appear until its last stage — the last time — and thus will be its last and truest representative. And the influences that will mould his character, will also prepare the way for his reception. This interaction permits him to be both product and, in a limited sense, the cause, as Napoleon was both the child of the Revolution and its leader. These influences moulding him and preparing his way, will be considered later.
Although the term, "lawless one," expresses most clearly the characteristic and leading feature of this last enemy, yet the other terms applied to him by St. Paul must be considered as adding many important particulars to our knowledge. He is called " the man of sin," the man in whom sin is, as it were, embodied. In him the fallen nature of man, which is not subject to the law of God, nor can be, is most fully summed up and revealed. As the risen Christ is the representative of the redeemed and holy humanity, so is the man of sin of the sinful humanity which refuses redemption. As the essence of sin is "lawlessness," avofiia (1 John iii, 4, R. V.), this lawlessness, in its final development, is the absolute rejection of the law of God. Thus, as the man of sin, fully pervaded by it, he is, on the one hand, fitted to be the perfect instrument of Satan, and can be endowed by him with all power; and so, on the other hand, is he fitted to be the head of all lawless men, and the leader of all the enemies of God and Christ.
He is also called, "he who opposes," the opposer, the adversary. As Satan is God's inveterate enemy, so is he. He sets himself in opposition to all that God would do.
He is also "the son of perdition." This designation was applied to Judas by the Lord. (John xvii, 12.) It implies that he who is so described, is by his own acts devoted to perdition, one to whom above all, perdition is the proper retribution; he cannot escape it.
He is, also, one who "exalteth himself above" (" against," R. V.) " all that is called God, or that is worshipped, so that he as God, sitteth in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God." The spirit of pride, of self-exaltation is so developed in him that he claims Divine honour. He will not worship any God, but will be himself worshipped.
As to this claim to be God, three suppositions may be made. That he claims to be the God of the Jews, Jehovah, and therefore seats himself in the Jewish temple, and as such is to be worshipped. This, though affirmed by some early fathers, is wholly incredible. Still more is it incredible that he claims to be the Christian God, the Father. Antichrist denies both the Father and the Son.
That he claims such limited Divinity as was affirmed of the Roman emperors — apotheosis. But the emperor was deified because he was regarded as the embodiment of the State, which had a sacred or divine character. As such embodiment he was enrolled among the Gods. This apotheosis was an honour originally given by the Roman senate, and only to the emperor, and usually after his death; though later given by the emperor himself, in occasional instances, to some member of his family. It is said by Tiele ("Hist. of Religion") that "the Cultus of the emperors was pursued with such zeal that games were instituted in their honour, temples were built, and special priests appointed." But it clearly appears from the Apostle's words that this man does not regard himself exalted by any act of man, or as merely one of many deified men. He comes not in the name of another, but " in his own name." He exalts himself above all that is called God, or is an object of worship. He claims a homage that is paid to none beside. He shews himself that he is God, and thus is exalted above all that is called God, above all polytheistic deities, all deified men, whether demons or spirits of heroes; above every being who can be an object of worship. A fuller discussion of the ground on which this assertion of Divinity is made, will come up when we speak of the pantheistic tendencies of our time.*
*As all prophecy which finds its complete fulfillment in the remote future, has something in the present which serves as its foreground, and gives it form and meaning, so is it here. It is said by Burton (Church Hist.), that the Gnostic philosophy in St. Paul's day was beginning to be widely spread, and that he probably alluded to it in the passage now before us. It is generally agreed that in Simon Magus (Acts viii, 9), we meet a representative of this philosophy. The Gnostics occupied them conselves with the old problem how to pass from the Infinite to the finite. This they did by means of a series of emanations, or of spiritual beings, interposed between God and the human race, and appearing as occasion demanded in the human form. Such a being was Simon Magus. He was believed to be the greatest of these, "the great power of God." It is, therefore, not improbable that the Christians to whom St. Paul wrote, may have better understood his words about "a man claiming Divine honour," than later generations wholly ignorant of Gnostic ideas. (See note of Meyer, Com. in loco.)
We have still to speak of the relation of the man of sin to Satan. His "coming is after the working —energy—of Satan, with all power and signs and lying wonders." As his endowments are superhuman, so also his energy. (This term is said in G. and T. Lexicon, to be used in the N. T. only of superhuman power.) Here, also, he appears as the counterpart of the Lord. As the Son received power from the Father to do His works, so does Antichrist from Satan. As the Son had no will of His own, but did the Father's will, and so was His perfect instrument; so the man of sin is the perfect instrument of Satan, doing in all things his will. As to his endowment with all satanic power and authority, this point will meet us again in our examination of the teaching of The Revelation.
But it is said by some that the Apostle here speaks of pretended miracles, wonders, and signs, which are only illusions and deceptions. This is affirmed on the ground that Satan has not the power to work miracles, God giving to His messengers only this power, in order to serve as their infallible credential. But in calling them "lying wonders," the apostle does not affirm that they are unreal, but that they are wrought to confirm lies. This appears from the context: "And with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish, because they received not the love of the truth." As they who had the love of the truth, believed the Lord's words, and needed not the miracle for confirmation, so they who have not the love of the truth, will believe Antichrist's word; but as the Lord confirms the words of His servants by signs following, so Satan will confirm his lies by miracles that he may take all captive. (See Mark xvi, 20; Rev. xiii, 13,14.)
Fourthly. The hindrance to his revelation. The Apostle, enlightened by the Spirit of God, saw the mystery of lawlessness then working, and knew what its ultimate product would be; yet he, also, saw that its speedy development would be hindered by an obstacle; and that the lawless one could not be revealed until it was taken out of the way. What was the obstacle he does not say, but it seems to have been made known by him earlier to the Thessalonians, and therefore was no secret. "And now ye know what withholdeth." A very common interpretation, dating from the time of Tertullian (Quis, nisi Romania status?), is, that the Roman Empire as the preserver of political order in the earth was intended by the Apostle, but not expressed lest the mention of its being " taken out of the way," or, in other words, its overthrow, might be offensive to the Roman rulers. In favour of this interpretation is the use of the masculine and neuter articles, "what withholdeth" and "he who withholdeth." But this interpretation, though approved of by many, was by no means universally received, and is not well sustained. The Apostle is speaking of lawlessness then working in the Church, of disobedience to spiritual rulers and to Christ their Head; and with this the preservation of legal order in a heathen State had nothing to do. Obedience of Christians to Christ and to His apostles was based on faith and love, and dependent on no political institutions. It remained the same whether the Roman Empire survived or perished. It may, indeed, be said that the regard for law which marked the Roman State, and the habit of obedience enforced, were opposed to the lawlessness of the man of sin, and so an obstacle to his revelation. Without doubt the habit of obedience, whether to civil rulers or to parents, tends to help obedience to God. But the Apostle is not speaking of him in relation to civil authority, or as himself a political power. It is in the Church that this lawlessness is seen, and in the Church the hindrance is to be sought. The disposition to find the hindrance in something external, arose at a later period; and, as we shall see, from the unwillingness to believe that the apostasy began so early in the Church, and would continue to develop itself until it ended in the man of sin. And it is to be borne in mind that, as the Apostle expected the Lord to return in the lifetime of some then living, and that by Him the Antichrist would then be destroyed, if the hindering power were the Roman Empire, it must be overthrown before the Antichrist could appear. Did St. Paul look for any such speedy overthrow? It is scarcely credible that he did.*
* A friend has made some remarks on this point from which I quote: "I can not help thinking that the hindrance and the hinderer or restrainer must include a spiritual element, must implysome long-suffering acting of God which at last comes to an end. . . In many passages of Scripture I see the possibility of such a departure of the Holy Spirit from an apostate Christendom as would justify the view that the restrainer is in some sense the Holy Spirit. . . Putting all these hints together, I am led to think that, while the Roman Empire may be the outward and mechanical hindrance, the more efficient and spiritual hindrance is found in these faithful ones in whom the Holy Qhost can work His full work."
If we believe that St. Paul distinguished in thought between those who would escape the tribulation under Antichrist, and those who would pass through it, as intimated in the Lord's teachings (Luke xxi, 36; Matt. xxv, 1—), and more clearly brought out in The Revelation under the symbols of "the first fruits" and "harvest" (xiv, 1, 15), and in the two companies,— those who escape and those who pass through the great tribulation (vil, 4, 9,) — we find a ready solution of the question of the hindrance. It is seen in this first company which must be taken away before Antichrist can be revealed.
If, then, the lawlessness spoken of by the apostle was within the Church, and found here the sphere of its activity, we must find that which hindered it, also, in the Church. What can this have been but the presence and power of the Holy Ghost? That He could be grieved and not able to do His full work, the Epistles shew us, and thus we understand how the spirit of disobedience could so early manifest itself. But He, nevertheless, continued in the Church, and His presence has been in all the past the power restraining the tendencies to lawlessness. That He is called both "what withholdeth" and "he who now withholdeth," may refer to Himself in person, and to His work in ministries and ordinances. But, however this may be, there is no ground for supposing the Apostle to have referred to a Roman emperor as the hindering power. Civil authority could do nothing in repressing spiritual lawlessness. It was the authority of Christ as represented in His Apostles which was rejected. Any fixed legal order may, indeed, serve as an obstacle to the lawless one in his political action, for such order rests upon the Holy Spirit who acts both in the Church and in the State; and if lawlessness prevail in the former, it will do so also in the latter. But the apostle is not speaking of the Antichrist in his political relations.
Some other questions remain. What is meant by " the temple of God " in which the man of sin seats himself? This was understood by many from the Apostles' days as the temple at Jerusalem, which will be rebuilt before his time, or which he will rebuild. (So Malvenda.) This is supposed to find confirmation in the words of Daniel (xi, 45), " He shall plant the tabernacles of his palace between the seas in the glorious holy mountain "; and, also, in the words of the Lord respecting "the abomination of desolation standing in the Holy Place." But most of the earlier interpreters affirm the Christian Church to be meant, and think this to be another form of the statement as to the generality of the apostasy. A few, however, do not understand this of the Church as a spiritual body, but of the church edifices, taken collectively, in which Divine honours will be paid Him. (Suicer, Thetaurut, in omni divino templo tedebit.*)
Fifthly. The destruction of the man of sin by the Lord at His return: "Whom the Lord Jesus shall slay with the breath of His mouth, and bring to naught by the manifestation of His coming." (R. V.) Those who apply the Apostle's words respecting the apostasy to the Papacy, understand by "the breath of His mouth" the power of the Gospel by which the Church is delivered from papal errors. The Revised Version gives the true force of the verb by substituting " slay " for " consume" in the authorized version; it is not a conversion but an act of judgment. (Isa. xi, 4.) A distinction is to be taken between the Lord's "epiphany," or manifestation, and His "coming"; and some make it to be that His coming, or bodily presence, precedes the manifestation of that presence to the world. He fulfills the promise to His disciples: "I will come again and receive you unto Myself," before He reveals Himself to the world, and executes judgment upon His enemies. The first of these judgments is that upon the man of sin. In The Revelation xix, 20, the beast and the false prophet are cast alive into the lake of fire before the binding of Satan. But with an inquiry as to the exact order of events we are not here concerned.
Godet, Article "Revelation," in Johnson's Cyclopaedia, 1895, thus writes: "Antichrist's theological system may be summed in the three following theses: 1. There is no personal God without and above the Universe. 2. Man is himself his own god — the god of this world. 3. I am the representative of humanity, by worshipping me humanity worships itself."