A Fresh Look at 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12—Was the Apostasy an Absolute and Complete Rejection of the God of Israel? (Revised)

by Mark Mountjoy

Introductory Remarks

Christians from a wide variety of traditions and creedal backgrounds normally entertain predictable and popular ideas and concepts about the apostasy directly preceding the Second Coming described by Paul in 2 Thessalonians the second chapter. In the four great Christian traditions these can be summed up as being either a past Roman, Catholic or future European figure as "the man of sin." Rote tradition (rather than critical studies) govern interpretations and the Apostle Paul's prophecy of the coming of the Lord in 2 Thessalonians is one of the more familiar yet (at the very same time) obscure of these.

But today, in the light of ancient Judæan history, we want to take a fresh look at it to grapple with this question: Does it portend a person claiming to be the true God himself, or does it predict a complete apostasy away from the God of the Hebrew Old Testament?

The text in question reads:

"Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; WHO OPPOSETH and EXALTETH HIMSELF ABOVE ALL THAT IS CALLED GOD, OR THAT IS WORSHIPPED; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God.

Remember ye not, that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things?

And now ye know what withholdeth that he might be revealed in his time. For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way.

And then shall that Wicked be revealed, whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of his coming: even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, and with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved.

And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: that they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness."

Is this a prophecy about events within the Second Temple? It seems as though it is.  Why not look closer at this?  Why not investigate events surrounding bitter and bloody Jewish internecine strife, civil war and destruction of Jerusalem? Since the fall of Jerusalem is the closest major event to the end of the life of Paul, would it not make sense to see if this prediction dovetails with events John spelled out in Revelation 13:12-18?

What We've Been Told and What May Be the Case

We've been told many things. For example, in older Christian traditions it is believed Paul and John definately have Nero in mind. Even in Partial Preterist circles it is agreed that Revelation's 666 was certainly Nero (Gentry)[1], but for Premillennial Dispensationalists a future "Führer" is imagined (Lindsey)[2], and some scholars believe the culprit could have been Domitian. [3]

These "usual suspects" are often said to have been the Son of Perdition the Apostle John had in mind. But (though the New Testament certainly makes the circumstances and timing perfectly clear) who this person may actually be is less clear and less apparent—either from lack of detailed reporting or because of our 2,000 year long vantage point. Nevertheless, what we know about Nero from historical records falls far too short of what the Scriptures demand: A person (or persons) working in Judæa, but not only in Judæa, but also within the innermost sanctum of the Second Temple. Nero, Hitler, Domitian--neither of these three men fit into the time, genius loci or specific circumstances demanded in the New Testament. These three men have absolutely nothing to do with events directly involving, supporting or fomenting the Jewish apostasy, civil strife or any attempt to seize control in order to overthrow Roman domination in the ancient Judæan State or in the A.N.E..

Because these suspects do not fit into the narrative all kinds of problems are created that threaten the credibility of the Bible itself (if the Bible was really wrong).  But if Jesus and the Apostles are given the benefit of a doubt, these events would certainly be inside the lifetime of the first Christians and still not have any direct connection to these familiar names.

What We've Assumed and What May Be the Reality

It has often been assumed that the number 666 refers to a particular person (Nero, Hitler, Domitian or even, more likely, Eleazar ben Simon, John Gischala or Simon Bar Giora), but it may not be the reality of the situation at all: It may not be discoverable by any arithmetic whatsoever.[4] Brent Kercheville, in his website, Revelation Made Clear, and under the heading '666 (13:18)', has this to say:

"This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666. (Revelation 13:18 ESV)

This is the verse causes difficulty for all and myriads of interpretations. As we have observed throughout our study of Revelation, the numbers are to be taken symbolically unless the context demands otherwise. John tells us definitively that this number is to be taken symbolically. The big question is what does the number 666 symbolically represent?

One of the more popular answers has been Nero Caesar. I would be thrilled if I could get past the obstacles that prevent me from understanding 666 to refer to him. First, why would Nero be the mark of the beast? The things that we are reading about the inability to buy and sell would not happen for a few decades after Nero. Further, Nero would represent the first beast, the beast with the fatal wound that healed, and would not represent the second beast, this false prophet. Second, to get 666 to calculate to Nero Caesar requires a lot of work. The numbers are converted to Greek and then converted to Hebrew with a strange spelling of Nero Caesar. Why would the Greek need to be transliterated into Hebrew? The problems for this are vast. It assumes the audience knew Hebrew. It assumes a knowledge of gematria (the system of assigning numerical values to words or phrases). It assumes the audience would know to make this conversion from numbers to Greek and then to Hebrew. No other number in the scriptures uses gematria. The number 666 can be used to prove nearly any person the student desires. 666 has been used to represent the calculation of the abbreviated Greek titles of Domitian. Some have made Emperor Titus add up to 666. 666 can also add up the numerical values of the initials of the Caesar names from Julius to Vespasian. More modern interpretations have included Roman Catholic apostasy, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Adolph Hitler.

We should also observe that this may not be asking for a particular man to be identified. The Greek word that is translated “man” is anthropos which does not declare a particular gender. Anthropos can refer to any human or humanity in general. Some of the translations show this. The NRSV reads, “for it is the number of a person.” Other translations show that this verse is not asking for a particular person, but is the number of humanity.

Because it is a human number. The beast’s number is 666. (God’s Word)

For it is man’s number, and his number is 666. (NET)

For it is a human number, its number is six hundred and sixty-six. (RSV)

For it is a human number [the number of a certain man]; his number is 666. (Amplified) (cf. CEV, NCV)

THESE TRANSLATIONS MAKE MORE SENSE OF THE STATEMENT. The number represents a human number, the number of humanity. Notice Revelation 15:2 where we see the number of the beast again.

And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mingled with fire—and also those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. (Revelation 15:2 ESV)

The saints are pictured as conquering the beast, its image, and its number. These are not three different things. The point is that everything about the beast is in view, the sum total of the events surrounding the beast. Revelation 15:2 is not saying that the Christians conquered Nero.

Revelation has been full of symbolism with its number usage. We have read many “sevens” in this book. We have seen seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven thunders. We will read about seven bowls. The number “seven” has a symbol of perfection based upon seven days of creation. The number “six” is used for incompleteness, coming up short of perfection. This symbol works with the characteristics of the false prophet who is trying to look like the Lamb, but is not. The triple use of the number 6 is used for the intensity of the incompleteness. It is repetition for emphasis and to show how intensely false this beast is.

This is the reason why John says that this image calls for wisdom and understanding. John is not calling for mathematical acumen. John is calling for Christians to be smart and not be taken in by the deception of the beast. Have wisdom and see through the deception. Have spiritual perception and recognize the imperfect, unholy nature of the beast" [5]

After long grappling with issues about the actual identity of what John intended in Revelation 13, my years of studies have led me to this conclusion: The desperately wicked situation that fell out among the Jewish rebels makes more sense as a triple expression of fallenness, corruption and depravity than any other available option, ancient or modern[6].

What We've Believed—What is Historically Verifiable?

We have believed, traditionally, is this: that the Book of Revelation (and almost everything in it) is up for grabs and that all interpretive efforts are more or less equally valid. Are they? Every view could not possibly be equal, though all could be totally wrong! We believe something must be closer to the truth and that that something is that which attempts to satisfy both what is in the sacred text along with that which is historically verifiable—what gives deference to the text (which itself is historic). In this regard, Revelation 1:1,3 and 7 and numerous other notices throughout the text (e.g., Revelation 2:24-25; 3:3; 16:15; 22:6-7, 10, 12 and 20) must be an essential part of any equation and if they are not, all bets should be off and the interpretation should be deemed unacceptable.

These passages and their promise ABSOLUTELY demand that the events in question be historically near the lifetime of both John and his readers.

We remain convinced that the best approach to this field of studies looks on these issues as vicissitudes that are very very close to the downfall and demise of specific enemies of the Christians—enemies who inhabit a Semitic world—a world soon aflame in civil unrest, a world of religious innovations and mass murder and a world of genocide and suicide. The world we speak of was a Jewish world, and its rise and fall is historically verifiable. Moreover, peculiar aspects of its demise go directly against what is generally believed by the rank and file today to be unfulfilled and slated for our contemporary or distant future.

How the Scriptures Add Up—What Story Do They Tell?

When we survey passages and verses connected to the end of the Mosaic era, a number of things become clear and a story begins to emerge: The Jewish world would be led by armies rejecting the God of their fathers and a brazen embrace of a 'god of forces' (Daniel 11:38). In this vein, Matthew 24:15; Mark 13:14; 2 Thessalonians 2:4-12 and Revelation 13:4-18 add up to a most unlikely conclusion: The Jewish revolt was not only about freedom from Roman rule[7], but also about a complete rejection of Old Testament norms in worship and conduct: Strange novel worship [8], refusal to bury the dead [9], mutilating the flesh [10], disrespect to God [11], jesting and turning the Second Temple into a shop of tyranny [12] and public engagement in Sodomical practices [13]. All these shocking instances (paralleled in Scriptures and verifiable in history) points to a descent into darkness never before seen or experienced in Jewish history.

And so, what story do the Scriptures tell? The Scriptures tell a story about a civilization, visited by the Son of God, a civilization who rejected and crucified him, suppressed his resurrection and refused to submit to His Gospel. This civilization, with its high-minded hopes and low threshold on the truth, was bent on territorial and political 'freedom', but not true spiritual freedom (which is salvation in Jesus Christ). Bound by the chains of sin and darkness, that evil world expected certain triumph; instead it stood on the brink of fiery conflagration, ruin and oblivion (Revelation 18:7).

Through the agency of the Lord's return, and through his orchestration [synchronicity] of events through agents (angels, humans and nature alike) the decaying world of the Levitical priesthood came, at last, to defeat and loss, never to fully recover, till this day.

Summary and Conclusion

We are told, in futurist or even preterist terms that these prophecies speak of a specific individual, but it may be an entire situation, close to Paul's time and involving complicated transactions. The case may be extremely nuanced, yet the larger narrative would forbid it to be assumed to be unfulfilled or else a mistaken effort at prediction by Paul.

Similarly, we have long assumed that the number 666 speaks of one man, but the reality may be that it describes the fallenness of the Jew's efforts to realize their understanding of the promised kingdom of God in concrete terms. In this respect, what Josephus reports about the course of the civil war makes little sense unless we understand that without true inspiration from God, the rebels were grasping at straws and hitting out in a vain attempt to control situations beyond their finite power.

Military might was no help; magic and sorcery (though employed) were totally in vain. The story ends in despair; destruction and suicide, but those who put their trust in Christ were not disappointed. Inasmuch as people cast their lot in political solutions and the promises of politicians, this is a message that is relevant even today.

We have long believed any given interpretation of Bible prophecy is basically valid, but in reality the Four Views contain little that is convincing and historically verifiable. The sum total of relevant text—in light of Jewish antiquity—tells the story of a utter and complete apostasy from God, and these dangerous developments led to the true Second Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Notes

[1] Gentry labors in two separate chapters to pin 666 firmly on Nero (but in vain). See, 'The Role of Nero Caesar' and 'The Role of Emperor Worship' in Before Jerusalem Fell, Kenneth Gentry, pp. 193-219 and 261-284. See our examination of this issue HERE.

[2] The so-called 'Future Fuehrer's' role can be found in Hal Lindsey's Late Great Planet Earth on pp. 87-102. It should be observed that Lindsey's arguments not only failed to materialize in the 20th century (as he often alluded they would) but make absolutely no sense in light of what the first Christians anticipated and expected in antiquity.

[3] Those who hold to the A.D.95 dating for the Book of Revelation have to imagine a Domitianic program of persecution of Christians around the issue of the Cult of Emperor worship. But this notion also does not fit into the overall picture that Revelation portrays as the integrity of the Second Temple and of the impending destruction of Jerusalem, realities that were extant only up to 25 years before Domitian's reign.

[4] It does not seem to matter rather we consider a modern or an ancient figure, all attempts to pin 666 on a particular person or name seem to be in vain.

[5] Source: Brent Kercheville,
http://thebookofrevelationmadeclear.com/revelation…/666.html

[6] And this time of trouble is expressed by Daniel and Jesus as the worst tribulation ever (Daniel 12:1 cf. Matthew 24:21).

[7] Promising freedom, but not free. See 2 Peter 2:19 cf. John 8:33-35

[8] Jewish efforts to take the promised kingdom of God were accompanied by attempts to do so by perverting the Divine name; attempts to annul the Law of Moses and replace it with a retrograde Egyptian monotheism. These strange measures appear to be the precise way in which ancient Judæans were deceived and led into Universal destruction in the A.D.70 Destruction of Jerusalem. The fall of the city was followed three years later by mass murder and suicides at the fortress of Masada. Nothing but tribulation, judgment and doom for the rebellious and intransigent nation was foreseen by the Apostle Paul (note 2 Thessalonians 2:4 cf. Wars 2.17.3:414 and Wars 4.3.8.156-157).

[9] Revelation 11:9 cf. Wars 4.5.2:317 and 4.6.1:360.

[10] Leviticus 19:28; Revelation 13:16-17 cf. Wars 3.8.6:386.

[11] "They also set the principle men at variance one with another, by several sorts of contrivances and tricks, and gained the opportunity of doing what they pleased, by the mutual quarrels of those who might have obstructed their measures; till at length, when they were satiated with the unjust actions they had done towards men, they transferred their contumelious behavior to God himself, and came into the sanctuary with polluted feet. (Wars 4.3.6:150)

[12] Wars 4.3.7:151-152.

[13] Jerusalem was called 'Sodom' and 'Egypt' for a reason, Revelation 11:8 cf. Wars 4.9.10:561-563

[14] Wars 4.3.7:151-152 and 4.3.8:156-157.

Further Reading

The Rise and Fall of Jewish Nationalism, Doron Mendels

The Zealots, Martin Hengel

Josephus Complete Works, Mattathias Josephus

The Jewish Revolts Against Rome, James J. Bloom