Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Lawless One: Who is this masked man?

Yesterday we looked at the tension between the metaphor of a "Thief in the Night" (I Thessalonians 5:2) and an unfolding scenario, where a 'Lawless one' is revealed first (II Thessalonians 2:3). In both letters, Paul makes passing reference to things that the church in Thessalonica had heard from him already, but we- who were not there while Paul was living among that church- do not know what those things were, exactly. This is an instance when we are left to 'guess' a bit, knowing that we could be way off base however faithfully we might approach this task. In my mind, knowing that there are things that we don't know (from reading this letter); and knowing that what we guess may be wrong; does not mean that we know nothing or that there is nothing to know. It simply means that we need a measure of humility in how we approach this ancient letter, one-half of a correspondence, which relies on conversations to which we were not privy. And yet- despite boldy acknowledging that which we don't know- we read these letters because they are written by our brother-in-Christ, who was inspired in his proclamation of the gospel, and they are addressed to a group of our brothers and sisters who were suffering persecution, in order to encourage them.

Here's what we are not reading:
What we are not reading are intentionally cryptic letters that are written to satisfy someone curiosity about what comes first, the rapture or the tribulation. We are not reading letters that were intended to be overlaid on top of the book of Revelation, so that various references in these letters could be placed on a 'timeline' that we have to figure out. And, we are not reading letters that were written as pieces of a literary puzzle, all of which fit together tightly into a single vision of the end time, along with the rest of the Bible.

I and II Thessalonians are letters from a specific person to a specific community and some of their references are a little beyond us. For example ... who is this lawless one to which II Thessalonians 2 refers?

The word for 'lawless' is literally a-nomos in the Greek, meaning no-law and would typically mean someone, like a Gentile, who does not have the law of Moses. But, instead of being used as an adjective it is used as a substantive noun in II Thessalonians, with a definite article, making it a personal reference, 'the lawless one'.

Here is the text where Paul talks about this lawless feller (II Thessalonians 2:1-12):
As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you? And you know what is now restraining him, so that he may be revealed when his time comes. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but only until the one who now restrains it is removed. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will destroy with the breath of his mouth, annihilating him by the manifestation of his coming. The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders, and every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion, leading them to believe what is false, so that all who have not believed the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness will be condemned.

The temptation, of course, it to find any number of references that speak of bad persons who are in cahoots with Satan and to suppose that this lawless one is that bad person. Someone might say, for example, that this is the 'antichrist,' the 'beast' or the 'fasle prophet' from the book of Revelation. But, before we start taking one obscure reference and glue it to another obscure reference, let's take a more disciplined approach to this "lawless one."

1. We begin by looking at the immediate context of the letter itself- in this case II Thessalonians. The section above is the only reference to 'the lawless one' in this letter, so there is no 'cross-reference' for us to consult.
2. The occasion for writing about 'the lawless one' is a problem that Paul is addressing. Apparently, the rumor has arisen that Paul has declared that Jesus is already here. "Yikes!" Paul says, "No way!" So, this chapter begins with Paul denying that he has said any such thing, either in his first letter or in any other letter or even in person when he was among the church. It is within this denial and assurance that the Thessalonians had not missed out on the coming of the Lord that Paul says- for the first time- that Jesus will not come until 'the lawless one' is revealed.
3. If we broaden our scope a bit to include both of the letters to the Thessalonians, we discover that there is no reference to 'the lawless one' in I Thessalonians. Not only does that mean that we get no clarification of who this person is from I Thessalonians, it also raises the question of why Paul didn't mention this part of the scenario in his first letter. Some biblical scholars suggest that someone other than Paul actually wrote this second letter, and part of their rationale is that this talk about 'the lawless one' who must be revealed is a different way of viewing the end times than the "Thief in the night" of the first letter. I'm not ready to go there, but I do see the point and it is indeed arguable.
4. The best context for understanding this phrase, 'the lawless one', is indicated above when Paul asks, "Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you?" (Paul sounds a little miffed, if you ask me.) In other words, the best context for understanding this phrase is a conversation that Paul had with the Thessalonians that is lost to us forever. So, we are left to do our best with this unexplained reference.

We'll keep looking at this phrase in the next post. See you then...

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