Already, the “mystery of lawlessness” and the “spirit of Antichrist” are preparing the way for the arrival of the “lawless one.”
Jesus warned of coming “tribulations” that will cause many to “stumble” and apostatize. Moreover, “many false prophets” will arise to “deceive many,” and because “lawlessness will multiple,” the “love of the many will grow cold.” And these “false prophets and false christs” will employ “signs and wonders” to mislead “the elect,” for apostasy is their end game.
Christ’s warning about “lawlessness” parallels Paul’s description of the “mystery of lawlessness” that, even then, was working to prepare hearts and minds for the “arrival” of the “man of lawlessness.” And this “mystery” will continue to do so until the appointed time when this malevolent figure will “come out of the midst” and appear in the “sanctuary of God.” Thereafter, he will employ “lying signs and wonders” to cause as many saints as possible to depart from the faith. And it is no coincidence that the Apostle links the “lawless one” inextricably to the “apostasy” – (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12).
The term “mystery of lawlessness” is unique to Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians. The Greek term rendered “mystery” does not refer to something that is esoteric or mysterious, but to that which is hidden. And that is his point. “Lawlessness” is at work in the world to achieve this wicked goal, but it works largely out of sight.
Paul presents us with a straightforward scenario. The “Day of the Lord” will not commence until the “apostasy” takes place and the “man of lawlessness” is “revealed.” And he will be unveiled when he “seats himself in the sanctuary of God.” At present, the “mystery of lawlessness” is laying the groundwork for this event when he will appear “out of the midst” and deceive all who “refuse the love of the truth.”
In the Greek scriptures, and consistently so, “apostasy” or ‘apostasia’ refers to the departure from the true faith. In this context, Paul is concerned with the effect of this figure on believers, not on the world in general. His warning is to and for the church.
As for the “sanctuary of God,” in his writings, Paul applies this same term and related words to the church, the “body of Christ,” and NOT to any structure in the city of Jerusalem. And very likely, he is portraying this “lawless one” in some position within the church of God. Moreover, in some ways, the “lawless one” mimics Jesus – (1 Corinthians 3:16, 6:19, 2 Corinthians 6:16, Ephesians 2:21).
There are striking similarities in Paul’s language to John’s description of the “spirit of antichrist.” Like the “mystery of lawlessness,” the “spirit of antichrist is in the world already.” And that reality is demonstrated by the rise of “many antichrists” within the church – false teachers. Not only so, but their activities in the church indicate that the “last hour” is underway. And they are the forerunners of the final “Antichrist… who is coming” – (1 John 2:18-22, 4:1-3).
Quite possibly, John derived his term “Antichrist” and its application to the deceivers in his congregations from Christ’s warning about future “false prophets and false christs” who will deceive the “elect.” Likewise, Paul’s concept of the “mystery of lawlessness” that is at work even now may have originated from the Lord’s prediction of “lawlessness” that will cause many to turn from the faith.
When Paul wrote this warning, he presented the Thessalonians with two events that must precede the “Day of the Lord” – The “apostasy” and the “revealing of the man of lawlessness.” His point was NOT that “lawlessness” will suddenly appear on the earth or that a sudden rise in lawlessness will be a “sign” whereby we will know the end is near. Instead, “lawlessness” was underway already in the first century and has been working diligently ever since to produce this end-times figure and the apostasy that will accompany his arrival.
The association of this “lawless one” and the “antichrist” with deception and apostasy should warn us that this man will arrive intent on deceiving the followers of Christ, and that means he will be active within the church.
And the reality of that process is well attested by the many deceivers who have been active among Christians over the centuries, and even more so today with the plethora of false prophets and false teachers who have infiltrated and influenced even the very leadership of the church.