Unmasking The Restrainer
2 Thessalonians 2:
On the Timing of the Master's Return
By David M Rogers
Received this Insight: Spring 1980
Second Edition: 2007
Table of Contents
In our examination of the biblical testimony, we have discovered that Paul holds out the posttribulational parousia of the Messiah as the time of the rapture of the church. (See these studies: The Rapture, The Day of the LORD, and The Coming of the Lord.) When we come to the text of 2 Thessalonians 2, we are faced with a difficult reading, which over the centuries many scholars have been stumped by its meaning. A casual reading of these verses in the English Bible translations leaves the impression that the man of lawlessness is being held back from making his appearance by some unnamed person, force or event.
2 Thessalonians 2:1-12
Concerning the coming of our Master Yahusha Messiah and our being
gathered to him, we ask you, brothers, not to become easily unsettled or
alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from
us, saying that the day of Yahuwah has already come. Don't let
anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the
rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed
to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over
everything that is called Elohim or is worshiped, so that he sets
himself up in Elohim's temple, proclaiming himself to be Elohim.
Don't you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these
things? And now you know what is holding back, so that he
may be revealed at the proper time. For the secret power of
lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds back will
continue to do so till he emerges from our midst. And then the
lawless one will be revealed, whom the Master Yahusha will overthrow
with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming.
The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of
Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders,
and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. They
perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For
this reason Elohim sends them a powerful delusion so that they will
believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed
the truth but have delighted in wickedness.
Concerning the coming of our Master Yahusha Messiah and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us, saying that the day of Yahuwah has already come. Don't let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called Elohim or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in Elohim's temple, proclaiming himself to be Elohim. Don't you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things? And now you know what is holding back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds back will continue to do so till he emerges from our midst. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Master Yahusha will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming. The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason Elohim sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.
Many theories of the restrainer's identity have been suggested. Our purpose here is to present a brief explanation of five of the most common views, along with their major weaknesses. These popular theories, expounded by contemporary writers and scholars, are based on answering the question, "Who or what is hindering the revelation of the man of lawlessness?"
The view which is most popular identifies Paul's "restrainer" as the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is, in fact, the restrainer of sin in both the Old Testament and New Testament (see, Gen.6:3; Job 1:10; Is.59: 19; 63:10,11; John 16:8). So, it is argued, he must be the one restraining here in 2 Thessalonians 2. This interpretation is particularly satisfying for pretribulationists, who find this identification to be another convincing "proof text" for the pretribulation rapture. They contend that the Holy Spirit is now restraining sin in general and the man of sin in particular. Thus, in their view, when the Holy Spirit is taken away to heaven with the church at the (alleged) pretribulation rapture, the restraint of sin will be gone from the earth and the man of sin will have his day. Although they concede that the Holy Spirit has a special ministry during the time of great tribulation, they insist that the Holy Spirit releases his hold on wickedness and that those indwelt by the Spirit are no longer on earth.
Gerald Stanton suggests six reasons why the restrainer must be the Holy Spirit: First, by mere elimination of all other views, this view must be correct. Second, because a personality is being restrained (namely, the lawless one), another personality must do the restraining. Third, this personality must be stronger than Satan. Fourth, this is the age of the Holy Spirit. God's work is being accomplished through him. Fifth, the Holy Spirit is the restrainer of evil (see John 16:11; 1 John 4:4). And sixth, the Holy Spirit also restrained evil in the Old Testament times (see Is.59:19b). Therefore, Stanton argues, the restrainer must be the Holy Spirit. (A discussion of Gerald Stanton's view is found in J. Dwight Pentecost, Things To Come, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1958, p.262)
Oddly enough, some posttribulationists also hold to this view. Robert Gundry states three reasons why: First, the restrainer must be the Holy Spirit because some in the early church held this view. Second, he must be the Holy Spirit because to restrain a person, another person is necessary. And third, because this identification best fits the grammatical problem of the neuter to masculine change of the participle. (Gundry's view is discussed in Millard J. Erickson, Contemporary Options in Eschatology, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977, p.158)
Although Gundry and other posttribulationists agree with those pretribulationists on the identity of the restrainer, they disagree as to how he releases his restraint. Posttribers insist that the Spirit still indwells believers on earth, empowering them for evangelism during this time of trouble, and that he still regenerates willing unbelievers. But they believe the Spirit releases his restraint of evil, allowing Satan to work as he pleases.
A very clever explanation is given by proponents of this view for the grammatical difficulty of verses 6 and 7. They say that Paul used the neuter designation in verse 6 for the Holy Spirit because the Greek word for spirit is neuter. Then Paul utilized the masculine participle in verse 7 because the Holy Spirit is a person. Thus, Paul, without any clue or warning to his readers, expected them (and us) to immediately perceive the meaning of this subtle change of gender.
But this is quite unlikely. If it took brilliant theologians performing exegetical gymnastics to arrive at this explanation, then how could Paul have expected his Thessalonian friends to have understood his meaning. Therefore, we reject this acrobatic maneuver because nowhere in the passage is the Holy Spirit either named or alluded to. This interpretation violates the exegetical principle which says to interpret the details with a view to the immediate context. The context here, however, does not by any stretch of the imagination suggest that the Holy Spirit is the restrainer.
Furthermore, a fundamental rule of Greek grammar states that a pronoun, adjective, or substantival phrase must agree in gender and number with its preceding reference. For Paul to use the neuter participle (which is a substantival phrase) to designate the Spirit (since spirit is neuter) would require him to have already referred to the Spirit. But since the Holy Spirit is neither stated nor alluded to in the previous discussion, the antecedent reference of the neuter participle can not be the Spirit. So, we must reject this view because accepting it requires us to compromise both the context of this passage of Scripture and the simple rules of grammar.
Another interesting theory is expounded by George Ladd. He suggests that the restraining force is the power of God. The power of God is that force which is holding back the revelation of the lawless one. This, he says, fits the neuter designation naturally, for power is inanimate and would therefore be designated as a neuter to avoid confusion with a personality. Ladd then identifies the person who is restraining in verse 7 as God himself. The phrase in verse 7 which literally rendered, reads, "until he comes out of the midst," is, in Ladd's view, referring to the lawless one, who, by his "coming out" is revealed for who he is. (Ladd's view is also discussed in Erickson, Contemporary Options in Eschatology)
So, according to Ladd, these two verses may be laid out in the following manner:
This, he says, "fits the movement of the passage more naturally." (Erickson, Contemporary Options in Eschatology)
Although this view holds some merit, there are at least two reasons for rejecting Ladd's theory. The first reason is that there is nothing in the context of 2 Thessalonians 2 which would indicate that Paul is speaking about the power of God. And second, there is no subject change in the text from verse 7a to 7b as Ladd has suggested. The one who is restraining (in 7a) is the one who is "taken out of the way" (in 7b) because the substantival participle ("he who is restraining") is the subject of the verb ("taken out...") in this verse. This is the most natural way to read the verse and the weight of scholarly opinion supports this "single subject" interpretation. So, although Ladd's theory provides an interesting layout of the text, it should be rejected because the context does not warrant such an interpretation and it severs the natural sentence structure of verse.
The theory which was expounded very early by church fathers and theologians is that Paul was referring to the Roman Empire. Brauch points out that "within the sovereign purposes of God, the Roman state, with its laws and extensive power, acted as a restraint against a full manifestation of the powers of lawlessness and evil." (Manfred T. Brauch, Hard Sayings of Paul, Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1989, p. 250) Paul mentions this God-ordained purpose of government in his letters. Ronald A. Ward sees a relationship between the restrainer and human government, and explains that Paul's
theory of the state is written in Romans 13:1-7, where bearing the sword corresponds to the factor of restraint, and authority to 'the restraining (factor).' But Paul in that passage spoke of rulers and of the man 'to whom (singular) taxes are due(7).' This reflects the personal 'he who now restrains' of verse 7. (Commentary of 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Waco: Word, 1973, p.158)
It has been suggested that the reason Paul does not specifically name the restrainer, but is cautious with his words, is for political considerations. Paul allegedly needed to guard his language to prevent the Roman state from misinterpreting his statements as suggesting that the state was an enemy of the church.
There is a serious weakness of this view, however. If the Roman Empire was the only thing holding back the revelation of the man of lawlessness, and upon its removal that lawless one would be revealed, then why didn't he appear after Rome fell? When the "restraining" Roman Empire was removed, the lawless one should have been revealed. For this reason, others have suggested that human government in general is the force holding back the man of lawlessness. But this view makes very little sense either, because the man of lawlessness will be the head of his own human government in the future time of trouble (cf. Revelation 13:8,16,17).
Another proposed solution is that Satan is the restrainer. It is believed that Satan has a carefully engineered plan to bring out his world ruler, but it must be at just the right time. For this reason, he is still holding back his ace until the time when he will be most widely accepted. James E. Frame suggests that this scenario best fits the grammar of verses 6 and 7. Since Satan is described in Ephesians 2:2 as an evil spirit, and the Greek word spirit is neuter, this corresponds to verse 6 where the participle is neuter. And since Satan is also a person, and 2 Corinthians 4:4 describes him as the "god of this world," it is fitting to ascribe to him a masculine designation, which verse 7 does. (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistles of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1912, p.261)
Of course, we must reject this theory for the same reasons we rejected the theory that the Holy Spirit is the restrainer. Frame has neither contextual nor exegetical evidence to support his view and, therefore, he is forced to resort to poor interpretive judgment.
Each of these popular theories of the identity of the restrainer has internal weaknesses which suggest that the correct interpretation has not yet been presented. Many sincere Christians, laypeople and leaders alike, have held to one of these views. I am not calling into question their devotion or loyalty to God. I am merely suggesting that there is more information which has not been taken into consideration in arriving at a solution to this problem. Most scholars, even those who suggest one of those popular views described above, admit that their solution is not "the final word" on this fascinating subject of the identity of the restrainer.
We must commit ourselves to a careful utilization of the exegetical approach as we examine 2 Thessalonians 2:5-8a. The text itself contains all the information we need to arrive at an informed solution. So, let's get back to the text. Paul writes,
"Don't you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things? And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed..."
This rendering is typical of the way scholars and Bible interpreters have translated Paul's ambiguous language in verses 6 and 7. Unfortunately, English Bible translators tend to obscure Paul's message here because they mistranslate key words and phrases.
The first basic rule of exegesis which we should be careful to apply is that words must be given their normal meaning whenever the context allows it. In at least two crucial points in verses 6 and 7, a Greek word was not given its normal meaning in the English translations, and consequently, the text seems to be conveying a message quite different than Paul intended. We must make it our goal to allow the Greek words to take on their normal meaning and then to translate them accordingly.
The second basic principle of exegesis we must follow is to interpret the words of a text with a view to the whole context. Previous attempts to identify the restrainer have introduced thoughts and ideas alien to the text, and as a result, they have failed to produce a satisfying explanation for why the participle changes from neuter to masculine in verses 6 and 7. So, the solution to the problem of the identity of the restrainer must begin with an evaluation of the grammar of verses 6 and 7, and of the context of chapter 2 as a whole.
Ernest Best suggests a list of eleven facts we know at the outset about the restrainer in regard to its grammar and usage. (Best, p.295) The correct identity of the restrainer must meet these requirements of the text. They are as follows:
With these raw facts in view, and with the exegetical procedure to guide us, we can begin to uncover the true identity of the restrainer and to understand Paul's message in 2 Thessalonians 2 for the church today.
The first principle of exegesis we wish to explore is that of the context of 2 Thessalonians 2. Paul's question in chapter 2:5 provides us with a springboard for discussion. He asks, "Don't you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things?" The imperfect tense of the verb legw ("to speak, tell") suggests that this was not something Paul had only touched on. On the contrary, Paul had elaborated on these things in detail while he was in Thessalonica. Those things Paul is talking about are the facts concerning the events preceding the parousia of the Messiah which Paul had just mentioned in verse 3, about which he had more fully communicated with the Thessalonians while he was in residence with them. (John Eadie, A Commentary on the Greek Text of the Epistles of Paul to the Thessalonians, London: MacMillian & Co., 1877, p.274)
But what exactly had Paul been teaching the Thessalonians while he was with them concerning the coming of the Lord? Paul's letters are the only source of information we have regarding what Paul taught them. In response to some believers who were deeply grieved over the death of their loved ones, Paul wrote his first letter to the Thessalonians to reassure them that someday they would be with their loved ones again. He told them that at the Messiah's parousia, Yahuwah would come to resurrect their sleeping friends and that they would be together with the Lord forever.
As a result of this first letter, the Thessalonians were living in a high state of expectation that Yahuwah would soon return and that the final judgment would soon take place. (Ellingworth, p.159) Meanwhile, the persecutions they were enduring continued, and they received more reports, which they believed were from Paul, saying that the day of the Messiah's coming had arrived (see verse 2). This led to considerable confusion because these disciples had now received conflicting reports.
On the one hand, when Paul was with them in Thessalonica, he taught them all about what the Messiah had said would happen before his posttrib parousia. But now they had received reports which they believed were from Paul saying something different - namely, that the day of Yahuwah had already arrived. Their confused state of mind is understandable under the circumstances.
The apostle's second letter was aimed primarily at correcting this misunderstanding. The day of the Messiah's coming can not come yet, Paul wrote them, until the prophesied apostasy comes first and the man of lawlessness is revealed. Paul wrote, "Don't let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion (i.e. apostasy) occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed..." (2 Thessalonians 2:3). Those end-time activities including the apostasy and the appearing of the lawless one must be fulfilled before Messiah would come, according to the Scriptures.
Paul had very carefully instructed his converts about these things, no doubt, by examining the prophecies of Daniel and the teaching of the Messiah in the Olivet Discourse. He only needed to remind them of what he had personally told them and to warn them that those other reports were false. This he managed to do in chapter 2:1-4 by simply touching on the highlights of the Olivet Discourse. Then at the end of this letter, Paul dispels any more doubt about which letters were genuine and which were false: he signed this letter with his own hand (see 3:17).
So, chapter 2:3,4 summarizes Paul's earlier instruction that the Lord's parousia can not take place until lawlessness is fully manifested through the apostasy and the coming of the lawless one. The Thessalonians need not yet lift up their heads for the drawing near of Redemption because the work of Satan had not yet reached its climax.
So now that Paul's readers are reminded of what he had taught them while he was in residence with them, he continues, "and now you know what is holding...back" (2:6). The word restrainer (king jimmy version), or holding back (NIV), appears in the original language in verses 6 and 7 as a present participle from the verb katecw (katecho). The normal meaning of katecw (katecho) in the New Testament is well established by its frequent usage, especially by Luke and Paul. The BAG Greek lexicon lists the primary lexical range of this word as follows: "to hold back," "prevent from going away," "hinder," "hold down," "suppress," "restrain," "check," or, "to hold fast," "keep," "retain," "possess," "confine in prison," "occupy." (Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979, pp.422,23. Examples of katecw (katecho) in the New Testament include the following: "they tried to keep him from leaving him" (Lk.4:42); "you will have to take the least important place" (Lk.14:9); "of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness" (Rom.1:18); "but now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released..." (Rom.7:6); "we are his house, if we hold on to our courage" (Heb.3:6). Other occurrences of katecw (katecho) in the New Testament include: Matt.21:38; Lk.8:15; John 5:4; Acts 27:40; 1 Cor.7:30; 11:2; 15:2; 2 Cor.6:10; 1 Tim.5:21; 2 Tim.2:6,7; Phlm 13; Heb.3:14; 10:23) The normal meaning of katecw (katecho) seems to be rather well established. In the passage under our scrutiny, then, some unidentified entity is "holding onto," "holding down," "holding back," "hindering" or "delaying" something.
But before we identify this restrainer, let us first determine that which the restrainer is holding back. Ernest Best pointed out in his list of "certain facts" we know about the restrainer that the participle has no compliment; that is, no direct object to receive the action of the participle. The direct object is implied rather than explicitly stated. So we must supply that direct object.
Nearly all of the popular solutions to the problem of the restrainer's identity have assumed that the man of lawlessness is being held back by the restrainer. This has always been the premise of previous studies. Until now, it seems, no one has seriously questioned this assumption. But is this, in fact, the correct implied direct object of the participle? We must be willing to explore every possibility in order to be assured that we have arrived at the correct solution.
So, perhaps the correct question to ask of the text is not, "What is holding back the revelation of the lawless one,"? but rather, "What is the restrainer holding back?" To answer this more foundational question, let us go back to the subject Paul is addressing. It is essential that we interpret this in view of the wider context. Paul clearly states his topic in verse 1: "Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him." The whole of chapter 2, then, is the Pauline response to the confusion about the arrival of this historic event. The coming of our Lord is what Paul is concerned with in this passage, not the coming of the lawless one. The confusion of the Thessalonians was not about the coming of that lawless one, but over the rumor regarding the arrival of the day of Yahuwah. Accordingly, Paul is explaining that the Messiah's parousia has not yet occurred because, in fact, other prophesied events must be fulfilled first. So, "the coming of Christ and our gathering to him" are being restrained. Thus, verse 6 should be understood to say, "and now you know what is holding him (Christ) back," or even, "now you know what is holding it (the day of Yahuwah) back."
The apostle corrected any misunderstanding about the Lord's coming in verses 3 and 4 by reminding them of what he had explained at length while he was with them - that the day of the Messiah's parousia can not arrive until the prophetic events of the tribulation period are fulfilled. Then in verse 6, Paul reiterates his correction to their confusion when he begins: "And now you know what is holding...back." So what is it that the Thessalonians now know? They were just told and now know that the day of Yahuwah will not come until after the apostasy occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed. Those two events were standing in the way of the parousia of the Messiah and the rapture.
The popular solutions to the identity of the restrainer assume that the man of lawlessness is being held back. But why would Paul be discussing what is holding back the lawless one when the more pertinent information the Thessalonians needed to be reminded of was the fact that certain prophesied events were holding back the coming of the Lord? The whole point Paul is driving home in chapter 2 is that the day of the Messiah's parousia is being hindered! The restrainer, therefore, is holding back the day of the Messiah's posttrib coming and the rapture of the church. Since the day of Yahuwah is being held back, then, as we have already discussed at length, the apostasy and the revelation of the man of lawlessness are holding it back, because those two events must occur first. The restrainer, then, is the apostasy and the revelation of the lawless one.
Since we have proposed a solution to the problem of the identity of the restrainer, we now must put it to the acid test. Does this new identity of the restrainer account for the grammatical difficulty we described earlier? Yes, we believe it does. The grammatical difficulty of the gender change of the participle is very easily accounted for. There is actually a very simple and logical reason that Paul first utilizes the neuter participle in verse 6 and then changes its gender to masculine in verse 7.
A.T. Robertson explains that an idiomatic use of the neuter singular may appear when an abstract expression is used to sum up a whole mass of ideas or expressions. (A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, Nashville: Broadman, 1934, p.409.) The "whole mass" in our text is "the apostasy and the revelation of the lawless one." Paul utilizes the idiomatic neuter singular participle, katecon, (the "abstract expression") in place of these two events to "sum up" what is holding back the coming of the Messiah. The resulting translation can read something like this: "and now you know what things are holding back (the coming of the Lord)."
Paul's emphasis then changes in verse 7 from those events holding back the day of the Messiah to the specific individual who is holding it back. The lawless one is the central figure among those prophetic last-days events which must occur. So when Paul focuses in on that person, it is natural that the participle describing him would be masculine in gender - katecwn. Whereas in verse 6, Paul reminds his readers that they know what events are standing in the way of the Lord's coming, here in verse 7, he zooms in specifically on that man whose revelation is "holding back" or standing in the way the Messiah's parousia.
Therefore the participle in verse 6 is neuter because the apostasy and the revelation of the lawless one are those events (katecon, neuter) which are standing in the way of ("holding back") the Messiah's coming. Then in verse 7, the participle is masculine (katecwn) because Paul is talking about the lawless one himself, whose appearing must occur first, and is consequently "holding back" the day of Yahuwah.
As we mentioned before, most English versions of the Bible translate 2 Thessalonians 2:7,8a alike. The NIV says that "the one who holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed...." Because of this kind of rendering, nearly all who read this text are led to believe that only when a certain individual is removed will the lawless one be revealed. But we have already shown that the restrainer is not holding back the revelation of the lawless one. Instead, the lawless one is that restrainer who is holding back the day of Yahuwah. The mistranslation of the phrase "taken out of the way" is a major reason for the confusion about the restrainer's identity.
First, the word translated, "taken," is not an accurate rendering of the Greek word in our text. It was pointed out earlier that in order to do justice to this passage of Scripture, we must insist on utilizing the normal meaning of words as long as the normal meaning renders a coherent thought and makes sense within the context of what the author is writing. Unfortunately, in 2 Thessalonians 2:7, the normal meaning of the word translated "taken" was not used. Consequently, the translation not only misses the point of what Paul was saying, but it renders the exact opposite sense which he intended.
The word ginomai (ginomai), which is here translated "taken," is a very common word in the Greek language. This word can take on a wide variety of nuances, but its primary root meaning is "to become." The United Bible Societies Greek Dictionary lists a number of possible English translations of this word, among which are:
become, be; happen, take place, arise...; come into being, be born or created; be done (of things), become something (of persons); come, go...; appear. (A Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament, London: United Bible Societies, 1971, p.37)
All of these renderings imply the arrival or appearance of the subject, rather than its removal as is implied in the term taken.
If we apply this normal meaning of the word to our text, we have a much more accurate rendering of the sense which Paul intended. A more precise translation of verses 7b,8a results: "but the one (the lawless one) who holds back the day of Yahuwah will do so till he (the lawless one) arrives...and then the lawless one will be revealed...." Paul is simply saying here that the lawless one will hold back the coming of the Messiah only until he makes his appearance (comes, arrives) and is revealed for who he is. So there will be nothing else holding back the Messiah's coming. And then the Messiah will subsequently come in his glorious parousia and destroy that deceiver.
And second, most renderings of our text mistranslation the phrase "out of the way." The Greek word mesoj, (mesos), translated "way" in verse 7 means "middle," "in the midst," or "among." The full phrase, ek mesou (ek mesou), translated "out of the way" in verse 7 is defined by the same Greek dictionary cited above as "from, from among, out of the midst" (A Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament, London: United Bible Societies, 1971, p.114). If we take this dictionary definition of our phrase and use it in verse 7 in place of the mistranslated phrase, we get this rough rendering: "but the one who holds it back will do so till he appears from among. And then the lawless one will be revealed" (2 Thessalonians 2:7,8). This translation, although awkward, is closer to the intended meaning of the text. To "appear" or "come from among" is an awkward way (in English) of saying that "he will stand out," "he will come out" or "he will openly reveal himself."
Hopefully, the reader is beginning to sense both the difficulty which translators have had with this passage and the real sense which Paul intended by it. The Greek phrase, as it appears in the original text, e[wj evk me,sou genhtai, roughly rendered, "till he arrives from among," is synonymous in meaning and stands parallel with the phrase "till he is revealed." Paul is saying essentially the same thing in verse 7b and in 8a. The lawless one will "appear from the midst", that is, he will come out. And then (when he comes out) he will be revealed.
This interpretation of the passage is just the opposite as most English Bibles have it. Instead of the restrainer (the man of lawlessness) being taken out of the way, the text is conveying the thought that the restrainer (the lawless one) will make his appearance by standing out "from among" or "from the midst of" his previous secrecy. This translation of the Greek language phrase is not the product of speculation, or of a desire to merely embellish a theological hypothesis. On the contrary, we have done only what sound exegesis requires. We have sought out the meaning of this text through the study of its context, while giving words their normal meaning.
Perhaps the greatest strength of this new interpretation of the identity of the restrainer is that it touches base with all of the fundamental rules of sound biblical exegesis which we initially sought to follow. In fact, this interpretation of the restrainer is a textbook example of how sound exegesis will bring the reader to a satisfying, biblical solution to the problem of understanding a difficult text.
First, in keeping with the definition of exegesis, we have not brought foreign ideas into the text, but have "drawn out" of the passage the restrainer's true identity: the text told us what the restrainer is. The key to this was in allowing the context to provide us with a solution rather than searching for an external object which could be equated with the restrainer. Instead of introducing a new element into the discussion in verses 6 and 7 as the popular identifications of the restrainer do, our exegesis shows that Paul is merely reiterating in more detail the same truth he had just brought out in verses 3 and 4. In chapter 2:1-4, Paul introduces the subject, corrects the misunderstanding about the events which must precede the Lord's coming and then briefly describes the man of lawlessness. Then in verses 5-8, he restates this truth by explaining that those tribulation events are standing in the way of (holding back) the day of Yahuwah. And following this, Paul elaborates on the characteristics of the lawless one and describes his sudden demise.
Furthermore, this interpretation fits all of the "certain facts" which Best suggested we know about the restrainer. Let's go over that list right now.
This new identification of the restrainer does, indeed, satisfy all of the criteria suggested by Best. Yet, there is further collaborating evidence which suggests that our exegesis is sound. The grammatical display of our text will help us visualize the relationship between the grammatical elements and thus make it is easier to see why we are convinced that our exegesis with its resulting translation very precisely reflects the intended meaning of the inspired writer.
kai nun to katecon oidate eij to apokalufqhnai auton en to eautou kairw.
to gar musthrion hdh energeitai thj anomiaj
monon o katecwn arti ewj ek mesou genhtai
kai tote apokalufqhsetai o anomoj
The apostle Paul utilizes several temporal adverbs in the text of 2 Thessalonians 2 which strikingly point to his literary intentionality. (In the diagram above, the temporal adverbs run down the center and are colored red.) Surely Paul's use of no less than five temporal adverbs is an intentional textual clue to his meaning! Of these five temporal adverbs, the last four are particularly illuminating. This "only...now, until...then" sequence is perhaps the most emphatic textual device of 2 Thessalonians 2. It serves to distinguish between the present and the future activity of the restrainer -- in the present, he is "holding back" the Lord's return "only now", but in the future ("until...then"), he will be revealed to the world as "the Lawless One." Paul dramatizes this distinction by placing the words "now" and "until" back to back in the original language -- he is restraining the day of Yahuwah "only...now, until" the time when he arrives and is "then" revealed.
It is unfortunate that the English translations prohibit the English reader from understanding the nuance and emphasis which the temporal adverbs place on this text. Neither can the English reader see that the supplied phrase in verse 7 of the NIV text, "will continue to do so" actually hinders rather than helps us understand Paul's meaning. This editorial insertion has been adopted by translators so that the sentence will read smoothly in English. There is, however, a better way to communicate the contrast Paul is making here: "Only he who is holding (Christ) back is doing so now, until he comes out...." or better yet, "He who is holding (Christ) back is doing so only now, until he comes out and then is revealed..."
The advantage of our rendering of the text is twofold. First, it emphasizes the present activity of the restrainer (i.e. "is doing so") which the text emphasizes by the use of the present participle, katecwn (katechon, "is holding back"), and the temporal adverb, arti ("now"), rather than its future activity as the NIV and other translations imply (i.e. "will continue to do so"). And second, the contrast between the restrainer's present activity and his future appearance is brought into sharper focus by placing the time words, "now" and "until," back to back as they are in the Greek text.
Furthermore, let the reader notice that the subject of verse 7, "the one who is holding back," governs two verbs. The verbs, genhtai ("he comes out"), and apokalufqhsetai ("he will be revealed") both describe the action of the subject, "he who is holding back." What this means in English is best illustrated by our resulting translation: "Only he who holds back the day of Yahuwah is doing so now, until he comes out, and then he will be revealed...."
So the subject of this sentence (the lawless one) is described by three action words. First, he restrains, then he comes out, and finally, he is revealed. This is reinforced by the addition of the substantive, o anomoj ("the lawless one"). Both "the restrainer" (o katecwn, vs.7) and "the lawless one" (o anomoj, vs.8) are in the nominative case, which is to say that they are both the subject of the same sentence. The "second subject" is not really a second at all, but merely renames the first. These two nominatives are said to be equal or convertible. Thus, the text tells us that "the one who is holding back...(will) come out ...(and) will be revealed (as) the Lawless One."
These details of the text, when considered as a whole, constitute a convincing case that the lawless one is the restrainer. Not only does our interpretation make perfectly good sense of every detail of Paul's difficult grammar, but it also draws from the greater context and the informing theology of Paul's second letter to the Thessalonians. Thus, we can be confident that we have discovered the actual message which Paul intended for his readers to understand.
Upon receiving Paul's "second" letter, the Thessalonians were now reminded of what he had personally told them before regarding the time when the Messiah would come and gather his believing remnant. Paul taught only what the Messiah himself had said. The Messiah and Paul tell us that the apostasy must come first and the lawless one must be revealed. These two events were standing in the way of the Messiah's parousia. They were actually restraining and delaying the coming of the day of Yahuwah! When that person who is hindering the arrival of the Messiah finally makes his appearance, he will be revealed for who he is - "the lawless one." And then Yahuwah Yahusha will come and destroy him by the splendor of his parousia.
now you know what is delaying the day of Yahuwah, so that He
might be revealed in His time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already
at work. He who delays the day of Yahuwah does so only now, until he
arrives from our midst, and then he will be revealed for who he is -
"the Lawless One" - whom Yahuwah Yahusha will slay with the breath of His mouth, and destroy by the splendor of