By Dr. Kenneth L. Gentry
Paul’s much-debated “Man of Lawlessness” prophecy is a favorite text of dispensationalists. And it is an important text to defending postmillennial optimism. This is because it looks like a prophecy that paints a bleak picture for the outworking of history. But I believe this passage is widely misinterpreted because it is applied to the wrong end of history. This is my third installment on the fascinating prophecy. Let us consider Paul’s reference to the “falling away.”
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 God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God. 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. (2 Thess. 2:3-7The deception these unprincipled men are promoting concerns Paul: “Let no one deceive you by any means” (v. 3a). He uses the strengthened form for “deception” (exapatese) with a double negative prohibition. To avoid the deception and to clarify the true beginning of the Day of the Lord upon Jerusalem, Paul informs them: “that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition” (2 Thess. 2:3). Before the Day of the Lord “is come” two events must occur: the falling away and the revelation of the man of lawlessness. It is not necessary for these to occur in the chronological order presented, as even dispensationalists admit. Verse nine is clearly out of order and should occur in the midst of verse eight, if strict chronology is important.
The word “falling away” is (apostasia). It occurs only here and in Acts 21:21 in the New Testament. Historically the word may apply either to a political or to a religious revolt. But to which does it refer here? Does it point to a future worldwide apostasy from the Christian faith, as per pessimistic eschatologies? Based on this passage, amillennialist William Hendriksen argues that “by and large, the visible Church will forsake the true faith.” Dispensationalist Constable comments: “This rebellion, which will take place within the professing church, will be a departure from the truth that God has revealed in His Word.”
Or does the “falling away” (apostasia) refer to a political rebellion of some sort? We can make a good case for its referring to the Jewish apostasy/rebellion against Rome.
Interestingly, Josephus calls the Jewish War an (apostasia) against the Romans: “And now I perceived innovations were already begun, and that there were a great many very much elevated, in hopes of a revolt [apostasia] from the Romans” (Life 4). “When John, the son of Levi, saw some of the citizens much elevated upon their revolt [apostasia) ] from the Romans, he labored to restrain them; and entreated them that they would keep their allegiance to them” (ibid., 10).
Probably Paul merges the religious and political concepts, though emphasizing the outbreak of the Jewish War resulting from their apostasy against God.
We may infer this from 1 Thessalonians 2:16. There Paul says the Jews “always fill up the measure of their sins [i.e., religious apostasia against God]; but wrath has come upon them to the uttermost [i.e., the result of political apostasia against Rome].” The apostasia (revolt) Paul mentions will lead to the military devastation of Israel (Luke 21:21-22; 23:28-31; Acts 2:16-20). The filling up the measure of the fathers sins (Matt. 23:32; 1 Thess. 2:16; Rev. 18:5) leads to Israel’s judgment, thereby vindicating the righteous slain in Israel (Matt. 23:35; cf. Matt. 24:2-34). The apostasia of the Jews against God is centuries long, culminating in their rejecting the Messiah (Matt 21:37-39; 22:2-6). This leads to God’s providential judgment via their apostasia against Rome (Matt. 21:40-42; 22:7). Paul’s emphasis must be on the revolt against Rome in that it is future and datable, whereas the revolt against God was ongoing and cumulative. This is necessary to dispel the deception over which Paul expresses concern. Due to this final apostasy and the consequent destruction of Jerusalem, Christianity and Judaism are forever separated.
Tune in tomorrow at 5:31 am for our continuing saga. Set your alarm now so that you don’t miss being the first one on your block to be able to unscrew the inscruitable.
Notes For political apostasia see the Septuagint at Ezra 4:12, 15, 19; Neh. 2:19; 6:6; 1 Esd. 2:23. See also: 1 Macc. 13:16; 2 Macc. 5:11. For religious apostasia see the Septuagint at Josh. 22:22; 2 Chr. 29:19; and 33:19, and in the New Testament Acts 21:21.
 William Hendriksen, I and II Thessalonians (NTC) (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1955), 170. Thomas L. Constable, “2 Thessalonians,” in John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, eds., Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament (Wheaton: Victor, 1983), 718.
 Daniel Whitby suggests the apostasy growing among Jewish converts to Christianity, as they return to Judaism. This occurs about the same time. Hebrews (written in the A.D. 60s) shows a deep concern about widespread defections among Jewish converts. Daniel Whitby, A Commentary on the New Testament, vol. 4, in Patrick, Lowth, Arnald, Whitby, and Lowman, A Critical Commentary and Paraphrase on the Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha (Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1848), 813.
 See my Before Jerusalem Fell, 293-298. Better still: Buy it. You will help feed the hungry. And I am hungry. Cf. Benjamin B. Warfield, “The Prophecies of St. Paul” in Biblical and Theological Studies, ed. by Samuel G. Craig, (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1952), 473-475.