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Who or What Restrains or Holds Back the Manifestation of the Man of Sin?

The question deals with a statement in the second letter to the Thessalonians. Let us review the particular passage in context:

2 Thessalonians 2:3-4, 6-7 reads in the New King James Bible:

“Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day [of Christ’s return] will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshipped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God…

“And now you know what is restraining, that he may be revealed in his own time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only He [margin: Or he] who now restrains will do so until He [Margin: Or he] is taken out of the way.”

Many are confused about this passage. Some believe that the man of sin is a reference to the end-time “beast”—a political military leader. This is not the case. We write in our free booklet, The Fall and Rise of the Jewish People”:

“This ‘man of sin,’ who is also called ‘the lawless one’ in verses 8 and 9, is identified in the Book of Revelation as ‘the false prophet’ (compare, for example, Revelation 16:13; 19:20; see also Revelation 13:13–14). This religious figure will deceive people through ‘great signs’ (Revelation 13:13; 19:20). We read in 2 Thessalonians 2:9 that the coming of the lawless one is ‘according to the working of Satan, with all power, SIGNS and lying wonders.’ This false prophet will receive his powers to perform great signs from Satan and his demons (compare Revelation 16:13–14).”

The key of proper understanding as to the identity of the man of sin is the prophecy that Satan will use him to perform great lying signs and deceptive wonders (compare 2 Thessalonians 2:9). The same is stated about the false prophet (compare Revelation 19:20)—a powerful and influential religious personality leading a religious power which deceives through her sorcery (compare Revelation 18:23). One passage might indicate that due to demonic influence, the beast will also perform lying signs of some sort (Revelation 16:13-14), but the emphasis regarding powerful signs and wonders (including the ability to make fire come down from heaven) is on the false prophet.

Many times, writers speak of “Antichrist,” when they address the man of sin. However, the Bible nowhere applies this term to a person (either the beast or the false prophet). Rather, the term “antichrist” speaks of the concept of anyone teaching against God’s Word (1 John 2:18; compare our Q&A, Who is the Antichrist prophesied to come? ). Originally the terminology of Antichrist was adopted from Judaism (which adopted it, in all likelihood, from the Babylonians and the Greek) and applied to a political power (mainly the Roman Empire), but gradually, it was applied more and more to a religious power collaborating with the political power.

James Hastings, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, under “Antichrist”, says the following regarding 2 Thessalonians:

“Antichrist here is a false Messiah, a prophet… the opponent of the true Messiah… the separation of the idea of Antichrist from the political tendency… comes clearly to the front… The belief that the pope of Rome was Antichrist, or at least his forerunner, became of world-historical importance. This view was … cultivated by the Franciscans… [it] passed over to the pre-Reformation sects…Wyclif…as well as Huss… are firmly convinced of the anti-Christian nature of the Papacy… the idea gradually dawned on Luther’s mind, and became fixed, that the Pope of Rome was the incarnate Antichrist…

“In the centuries that followed the Reformation, the doctrine that the Pope was Antichrist gradually receded in the background. It was, of course, still resolutely held by Protestant scholars, particularly by commentators on the Apocalypse… it is now to be found only among the lower classes of the Christian community, among sects, eccentric individuals, and fanatics.

It is quite remarkable that those who teach the truth on the matter are called by the scholars of this world “eccentric individuals” or “fanatics.” But in light of the concept that the idea of “Antichrist” being the Papacy has fallen into oblivion, the following comments are interesting and shed also light on the fact that the world will be astonished when the beast and the false prophet appear. We will come back to this concept later in this Q&A.

For now, note what the Pulpit Commentary writes:

“The whole clause ought to be rendered, ‘The mystery of lawlessness is already working, only until he who restraineth is removed’; when that takes place, when the restraining influence is removed, the mystery of lawlessness will no longer work secretly, but will be openly manifested.”

The Benson Commentary agrees, stating:

“The mystery of iniquity already worketh, only until he who restrains it be taken out of the way; that is, it works in a concealed manner only until then…”

The Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary shares this viewpoint as well:

“… translate rather, ‘only (that is, the continuance of the MYSTERY of iniquity-working will be only) until he who now withholdeth… be taken out of the way.’… Then it will work no longer in mystery, but in open manifestation.”

Focusing on the “restraining power” which holds back the manifestation of the man of sin until a certain time, there have been numerous interpretations—too many to cover here. We will discuss some of the most common concepts.

Many, if not most interpreters believe that the Roman Empire is that restraining power.

William Barclay, The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians and Thessalonians, says this:

“What was the restraining force which was still keeping The Lawless One under control? No one can answer this question with certainty. Most likely Paul meant the Roman Empire… Rome was the restraining power which kept the world from insane anarchy. But the day would come when that power would be removed—and then would be chaos.”

The problem with this concept and similar ideas is that the passage in 2 Thessalonians is mainly a prophecy for the end time. Even though Paul says that the mystery of lawlessness was already at work at his time, the main focus is on the events preceding to and culminating in Christ’s Second Coming. The reference to the restraining power cannot be the ancient Roman Empire. However, the Bible teaches us that the ancient Roman Empire would be revived ten times. But even considering the last revival of the Roman Empire, the Bible does not support the idea that it could be the restraining power holding back the coming of the man of sin; in fact, the Bible tells us the exact opposite. It reveals that the beast and the false prophet will appear at the same time and collaborate with each other; and that the final revival of the ancient Roman Empire will be a combination of church and state (Revelation 17 tells us that the woman—the religious power—will ride the beast—the political power).

It is clear, then, that the “restraining power” cannot be the (revived) Roman Empire or, more generally, “the State,” which would hold back the religious power or its leader, the false prophet. But as we will see, it is a common (mis-)conception by misguided and misled worldly commentaries that the (revived) Roman Empire and/or the modern “constitutional” state allegedly restrained or restrains the coming of the man of sin.

For instance, Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible says this:

“… the Roman empire and Roman emperors… were by degrees entirely removed, and so made way for the revelation of this wicked one… [When the] western empire was overrun by the Goths, Vandals, and Huns, [it] became extinct about the year 476… and afterwards [it] was translated to Charles the great, king of the French; so that there was nothing more of the Roman empire remaining than the bare name, as at this day; and by this means the popes of Rome got to the height of their power and glory, which is meant by the revelation of the man of sin.”

This commentary overlooks the fact that the ancient Roman Empire would be revived ten times. Charles the Great constituted the fifth revival and under his rule, the name “Holy Roman Empire” was coined. Beginning with Justinian, it had become a collaboration between church and state—it is untrue that the popes came to power because the Roman Empire had ceased to exist. But Gill understands at least that the man of sin is not the beast—a political power—but a religious person.

Gill’s false concept regarding the restraining power is echoed by Matthew Henry’s Commentary:

“Something hindered or withheld the man of sin. It is supposed to be the power of the Roman empire… This passage exactly agrees with the system of popery, as it prevails in the Romish church, and under the Romish popes…”

The idea is again that the Popes usurped the political power of the Roman Empire. It is true that in history, there have been at times fights between church and state, when both powers tried to gain the preeminence over the other. However, as mentioned before, this is mainly a prophecy for the end time, when church and state will work together; when the woman will be riding the beast one last time, and when the beast and the false prophet will act in unison.

The Benson Commentary goes a step further and claims that the early church considered the restraining power as the Roman Empire. Even though this assertion is incorrect, it also neglects the fact of the end-time nature of the prophecy:

“This [“restraining power”]… was generally understood by the fathers to be the Roman emperors and empire, as it is plain from Tertullian, who says, (Apol., p. 31,) ‘We Christians are under a particular necessity of praying for the emperors, and for the continued state of the empire; because we know that dreadful power which hangs over the whole world, is retarded by the continuance of the time appointed for the Roman empire.’”

Tertullian was by no means a converted religious leader within the body of Christ. His admonition to pray for the continued state of the Roman Empire was a horrible misconception. The whole concept does not fit, because Paul talked about our desire for Christ’s soon-coming return. Why then would Christians even think of praying to God to hold back the man of sin… knowing that this would delay the return of Christ?

The same wrong concept as to what constitutes the “restraining power” is conveyed, with a twist, by the The Broadman Bible Commentary:

“That which held back the lawless one at that time probably was the civil government of the Roman Empire (thing) personified in the emperor (person)… This restraining power may be seen through the ages as constituted government and those who administer it… The man of lawlessness will exercise such tyrannical power as to do away with governmental limitations… But in his own time (God) will permit this man of lawlessness to act without restraint… He is Satan’s messiah, an infernal caricature of the true Messiah… Bailey insists that Paul was talking not about a principle, but a person. Those who seek to identify the lawless one with some historical figure (Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, the papacy) ‘are deplorably astray’…”

It is true that the man of sin is a person who will appear in the end time, and he will be a religious figure… not a political one. But again, the concept that government restrains or holds back the man of sin does not agree with the concept that none of the human worldly governments are of God, but all are under Satan’s rule. The concept that the “constitutional state” restrains the man of sin is wrong. In fact, the man of sin (as well as the beast) will rise to power through and within constitutional states. For instance, President Hindenburg constitutionally appointed Hitler as chancellor, after he had received the majority of the votes in a constitutionally held election. The same will be true for the last revival of the Roman Empire, when ten nations or groups of nations will give their power and authority to the beast. Focusing on the false prophet, he will be appointed, as all recent popes have been before, by the cardinals assembled in the constitutional Vatican State.

Recognizing the difficulty with the concept that the “restrainer” is the Roman Empire; a Roman Emperor; or even a modern constitutional state (with the idea that “the principle of law and government is embodied in the state”); different interpretations have been proposed.

The Nelson Study Bible writes:

“The present restrainer, probably the spirit of God, had to be taken out of the world… Some have interpreted ‘taken out of the way’ in this verse as a reference to the Rapture… This the removal of the church through the Rapture will be in effect the removal of all restraint on the power of sin in this world.”

Similar the Ryrie Study Bible:

“Antichrist is now being held back by a restrainer. Some understand this to be God indwelling His church by the Holy Spirit… the removal will be at the rapture of the church…”

The New Unger’s Bible Handbook supports this viewpoint:

“The One who holds back the full development and manifestation of the demonic forces of evil in this era… is the Holy Spirit. He has been forming and indwelling the church ever since Pentecost… and will do so until He ‘is taken out of the way,’ literally comes out of the midst, when He leaves in the distinctive sense in which He came at Pentecost. … “

This idea that the Holy Spirit is the restrainer which will be taken away so that the man of sin can become manifest, is based on the false concept of the “rapture,” teaching that  true Christians are allegedly taken to heaven before the Great Tribulation starts. However, the Bible nowhere teaches the idea of a rapture. Please see our Q&A, “Does 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 teach a ‘secret rapture’?” 

Apart from the wrong concept of the rapture, it is difficult to see how God [or His Spirit] could be taken out of the world. This is not God’s world; He is not the Ruler of this world; it is Satan; and the Holy Spirit is not being taken out of the Church so as if no one will make it into the Kingdom of God.

While the concept must be dismissed that the (ancient or revived) Roman Empire; the modern “constitutionally organized state”; or the Holy Spirit could be the “restrainer,” the following idea is worth considering, as expressed by J.R. Dummelow, The One Volume Bible Commentary:

“And it is hard to see how the words, ‘until he be taken out of the way’ can apply to a Roman emperor or to the Roman Empire… It is possible that by the Restrainer St. Paul means the Christian church in Jerusalem, the Mother Church of which the Thessalonians became imitators. … We know that St. James, the head of that Church, had great influence over his unbelieving fellow–countrymen, and may well have exercised a restraining power over them. Some Jews even appear to have seen in the siege of Jerusalem the punishment of his murder by the high priest Ananus. It is to be noted that the Jerusalem church, obeying the Lord’s command… left the doomed city on the approach of the Roman army and fled to Pella. Thus she might be said to be ‘taken out of the way’ of the evil to come.”

Again, as we pointed out, the prophecy in 2 Thessalonians describes foremost end-time events. While there is no rapture, we know that God will bring part of His Church to a special place here on earth, to be protected during the Great Tribulation. Compare “What are the biblical proofs for your teaching that members of the Church of God will be protected at a particular ‘place of safety,’ here on earth, during the Great Tribulation?” . IF the Church’s flight to Pella could be viewed as a forerunner of the end-time flight of the Church to the Place of Safety, how would this apply to the restrainer being removed?

The Life Application Bible might add some light on this question. It states:

“Who holds back the lawless one? We do not know for certain. Three possibilities have been suggested: (1) government and law, which help to curb evil; (2) the ministry and activity of the church and the effects of the gospel; or (3) the Holy Spirit.”

While possibilities (1) and (3) must be dismissed, possibility (2) is interesting. As long as the Church has not fulfilled its commission of preaching the gospel, the lawless one cannot arrive, because only when the gospel has been preached in all the world as a witness, the end will come. So, one could argue that when the Church is taken to the Place of Safety, the Church’s commission of preaching the gospel has been fulfilled, so that now the man of sin can be revealed.

However, there might be several problems with that assumption. First, even when part of God’s Church is at the place of safety, the preaching of the gospel will still continue, for instance through the Two Witnesses and those who might support them; and apparently also through the 144,000 from the tribes of Israel and the great multitude from all nations who will be called or whole-heartedly return to God’s Way of Life during the Great Tribulation, to be protected during the Day of the Lord.

Even though an interesting thought, the Church’s flight to the Place of Safety does not seem to lead to the compelling conclusion that the Church is the restrainer which holds back the coming of the man of sin, but that the restraint will be removed when the Church flees.

In this light, some offer another interesting explanation. For example, the Website of bibletruth states this:

“… most English versions of the Bible translate 2 Thessalonians 2:7,8 alike. The NIV [New International Version] 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…’ 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… The word ginomai, which is here translated ‘taken,’ is a very common word in the Greek language… its primary root meaning is ‘to become’… [This word implies] the arrival or appearance of the subject, rather than its removal as is implied in the term taken

“And second, most renderings of our text [mistranslate] the phrase ‘out of the way’… The full phrase, ekmesou, translated ‘out of the way’ in verse 7, is defined… as ‘from, from among, out of the midst’… 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)… 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.’…

“This interpretation of the passage is just the opposite as most English Bibles have it. Instead of the restrainer… 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…”

It is interesting that the New Luther Bible 2009 renders the phrase in 2 Thessalonians 2:7, “he is taken out of the way,” as, “out of the midst.” This might very well be a correct rendering. The Greek for “way,” mesos, is only rendered twice in the Authorized Version as “out of the way,” while it is rendered 37 times as “midst” and 6 times as “among.” The word ek in ekmesou is translated 131 times as “out of”, but it is also translated 132 times as “from”. The most common rendering is “of,” which is used 402 times. So, the Greek phrase ekmesoucan legitimately be rendered as “from the midst” or “from among.”

The word “taken” in “he is taken out of the way”, or better, “from the midst,” is genomai, which Young, Analytical Concordance of the Holy Bible, renders as “become.” Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, says that “become” is the literal meaning. In the Authorized Version, the word is rendered only twice as “taken” or “be taken”, but it is rendered 42 times  as “become” and 53 times as “come” (For the translation “come,” please see for example 1 Thessalonians 1:5 and Matthew 8:16). So, the rendering that the man of sin is to “come from the midst” or that he is to “come from among” is quite legitimate. This would mean that the man of sin will come, appear or manifest himself from among the midst of the apostasy.

The word “restraining” in verse 6 (“now you know what is restraining”) is katcheo in the Greek. It is rendered “withholden” in the Authorized Version and means, literally, to hold down or fast, and it is also translated as “stay”.

Based on the foregoing, the clause in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-8 could read as follows:

“… that Day [of Christ’s return] will not come unless… the man of sin is revealed… And now you know what is holding it [the Day] down [or back] that he [the man of sin, or He, Jesus Christ] may be revealed in his [or His, i.e. God’s] own time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains (holds it back) [will do so] until he comes from the midst [of the apostasy]. And then the lawless one will be revealed…”

That is, it is the man of sin who restrains until he is manifested. The Day of Christ’s return can only happen after God has allowed the man of sin to manifest himself as the human religious leader of the apostasy—working openly and no longer in secret.

But what exactly is held back?

The intended thought may not be conveyed correctly in the translation of the New King James Bible. It appears that it is the full mystery of lawlessness, which is restrained today. The German Elberfelder Bible says in parentheses that the full mystery of lawlessness, although already at work, does not manifest itself at this point, but it will when the lawless one (the man of sin) appears. The German Zuercher Bible gives the same meaning, and so do many English translations and the Jewish New Testament by David Stern (“For already this separating from Torah is at work secretly only until…”).

The coming of the lawless one and the concept of lawlessness will remain a mystery to the world. God’s people are warned not to be deceived when the lawless one appears. The best protection against deception is to stay close to God and His Word and while rejecting the pleasures of unrighteousness, to believe the Truth and receive and hold fast to the love of it (2 Thessalonians 2:10-12).

We know that the time is very near for the prophetic fulfillment of the events described in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-8.

Lead Writer: Norbert Link