Focus On Jerusalem


Who or What Is the "Restrainer"

 In 2 Thessalonians 2?

by William Varner

Focus on Jerusalem, in its continuing endeavor to make available interesting and doctrinally sound articles associated with Bible Prophecy offers this concise, but excellent article on the subject of the “withholder” that is mentioned by Paul in his letter to the Church at Thessalonica. The Apostle Paul’s letter helps establish the connecting links between the Great Falling Away of the Church, and the eventual revealing of the Antichrist, as they relate to the Day of the Lord. The “withholder,” identified as the restrainer, has been the subject of much debate and controversy within the study of eschatology. FOJ hopes that its presentation will inspire your further interest in the wonderful study of the amazing prophetic world of the Holy Bible. (11-24-2005)


The beginning of 2 Thessalonians 2 makes it clear that at least two events will precede the advent of the "Day of the Lord": the arrival of the great apostasy and the unveiling of the "man of sin" (v. 3). Paul reminded the Thessalonians that he had taught them these truths when he had ministered among them previously.


   In verses 6-12 the apostle went on to remind them of something else that they already knew, which is actually a third event that must precede the Day of the Lord. As he had written in verse 3, the revelation of the man of sin must take place first, but, in the meantime, there is something holding back the tide of lawlessness that will erupt when he is revealed. That restrainer must be removed before the man of sin appears in his diabolical role as arch-deceiver. What (or who) is this restrainer, and what will happen when it (or he) is removed?

" 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 who now restrains will do so until He is taken out of the way." (vv. 6,7).


   Clarifying the identity of this "restrainer" is vital to a correct understanding of this passage and crucial for our understanding of end-time events. Before we attempt to identify what is keeping the man of sin from being revealed, we must note some important facts about these verses.


   First, the present tense of verse 6 (i.e., "now you know what is restraining") shows that the arresting force or person was already in operation in Paul’s day. From this passage it is also clear that the restrainer will operate until the Antichrist appears on the scene.


   Second, the restrainer is described with a neuter expression in verse 6 but with a masculine form in verse 7. This change indicates that the restrainer can be spoken of both as a thing and as a person.


   Third, the restraining influence will be removed at the appropriate time. "His time" in verse 6 may be either God’s time or the Antichrist’s time. The emphasis, however, is that at an appointed time in the prophetic program, the restrainer will be removed, allowing the rebel to launch his rebellion publicly on the earth.


   Thus far we have seen that there are actually three events that must precede the Day of the Lord. They are, in order, the apostasy, the removal of the restrainer, and the unveiling of the man of sin. Let us now attempt to more specifically identify what or who the restrainer is.


   A number of proposals have been set forth as to the identity of the restrainer. Around 200 A.D., Tertullian suggested that it was the Roman Empire, particularly in its role of maintaining law and order. While Paul did affirm such a role for the higher powers mentioned in Romans 13:1-7 and Titus 3:1, it is doubtful that this is the correct interpretation because the Roman government faded 1,500 years ago, and the man of sin did not appear before then and still has not appeared. The predicted events simply did not occur.


   Another similar interpretation is that the restrainer is the principle of human government in general, exercising its restraint on aberrant human behavior. This view is also doubtful because human government has often failed in restraining evil acts and at times has even encouraged them by its lack of moral restraints. Furthermore, the prophetic scriptures are clear that human governments will still be present after the advent of the man of sin. Consider, for example, the statements in Matthew 25:31 and following and Revelation 16:12-16. Governments will be in existence during the Day of the Lord.


   Another novel idea that has emerged in recent years is that the restrainer is the Archangel Michael, who supposedly will "stand aside" and allow Israel to be persecuted during the "time of Jacob’s trouble" (Jer. 30:7). This view, however, first appeared in quasi-Christian magical papyri of the third century A.D. and has never been espoused by any reputable theologian. It is based on a total misunderstanding and erroneous translation of Daniel 12:1, which actually states just the opposite view—that Michael will "stand up" for Israel at that time, not abandon them.


   If the restrainer can be described both in neuter and masculine ways and must have sufficient supernatural power to restrain the Satanic mystery of lawlessness, the Holy Spirit is the only person who fits all of these characteristics and is the best possible identity of the restrainer. The word "spirit" is neuter in its grammatical form ("pneuma") but describes one who is actually a person ("he" in vv. 6-7). But how does the Holy Spirit presently restrain the mystery of lawlessness? Through Christians, the body of Christ, whom He indwells and through whom He works in society to hold back the swelling tide of lawless living.


   But how, then, will he "be taken out of the way" (v. 7) when the church leaves the earth in the Rapture? He will not be removed in a complete sense but in His unique ministry of restraining lawlessness through God’s people (see a parallel in Gen. 6:3). He will leave in the distinctive sense in which He came at Pentecost. Just as He was active in saving people before Acts 2, so He will be active during the Day of the Lord (see, for example, Rev. 7). But He will cease His restraining ministry through the church, since it will no longer exist on earth due to its having been raptured earlier.


   The removal of the restrainer at the Rapture of the church must therefore precede the Day of the Lord—a truth confirmed by many other passages in the New Testament (e.g., John 14:1-3; 1 Thes. 5:9; Rev. 3:10). In the context of 2 Thessalonians 2, the readers should have known that they were not in the Tribulation period because the Rapture had not yet occurred.

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