Paul opens 2 Thessalonians chapter two by expounding on the revelation of Christ and the gathering of believers into Him. Apparently, some claimed the day of the Lord had come. It’s not a stretch to imagine these same people suggested the Thessalonians were suffering because God rejected them and was judging them.
Paul urges them not to be taken in by any such message. On the contrary, he has just told the Thessalonians they are suffering and being persecuted because God approves of them and sees them as fit for His kingdom. Those persecuting them are actually God’s enemies and will be judged when Jesus is revealed (2 Thess. chapter one).
Paul also reminds the Thessalonians of what he said when he was with them: before the day of the Lord, there would be an apostasy, and the man of lawlessness would be revealed. Paul doesn’t give much detail about the man of lawlessness or the apostasy. His main goal isn’t to identify anyone or to map out the end times. His goal is to reassure the Thessalonians. They are not God’s enemies or condemned. The markers preceding the day of the Lord, Christ’s revelation, haven’t occurred (as of the time Paul is writing). Consequently, the day of the Lord hasn’t occurred.
Paul tells the Thessalonians that the man of lawlessness will come with false miracles and by proclaiming himself to be God while setting himself up in God’s temple. Generally, when Paul talks about God’s temple, he means the body of Christ. But here, he seems to have in mind an earthly temple used by a man to promote himself. Those vulnerable to apostasy would have a misplaced devotion to an earthly temple; they would also be waiting for a messiah figure, meaning they already rejected Jesus.
Again, Paul isn’t listing off end time events as much as he is comforting the Thessalonians. They haven’t rejected Jesus, the true Messiah. Their savior has come so they won’t be deceived by an imposter, even if that imposter can do miracles. They also have no stock in an earthly temple. They know that, in Christ, they are the true temple, a dwelling in which God lives by His Spirit (Eph. 2:21-22).
The apostasy Paul warns of is an apostasy from heavenly things to earthly. Christ’s revelation is heavenly (2 Thess. 1:7). The man of lawlessness has an earthly revelation. Christ’s temple is spiritual; it is His body, the church. The man of lawlessness sets himself in an earthly temple. Christ’s temple suffers with Him (as the Thessalonians have); she is the bride, the wife of the Lamb (Rev. 21:9). The man of lawlessness inflicts suffering on any who oppose him based on the status he derives from a man-made building.
Some believe the man of lawlessness has already come and gone. Others think we are still waiting for him to be revealed. Whatever we believe eschatologically, there may be a more urgent message for us in Second Thessalonians chapter two: We must watch that we are not apostates from the heavenly to the earthly, from the spiritual to the fleshly. James contrasts the wisdom from above with wisdom that is “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” (James 3:15).
Are we the temple of Jesus? Do we show our marriage to the Lamb by suffering with Him out of love for others? Or do we attack others because of “godliness” we appropriate to ourselves from earthly things—holy buildings or sites, correct doctrines, earthly lineages from apostles, church traditions, and the like? Or perhaps we justify our beast-like behavior because God has done miracles through us or members of our group.
Outward religious trappings—even miraculous ones—do not make a Christian. What makes a Christian is Christ dwelling within and manifesting His likeness—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law (Gal. 5:22-23). Without such things there is lawlessness and what is antichrist.