Recap: Who Is the Man of Lawlessness?
In the last article, we discussed how we can use Paul’s words to the Thessalonians to identify the man of lawlessness. There are various schools of thought regarding his identity. Some feel he has not yet been manifested but will appear in the future. There are those who believe that prophecies in Revelation and Daniel (see: Re 13:16; 14:9; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4; Da 11:21-43) are linked to Paul’s words about the man of lawlessness. Some believe he might be a literal man.
The conclusion reached in the last post was that he is not an individual, but a type or class of men which has existed down through the centuries following the death of the apostles. This understanding is based on the following textual elements of Paul’s words at 2 Th 2:1-12.
- The man of lawlessness takes his seat (a position of authority) in God’s Temple.
- God’s temple is the Christian congregation.
- He acts like a God, demanding devotion and obedience.
- He existed when Paul was alive.
- He was restrained by the existence of Christ’s chosen apostles.
- He would surface when that restraint was removed.
- He deceives by lies, deceptions, powerful works, false signs and wonders.
- Those following him are perishing—present progressive tense, indicating an ongoing process.
- The man of lawlessness is wiped out when the Lord returns.
Given the above, it would seem a safe assertion to make that correctly identifying the man of lawlessness is a matter of life and death.
The Bible’s Theme
The question asked at the close of the previous article was: Why does Jehovah tolerate the existence of the man of lawlessness?
When I asked myself that question, I recalled a discussion I had some time back with Apollos regarding the Bible’s theme. (This may not seem at first to be connected with our discussion, but bear with me a little bit.) Like all Jehovah’s Witnesses, I have been taught that the theme of the Bible is God’s sovereignty. We are told that “sovereignty” = “right to rule”. Satan challenged not God’s power to rule, but the morality and rectitude of his rule—therefore, his moral right to rule. All the suffering down through the ages documented in Scripture is supposedly a series of historical object lessons demonstrating that only Jehovah can rule for the benefit of humankind. Working on this premise, once it has been proven to the satisfaction of God’s faithful intelligent creation—it’s never going to be proven to Satan’s satisfaction, but he doesn’t count—then God can bring an end to what has been in effect a millennia-long court case and restore his rule.
There is some merit in this line of reasoning, but does that mean it is the central issue in the Bible? Was the Bible’s main purpose in being written to prove to humanity that God alone has the right to rule us?
In any case, the proof is in. In fact, the final nail in the coffin of Satan’s case was hammered home when Jesus died without breaking his integrity. If this issue is the sum total of the Bible’s message—its core theme—then it is a pretty simple one. Listen to God, obey and be blessed; or listen to men, obey and suffer. Certainly, there is no sacred secret here; no mystery so profound that even angels could not unravel it. So why were the angels still desiring to peer into these mysteries in the time of Christ? Obviously, there is much more to the issue. (1 Pe 1:12)
If sovereignty was the only issue, then once the case was closed, God could have wiped humankind off the earth and started anew. But he couldn’t do that and be true to his name (his character). It appears that is what puzzled the angels. God’s sovereignty is based on love. We’ve never lived under a government based on love, so it is hard for us to grasp the significance of this distinction. It is not enough for God to use his power, wipe out the opposition and impose his laws on the populace. That is human thinking and the way a man would go about imposing his sovereignty. A sovereignty or rulership based on love cannot be set up by force of arms. (This forces us to re-evaluate the purpose of Armageddon, but more on that later.) We can now begin to see that much more is involved. In fact, the solution is so mind-bogglingly complex that its solution—arrived at and announced immediately by Jehovah at Genesis 3:15—was a great mystery to the rest of creation; a millennia-long sacred secret.
The unfolding and eventual revealing of this secret is the true theme of the Bible, in the humble opinion of this writer.
The mystery unfolded slowly over the course of 4,000 years. This seed of the woman has always been the principle target of the Devil’s assaults. It looked like the seed might even be extinguished during the violent years before the flood when those faithful to God had dwindled down to a mere eight individuals, but Jehovah always knew how to protect his own.
The revelation of the mystery came when Jesus appeared as the Messiah in 29 C.E. The closing books of the Bible reveal the Bible’s theme to be the identification of the seed of the woman and the method by which this seed will reconcile humankind to God and undo all the horror that Satan’s system has unleashed upon us.
The Wrong Focus
Our sovereignty-centric theology as Jehovah’s Witnesses makes us focus on God’s right to rule, putting the salvation of mankind as a distant second in importance. We teach that God will re-establish his sovereignty at Armageddon by destroying the wicked, condemning them to the second death. This causes us to view our preaching work as a life-and-death activity. For us, it all stops at Armageddon. If you are not a Jehovah’s Witness, but are fortunate enough to die before Armageddon, you have a good chance of being resurrected in the resurrection of the unrighteous. However, if you have the misfortune to survive until Armageddon, then you have no hope of a resurrection. You will die for all time. Such a teaching is important to keeping the rank and file anxious and active, for we believe that if we don’t sacrifice our time and resources fully, then some might die who would otherwise have lived and their blood will be on our hands. We encourage this way of thinking by misapplying Ezekiel 3:18, forgetting that those to whom that prophet preached—by our own theology—will come back in the resurrection of the unrighteous. (w81 2/1 The Time for a Watchman like Ezekiel)
If Armageddon is the last chance for salvation, then why delay? The longer it takes, the more people are going to die. As Witnesses, we close our eyes to the reality that our preaching work is falling behind. We are not the fastest growing religion in North America. In many countries, the statistics have to be massaged to give the illusion of growth. Yet, there are hundreds of millions on earth today who have never heard our message and of those who have, it is ridiculous to suggest that by hearing Jehovah’s name they have had an opportunity for salvation and the responsibility is theirs for rejecting it. Yet these beliefs are constantly reinforced in our minds. For example, consider these song lyrics:
Sing to Jehovah, Song 103 “From House to House”
1 – From house to house, from door to door,
Jehovah’s word we spread.
From town to town, from farm to farm,
Jehovah’s sheep are fed.
This good news that God’s Kingdom rules,
As Jesus Christ foretold,
Is being preached throughout the earth
By Christians young and old.
3 – So let us go from door to door
To spread the Kingdom news.
And whether it’s embraced or not,
We’ll let the people choose.
At least we’ll name Jehovah’s name,
His glorious truth declare.
And as we go from door to door,
We’ll find his sheep are there.
Sing Praises, Song 162 “Preach the Word”
“Preach the word” in work unceasing.
O how vital that all hear!
Wickedness is fast increasing,
And this system’s end draws near.
“Preach the word” and bring salvation
To yourself and others too.
“Preach the word,” for vindication
Of Jehovah’s name is due.
There is nothing in Scripture stating that every man, woman and child alive at the start of Armageddon who isn’t a baptized Jehovah’s Witness will die the second death. The only scripture we use to support this idea is 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10. However, the context of that scripture points to its application within the congregation, not the unwittingly ignorant world at large. Our knowledge of God’s justice and love should be enough for us to know that universal condemnation is not the purpose of Armageddon.
What we overlook in teaching this is the fact that one of the key objectives of Jesus’ rule is the reconciliation of humankind to God. God’s sovereignty over humanity is only achieved once this reconciliation is complete. So Jesus must reign first. It is the sovereignty of Jesus Christ that begins around Armageddon. Then, over the course of one thousand years, his kingdom will bring the earth and mankind into a state of grace, of reconciliation with God, so that he can fulfill the promise of 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 and restore God’s sovereignty—the rule of love—making God all things to everyone.
“. . .Next, the end, when he hands over the kingdom to his God and Father, when he has brought to nothing all government and all authority and power. 25 For he must rule as king until [God] has put all enemies under his feet. 26 As the last enemy, death is to be brought to nothing. 27 For [God] “subjected all things under his feet.” But when he says that ‘all things have been subjected,’ it is evident that it is with the exception of the one who subjected all things to him. 28 But when all things will have been subjected to him, then the Son himself will also subject himself to the One who subjected all things to him, that God may be all things to everyone.”
With this view, we can see that Armageddon isn’t the end, but merely a stage in the process of restoration. It is understandable how the average Jehovah’s Witness can be misled into focusing on God’s sovereignty as the only real issue and therefore the Bible’s theme. After all, Jesus makes frequent reference to the kingdom and we are constantly reminded in the publications of how often the Bible uses the phrase “the good news of the kingdom”. We know that Jehovah is king of eternity and that he is the sovereign of the universe, so it is a logical to arrive at the conclusion that the kingdom of God is God’s universal sovereignty. We are kept ignorant of the fact that an even more common usage is “the good news of the Christ”. What is the good news of the Christ and how does it differ from the good news of the kingdom? In fact, it doesn’t. These are synonymous phrases, focusing on the same reality from differing viewpoints. The Christ is the anointed one and that anointing is from God. He has anointed his king. The domain of the king is his kingdom. Therefore, the good news of the kingdom is not about God’s sovereignty which is universal and has never ceased, but of the kingdom he has established with Jesus as king for the purpose of reconciling all things to Himself—of restoring His sovereignty over humanity. Not his right to rule for that is not disputable, but his actual rulership which humans have rejected and which cannot be restored until we can understand how a rulership based on love works, and implement it from our end. Again, it cannot be forced on us, but we must accept it willingly. This is what the Messianic kingdom accomplishes.
With that understanding the central role of the seed—the true theme of the Bible—is brought to the fore. Also with that understanding, we can see Armageddon in a different light, we can grasp why the end seems to be delaying, and we can discern why Jehovah has allowed the man of lawlessness to affect the Christian congregation.
The Right Focus
Imagine you are an angel just witnessing the rebellion of Adam and Eve. Jehovah is allowing the humans to procreate, meaning there will soon be billions of sinners all condemned to die. You know Jehovah can’t simply pardon them. God does not take shortcuts through his own law code. In fact, doing so would reveal a limit to his power which is unthinkable. His limitless power and infinite wisdom is manifest in that no matter what the situation, He can fix it without compromising His own law. (Ro 11:33)
Jesus, in revealing facets of this sacred secret, introduces the incredible idea that humans would be elevated to positions of spiritual oversight together with him so as to reconcile humanity to God and undo all that the Devil had wrought down through the ages. However, these humans first have to be qualified for the task. In this, Jesus as always set the standard.
“. . .Although he was a son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered. 9 And after he had been made perfect, he became responsible for everlasting salvation to all those obeying him, 10 because he has been designated by God a high priest in the manner of Melchizedek.” (He 5:8-10)
How remarkable that a superlative being like the firstborn of all creation should have to qualify for the role of Messianic king. He had to learn firsthand what it was to be human. Only then could he relate to us in the necessary way. He had to be tested, so as to “learn obedience”, though he had never been disobedient a day in his life. He had to be “made perfect”. This is the type of perfection that can only be achieved through the fire of the crucible. If there is no impurity—as was the case with Jesus–what is revealed is all that was there in the first place. If there is impurity, as is the case with the rest of us, it is melted away, leaving behind a refined quality of value to God.
If Jesus had to suffer to qualify, so must we all who desire to share in the likeness of his resurrection. (Ro 6:5) He did not come to save the world, at least not right away. He came to save his brothers and then, together with them, to save the world.
The Devil—a mere creature—tempted him by offering him all the kingdoms of the world for one little act of devotion. The Devil was seating himself in God’s place and acting as a God. Jesus turned him down flatly. This is a test we all must face. We are asked to submit to creatures, to obey them as if they were God. I know of one elder who was removed simply for stating that his obedience to the Governing Body was conditional and based on the principle of Acts 5:29. He had not disobeyed even a single directive of the GB, but just the potential that he might if he felt it conflicted with God’s law was enough to warrant his removal.
Understanding the sacred secret as it relates to Christ’s anointed brothers helps us discern why the end seems to be delaying.
“10 And they cried with a loud voice, saying: “Until when, Sovereign Lord holy and true, are you refraining from judging and avenging our blood upon those who dwell on the earth?” 11 And a white robe was given to each of them; and they were told to rest a little while longer, until the number was filled also of their fellow slaves and their brothers who were about to be killed as they also had been.” (Re 6:10, 11)
The full number must be gathered. First we need the rulers and priests in place. Everything is waiting not on the preaching work of Jehovah’s Witnesses to reach some predetermined point of completion, but rather on the testing and final approval of the remaining ones making up the complete number of the seed. Like Jesus, these must learn obedience and be made perfect.
Why Permit a Man of Lawlessness?
“. . .“I came to start a fire on the earth, and what more is there for me to wish if it has already been lit? 50 Indeed, I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and how I am distressed until it is finished!” (Lu 12:49, 50)
Enter the man of lawlessness. Though not the only means for Jehovah to test and refine, he is a key element. If the salvation of mankind was the direct and immediate purpose of the fire that Jesus lit, then why not continue to appoint apostles? Why not continue to demonstrate divine approval and endorsement through miraculous gifts of the spirit? It would certainly end most theological debates if one could do as Jesus did when questioned about his statement that he could forgive sins.
“. . .Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and pick up your cot and walk’? 10 But in order for YOU men to know that the Son of man has authority to forgive sins upon the earth,”—he said to the paralytic: 11 “I say to you, Get up, pick up your cot, and go to your home.” 12 At that he did get up, and immediately picked up his cot and walked out in front of them all, so that they were all simply carried away, and they glorified God, saying: “We never saw the like of it.”” (Mr 2:9-12)
Imagine how much easier our preaching work would be if we could do this? Removing this visible evidence of God’s endorsement opened the door for the man of lawlessness to come on stage.
The preaching work of Christians, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, cannot be about the salvation of humankind. That salvation doesn’t happen at Armageddon. The preaching work is about salvation, Yes—but of those who are to rule with Christ. It is about the first stage of salvation, the gathering of the seed. The second stage will occur over the course of one thousand years and is in the hands of Christ and his anointed brothers.
So without the gifts of the spirit, what identifies the ministers of God? The same thing that identified them in the first century. Our recommendation as ministers of God comes:
“by the endurance of much, by tribulations, by cases of need, by difficulties, 5 by beatings, by prisons, by disorders, by labors, by sleepless nights, by times without food, 6 by purity, by knowledge, by long-suffering, by kindness, by holy spirit, by love free from hypocrisy, 7 by truthful speech, by God’s power; through the weapons of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, 8 through glory and dishonor, through bad report and good report; as deceivers and yet truthful, 9 as being unknown and yet being recognized, as dying and yet, look! we live, as disciplined and yet not delivered to death, 10 as sorrowing but ever rejoicing, as poor but making many rich, as having nothing and yet possessing all things.” (2Co 6:4-10)
Our perfecting is by suffering and enduring tribulation.
“. . .In fact, too, when we were with YOU, we used to tell YOU beforehand that we were destined to suffer tribulation, just as it has also happened and as YOU know.” (1Th 3:4)
“. . .For though the tribulation is momentary and light, it works out for us a glory that is of more and more surpassing weight and is everlasting;” (2Co 4:17)
“. . .Consider it all joy, my brothers, when YOU meet with various trials, 3 knowing as YOU do that this tested quality of YOUR faith works out endurance. 4 But let endurance have its work complete, that YOU may be complete and sound in all respects, not lacking in anything.” (Jas 1:2-4)
While this testing comes from the world, most will agree that the worst trials of faith they have experienced have come from within the congregation—from friends, family and trusted associates. This was foreseen.
“22 If, now, God, although having the will to demonstrate his wrath and to make his power known, tolerated with much long-suffering vessels of wrath made fit for destruction, 23 in order that he might make known the riches of his glory upon vessels of mercy, which he prepared beforehand for glory,” (Ro 9:22, 23)
The vessels of wrath exist side by side with those of mercy. Jehovah tolerates their presence for the purpose of enabling the vessels of mercy to receive the glory reserved for them since the founding of the world. If we show integrity by not obeying men over God, even men we are told sit in God’s seat, then we will likely suffer persecution from those men, but that tribulation will perfect us and make us ready for the reward.
Our Organization likes to talk about subjection to the authorities which God has placed. Receiving much attention in this regard is the Governing Body, followed by a hierarchical chain of command that ends with the local elders. In Ephesians 5:21-6:12, Paul speaks of many types and levels of authority, but noticeably absent is any mention of an ecclesiastical authority, such as a first century governing body. In fact, we read:
“. . .because we have a struggle, not against blood and flesh, but against the governments, against the authorities, against the world rulers of this darkness, against the wicked spirit forces in the heavenly places.” (Eph 6:12)
By flesh and blood, Paul means our struggle is not fleshly in nature; we don’t make violent, physical war. Instead, we struggle with dark authorities backed by the Devil. These are not confined to secular governments, but any form of authority which the Devil sets up fits the bill, including the man of lawlessness whose “presence is by the operation of Satan.” (2 Th 2:9)
Let us never give in to any man within the congregation—God’s temple—who presumes to “sit down” in judgment and authority over God’s people, proclaiming himself to be God’s channel and demanding unquestioning obedience.
If we can maintain our faith and our love of truth and listen and obey only God and his son Jesus, then we can be blessed with the reward of ruling with Jesus from the heavenly places and participating in the eventual reconciliation of all humans to God. It seems like too grand a prize to contemplate, yet it has been held out to faithful humans for 2,000 years now. It is there even now to grasp, for you cannot take hold of something not present.
“. . .Fight the fine fight of the faith, get a firm hold on the everlasting life for which you were called and you offered the fine public declaration in front of many witnesses…safely treasuring up…a fine foundation for the future, in order [to] get a firm hold on the real life.” (1Ti 6:12, 19)