Most commentators state that the man of lawlessness is the Antichrist who causes desolation before or during the Tribulation. But I noted in the last post that 2 Thessalonians 2:7 states that the mystery of lawless was already at work. This verse rules out all interpretations that were not visibly present and at work in the middle of the first century. It certainly rules out the Tribulation Antichrist. So what was in existence in the first century that fits the descriptions given to it in 2 Thessalonians 2:4-12?
The Expositor’s Bible Commentary observes, “The man of lawlessness has a number of affinities with the beast of Revelation, enough to show that the two books describe the same period.” I would go further to say that the man of lawlessness and the beast in Revelation 13 point to the same entity. N.T. Wright also sees the man of lawlessness as referring to the Roman Empire’s destruction of Jerusalem (see Paul For Everyone: Galatians & Thessalonians).
Son of destruction. The Roman Empire is described in prophecies as a destroyer as well as belonging to destruction. In the vision of 70 weeks, that which destroyed Jerusalem is called “the desolator” (Daniel 9:27). We know in 70 AD that the Roman Empire was the entity that destroyed Jerusalem. In Revelation 17:11 we read, “The beast that was and is not, is himself the eighth, yet is of the seven and goes to destruction.” The Greek word for “destruction” in 2 Thessalonians 2:4 is the same word used in Revelation 17:10. Both the beast and the man of lawlessness are described as destroyers.
Opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship. 2 Thessalonians 2:4 sounds like the actions and attitudes of the Roman emperors. Daniel 11:36-38, which speaks about the Romans, says: 36 “Then the king will do whatever he wants. He will exalt and magnify himself above every god, and he will say outrageous things against the God of gods. He will be successful until the time of wrath is completed, because what has been decreed will be accomplished. 37 He will not show regard for the gods of his fathers, the god longed for by women, or for any other god, because he will magnify himself above all. 38 Instead, he will honor a god of fortresses–a god his fathers did not know–with gold, silver, precious stones, and riches.”
The same description is given to the beast, which represents the Roman Empire in Revelation 13. “A mouth was given to him to speak boasts and blasphemies. He was also given authority to act for 42 months. He began to speak blasphemies against God: to blaspheme His name and His dwelling–those who dwell in heaven” (Revelation 13:5-7).
The Bible Background Commentary points out “when Titus destroyed the temple, his soldiers desecrated the temple by paying divine honors to the insignia of Emperor Vespasian on the site of the temple” (pg. 601). This shows that the Roman emperors accepted and demanded that they be honored as gods. Again, the description of the beast in Daniel 7 and Revelation 13 is very similar to the description of the man of lawlessness.
Performs signs and wonders. Notice the description of the Romans again: 13 “He also performs great signs, even causing fire to come down from heaven to earth before people. 14 He deceives those who live on the earth because of the signs that he is permitted to perform on behalf of the beast, telling those who live on the earth to make an image of the beast who had the sword wound yet lived. 15 He was permitted to give a spirit to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast could both speak and cause whoever would not worship the image of the beast to be killed” (Revelation 13:13-15).
Daniel prophesied in Daniel 7:25, “He will speak words against the Most High and oppress the holy ones of the Most High. He will intend to change religious festivals and laws, and the holy ones will be handed over to him for a time, times, and half a time.”
I believe it is important to see how all of these prophecies fit together and point to the same entity. The Romans would come in and destroy Jerusalem, destroy the temple, and offer sacrifices to emperor Vespasian. Further, the Roman emperors fulfilled the words of Paul as the man of lawlessness. Is Paul speaking of one emperor specifically? He may be or he may be speaking about the whole lot of them that were to come. Just as Revelation 17:10 speaks of the one who goes to destruction seems to point to Domitian, it is possible that Paul is calling Domitian “the man of lawlessness.” However, I tend to agree with B.B. Warfield who believes the lawless one refers to whole line of wicked emperors that raised themselves against God. Paul wrote this letter under Emperor Claudius. But the next emperor that would arise after Claudius was Nero. Nero was the beginning of the outlandish activities of the emperors and the enforcement of worship as deities. This would fit Paul’s words that this mystery of lawlessness was already at work (the Roman Empire and its emperors already existed) but would also be revealed for the evil it truly was (2:8). The emperors would get worse in their arrogance against God and would begin to persecute the people of God in the next century.