Many passages of Scripture have been tirelessly debated not only in light of the meaning of the words and grammar, but also in light of the historical context or “background.” However, scholars often neglect the historical “foreground”—that is, the exploration of which interpretations make the most sense in light of what followed the apostolic period. The apostles and prophets who wrote the books of the Bible also taught large numbers of Christians who carried on their oral teachings in their own ministries. So we should expect that the correct reading of Scripture may “echo” forward into the writings of second and third generation teachers. As a sort of exegetical experiment, I’d like to trace the “Bible foregrounds” of a number of debated issues in theological and biblical studies, and I will do this over the course of the next several months in separate essays.
The Problem: What Restrains Him?
I begin this exploration with a relatively provincial—but interesting—test question: Does the removal of the “restrainer” described in 2 Thessalonians 2:6–7 refer to the rapture of the church described in 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18?
Some understand the “restrainer” to refer to the Holy Spirit, as in John 16:7–8. Others refer it to the work of human government to restrain sin by its God-ordained system of punishment and reward (Rom 13:1–5). And still others apply it to the church’s spiritual restrain (Matt 16:18–19).
First, we must explore the historical background of the passage. Paul, Silas, and Timothy had gone to Thessalonica during the second missionary journey around AD 50 (Acts 17:1–14). He wrote 1 Thessalonians around AD 51, and between the first and second letters the church had become confused—either by verbal teaching or by a letter—that suggested that the Day of the Lord had already begun and the persecutions they were suffering were at the hand of the coming “man of sin.” Paul therefore wrote 2 Thessalonians to correct their thinking regarding the order of anticipated end time events.
In connection with the issue of the coming “man of lawlessness,” “apostasy,” and “restrainer,” Paul wrote to the Thessalonians: “Do you not remember that while I was still with you, I was telling you these things?” (2 Thess 2:5). Unfortunately, because he had shared it with them orally, he did not clarify his meaning for us later readers. Instead, he wrote, “And you know what restrains him now, so that in his time he will be revealed. 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. Then that lawless one will be revealed whom the Lord will slay with the breath of His mouth and bring to an end by the appearance of His coming.”
So the identity of the thing (or person) that restrains was already known to the Thessalonians, and was actually part of the first teaching about the faith they had received from Paul. This means that the order of end times events and the principle of the restrainer was important enough for Paul to share as part of his elementary teachings to new believers. We might assume, therefore, that Paul did the same for many of the other churches he planted. Therefore, because of the basic nature of Paul’s teaching regarding the end times and the restrainer, we would expect to see echoes of it in the early church.
I therefore pose the question: When we turn to the evidence from Bible foregrounds, which of the possibilities do we see emphasized in the early church—the restraining power of the Holy Spirit, of human government, of the church, or something else?
Bible Foregrounds: Who Knows What Restrains Him?
I should first point out that the early Christians did not see a real functional distinction between the God’s works through the Spirit and the means He uses to accomplish His purposes. So, whether we take the restrainer to be human government, the church, the conscience, or something else, ultimately God is the one who does the work through various means. To answer that the Holy Spirit restrains evil is ultimately correct, but what means of restraint was Paul describing in 2 Thessalonians 2? This leaves basically two common answer: human government or Christians (the church).
Human government as the Restrainer. In the early third century Tertullian gives us this following interpretation of the restrainer: “What is this but the Roman state, whose removal when it has been divided among ten kings will bring on Antichrist?” (On the Resurrection of the Flesh 24). This is the earliest clear interpretation of the passage as “human government.” Later in the third century, Chrysostom wrote that “some interpret this of the grace of the Spirit, but others of the Roman Empire, and this is my own preference. Why? Because, if Paul had meant the Spirit, he would have said so plainly and not obscurely, . . . but because he meant the Roman Empire, he naturally glanced at it, speaking covertly and darkly. . . . So . . . when the Roman Empire is out of the way, then he [Antichrist] will come” (Fourth Homily on 2 Thessalonians).
Thus, 150 years after Paul, there were already differences of opinion—the grace of the Spirit, or the Roman Empire. Tertullian and Chrysostom chose the latter, but acknowledged that there was some debate about the passage’s meaning coming out of the second century. In my study of second century literature, I have been unable to identify any clear development of the idea that human government holds back evil and the judgment of God, though some must have held this position for it to appear suddenly in the third century.
The Church as the Restrainer. If we back up to the first and second generation immediately following the apostles, however, the “foreground” looks a little different. Interestingly, in early writings we see clear examples of Christians who believed the church held back evil and that the presence of the church in the world stayed God’s hand of judgment.
Ignatius of Antioch, around AD 110, wrote: “Therefore make every effort to come together more frequently to give thanks and glory to God. For when you meet together frequently, the powers of Satan are overthrown and his destructiveness is nullified by the unanimity of your faith. There is nothing better than peace, by which all warfare among those in heaven and those on earth is abolished” (Ignatius, Letter to the Ephesians 13.1–2).
Justin Martyr, in the middle of the second century, wrote: “For the restraint which human laws could not bring about, the logos, being divine, would have brought about, save that the evil demons, with the help of the evil desire which is in every person and which expresses itself in various ways, had scattered abroad many false and godless accusations, none of which apply to us” (Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 10). Here Justin declared that human laws were, in fact, unable to restrain evil. However, the divine “Word”—the pre-incarnate Christ—worked as a force of good in the world. This force of good would ultimately manifest itself in God’s community, the church. Later, in 1 Apology 45, Justin noted: “And that God the Father of all would bring Christ to heaven after He had raised Him from the dead, and would keep [Him there] until He has subdued the demons who are His enemies, and until the number be completed of those who are foreknown by Him as good and virtuous, for whose sake He has not yet consummated His decree [of judgment]—hear what was said by David the prophet.” Justin believed that because of the presence of the virtuous Christians on earth, God withheld His judgment. Later Justin wrote against those who suggested that Christians should just kill themselves because they valued the afterlife so much: “If, then, we [Christians] all commit suicide, we will become the cause, as far as in us lies, why no one should be born, or instructed in the divine teachings, or even why the human race should not exist; and if we so act, we ourselves will be acting in opposition to the will of God” (2 Apology 4). Finally, in 2 Apology 7, Justin wrote, “Wherefore God delays causing the confusion and destruction of the whole world, by which the wicked angels and demons and people will no longer exist, because of the seed of the Christians, who know that they are the cause of preservation in nature.” Thus, in the apologetic writings of Justin Martyr, we see many instances in which he viewed the presence of the Christians as in some sense holding back evil and the coming judgment.
At about the same time, or perhaps a little later in the second century, we find an apologetic letter written to “Diognetus.” In that letter a similar thought prevails—Christians were the moral conscience and restrainer of evil in the world:
In a word, what the soul is to the body, Christians are to the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians throughout the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, but is not of the body; likewise Christians dwell in the world, but are not of the world. The soul, which is invisible, is confined in the body, which is visible; in the same way, Christians are recognized as being in the world, and yet their religion remains invisible. The flesh hates the soul and wages war against it, even though it has suffered no wrong, because it is hindered from indulging in its pleasures; so also the world hates the Christians, even though it has suffered no wrong, because they set themselves against its pleasures. The soul loves the flesh that hates it, and its members, and Christians love those who hate them. The soul is enclosed in the body, but it holds the body together; and though Christians are detained in the world as if in a prison, they in fact hold the world together. . . . Such is the important position to which God has appointed them, and it is not right for them to decline it. (Epistle to Diognetus 6.1–10)
Toward the end of the second century, Theophilus, bishop of Antioch, wrote to Autolycus:
For as the sea, if it had not had the influx and supply of the rivers and fountains to nourish it, would long since have been parched by reason of its saltiness; so also the world, if it had not had the law of God and the prophets flowing and welling up sweetness, and compassion, and righteousness, and the doctrine of the holy commandments of God, would long ere now have come to ruin, by reason of the wickedness and sin which abound in it. And as in the sea there are islands, some of them habitable, and well-watered, and fruitful, with havens and harbors in which the storm-tossed may find refuge, so God has given to the world which is driven and tempest-tossed by sins, assemblies—we mean holy churches—in which survive the doctrines of the truth, as in the island-harbors of good anchorage; and into these run those who desire to be saved, being lovers of the truth, and wishing to escape the wrath and judgment of God. (Theophilus, To Autolycus 2.14)
Conclusion: You Know What Restrains Him
The evidence throughout the second century indicates that many Christian teachers believed it was due to the church’s presence in the world that Satan’s full power was restrained, that the judgment was delayed, and that humanity was preserved. Thus, from the perspective of Bible foregrounds, the echoes of apostolic teaching confirm that the Holy Spirit working through the church is, in fact, the thing that restrains Satan from fully manifesting evil through the Antichrist. When the restraining presence of the church is removed, God will begin pouring out His judgment.
Those who hold to an actual future rapture of Christians as described in 1 Thessalonians 4:16–17 would therefore interpret the restrainer of evil described in 2 Thessalonians 2:6–7 as the presence of Christians in the world—a thought common to a number of writers of the first and second generations of Christians after the apostles. The removal of the Christian presence in the world would thus be equated with the removal of the church at the rapture.