In one of his several communications with the church at Thessalonica, Paul informed them that they already knew what was holding back “that man of sin,” “the son of perdition,” “that Wicked” one, even “him, whose coming is after the working of Satan” (2 Thessalonians 2:3, 8-9). We note that in his admonition to them, he said someone or something was holding him back, and would eventually be taken out of the way, so that the Wicked one could be seen plainly for who he was:
“And now ye know what withholdeth [κατέχον] that he might be revealed in his time. … only he who now letteth [κατέχων] will let, until he be taken out of the way. And then shall that Wicked be revealed …” (2 Thessalonians 2:6-8).
Paul’s language here has left not a few commentaries wondering as to his meaning, not least because Paul does not identify the restraining power which is described both as a “thing” and a “person.” Heinrich Meyer, in his New Testament Commentary, observes,
“The restraining power, on which Paul thought, must accordingly have been so constituted that it can be brought under a twofold form of description, and be represented both as a thing and as a person.” (Meyer, Heinrich, Critical and Exegetical Hand-book to the New Testament, Volume 8 (Funk & Wagnalls, 1885) 601-2)
Albert Barnes, in his Notes on the Bible makes a similar observation about the two references to the restraining power in verses 6 and 7—namely that he “is not quite certain” which power it was that operated as a check against “growing corruptions”:
“There can be no doubt that there is reference to the same restraining power, or the same power under the control of an individual; but what that was, is not quite certain. It was some power which operated as a check on the growing corruptions then existing, and which prevented their full development, but which was to be removed at no distant period, and whose removal would give an opportunity for these corruptions to develop themselves, and for the full revelation of the man of sin.” (Albert Barnes, Notes on the New Testament, 2 Thessalonians 2:7).
Many commentaries—even those that see Papal Rome as that “man of sin”—understand “what withholdeth [κατέχον]” and “he who now letteth [κατέχων] … until he be taken out of the way” (2 Thessalonians 2:6-7) to be a reference to the Roman Empire. Under that interpretation, Antichrist is not made manifest until the Roman Empire is gone. Then, when the Roman Empire is “taken out of the way,” Papal Roman Catholicism is able to emerge. That traditional interpretation, of course, pushes the rise of Antichrist well into, or even beyond, the 5th century, after the last Roman Emperor.
Meyer objected to that tradition: “To make ὁ κατέχων denote the ruling power is … contrary to the context” (Meyer, 602). Meyer by no means represents a majority opinion on this, but we agree with him nonetheless, not only because the context of 2 Thessalonians 2 does not lend itself to such an interpretation, but also because Daniel rules it out as well.
According to Daniel’s warning, the Little Horn was to arise during, not after, the Roman Empire. To be sure, the Little Horn arose among the fragments of Rome, but those fragments were still the remnants of the Roman Empire even in its fragmented state. This can be seen when Daniel 2 and Daniel 7 are aligned with their respective historical periods in Figure 1, below.
From Legs to Toes, or from Body to Horns, the fourth beast was still an Empire and was still quintessentially Roman. As we showed in The Rise of Roman Catholicism, A See of One and The Fourteenth Diocese, the Roman Empire was not “taken out of the way” to make it possible for the Little Horn to be revealed. The Little Horn was revealed, and then took over the Roman Empire, which was still very much in existence at the time of the Little Horn’s rise. The Scriptures are consistent on this. Daniel, for example, sees the rise of the arrogant Little Horn taking place prior to the destruction of the body of the Fourth Beast:
“I beheld then because of the voice of the great words which the horn spake: I beheld even till the beast was slain, and his body destroyed, and given to the burning flame.” (Daniel 7:11).
Thus, the Little Horn arises while the body of the Fourth Beast—the Roman Empire—is still in existence. The body would eventually be destroyed, leaving only the remaining horns to align with the Little Horn and “give their power and strength” to him (Revelation 17:12-13). But at the time that the Little Horn came up, the fourth Empire was still “partly strong,” even if it was also “partly broken” (Daniel 2:42).
It is clear therefore that the Man of Sin is revealed before the Roman Empire is completely removed, and therefore before the Roman Empire is “taken out of the way.” By way of illustration, we observe that Emperor Theodosius I’s decree, De Fide Catholica (380 A.D.), claiming that Pope Damasus I was the new Pontifex of the state religion, hardly qualifies as a “restraint” against Papal ambition. Far from restraining the Little Horn, the Roman Empire voluntarily transferred its titles and infrastructure to Roman Catholicism and encouraged its rise.
Thus, the Roman Empire simply cannot be “he who now letteth [κατέχων]” (2 Thessalonians 2:6-7). It would hardly be consistent for the Little Horn to rise up, and speak “great words,” and for the whole world to wonder after him before “the [fourth] beast was slain,” and yet at the same time to be concealed by that same Fourth Beast until it be “taken out of the way.”
Who then might the Restrainer be? To ask the question using Albert Barnes’ phraseology, who “operated as a check on the growing corruptions then existing, and prevented their full development”?
The answer is quite simple: the Church.
The Church served as that restraint against the mystery of iniquity, just the apostles instructed its bishops and elders to do. Then, when the time appointed for Antichrist came and for the whole world to succumb to his errors, the Church was to be taken out of the way. That is, the church was to be “given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness” (Revelation 12:14). It is the Church that restrained the mystery of lawlessness, and then it was the Church that was “taken out of the way” to its place of safety in the wilderness. Notably, the Church is described by Paul not only as a thing, but also as person, “a perfect man,” the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12-13), consistent with Paul’s description of that restraining power in 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7.
In his second epistle to them, Paul reminds the Corinthians of their assets for protecting against error, among which possessions he includes a full complement of defensive weapons in full battle array:
“pureness, … knowledge, … longsuffering, … kindness, … the Holy Ghost, … love unfeigned, … the word of truth, … the power of God, … the armour of righteousness on the right hand and on the left.” (2 Corinthians 6:6-7)
Notably, having reminded them of their defensive armor, Paul then instructs the Corinthians that they have been so equipped for a purpose, lest the temple of God be profaned by idolaters:
“Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (2 Corinthians 6:14-16)
We find this usage significant because after Paul reminds the Thessalonians that he has already informed them “what withholdeth” (2 Thessalonians 2:6), he warns them that the Wicked one will sit “in the temple of God” (2 Thessalonians 2:4), which is to say, within the Church (2 Corinthians 6;16, Ephesians 2:21, 1 Peter 2:5). It is the duty of the Church to maintain and defend the purity of “the temple of the living God.”
On a similar note, in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul had also said that the enemies of the Church would arise from within:
“I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.” (Acts 20:29-30).
Paul registered a heartfelt plea with the Corinthians that they not be “beguiled” by “false apostles” (2 Corinthians 3:13). Peter, too, issued the same warning, that “there shall be false teachers among you” and will “make merchandise of you” (2 Peter 2:1,3). As a defense against those teachers, Peter wrote his epistle specifically to “stir up your pure minds by way of remembrance: That ye may be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets” (2 Peter 3:1-2). Paul had warned the Ephesian elders at Miletus of the internal threat, and he commended them to the protection of God and “the word of His grace” (Acts 20:32). The Ephesians must have heeded Paul well, for Jesus Himself commended them for resisting the false apostles, just as they had been trained to do (Revelation 2:2).
Based on these apostolic warnings that wolves and false teachers would arise “among you … of your own selves,” would “draw away disciples after them,” and “make merchandise of you”—the very thing the Wicked one would attempt to do as he sits in the very temple of God—Paul’s language in 2 Thessalonians 2:7 is taken to mean that “the mystery of iniquity doth already work” inwardly, from within the Church.
This had been evident since Peter first insisted that Christ must not go to the Cross (Matthew 16:23), since Paul had to withstand Peter “to the face” (Galatians 2:11), since the disciples first wondered who among them would be greatest (Luke 22:24), and since Diotrephes “loveth to have the preeminence among them” (3 John 9), and since John had to correct Diotrephes’ error of excommunicating the brethren (3 John 10). The mystery of iniquity was already at work from within, and the Wicked one would finally be revealed when there came a worldwide “falling away” (2 Thessalonians 2:3, Revelation 13:3), and when the restraining Church would be “taken out of the way” to her place of refuge (2 Thessalonians 2:7; Revelation 12:14).
Because there cannot be a “falling away” except from within, the mystery of iniquity was an internal phenomenon, already at work, trying “to seduce, if it were possible, even the elect” (Mark 13:22). Thus, although Albert Barnes could not identify the restraining power “which operated as a check on the growing corruptions then existing,” his summary of its effects appears to be an apt description of the Church when corrupting influences continue to manifest from within.
What was the Church to do when the inevitable happened, when internal errors became so pervasive that professing Christians everywhere were succumbing to error? The answer was obvious. Per Paul’s instructions, they were to “come out from among them, and be ye separate” (2 Corinthians 6:17). Soon, “all the world” would wonder after the Wicked one (Revelation 13:3), for the Devil “which deceiveth the whole world” had been cast down to earth (Revelation 12:9). But the Church would of necessity have to withdraw “from among them,” lest the true temple of God be profaned by the Wicked one’s arrogance, idolatry and error, and the world’s universal reception of it.
This idea of the Church withdrawing from the overwhelming propagation of error is suggested by Paul’s language in 2 Thessalonians 2:7. “He that [restraineth]” the Wicked one will not just be “taken out of the way” as is typically translated, but rather “taken out of the midst (μέσου).” Everyone else would fall into error, but the remnant Church would be protected from the “strong delusion” that enveloped the world (2 Thessalonians 2:11). The mystery of iniquity would arise from within the Church, as we noted, and Church would restrain that mystery of iniquity for the allotted time. But when the appointed time came, and the “falling away” manifested, the Church would be taken “out of the midst,” the time of her ministry of resistance completed, allowing the Wicked one finally to be manifested for who he truly was. Accordingly, in Revelation it is just when the serpent unleashes a flood in order to try to cause the Church “to be carried away,” and grants to the beast “his power, and his seat, and great authority” (Revelation 13:3), that the Church is taken away to a place of safety (Revelation 12:13). Her removal was to coincide with the Beast’s rise, Satan’s flood of error, and the “strong delusion, that they should believe a lie” (2 Thessalonians 2:11). Lest the elect, too, be carried away of the flood and join in the apostasy, the Woman was provided with wings to flee to her place of safety.
It was also at that time that “the earth helped the woman” and “opened her mouth, and swallowed up the flood” (Revelation 12:16). The “earth” coming to the aid of God’s people to “swallow up” that which threatens them is the language of Moses, language he used to describe how God preserved His people from persecutors (Exodus 15:12-13), and protected them from apostates (Numbers 16:32, 26:10, Deuteronomy 11:6, Psalms 106:17), guiding them to safety on their flight from Egypt. John resurrects that language and applies it again when it is time for God’s people to flee from the great apostasy.
Thus, it was the Church that “withholdeth” and “now letteth,” and it was the Church that would be taken out of the way, so that the Man of Sin would be revealed.
Those who followed our series, The Visible Apostolicity of the Invisibly Shepherded Church, will recall that the Church served in just such a restraining capacity for the first three hundred years of the sub-apostolic era. The Bishop of Rome had repeatedly attempted to rise up to rule over his brethren, and he was repeatedly corrected. Not a few times was he subjected to the ridicule, indignation and astonishment of the surrounding churches. The apostolic churches had witnessed pride, arrogance, obstinacy, wickedness, madness, heresy, “contumacious discord,” presumptuousness, error and a conspicuously inflated sense of importance flow out of Rome for three hundred years, and for three hundred years, the Roman episcopate had been kept in check by the surrounding churches. The Bishop of Rome had on many occasions attempted to claim and assert primacy, and for three hundred years, peals of laughter echoed back at him from three continents. His claims were consistently rebuffed and dismissed as the ravings of an inflated ego with a propensity to think above its station. It was by this means that the church restrained the mystery of iniquity.
By way of a refresher, we will revisit some of the highlights of the first three hundred years of Roman ambition. We recall that the Shepherd of Hermas believed that it was Michael, not the Bishop of Rome, “who has authority over this people, and governs them” from heaven (The Shepherd of Hermas, Book III, Similtude 8, chapter 3). Likewise, Mathetes thought it was unconscionable for one man to seek the supremacy over his brethren:
“For it is not by ruling over his neighbours, or by seeking to hold the supremacy over those that are weaker, or by being rich, and showing violence towards those that are inferior, that happiness is found; nor can any one by these things become an imitator of God.” (The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, chapter 10)
It simply did not occur to the early church to have a supreme bishop ruling over them, except from Heaven.
When “pope” Victor attempted to force all churches to obey his mandate on the date of Passover, Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus, told Victor that his opinions carried no weight outside of Rome. Here Polycrates responds with Petrine fortitude, explaining that the churches of Asia were unmoved by Victor’s impudent tone:
“I … have gone through every Holy Scripture, am not affrighted by terrifying words. For those greater than I have said ‘We ought to obey God rather than man.’ [Acts 5:29]” (Eusebius, Church History, Book V, chapter 24, paragraph 3).
For his presumptuous error, Victor earned a sharp rebuke from Irenæaus and other bishops on every side, even from those who agreed with his dating of Passover:
“But this did not please all the bishops. And they besought him to consider the things of peace, and of neighborly unity and love. Words of theirs are extant, sharply rebuking Victor. Among them was Irenæus…” (Eusebius, Church History, Book V, chapter 24, paragraphs 9-11)
Irenæaus went on to explain that there was no Scriptural mandate that any bishop could impose on the matter, and that various churches had “formed a custom for their posterity according to their own simplicity and peculiar mode” (Eusebius, Church History, Book V, chapter 24, paragraph13). They were to be left to themselves in the spirit of Romans 14:5, “One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.”
Later, it was Tertullian who reported that the bishop of Rome had collaborated in importing heresy “into Rome from Asia,” and only under pressure did he ultimately rescind the letters he had written in support of it (Tertullian, Against Praxeas, chapter 1). When a certain Roman bishop claimed that the Church had the power to forgive sins, Tertullian mocked him for “subverting and wholly changing the manifest intention of the Lord,” derogated him as a “Pontifex Maximus” for his presumption to issue an imperial decree, reminding him that the duty of the bishop was “presiding not imperially, but ministerially” (Tertullian, On Modesty, chapter 21).
It is at this time that Origen derided the base carnality of the Jews for thinking to rule the nations from a chief earthly metropolis:
“[I]magining to themselves that the earthly city of Jerusalem is to be rebuilt” and “that the natives of other countries are to be given them as the ministers of their pleasures, … [and] that they are to receive the wealth of the nations to live on, and that they will have control over their riches;” (Origen, De Principiis, Book II, Chapter 11, paragraph 2)
To the contrary, Origen insisted, “those cities which are said to belong to the nation of Israel have the heavenly Jerusalem as their metropolis” (Origen, De Principiis, Book IV, chapter 22), not an earthly one. The idea of a chief earthly metropolis was repugnant to him.
Back in Rome we find Hippolytus quite animated in his criticism of the shamefully corrupt and conniving heretics occupying the bishopric there. The responsibility of the Roman Bishop to administer “the affairs of the Church” was only a figment of “pope” Zephyrinus’ uninformed imagination, and Hippolytus refused to align himself either with Zephyrinus or “pope” Callistus after him. Instead, Hipplytus complained that these two were constantly advancing heretical views, “but we have frequently … refuted them, and have forced them reluctantly to acknowledge the truth,” only to find them repeatedly wallowing in “the same mire” again (Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, Book IX, chapter II).
Church historian, Eusebius, describes the administration of “pope” Zephyrinus as a period during which “the truth had been corrupted” (Eusebius, Church History, Book V, chapter 28, paragraph 3). On this same account we find Irenæaus—already obliged to travel to Rome from Gaul to correct the Montanist heresy that was thriving under the blessing of “pope” Eleutherus—also reminding his audience that Polycarp, too, was moved to come to Rome from Smyrna to correct the heresies then prospering under “pope” Anicetus’ watchful eye (Irenæus,Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 3, paragraph 4).
We find that Cyprian, too, knew very well that Peter had never “claim[ed] anything to himself insolently, nor arrogantly … as to say that he held the primacy” (Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 70, paragraph 3). “Pope” Stephen, by way of contrast, was now channeling the spirit of Victor and Diotrephes, siding with heretics against believers:
“Does he give glory to God, who, a friend of heretics and an enemy to Christians, thinks that the priests of God, who support the truth of Christ and the unity of the Church, are to be excommunicated?” (Cyprian, Epistle 73, paragraph 8)
Here Cyprian points out “pope” Stephen’s “error in endeavouring to maintain the cause of heretics against Christians” (Cyprian, Epistle 73, paragraph 1), and complaining that “pope” Stephen was “forgetful of unity,” and had adopted “lies” and “contagion” instead (paragraph 2). Further, “pope” Stephen had demonstrated “obstinacy” and “presumption” by preferring “human tradition to divine ordinance” (paragraph 3), and, what is more, his “blindness of soul” and “degradation of faith” had caused him “to refuse to recognize the unity” (paragraph 4). Things would not go well for Stephen on the day of judgment because he “does not hold the unity and truth that arise from the divine law, but maintains heresies against the Church” (paragraph 8).
Writing “to his brother Pompeius” against “pope” Stephen, Cyprian insisted that it was Stephen who was now originating heresy and lacerating and laying waste Christ’s flock, and thus it was time for the rest of the churches to step up. Stephen’s haughty, unskilled, contradictory and erroneous encyclical (Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 73, paragraph 1), required the rest of the bishops to pull rank on him and invoke their own Petrine authority to put him in his place. We note that Cyprian invokes “Peter himself” in his explanation of why it was necessary to separate from the bishop of Rome (Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 73, paragraph 11).
To this, Firmilian, bishop of Cæsarea, responded in full agreement, complaining that “they who are at Rome … vainly pretend the authority of the apostles.” Firmilian’s complaint highlights in particular “pope” Stephen’s “audacity and pride” and “the things that he has wickedly done,” and includes thanks to Cyprian because he had “settled this matter” of an upstart bishop thinking more highly of himself than he ought (Cyprian of Carthage, Letter 74, From Firmilian, Against the Letter of Stephen, paragraphs 3 & 6).
But Firmilian was not even close to being finished as he excoriated the galactic failure of Stephen to conduct himself in a manner becoming of a bishop in Christ’s church. In his response to Cyprian, Stephen of Rome had called him a false Christ, a false apostle and a worker of deceit, and Firmilian had had the temerity to turn those appellations right back on “pope” Stephen himself:
“And yet Stephen is not ashamed to afford patronage to such in opposition to the Church, and for the sake of maintaining heretics to divide the brotherhood and in addition, to call Cyprian ‘a false Christ and a false apostle, and a deceitful worker.’ And he, conscious that all these characters are in himself, has been in advance of you, by falsely objecting to another those things which he himself ought deservedly to hear.” (Cyprian of Carthage, Letter 74, (from Firmilian), paragraph 27)
On account of this propensity for bishops, particularly the one residing in Rome, to interfere in each other’s territories, even as late as 380 A.D. at the council of Constantinople, the bishops were insisting that each man manage the affairs of his own diocese alone, and stop confusing the churches by their incessant meddling:
“Diocesan bishops are not to intrude in churches beyond their own boundaries nor are they to confuse the churches: … Unless invited bishops are not to go outside their diocese to perform an ordination or any other ecclesiastical business. If the letter of the canon about dioceses is kept, it is clear that the provincial synod will manage affairs in each province, as was decreed at Nicaea.” (Council of Constantinople, Canon 2)
Indeed, after centuries of pride, arrogance, overreach and error, the bishops of the world were frankly tired of the many of bishops in Rome who maintained heretics (as Eleutherus had), meddled in the affairs of other episcopates (as Victor had), and attempted to impose their will on their neighbors (as Stephen had).
For three hundred years the Roman episcopate had irritated the surrounding churches with her obstinacy and impudence, arrogance and pride, had propagated error, rashly excommunicated her brethren without cause, and was in frequent need of support, correction, instruction and rebuke, presuming to forgive sins and preside imperially from an earthly metropolis. For three hundred years, the alleged “primacy” of the Roman episcopate was unknown to the Early Church. Rather, it was an episcopate that had so polarized the body of Christ as to be a cause of factiousness, schism and error instead of a guardian of unity and peace between the brethren. In spite of, not because of, that episcopate, the rest of the churches managed to enjoy unity within the body. The early church saw any desire for a chief earthly metropolis to be more suited to the base carnality of the Jews than to the heavenly ambition of Christ’s church, and stood aghast at Rome’s persistent carnality and obstinacy. In short, for three centuries, the Church resisted that mystery of iniquity.
And then—seemingly out of nowhere—Rome finally got her wish. As Pope Damasus claimed at a council in 382 A.D., “the holy Roman church is given first place by the rest of the churches without [the need for] a synodical decision” (Council of Rome, III.1). It was, of course, a novelty of his own imagination. For three hundred years the Church had consistently restrained such lawlessness, and succeeded in keeping Rome at bay.
It is at this time in history that we see the Empire of Rome finally divided into thirteen dioceses, Roman Catholicism claiming three of them as her own (Italy, Egypt and Oriens), subduing three metropoli in the process (Milan, Alexandria and Antioch), and rising up to rule over the remaining ten, as we showed in The Fourteenth Diocese. It is also during this period that we see Roman Catholic errors rising and spreading throughout the world like a flood, as we showed in The Rise of Roman Catholicism and Longing for Nicæa. At the very same time, we see the remnant “taken out of the midst” of the rising apostasy and removed to her place of safety in the wilderness, protected there “from the face of the serpent” (Revelation 12:14). It is the Church that resisted the mystery of iniquity, and when the great apostasy finally came and Roman Catholicism arose to rule the known world, the true Church was taken out of the midst and removed to her place of refuge, just as John and Paul had prophesied.
We will continue on this theme in following posts, but we will conclude this week with Albert Barnes’ uncannily accurate description of a phenomenon of iniquity that “doth already work,” and the restraining power that held it back. Barnes could not pinpoint the specific iniquity, and could only guess as to its substance. About that “mystery of iniquity,” he wrote,
“Any secret sources of iniquity in the church—anything that tended to corrupt its doctrines, and to destroy the simplicity of the faith of the gospel, would correspond with the meaning of the word. … In his own time, [Paul] says, there were things which, if not restrained, would expand and ripen into that apostasy.”
As to that restraining power, Barnes could not identify it, but could only surmise the benefits of it resistive force and the calamitous effects of its removal. He continued,
“[B]ut what that [power] was, is not quite certain. It was some power which operated as a check on the growing corruptions then existing, and which prevented their full development, but which was to be removed at no distant period, and whose removal would give an opportunity for these corruptions to develop themselves, and for the full revelation of the man of sin.” (Albert Barnes, Notes on the New Testament, 2 Thessalonians 2:7)
There is hardly a better description of the Church in this role and in this period than what Barnes has written: The church was that “power which operated as a check on the growing corruptions then existing, and which prevented their full development, but which was to be removed at no distant period.” The true Church was removed to her place of safety, leaving Antichrist Roman Catholicism to rule the known world, a diabolical imposter claiming to be the very Church of God.
But if the true Church “was to be removed at no distant period” so that the Man of Sin could be revealed, where did the Church go? Where was her place of refuge? Where was the Bride of Christ all those 1,260 years that Roman Catholicism ruled arrogantly from Rome, falsely claiming to be the Church?
Very good questions, indeed.