In the Temple and the Church’s Mission G. K. Beale deals with 2 Thessalonians 2:4. The passage talks about a “man of lawlessness” who,
opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, and as a result he takes his seat in God’s temple, displaying himself as God (NET Bible).
Beale comes at this passage from a very different perspective than I do. First, he assumes that this is a prophecy that must be fulfilled at some time still future. Many who hold this futurist perspective believe that the Jews will rebuild the Temple in the end times. Only so could the antichrist literally take a seat in it.
Beale disagrees with this idea. He argues that the temple Paul speaks of is spiritual–the church. He still puts these events in a future end time. But the apostasy or rebellion will be in the church and the antichrist will lure the church away from true adherence to Christ. This is in line with his contention in this book that in the New Testament the church is the temple now.
The antichrist taking a seat in the temple is metaphorical like the scribes and pharisees sitting in the seat of Moses (Matthew 23:2).
This point of view has a history within Protestant interpretation. Calvin thought the apostasy of 2 Thessalonians 2 pointed to the papacy–in other words, the church now dominated by errant teaching and practice. Many followed him. Beale does not go this way. He has a futurist, not a historical, eschatology. Only forerunners to the antichrist have manifested themselves yet (1 John 2:18 ff.).
Second, he assumes that Paul’s thought about the future coheres within all the writings attributed to Paul (also with 1 John and Revelation). So he systematizes Paul’s thought. To be sure, he says this occurs within a progressive revelation. He means that there were partial historical fulfillments of the antichrist theme first introduced in Daniel. Antiochus Epiphanes was a partial fulfillment. The Romans were a partial fulfillment. But Paul, he thinks, consistently goes beyond this to a complete fulfillment in a future end time. This fulfillment will not involve Israel. It will involve a spiritual falling away of the church.
I am not sure I know what Paul is talking about in 2 Thessalonians 2. Beale admits that there are many interpretations. He says there are 7 different interpretations of the one who is restraining the antichrist. It is an obscure passage. So I just offer a few observation to show why I am not convinced by Beale’s treatment.
*Paul does not use the term “antichrist”. First John’s use of the term probably refers to something like the ideas of 2 Thessalonians 2. But it may refer to a much more developed scenario than what Paul held.
*Paul’s eschatology looks to me like it developed over time. Second Thessalonians was his earliest, or one of his earliest, letters. He does not mention these ideas in any of his other letters. We know that his early view that the appearance of Christ and the resurrection would happen during his own lifetime changed.
*Paul addresses a problem in Thessalonica in around 49-50 C.E. Someone was proclaiming that in some spiritual or abstract way Jesus has already returned. Before the return of Christ can happen, Paul seems to claim, a “lawless one” must arise. This one who exalts himself will appear in the Temple and desecrate it (2:4). Note that the church had received a letter from someone pretending to be Paul or Silas (first century identity theft) that contained this teaching (2:2).
*The emperor Caligula in 40 C.E. had sought to set up an image of himself in the Jerusalem temple. Beale never mentions this. But it seems to me that the problem in Thessalonica probably stemmed from the preaching of some prophets (Silas?) that this was the fulfillment of Daniel. How could those who had heard that message make sense of the fact that it had not really happened. The prophecies must have been fulfilled. So Christ must have returned in some spiritual way. Maybe Paul taught that something had miraculously restrained Caligula–caused him to be assassinated in a nick of time. For obvious political reasons, Paul had to mention this idea in a cryptic way.
*Prophesies in the Bible are not ironclad. God does not have to literally fulfill them. Huldah’s prophecy that King Josiah would die in peace (2 Kings 22:20) comes to mind. In fact, Josiah was killed in battle.
*If you insist on finding a literal fulfillment of Paul’s lawless one, the best candidate would be the general (later emperor) Titus. He seems to have thought he was actually destroying Judaism and its Torah by sacking the Temple and killing the men of Jerusalem. The “lawless one” indeed!
*The idea that Paul was addressing a present problem in a particular church by telling them what was going to happen in an end time thousands of years later seems questionable.