The apostle Paul warned his beloved Thessalonian brethren against being “soon shaken in mind”¹ by a counterfeit letter that had evidently made its rounds and had served to trouble them and to eclipse their hope in Christ. That letter may have been the catalyst for their distress, but Paul warned against giving heed to any deceiving “spirit” or spoken “word” as well, for the enemy of their souls and ours uses any and all means to lead those who have confessed Christ away from the hope of the gospel (Colossians 1:23). He then instructs the assembly in Thessalonica what must take place in order for the development of evil to the point of an irreversible “critical mass”, which will bring the wrath of God upon this world. What is only briefly mentioned here is the restraining power of the Spirit of God in the church of God, who will be taken “out of the way” at the rapture of the church to heaven.
Let not any one deceive you in any manner, because it will not be unless the apostasy have first come, and the man of sin have been revealed, the son of perdition; who opposes and exalts himself on high against all called God, or object of veneration; so that he himself sits down in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God . . . And now ye know that which restrains, that he should be revealed in his own time. For the mystery of lawlessness already works; only there is he who restrains now until he be gone, and then the lawless one shall be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus shall consume with the breath of his mouth, and shall annul by the appearing of his coming; whose coming is according to the working of Satan in all power and signs and wonders of falsehood, and in all deceit of unrighteousness to them that perish, because they have not received the love of the truth that they might be saved. (II Thessalonians 2:3-10, Darby translation)
The Thessalonians had allowed their hope in Christ and coming glory with Him to be dimmed to a degree because of the coordinated work of the devil. We have the same tendencies to be affected by outside influences and forces, whether material or spiritual, which can be manipulated by our spiritual enemy to dim our hope, or perhaps more particularly, to dim our enjoyment of “Christ Jesus our hope” (I Timothy 1:1, Darby translation).
Now, if the mystery of iniquity (lawlessness) was active in the days of the apostles, we may conclude that it is surely at work at the present time as well. What are the signs or the evidences of that mystery working in our day? Are they only that which our sensitivities may find to be explicitly immoral or repulsive? Does Paul mean by declaring the mystery of lawlessness to be already at work that there are and will be many individuals who commit sinful acts? This could hardly be the full force of the Spirit’s meaning here, and the context seems to suggest more than that. I believe the scripture here is referring to a coordinated effort by demonic agents who work through men, often in crowds and through conspiracies, to achieve their destructive ends. They succeed in their diabolical efforts only to the extent that God allows it at this time, for His restraining power (by His Spirit in the church) is able to blunt or defuse the effectiveness of their work.
Let us think for a moment on the kinds of activity that Paul noticed in the span of his ministry that were of the character of the mystery of lawlessness. In Acts 12, we find Herod killing James the brother of John and imprisoning Peter because the mass of the Jews had continued on for years already in their hatred for Christ and His messengers. But that chapter ends with Herod’s terrible death as a judgment from the Lord, because he gladly received deifying adulation from the frenzied crowd of Tyrians and Sidonians. No doubt it was demonic influence that brought forth the idolatrous shout: “It is the voice of a God, and not a man!”
In Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas preached the gospel and healed a crippled man before the heathen in the town of Lystra, and were immediately treated as gods by the gathering crowd, who wanted to offer sacrifices to them. This brings to mind Paul’s word much later to the Corinthians: “The things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils (demons), and not to God” (I Corinthians 10:20). The herd mentality that worked among these heathen was of a demonic character, instigated by Satan in order to blunt or render ineffective (if he could) the testimony of God’s grace toward the ignorant, lawless natives.
The Ephesian mob that assaulted Paul and his companions in Acts 19 was of the same demonic nature, but it manifested quite differently, being first covetous and then murderous in its unfolding. The end goal of Satan’s activity will always be to destroy God’s work, if it were possible, and saints must be exercised to discern the ways the enemy moves, not only in individuals, but in crowds, whether physically gathered or virtually connected.
The Jewish mob at the temple in Acts 21, who would have rid themselves of Paul, and the conspiracy of the 40 would-be killers of Paul who bound themselves in vain by an oath in chapter 23, are further evidence of what Paul already called the “mystery of lawlessness” in one of his earliest epistles.
Should we think it strange that the great deceiver would use the natural human instincts of pride and self-preservation, along with man’s inclination to worship (which usually results in deification of the creature), for his devious and destructive purposes? Or that he would exploit man’s fleshly tendencies, manipulating the populace with partial truths spread across the modern world at lightning speed, in order to bring about signal change in the psyche of earth-dwellers,² preparing them to accept even greater error and bondage in time to come?
We have noticed in this article a couple of things that can spread quickly through groups of people, large or small. Fear or panicked frenzy in a crowd or a mob is the result of a self-preserving instinct not checked by faith and “hope in a living God, who is preserver of all men, specially of those that believe” (I Timothy 4:10). The worship or deification of men by the masses may not yet be acceptable in Western civilization, but undue and unchecked adoration of the powerful and wise and famous is a precursor of that idolatry, until such a time that all restraint of evil is removed. Then “the man of sin” will be revealed, and all the world will worship him.
“Ye have not received a spirit of bondage again for fear” (Romans 8:15), and “Children, keep yourselves from idols” (I John 5:21), were written as exhortations to Christians at a time when the activity of Satan was perhaps more apparent to believers than it is in our day. But let us be “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves”, and put to practice now more than ever this exhortation:³ “Be vigilant; stand fast in the faith; quit yourselves like men; be strong.”
¹ II Thessalonians 2:2; Darby translation note: shaken “from a steady and soberly judging mind”
² Revelation 3:10, etc.
³ Matthew 10:16; I Corinthians 16:13