Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things? And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed (2 Thes 2:5-8).
It seems like every time I post anything having to do with the restrainer, I get a bunch of questions about who or what the restrainer is, or as the NIV translates it “the one who now holds it (the secret power of lawlessness) back”. The word “restrainer” is a translation of the Greek word katecho (ka-te’-kho) which can also mean “to hold back” or “hinder”.
Down through the years there have been several different views on the identity of the restrainer. Some of the most popular have been the State of Israel, the Roman Empire, the general principle of law and government, the Archangel Michael, and the Holy Spirit.
The general idea of 2 Thes. 2:5-8 is that some force or being is preventing the full power of lawlessness from being released upon the Earth and will continue to do so until he is taken out of the way. From the context we know that this “power of lawlessness” will ultimately reside in the anti-Christ, called the man of lawlessness in 2 Thes. 2:3,8.
When speaking about the power holding the anti-Christ back in verse 6, the Greek word Paul used is in the neuter gender. But in verse 7 he used personal pronouns of the masculine gender to describe the one exercising the power. By this we conclude that whoever is restraining the appearance of the anti-Christ has to be a living entity, not a thing. And he has to be very powerful since according to verse 9 the anti-Christ’s appearance is a work of Satan.
Suddenly this living entity will be taken out of the place where the anti-Christ is trying to appear (Planet Earth), freeing him to make his appearance. And from that point on, the power of the anti-Christ will be unrestrained, allowing him to do Satan’s worst.
Some question whether the word “taken” in the phrase “taken out of the way” is an accurate translation of the Greek word “ginomai”. They correctly claim that the most common translation of ginomai in the Bible is “to be, or become”. But you have to put the word in the context of 2 Thes. 2:7 to understand where the restrainer is “to be”. The Greek words that follow ginomai are “ek”, which means “out of” and implies both time and place, and “mesos” which means “middle, or midst”.
Put the whole thought together and you see the restrainer has “to be out of the midst” of the time and place he’s currently in before the lawless one can be revealed. 400 years ago the King James translators decided that the English phrase “taken out of the way” while not a literal translation, best conveyed Paul’s intent. Most modern translations agree.
I think everyone wishes that Paul had simply disclosed who the restrainer is instead of just describing what He is doing. But notice what he did say.
Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things? And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time (2 Thes. 2:6).
He had obviously identified at least the restraining power, if not the restrainer himself, in a prior teaching. Otherwise he couldn’t have expected them to know about it/him. And if he knew he was writing to the entire Church (as I believe) and not just 1st Century Thessalonians, then we would expect to find the answer somewhere else in his letters to us. So let’s review our list of popular candidates; the State of Israel, the Roman Empire, the general principle of law and government, the Archangel Michael, and the Holy Spirit, and see if any of them qualify.
The State Of Israel
Paul knew Israel was in its last days, and would be absent for most of the Church Age. If he didn’t learn it from his time with the Lord in Arabia (Galatians 1:11-24) he certainly knew it from his attendance at the council in Jerusalem. There, James disclosed that Israel was being set aside until the Lord took from among the Gentiles a people for Himself (Acts 15:13-18). And Jesus said that when the anti-Christ makes his appearance many in Israel will accept him, thinking he’s the Messiah (Isaiah 28:15, John 5:43). Besides, Israel is a nation, not a being. For these reasons I would disqualify Israel as a candidate.
The Roman Empire
The Roman Empire is the candidate preferred by those who believe all end times prophecies were fulfilled by 70 AD. This is interesting to me because their candidate for the anti-Christ is the Roman Emperor Nero. So rather than restraining the man of lawlessness, the Roman Empire was responsible for bringing their anti-Christ to power, and rather than being taken out of the way so Nero could be revealed, they made him their leader. Many who believe in the future fulfillment of end times prophecies see this chain of events repeating itself with a revived Roman Empire and the real anti-Christ. Also, like Israel the Roman Empire was a political entity, not a being.
Law And Government
The general principle of law and government has been a restrainer of sorts by establishing rules for acceptable behavior among people. This is especially true in cases where legal systems have been based on Judeo-Christian principles. But as we are increasingly coming to realize, a system of law and government is powerless unless the subjects of the system are voluntarily obedient. And once again we don’t use masculine personal pronouns in reference to a system.
The Archangel Michael
That brings us to the Archangel Michael. In the Book of Daniel, Michael is seen as Israel’s protector (Daniel 10:21, 12:1). But Paul never spoke of him at all, and in the entire New Testament he’s only mentioned twice, once when he was disputing with Satan for the body of Moses (Jude 1:9), and once in his expulsion of Satan from Heaven just before the beginning of the Great Tribulation (Rev. 12:7-9).
According to Daniel 12:1 Michael will arise to protect the believing remnant of Israel at the same time. That means having just expelled Satan from heaven, Michael would have to rush to defend the remnant of Israel against him as Satan unleashes his full fury against God’s people on Earth (Rev. 12:13-17).
So here are the major problems I have seeing Michael as the restrainer. First, how could Paul have expected us to know he was referring to Michael as the restrainer if in all his writings he never once mentioned Michael in any context at all? If Paul had told the Thessalonians that Michael is the restrainer would he have failed to mention it in any of his letters? I don’t think so. And second, how could Michael stand aside to permit Satan’s power to be unleashed without restraint while at the same time standing up to protect Israel from the very thing he has just enabled Satan to let loose upon them. It doesn’t make sense to me.
The Holy Spirit
That leaves the Holy Spirit Himself and there happens to be Biblical precedent for both His restraining influence and His abrupt withdrawal before a world wide judgment. In support of His restraining influence, John 16:8 has the Lord saying the role of the Holy Spirit is to convict the world of guilt in regard to sin, and righteousness, and judgment. Notice the Lord didn’t say He would convict only believers, but the world, believers or not. The Greek word John used there is “kosmos”, which means the whole world.
Just as everyone intuitively knows there’s a God (Romans 1:18-20), everyone intuitively knows right from wrong. Paul said even those who don’t have the law will do things the law requires by nature because the requirements of the law are written on our hearts, and our consciences will accuse or defend our actions accordingly (Romans 2:14-15). I believe the “guilty conscience” that even unbelievers experience when they do wrong is the Holy Spirit convicting them in regard to sin, righteousness, and judgment. Throughout the Church Age this conviction has been a major restraining force against evil in the world.
In 1 Tim. 4:1-2 Paul wrote, “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron.” (In Paul’s time applying a fire-heated piece of metal to a wound was an accepted way to help stop the bleeding and close the wound. It’s called cauterization, an extremely painful process that left a hideous scar.)
This tells us the current trend of making good appear to be evil and vice versa is a sign that the end is near. Hypocritical liars from inside and outside the church have been causing a gigantic paradigm shift in the world. They intuitively know the things they are trying to teach us are wrong and the conviction of the Holy Spirit has wounded their consciences. By repeatedly suppressing the guilt they feel they’ve effectively “cauterized” their consciences to close the wound. This has left their consciences hideously scarred, but allows them to continue spreading their lies without feeling the guilt.
In the process they’ve also destroyed their powers of discernment which means that each succeeding lie is easier to accept and repeat than the one before it. We’ve seen the proof of this as things our parents’ generation would have abhorred are now being celebrated in ours.
As for the Holy Spirit being temporarily taken out of the way, Genesis 6:1-3 tells of the time before the Great Flood when certain angels rebelled against God, exchanged their angelic form for human form and began having children with human women. Genesis 6:4 calls these children the Nephilim. They apparently had incredible skills and abilities and eventually led the whole world astray. Before long the entire creation had been irreparably corrupted.
Then the Lord said, “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years” (Genesis 6:3)
Noah and his family had not been genetically corrupted by this hybrid invasion. The Lord commissioned him and his sons to build an ark to preserve themselves, their wives, and selected animals and 120 years after His pronouncement He destroyed the whole world in the Great Flood.
The Hebrew word translated “contend” in Genesis 6:3 means “to act as a judge”. In other words the role of the Holy Spirit in pre-flood times was to convict the world of guilt in regard to sin, and righteousness, and judgment just like He’s doing in our time (John 16:8). And before the flood God said there would come a time when His Spirit would step aside and allow a time of judgment to proceed, just like Paul said the restrainer would do at the end of the age.
So The Holy Spirit has been holding back the secret power of lawlessness and will continue to do so until He is taken out of the way. All things considered, I believe the Bible makes a compelling case in support of the Holy Spirit being the restrainer Paul spoke of in 2nd Thessalonians.