As we saw in our last signpost, the false report informing the Thessalonians that the day of the Lord had already begun put these new believers in a state of severe panic (see signpost #6). In response, Paul assured them this was not the case and then provided evidence to back up his assertion.
This brings us to the next word on our signposts: “Restrainer.” Why is this word so significant? A key event at the start of the tribulation, the revealing of the antichrist, cannot happen until God removes this “restrainer” who is currently holding back his unveiling to the world.
In 2 Thessalonians 2:3 Paul writes, “Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction.” The apostle later identifies the “restrainer” as the one preventing the revealing of this “man of lawlessness,” the antichrist (2:7-8).
The Identity of the “restrainer” is the key to understanding the events of 2 Thessalonians 2:3 that tell us the day of the Lord has not yet begun, starting with the departure.
As I explained in a previous post, the word “rebellion” in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 can either refer to a physical departure or that of leaving the true biblical faith. As Dr. Andy Woods explains in his book, The Falling Away, the Greek word “apostasia simply means to ‘to stand away from’ or ‘to depart.’ Only by examining how this word is used in its immediate context will determine what the departure is from, whether it be a spiritual or physical departure.”[i]
The context of 2 Thessalonians 2:3 strongly favors a physical departure versus that of spiritual apostasy. The rapture is the main subject of both books that Paul wrote to the Thessalonians and Paul refers to it just two verses earlier (2:1). When the Thessalonians saw the word apostasia in this verse, they would have more readily assumed a physical departure, the rapture, versus that of a spiritual rebellion.
The definite article in front of apostasia tells us Paul has a definite event in mind, one that his readers would know based upon Paul’s previous teachings. However, Paul never mentions a spiritual apostasy in either of his epistles to the Thessalonians and offers no additional clarifying information that would enable his readers to identify that this departure as being spiritually related. The only departure of which his readers would recognize is that of the rapture.
From Thessalonians’ point of view, they had no other perspective from which to view the “departure” other than as a physical one.
I know many of you will disagree with me on this point and I have no problem with that. Until recently, I also advocated the spiritual apostasy interpretation in 2:3. However, my study during the past several months has caused me to regard the departure of 2 Thessalonians 2:3 as the rapture, a physical departure. I base my conclusion on the points I make above and in my previous article on the matter.
THE IDENTITY OF THE RESTRAINER
Over the years, various Bible commentators have identified the restrainer as the Roman Empire, an assortment of other human governments, the preaching of the gospel, and Michael, the archangel. The problem with all of these ideas is they do not have the strength to restrain such a force backed by the power of Satan and his demonic host, which seek to bring the antichrist to power.
Edmond Hiebert, in his commentary on 2 Thessalonians, sums up the need for the Restrainer to have divine power:
Our identification of the Restrainer must ultimately be determined by the question, What person is able to hold back the efforts of Satan? To effectively counteract and restrain the personal activities of Satan demands a person, and one that is more than human. Only a supernatural person can truly frustrate the supernatural workings of Satan. This would at once rule out human agencies as well as all evil supernatural agents. Only a superhuman Restrainer can do the work.[ii]
Since Satan will empower this lawless one, the Restrainer must possess divine power. The demonic forces currently seeking to promote the devil’s kingdom are causing trouble and promoting their evil agenda throughout the world. It stands to reason that the Holy Spirit’s universal presence is required to hold back the full revelation of the future leader of this regime, the antichrist.
Jesus, in John 16:7-11, stated that one of the functions of the Holy Spirit in the world is to restrain evil. Since Pentecost, the Holy Spirit’s unique indwelling presence in believers has held back the full revelation of this man of lawlessness. This will continue until the rapture, when the Spirit’s special operation in the world through the church comes to an end.
Another argument in favor of identifying the restrainer as the Holy Spirit comes from Paul’s reference to the Restrainer with both masculine and neuter pronouns in 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7. Dr. Robert Thomas explains how this uniquely identifies Restrainer as the Holy Spirit:
To one familiar with the Lord Jesus' Upper Room Discourse, as Paul undoubtedly was, fluctuation between neuter and masculine recalls how the Holy Spirit is spoken of. Either gender is appropriate, depending on whether the speaker (or writer) thinks of natural agreement (masc. because of the Spirit's personality) or grammatical (neuter because of the noun pneuma; (see John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13, 14).[iii]
Furthermore, if the departure of 2 Thessalonians 2:3 is the rapture, this forms a strong parallel with 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7, “And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way.” This signifies that in both passages the rapture removes the Restrainer who now prevents the unveiling of the antichrist. It’s the Holy Spirit’s unique presence on the earth via the church that now restricts the activity of the coming lawless one.
The identification of the Restrainer as the Holy Spirit adds considerable strength to our case for the pretribulation rapture since it signifies that believers will not know the identity of the antichrist before the rapture.
WHAT DOES THIS TELL US?
Even if we do not identify the departure as the rapture, 2 Thessalonians 2 adds considerable support to a pretribulation rapture. If we can equate the departure with the rapture, I believe that makes the case for placing the rapture before the tribulation rather convincing.
First, identifying the Restrainer as the Holy Spirit signifies that we as believers will be with Jesus in heaven before the unveiling of the antichrist to the world.
We know the activity of this future lawless one kicks off the seven-year tribulation. Daniel 9:26-27 tells us that the remaining prophetic “week” of years for Israel begins with the antichrist making a covenant of peace “with many” that will no doubt include Israel. When this happens, those who know prophetic Scripture would not fail to recognize the identity of the antichrist provided they remain on the earth.
The rapture must thus occur before the singing of the peace accord that will initiate the seven year tribulation. Otherwise, many in the church would know the identity of the antichrist.
Taken together with previous signposts, the identification of the Restrainer as the Holy Spirit adds much credibility to placing the rapture before the tribulation.
Second, if the departure of 2 Thessalonians 2:3 is indeed the rapture, this not only places it ahead of the appearing of the antichrist, but before the start of the day of the Lord with its sudden destruction. If this is the case, how can the rapture occur anywhere else but before the start of tribulation.
Paul tells his beleaguered readers that the day of the Lord had not yet begun because they remained earthbound and because of the restraining work of the Holy Spirit continued blocking the revealing of the antichrist.
Regardless of how one interprets the “departure” of 2 Thessalonians 2:3, Paul’s words in the rest of the chapter verify his previous promise to the Thessalonians and to us that we will not experience the wrath of the day of the Lord because we will be with Jesus before the unveiling of the antichrist to the world, “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Thess. 5:9).
Can you see how the evidence for a pretribulation rapture builds with each signpost? Can you see how each piece to the puzzle confirms that the rapture will happen before the sudden destruction that will mark the beginning of the day of the Lord?
We have a few more signposts to go and then we will put it all together.
Since we live in a day where so many pastors, writers, and teachers either deny the whole concept of the rapture or believe the church will go through the tribulation, it’s exceedingly important that we understand all the pieces of the biblical evidence that supports a pretribulation rapture.