2 Thessalonians 2:4 – a statement about the Man of Sin – is no easy verse to interpret: “He will exalt himself and defy everything that people call god and every object of worship. He will even sit in the temple of God, claiming that he himself is God” (NLT). There are various explanations of what it means that the Man of Sin will sit in God’s temple. Below is a brief summary along with an interpretation I favor.
The preterist view is that 2 Thessalonians 2:4 has already happened in the first century A.D. Jerusalem temple. The dispensational view is that Paul is referring to a future rebuilt temple in Jerusalem where the Man of Sin takes a seat. Another interpretation is that “temple of God” could also be “temple of a god” since pagan temples in Greco-Roman cities were common in the first century. I don’t believe these views are in line with what Paul is saying. First, in the context of verse 4 Paul is talking about Christ’s return to judge the living and the dead, so it doesn’t make sense to say with the preterist that this happened in the first century. Second, since Jesus is the final temple of God and God’s people are his temple, we shouldn’t expect a future rebuilt temple in Jerusalem (as the dispensationalists say). Finally, “temple of a god” makes some sense, but I’m not convinced the Greek text is best translated that way.
One view I’m sympathetic with is that “temple” is Paul’s reference to the church. He does, in a redemptive-historical way, call the church the temple quite often in his epistles. Therefore, it’s not a stretch to say the Man of Sin will claim or take some kind of authority in the church.
A view that I favor even a more is that “temple” is symbolic since Paul is here speaking in apocalyptic terms. For example, in this text (2 Thes. 2:1-12) Paul is talking about “the day of the Lord” and uses terms like revelation, mystery, breath of Jesus’ mouth, and signs and wonders. In other words “taking his seat in the temple of God” means the Man of Sin will assume some position of great authority as if he’s god (although he certainly is not!). Anthony Hoekema put it this way:
“The expression [‘take his seat in the temple of God’] is probably best understood as an apocalyptic description of the usurpation of the honor and worship which is properly rendered only to God.”
Herman Ridderbos spoke in a similar way:
“One must not…fail to appreciate the apocalyptic character of the delineation. That which is still hidden, which as future event is still incapable of description, is denoted with the help of available notions borrowed from the present. To sit in the temple is a divine attribute, the arrogating to oneself of divine honor. No conclusions are to be drawn from that for the time and place in which the man of sin will make his appearance.”
Again, 2 Thessalonians 2:4 is a hard text. But I don’t think the preterist or dispensational views do it justice, nor do they align well with other texts. The temple of God could in this verse be a reference to the church. That makes some sense. But for me (and I could be wrong!), it makes the most biblical sense to say that the temple of God is a symbolic way to describe the future Man of Sin taking upon himself divine honor and authority in satanic opposition to God.
One thing that we can all joyfully and confidently agree on is that Jesus will easily, absolutely, and definitively defeat the Man of Sin. It’ll be no contest! “The Lord Jesus will kill him with the breath of his mouth and destroy him by the splendor of his coming” (2 Thes. 2:8 NLT).
The above quotes are found in Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (p.160) and Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, p. 520).
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015