The Restrainer

BURNING QUESTION

Have you ever wrestled with the question of the restrainer in 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7? If you have, good for you. If you haven’t, maybe you should. The way we handle this passage has ramifications not only for our prophetic understanding, but for the way we approach biblical interpretation. Do we consistently follow sound principles of Bible interpretation or do we have a few passages where our approach is little more than brute-force traditionalism? Let me walk you through my handling of this passage.

PASSAGE

I’ll start by giving the passage, 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7, in the original Greek followed by my own literal English translation.

καὶ νῦν τὸ κατέχον οἴδατε, εἰς τὸ ἀποκαλυφθῆναι αὐτὸν ἐν τῷ ἑαυτοῦ καιρῷ. τὸ γὰρ μυστήριον ἤδη ἐνεργεῖται τῆς ἀνομίας, μόνον ὁ κατέχων ἄρτι ἕως ἐκ μέσου γένηται.

“Even now you know (see, recognize) the restraining effort, that he should be revealed in his own season. For the mystery of iniquity is already at work except the restrainer for the time being, until he becomes (arises) from the midst [of mankind].”

THE COMMON HANDLING

Many prophecy teachers insist that both the neuter restrainer (τὸ κατέχον) and the masculine restrainer (ὁ κατέχων) refer to the Holy Spirit, who is currently working through the church to restrain the mystery of iniquity on Earth. And they insist that the last phrase (ἕως ἐκ μέσου γένηται) indicates that removal of the Holy Spirit from Earth. According to this understanding the Holy Spirit is removed from Earth at the time of the rapture of the church, leaving the world in a spiritual vacuum without a restraining influence, thus giving the mystery of iniquity free rein to reveal the antichrist.

PROBLEMS WITH THE COMMON HANDLING

While this treatment of the passage seems plausible at first glance, it is sloppy exegesis that is demonstrably wrong on several accounts.

First of all, this handling of the passage is not contextual exegesis. When you interpret the masculine restrainer (ὁ κατέχων) and the neuter restrainer (τὸ κατέχον) as references to the Holy Spirit, then these two terms do not refer to anything mentioned in the immediate context. They have no grammatical referent. Observe that the Holy Spirit is not mentioned in either the preceding context or the following. Nor are there any parallel passages in the New Testament which use the same or similar terms in reference to the Holy Spirit. We have no exegetical reason, if we look to the Bible alone, to embrace this understanding.

Secondly, the Holy Spirit is not removed at the rapture of the church. On the contrary, the Holy Spirit will be working overtime during the seventieth week, aiding and abetting the preaching of the gospel, converting souls, bringing conviction of sin and righteousness and judgement to come. Indeed, the outpouring of the Spirit upon the Jews promised in Joel 2—the early chapters of Acts were but a foretaste—will be exhaustively fulfilled in the seventieth week. And this powerful work of the Spirit will result in a great multitude which no man can number being saved during the seventieth week (Rev. 7:9-14). The fact is, not a hint of the removal of the Holy Spirit can be found anywhere in the Bible except for the popular, and I believe wrong, interpretation of this passage.

Thirdly, the Holy Spirit working through the Church (the supposed restraining influence) is not restraining the world and keeping it from growing worse. The world is steadily marching down the road of apostasy, throwing off the bands and cords of the Lord, rejecting the authority of the Word of God, rejecting the Lordship of Christ—unhindered, unchecked. Not only that, but the Holy Spirit indwelt church is itself getting morally and devotionally steamrolled. While we are still going forward in terms of quantity, in terms of quality we are going backwards—we are losing ground.

GRAMMATICAL UNDERSTANDING

Let me offer an understanding of this passage that actually practices contextual exegesis.

  1. The neuter restrainer (τὸ κατέχον) in verse 6 refers to the neuter phrase “the mystery of iniquity” (τὸ μυστήριον τῆς ἀνομίας) in verse 7. Notice the word “for” (γὰρ) at the start of verse 7. This word introduces explanatory material. Here it points to the “the mystery of iniquity” in verse 7 as the identification of “the restraining force” in the preceding verse.
  2. The masculine restrainer (ὁ κατέχων) in verse 7 refers back to masculine phrase “the man of sin, the son of perdition” (ὁ ἄνθρωπος τῆς ἁμαρτίας, ὁ υἱὸς τῆς ἀπωλείας) in verse 3, and to the masculine phrase “who opposes and exalts himself above all this is called God or that is worshipped” (ὁ ἀντικείμενος καὶ ὑπεραιρόμενος ἐπὶ πάντα λεγόμενον Θεὸν ἢ σέβασμα) in verse 4, and to the masculine phrase “the lawless one” (ὁ ἄνομος) in verse 8.
  3. The phrase μόνον ὁ κατέχων ἄρτι means “except the restrainer at this time.” This use of μόνον in the sense of the only (onely) exception is found in Galations 2:9-10, “When James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that had been given to me, they gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised, except (μόνον) that we should remember the poor [in Judaea], the very thing which I also was eager to do.” This sense of μόνον is also found in extra-biblical literature. For instance, we read in Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews 6.146, “As to the nation of the Amalekites, it was entirely destroyed … and no man was left … except (μόνον) he had saved their king alive.” And in Antiquities of the Jews 8.413 we read, “Benhadad the king of Assyria had charged his army … to kill no one except (μόνον) the king of Israel.” As for ἄρτι, it is indisputable that its usual sense is now, at this time.
  4. A stilted literal translation of the phrase ἕως ἐκ μέσου γένηται would be “until he becomes out of the midst.” If we wanted to polish this translation, we would translate it something along the lines of “until he arises from the midst” or “until he appears in the midst.” I would point out that there is no verb of removal here. The verb γίνομαι (be, become) never bears this sense. And the phrase ἐκ μέσου in and of itself neither implies nor necessitates removal. When this phrase is used with verbs that aren’t verbs of removal, it speaks of source and location. For instance in Numbers 25:7 in the LXX we read, “Phinehas … rose up in the congregation” (Φινεες … ἐξανέστη ἐκ μέσου τῆς συναγωγῆς)—a clear reference to location. In Exodus 24:16 in the LXX we read, “on the seventh day the Lord called to Moses out of the cloud” (ἐκάλεσεν κύριος τὸν Μωυσῆν τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τῇ ἑβδόμῃ ἐκ μέσου τῆς νεφέλης)—a reference to source. And in Numbers 4:2 in the LXX we read, “Take a census of the sons of Kohath among the sons of Levi” (Λαβὲ τὸ κεφάλαιον τῶν υἱῶν Κααθ ἐκ μέσου υἱῶν Λευι)—a clear reference to location. The sense of removal only arises when the prepositional phrase ἐκ μέσου is used with verbs of removal.
  5. If we doggedly cling to Greek grammar as the basis for our translation and understanding, there is no reason to believe that the phrase ἐκ μέσου γένηται refers to the removal of anything, much less the removal of the Holy Spirit from the world. And we do find contextual reasons to believe that it refers to the appearance of the antichrist from the midst of mankind. The natural connection is that “until he appears from the midst [of mankind]” in verse 7 hearkens back to “revealed in his own time” in verse 6 and “the man of sin revealed” in verse 3.
  6. The phrase in verse 6, εἰς τὸ ἀποκαλυφθῆναι αὐτὸν ἐν τῷ ἑαυτοῦ καιρῷ, “that he may be revealed in his own time”, is a purpose clause which tells us that the goal of the restraining force (the mystery of iniquity) is to manifest the antichrist when the time is right.

THE PASSAGE IN A NUTSHELL

  1. The neuter restrainer is the mystery of iniquity which is working in the world to overthrow truth and righteousness. The masculine restrainer is the antichrist himself who will restrain the truth and true religion with the most violent wave of persecution in the history of mankind (Matt. 24:21). It would be legitimate to refer to the antichrist as the restrainer and the mystery of iniquity as the restraining force.
  2. The mystery of iniquity is already at work powerfully in the world around us, restraining truth and light, ever gaining more of an upper hand, ever working toward that day when the world will be ready for the revelation of the antichrist. This evil man will appear in the midst of mankind when the entire planet is in the birth pangs of a brave new world, ready to set aside God and his restrictive bands and cords. This revelation will be obvious to every believer when the antichrist sits in the temple and declares himself god. But for the discerning, his manifestation will come much earlier—at least three-and-a-half years earlier. The antichrist appears from the midst of mankind in contrast to the Christ who comes from heaven.
  3. It is truth that is being restrained, not lies. Notice that verse 4 portrays the antichrist as a restrainer “who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, holding himself forth as God.” This diabolical man demeans the truth by placing it in the same class as all of man’s dead religions, and then abolishes all religion except the worship of himself—the exaltation of man in the superman. Indeed, everywhere in the Bible and history we see the mystery of iniquity restraining the truth of the true God and the word of God with powerful weapons of unrighteousness—false religion, man-centric theology, philosophy, humanistic morality, and science falsely so called, particularly the theory of evolution.
  4. This understanding of the passage doctrinally connects the apostasy of the last days under the antichrist with the origin of apostasy in Romans 1:18, “the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who restrain the truth with unrighteousness.” The process of the restraining of truth, light, and the Word of God is moving forwards on Earth and will culminate in the revelation of the man of sin at the end of the age. I translate κατέχω in Rom. 1:18 by restrain rather than hold because the context is speaking of full-blown apostasy (restraining the truth), not merely hypocrisy (holding the truth in unrighteousness). This sense of κατέχω (restrain as opposed to hold) is common in extra-biblical Greek.

ADVANTAGES OF THIS UNDERSTANDING

  1. This explanation is actually exegetical (coming from the context), not doctrinal (coming from our doctrine). The neuter participle “the restraining force” (τὸ κατέχον) actually has a neuter referent in the immediate context. And the masculine participle “the restrainer” (ὁ κατέχων) actually has three different masculine referents in the immediate context.
  2. This understanding associates the masculine and neuter restrainers in this passage with the doctrine of restraining taught everywhere in the Bible: namely the efforts of Satan to restrain the truth of God and promote apostasy which shall culminate with the antichrist’s efforts to restrain the truth of God and promote the worship of himself and Satan.
  3. This treatment frees men from the necessity of engaging in theological gymnastics trying to explain how the Holy Spirit is still on Earth working during the Seventieth Week despite their insistance that he was supposedly removed.

“Eyes wide open, brain engaged, heart on fire.”

Lee W. Brainard

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2 comments
  1. Rob Bednarik
    Rob Bednarik
    September 23, 2017 at 11:55 am

    I’m wondering if you’ve considered the Holy Spirit in a particular role – as Comforter? Christ has certainly left earth in His role as the personal declarer of who God is, but He likewise remains in us as the Church His Body continues this role on His behalf.

    The Comforter has roles directed at the world and at “the prince of this world” and have the effect of bringing these entities under judgment, or what could be viewed as restraint. With the removal of the Church the role of Comforter to the Church is gone, and the parallel roles of reproving the world of sin, righteousness and judgment are gone as well – the very concepts we would expect to go completely ignored during a “great apostasy”.

    All persons of the Godhead are omnipresent and so the “removal” of the Holy Spirit cannot mean His person, but rather the role. We can test this theory as well with Christ who was personally present in Israel in the tabernacle and Solomon’s temple, but later the prophet declares “the glory has departed” and the personal presence of Christ no longer was among them. Even Herod’s temple could be called “My Father’s House” by Christ but sadly His personal presence was in the courtyard and not behind the veil.

    Reply
    • Lee Brainard
      Lee Brainard • Post Author •
      September 26, 2017 at 3:46 pm

      I would express the answer a little differently. I would say that the only sense in which the Holy Spirit will be removed at the end of the church age is the removal of his unique role in the church, which involves the indwelling (John 14:17) and the sealing (Eph. 1:13). While this does involve the Spirit’s unique role as the comforter of the church, I don’t believe it involves his role as a comforter across the board. I suspect that he will be comforting the believers who go through the time of tribulation — that his work as a comforter in Israel will be manifest in the baptism of the Spirit (outward annointing) even as his work as a comforter in the church was manifest in the indwelling-sealing (inward annointing).

      I maintain my skepticism that ἐκ μέσου γένηται (ek mesou genētai) means “taken from the midst” and suggest that its natural sense is “become from the midst,” which could be paraphrased “appear in the midst.” In other words, as far as the exegesis of this passage is concerned, nothing is removed. I understand that there is a long history of translation from the Reformation till the present day that follows the sense of “take out of the way.” But I contend that this translation is more the consequence of theological presuppositions regarding the passage than it is strict observance of the grammatical and contextual considerations. Note, for instance, Vine’s comment on the translation of μεσος (mesos) in 2 Thess. 2:7, “where, however, removal is not necessarily in view; there is no accompanying verb signifying removal, as in each of the other occurences of the phrase.”

      Reply

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