The Restrainer — Not Who You Think

INTRODUCTION

The common understanding of 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7 regards the Holy Spirit as the restrainer. The Holy Spirit restrains the mystery of iniquity until the rapture when it will be removed from earth with the church. This makes way for the mystery of iniquity to come to a head and manifest the antichrist. While this theory is plausible, it actually breaks down on several points——contextual, grammatical, and doctrinal. The treatment below is my attempt to handle this passage without presupposing the Holy Spirit and removal. I aim to simply let the context, the grammar, and the teaching of Scripture frame the understanding they want to frame.

PASSAGE

I’ll start by giving the passage in the original Greek, then the Greek bracketed in its English order, then an interlinear translation, then my own English translation, and finally an illustrative paraphrase.

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.

1[τὸ γὰρ μυστήριον]   3[ἤδη ἐνεργεῖται]   2[τῆς ἀνομίας—μόνον ὁ κατέχων—]   4[ἄρτι]   5[ἕως ἐκ μέσου γένηται].

καὶ [even]   νῦν [now]   τὸ κατέχον [the neuter restrainer ]   οἴδατε [you know]   εἰς τὸ [that]    ἀποκαλυφθῆναι [to be revealed]   αὐτὸν [he]   ἐν [in]   τῷ [the]   ἑαυτοῦ [his own]   καιρῷ [time]   τὸ [the]   γὰρ [for]   μυστήριον [mystery]   ἤδη [already]   ἐνεργεῖται [is working]   τῆς ἀνομίας [of iniquity ]   μόνον [except]   ὁ κατέχων [the masculine restrainer]   ἄρτι [now]   ἕως [until]   ἐκ μέσου [from the midst]   γένηται [he becomes]

“Even now you know (recognize) the restraining effort, that he should be revealed in his own season. For the mystery of iniquity—except the restrainer—is already working now until he becomes (arises) from the midst.”

Even now you discern the power that is restraining [truth] with the goal of revealing the antichrist when the time is ripe. Because the mystery of iniquity — except for the antichrist — is already working now in the world until the antichrist is manifested in the midst of mankind.

THE COMMON HANDLING

The observant reader will notice that my translation of the last phrase ἕως ἐκ μέσου γένηται (“until he arises from the midst”) has the restrainer arising in the midst of mankind while most translations have the restrainer removed. For example, the NKJV and the NASB give us “until he is taken out of the way,” and the KJV reads “until he be taken out of the way.” Based on such translations, most prophecy teachers, quite naturally, have formulated (or adopted) an understanding of this passage that has the restrainer removed from earth. Typically, they teach that the restrainer is the Holy Spirit and that 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, giving the mystery of iniquity free rein to reveal the antichrist.

PROBLEMS WITH THE COMMON HANDLING

While the common treatment of the passage seems plausible at first glance, a deeper investigation shows that it is flawed on several accounts.

First of all, the common handling muddles the distinction between the masculine restrainer (ὁ κατέχων) and the neuter restrainer (τὸ κατέχον). It regards both as references to the Holy Spirit, treating the masculine restrainer as a constructio ad sensum reference to the Holy Spirit. The concept is legitimate. Using pronouns and participles that agree in sense rather than in gender with the noun they modify is fairly common in Koine Greek. The New Testament uses masculine pronouns in several passages to refer to the Holy Spirit, which is neuter in gender, a practice which highlights the personhood of the Holy Spirit. However, it is doubtful that the masculine restrainer is a constructio ad sensum reference to the Holy Spirit because the Spirit is not mentioned in the context. You cannot have a constructio ad sensum if there is no noun for the pronoun or participle to refer to. And without a clear contextual referent to unite them, these distinct phrases should be treated as distinct references.

Secondly, the common handling stumbles on the matter of letting the Bible be its own interpreter. When men interpret the masculine restrainer (ὁ κατέχων) and the neuter restrainer (τὸ κατέχον) as references to the Holy Spirit, they introduce information they did not get from the context. Nowhere in the passage is the Holy Spirit mentioned, not in the preceding verses, not in the following verses. Nor can this handling be salvaged by appealing to related passages as the source for the missing information. Nowhere in the New Testament or the LXX (Septuagint) is the Holy Spirit referred to as the restrainer or any similar term. And without a contextual referent or a precedent from a related passage, we are left without a solid exegetical reason to embrace the understanding that the restrainer is the Holy Spirit.

Thirdly, the common handling, with its insistance that the restrainer is removed, assigns a meaning to γίνομαι (ginomai) that is somewhere between unattested and non-existent. This verb means be or become, sometimes shading into appear or arrive. It doesn’t mean remove or take. Some defend the removal interpretation with the claim that γίνομαι (ginomai) can bear the sense of motion, pointing to Acts 27:7 and Acts 25:15 as evidence. But the proof falls short. The former gives us “barely made it to Cnidus” and the latter “when I arrived in Jerusalem.” In both instances γίνομαι (ginomai) bears the sense of arrive. The focus is on the arrival, not the journey. The journey, i.e. the motion, belongs to the context, not the verb. But even if we grant that this argument proves that γίνομαι (ginomai) occasionally bears the sense of motion, the common handling is not vindicated. Motion forward is a long way from proof that γίνομαι (ginomai) can bear the sense of remove or take.

Fourthly, when the common handling insists that the Holy Spirit will be removed at the rapture of the church, it makes a bold claim that cannot be defended from the Bible. There is no hint of the removal of the Holy Spirit prior to the tribulation anywhere in the Bible. Not in the New Testament. Not in the Old Testament. The only trace of this doctrine is the popular, and I believe wrong, interpretation of this passage. And if a debatable witness be the only witness, the teaching cannot stand.

Contrary to the removal teaching, the Holy Spirit’s work during the seventieth week will be upgraded, not downgraded. He will continue his work of regeneration and indwelling (Ezek. 11:19, 18:31-32, 36:26-27, 37:14), the very work of the New Covenant new birth that Jesus admonished Nicodemus for not seeing in the Old Testament, a work which is necessary for entrance into the kingdom. He will continue his work of aiding the gospel, producing conviction of sin and righteousness and judgment to come, and converting souls. And there will be a return to the promise of the exceptional work of the Spirit in Joel 2:28-29 and Ezekiel 39:29. This promise will be exhaustively fulfilled during the seventieth week—the early chapters of Acts were but a foretaste—with the power of the Spirit being poured out upon all the saved Jews, presumably beginning with the 144,000. On top of that, the two witnesses will be operating with even greater demonstrations of the Spirit. This enhanced work of the Spirit will result in a great multitude which no man can number being saved during the tribulation (Rev. 7:9-14).

Fifthly, while God is undoubtedly at work restraining the mystery of iniquity until the appointed time for the antichrist, it is a stretch for the common theory to associate this restraining effort with the church. For one thing, no passage in the New Testament teaches in a straightforward manner that the church is involved in preventing the mystery of iniquity from unveiling the antichrist. Not even the one in question. The fact is, the church’s stated relationship to the world seems to run contrary to such a job description. We are sheep among the wolves. We are sheep for the slaughter. Do we the sheep actually play any significant part in restraining the wolves, preventing the wolf of all wolves from appearing? Do we the sheep play any significant part in restraining the spirit of slaughter, preventing it from rising to its acme in the time of great slaughter such as the world has never known? Unlikely.

Sixthly, the common theory is wrong when it insists that God’s restraint of the mystery of iniquity ceases with the rapture of the church. On the contrary, God continues to restrain the mystery of iniquity throughout the seventieth week, determining the times and the boundaries (Acts 17:26) of the satanically empowered Roman empire and the nations it dominates. The antichrist will not be allowed to sit in the temple until the determined day, though he rabidly desires to defile the holy place. He will not be allowed to surround and sack Jerusalem until the appointed day, though the slaughter of the Jews has long been on his foul heart.

Seventhly, the common theory undermines the new covenant blessings which the saints in the seventieth week shall enjoy. During that troublesome time, the believers will bring out of the storehouse things old and new—maintaining the Mosaic Law while preaching new covenant salvation in the Messiah (Matt. 13:52). They will sing the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb (Rev. 15:3). They will enjoy the same new covenant new birth and indwelling of the Holy Spirit that we have (Ezek. 11:19, 18:31-32, 36:26-27, 37:14). They will experience the same baptism of the Holy Spirit that we experienced (Joel 2:28-29, Acts 2:14-20), which shall unite Judah and Israel, just as it once united Jew and Gentile. This precious truth speaks volumes on the subject. If the Holy Spirit in the tribulation saints doesn’t keep the mystery of iniquity from coming to a head in the antichrist and the time of great tribulation, then there is no reason to believe that the Holy Spirit in the church is what keeps the mystery of iniquity from coming to a head.

GRAMMATICAL UNDERSTANDING

The following points clarify my understanding of this passage, a handling that makes a robust attempt at contextual exegesis.

One. 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 mystery of iniquity” in verse 7 as the identification of “the restraining force” in the preceding verse.

Two. The masculine restrainer (ὁ κατέχων) in verse 7 refers to the masculine phrase “the man of sin, the son of perdition” (ὁ ἄνθρωπος τῆς ἁμαρτίας, ὁ υἱὸς τῆς ἀπωλείας) in verse 3, 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 the masculine phrase “the lawless one” (ὁ ἄνομος) in verse 8.

Three. The phrase μόνον ὁ κατέχων means “except the restrainer.” This phrase is a parenthetical exception to the noun phrase “the mystery of iniquity.” The whole clause runs, “for the mystery of iniquity—except the restrainer—is already working.” 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].” 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.” For more examples of this usage in Josephus see my post The Force of monon (μόνον) in 2 Thess. 2:7 Illustrated from Josephus which can be accessed here.

Four. As I indicated with my bracketed treatment of the Greek text, the word ἄρτι (now, at this time) goes with the preceding verb phrase ἤδη ἐνεργεῖται “already working.” The complete phrase is ἤδη ἐνεργεῖται ἄρτι “already working now.” While associating ἄρτι (now) with the preceding verb phrase might seem arbitrary to some, those familiar with Koine Greek, both biblical and extra-biblical literature, will recognize the common phenomenon of disjointed verb phrases and noun phrases.

Five. 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 will reiterate that there is no verb of removal here. The verb γίνομαι (be, become) never bears this sense.

Moreover, 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.

We see, then, that 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 the translation “appear in the midst [of mankind]” is not only to be favored on the lexical and grammatical grounds given above, but on contextual grounds as well. For it is altogether natural to associate “until he appears from the midst [of mankind]” in verse 7 with the antichrist “revealed in his own time” in verse 6 and “the man of sin revealed” in verse 3.

Six. 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 reveals to us that the goal of τὸ κατέχον (the restraining force) is to manifest the antichrist when the time is right. My paraphrase of verse six runs, “And now you know the force which is restraining truth in the world so that the antichrist can be revealed in his time.”

FURTHER THOUGHTS AND CLARIFICATIONS

One. 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.

Two. 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 the 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 appears from heaven.

Three. 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, setting 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.

Four. 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 (suppressing 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

One. This explanation is based on exegesis (the grammar, the context, and related passages), not a series of assumptions.

Two. The neuter participle “the restraining force” (τὸ κατέχον) has a neuter referent in the immediate context. The masculine participle “the restrainer” (ὁ κατέχων) has three different masculine referents in the immediate context.

Three. The verb γίνομαι (ginomai) is translated and understood in a sense which is well-attested in Koine Greek.

Four. The restrainer is understood in a sense that corresponds with the restraining activity of the antichrist in the immediate context and with the Bible doctrine of apostasy, i.e. the restraining of truth and righteousness by the powers of darkness.

Five. This understanding honors the biblical teaching that the tribulation saints enjoy the same New Covenant salvation—the same new birth, indwelling, and baptism of the Spirit—that the saints of this age enjoy.

Six. 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 is 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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