The Restrainer

INTRODUCTION

2 Thessalonians 2:6-7 is a passage which has often suffered on the rack of expediency and speculation, even at the hands of the friends of prophecy. The commentaries and the notes in study Bibles regularly offer treatments of this passage that give us a favored interpretation with little biblical exegesis behind it. This comes as no surprise. In conservative circles, prophetic passages suffer exegetical breakdown more often than any other class of passages. Why this breakdown from the professed adherence to the historical-grammatical approach to exegesis? The usual culprits are shaky presuppositions, convenient shortcuts, and the juggernaut of doctrinal prejudice which crushes passages in an effort to make them testify for a favored position. The treatment below is my attempt to comprehend this passage by setting aside presuppositions and letting the context and the grammar dictate the message it conveys.

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) 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 this 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 the preceding verses, not 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 removal of the restrainer, 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 meaning of the verb. But even if we grant that this argument proves that γίνομαι (ginomai) occasionally bears the sense of motion, that is still a long way from proof that it can bear the sense of remove or take.

Fourthly, 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.

Fifthly, 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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