2 Thessalonians 2:4 — A Rebuilt Jewish Temple, or Something Else?
A thought came to me some time ago with respect to “the temple of God” and how many students of Biblical eschatology expect there to one day be a new Jewish temple built on the Temple Mount before the Second Coming of Christ, one in which the Antichrist himself would eventually stand in and literally claim “I am God.” While an effort does exist by some orthodox Jewish groups to rebuild the third temple, I think it would be wise for all students of Scripture to consider the possibility that this may not have been what the Holy Spirit was referring to in 2 Thessalonians 2 and Matthew 24.
The Temple of God in the New Testament
To understand why, we first need to keep in mind that the Apostle Paul and Jesus both pointed to a Last Days event that would take place just before the Day of the Lord (Christ’s post-trib Second Coming). Paul referred to it as the man of lawlessness/man of sin who sets himself up in “the temple of God” (2 Thess 2:4), while Jesus described it as the Abomination of Desolation standing in “the holy place” (Matt 24:15). Many have assumed that the temple mentioned by Paul must be a physical temple in Jerusalem, however according to the verses below we are continually reminded that the true temple of God is no longer a physical temple — after the final sacrifice of Christ the veil was torn and animal sacrifices were no longer of any value — but is instead now a spiritual temple:
1 Cor 3:17, “If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are.”
1 Peter 2:5, “And now God is building you, as living stones, into his spiritual temple. What’s more, you are God’s holy priests, who offer the spiritual sacrifices that please him because of Jesus Christ.” (NLT)
Eph 2:19-22, “Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner[stone], in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”
The Temple of Revelation 11
With this thought in mind, let’s now turn our attention to another portion of Scripture that many watchers of Biblical eschatology will often use in support of the idea that we should still be looking for a rebuilt Jewish temple. In Revelation 11:1 we read, “Then I was given a reed like a measuring rod. And the angel stood, saying, ‘Rise and measure the temple of God, the altar, and those who worship there’” (Rev 11:1).
One thing I’ve always wondered is why was John given a “rod” and told to “measure the temple of God, and the altar, and them that worship therein“? I’m sure that an entire word study could be done on just the word “rod” (cf Psa. 23:4, Thy rod and Thy staff shall comfort me), or “measure” (cf Hab 3:6, He stood and measured the earth …), but let’s take another look here at temple and the temple imagery instead:
1. The very first time we find the word “temple” in Revelation is in 3:12a regarding the Church in Philadelphia when Christ says, “He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more.” For one to be made a pillar in the temple it must mean that the temple in view here is not one made of stone, but rather one that is made of people.
2. Lampstands/candlesticks were important items that were found in the physical temple in the Old Testament, yet John shows us that this time the lampstands/candlesticks in the temple are represented by the two witnesses (11:4), which again would indicate that the temple in view is not a physical temple made of stone, but rather one of people.
3. In the Old Testament a priest was one who served within the physical temple of God. In Revelation 1:6 and 5:10 we are told that anyone who has been washed by the blood of Christ is a priest, and the Christian understanding of this according to 1 Peter 2:5 is that as priests we now “offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” We no longer offer animal sacrifices in a temple made of stone.
This of course again reminds me of Ephesians 2:19-22, which says, “Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner[stone], in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”
In light of what we have learned, could it not therefore stand to reason that when John speaks of the temple being trampled on in chapter 11 that he is referring to God’s people, and not a physical third temple per se built in Jerusalem? Absolutely.
If Jesus in Matthew 24 and the Apostle Paul in 2 Thessalonians 2 are referring to the holy place that is the new spiritual temple of God, the church, then it may be that all we need to watch for in this respect is ‘someone’ of significant importance to stand within or beside, yet against, the ekklesia of God. This new spiritual offensive could even commence as a physical offensive against Jews and Christians at the Temple Mount itself whereby this ‘someone’ would proclaim himself to be something that only the true God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob can lay claim to. And what could that be?
Apart From Me There Is No …
The Muslim world is waiting for a “messianic” figure whom they call “The Mahdi” or “The 12th Imam” that will lead them into a new era of Islamic “justice” that would “spread around the globe” and unite the Ummah (Islamic community of nations) against non-Muslims (see here). Of particular interest here is the fact that Islamists view this figure as the savior, not only for Muslims, but for all of humanity (see here and here). If the Mahdi proclaimed himself to be — or is proclaimed by the Muslim world to be — the “true savior” of mankind that the whole earth must follow, this would fly directly in the face of God who says in Isaiah 43:11 that “I, even I, am the Lord, and apart from me there is no savior.” According to Scripture, anyone who would proclaim himself to be the savior of the world would therefore be claiming to be God by attributing to himself a title that only God can hold. Moreover, in a spiritual sense, if this Islamic “savior” is announced to be the savior of humanity who then demands that Judaism, Christianity (and all religions) be abolished and demands that all Christians must convert to Islam and no longer worship Jesus Christ, would he not also be causing the “sacrifice and oblations (offerings) to cease” according to the following verses?
Romans 12:1, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.”
Hebrews 13:15, “By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of [our] lips giving thanks to his name.”
1 Peter 2:5, “And now God is building you, as living stones, into his spiritual temple. What’s more, you are God’s holy priests, who offer the spiritual sacrifices that please him because of Jesus Christ.”
With that thought in mind, we begin to see the text in a whole new light:
2 Thess 2:3-4,8, “Don’t be fooled by what they say. For that day [the day of the Lord] will not come until there is a great rebellion against God and the man of lawlessness is revealed — the one who brings destruction. He will exalt himself and defy every god there is and tear down every object of adoration and worship. He will position himself in the temple of God, claiming that he himself is God … And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming.”
1 Cor 3:17, “If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are.”
The Nation of Israel and Other Considerations
One obvious question, however, would be how does this affect Jews living in the nation of Israel if it is referring primarily to the spiritual temple of God? There are a couple of possibilities that we could deduce from this thought, especially if we accept the likelihood that the coming Antichrist will be Islam’s awaited “savior of humanity” called the Mahdi.
1. The Mahdi (according to Islamic teaching) will not only claim to be the ‘savior’ but will also be the driving force behind uniting a coalition of Islamic nations that come up against the nation of Israel. He will also desire to subjugate the world into converting to Islam, according to Islamic teaching. In this way, it would definitely have much bearing on the Jews living in Israel even if this is only referring to the spiritual temple of God.
2. It will have a direct bearing on all Messianic Jews who would — along with Gentile Christians — recognize this “Abomination of Desolation”. I do not believe that the Olivet Discourse or even the Book of Matthew as a whole was for an “orthodox” Jewish audience only as some contend (who would never read the book anyway, I fail to see the point) but rather I believe that it was for Messianic Jews, and by extension all Gentile Christians. (Matt 24:9 says, “… ye shall be hated of all nations for my name’s sake.” Orthodox Jews are not hated because of Jesus’ name, but Messianic Jews and Gentile Christians are. (In fact, even many orthodox Jews hate Messianics and Gentile Christians because they adhere to the faith of Jesus).
3. It is possible that there could be a dual fulfillment. Most translations render Matt 24:15 as “standing IN the holy place” which causes those who read the English translation to envision a fully built temple. However, the word for “in” in the Greek is “en” (G1722) and is also translated as “on”, “by”, “at” or “with” in addition to “among”. Although some orthodox Jewish groups are actively seeking to rebuild the third temple, all that they require to offer sacrifices is an altar and an unblemished red heifer. (The alter began construction in July 29, 2009 and has been completed). This could be on the Temple Mount, or right beside the western wall (which I could see happening if they suddenly have a perfect red heifer but no rebuilt temple yet.) Perhaps this could be Christ’s reference to “standing in/on/by the holy place” and the reason why He did not mention a temple per se, whereas Paul could have been referencing the new spiritual temple of God comprised of Messianic Jews and Gentile Christians.
4. There is also one final point that needs to be considered as well with respect to the “man of sin”. We should not discount the possibility that the “man of sin” may not be pointing to one single person as it were, though the general consensus is precisely that, but could instead be pointing to one single entity or system. The ekklesia of God is comprised of a great multitude of believing Jews and Gentiles created as “one new man” in Christ who are marked by God (Eph. 2:15, Rev. 14:1) and described by John in Revelation 7 as the “multitude of the lamb“, ie, Jesus Christ. Conversely, the “man of sin” (2 Thess 2:3) could therefore be its direct antithesis comprised of those who have the Mark of the Beast and described by John in Revelation 13 as the “multitude of a man“, ie, the “prophet Mohammed”. If this is the case, then we may be even closer to the cusp of prophetic fulfillment than many of us realize.
In conclusion, it is my belief that the intended meaning of the temple of God in 2 Thessalonians 2:4, keeping the overall context and teaching of the temple within the full counsel of the New Testament, is a direct reference to the spiritual temple of God — the Church — and not a physical, rebuilt Jewish temple. The Mahdi, or “man of sin”, does not have to outright say “I am God” in order to show (“apodeiknymi”, declare) himself as God. Jesus did the same thing without telling the Sanhedrin “I am God”, yet they understood the theological significance of His words and sought to kill Him. Likewise, this man could merely approach the temple mount where the Islamic Dome of the Rock stands and from there proclaim itself or himself to be the “savior of mankind” whom both Jews and Christians must follow. Not only would Messianic Jews and Gentile Christians recognize this as an affront to the faith of Christ and the significance of this event, even orthodox Jews would know that this would be a declaration of divinity, someone other than God showing himself to be God. They, too, understand Isaiah 43:11 as God declares “I am the Lord, and apart from me there is no savior.” Indeed, “…I am God, and there is none like Me” (Isaiah 46:9).