The phrase the mystery of iniquity occurs in the KJV of 2 Thessalonians 2:7, “For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way.” Other translations render the phrase as “the secret power of lawlessness” (NIV) or “the mystery of lawlessness” (ESV and NASB). Before we attempt to interpret the meaning of this phrase, let’s look at the context of the passage in question:
Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come. Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God. Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things? And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. 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. The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with how Satan works. He will use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie, and all the ways that wickedness deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness (2 Thessalonians 2:1–12, emphasis added).
Paul’s intent in this passage is to correct a false teaching that was being propagated, namely, that the Day of the Lord (the end times’ judgment) had already come and the Christians of Thessalonica had been left behind to endure it. Paul wants to set the record straight about Christ’s return and our gathering together to Him—the rapture. Paul states that the two events that go before the Day of the Lord are the apostasy (or “the rebellion”) and the revelation of the man of lawlessness (the Antichrist). The “mystery of iniquity” that will one day culminate in the appearance of the Antichrist is already at work in the world, but it is being restrained for now so that the world is not as evil as it could be (but will be, once the Restrainer is removed from the world).
What is the apostasy? The Greek word apostasia in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 means “departure, falling away, defection, revolt.” This end times’ apostasy is the mass “falling away” of people from God as the world prepares to receive the lawless one who claims to be God (verse 4). It is an unprecedented, worldwide revolt against all things godly, and even many who claim to be Christians will be caught up in it. Another possibility, espoused by a small minority of scholars, is that the “apostasy” is the “departure” of the church from the world, that is, the rapture that Paul alludes to in verse 1 and which he had previously discussed in 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18. It is important to note that a pre-trib interpretation does not require equating apostasia with the rapture.
Who is this man of lawlessness? He is a literal person, often referred to as the Antichrist. He will be Satan’s henchman, a pseudo-Christ who will perform miracles, signs, and wonders by the power of Satan and ultimately deceive the world. John wrote that many antichrists will precede the coming of the ultimate Antichrist (1 John 2:18), referred to as “the beast” in Revelation 13:1–10, “the little horn” in Daniel 7:8, and “the king who does as he pleases” in Daniel 11:36.
The mystery of iniquity is already at work in the world. The forces that would bring the Antichrist to power are eager to establish his unholy kingdom, but they are currently being restrained (2 Thessalonians 2:6–7). What or who is the Restrainer? Possibilities include the Holy Spirit, the church, human governments, and angels. The Thessalonians knew the identity of the Restrainer, so Paul did not elaborate (verse 6). We believe the best answer is that the Holy Spirit is the Restrainer. The Spirit convicts the world and indwells the church, enabling God’s people to be a limiting influence on the world’s evil. The presence of the Holy Spirit in the world is right now thwarting the revelation of the man of lawlessness. Wickedness gets no traction in seizing global power—but this will change. Upon the departure of the church from this earth (at which time the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence will depart), the mystery of iniquity will have free rein, and the tribulation on earth will begin (Matthew 24).
What exactly is the mystery of iniquity (KJV) or the secret power of lawlessness (NIV) that is being restrained by the Holy Spirit? The word mystery denotes something hidden for a time before God chooses to reveal it. Some “mysteries” revealed in the New Testament include the doctrine of the Gentile church (Romans 16:25–27; Ephesians 3:4–12; Colossians 1:25–27) and the rapture (1 Corinthians 15:51–52). This particular “mystery” in 2 Thessalonians 2:7 concerns the working of lawlessness in the world, leading to a worldwide rebellion against God. It works in secret right now, but it is working. The revelation of this lawlessness will coincide with the revelation of the Antichrist, mentioned in 2 Thessalonians 2:8. The man of sin’s rise to power will represent a climax of lawlessness, a satanic movement against the administration of God. This secret, behind-the-scenes movement is as yet restrained but waiting to be revealed.
The mystery of iniquity has been at work for a long time—since Paul’s day—and, when it finally erupts in all its hideousness, the world will be shaken to its core. The Antichrist, who leads the descent into lawlessness, will set a new standard of depravity. The enormity of the acts of moral monsters such as Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Robespierre, and Caligula will pale in comparison to the evil of the Antichrist.
Believers have the privilege of helping restrain the mystery of iniquity even as they look for their blessed hope, the Savior, Jesus Christ. At His second coming, Jesus will reign as the King of kings and the Lord of lords. By the breath of His mouth, He will destroy the works of the enemy. The Antichrist will have “his power . . . taken away and completely destroyed forever” (Daniel 7:26).