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Thessalonians was to teach them that the day of our Lord's second coming was not so near at hand as some, from an erroneous statement purporting to come froin the Apostle himself, had imagined. This, he assures them, is a mistake, and he grounds his assurance upon the fact that the coming of Christ could not occur until there had first been a revolt, or a remarkable apostasy, and until a character denominated the Man of Sin had been revealed. The coming of the apostasy is here intimately connected and identified with the revelation of the Man of Sin, because the apostasy was to be his work. The evil to be effected by the Man of Sin was not to be personal only, but like a noxious plague it was to spread widely, to the ruin and destruction of many. The Man of Sin, besides raising himself in opposition to Christ and his Church, was to enlist many in the same diabolical work; he was to institute a religious system for the purpose of superseding the religion of Christ; he was to corrupt and seduce many, inducing them to apostatize from the faith; he was to array his terrible strength in an endeavour to destroy Christianity.
St. Paul adds, that the mystery of iniquity
already worketh ;" which agrees with the statement of St. John, that even in his own time there were already many Antichrists. The mystery of iniquity was then already working, because the standard of opposition against Christ and his Church had already been raised by the Corinthians, the Marcionites, the Ebionites, and other heretics recorded in Church history. The seeds of corruption destined to grow up to maturity at the time of the Antichrist were already sown; the germ, which was to reach its full growth and to attain its entire development at the coming and by the operation of the Man of Sin, had already been planted, and was already giving signs of its growing. The mystery of wickedness, which was to be consummated by the Antichrist, was already at work through the agency of hi precursors. The Apostle, after saying that “ the mystery of iniquity already worketh,” subjoins,
only that he who now holdeth do hold, until he be taken out of the way; and then that wicked one shall be revealed."
From these words it is manifest that something was in existence at the period when the Apostle wrote, which so operated as to prevent the revelation of the Man of Sin; but when this impediment should be taken away from the midst, then that wicked one should be revealed.
What the impediment was St. Paul does not specify; but it is clear, that he had orally instructed the Thessalonians about it, though he did not choose to commit the matter to writing ; because he reminds them, that he had told them these things while personally present; and consequently they knew what was the impediment, or withholding power. Now what was the obstacle which prevented the revelation of the Man of Sin? What was the withholding power which was to be removed to make way for the revelation of the wicked one?
There is no doubt that this was the Roman empire. This is unanimously declared by the early fathers, who must have learnt it from apostolical tradition. And the reason which they give why the Apostle did not venture to commit it to paper is, lest any such open declaration, that the Roman empire was destined to fall, and by its overthrow to make room for the Man of Sin, should by a jealous government be constructed into an act of treasonable disaffection. “Who holds," says Tertullian, “but the Roman empire, the division of which into ten kingdoms will bring on the Antichrist; and then, according to the Apostle, that wicked one shall be revealed.” 1 The holy patriarch of Jerusalem, St. Cyril, thus writes : “The predicted Antichrist will come when the times of the Roman empire shall be fulfilled.” And again : “ The devil will raise up a famous man, who will seize upon the domains of the Roman empire. That man, the Antichrist, will appear as soon as the Roman empire shall have come to its conclusion.” 2 St. Ambrose, commenting upon the quoted passage of St. Paul, proposes much the same interpretation, and affirms, “that after the failing or decay of the Roman empire, the Antichrist shall appear.” St. Jerome, explaining the same words of the Apostle, writes thus: “The Antichrist shall sit in the temple of God . . . showing himself that he is Christ and the Son of God: and unless the Roman empire be first desolated, and the Antichrist precede, Christ shall not come.
And now you know what withholdeth that he might be revealed in his time ; that is, you know
well what is the reason why the Antichrist doth not come at present. The Apostle is not willing to say openly that the Roman empire should be destroyed, which they who command think to be eternal. For if he had said openly and boldly that the Antichrist shall not come unless the Roman empire be first destroyed, it might probably have proved the occasion of a persecution 1 Tert. De Res. car, c. 24.
2 Catech. xv. C. V.
against the Church."1 ... St. Jerome was himself a witness to the barbarous nations beginning to tear in pieces the Roman empire, and upon this occasion exclaims, “He who hindered is taken out of the way, and we do not consider that the Antichrist approaches, whom the Lord Jesus shall consume with the spirit of His mouth.” ? St. John Chrysostom, in one of his homilies upon this passage of St. Paul, speaking of what hindered the revelation of the Antichrist, asserts that “ when the Roman empire shall be taken out of the way, then he shall come; and it is very likely: for as long as the dread of this empire shall remain, no other shall quickly be substituted; but when this shall be dissolved, he shall seize on the vacant empire, and shall endeavour to assume the power both of God and man.'
Lastly, St. John Damascene, commenting on the same words of the Apostle, says: Apostle here refers to the Roman empire; and when that is removed, the Antichrist cometh.” The holy father does not say, that after the removal of the Roman empire the Antichrist shall come, but, to signify that one event is immediately connected with the other, and that the overthrow of the Roman empire would be followed immediately by the revelation of the Man of Sin, he
that he cometh. Such is the explanation which these ancient and venerable fathers give to the passage of St. Paul, and there can be no doubt that they must have learned it by tradition from the Apostles or from the Church of the Thessalonians.
| Alges. Quæst. xi. col. 209, prior pars.
? St. Hier. ad Ageruchiam de Monogamia, col. 748, sec. pars.
It is then evident, that according to the unanimous teaching of the primitive Church, the impediment which prevented the revelation of the Antichrist or the Man of Sin, was the Roman empire, and that soon after this impediment was removed, the wicked one was to be revealed. The reason why the existence of the Roman empire rendered impossible the revelation of the Antichrist is this the Antichrist, from a small beginning, was to rise to a great power, and to establish a vast and powerful kingdom; he was to become great, as it is foretold by the prophet Daniel, against the south, and against the east, and against the strength. . . . He was to be magnified even unto the strength of Heaven even to the Prince of the strength. He was to establish a vast empire, and to rule over many nations, which then belonged to the Roman kingdom. Now, how could all this be effected as long as the Roman empire endured ? how could the Man of Sin establish his dominion, and extend it to the east and to the west, as long as the Roman eagle was master of the world? That Antichrist might do this, it was absoutely necessary that the strength of the Romans should break down, and be removed out of the way; then, and only then, the way would be open for the revelation of the Man of Sin in all the strength of his power, and the fulness of his wickedness.
This was clearly seen by the early fathers, who were near the source of the apostolic tradition. Deeply impressed with the belief that the impediment to the revelation of the Antichrist was the Roman empire, they, with the primitive Church, fervently prayed for the continuance of that empire,
1 Dan. viii. 9, 10, 11.