Second Thessalonians describes a “man of lawlessness” who “sits in the Temple of God” (2 Thess 2:4). Since Jerusalem’s second Temple has been destroyed for nearly two thousand years and this mysterious man is yet to appear, many readers assume that a third Temple will be built in the future so that Paul’s prognostication can come to pass. However, based on the language in other Pauline literature, it is better to understand the “Temple of God” not as a physical building, but as a reference to the collective of those who follow Jesus.
The so-called “man of lawlessness” (ἄνθρωπος τῆς ἀνομίας; anthropos tes anomías) will be someone who “exalts himself against all that are called a god or object of worship so that he sits in the Temple of God (ναὸν τοῦ θεοῦ; naòn tou theou), proclaiming himself to be a god” (2 Thess 2:4). At first glance, this verse seems to imply the necessity for a third Temple in Jerusalem; after all, so the argument goes, if the yet-to-be-revealed man of lawlessness is to take a seat in the Temple, then there must be a structure in which he can sit. Yet, a closer look at the language can offer a way to understand Second Thessalonians that is more faithful to the broader context of the Pauline corpus.
The phrase “Temple of God” also appears in Second Corinthians: “What agreement is there between the Temple of God (ναῷ θεοῦ; nao theou) and idols? For we are the Temple of the living God, as God has said, ‘I will dwell among them and walk among them, and I will be their God and they will be my people’” (2 Cor 6:16). Based on this other use of “Temple of God” in Paul’s epistles, it is more likely that the apostle envisions the man of lawlessness exalting himself among the collective human assemblies that make up the “Temple of the living God.” Thus, a third Temple is not a prerequisite for the man of lawlessness or for Jesus’ subsequent Parousia. Instead of directing our attention to the thought of Temple construction at the end of days, Paul tells Jesus-followers to direct their “hearts into God’s love and Messiah’s perseverance” (2 Thess 3:5).