The second letter to the Thessalonians was written shortly after the first. Its main focus is prophecy, specifically in response to a forgery (2:1–5). Paul is correcting misunderstandings and undoing the damage caused by the fake letters.
As with the first letter, this one begins with encouragement in the midst of hardship. Persecution continues, presumably from their own people around them as before. But relief will come one way or another, in this life or the next.
God will eventually inflict vengeance upon those who deserve it. Some argue that a loving God would never do such a thing, and they oppose all who speak of judgment. But scripture clearly equates judgment with justice, with revenge, and with retribution for sin. This is to God’s honor due to his being holy. Holiness is frequently ignored in favor of love, but both are true of God.
So Paul implores the believers to keep on in the faith and keep pursuing maturity. God will bring us safely to our inheritance, but we have deeds to do in the meantime that will earn eternal rewards.
As with the first letter, this one also addresses questions the people had about “the Coming of the Master”. Some people had brought false reports or prophecies or letters allegedly from Paul, claiming that “the Day of the Master” had already happened or was imminent. This would mean, considering the content of the first letter, that the Coming must therefore have happened already, and they had missed it somehow and were now in the Day. While we aren’t told precisely, it would appear that the Coming and the Day are not the same event. First, Jesus will come for us and meet us in the sky to take us to heaven, and then the seven-year Day of the Master arrives and ends with Jesus coming down to the earth with all of us behind him.
But Paul assures them that no such thing has happened, and that no such messages had come from him. He also explains how they can be sure it hasn’t happened, in a passage that gives us more detail about the sequence of these events.
First in line will be “the Departure”. Almost all translations and commentators transliterate the word (“the apostasy”) instead of actually translating it. The Greek phrase a apostasia literally means “the departure” and does not specify what is being departed from, so context must be checked to find out what that is. And the context here is all about the last days but nothing about false teachings. All English Bibles rendered it as Departure until the KJV.1
Recalling the first letter, this Departure can be nothing else but what we call The Rapture, the “snatching away” of the righteous dead and living which happens before the Day of the Master. The people were being told that they had missed this great hope that Paul had told them about in the first letter. This continues today, with many claiming that we are already in the Tribulation, or that we will certainly go through it. Such people are described by Paul as deceivers, those who try to throw believers into despair and confusion.
The second event is the appearance of the Lawless One. This person will exalt himself as above all “gods” and will even seat himself in the temple of God, claiming to be God. Of course, there must be a Temple for this to happen, and it most likely refers to the Jewish Temple. People mock this idea as well, claiming all references to another Temple must certainly be allegorical, a popular escape clause in itself. But Paul is not giving any vision or parable here. He is speaking plainly to dispel a rumor, and laying out concrete events the people could look for. And nothing like this happened when the Temple was destroyed by Titus in 70 a.d.
Another factor is introduced here: the restraining force that holds back the Lawless One (LO). First Paul points out that the evil associated with the LO is already at work but is currently restrained. Many try to say that since there is evil in the world then the Bible doesn’t say there will be a certain evil person but only a general evil characteristic of the age. But Paul mentions both here, the LO and the general evil of the world, so they cannot be the same. This is yet another attempt to brush aside Bible prophecy as being not literal or future.
So who or what is this Restrainer? There are two ways to approach this. One way is to base our interpretation on the grammatical gender of the nouns and pronouns. The Spirit takes the neuter pronoun (it), as also does the Restrainer in vs. 6, but the Restrainer takes the masculine pronoun (he) in vs. 7. If the ekklesia were in view then the feminine pronoun would be used. The only entity in that context taking the masculine would be the Master, so we can deduce that “what is restraining” (vs. 6) might be the Spirit, but the coming of the Master Jesus for us is what allows the LO to be revealed.
But grammatical gender is not a decisive factor beyond matching words together in a sentence. For example, the Holy Spirit takes the neuter grammatical gender (it) in all cases, yet when described as the Comforter in John 14:17, the masculine grammatical gender (he) is used. So the pronouns depend not on some intrinsic quality of the Holy Spirit, but strictly on the arbitrary (non-biological) gender of the nouns used to refer to the Spirit. Likewise, though the ekklesia is portrayed in scripture as feminine (a bride), that same Greek word is also used to describe an angry mob in Acts 19:32. So we can see that the grammatical gender of a word has nothing to do with the literal or figurative gender of a person or group.
If grammatical gender does not help identify the Restrainer, then it could be just about anyone or anything. However, it must be an entity that has been restraining the Lawless One, so it would not be either an evil or merely human entity. Thus we can narrow the possibilities to a supernatural benevolent entity. And since we have scriptural descriptions of Messengers of God being apparently equal in strength to those of Satan (e.g. Dan. 10:13), this narrows the possibilities further to being God or the only other entity filled with the Holy Spirit: the ekklesia. Certainly the Holy Spirit will be active after the Lawless One is revealed, since many come to faith and are martyred for it. But the ekklesia has been a restraining force in the world throughout its existence, albeit not as powerfully as it was meant to be.
This LO’s appearing will come with Satanic power: miracles, deceptive wonders, and great deceit. Those who have loved darkness will be completely fooled. And because they loved darkness and deception, God will “give them over” (see Romans) to the extreme and make them go in “the wrong direction”. Like The Departure, this is a deliberate, divinely-given misdirection (not “strong delusion”), not a general condition of the time. People speculate on what this could be, but context hints that it has to do with the LO pretending to be God. It could also refer to a fake alien invasion to cover the mass disappearance of Christians.
Turning back to the people at present, Paul praises God for “choosing them from the beginning”. Choosing them how, and for what? To be saved by means of the Gospel through the work of the Spirit. God chose the work of the Spirit to be the means by which people are regenerated upon hearing and accepting the Gospel. As commented elsewhere, there is no choosing of people for either heaven or hell by some alleged eternal decree of God that ignores human free will. But there is God’s choosing the method by which we become saved. Paul expressly states that this is all by means of the Gospel. As with the account in Acts 11:18, God has chosen not only Jews but also Gentiles for this salvation.
From another angle: If it is said that God chooses these people at Thessolonica, does it imply he has chosen no other? Not at all; that is poor logic. Of course God chose the Thessalonians— since they came to him in faith. There would be no point in praising the people for their spiritual growth or encouraging them to strive for more, unless these things were matters of free will.
Paul asks for continued prayer and assures the people that the Master will strengthen and guard them from the evil one. Along with that, they are to watch out for any believer who gets out of line. They should instead follow Paul’s example in integrity that he showed among them.
Specifically, Paul commanded that if anyone won’t work, they should not eat. Today things are complicated by government handouts, but this does not absolve the churches of holding to Paul’s command. If anyone is a believer and is truly in need, the church should be taking care of them. Had the churches consistently practiced this, no believer would ever have to go on government welfare. Instead, many today belive that government handouts to those unwilling to work is an act of love.
Finally, Paul tells them not to lose heart. Even the simplest encouragement can lift a person up, so we would do well to keep an eye out for the discouraged and help them. But for those who refuse to listen to sound instruction, Paul commands us not to associate with them. We cannot look the other way and pretend all is well; we must face problems and deal with them.
Paul signs off with his own handwriting, as a stamp of authenticity. This was especially important in this case, seeing that the whole purpose of the letter was to prove that it came from him.