This is not meant to be a complete commentary on 2 Thes. 2. Instead, I want to demonstrate that Paul had to have taught the Thessalonians that the rapture of the Church would precede the End Times judgments. Think of it as a supplement to your study of 1st and 2nd Thessalonians.
By most accounts Paul stayed in Thessalonica for only about 3 weeks and during that time he founded a Church and taught them the doctrines of salvation and sanctification, the Trinity, the nature of man, the assurance of pardon, and the Day of the Lord. He continued teaching them after he left with his first letter, written from Corinth in 51 AD, in which he introduced the doctrine of the rapture (1 Thes. 4:16-17). Shortly after that they received another letter appearing to be from him, announcing that the Day of the Lord had come. They reacted with fear and confusion and immediately sought clarification.
Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus and our being gathered to Him, we ask you brothers, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy report or letter supposed to have come from us saying that the Day of the Lord has already come. Don’t let any one 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. (2 Thes 2:1-3)
From Paul’s response it’s clear the previous letter had been a forgery, sent by someone pretending to be him and designed to frighten them. It worked. The Greek words for unsettle and alarm literally mean to agitate, incite, and frighten. Something in the letter had contradicted their understanding of his teaching and they were upset. Reading 2 Thes 2:1-3 we see that the forgery must have disputed Paul’s teaching on events leading up to the Day of the Lord. This is the only logical explanation for his 2nd letter to the Thessalonians.
Notice that right from the beginning Paul separated the coming of the Lord from our being gathered to Him. That’s because they’re two different events. We can’t tell their relative timing from this, but we can tell they’re not the same thing. One is when He comes back down to Earth, while from 1 Thes. 4:16-17 we know the other has us going up to meet Him in the air and continuing to Heaven. The 2nd coming will be witnessed by everyone (Matt. 24:30), but the rapture is an instantaneous disappearance (1 Cor. 15:51-52) that happens without warning.
Everything That Was Written In The Past Was Written To Teach Us
This quote from Romans 15:4 tell us that Paul wasn’t just writing to the Thessalonian believers. He was also writing to us. Think about it. The Day of the Lord is a term that always refers to the End Times and most often to the Great Tribulation. If Paul had taught them to expect a post-tribulation rapture would they have been agitated and frightened upon receiving the forgery? No! It would more likely have made them think the 2nd coming was only a few years away and many of them would live to see it.
The only justification for their fear and confusion would be if Paul had taught them a pre-trib rapture. In that case a letter telling them the Day of the Lord had come would mean they had missed the rapture, and that would mean they weren’t saved. Now we can see how they would be agitated, angry and afraid. Imagine how you would you feel in a situation like that.
From 2 Thes 2:1-3 we can begin to construct Paul’s teaching on the chronology of events leading up to the Day of the Lord. Remember, there’s an abundance of proof from his other letters showing that Paul taught the doctrine of eternal security, aka once saved always saved. Some of the most obvious references are Romans 8:38-39, Romans 10:9-10, 2 Cor 1:21-22, Ephes. 1:13-14, and Titus 3:4-7. In all of them Paul taught that true believers cannot fall away from faith for any reason. He said the Lord guaranteed our inheritance and sealed the Holy Spirit inside us as a deposit.
But Paul spoke of a rebellion (falling away) in 2 Thes 2:3 that would have to precede the Day of the Lord. The Greek word translated rebellion is apostasia, from which we get apostasy. It means people would abandon something they once considered themselves to be part of and the context implies that it’s the church. You can’t fall away from something unless you first think of yourself as being part of it. But true believers can’t fall away at all. Therefore this rebellion or apostasy has to manifest itself in what’s left of the church after the rapture removes all the true believers.
Don’t be confused about this. We see believers-in-name-only leaving traditional churches to join the Emerging Church all around us, but rebellion is as much attitude as it is action and they don’t think they’re rebelling against God. They see themselves as still being in the Church. In fact they think they’re the best part of it. Far from being rebellious, they call themselves followers of Christ, not just believers in him, and doers of the word, not just hearers. They’re not sitting in Churches on Sunday listening to the same tired old messages on sin and salvation and coming forward to be born again. No. They’re out there in the world, thinking they’re changing it for Jesus.
These advocates of the so-called social gospel don’t realize it’s not what you do for the Lord that matters, it’s what you believe He’s done for you. The only work the Lord requires of us is that we believe in the one He sent (John 6:29). That means to believe God chose to send His Son to Earth to die for our sins so we can choose to live with Him in Eternity (John 3:16). The righteous work of a thousand lifetimes will not suffice in place of this belief.
When these believers-in-name-only discover we’ve disappeared while they’ve been left behind, that’s when they’ll rebel against God and join the other side. By the time the anti-Christ makes his claim to deity, the whole world will follow him (Rev. 13:8) and they’ll be right in the forefront.
The End Times According To Paul
After the rapture and the falling away of believers-in-name-only into His world-wide counterfeit religion, the anti-Christ will be revealed for who he really is by proclaiming himself to be God (2 Thes. 2:4). Remember, the sequence Paul gave was first the apostasy, and then the man of lawlessness will be revealed.
Paul confirmed this sequence in 2 Thes. 2:7-8, saying a restrainer is currently holding things back. After the restrainer is taken out of the way the anti-Christ will be revealed. This restrainer is the Holy Spirit, sealed with in the Church. After the rapture, the Holy Spirit will be out of the way, the rebellion will take place, and the anti-Christ will be revealed. These things can’t happen until the church is gone.
Most likely, the anti-Christ will already be known as a great statesman and leader, but by declaring himself to be God he’ll be laying claim to Planet Earth. This claim will kick off the Great Tribulation (Matt. 24:15-21) and will be accompanied by all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders that will deceive those who have fallen away into thinking they have finally found the truth. But in reality they will have rejected the truth and embraced a lie. At the end of the Great Tribulation the Lord will return to over throw the anti-Christ and destroy him by the splendor of His coming and those who believe the lie will perish as well (2 Thes. 2:9-12).
In his letters to the Thessalonians Paul didn’t reveal the actual timing of the Rapture except as it relates to other events. It may be one of the things he was forbidden to speak about (2 Cor. 12:4). All we know is for reasons of His own the Lord has never given us a specific date for the rapture. But by carefully studying passages describing it and maintaining the view that the Bible cannot contradict itself, the astute believer can obey the commandment to “know the times and seasons” and construct with some assurance the correct sequence of events. Paul criticized the Thessalonians for not figuring this out back then (2 Thes 2:5) and would even more strongly criticize the church today for the same reason.