The contents of the letter naturally falls into three parts:
I. Introduction, 2Th_1:1-12. The apostle begins his letter with the regular blessing, 2Th_1:1-2. He thanks God for the increasing faith and patience of the Thessalonians, reminding them of the fact that in the day of Christ’s coming God will provide rest for his persecuted church and will punish her persecutors; and prays that God may fulfill his good pleasure in them to the glory of his Name, 2Th_1:3-12.
II. Instruction respecting the Parousia, 2Th_2:1-17. The church is warned against deception regarding the imminence of the great day of Christ and is informed that it will not come until the mystery of iniquity has resulted in the great apostasy, and the man of sin has been revealed whose coming is after the work of Satan, and who will utterly deceive men to their own destruction, 2Th_2:1-12. The Thessalonians need not fear the manifestation of Christ, since they were chosen and called to everlasting glory; and it is the apostles wish that the Lord may comfort their hearts and establish them in all good work, 2Th_2:13-17.
III. Practical Exhortations, 2Th_3:1-18. The writer requests the prayer of the church for himself that he may be delivered from unreasonable and wicked men, and exhorts her to do what he commanded, 2Th_3:1-5. They should withdraw from those who are disorderly and do not work, because each one should labor for his daily bread and thus follow the example of the apostle, 2Th_3:6-12. Those who do not heed the apostolic word should be censured, 2Th_3:13-15. With a blessing and a salutation the apostle closes his letter, 2Th_3:16-18.
1. The main characteristic of this letter is found in the apocalyptic passage, 2Th_2:1-12. In these verses, that contain the most essential part of the Epistle, Paul speaks as a prophet, revealing to his beloved church that the return of Christ will be preceded by a great final apostasy and by the revelation of the man of sin, the son of perdition who, as the instrument of Satan, will deceive men, so that they accept the lie and are condemned in the great day of Christ. II Thessalonians, no doubt, was written primarily for the sake of this instruction.
2. Aside from this important doctrinal passage the Epistle has a personal and practical character. It contains expressions of gratitude for the faith and endurance of the persecuted church, words of encouragement for the afflicted, fatherly advice for the spiritual children of the apostle, and directions as to their proper behavior.
3. The style of this letter, like that of I Thessalonians, is simple and direct, except in 2Th_2:1-12, where the tone is more elevated. This change is accounted for by the prophetic contents of that passage. The language clearly reveals the working of the vigorous mind of Paul, who in the expression of his thoughts was not limited to a few stock phrases. Besides the many expressions that are characteristically Pauline the Epistle contains several that are peculiar to it, and also a goodly number which it has in common only with I Thessalonians. Of the 26 ἅπαξ λεγόμενα in the letter 10 are not found in the rest of the New Testament, and 16 are used elsewhere in the New Testament but not in the writings of Paul.
The external testimony for the authenticity of this Epistle is just as strong as that for the genuineness of the first letter. Marcion has it in his canon, the Muratorian Fragment names it, and it is also found in the old Latin and Syriac Versions. From the time of Irenaeus it is regularly quoted as a letter of Paul, and Origen and Eusebius claim that it was universally received in their time.
The Epistle itself claims to be the work of Paul, 2Th_1:1; and again in 2Th_3:17, where the apostle calls attention to the salutation as a mark of genuineness. The persons associated with the writer in the composition of this letter are the same as those mentioned in I Thessalonians. As in the majority of Paul’s letters the apostolic blessing is followed by a thanksgiving. The Epistle is very similar to I Thessalonians and contains some cross-references to it, as in the case of the parousia and of the idlers. It clearly reveals the character of the great apostle, and its style may confidently be termed Pauline.
Nevertheless the genuineness of the Epistle has been doubted far more than that of I Thessalonians. Schmidt was the first one to assail it in 1804; in this he was followed by Schrader, Mayerhof and De Wette, who afterwards changed his mind, however. The attack was renewed by Kern and Baur in whose school the rejection of the Epistle became general. Its authenticity is defended by Reuss, Sabatier, Hofmann, Weiss, Zahn, Julicher, Farrar, Godet, Baljon, Moffat e. a.
The principal objections urged against the genuineness of this letter are the following: (1) The teaching of Paul regarding the parousia in 2Th_2:1-12 is not consistent with what he wrote in 1Th_4:13-18; 1Th_5:1-11. According to the first letter the day of Christ is imminent and will come suddenly and unexpectedly; the second emphasizes the fact that it is not close at hand and that several signs will precede it. (2) The eschatology of this passage 2Th_2:1-12 is not Paul’s but clearly dates from a later time and was probably borrowed from the Revelation of John. Some identify the man of sin with Nero who, though reported dead, was supposed to be hiding in the East and was expected to return; and find the one still restraining the evil in Vespasian. Others hold that this passage clearly refers to the time of Trajan, when the mystery of iniquity was seen in the advancing tide of Gnosticism. (3) This letter is to a great extent but a repetition of I Thessalonians, and therefore looks more like the work of a forger than like a genuine production of Paul. Holtzmann says that, with the exception of 2Th_1:5-6; 2Th_1:9; 2Th_1:12; 2Th_2:2-9; 2Th_2:11-12; 2Th_2:15; 2Th_3:2; 2Th_3:13-14; 2Th_3:17, the entire Epistle consists of a reproduction of parallel passages from the first letter. Einl. p. 214. (4) The Epistle contains a conspicuously large number of peculiar expressions that are not found in the rest of Paul’s writings, nor in the entire New Testament. Cf. lists in Frames Comm. pp. 28-34, in the Intern. Crit. Comm. (5) The salutation in 2Th_3:17 has a suspicious look. It seems like the attempt of a later writer to ward off objections and to attest the Pauline authorship.
But the objections raised are not sufficient to discredit the authenticity of our Epistle. The contradictions in Paul’s teaching regarding the parousia of Christ, are more apparent than real. The signs that precede the great day will not detract from its suddenness any more than the signs of Noah’s time prevented the flood from taking his contemporaries by surprise. Moreover these two features, the suddenness of Christ’s appearance and the portentous facts that are the harbingers of his coming, always go hand in hand in the eschatological teachings of Scripture. Dan_11:1 to Dan_12:3; Mat_24:1-44; Luk_17:20-37. As to the immediacy of Christ’s coming we can at most say that the first Epistle intimates that the Lord might appear during that generation (though possibly it does not even imply that), but it certainly does not teach that Christ will presently come.
The eschatology of 2Th_2:1-17 has given rise to much discussion and speculation regarding the date and authorship of the Epistle, but recent investigations into the conditions of the early church have clearly brought out that the contents of this chapter in no way militate against the genuineness of the letter. Hence they who deny the Pauline authorship have ceased to place great reliance on it. There is nothing improbable in the supposition that Paul wrote the passage regarding the man of sin. We find similar representations as early as the time of Daniel (cf. Dan_11:1-45), in the pseudepigraphic literature of the Jews (cf. Schfirer, Geschichte des fiidischen Volkes II p. 621 f.), and in the eschatological discourses of the Lord. The words and expressions found in this chapter are very well susceptible of an interpretation that does not necessitate our dating the Epistle after the time of Paul. We cannot delay to review all the preterist and futurist expositions that have been given (for which cf. Alford, Prolegomena Section V), but can only indicate in a general way in what direction we must look for the interpretation of this difficult passage. In interpreting it we should continually bear in mind its prophetic import and its reference to something that is still future. No doubt, there were in history prefigurations of the great day of Christ in which this prophecy found a partial fulfilment, but the parousia of which Paul speaks in these verses is even now only a matter of faithful expectation. The history of the world is gradually leading up to it. Paul was witnessing some apostasy in his day, the μυστήριον της ἀνομίας was already working, but the great apostasy (ἡ ἀποστασία) could not come in his day, because there had been as yet but a very partial dissemination of the truth; and will not come until the days immediately preceding the second coming of Christ, when the mystery of godlessness will complete itself, and will finally be embodied in a single person, in the man of sin, the son of perdition, who will then develop into a power antagonistic to Christ (anti-christ, ὃ ἀντικείμενος), yea to every form of religion, the very incarnation of Satan. Cf. 2Th_2:9. This can only come to pass, however, after the restraining power is taken out of the way, a power that is at once impersonal (κατέχον) and personal (κατέχων), and which may refer first of all to the strict administration of justice in the Roman empire and to the emperor as the chief executive, but certainly has a wider signification and probably refers in general to “the fabric of human polity and those who rule that polity.” (Alford). For a more detailed exposition cf. especially, Alford, Prolegomena Section V; Zahn, Einleitung I p. 162 if.; Godet, Introduction p .171 if.; and Eadie, Essay on the Man of Sin in Comm. p. 329 if.
We fail to see the force of the third argument, unless it is an established fact that Paul could not repeat himself to a certain degree, even in two Epistles written within the space of a few months, on a subject that engaged the mind of the apostle for some time, to the same church and therefore with a view to almost identical conditions. This argument looks strange especially in view of the following one, which urges the rejection of this letter, because it is so unlike the other Pauline writings. The points of difference between our letter and I Thessalonians are generally exaggerated, and the examples cited by Davidson to prove the dissimilarity are justly ridiculed by Salmon, who styles such criticism “childish criticism, that is to say, criticism such as might proceed from a child who insists that a story shall always be told to him in precisely the same way.” Introd. p. 398. The salutation in 2Th_3:17 does not point to a time later than that of Paul, since he too had reason to fear the evil influence of forged Epistles, 2Th_2:2. He merely states that, with a view to such deception, he would in the future authenticate all his letters by attaching an autographic salutation.
1. Occasion and Purpose. Evidently some additional information regarding the state of affairs at Thessalonica had reached Paul, it may be through the bearers of the first Epistle, or by means of a communication from the elders of the church. It seems that some letter had been circulated among them, purporting to come from Paul, and that some false spirit was at work in the congregation. The persecution of the Thessalonians still continued and had probably increased in force, and in some way the impression had been created that the day of the Lord was at hand. This led on the one hand to feverish anxiety, and on the other, to idleness. Hence the apostle deemed it necessary to write a second letter to the Thessalonians.
The purpose of the writer was to encourage the sorely pressed church; to calm the excitement by pointing out that the second advent of the Lord could not be expected immediately, since the mystery of lawlessness had to develop first and to issue in the man of sin; and to exhort the irregular ones to a quiet, industrious and orderly conduct.
2. Time and Place. Some writers, such as Grotius, Ewald, Vander Vies and Laurent advocated the theory that II Thessalonians was written before I Thessalonians, but the arguments adduced to support that position cannot bear the burden. Moreover 2Th_2:15 clearly refers to a former letter of the apostle. In all probability our Epistle was composed a few months after the first one, for on the one hand Silas and Timothy were still with the apostle, 2Th_1:1, which was not the case after he left Corinth, and they were still antagonized by the Jews so that most likely their case had not yet been brought before Gallio, Act_18:12-17; and on the other hand a change had come about both in the sentiment of the apostle, who speaks no more of his desire to visit the Thessalonians, and in the condition of the church to which he was writing, a change that would necessarily require some time. We should most likely date the letter about the middle of A. D. 53.
The early Church found no reason to doubt the canonicity of this letter. Little stress can be laid, it is true, on the supposed reference to its language in Ignatius, Barnabas, the Didache and Justin Martyr. It is quite evident, however, that Polycarp used the Epistle. Moreover it has a place in the canon of Marcion, is mentioned among the Pauline letters in the Muratorian Fragment, and is contained in the old Latin and Syriac Versions. Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian and others since their time, quote it by name. The great permanent value of this Epistle lies in the fact that it corrects false notions regarding the second advent of Christ, notions that led to indolence and disorderliness. We are taught in this Epistle that the great day of Christ will not come until the mystery of iniquity that is working in the world receives its full development, and brings forth the son of perdition who as the very incarnation of Satan will set himself against Christ and his Church. If the Church of God had always remembered this lesson, she would have been spared many an irregularity and disappointment. The letter also reminds us once more of the fact that the day of the Lord will be a day of terror to the wicked, but a day of deliverance and glory for the Church of Christ.