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Paul introduced his teaching by urging his readers not to be shaken from their adherence to the truth he had taught them by what they were hearing from others. The issue centered on Paul’s instructions concerning the Rapture (2 Thessalonians 2:1, cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). Other teachers were telling the Thessalonians that the day of the Lord had already begun (2 Thessalonians 2:2). This seemed to be a distinct possibility since Scripture describes that day as a time of tribulation as well as blessing. The Thessalonians were experiencing intense persecution for their faith.
"False starts have been a common phenomenon among movements predicting the imminent end of the age as people’s expectations exceed their patience." [Note: Wanamaker, p. 238.]
Many people throughout church history have confused the teaching of the apostles that Christ could come at any moment (for believers at the Rapture) and the unbiblical idea that He would come at any moment. The first correct view is the doctrine of imminence, but the second incorrect view involves date setting.
The false message seems to have gained a hearing also because it came from several different sources. Paul referred to alleged prophetic revelation, the teaching of other recognized authorities, and a letter Paul had supposedly written that had arrived in Thessalonica (cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:17). If the day of the Lord had begun, how could Paul say the Lord’s return for his own would precede that day (1 Thessalonians 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 5:9)? Note that Paul had taught them a pretribulation Rapture. [Note: See Thomas R. Edgar, "An Exegesis of Rapture Passages," in Issues in Dispensationalism, pp. 207-11; and David A. Dean, "Does 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3 Exclude the Pretribulational Rapture?" Bibliotheca Sacra 168:670 (April-June 2011);196-216.]
"The supposed doctrinal difficulty lies in the failure to distinguish between parousia [appearing] and the day of the Lord. The advocates of the false teaching at Thessalonica conceived that the day of the Lord was not merely ’at hand,’ which was true (Romans 13:12), but actually ’present,’ which Paul denied. Such a view denied the believer the hope of the imminent rapture." [Note: Hiebert, p. 304. See Renald E. Showers, Maranatha: Our Lord, Come! A Definitive Study of the Rapture of the Church, pp. 223-29, for an extended exegetical discussion of these verses that imply a pretribulation Rapture.]
The subject of 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 is "the day of the Lord" (2 Thessalonians 2:2). This day, as the Old Testament and the New Testament refer to it, includes the Tribulation, the Second Coming, the Millennium, and the great white throne judgment (cf. Psalms 2:9; Isaiah 11:1-12; Isaiah 13; Joel 2; Amos 5:18; Zephaniah 3:14-20; et al.). [Note: See Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, 7:110.]
Some premillenarians include the Rapture in the day of the Lord. [Note: E.g., Thomas, pp. 318, 319; and Bruce, p. 163.] But others exclude it. [Note: E.g., John F. Walvoord, The Thessalonian Epistles, p. 73.] Those who include it point to the Rapture as the beginning of God’s direct intervention in human history again. They also stress that the parousia ("coming" or "appearing") refers in Scripture to the Lord’s coming and to events that follow the Lord’s coming. Those who exclude it do so for two reasons. The Rapture is a church event whereas the day of the Lord is an Israel event, and the beginning of that day resumes the chronology of Daniel’s seventy weeks. The seventieth week begins when the Antichrist signs a covenant with Israel allowing the Jews to return to their land (Daniel 9:27). I favor the second view. While the term parousia is broad and refers to the Rapture and to many events that follow it, the term "the day of the Lord" seems more narrowly defined in Scripture and nowhere specifically includes the Rapture.
"This great contrast of attitudes toward the beginning judgment phase of the Day of the Lord and the Rapture [in these verses] is another indicator that the Rapture is not the beginning or any part of the Day of the Lord. Rather, it will be a separate event. Therefore, Paul’s reference to the Day of the Lord in 2 Thessalonians 2:2 is not a reference to the Rapture." [Note: Showers, p. 66.]
A. The beginning of the day of the Lord 2:1-5
III. CORRECTION OF PRESENT ERROR 2:1-12
Paul next dealt with a doctrinal error that had come into the Thessalonian church to correct this error and to stabilize the church.
2 Thessalonians 2:1-17 contain truth about the end times revealed nowhere else in Scripture. This section is key to understanding future events, and it is central to the argument of this epistle.
Paul explained that three events had to take place before the judgments of the day of the Lord began (i.e., the judgments of the Tribulation). These were the apostasy (2 Thessalonians 2:3), the unveiling of the man of lawlessness (2 Thessalonians 2:3-4; 2 Thessalonians 2:8), and the removal of the restraint of lawlessness (2 Thessalonians 2:6-7). The apostle presented these in logical rather than chronological order in this passage. The word "first" refers to the fact that the apostasy will occur at the very beginning of the day of the Lord, and before the revelation of the man of sin. [Note: Thomas, pp. 320-21; idem, Evangelical Hermeneutics, pp. 72-75.]
One major event is the "apostasy" (2 Thessalonians 2:3, lit. the falling away). The English word "apostasy" is a transliteration of the Greek word apostasia. By definition an apostasy is a departure, an abandoning of a position formerly held (cf. Joshua 22:22 LXX; Acts 21:21).
"In classical Greek the word apostasia denoted a political or military rebellion; but in the Greek Old Testament we find it used of rebellion against God (e.g. Jos. xxii. 22), and this becomes the accepted Biblical usage. Paul’s thought is that in the last times there will be an outstanding manifestation of the powers of evil arrayed against God." [Note: Morris, The Epistles . . ., p. 126.]
It seems that Paul referred here to the departure from the Christian faith of professing (not genuine) Christians soon after the Rapture, at the beginning of the day of the Lord. This was not the same apostasy he and other apostles spoke of elsewhere when they warned of departure from the faith before the Rapture (1 Timothy 4:1-3; 2 Timothy 4:3-4; James 5:1-8; 2 Peter 2; 2 Peter 3:3-6; Jude).
"It is not so much forsaking one’s first love and drifting into apathy that is meant, as setting oneself in opposition to God." [Note: Idem, The First . . ., p. 219.]
". . . it seems likely that the apostasy Paul had in mind expanded on Jewish apocalyptic expectations and envisioned a dramatic and climactic falling away from the worship of the true God (by both Jews and some portion of the Christian church) as a part of the complex of events at the end of the age." [Note: Martin, p. 234.]
The portion of the Christian church in Paul’s view would be the non-genuine Christians who compose Christendom. "Christendom" refers to all professing Christians, genuine and non-genuine. Such a departure had begun in Paul’s day (1 Timothy 4:1-3; 2 Timothy 4:3-4; James 5:1-8; 2 Peter 2; 2 Peter 3:3-6; Jude). However it had not yet reached the proportions predicted to characterize "the apostasy" about which Paul had instructed his readers when he was with them (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:5). When the Rapture takes place and all true Christians leave the earth, this apostasy will overwhelm the human race.
"This worldwide anti-God movement will be so universal as to earn for itself a special designation: ’the apostasy’-i.e., the climax of the increasing apostate tendencies evident before the rapture of the church." [Note: Thomas, "2 Thessalonians," p. 322.]
"It appears more probable from the context that a general abandonment of the basis of civil order is envisaged. This is not only rebellion against the law of Moses; it is a large-scale revolt against public order, and since public order is maintained by the ’governing authorities’ who ’have been instituted by God,’ any assault on it is an assault on a divine ordinance (Romans 13:1-2). It is, in fact, the whole concept of divine authority over the world that is set at defiance in ’the rebellion’ par excellence." [Note: Bruce, p. 167. Cf. David A. Hubbard, The Second Epistle to the Thessalonians," in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, p. 1363.]
Some pretribulationists take a different view. They believe this "apostasy" is a reference to the Rapture, and some of them find support for their view in Paul’s reference to the Rapture (2 Thessalonians 2:1). [Note: E.g., E. Schuyler English, Re-Thinking the Rapture, pp. 67-71; John R. Rice, The Coming Kingdom of Christ, p. 188-91; and Kenneth S. Wuest, Prophetic Light in the Present Darkness, pp. 38-41.]
"Nowhere else does the Scripture speak of the rapture as ’the departure.’ A departure denotes an act on the part of the individual or company departing. But the rapture is not an act of departure on the part of the saints. In the rapture the church is passive, not active. At the rapture the church is ’caught up’ or ’snatched away,’ an event wherein the Lord acts to transport believers from earth into His presence (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). Everything that takes place with the believers at the rapture is initiated by the Lord and done by Him. Paul has just referred to the rapture as ’our gathering together unto him’ (2 Thessalonians 2:1); why then should he now use this unlikely term to mean the same thing?" [Note: Hiebert, p. 306.]
Another major event, in addition to "the apostasy," is the unveiling of "the man of lawlessness" (2 Thessalonians 2:3). This is a person yet to appear who will be completely lawless and whom God will doom to everlasting destruction. The prophet Daniel spoke of such a person. He will make a covenant with the Jews but then break it after three and a half years (Daniel 9:27). The breaking of that covenant seems to be the event that unmasks this individual for who he is, the opponent of Christ. He will eventually seek to make everyone worship himself and will claim to be God (cf. Revelation 13:5-8). The reference to him taking his seat in the temple of God (2 Thessalonians 2:4) may be figurative representing him as taking the highest position possible. More likely it is literal in which case the material temple of God that will stand in Jerusalem during the second half, at least, of the Tribulation is in view (cf. Daniel 11:36). [Note: See John F. Walvoord, "Will Israel Build a Temple in Jerusalem?" Bibliotheca Sacra 125:498 (April-June 1968):99-106; Thomas S. McCall, "How Soon the Tribulation Temple?" Bibliotheca Sacra 128:512 (October-December 1971):341-51; idem, "Problems in Rebuilding the Tribulation Temple," Bibliotheca Sacra 139:513 (January-March 1972):75-80; and Bruce, p. 169.] Amillennialists, who do not believe in a future reign of Christ on the present earth, take this temple as the one that stood in Jerusalem when Paul wrote this epistle. [Note: E.g., Wanamaker, p. 246.] This person, the Antichrist, had not yet appeared when Paul wrote, nor has he appeared yet (cf. 1 John 2:18). [Note: See the excursus on Antichrist in ibid., pp. 179-88.]
"In A.D. 40, only a few years before Paul wrote this letter, Gaius Caesar (Caligula), who had declared his own divinity, attempted to have his image set up in the holy of holies in Jerusalem." [Note: Martin, p. 237.]
"All attempts to equate the Man of Lawlessness with historical personages break down on the fact that Paul was speaking of someone who would appear only at the end of the age." [Note: Morris, The First . . ., p. 221.]
Paul reminded his readers that he had told them of these things when he was with them. Since Paul was evidently only in Thessalonica a few weeks this reference is very significant. Paul did not regard prophecy as too deep or unimportant or controversial for even new Christians. Many Christians today play down the importance of this part of God’s revelation. Paul believed prophetic truth was a vital part of the whole counsel of God essential to victorious Christian living. Consequently he taught it without hesitation or apology. So should we.
When he was with them Paul had told the Thessalonians what was restraining the unveiling of the man of lawlessness (i.e., Antichrist, 2 Thessalonians 2:3; cf. 1 John 2:18). However, he did not restate the identity of the restrainer here. Nevertheless it seems that the Holy Spirit is the restraining influence in view. [Note: See Gerald B. Stanton, Kept from the Hour, pp. 92-107, for a full discussion.]
"To one familiar with the Lord Jesus’ Upper Room Discourse, as Paul undoubtedly was, fluctuation between neuter and masculine recalls how the Holy Spirit is spoken of. Either gender is appropriate, depending on whether the speaker (or writer) thinks of natural agreement (masc. because of the Spirit’s personality) or grammatical (neuter because of the [neuter] noun pneuma; see John 14:26; John 15:26; John 16:13-14) . . ." [Note: Thomas, "2 Thessalonians," p. 324.]
Posttribulationists, and some pretribulationists, have suggested other possible restrainers. These include the Roman Empire [Note: William Barclay, The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians and Thessalonians, p. 247.] and or the emperor, [Note: Wanamaker, p. 256.] God, [Note: George E. Ladd, The Blessed Hope, p. 95.] Antichrist, Satan, and human government. [Note: Bruce, pp. 171-72; Hubbard, p. 1364; Morris, The Epistles . . ., p. 129.] Marvin Rosenthal, the "pre-wrath rapturist," believed the restrainer is Michael the archangel. [Note: Marvin Rosenthal, The Pre-Wrath Rapture of the Church, pp. 257-61. See John A. McLean, "Another Look at Rosenthal’s ’Pre-Wrath Rapture,’" Bibliotheca Sacra 148:592 (October-December 1991):395-96; and Renald E. Showers, The Pre-Wrath Rapture View: An Examination and Critique.] These suggestions do not fit Paul’s description. [Note: For refutation of the major views, see Robert H. Gundry, The Church and the Tribulation, pp. 122-25.] Some scholars eventually confess ignorance. [Note: E.g., Morris, p. 130.]
The Holy Spirit accomplishes His ministry of restraining lawlessness in the world mainly through the influence of Christians whom He indwells, specifically through their gospel preaching. [Note: See Charles E. Powell, "The Identity of the ’Restrainer’ in 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7," Bibliotheca Sacra 154:615 (July-September 1997):329.]
"One of the distinctive features of the dispensation of grace in contrast to prior periods is the fact that the Holy Spirit indwells everyone who is regenerated. In the coming period of the kingdom on earth this divine blessing will also be a prominent feature and everyone who is saved will be indwelt by the Holy Spirit.
"There is little evidence that believers will be indwelt by the Spirit during the tribulation. The possibility of a universal indwelling of all believers in the tribulation is opposed by the revelation of 2 Thessalonians 2:7, that the one restraining the world from sin, i.e., the Holy Spirit, will be ’taken out of the way’ during the tribulation. Unrestrained evil characterizes the tribulation, though the lack of restraint is not total (cf. Revelation 7:2; Revelation 12:6; Revelation 12:14-16). The indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit in the saints in itself would contribute to the restraint of sin, and it, therefore, is taken away. The tribulation period, also, seems to revert back to Old Testament conditions in several ways; and in the Old Testament period, saints were never permanently indwelt except in isolated instances, though a number of instances of the filling of the Spirit and of empowerment for service are found. Taking all the factors into consideration, there is no evidence for the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit in believers in the tribulation." [Note: John F. Walvoord, The Holy Spirit, pp. 151, 230. Cf. Thomas, "2 Thessalonians," p. 325; and Charles C. Ryrie, First and Second Thessalonians, p. 113.]
Many interpreters use the absence of specific revelation about the Spirit’s indwelling during the Tribulation to their advantage. Some (e.g., normative dispensationalists) believe the silence argues for no indwelling. Others (e.g., progressive dispensationalists) believe it assumes that indwelling continues.
B. The mystery of lawlessness 2:6-12
Paul continued his instruction concerning the events that must take place at the beginning of the day of the Lord and stressed the lawlessness of that period. His purpose was to explain more clearly that his readers had not missed the Rapture and had not entered the eschatological day of the Lord.
The "mystery" (truth previously not revealed but now made known) Paul referred to here is the revelation of a future climax of lawlessness that would follow the removal of the restrainer. This lawless movement was already underway in Paul’s day, but God was holding it back until His appointed time. Then He will remove the restraining influence. This removal is probably a reference to the Rapture when God’s restraint of evil through His people will end as He removes them from the earth. [Note: See Theodore H. Epp, "The Restrainer Removed," Good News Broadcaster, March 1975, pp. 20-22.] God will remove the Holy Spirit from the earth in the sense that God will remove those whom He indwells and He with them. He will not entirely abandon the earth, of course, since God is omnipresent.
Gundry believed the restrainer is the Holy Spirit but that it is His ministry of restraining lawlessness apart from the influence of Christians that is in view here. [Note: Gundry, pp. 125-28.] His conclusion grows out of belief that the Holy Spirit will permanently indwell all believers since Pentecost. Yet compare 1 Corinthians 12:13 where Paul said the baptizing ministry of the Holy Spirit places believers into the "one body" of Christ. The body of Christ is a term that always describes the church that began on the day of Pentecost and goes to heaven at the Rapture. For the Christian, Spirit indwelling takes place at the same time as Spirit baptism, namely, the time of regeneration. Since people whom God will justify during the Tribulation will not experience baptism into the body of Christ, it is unwarranted to assume that the Spirit will also permanently indwell them. The "body of Christ" will be in heaven rather than on earth then.
"Since the removal of the Restrainer takes place before the manifestation of the lawless one, this identification implies a pretribulational rapture." [Note: Hiebert, p. 313.]
After the Rapture the lawless one will have greater freedom. He will do things that will eventually result in his being identified as the Antichrist. However the mere breath of the Lord Jesus’ mouth will slay him when Christ comes with His saints at the Second Coming (2 Thessalonians 1:10). The Lord’s "appearance" (Gr. epiphaneia) is a different and later event in His "coming" (Gr. parousia) than the "gathering" (Gr. episynagoges) event (2 Thessalonians 2:1). The first event is the Rapture, and the second is the Second Coming.
The lawless one will be Satan’s instrument. Scripture also calls him the beast coming out of the sea (Revelation 13:1-10), the scarlet beast (Revelation 17:3), and simply the beast (Revelation 17:8; Revelation 17:16; Revelation 19:19-20; Revelation 20:10). Satan will empower him to deceive many people into thinking he is God by doing awe-inspiring, powerful miracles (cf. Revelation 13:2-4; Revelation 17:8).
"The use of parousia here probably suggests a parody of Christ’s Parousia (2 Thessalonians 2:8)." [Note: Bruce, p. 173.]
Thousands of people, but only a small proportion of the entire population, will place their faith in Jesus Christ during the Tribulation (Revelation 6:9-11; Revelation 7:4; Revelation 7:9-17; et al.). Some interpreters have concluded from these verses (2 Thessalonians 2:11-12) that no one who has heard the gospel and rejected it before the Rapture will be able to be saved during the Tribulation. This view rests on taking the antecedents of "them" and "they" as being "those who perish" (2 Thessalonians 2:10) and interpreting "those who perish" as those who heard but rejected the gospel before the Rapture. However it seems more likely that 2 Thessalonians 2:10 describes all unbelievers in the Tribulation, not just those who heard and rejected the gospel before the Rapture. Satan’s power, signs, wonders, and evil deception (2 Thessalonians 2:9-10) will impress all people living on the earth during the Tribulation. Paul could say that those people do not receive "the love of the truth so as to be saved" (2 Thessalonians 2:10) and they "did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness" (2 Thessalonians 2:12). He could do so since these phrases describe all unbelievers, not just those who hear the gospel and willfully rejected it before the Rapture (cf. John 3:19, Romans 1:24-32). [Note: See Larry R. Thornton, "Salvation in the Tribulation in Light of God’s ’Working unto Delusion’," Calvary Baptist Theological Journal 3:2 (Fall 1987):26-49.]
"By ’the lie ["what is false"]’ is apparently meant the denial of the fundamental truth that God is God; it is the rejection of his self-revelation as Creator and Savior, righteous and merciful Judge of all, which leads to the worship due to him alone being offered to another, such as the ’man of lawlessness.’" [Note: Bruce, p. 174.]
"It is a solemn thought that when men begin by rejecting the good they inevitably end by forwarding evil." [Note: Morris, The Epistles . . ., p. 134.]
If Paul wanted to correct the Thessalonians’ erroneous conclusion that they were in the day of the Lord, why did he not just tell them that the Rapture had not yet taken place? Evidently he did not do so because he wanted to reemphasize the order of events resulting in the culmination and destruction of lawlessness in the world. Lawlessness was their concern.
Paul’s readers could, therefore, be confident that the day of the Lord had not yet begun. The tribulations they were experiencing were not those of the day of the Lord about which Paul had taught them while he was with them. Furthermore three prerequisite events had not yet taken place. These were the departure from the Word of God by many (2 Thessalonians 2:3), the removal of the restrainer at the Rapture (2 Thessalonians 2:7), and the revelation of the man of lawlessness, Antichrist (2 Thessalonians 2:3). This is the chronological order of these events. [Note: For a helpful summary of posttribulational interpretations of these verses, see John F. Walvoord, The Blessed Hope and the Tribulation, chapter 10: "Is the Tribulation Before the Rapture in 2 Thessalonians?"]
In contrast to the lawless unbelievers just referred to (2 Thessalonians 2:12), Paul was grateful that he could always give thanks for his readers. Moreover he did so (cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:3). The ground for his joy was God’s choice of them for salvation before He created the world ("the beginning," 2 Thessalonians 2:13; cf. Ephesians 1:4). Though God loves all people (John 3:16), He does not choose all for salvation. Paul consistently taught what the rest of Scripture reveals, namely, that the initiative in salvation comes from God, not man. God accomplishes salvation through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit (cf. Romans 15:16; 1 Corinthians 6:11-12; 1 Thessalonians 4:7-8; 1 Peter 1:2). [Note: Cf. Ernest Best, A Commentary on the First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians, pp. 314-15.] He makes it efficacious when individuals believe the gospel. Even though unbelievers oppose us, we can take courage because God loves us, and He will deliver us.
"It is a travesty of God’s electing grace to suppose that, because he chooses some for salvation, all the others are thereby consigned to perdition. On the contrary, if some are chosen for special blessing, it is in order that others may be blessed through them and with them. This is a constant feature in the pattern of divine election throughout the Bible story, from Abraham onward. Those who are chosen constitute the firstfruits, bearing the promise of a rich harvest to come." [Note: Bruce, p. 191.]
This writer did not believe in the universal salvation of all people, so perhaps he meant that the blessings that the lost receive because of the elect are temporal rather than eternal.
A. Thanksgiving for calling 2:13-15
IV. THANKSGIVING AND PRAYER 2:13-17
Paul proceeded to give thanks for his readers’ salvation and to pray for their steadfastness to help them appreciate their secure position in holding fast to apostolic teaching. These verses form a transition between the didactic and hortatory sections of the epistle.
God’s purpose in choosing the Thessalonians was that they might one day share the splendor and honor that their Lord does and will enjoy, beginning at the Rapture. Ultimate glorification is in view (cf. Romans 8:30).
In view of their calling, Paul urged his readers not to abandon what he and his associates had taught them in person and by letter. He wanted them to hold firmly to the inspired instructions that he handed on to them (i.e., "the traditions").
"We are almost incurably convinced that the use of notebooks is essential to the learning process. This, however, was not the case in the first century. Then it was often held that if a man had to look something up in a book he did not really know it. The true scholar was a person who had committed to memory the things he had learned. Until a man had a teaching in his memory he was not considered really to have mastered it." [Note: Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John: Revised Edition, pp. 38-39.]
"There is a distinction in the Pauline writings between the gospel received by revelation (as in Galatians 1:12) and the gospel received by tradition (as in 1 Corinthians 15:3), and the language of didache ["teaching"] and paradosis ["tradition"] is appropriate to the latter, not to the former. Even communications made dia pneumatos ["by the Spirit"] must be tested by their conformity to the paradosis and if they conflict with it they are to be refused (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22)." [Note: Bruce, pp. 193-94.]
B. Prayer for strength 2:16-17
As part of a bridge between his instructions (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12) and exhortations (2 Thessalonians 3:1-15), Paul added this prayer for the Thessalonians. He petitioned God for their encouragement and strength (cf. 1 Thessalonians 3:2; 1 Thessalonians 3:13; 2 Thessalonians 3:3).
"Addressing his prayer to the first two persons of the Trinity, Paul names the Son before the Father (contra 1 Thessalonians 3:11), probably in line with the Son’s worthiness of equal honor with the Father and his special prominence in the chapter’s emphasis on future salvation and glory." [Note: Thomas, "2 Thessalonians," p. 330.]
God’s grace is the basis for eternal encouragement in the face of temporary distress. Our hope is beneficial because it motivates us to live in the light of our victorious Savior’s return.
"The phrase ’good hope’ was used by non-Christian writers to refer to life after death." [Note: Martin, p. 259.]
The Thessalonians needed comforting encouragement in view of their recent anxiety that false teaching had produced. They also needed God’s grace to enable them to stand firm and do everything as unto the Lord (cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:7-13). Too, they needed it as they continued proclaiming the gospel.
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on 2 Thessalonians 2". "Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable". https://www.studylight.org/
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