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What does "except there come a falling away first" in 2 Thess. 2:3 mean?
Thanks for the question, this passage has been the subject of much controversy, as to whether this speaks of a period of great "apostasy", or whether it refers to the "departure", or "Rapture" of the Church.
I believe the KJV phrase "falling away", in 2 Thess. 2:3, refers to the "departure", or "Rapture" of the Church.
The KJV English phrase "falling away", in 2 Thess. 2:3, is the one Greek word "apostasia", and its basic meaning is to "depart from" or "go away".
The Greek word "Apostasia" is a compound of two Greek words: "Apo" = "to move away", "stasis" means "standing or state", or "to stand".
Literally, from its basic definition, "apostasia" means "to go away from", or "depart", or "change state or standing from one state to another".
"Apostasia" was used in extra Biblical Greek literature to describe political revolt, or a "going away from the establishment" and in the Septuagint, or Greek Old Testament, when the Jews would "go away" from God to worship other gods.
"Apostasia" is only used one other time in the New Testament, in Acts 21:21 to describe "forsaking", or "going away from" the teachings of Moses.
"Apostasion", the noun form, appears in Matt 5:31, & 19:7, and Mark 10:4 where it describes a "writing of divorcement", or "papers that separate". (Again, so someone can go away).
"Apostasia" literally then means "to depart, or go away from", and to "go away from what" must be determined from the context.
So, what is the "context" of both the First and Second Epistle to the Church at Thessalonica? Verse 1 sets the context: 2 Thess 2:1 "Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him", the "Departure of the Church", to meet Jesus in the air!
The sole subject and context of both epistles is the "Rapture", or "Departure" of the Church, or "the called out ones," and advice to the Church while we await the Return of Christ for the Church. The Second letter to the Church at Thessalonica appears to have been written by Paul to clear up misunderstandings about his First Letter. (2 Thess. 2:1-5)
The Greek word "apostasia" in 2 Thess. 2:3 also has the Greek article "the" in front of it, in the Greek text, which makes it, not a general "going away", or "departure", but "The Departure", a special EVENT, that the reader is expected to already know about.
In other words, the use of the article "the" with "apostasia" in 2 Thess. 2:3 indicates that Paul expects the Thessalonian Christians to already understand that this is the title of an event, and he expects them to already know what it means.
Had the Apostle Paul already taught the Thessalonians about an "EVENT" that could be described as a "departure", or "going away"? Absolutely, yes.
Paul had already taught the Thessalonian Church about the EVENT, of the Catching Away and "Departure" of the Church in 1 Thess 4:13-18.
In 2 Thess 2:5, Paul says donít you remember? When I was with you I taught you about these things?
I don't see where Paul taught them at all about "a falling away from the truth" in his first letter, but he taught them about the Rapture of the church in at least five passages in 1st Thessalonians:
1. 1 Thess 1:10 "And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead,[even] Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come."
2. 1 Thess 2:19 "For what [is] our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? [Are] not even ye in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at his coming?"
3. 1 Thess 3:13 "To the end he may stablish your hearts unblameable in holiness before God, even our Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints."
4. 1 Thess 4:13 - 5:10:
Verse 13 "But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope.
14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.
15 For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive [and] remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.
16 For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first:
17 Then we which are alive [and] remain shall be CAUGHT UP together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.
18 Wherefore comfort one another with these words.
Verse 1 But of the times and the seasons (dispensations), brethren, ye have no need that I write unto you.
2 For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord (Tribulation and Second Advent) so cometh as a thief in the night.
3 For when THEY shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon THEM, as travail upon a woman with child; and THEY shall not escape.
4 But YE, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake YOU as a thief.
5 Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness.
6 Therefore let us not sleep, as [do] others; but let us watch and be sober.
7 For they that sleep sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night.
8 But let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation.
9 For God hath not appointed us to wrath, (The Tribulation is God's Wrath upon the earth) but to obtain salvation (Greek "sodzo" or "safety") by our Lord Jesus Christ,
10 Who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him.
5. 1 Thess 5:23 " And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and [I pray God] your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ."
Also, in Paul's second letter to the Thessalonian Church, in 2 Thess. 2:2, we find that someone had apparently written a letter to the Thessalonian Church saying that the "Day of Christ", the Rapture, was past, in other words, they had missed it, and now they were in the "Day of the Lord", or seven year Tribulation.
In 2 Thess 2:1-5, Paul is proving that they have not missed the Rapture and were now in the Tribulation, but that the Rapture is still future. Paul says:
1 "Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him, (the Rapture of the Church).
2 That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ (Rapture of the Church) is at hand. ("at hand" is a Greek "perfect tense" verb, meaning the Rapture has already happened and is in the past - that would mean they missed the Rapture and are now in the Tribulation).
3 Let no man deceive you by any means: for [that day shall not come] (this phrase is not in the Greek, but is added by the translators. The Greek "ean may" = "that cannot happen"), except there come a falling away first, (THE Departure of the Church, first) and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; (and Antichrist revealed).
4 Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God.
5 Remember ye not, that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things?
In the above verses, Paul tells them "that cannot happen", TWO things must occur before the "day of the Lord", or 7 year Tribulation, arrives, #1 "THE departure" first, and #2 "that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition".
So, I believe Paul proves to the Church at Thessalonica that they are not in the "Tribulation", as someone had written them, because the Seven Year Tribulation cannot begin until the "Rapture" of the Church occurs and the "man of sin", the "Antichrist" is revealed.
If Paul had been referring to a "general falling away from the truth", it would have "proved" nothing to the Church at Thessalonica, because there was "apostasy" at the time, and there have been, and will continue to be great periods of falling away from the truth throughout the Church Age.
Every reference, that I find, to the "catching away" of the living saints, is described as "imminent", and can happen at any moment - there is no prophesy to be fulfilled before the Rapture can occur.
Think about it, if the "falling away" Paul refers to is a distinct period of "apostasy", of "falling away from the truth", and the world has now been through the "Dark Ages", when Christians were persecuted and Bibles were burned, then Paul would mean "THE period of falling from the truth" that is worse and more defined than the Dark Ages - and it would still be in the future, and the Rapture could not occur until it comes! That does not fit God's revealed plan for earth and mankind.
To me, "The Departure" of 2 Thess 2:3 is the exact opposite of "falling away" from Godís truth. This is in a context of the "Rapture of the Church", the "day of Christ", the Day when Jesus will return, in the air, below the highest mountain top, and catch the Church (all the born again Christians in the world) up into the air, and take them to the Third Heaven.
In 2 Thess 2:5, Paul says donít you remember when I was with you I taught you about these things? - and the subject of Paul's First Letter is "The Departure of the Church", from this earth to the third heaven.