(2 Thessalonians 2:1-12)
The word “antichrist” does not appear in the section of Scripture we’re studying this week. In fact, in the entire Bible the word only appears in letters of the apostle John written about 40 years after this letter to the Thessalonians, or c. A.D. 90 (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 1:7). Even though written so much later, John’s comments are most helpful in deciphering what Paul said in his letter to the believers in Thessalonica.
The simple definition of the word antichrist is: one who stands against Christ, or one who stands instead of Christ, or in place of Christ. In John’s first use of the word antichrist, he writes “ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists.” Four verses later, John gives us a defining characteristic of antichrist—a liar that denies truth concerning both the Father and the Son. In chapter 4, John provides further information concerning the antichrist by telling us that it is a false spirit that denies that in His incarnation Christ took upon Himself the fallen nature of man (Greek sarx, 4:2, 3). The antichrist doctrine is so spiritually dangerous that in John’s second letter he emphatically states that any person who denies that Christ truly came “in the flesh” (sarx) is a deceiver who should not be received nor bidden “glad farewell” (2 John 7, 10, 11).
Why did Paul have to warn the Thessalonian believers against such heresy? Early Christianity was assailed from within as well as from without. Satan never sleeps and so, in competition with the preaching of truth came heretical theories pawned off as “greater light.” In his letter to the Galatians written about 3 years later, Paul warned them “if any man preach another gospel unto you than what ye have received, let him be accursed.” (Gal. 1:9). How had error crept in so soon after Paul left Thessalonica? He gives us the answer in verse 2.
There were persons who asserted that they were Christians who were spreading these antichrist ideas throughout the Asian provinces. Paul tells his friends that these persons would come with one of three deceptive methods of introduction supposed to give credence to what they were claiming about Christ and salvation. Some claimed that they had been led of the “spirit” to preach this error. Others came saying that they had heard Paul preach in another city something that was contrary to what he had preached previously (“by word”). And the third method was to bring in hand a forged document that they claimed had been penned by Paul himself. Paul concludes, “Let no man deceive you by any means” (vs. 3).
What were these false teachers saying about the Father and the Son? John identified part of the problem being that these antichrists did not believe that in the incarnation Christ really did assume fallen flesh. They did not believe Jesus was “in all points tempted” like we are in our fallen flesh. He was somehow different, distant from sinful flesh. Docetism claimed that Jesus was so far removed from those He came to save that He was not even a flesh and blood human, but merely a “ghost” or spirit that appeared to be human. Therefore, He did not really die on the cross. Gnosticism is subtly more dangerous in that it teaches that Jesus was a demigod, but not fully divine in His own right. At some point in the past, He emanated from the divine Spirit God, and through this demigod the “Father” created matter, and all things in the world. Gnosticism believes that true divinity cannot associate with evil matter in any way, and the demigod who created matter was the intermediary between spirit (good) and matter (evil). Paul, who had met the Greek sophistries while at Athens, warned the believers at Colossae: "beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the traditions of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ." (Colossians 2:8). In his letter to the Colossians, Paul met Gnostic philosophy head-on.
Gnostics didn’t completely reject the Old Testament, but through their philosophy, it was reshaped for their own purposes and was being incorporated into the new church on vital doctrines such as the nature of the Godhead, the human nature which Christ assumed in His incarnation, overcoming sin in this life by faith in Christ, and the manner of the second coming of the Saviour. By false prophecy, by word of mouth, and by a falsified letter, these departures from Gospel truth were circulated in the new churches in Asia. One would scarcely think it possible at the very time when the apostles were still alive that someone would dare to distribute a forged letter claiming apostolic authorship. But such was the extent of the evil that was sneaking in attempting to destroy the work of the apostles. The so-called “Apostolic Fathers”—Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Hermas, Polycarp and Papias, as well as the unknown authors of the “Gospel of Thomas,” the “Epistle of Barnabas,” and the “Epistle of Diognetus,” were writing and circulating these false Gnostic doctrines before the end of the first century, before the Apostle John had died. Hence, in his letters John said, you’ve already been warned about this and now it is here.
On the basis of an "apostolic tradition" that was manufactured by themselves, the Gnostics corrupted the faith of the early church, including keeping of the seventh-day Sabbath. Gnostic philosophy rejected the seventh day as a day of darkness, while the first day, or “eighth- day” for them, was a celebration of light. Rejecting the true Spirit who alone could guide them, they accepted false doctrines and mysticisms, and forged a new faith that was devoid of historic foundations in the Old Testament, all the while calling it Christianity.
“Outward pressure, though tried again and again, had proved unavailing in stamping out the truth. . . . A new plan was devised by Satan. If paganism could be placed in the heart, while Christian principles were acknowledged outwardly, the overthrow would be certain; for destruction worketh from within, outward. It was a repetition of Balaam's plan.” After quoting the text we are studying this week, Elder Haskell concluded, “This is Paul's description of the mystery of iniquity, the fourth beast of the vision of Daniel seven. Then it was that into that church, noted for its purity, crept the life of paganism [cf. Rev. 2:2-6]. Sheltered in the folds of the Christian garb lay the serpent, the old dragon. . . .It will deceive if possible the very elect.” (S. N. Haskell, Daniel the Prophet, p. 251, 252; 1908 ed.). Haskell’s last statement puts the final fulfillment of this prophecy squarely in our time. Gnosticism is very much alive and well, and invading modern Christian churches through various means, including mystical prayer and spiritual formation techniques, and the resurgence of Arianism and semi-Arian ideas that claim that Christ is not one hundred-percent eternal God, but some sort of emanation from the Father, and the Holy Spirit is the impersonal power flowing forth from the Father and the Son.
In verses 3 and 4, Paul outlines the steps of the outworking of the mystery of iniquity. Through Gnostic influence a power was already afoot that would continue to grow in fulfillment of Dan. 7:25 and 8:10-12, revealing the “man of sin, the son of perdition” ( “son of destruction”). This power would arrogate prerogatives that belong only to God. There is still in the world a power that makes this claim, and it arose just as the Roman Empire was waning. The “little horn” of Daniel 7:19-25; 8:9-12, borrowed from paganism the trappings, ceremony, and political structure of pagan Rome and exalted these as her own, calling it “Christianity.”
“It has not always been sufficiently considered how much the Latin Church was a reproduction, on a higher plane, of the old Roman Commonwealth. . . .The Roman Catholic Church has borrowed from Paganism saints’ days, incense, lustrations, consecrations of sacred places, votive-offerings, relics; winking nodding, sweating, and bleeding images; holy water, vestments, etc. But the Church of Rome itself, in its central idea of authority is a reproduction of the Roman state religion, which was a part of the Roman state. . . .The Roman Catholic Church, at first an aristocratic republic, like the Roman state, afterwards became, like the Roman state, a disguised despotism. The Papal Church is therefore a legacy of ancient Rome.” ( James Freeman Clark, Ten Great Religions, [originally published 1871], pp. 349-354.)
Planting paganism in the heart of the developing Christian Church seems an inconceivable undertaking; who would even imagine the attempt? But prophecy assures us that it did take place. Daniel 8:9-12 foretold of this same power that would “wax great,” “cast truth to the ground,” as it “practiced and prospered” in elevating and exalting (Heb. rwm) paganism (“the daily”) in the midst of Christianity. And its work is not yet finished. The second coming of Christ cannot take place until two things are accomplished: (1) the truth of the mystery of godliness is fully understood, embraced, and allowed to transform God’s people (Dan. 8:14; Rom. 1:16, 17; 2 Peter 1:3-7; etc.); and (2) the mystery of iniquity runs its full course of rebellion against God and Christ. History reveals that for 1260 years such a power did wreak havoc upon God’s faithful people, but that power has not yet completed its role in fulfillment of Rev. 13:1-17.
In verse 7, Paul veils his meaning in a mysterious phrase, which causes us to raise the question: “What was doing the restraining or hindering or preventing of the evil power’s rise?” Paul had already been accused of sedition against the Roman government (Acts 16:20, 21; 17:5-8), so rather than naming it he obliquely referred to the restraining power as standing in the way until it was taken out of the way. The pagan Roman system, religious as well as political, was standing in the way of the rise of apostate Christianity. On the back of the dying Roman Empire arose the earthly manifestation of the mystery of iniquity. When its work is finished, then “that Wicked” shall be fully exposed as being in total opposition to God, and it will be consumed in the brightness of Christ’s second coming (Rev. 17:14; 18:4-6; 20, 21).
This world-wide religio-political power has all the characteristics described in the verses in our current study that are “antichrist.” It has attempted to usurp the authority of Christ, replacing it with its own “more sure word” of tradition; has attempted to take away the place of Christ by installing its own priesthood and saintly intercessors; and is preaching “another gospel” that is contrary to the message of Christ and His righteousness. In all things it is the antithesis of God’s remnant church.
“We are in the day when we know it is promised that the mystery of God shall be finished, and with no more delay. The mystery of God finished, is God fully manifest in the life of the believer.” “The mystery of God is God manifest in the flesh. The finished mystery of God is the completion, the perfection, of the manifestation of God in the flesh, in the believers in Jesus who belong to the [remnant] church.” (A.T. Jones, The Medical Missionary, vol. 12, Dec. 1903; 1903 General Conference Bulletin, p. 42).
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