The 'Mystery of Iniquity' and the 'Man of Sin'
Here is the untarnished truth, however unpalatable it may be for some.
"..There have always been men (and women!) 'ordained of old' who have had a mission to infiltrate Christian congregations and subvert the essential Christian message with teachings which render the gospel ineffective and meaningless! Effectively, Satan has sought to lead visible congregations astray by placing false, unconverted people in congregational leadership!! Sounds far-fetched? Just read on....."
A round the year 90 AD, the apostle John wrote his second and third epistles. These epistles carry a strong warning, yet it is a warning which we often seem to read right over in our day.
The Church of God was being infiltrated by certain outsiders who obviously had a mission to subvert the Church (whether or not they were aware of it). The situation was so serious that some of these subverters had gained leading positions within congregations and were able to bar God's true apostles from preaching in those congregations!! Let us note a few verses:
'I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us. Therefore, if I come, I will call to mind his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words. And not content with that, he himself does not receive the brethren, and forbids those who wish to, putting them out of the church.'
(3 John 9-10).
Are these words not incredible? Here - even before the ending of the first century - was a 'visible' congregation taken over by subverters, with true Christians actually being disfellowshipped!
Even in his first epistle, John had expressed some concern about these infiltrators, and he clearly describes some of their beliefs in 1 John 4:1-3. Let us read these verses:
'Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world'.
Of course, many Bible scholars have long noted that John's comments here are a fairly clear reference to the early heresy of Gnosticism. The Gnostics believed that Jesus was not fully human, at least during those more pivotal periods of His life, such as during the tranfiguration and, especially, on the cross. John is very anxious that nobody should be taken in by this false teaching realising that Jesus had to be fully human as well as fully divine in order for His sacrifice to be efficaceous in paying for the sins of mankind!
Any concept that Jesus was merely an apparition, or spirit, seriously undermines the veracity and validity of His sacrifice.
Now some say, 'Hey-ho - we have long recognised that these were Gnostics, or, proto-Gnostics, so lets move on...'
But we should not be too fast about this; Would these words have been recorded, plus all the other New Testament warnings about false teachers, if this was just a reference to a first century group of heretics? In this study we will learn that, whatever the particular heresy, there have always been men (and women!) 'ordained of old' who have had a mission to infiltrate Christian congregations and subvert the essential Christian message with teachings which render the gospel ineffective and meaningless! Effectively, Satan has sought to lead visible congregations astray by placing false, unconverted people in congregational leadership!!
Moreover, most all the later attempts to subvert true Gospel preaching would involve the denial that Jesus 'had come in the flesh,' whether this would involve a romanticised, poetic, non-literal "gospel" (a central plank of most 19th century 'Liberal Protestantism') or even the teaching that the Passion did not occur within human history since it was "supra-historical" (a central tenet of 20th century Neo-orthodoxy). The 'God is dead' movement also removed Jesus from human history, as has the more recent 'Process theology' which has sought to introduce a new 'Jesus' who is not divine and has no idea what the 'Father' would require of him next! I might add that the late 20th century/early 21st century 'prosperity gospel,' - in its worst form - also effectively replaces the New Testament Jesus with a new 'Jesus' who is primarily concerned that his followers should be healthy and prosperous and offers a 'salvation' of present ease, prosperity and luxury. Again, this involves a denial that that the biblical Jesus of Nazareth has 'come in the flesh' since He becomes effectively replaced by a triumphalist, success-oriented 'Jesus' (we will return to a consideration of some of these groups later in this article).
But even if subverters had not carefully thought through their theology, any unconverted church leader fulfils the pattern quite successfully.
Sounds far-fetched? Just read on.....
Around the time that the apostle John issued his heresy warnings through his epistles, a certain Jude was also issuing a similar warning. 'Jude' is a form of the common Jewish name 'Judah' and while we cannot be absolutely certain who this Jude was, the strongest candidates are Judas the apostle ('Judas' was the Greek form of the name) who is mentioned in Luke 6:16 and also Acts 1:13, but probably the strongest candidate is Judas the physical brother of our Lord (Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3).
Jude said this:
'Beloved, while I was very dilligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ'
Since this warning was probably written fairly close to John's warnings, the question which immediately arises is, was this the same heresy??
We cannot be entirely sure but apparently not, for the people that Jude is referring to apparently taught a 'cheap grace' message which seems rather different to the 'secret knowledge for the purest of the elect' and asceticism of the Gnostics. The people that Jude is warning about were determined to continue in their former sins since they held an understanding of grace which allowed a sinful and licentious existence to continue. Of course, they were plainly wrong and Jude is concerned about their activities and influence. But the net effect is the same as the Gnostics that John warned about:
Christ's sacrifice is rendered of no effect where true Christian teaching has been seriously diluted by additional, syncretistic, elements. The result is that naive and gullible people coming under the influence of such false teachers could be fooled into a 'false salvation.'
So Satan's strategy was (and is) two-pronged:
1. Introduce a subtle, syncretistic 'mix' which has elements of the gospel, but renders the gospel of no effect.
2. Get this message (in whatever form it might take) into congregations through the use of false/unconverted leaders.
If one should want a third example of a false, heretical teaching which included a message about Christ but rendered the gospel useless, just carefully check through Paul's epistle to the Galatians. In that particular epistle, Paul strongly attacks judaizers who talked about Jesus but insisted that Christians also stood under major parts of the law of Moses. Paul is white hot with anger at their activities. Check out Paul's anger in Galatians 1:6-9.
But my case is not yet fully made and established.
Did Jesus Himself warn about false teachers affecting groups of sincere believers?
Yes, He did. Lets look at Matthew 7.
'Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them. Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practise lawlessness!'
Please notice that some of these people will even have cast out demons (or so they will claim) and 'prophesied' (the Greek for 'prophesied' could mean 'inspired and persuasive preaching'), yet it will be to no avail, for they (apparently) had not upheld the biblical gospel, and their works had upheld 'lawlessness' - What does this mean? This is Greek word number 458 in Strong's Exhaustive Concordance (anomia) and it means, 'wickedness' 'iniquity' 'transgression' or 'illegality.' In this context, it plainly refers to those who may have pointed to Christ but did not lead true Christian lives or uphold biblical doctrine. Might some of these people have been too concerned about....money, a following, prestige, the world, success, their own 'image'?? Might their private lives have contradicted their professed calling? These are some of the possible reasons why this particular Greek word was chosen here.
In Acts 20, Luke quotes some of the words of Paul in warning about those who would infiltrate Christian congregations with a different 'gospel':
'For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God. Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears.'
So often we ignore such warnings today. Why? Well perhaps we simply see such Scriptures as a reference to the cults and sects, but please note that Paul's warning here goes beyond that; these are false teachers/teachings which would directly affect Christian congregations! We should certainly realise that if Satan already has the cults and sects tied up in errors which render the gospel meaningless for those people, he will certainly be keen to go on the attack against the 'stragglers in the pack' of real Christian congregations. Indeed, isn't this precisely what Peter warns about in 1 Peter 5:8-9? The apostle Peter also said this:
'But there were false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed. By covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words; for a long time their judgment has not been idle, and their destruction does not slumber.'
(2 Peter 2:1-3).
Notice again, that these people will use 'deceptive words' - some of it will sound good, some of it will sound appealing! But, as we noted in the earlier examples, the 'net effect' of their labours is that they are, "denying the Lord" - the gospel is rendered useless in changing lives, since these people are intent on affecting the message of the holy gospel! They keep Jesus, but they make changes in the substance of the gospel.
The great, but nowadays sadly neglected, Bible commentator Henry Halley, made these comments about Peter's warnings:
'It is a sorry picture. Even within the Apostolic generation the World and the Devil had succeeded in making heavy onslaughts on the Purity of the Church. Then followed the long centuries of Papal corruption. And, even now, in our own enlightened age, the Gospel of Christ, in its original beauty and simplicity and Purity, in many sections of the Church, still is buried and hid from view by the rubbish of forms and doctrines heaped upon the Church, through the ages, by the World and the Devil.'
(Halley's Bible Handbook, Zondervan, 1965, pages 668-669).
Of course, Halley could have gone further; there have been numerous attempts, from the time of Christ until now, to attack Christ, His Church and the Gospel.
We may think of the concentrated attacks of the 19th century theologians of 'Liberal Protestantism' - these people decided that the Bible was unreliable and that we could not count on its words. The message of Jesus was best understood on a romantic and inspirational level, but there was no real Atonement. This school of theology permeated most (though not all) of the great seminaries, and 'ministers' were churned out by the hundreds who did not believe that the Bible was truly the inspired Word of God. These ministers went into Anglican/Episcopalian, Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist and other denominational congregations. Of course, it is now known that 'Liberal Protestantism' was a DESTROYER of church congregations, and many denominations still have not recovered from the onslaught!
Of course, this was just another tactic of our great adversary, Satan, in getting false, unbiblical teachings into the churches which spoke of Jesus, but completely undermined the veracity and momentum of the gospel.
Of course, Liberal Protestantism is now a dead duck, but has our adversary been idle?? YOU BET HE HASN'T! The 20th century brought the so-called 'death of God' theological movement, and - more recently - 'Process theology' and the 'Theology of Hope' of people like Moltmann. Much of this is more subtle than the old-fashioned Liberal Protestantism, but the Bible is still attacked as is the authority of Jesus. Often a 'Jesus' is upheld who has not yet made up His mind about the future or - in some cases - hasn't got a clue about what may happen in the future! And, yes, you guessed it, ministers are being churned out who have accepted some of these wholly unbiblical concepts; again, effectively, the gospel is rendered meaningless and useless - apparently, its just what Jesus thought and His thinking was much like any other first century Jew!!
But while Satan has freely attacked through the universities and seminaries, he has also attacked through various 'lower level' teachers and teachings. Some of the teachers were not always wholly incorrect in every area but tended to introduce unbiblical approaches; typical of such people was Charles Finney and the resultant 'Finneyism' - Not everything that Finney said and did was wrong by any means, but Finney seemed to believe that it is entirely within our own power to have 'Revivals' - we must use emotional pressure, and get folks to walk the 'sawdust trail' in making a committment! Yet many such sincere people were never taught to 'count the cost' of becoming a Christian, although the New Testament suggests that we do so. Also, thousands who 'made a decision for Jesus' during a period of great emotional pressure, perhaps during a 'camp meeting' later walked away from the Faith. This is not simply my opinion, but the opinion of people such as Billy Graham who once used a Finneyite approach. Again, I remain convinced of Finney's personal sincerity which I do not seek to undermine, however, he is certainly responsible for certain regrettable trends coming into preaching.
We would not wish to attack all areas of the Charismatic/Pentecostal movements, but here too many false teachers and teachings have freely reared their heads, and church congregations have been freely infiltrated by unbiblical influences! To just take one or two of many possible examples, the teaching that so-called 'unknown tongues' is the only proof that one has the received the Holy Spirit is wholly unbiblical and very easily debunked from the Bible, yet thousands have accepted it and countless congregations have been split up because of it - SATAN HAS SMILED!
The teaching that, upon anointing, one should be healed, otherwise one is secretly sinning and/or lacks 'faith' is, biblically, a nonsense, yet, here again, congregations have split and many have been offended - SATAN HAS SMILED!
But one of Satan's greatest successes of recent years has been the rapidly spreading influence of the 'Word-faith' movement; this movement, also sometimes called 'the health, wealth and prosperity gospel' or the 'positive confession' movement, has now infiltrated huge areas of evangelical Christianity. This is not the place to debunk the serious and unbiblical flaws in this movement (we have other articles which do that), but all Bible-believers should grieve that so many sincere people have become ensnared by this 'New Age'-rooted perversion of biblical faith. It has just been brought to my attention, for instance, that large areas of the once so highly promising 'house church movement' are now seriously affected by Word-faith. Yes, it's the usual mix; Jesus gets preached (in a manner) but the gospel becomes fatally compromised by a message all about our use of words, finances, positive-thinking and success!
A Bible-believing minister known to myself spent several years preaching in various rural congregations as something of a travelling preacher. He sought to revitalise the Christian witness in UK's more remote areas, especially in the south. This man (who certainly did not claim perfection for himself) came to the firm conclusion that the vast majority of such congregations were firmly controlled by unconverted leaders.
Does that sound incredible? Maybe it does, but this is all part of the mystery of iniquity and Satan's determination to infiltrate Christian congregations, so I don't think we should be surprised!!
Since this man preached the biblical gospel clear and unabashed while warning of error in all of these places (whether liberalism, or the prosperity message), he was not surprised that he was almost never invited back! In some cases, congregations were down to just 10 or 15 people, all over 70 years of age. Occasionally he gently suggested to the leaders that that was a dying congregation if nothing was done, but his comments were almost always met with indifference. Some of these congregations had not had their own pastor for many years nor did they seem interested in having one. My friend sometimes offered to go out and pray for the sick if needed, but he was never taken up on this. In one case he was astonished to find that the pastor, a worthy and decent man, had been sick and unable to attend for about five years, but that nobody ever visited him!
So I maintain that the 'mystery of iniquity' refers to Satan's determination to infiltrate congregations of Christians with false teachings/false teachers/false leaders who/which actually deny the message of the gospel (however subtley). We must remember that John clearly saw the spirit of antichrist beginning to be at work in his own day and he always associated it with attempts to subvert the Church (1 John 4:3).
It is a mistake, therefore, to see this as just a phenomenon which might affect congregations just prior to the return of Our Lord! It began a long while ago as the New Testament writers make abundantly clear.
Before I move on to dicuss the vital Scripture in 2 Thessalonians 2 with its reference to the 'Man of Sin,' I just need to underline what I am NOT saying!
What I am NOT saying
I am not saying that we will ever, during the present dispensation, be able to have a wholly pure Church - that just is not possible; several Scriptures seem to show that the righteous and unconverted alike are likely to make up visible church congregations. Any attempts to form a purist, pietist Church of the spiritually pure in the present world could only ever lead to a witch-hunt. This, in itself, is a heresy; the heresy of Donatism, which Augustine so rightly opposed in the fourth century AD.
What I am saying is a little different, though not entirely unrelated. I speak of unconverted people who are, perhaps, natural leaders tending to take leading positions within congregations, then using their position to encourage compromised theological teaching which seeks closer accord with this society, and tends to make Jesus a great religious leader, but not necessarily the Saviour of the world!
While such people have certainly controlled liberal churches for a very long time, I believe they are now starting to gain more and more prominence within evangelical churches; we should expect it - it is the mystery of iniquity at work!
But we must be on our guard to protect biblical truth and the veracity of the gospel of Jesus Christ in all Bible-believing congregations!!
2 Thessalonians 2:1-12
Even in Paul's day, some were thinking that Christ had either returned or was on the very brink of returning. But in verse 3 Paul shows that a great 'falling away' must occur first of all. We do not need to spend much time considering what form this 'falling away' would take since Paul makes it clear (one might also look at 1 Timothy 4:1). The falling away would lead to the manifestation of 'the man of sin' (some, though not all, tie this 'man of sin' in with Daniel 7:25). This 'man of sin', then, will be revealed before the return of Christ.
And here is the famous and most intriguing verse which so many have wondered about! Let me quote it in full:
'Who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God'
Just who is this?
There are several opinions about this among Bible-believing Christians.
The Protestant reformers had little doubt that this was a reference to the Papacy with popes ruling over a counterfeit 'church' organisation.
Others see this as just a reference to an end time false religious leader who will gain prominence shortly before Christ returns. This man (ruled by Satan himself), will wage all-out war on true Christians. While some see this as a revitalised Papacy, others are increasingly wondering whether this might be either Islamic in nature, or a new world religion! Interestingly, Islamism has been becoming increasingly aggressive during the last few years. Expect this to greatly increase!
For the mystery of lawlessness ('iniquity' KJV) is already at work; only He who now restrains will do so until He is taken out of the way.
Vs 8: And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His coming.
Vs 9: The coming of the lawless one is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders,
Vs 10: and with all unrighteous deception among those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth, that thet might be saved.
Vs 11: And for this reason God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie,
Vs 12: that they all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness
While we cannot say that the reformers were wholly wrong in their view that this is descriptive of the Papacy, the evidence here is very strong that this is primarily a reference to a final, end-time leader, especially when we note that the returning Christ will apparently destroy him (verse 8).
But another intriguing thing here is that while this false leader will sit in the temple of God (verse 4), he appears to be an irreligious figurehead! - Apparently he will be the epitome of 'lawlessness' - he will, apparently, have the greatest appeal to those who reject Christ (verses 10-12), and to those who 'had pleasure in unrighteousness' (verse 12). This does sound more like the irreligious, secular world than the followers of any religion! Don't forget that 'religion' can be defined extremely broadly; it was said, for instance, that Communism fulfilled many of the 'world religion' criteria, as does Darwinism! A religion does not have to believe in a personal God but can be primarily atheistic (Buddhism).
For this reason, it could even be speculated that anti-God materialistic secularism itself will - at the last - be granted miraculous powers by Satan!
Without doubt, this speaks of the same time as the destruction of the Two Witnesses (the final destruction of the witness of the Church) in Revelation 11:7-12. The Witness' mission too obviously finishes as Christ returns. Interestingly, the world will rejoice when all Christian witness is finally stamped out (Revelation 11:9-10).
Putting all possibilities together, however, it does appear that this final anti-Christ figure will represent some kind of religion, whether it is a revitalised old religion, or a new liberalized 'World Religion.'
What we MUST note!
But while considering all such possibilities, we MUST hold on to one clear fact:
While the Anti-Christ only comes 'to the full' when all worship of Christ is finally wiped out upon this earth, yet - in a very real sense - 2 Thessalonians 2:4 is even now fulfilled......
WHEREVER UNCONVERTED LEADERS/FALSE UNBIBLICAL TEACHINGS 'SIT' IN AUTHORITY IN 'TEMPLES' OF GOD.
Let us never forget that it was ALWAYS Satan's strategy to infiltrate God's people in order to weaken them whether through the undoubtedly voluptuous and seductive Midianite women in the Israel of Moses' day, or through false teachers infiltrating the spritual Israel of the Church in more recent days.
NOTE THIS TOO:
Such false teachings can be expected to be equally 'seductive' yet will tend to point back to the world and its values (as liberal theology, for instance, and 'Word-faith' so clearly do), rather than pointing toward our spiritual 'Promised Land' of the New Heavens and New Earth! So the 'seduction' of these false unbiblical influences will be toward the seduction of this world, its morals and values. The seductive influences which Satan will use will tend to seek common cause with this world and will seek to weaken the impact of the gospel; make no mistake, Satan would like to destroy the Church! But God will not allow that, so Satan's next tactic will always be to make the Christian message just another religion.
I hope that all of us who are Christians understand that Christianity was never intended to be just another religion, rather, IT IS THE ANTIDOTE TO ALL RELIGIOUS CONFUSION WHICH OUR ADVERSARY HAS PLANTED IN THE WORLD!!
Brothers and Sisters in Christ.....LETS KEEP THE FAITH!!
Robin A. Brace, 1995, further clarified 2003.
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