One small effect of the events of 2020 has been to discredit the whole Charismatic prophetic movement, especially in the USA. The self-styled prophets foretold wonderful things for the year, entirely missing the slightly important COVID-19 outbreak, and then decreed with their pretended apostolic authority to cast it out, to absolutely no effect. Then they predicted a massive election win for Donald Trump, which whatever the election shenanigans were is now clearly false prophecy. They are blind guides – shun them.
At the risk of joining the ranks of these pretenders, I just came across the last sermon I preached, for New Year 2020, long before there was any mention of COVID, BLM, the Great Reset, or the cancellation of the standing US President on social media. At the time at least one person complained that it was too negative. In retrospect it appears rather farsighted. I attach it below: see what you think, Bible in hand.
2 Thessalonians 2:1-12
I have two messages for the New Year for you today, based on this passage. The first is a warning to heed – a warning about deception. The second is a resolution to consider – a resolution about resisting deception.
There are a fair number of passages in the New Testament – and one or two in the Old – as well as this one, that warn us that a major feature of the time before Jesus returns to judge the world and transform creation will be a widespread spiritual delusion that deceives all those who are not in Christ. That’s a big deal.
Some of these passages relate this great final deception to a figure called “antichrist,” whom Paul refers to here as “the man of lawlessness”: READ vv9-12.
It is not possible to say from these passages exactly what form this deception will take, except that this antichrist figure will appear to be in some way like Christ himself, and will even put himself (or maybe even herself) in the place of God. False miracles and signs will be part of the deception, and the term “man of lawlessness” implies there will be moral corruption as well. It will involve great opposition – and even apparent defeat, according to Daniel – for God’s people.
But note that, since the Bible has been well known in our culture even by unbelievers for 2000 years, such a deception will have to be enormously subtle to avoid blowing its cover. It is unlikely to be obvious even to many Christians.
I’ve been researching and writing on this theme over most of this year, and I’m happy to say that I can’t currently see any one person in the world who matches the descriptions of antichrist. But that is not too much of a comfort, because if the present age is destined to end during the life of this one human being, his or her actual career will not last more than a few years at most.
There are two initial points I want you to note carefully about this massive, biblically foretold, conspiracy.
The first lesson is that several passages say that, recognising the reality of a great final worldwide deception, nevertheless a pattern of satanic deception is at work throughout church history. 1 John 4:3 calls this “the spirit of antichrist.” In our passage, v7 says (READ).
We know from the writings of those who founded this very church that they regarded the Popes of the time as embodying that spirit of antichrist, because of Rome’s suppression of Scriptural truth by false teaching, and of freedom of conscience by state force and covert sedition.
They were even convinced that things were so bad for Baptists and other biblical believers that Jesus’s return was imminent. They were right in their first belief (though it’s a quite separate question where Catholicism today stands), and were justified in taking the warnings of the end seriously, even though they turned out to be mistaken about the return of Christ in their time.
Similarly, Adolph Hitler embodied the spirit of antichrist – he arose as the apparent saviour of a divided and weak Germany, and even most Christians were deceived until it was too late to resist. Joseph Stalin was even worse – the Soviet system promised utopia, tried to subvert the whole world into its ideology, sought systematically to destroy the church and killed many more millions than Hitler ever did. Likewise Mao Tse Tung, of course.
The second lesson, which I’ve already hinted at, is that even Christians will not be immune from the deception. Jesus himself, speaking on the same subject, says in Mk 13:22: “For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and miracles to deceive the elect – if that were possible. So be on your guard; I have told you everything ahead of time.”
That’s the NIV translation, which seems to suggest that deceiving the saints is, in fact, not possible. But the Greek is less clear: it simply reads, “to lead astray, if possible, the chosen.” Either way, the message is that we can’t afford to take things for granted – if we’re chosen, we’re chosen to be on our guard, not to be complacent!
So to summarise, the two lessons are that satanic deception can and does occur throughout church history, not just at the end of the age, and that unless we’re on our guard, we Christians can be taken in by it, at least for a time. Yet how often do we ever consider the possibility that satanic deception is influencing the institutions of our world?
I’ve started thinking about this because there is currently such widespread disillusion with the state of truth. We’ve just had an election in which each party accused the other of lying, and most ordinary people thought, “You’re all lying,” and cast their votes more in desperation than hope.
When one of our young people did a children’s talk earlier in the year on trust, he asked us for a show of hands on who trusted the press. Hardly a hand went up – we’re in the age of “fake news,” and whether we realise it or not our news media – even the supposedly unbiased BBC – simply recycle highly partisan opinions and suppress whole swathes of important issues, whether that be the other side of the political coin, or the sufferings of Christians worldwide.
Did you realise that a large percentage of all so-called news comes to us unfiltered from PR releases from government, commercial organisations, celebrities’ agents or activist organisations of various kinds?
As I researched, I realised that there has never been a previous time in human history when the “powerful delusion” that deceives the nations and threatens Christ’s Church is so possible as it is now.
The first reason is that, for the first time ever, anything that happens can be known all around the world within seconds, through modern communications. It is the Internet that really makes global deception a possibility.
The second reason is that, since around 1920, techniques of public relations and propaganda have become so sophisticated and widespread that almost the whole of our lives are ruled by it.
Politics we know is all about propaganda – we incurred national guilt by being drawn into war with Iraq by false propaganda claims of Saddam’s “weapons of mass destruction.” And that’s not the only instance, if we had time to discuss it.
Facebook and YouTube target you both with what you want to hear and what they want you to believe, or to buy, rather than with the truth.
Art, music and films are increasingly slanted in certain directions. Christian morality is denied by relentless propaganda from activists, which starts in primary school because the education system has bought into it wholesale, and it even comes from denominational church leaders.
I could show you multiple examples of how even science and nature documentaries spin the facts to sell you a particular agenda – but worse than that, even professional scientific associations have now often become biased for reasons of ideology, money or personal ambition.
We live in an age when it is really necessary to check the truth of whatever you are told, but in which it is often near-impossible to do so. If that sounds dark and pessimistic, then what do you think Jesus and the apostles were warning you about when they predicted that the whole world, apart from the saints, would “believe the lie”? That’s as dark and pessimistic as you can get. If we don’t consider the biblical teaching seriously and soberly, what grounds for optimism do we have?
Now I have no more reason in 2020 than the founders of this church had in 1650 to claim that we are living at the time of the “man of lawlessness” and that Jesus is on the point of returning. That’s not my point.
But even if it is not that specific time, we are still surrounded by a mass of deception just as our founders were, and which in my view is greater than anything that has been seen before, since there are forces seeking to change the whole political, financial, social and moral fabric of the “global village.” And they don’t like Christianity, either.
Somehow we have to learn to live and witness in a world that we have little reason to trust. Is that news for some of us? It seems very depressing, left at that.
BUT… there is a remedy for us, given by Jesus himself, guaranteed to bring us through the time of trial, and shown to us in this very passage. I’ve delivered my serious warning from Scripture as faithfully as I can in the time, and now I’m moving to the second part of my talk – the New Year Resolution.
There are a number of wonderful truths here that speak of our protection from the deception that endangers the unbelieving world.
“From the beginning,” Paul says, “God chose you to be saved.” This is the election, or chosenness, that Jesus refers to in the verse I quoted from Mark. If we live by faith in Jesus – who is the truth (v13) – then it is a sign that we were chosen by God not to be deceived, but to share in the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ.
To put it another way, you can know you are part of God’s chosen people today, if you simply turn from the deception of the world and believe in Christ as Saviour and Lord. Why delay any longer and sink in lies?
Faith, Paul says, is not a human opinion, but a supernatural fact, because the way God saves us is by the sanctifying work of his own Holy Spirit. Truth dwells in us personally as the Spirit of Truth.
Os Guinness talks about the calling of Christians being like their swallowing a gyroscope, which keeps them orientated whatever madness is happening around them. He adds that most other people nowadays have swallowed a Gallup Poll, following the opinions of the majority like sheep. That should not be you.
I want to concentrate for the rest of my time on one other aspect of Paul’s answer to deception, because our election and the work of the Spirit do not preserve us from error automatically. Paul says (READ v15). It is standing firm in the teaching of the church that is the means God uses to keep us safe, and if we neglect that, we remain at risk of being dangerously deceived.
Paul says elsewhere: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Rom 12:2).
Ancient Israel lived amidst the deception of the false gods around them. Moses told them to take God’s commandments to their hearts: “Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the door-frames of your houses and n your gates.” (Deut 6:6-9). That’s an example for us.
The practical way God gives us to resist being drawn into the deception of lies is simple – to immerse ourselves in the truth of God, which means soaking up the world-view of the Bible to enable us to go unharmed in the world, because your mind is thinking Jesus’s thoughts. You’ll increasingly be able to discern when you’re being misled, even when you can’t pin down why it’s wrong.
When I preached on 1 Corinthians 4 in September, I focused on the teaching ministry of the church, so I won’t repeat that here, except to say that maybe our founders took it more seriously than us, because instead of hearing a half-hour sermon on Sunday, and maybe an hour’s house group in the week, Kilmington Baptists in the 1650s spent all Sunday listening to preaching, discussing what they’d heard, praying and giving testimony.
They needed to, because they lived in a hostile world – but by my reckoning so do we.
Today I want to focus on the private aspect of having our minds transformed to be like Christ’s – our personal Bible reading. And here again, I’m going to suggest that some of the barely literate farmers of this church’s early days may have been better taught than us, with all our university degrees and i-Phones.
Why? Imagine a poor yeoman farmer in the early years of Kilmington Baptists, maybe in 1655. He maybe has one, perhaps two books in his house, and if he’s lucky, one is a Bible.
When the day’s work finally finishes, he has no other pastime than to read his Bible, and he reads a chapter out loud, partly because that’s how they usually read in those days, and partly to teach his family, since his wife and kids probably could not yet read.
After the kids are in bed, he sits with his clay pipe by the fire, while his wife is darning socks or something opposite. With no TV, computer or even Scrabble set, he meditates on what he’s read. “What does Jesus mean by that difficult parable? Is he talking about me?”
And next day, as he is ploughing his field, rather than serving on the till or having meetings like us, he’s still thinking about the parable, and slowly the Spirit teaches him. So that when he gets to church next week, he has a short talk on the meaning of the parable to share.
When I became a Christian, a daily Quiet Time to study the Bible and pray was absolutely expected – I get the feeling that’s less the case nowadays. So I’m going to suggest you make a New Year’s Resolution today, to read your Bible more effectively, and every day, if you don’t already.
How you do that is a personal decision based on who you are and your circumstances. But I’m quickly going to discuss some Bible-reading aids to help make up for your not being a semi-literate yeoman, and I’ll put them out on display afterwards so you can see what suits you.
The commonest aids consist of a Bible passage, with explanatory notes, in a booklet covering 3 or 4 months. Many people find them helpful, but they have a downside, which I’ll come to. (Examples given)
But all these to me have a disadvantage I found as a new Christian. If you’re lazy, like me, or busy, you’ll end up reading the passage, then reading the notes, and it will barely touch your mind, let alone renew it.
My own solution was to give up on notes and start reading the Bible a chapter a day, and writing notes on what I learned. The discipline taught me a huge amount, and I still have folders full of notes I’ll never read again, but which helped form my Christian mind. There is no gain without pain, believe me.
A couple of aids go in that direction by asking you to think, and ideally write down what you think. (Examples given)
Lastly, there is a time for some people when simply reading the Bible as a whole, rather than detailed study, will help them most. “Read the Bible through the Year” simply organises a programme of daily passages for you and gives some background on each book. Great for gaining the Big Picture.
It would be transformative if everyone in the church learned to resist the increasing lies of Satan in the world by using any of these aids, or others, diligently. It would be another plank in making us a real light for the Kingdom in a dark – and increasingly deluded – world. So why not have a look at these materials afterwards at the back, and make a commitment to let the Bible transform your mind in 2020? Only don’t just think about it – do it! And then you’ll be thinking God’s word instead, which is a lot better for you!