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Scripture teaches us to expect unbelievers to mock the return of Christ. Peter discusses this in his second epistle. "Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, and saying, 'Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation'" (II Peter 3:3-4, where "lusts" is the Greek epithumia, see the article "Sin and Human Desire" at this web site, taken from our September 1997 newsletter). On an even more basic level, we should expect a division whenever the Gospel is preached. Some will believe, some will not. The percentage of each will change from place to place and from time to time. Nevertheless, this is the pattern we observe in the Acts of the Apostles, and this is what we should expect today.
However, there are some who, pretending loyalty to Christ, can be even more destructive than skeptics. Jesus' warned that we must be careful about those who claim that He has returned before He actually does. Throughout much of Christian history this warning has seemed somewhat superfluous, since only a few fringe groups such as the Shaking Quakers (Shakers) and the Jehovah's Witnesses have claimed that the second coming has already occurred. But in our own time, as in New Testament times, Jesus' warning takes on the very highest significance, since a large number of individuals are proclaiming that a spiritual return of Christ is imminent.
Jesus' warning is found in Matthew 24:4-5, 11, 23-28; Mark 13:5-6, 21-23; and Luke 17:22-24, 21:8. Jesus says clearly, "See to it that no one misleads you" (Matthew 24:4, cf. Mark 13:5, Luke 21:8). It seems likely that some of the false prophets and false Christs Jesus warned against arose in the time between Pentecost and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D. However, there can be no doubt that these warnings also relate to the time of His return.
Paul evidently gave a great deal of instruction concerning the second-coming of Christ while ministering at Thessalonica. The two letters to the Thessalonians that we have in our New Testament cover questions that still troubled them. In the second letter Paul wrote,
"Now we request you, brethren, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our gathering together to Him, that you may not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one in any way deceive you . . ."
II Thessalonians 2:1-3
If we read through Jesus' words and then read II Thessalonians 2:1-3, we see that Paul's words very much echo the warnings of Jesus. Paul cautions the Thessalonians not to be shaken in their minds or their emotions, not to be confused, by those who say that Jesus has returned. This might seem obvious, but Paul points out that this message might come by what seems to be a direct communication from God's Spirit (or perhaps an angelic messenger sent from God, a "ministering spirit," as in Hebrews 1:14), from the persuasive speech of some spiritual teacher, or through a letter, perhaps one that appears to come from Paul or someone with Paul.
Jesus indicates that His coming will be so dramatic, so all-encompassing, that no one will be able to miss it (Matthew 24:27, Mark 13:24-27, Luke 17:24, 21:25-28). It will not be necessary to investigate to determine its truthfulness. It will be global. It will be unmistakable. It will be irrefutable. There will be no doubt in anyone's mind what has happened -- it will not be questionable, it will just be! In Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians (I Thessalonians 4:13-17) and again in the first chapter of his second letter (II Thessalonians 1:6-10), Paul emphasizes the manner of Christ's return to help the Thessalonians understand this. He does so again in II Thessalonians 2:8, where the most accurate translation is not "the spirit of His mouth" but "the breath of His mouth," the thought being the same as in Revelation 2:16 and 19:15, that the Lord's command is all that is required to vanquish His enemies.
Paul's teaching here is thus consistent with the teaching of Christ and the teaching of the entire New Testament. Although we may wonder how the Thessalonians could have had questions remaining when they had had the privilege of being taught by Paul himself, it is understandable that those in a predominantly pagan environment with a dearth of true Christian books and teachers could become confused. It is more difficult to understand how people could become confused about this matter today - when the Bible is widely available and there are so many resources available that present sound doctrine in clear terms. But it is happening, and there are a large number of religious teachers presenting false doctrine about the return of Christ. Just as Jesus warned, there are many false prophets, and some false Christs.
One individual deeply involved in presenting false doctrine is Benjamin Creme of Share, International. Creme is the channeler ("medium" in traditional, rather than New Age, terminology), of "Lord Maitreya." Maitreya is supposed to be the returned Christ, and also represent the Hebrew Messiah, the Moslem Imam Mahdi, the Hindu Krishna, and Maitreya Buddha. Maitreya is supposed to have appeared throughout the world in recent years and, Creme claims, Maitreya will appear more frequently and publicly in these coming years. Maitreya, who, it is claimed, can communicate to all people telepathically, supposedly does not promote any one religion and will be as helpful to skeptics as to believers!
Few evangelical Christians are likely to be fooled by Creme's Maitreya, although some more liberal Christians are eager to join in New Age beliefs and celebrations. The evangelical Christian community has more confusion regarding a promised spiritual return of Christ prior to Jesus' bodily return - which, just as much as Maitreya, falls under the warning words of Jesus and Paul. Because these contemporary teachings are based upon confusion concerning what Scripture actually teaches, it is helpful to start our consideration of these teachings with a review of traditional doctrine. This review will be in broad strokes and without extensive Scriptural support, since there are many sources of confirmation of these teachings.
The "incarnation" of Jesus Christ occurred when He was conceived of Mary and the Holy Spirit and was born into the world as both fully God and fully man (John 1:1-18, Philippians 2:5-11). Forty days after His crucifixion and resurrection from the dead, Jesus ascended bodily into heaven (Acts 1:1-9). He is present with His disciples today in the third person of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit (Matthew 18:20, John 14:23, Ephesians 3:17). However, this presence must be carefully understood. Because God is Trinity, when the Holy Spirit is present, Christ is present. We mention this here because this is the only spiritual presence of Christ taught in Scripture between Pentecost and the second coming of the incarnate Christ. However, Jesus is not present bodily today, and the Holy Spirit is also a unique Person, not to be confused with the incarnate Christ (John 14:16-18, 16:7-15). The beginning of the Christian church takes place at the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost (Acts 1:4, 8, 2:1ff.), which has never been considered a "return" of Christ by the church. Jesus will return bodily, the return we mention above that has been described so clearly by Christ and Paul (Acts 1:10-11, Hebrews 9:27-28). Notice carefully that with regard to Christ's return Paul speaks of "our gathering together to Him," not "His coming to indwell the church on the earth" (see "Triumphant in Christ: A Bible Study of Romans 8:18-39" at this web site, taken from our December 1997 newsletter). The "Body of Christ" is a metaphor for the church. The church does not and will not constitute the "incarnation" of Christ, a separate Person who exists bodily today and will return bodily at some future time.
Contemporary teachers of a "spiritual" return of Christ to come before His bodily return but after Pentecost arrive at their position by confusing a number of Scriptural teachings. They believe that the spirit of Christ can become "incarnate" a second time in the church, the "Body of Christ." They often identify the "male child" or "man child" of Revelation 12:5 as the Spirit of Christ "birthed" into the church. Some then further confuse the members of the church, the "Body of Christ," with Jesus Christ the Person, believing that Christians will, as "Christ," have the ability to work miracles, rule over the earth and all spiritual beings (including Satan and his spiritual servants, the "powers of the air"), and be above physical harm. They believe that this will enable them to prepare the world for the bodily return of Christ.
To this end, an untold number of people today who claim allegiance to Christ are praying fervently for the "birthing" of Christ into the church. Some are taking postures similar to women in labor and straining to "birth the man child." Now, some people will do just about anything -- if there has been anything I have learned about human beings in my lifetime it is that! However, we cannot dismiss this phenomenon so easily. The belief that Christ is coming to the church in a dramatic and powerful new way, a spiritual presence that will make the church tremendously fruitful in evangelism and in establishing a new political and economic order in the world - preparing the world for the bodily return of Christ - is spreading rapidly through the world-wide Christian community. Such a belief stands behind and drives the large gatherings and marches that are becoming popular in some quarters of the Christian community. It is the rationale for those who want "unity at all costs" in the Christian community, especially at the cost of doctrine. The desire to sacrifice doctrine for unity is related to Paul's teaching in II Thessalonians 2, as we shall see. The belief is that at some point Christ will become "incarnate" in His church. In this sense, in our time people are being invited to go "here" and "there" to experience the presence of Christ, just as Jesus and Paul foretold - and warned against. To be deceived by a something we have been clearly warned about is more than foolishness, it is disobedience. To speak of "incarnating" Christ in the church, giving Christians the identity, power, and authority of Jesus Christ Himself, borders on blasphemy.
In verse 3, Paul mentions two events as indicators of the imminent bodily return of Christ:
". . . for it will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition"
II Thessalonians 2:3.
Both the apostasy and the man of lawlessness mentioned here have engendered a great amount of interest and a great amount of debate. The Greek word "apostasy" (apostasia) is used to indicate an insurrection, a rebellion. While some may disagree about what Paul means here, it seems certain that that he is referring to a radical and determined rejection of sound Christian doctrine in favor of blatant falsehood; of which the activities of the "man of lawlessness" are a part, representing the ultimate blasphemy against God by the kingdom of darkness. "Lawlessness" is not only a common way for the Scriptures to describe sinfulness (I John 3:4), it was considered a serious moral problem in pagan society as well. This individual will claim that he, himself, is solely worthy of the worship of mankind, above all of the world's gods and objects of veneration, and even the true God Himself, whom this one will pretend to be. There may have been a fulfillment of the same type of event in New Testament times, with the emperors of the Roman empire demanding the worship of their subjects, and using the refusal to worship them as a means to identify Christians. But the global terms with which these events are described by Paul can only point to their ultimate fulfillment at the time of Christ's bodily return.
As important as it may be to try to understand the apostasy and man of lawlessness Paul describes in these difficult passages (II Peter 3:15-16), it is even more important to understand what leads to the apostasy and lawlessness described here. It is an attitude towards truth that separates those who love Christ from those who love the man of lawlessness. Those, who like the "man of lawlessness" will perish (v. 3, "perdition" means "destruction"), are those who "did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved," who "did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness" (v. 10,12). On the other hand, salvation comes "through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth" (v. 13, cf. John 17:17).
False prophets, false Christs, and the "power and signs and false wonders" of the man of lawlessness (v. 9) are permitted by God, then, as a test that reveals what is truly in the hearts of men and women. A solemn warning has been given to us by God Himself in Deuteronomy 13:1-5 that God will allow some false prophets to show signs and wonders and to foretell the future; but "the Lord your God is testing you to find out if you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul" (Deuteronomy 13:3). We should not miss the point that the "other gods" of Deuteronomy 13:2 can be the true God and the true Christ falsely described!
When we are told to put aside our minds and "just accept" new beliefs we do so only if we care nothing for the clear warnings our Lord, the Good Shepherd, has given to us. Whereas Christians have traditionally taken their beliefs about Spiritual truth from Scripture and Christian tradition, many Christians today, like most of the world, now judge their beliefs by the number of people who embrace them. In other words, most people want to "run with the crowd." This effectively means that if one wants to change Christianity, all that is required is to get many Christians to accept that belief openly, and many others will follow. This is the perfect situation for the events of II Thessalonians 2 to arise, which is why we need to give careful attention to Paul's words in our time - and not cast aside our love of truth for supposed "presences."
First printed in The American Night Watch Newsletter, Volume VI, Part 1, January 1998.
Copyright 1999 Sterling M. Durgy. All Rights Reserved.
The American Night Watch is a trademark of the Christian ministry of Sterling M. Durgy.
Scriptures taken from the New American Standard Bible, Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968,1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
Permission is granted to reprint this article as long as the copyright is included, this statement is included, and the article is not sold to the recipients.
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This page was last updated October 22, 1999.