For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only He who now restrains will do so until He is taken out of the way.
Note: I wrote this post in 2016. It feels just as relevant today, so I thought I would repost it.
I got an email today that sent me straight to my Bible. The author of the email wondered if it was possible if God was withdrawing His hand of restraint. I found the premise incredibly interesting. So I am putting my Jeremiah study down for a bit to look at 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 to see what Scripture says about God's restraining hand, what that means, and what happens when it is lifted.
Are Christian Leaders in Danger?
I’ve been studying the book of Jeremiah and landed on chapter five today, and it struck me how similar the times of today are to what Jeremiah and his people went through. For example, in this chapter’s opening, God tells him to go throughout Jerusalem's streets to look for an honest man, someone who speaks the truth and executes justice. If Jeremiah finds such a man, God will pardon the people. Like Sodom and Gomorrah during Abraham’s time, the people had once again descended into immorality. Their worship of God was forsaken in exchange for the lusts of the flesh. God was openly mocked, and even those in charge of the people's spiritual well-being had fallen away. They now worshipped false gods, and in this chapter, the Lord reveals to Jeremiah his plans for Israel. It would be their defining moment in history because God’s plans for Israel included the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem. He sent King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, who would keep them captive in his land for seventy years.
Read Jeremiah 16:1-21
The opening verses of this chapter must have been so disheartening to hear for Jeremiah. As an obedient servant of God, he had just found out in Jeremiah 15 that he would not escape the coming judgment God was sending upon His people. These people had turned away from God to worship idols and had fallen into all kinds of sin. But Jeremiah had not followed them into sin, instead he became God's prophet to warn them of what would happen if they didn't return to God. Now God is telling Jeremiah not to get married or have children because they would die gruesome deaths. He also tells Jeremiah that if any of his friends or family die that he must not mourn with them or for them. Why? Because they had turned away from God. Talk about harsh!
All the chapters in Jeremiah thus far have been God warning His people to repent and return to Him or else face the consequences. Ultimately, they chose to face the consequences rather than return to God. The result was that many died through famine and by sword, and were eventually taken captive to a foreign land (Babylon). God punished His people who had turned away from Him to worship other idols and who indulged in the practices of the heathen nations around them. Yet, He didn't punish each person individually, He punished the whole Jewish nation. Clearly, not everyone had turned away from God (the prophet Daniel lived during this time and was also taken captive), yet everyone was punished. Why?
It becomes clear at the end of the chapter. When the Gentile nations saw what the Jewish God did to His own people, many of them threw away their idols and turned to God instead (Jeremiah 16:19-21). God used the Jews disobedience to make Himself known to other nations. By punishing them as a nation it would result in the Jewish people permanently giving up idol worship and other nations believing in the one true God.
After the return from Babylon, this was partly fulfilled as the Jews entirely and permanently renounced idols and many Gentiles turned from their idols to Jehovah.”[i]
So how can this chapter apply to us today? If you are a parent you will understand how disobedient children can be. Sometimes they just won't listen! And mom and dad have to become pretty inventive with the appropriate punishment that will drive home the point, never to disobey again. Our children think our rules are because we "just want to be mean." They don't understand that we are trying to protect them from themselves. This is why God had to punish His children. He wasn't being mean, He was being a Dad. That old saying "this is going to hurt me more than it's going to hurt you" is true. God didn't want to punish His children. He loved them. But He could not let them continue on destroying their lives because where they were headed was eternal life without Him. They had to be punished and set on the correct path. The result, as I said, was Gentiles turning to Him and Jews finally giving up idol worship.
Today, we have the book of Revelation warning us about what is going to happen as we get closer to Jesus' return. The warnings were written about thousands of years ago and many of the prophecies have started to come true. We could be the generation that ushers in Jesus' return, which is a frightful thing because before He returns, horrible judgments upon the earth will happen. And the final judgment to come when we stand before God isn't just for one nation. It is for the entire world. Yet, for the most part, people continue on as if everything is okay and nothing is going to happen. They are behaving like Jeremiah's people were.
It is the responsibility of all Christians to continually sound the alarm, no matter how crazy it makes us sound, that Jesus is returning and with His return comes judgment Yet, we rarely hear a sermon on Sunday morning about the horrors that await those who will suffer through the tribulation. So it would seem that just like the leaders during Jeremiah's day, they are ignoring the warnings.
It doesn't help that false teachers are preaching "everything is awesome" type doctrines today and people are following them blindly. Prosperity teachers continually rant about how God wants the best for us and so they feed people a delusion that God is so enamoured with them He will rain down wealth, health and all manner of good things if they will just believe it and claim it - all while knowing what they are preaching is not even biblical. Will God punish these false teachers? Most definitely. Will He also punish those who follow them? Of course He will, unless they repent. If He did it with Jeremiah's people, He'll do it with Christians too. Our God is consistent and will do what needs to be done to bring His people back to Him.
If God would punish an entire nation of His disobedient chosen people, why would He not do the same with disobedient Christians? It may not be outright idol worship, but willingly following a false doctrine is still disobedience to God and His Holy Word. We are all responsible for what we choose to believe. If we do not examine the Scriptures to find out the truth of our beliefs, it is our own fault. The Jews of Jeremiah's day knew that they should not worship false idols, yet they chose to anyway and suffered greatly for it. False doctrines are the modern-day equivalent of false idols in the church today and 2 Timothy 4:3-4 seems to confirm that:
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.
And what does God say about people who listen to false teachers and follow their doctrines?
Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds (2 John 9-11).
If you are following and listening to a false teacher like Benny Hinn, Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer or Kenneth Copeland for example, you are sharing in their evil deeds.
Come away from them or share in their punishment (2 Peter 2:1-22).
[i] MacArthur Study Bible, NKJV
I started a Bible study on Jeremiah a while back and got side-tracked. Too many issues in the world needed to be addressed and so for a while my posts centered on them. While I still continued on in my studies I did not share them here. I hope to get back to that on a regular basis, starting with this post.
We will begin with Jeremiah 12. It is a crucial chapter because Jeremiah comes right out and asks God - why do the wicked prosper? I wrote about this some time ago when I was frustrated with corruption in government. God showed me then what He has planned for those who govern us. But in this chapter the "wicked" are not those who rule over us, but those who are charged with the spiritual welfare of God's people - namely the priests and teachers of the Law.
Many rulers have destroyed My vineyard,
In the KJV the word "rulers" is replaced with "pastors" because the Hebrew word that was used in the original context was ra`ah which means "pastor, shepherd or teacher". In fact, Jeremiah's chief complaint in this passage are the religious leaders. He acknowledges that God planted them and that they had taken root, grown, and born fruit. Yet their mouths had all the "religious speak" but their minds were far from God (Jeremiah 12:2). So, he rather bluntly asks God to "take them out" (Jeremiah 12:3).
God's response was one of empathy. He agrees with Jeremiah that those charged with the spiritual well-being of his "inheritance" (Israel) have failed miserably. He likens Jeremiah's estrangement from his family, to His own, in that Israel has forsaken Him. He also agrees that something has to be done about it. He says of these religious rulers that they "have sown wheat, but reaped thorns" and that they should be ashamed of their harvest (Jeremiah 12:13). God also agrees (in part) with Jeremiah's plan to "lead them like sheep to the slaughter" (Jeremiah 12:3), but He includes a promise. First, He will pluck them out from the land for their treachery in encouraging God's people to worship idols. But, when they have suffered enough, God will bring them back to the land of their inheritance, IF they will teach the people to worship Him and learn His ways, rather than the ways of Ba'al. However, if they do not establish the people in worshipping God alone, He will utterly destroy them (Jeremiah 12:14-17).
How Does This Apply to the Church Today?
In the same way that Israel's priests and teachers were charged with the spiritual welfare of their people, so too are those who have been called to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Those pastors who lead congregations, or teachers who lead in Bible study, are responsible for the words that come out of their mouths and the actions that they take when representing our Heavenly Father. They must not teach falsely, nor act in a manner that would encourage those they lead to do the same. For those who are discerning it is easy for us to spot false teachers and doctrines today, because we have kept the Word of God close to our hearts and fed our souls with it. But for those who forsake Bible study they are in danger of being lead like sheep to the slaughter, because they follow false doctrines and teachings that go against Almighty God. There is however, a solution to not becoming a victim of false teachers and preachers and it is quite simple - read your bible.
I realize I talk a lot about the importance of reading your Bible. I also talk a lot about false prophets and teachers, but if we can learn anything from Jeremiah it is this - God says they should be ashamed of themselves (Jeremiah 12:13). If they don't repent then their fate (and those who follow them) will not be pleasant, for God will deal as harshly with them as He did with Israel's religious leaders (2 Peter 2:1-22).
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Has the Great Apostasy Begun?
In my last post I talked about whether or not God was lifting His hand of restraint. One thing I learned from studying 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4 was that the man of lawlessness (also called the son of perdition) could not come until apostasy began in the church. Now it was pointed out by one of my readers that there has always been apostasy in the church, even from the time of the Apostles (Galatians 1:6-10). So how is our time any different to the early church or the church in general, throughout the years? How do we determine if there has been more apostasy in this generation compared to others? Let's start by looking at the differences between apostasy and false doctrines.
Apostasy is the total departure from one's religion, principles or beliefs. False doctrine as it pertains to Christianity, are teachings that stray from the main message of the gospel - that salvation comes through Christ alone, by faith alone. False doctrines and their false teachers take the emphasis off the cross and add non-scriptural doctrines to what the Bible teaches about salvation, repentance, confession and redemption in Christ. False teachers twist scripture to suit their own agendas. They often take scripture out of context and lie and deceive to achieve a certain goal. In today's churches false doctrines like the prosperity gospel for example, take the focus off of Jesus' atoning sacrifice for us and instead place it on monetary gain and the health and welfare of the believer.
The key to understanding apostasy and false doctrines is that they go hand in hand. Without false teachers and false doctrines, there is no chance for the body of Christ to be deceived and turn from the truth to a lie. Unfortunately, there have ALWAYS been false doctrines and false teachers, that as Jesus warned, would deceive, if possible, even the elect (Matthew 24:24).
So what does Paul mean in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 when he says, "For that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first?" Clearly, he is talking about a massive apostasy within the church body. An apostasy so bad that the body of Christ as a whole turns from the truth to a lie. Until that happens, the man of lawlessness will not be revealed. So did that happen in the early church?
We know from Revelation, that false teachers infiltrated the church right from the beginning. In Pergamum for example, they encouraged the teachings of the Nicolaitans. These false teachers put themselves forward as believers in Jesus Christ and, at the same time, practised black magic, offered sacrifices to the numerous idols in Pergamum, were sexually immoral, and were teaching new believers that all this was okay with God. Yet the Pergamum believers allowed them to stay within the church. They turned a blind eye to what the Nicolaitans were doing and settled for a “peaceful” compromise with them rather than call them out on their wrong doctrine and sinful lifestyles and insist on repentance. So we can see that apostasy and false doctrines go hand in hand, because when people accept false doctrines, the danger of totally abandoning their previous beliefs becomes greater. This is why Jesus called the church of Pergamum out in Revelation 2:12-17 and threatened to spit them out of his mouth. (If you are interested in a study on the letters to the seven churches in Revelation, my book He Who Has an Ear, Who the Seven Churches of Revelation are Today goes into this further.)
Has apostasy increased in the church?
When you look at the horrific things that were taking place in the church of Pergamum we might confidently say the modern church has never been that bad. We don't worship idols. We are not encouraging sexual immorality. We never turn a blind eye to sin. Or do we? Is there idol worship in the church? Sadly, yes there is and it is shocking. Do we now have churches that say homosexuality is not a sin? Yes we do. Do we have well known believers in Christ encouraging Christians to disregard scripture in order to accept homosexuality? In other words - to turn a blind eye to sin? Yes, we do. In fact, I believe it is the issue of gay rights that will cause many of the faithful to turn away. Why? Because at heart, all Christians want gay people to feel accepted by the church. We want them to know Jesus loves them and that they are welcome in our churches. We want them to feel loved and we want to extend mercy and love in Jesus' name to them in any way we can. For some, that will mean compromising their beliefs that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, in order to be more open and accepting to the gay community. For others however, it will mean loving and accepting the gay community, but standing firm in their beliefs, which unfortunately, comes across as hate.
I didn't want this post to be about homosexuality. I wanted it to be about apostasy in the church. But unfortunately, I think this particular issue will play a part in the downfall of the church, paving the way for a massive apostasy. So how do we stand on the truth of God's Word and let the gay community know they are loved? First, we let them know that salvation is not dependant upon repentance. Jesus died for us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8). However, repentance is part of the Gospel message, in that once we make the decision to follow God, turning from our sin is a natural aspect of how we honour Him. To continue to sin therefore, would be to crucify Christ over and over again. Even Jesus Himself said, "Unless you repent you will all likewise perish" (Luke 13:3). And there is the main problem - the gay community doesn't believe they are sinning, while the Bible says they are. And Bible believing Christians won't budge on their belief that the Bible is the Word of God.
But we live in an age where people are putting down their Bibles and ignoring them in favour of man's opinion. Eighty-two percent of Christians do not read their Bibles at all and these will be the people the apostasy begins with. They will be easily deceived and if possible, will deceive others. Just as Jesus warned (Matthew 24:24). If we continue on the course of favouring man's opinion over God's Word, the great "falling away" will continue to grow and the church, because she has not stood firm on the Word of God, will be the reason why the man of lawlessness will appear.