How can we know that Christ’s return is near? (Part 3)
In this installment, we will address the end-time manifestation of a powerful religious leader and the tragedy that in light of religious persecution and other reasons, true Christians will fall away from the Truth and return to the world. The prophesied “falling away” from the Truth is to occur, in its fullest and most grievous extent, just prior to and during the Great Tribulation. We will know that Christ’s return is eminent when these and other events happen at approximately the same time.
True Church members will fall away from the Truth because they did not receive the love of the Truth and did not believe the Truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness (2 Thessalonians 2:10, 12). Because of lawlessness, the love within them will grow cold (Matthew 24:12; “love” in Greek is agape, describing the love of God which only true Christians have; compare Romans 5:5). The New International Version says: “They refused to love the truth.”
As a consequence, they will become an easy target for Satan’s ministers (2 Corinthians 11:14-15) who will deceive them through their lying signs and wonders (2 Thessalonians 2:9, 11; Matthew 24:11, 24).
The end-time falling away from the Truth refers to converted Christians. It will reach its climax at the approximate time when the man of sin manifests himself just prior to and during the Great Tribulation, claiming to be God and sitting in the Temple of God. In 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4, Paul writes: “Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day [of Christ’s return] will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshipped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God.”
This “man of sin,” who is also called “the lawless one” in verses 8 and 9, does not only claim to speak with godly authority; he will say that he is God himself (maybe the Messiah). He is identified in the book of Revelation as “the false prophet” (compare, for example, Revelation 16:13; 19:20; see, too, Revelation 13:13-14). He is also identified as the future prince of Tyre (Ezekiel 28:2-5) as well as the end-time representative of the “little horn” in Daniel 7:25 and of the “harlot” in Revelation 17, who rules from a city built on seven “hills” (Revelation 7:9; New English Bible; Revised English Bible; New International Version; New American Bible; Moffat Translation of the Bible; New Jerusalem Bible and Living Bible. Compare also Revelation 17:18).
This religious figure will deceive people through “great signs” (Revelation 13:13; 19:20). We read in 2 Thessalonians 2:9 that the coming of the lawless one is “according to the working of Satan, with all power, SIGNS and lying wonders.” This false prophet will receive his powers to perform great signs from Satan and his demons (compare Revelation 16:13-14).
Some believe that the man of sin is a reference to the end-time “beast”—a political military leader. This is not the case.
James Hastings, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, under “Antichrist”, says correctly that the “man of sin” in 2 Thessalonians refers to “a false Messiah, a prophet… the opponent of the true Messiah.”
We also read that the returning Christ will consume the man of sin “with the breath of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His coming” (2 Thessalonians 2:8). Therefore, this man of sin will exist at the time of Christ’s return. He will proclaim himself to be God, sitting in the temple of God. It is highly unlikely that Paul was talking about the Church as the spiritual temple of God in this context. There is no biblical evidence that the false prophet will be sitting in God’s true Church—the pillar and ground or foundation of the Truth (1 Timothy 3:15)—which continues to teach and practice the Truth. (We will discuss later that a physical temple will be built in Jerusalem just prior to Christ’s return.)
Some have proposed that the coming end-time falling away refers to traditional Christianity, which will exert a more powerful influence on the world. Even though false Christianity will become more powerful in these last days, Paul’s warning of a future “falling away” refers to true Christians.
The context of these verses addresses a falling away (apostasia in Greek) from the Truth. The apostle Paul is addressing “brethren” (verse 1) about an apostasy especially at the end time, just prior to Christ’s return, when the man of sin is revealed.
An apostasy from the true gospel already began during the lifetime of Paul, when he stated that he marveled that so many in the Church of God had turned to another gospel (Galatians 1:6-7; compare also 2 Corinthians 11:4, saying that they had accepted another Jesus and another spirit).
Even though numerous false doctrines were infiltrating the early church, including “Judaism” with demands of physical circumcision and the observance of superseded ritual laws of the Old Testament, we can safely say that an important personality, the Samaritan sorcerer Simon Magus, had tremendous influence on the introduction of false doctrines, which are still known and taught today in orthodox Christianity.
Simon Magus believed “the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus” (Acts 8:12-13). He was baptized, but never received the Holy Spirit because the apostles refused to lay hands on him, given the fact that he had not repented and had an evil and wicked heart (compare Acts 8:18-24). Simon Magus went to Rome and was given the surname “Peter” as a religious title, meaning “father” or “interpreter.”
In his book, Mystery of the Ages, Herbert W. Armstrong wrote on pages 51-53:
“It seems incredible that a being like Satan not only could have deceived the whole world, but also ‘Christianity’—the very religion bearing Christ’s name and supposed to be his true religion. Yet, paradoxically, Satan did! He did it through his great false church, started A.D. 33 by Simon the Sorcerer…
“Simon proclaimed himself a Christian apostle… and called the pagan Babylonian mystery religion ‘Christianity.’ He accepted the doctrine of ‘grace’ for the forgiveness of sin (which the pagan religions had never had), but turned grace into license to disobey God (Jude 4). He aspired to turn his pagan religion, under the name ‘Christianity,’ into a universal religion…”
The Dictionary of Christian Biography, Vol. 4, p. 682, states: “[Simon] came to Rome in the days of Claudius Caesar (45 A.D.), and made such an impression by his magical powers, that he was honored as a god…”
Hasting’s Dictionary of the Apostolic Church, volume 2, page 496, states: “But it need not be supposed that when Simon broke with the Christians he renounced all he had learned. It is more probable that he carried some of the Christian ideas with him, and that he wove these into a system of his own. This system is a mixture of pagan ideas wrapped with Christian names and identities.”
The Dictionary of Religion and Ethics says that Simon was “a false Messiah, who practiced magical arts and subsequently attempted, by the aid and with the sanction of Christianity, to set up a rival universal religion” (Apostolic Christianity, volume 11, page 514).
In Revelation 17, the Apostle John is given a vision of a scarlet beast having seven heads and ten horns. The scarlet beast is ridden by a woman—a harlot. Revelation 17:5 identifies the woman as “mystery, Babylon the great, the mother of harlots and of the abominations of the earth.”
In biblical terminology, a religious entity is many times depicted as a woman. The true Church of God is identified as a woman (Revelation 12:6, 13–17); a virgin (2 Corinthians 11:2); and the wife of Jesus Christ (Revelation 19:7). Likewise, Christ’s true followers are identified as “virgins” (Matthew 25:1; Revelation 14:4).
However, the woman who sits on the scarlet-colored beast is a FALLEN rich woman who has committed “fornication” with the inhabitants of the earth (Revelation 17:2; compare also verse 4, and Revelation 18:3, 9). She is identified as “the great harlot who corrupted the earth with her fornication” (Revelation 19:2). In biblical terminology, she is a fallen church, pretending to be the true Church of God.
The woman is called, in Revelation 17, verse 5, “Mystery, Babylon the Great, The Mother of Harlots and of the Abominations of the Earth.” This fallen church is called the “Mother Church,” which has “daughter churches.”
Lehman Strauss writes in “The Book of the Revelation,” pages 295–301: “The Babylon of the Revelation is an apostate religious system clearly identifiable with all of Christendom, with papal Rome taking the lead in its formation.”
Simon Magus started the fallen church described in Revelation 17. As he was worshipped as a god or God, so the final representative of the harlot—the false prophet—will likewise claim to be God. A falling away from true Christianity did take place in the days of Simon Magus, and thereafter, when many who first believed the Truth of the Bible were swayed into accepting Simon’s counterfeit apostate religion.
More recently, another major falling away did take place at the time when a new administration came to power in the Worldwide Church of God [WCG], after the death of its human leader, Herbert Armstrong, in 1986. Gradually, the Truth was replaced with the false pagan doctrines of “orthodox” Christianity.
Catholic and Protestant churches have rejected, for nearly two millennia, the weekly Sabbath and the annual Holy Days. The Catholic Church claims godly authority and it has admitted that it changed many biblical laws, including the ones regarding God’s holy times—the weekly Sabbath and the annual Holy Days (compare Daniel 7:25).
The Protestant Churches, even though they officially reject the authority of the Catholic Church to change the teachings of the Bible, nevertheless followed the lead of the Catholic Church and adopted Sunday worship, while rejecting the Sabbath.
Today, those who accepted the changes within the [now defunct] WCG have become part of the Babylonian religious system of a counterfeit Christianity [unless they forsook religion altogether], embracing its false doctrines such as Sunday, Christmas and Easter worship; the Trinity; the immortal soul; going to heaven or hell upon death; and many more. At the same time, they have been rejecting the biblical Truth of the Sabbath, the Holy Days, abstaining from unclean meat; the true nature of God; and the potential of man, among many others.
However, the apostasy from the Truth within the Church of God will continue (Luke 8:13; 1 Timothy 4:1) and reach its climax of accepting false teachings and practices, while rejecting the Truth, just prior to Christ’s return.
The commentary of Bengel’s Gnomen states: “Apostasy is a falling away from the faith… Some of those who had received it drew back [and departed] from the living God…”
The coming end-time apostasy does not only refer to a “handful” of people. It is true that the Bible does not use the term “GREAT” or “GREATER” falling away in 2 Thessalonians 2. However, it is also correct that it has been commonly understood that Paul had a GREAT apostasy in mind, which—relatively speaking—will be, in some way, greater than prior apostasies. For instance, the headline of the New King James Bible for 2 Thessalonians 2 reads, “The Great Apostasy.” The Ryrie Study Bible comments about the coming apostasy: “An aggressive and climactic revolt against God.”
The Benson Commentary writes about the coming apostasy: “The article here is emphatical, denoting both that this was to be a great apostasy, the apostasy… and that the Thessalonians had been already apprised [sic] of its coming.”
After all, Paul uses the end-time falling away from the Truth and the manifestation of the man of sin as important and critical visible signs for the arrival of the day of the Lord–the return of Jesus Christ. If he had only a minor event in mind or just a few Christians who were to forsake the Truth, then this would hardly be an obvious and convincing sign for Christ’s return, as Christians have fallen away from the Truth as long as the Church of God has existed.
We must clearly keep in mind two different but separate end-time events, which will happen at approximately the same time: The apostasy or falling away of true Christians and the manifestation of the false prophet representing a false and apostate counterfeit “Christianity.”
The coming of the lawless one and the concept of lawlessness will remain a mystery to the world. God’s people are warned not to be deceived when the lawless one appears so that they don’t fall away from the Truth. The best protection against deception is to stay close to God and His Word and while rejecting the pleasures of unrighteousness, to believe the Truth and receive and hold fast to the love of it (compare again 2 Thessalonians 2:10-12).
When we see the manifestation of the man of sin and the falling away from the Truth, in combination with other events already discussed and to be discussed later, we know that Christ’s return is near.
(To Be Continued)
Lead Writer: Norbert Link