The Church has been plagued with deceivers and apostasy, just as predicted in the New Testament.
The New Testament warns disciples about several things that will characterize the period between Christ’s first and second comings, ones that will intensify as the end approaches. They include an army of deceivers, deception, apostasy, the rise of a horrific malevolent figure, and Satan’s final assault on the church.
And the writers of the New Testament are quite consistent in their warnings about last-day deceivers, false prophets, apostasy, and that final dark figure who is called variously Antichrist, the Man of Lawlessness, and the Beast.
In his ‘Olivet Discourse,’ Jesus forewarned that “MANY deceivers” will come and “deceive MANY,” “false prophets and false christs” who employ “signs and wonders” to deceive even the very “elect.” They will propagate false information about the “coming of the Son of Man.”
These deceivers will cause the love of many to “grow cold” and increase “lawlessness.” Not only so, but some if not many disciples will turn on each other when persecution comes – (Matthew 24:4-8).
Paul warned Timothy that in later years “some men will depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of demons.” While many righteous men will undergo persecution, in contrast, “wicked men and howling imposters will increase, deceiving and being deceived.”
And the Greek term rendered “howling imposters” or goés originally referred to sorcerers and the practitioners of magic and divination.
The time is coming when many will not hold to sound doctrine. Instead, having “itching ears, they will heap to themselves teachers after their own lusts and will turn away their ears from the truth, and turn aside to fables” – (1 Timothy 4:1 2 Timothy 3:13, 4:2).
Likewise, Peter warns that there will be deceivers and false teachers who will “introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. Many will follow their sensuality and because of them, the way of the truth will be maligned” – (2 Peter 2:1-22).
In his first epistle, John laments the rise of “antichrists” within his congregations, false teachers who were denying the genuine humanity of Jesus. His term is probably derived from Christ’s description of “false prophets and false christs.” It is a compound of the Greek preposition anti and the noun for “anointed” or christos, and the preposition signifies “instead of,” not “against.” Thus, an “anti-christ” is someone that replaces the true Christ, that is, a false christ, an imposter.
And while John refers to multiple “antichrists,” he also acknowledges that there is an “antichrist who is coming”; presumably, he will of the same nature as the many “antichrists” known to John – (1 John 2:18-22, 4:1-6).
The Apostle Paul also warns of the coming end-times figure he labels the “man of lawlessness, the son of destruction,” and he focuses is his ability to deceive. Not only so, but he links him directly to the final “apostasy.” And he provides this information in response to deceivers who are disseminating false information about the “day of the Lord” among believers in Thessalonica – (2 Thessalonians 2:3-10).
This dark figure will seat himself in the “sanctuary of God…proclaiming himself to be God.” Elsewhere, Paul applies the term “sanctuary of God” and similar language metaphorically to the church and shows no interest in any temple building in old Jerusalem anywhere else on the planet – (1 Corinthians 3:16, 6:19, 2 Corinthians 6:16, Ephesians 2:19-22). And this “lawless one” will be energized by Satan to use:
“All power and signs and false wonders, and with all the deception of wickedness for those who are perishing, because they did not receive the love of the truth to be saved. And for this reason, God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they might believe what is false, in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth but took pleasure in wickedness” – (2 Thessalonians 2:8-10).
The emphasis is on the man’s ability to mislead people from the faith. His purpose will be to destroy the church. He will offer a false version of Jesus, something “instead of Christ.” He will proclaim “another gospel” and a “different Jesus,” one fundamentally different than the Messiah who was revealed on the Cross.
Likewise, in Revelation, the “Beast” will ascend from the sea to wage “war” against the “saints,” a group identified as the “brethren,” and those “who have the testimony of Jesus” and the “faith of Jesus.” In short, Christians – the men who “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” – (Revelation 11:7, 12:17, 13:7-10, 14:13).
At the end of the age, Satan will be loosed to gather the nations from the “four corners of the earth” for his final attempt to annihilate the “saints,” an assault that can only be thwarted by divine intervention when fire and brimstone rain down from heaven and destroys this force. This assault is the same “war” waged on the “saints” by the “Beast” described earlier in chapter 13 – (Revelation 20:4-10).
Even in John’s own day, this battle was raging upon and within the “seven churches of Asia” as they struggled with “false apostles,” “Nicolaitans,” the followers of “Balaam,” and “that prophetess, Jezebel, who teaches my children to fornicate and eat meat offered to idols.”
The description of “Jezebel” demonstrates she is an incarnation of the “Great Whore, Babylon” – already, Babylon is at work within the church. And persecution was occurring even then in both Smyrna and Pergamos, where “Antipas my witness, my faithful one, was killed among you.”
The struggles, failures, and triumphs of the churches of Asia form a microcosm of the far greater cosmic battle that is waging between the forces of the “Lamb” and the “Dragon,” a war that will culminate in the final assault against the saints by Satan.
Thus, already in the first century, false prophets and deceivers were active within the church, seeking to hoodwink Christians and cause them to apostatize.
What we do not find in the New Testament are predictions of a final end-times super revival or the takeover of the societies and governments of the earth by the church.
And while he did link the arrival of the “end” to the completion of the proclamation of the gospel “to all nations,” Jesus said nothing about how effective that effort will be or how many millions or even billions of souls will be drawn into his kingdom.
The task of the church is to “occupy” until he comes by carrying out this task of global mission even while struggling with deceivers, deception, apostasy, and persecution. What began when the “Son of Man” sowed the first seeds of the kingdom must and will continue until his “arrival on the clouds.” Even in history’s final years, the church will walk the same path as Jesus and his apostles.
None of this means that the church will not succeed in its endeavor to win millions for the gospel. The New Testament simply does not tell us this one way or another, at least not explicitly.
However, we must give serious consideration to the challenging words of Jesus – “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find the faith on the earth?” Was his question rhetorical or an enigmatic and rather dark prediction? – (Luke 18:8).
But his statement does suggest a time when deception and apostasy will be significant among his followers in the final days, and perhaps at that time, the faithful will become a small remnant in the dark days prior to his advent.
In any case, the consistent predictions of the New Testament need to be weighed against the contradictory claims of a great many false prophets and deceivers over the centuries, especially in our own time.