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The Power of Spiritual Deception

When we turn away from the truth, we deceive ourselves—and will finally believe anything.


Jim Jones was the founder of the People's Temple. More than 900 of Jim Jones' followers died in a cult murder/suicide in 1978 in Jonestown, Guyana. Over 300 children were murdered. It was the greatest loss of American civilian life in a deliberate act until the 9/11 attacks.

The FBI recovered a 45-minute audio recording of the suicide in progress. It is disturbing. Demonic. I don't recommend it. On the tape, Jim Jones calmly urges his followers to drink cyanide-laced Flavor Aid (technically not Kool-Aid) after giving it to their children.

Jim Jones is one of the most extreme examples of spiritual deception. But he is certainly not alone. History is marked by those who—in a hundred different ways—have influenced people away from God and damaged, even destroyed, their lives.

In the Bible there are repeated warnings about those who will seek to deceive us spiritually. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns about false prophets. There are two things that characterize them:

  • They are genuinely deceptive. Jesus said they will come to us in sheep's clothing. Paul writes that they "masquerade as servants of righteousness." More often than not they are religious, winsome, seem sincere. We find them speaking in churches, giving religious seminars, teaching religion courses in universities and seminaries.
  • Further, they're dangerous. They're not neutral, harmless, stretching. Jesus says they come in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they're ferocious wolves. Wolves are the natural enemies of sheep. These false teachers will damage us.

We're looking at Paul's two letters to the Thessalonians. In the second chapter of the second letter, Paul is concerned that his readers are being drawn into false teaching. He wants to protect them. And to do that, he puts in front of them the truth.

I see four things in this section:

We are vulnerable to spiritual deception.

These false teachers were saying that end-time events—what Paul refers to as "the day of the Lord" in verse 2—had already begun. It is not exactly clear what they meant by that. They may have been saying that Jesus had already returned; the Second Coming had already taken place. And the readers had missed out on what God was doing in the world.

I suspect, though, that these false teachers were saying that end-time events had begun, the clock was ticking, and the return of Jesus was just around the corner. His coming was going to happen in the immediate future. They only needed to wait a short time until this happened. Regardless, it was said that the apostles were the source of this teaching. Look at verse 2: Paul warns that these false teachers might appeal to:

  • Prophecy: They might claim that they received revelation from God.
  • A verbal report: They might say they have a statement from one of the apostles.
  • A letter: They may claim they've received written communication from the apostles. It simply wasn't true.

There has been a great deal of wrong teaching about the Second Coming. The founder of the Jehovah's Witnesses, Charles Russell, taught that the world would end in 1874. He revised his calculations to 1914. His successor, J. F. Rutherford, asserted that Christ did in fact come in 1914—but invisibly.

There are those who say they are demythologizing the Bible. The claim is made that these passages are simply apocalyptic literature; it's all symbolic. None of this is literal—not even the return of Jesus. He won't come back in history.

Another form of false teaching comes from those who claim to have calculated the year when Jesus will return. But Jesus himself said that no one knows when that will happen. He could return at any time.

Verse 2: Paul tells his readers "not to become easily unsettled" by this teaching. The verb can be used for ships that are torn from their moorings by a storm. They are not to be alarmed by this. Verse 3: They are not to be deceived by this. In order for something to deceive us it has to seem authentic. We're not deceived by a three-dollar bill. We can be deceived by a counterfeit one hundred-dollar bill.

This false teaching must have seemed credible to these first readers. In the Bible the return of Jesus is connected to a time of unparalleled upheaval, war, suffering, persecution—it is commonly referred to as the Tribulation. Paul's readers are living in the Roman Empire; it is a time of open persecution and hostility. They may have wondered if what they were experiencing was this end-time persecution. Perhaps these teachers were right; maybe the end-time period had begun.

We can be deceived by that which seems authentic and is not. When I was in seminary, Sue and I heard a story that was presented as true. We were talking about it this week; we both remembered it. One of the downtown law firms at Christmas gave turkeys to all the employees. As a prank, some of the staff made up a paper-maché turkey for a young, single attorney. They wrapped it up like the other turkeys; he had no idea his turkey wasn't real. He had his paper-maché turkey and was riding home on the bus and he saw a man who was obviously very poor. The attorney talked to him for a few minutes; he had a family. He decided to give the man the turkey. But to preserve the man's dignity, the attorney actually sold it to him for a few dollars. When the attorney returned to work, the other employees were waiting to hear his response to his fake turkey. And when everyone realized what had happened they were all devastated. The attorney—and several others in the office—rode the city buses for the next several weeks trying to find the man who had purchased the fake turkey. They never found him.

We can be deceived and damaged by that which seems authentic and is not. It was true for the man on the bus. It was true for the young attorney. It was true for Paul's readers. They are being deceived by the spiritual equivalent of a paper-maché turkey.

What protects us is knowing the truth. Verse 3: Two things are going to take place in this end-time period. If these things are not happening, this end-time period is not unfolding. First, the rebellion will occur. The term rebellion gives us our word "apostasy." In classical Greek this term refers to a political or military rebellion. Here it refers to rebellion against God. From several passages, there will be a dramatic manifestation of evil. It will ultimately be targeted against God. It is as though Satan is throwing all of his forces into one last effort. It will be a time of brutal war, upheaval—the persecution of both Jews and Christians. Jesus says in Matthew 24, "There will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again. If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive … " (Matthew 24:21-22). In 2 Timothy 3, Paul describes the thinking of those living during this time:

But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents [perhaps one aspect of this is rejecting what their parents believed], ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—having a form of godliness but denying its power. [Even now] Have nothing to do with such people (2 Timothy 3:1-5).

But there will be an unparalleled rebellion.

And second, "the man of lawlessness" will be revealed. This individual is referred to by as many as two dozen titles in the Bible; he is referred to as the Beast in the book of Revelation; he is referred to as the Antichrist in John's first letter. He is a Hitler-like, Stalin-like figure—incredibly evil, violent. He is mentioned in a surprising number of passages in both the Old and New Testaments.

The Antichrist will be the one who is at the very heart of this rebellion. John writes in Revelation that he will be "given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation." Verse 4: He will present himself as a god—as the only god. He will make himself the sole object of worship. He replaces not only the worship of God—but even the practice of false religion—with the worship of himself. John writes that all the inhabitants of the earth will worship the Beast.

Notice verse 4b: He will set himself up in God's temple. It is a reference to the temple in Jerusalem. The temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70—about 20 years after this book was written. It has not been rebuilt. Today a Muslim mosque stands on the temple mount. But—I'm convinced—the temple will be rebuilt before Jesus returns.

Verse 5: Paul had taught them about the Antichrist and this end-time period when he was with them on his initial visit. Apparently he didn't think this teaching was too complicated or controversial. John Stott was the rector of All Souls Church in London. He was a gifted Bible teacher, scholar, writer. In his commentary on this passage he makes the observation that many feel that only the fringe elements of Christianity believe in a literal Antichrist. He says in so many words: "If that's the case, I'm part of the fringe. It is what the Bible teaches." Stott says, "Whether we still believe in the coming of Antichrist will depend largely on whether we still believe in the coming of Christ."

Paul's readers are believers. But if we don't know the truth, we can be deceived. People will make all kinds of religious claims. Satan is brilliant. He will try to draw us away from the Savior and destroy us. He will seek to do this intellectually; he will seek to do this morally.

Billy Graham says,

Thousands of uninstructed Christians are being deceived today. False teachers use high-sounding words that seem like the height of logic, scholarship, and culture. They are intellectually clever in their sophistry and adept at beguiling thoughtless, untaught men and women.

The most extreme form of deception is currently being restrained.

We may feel that the world is growing increasingly dark spiritually and morally; believers are being persecuted around the globe; it couldn't get much worse. But it can get worse; it will get worse.

Right now evil is actually being restrained. Verse 6: The Antichrist—and the full expression of the darkness, the horrific evil that will come through him—is currently being held back. The Antichrist is not going to step onto the stage of history until this restraint is removed. There is a question as to what exactly this restraint is. Paul's readers know (v. 6a), but he doesn't explain it for us.

I can't be dogmatic, but one of the oldest explanations is that this refers to the Holy Spirit within the church. The Holy Spirit is the person with sufficient power to restrain the kind of evil described here and in the book of Revelation. Further, Jesus describes us as the salt of the earth, the light of the world. The presence of believers in the world today restrains evil.

Regardless, this future period will be characterized by unrestrained evil and deception. It will be on a scale unlike anything we've seen in history. Verse 9: The Antichrist is not acting on his own. He is demonic; he is energized by Satan himself. He will do that which is supernatural. When Jesus came he did miracles, signs and wonders. The Antichrist will do counterfeit miracles, signs, and wonders. They are not counterfeit—apparently—in the sense that they're fake or magic tricks. They are counterfeit in the sense that they're done to deceive. Further, he will engage in every sort of evil. I take it everything this individual does is moving people away from the truth, but they can't see it.

Satan works through deceit. It will be unrestrained in the future. But that is how he works. That's how he draws us into some stupid act that discredits us before our children, or destroys a marriage, or leaves us paralyzed with guilt. He dangles sin in front of us like a fisherman's lure. When we bite, the hook catches in our throats—whether it is bitterness, some issue at work, some sexual sin, whatever it is. He works through deceit.

This is Haddon Robinson: "When Satan approaches us, he never comes dragging the chains that will enslave us. … He comes offering us pleasure, expansiveness, money, popularity, freedom, and joy. In fact, he never hints about the consequences; he only promises [he] will fill all the desires of our hearts. That is how we are destroyed."

Mephistopheles, a Satan figure in Faust, says, "The people don't know the devil is there, even when he has them by the throat."

Truth rejected leads to even further deception.

Verse 10b: People who are lost refuse to love the truth; they refuse to pursue it—and receive salvation. Verse 11: Because they turn away from the truth, God turns them over to a powerful delusion—to further deception. Verse 12: Not only do they turn away from the truth, they take delight in evil. In Romans 1, sin acted on leads to further sin. It's a downward spiral. Truth rejected leads to more and more deception. We become more and more vulnerable. We finally believe anything.

G. K. Chesterton says, "The first effect of not believing in God is to believe in anything." I'm not sure it's the first effect; I think it's the last effect. Truth rejected leads to further deception—until we finally accept and believe anything.

Our protection against deception is a commitment to the truth.

Paul is grateful for the faith of his readers. They have been chosen by God; they have been saved through the sanctifying—the term means "to set apart"—work of the Holy Spirit. That is, the Spirit has drawn them to the Savior. But notice they have received salvation "through belief in the truth." Verse 14: Our future is to share in the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus will come back. Look back at verse 8: Jesus will simply speak and the Antichrist will be defeated. He will establish his kingdom on this planet. We will rule with him in his kingdom. We will be brought into conformity with the Son. We will share in the glory that belongs to Jesus Christ.

And at this point we might expect Paul to say: "Relax. God has it all under control." And while that's true, that's not what the passage says. The language is active, direct; it is a command. We are to stand firm and hold on to the truth. Stott says he pictures a storm where the readers are in danger of being blown off their feet and torn away from what they're holding on to.

What they have their hands on at this point is the truth. He refers to it as "the teachings." Paul had passed this truth on to his readers verbally and now by two letters. We have this timeless truth for us in the Word. We are to hold on to this timeless truth—even if everything in life is trying to blow us away from it. We have to do the hard work of holding onto the truth.

Ben Stein has written several practical books: How to Ruin Your Life; How to Ruin Your Love Life; How to Ruin Your Financial Life. But he states his applications in negative terms. Let me state two simple applications in negative terms. If you want Satan to deceive you intellectually, morally—if you want to give yourself to that which will leave you distant from God, leave you with a broken heart, family, mind, do these two things.

  • Don't make the effort to know the truth. Don't make the Word a priority. Don't set aside time to read the Word. Don't put yourself in settings where you can learn the Word. Don't find a small group where you can discuss the Word and think through what it means to act on the truth.
  • Reject the truth if you somehow discover what it is. There are a number of ways to do this: We can reject it openly. Just dismiss it. I'm not going to do that. We can rationalize it away. It is so easy to justify that decision at work tomorrow; that bitterness we refuse to let go of. We can delay the implementation of it. I'll do something with that tomorrow. But, of course, we won't.

It is all deceit. It is all a paper-maché turkey. It leaves us wounded, damaged. It can cost us our souls. This all seems so hopeless. We need some good news: The One whose name is Truth loves us and calls us to himself. He also said, "The truth sets you free." That's true in every area of life.

Jim Nite is the pastor of Center Point Community church in Naples, FL.

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Sermon Outline:


I. We are vulnerable to spiritual deception.

II. The most extreme form of deception is currently being restrained.

III. Truth rejected leads to even further deception.

IV. Our protection against deception is a commitment to the truth.