Times and Signs—Part 7

The Rise and Fall of the Antichrist—Part I

“Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition.” —II Thessalonians 2:3

NO STUDY of the prophecies pertaining to the end of the age and the establishment of Christ’s kingdom could be considered complete without an examination of their testimony concerning the rise and fall of the foretold Antichrist. The Apostle John wrote that in his day there were already “many antichrists.” (I John 2:18) In this same text John wrote, “Ye have heard that Antichrist shall come.” Here the reference is to the many prophecies which foretell the rise of an iniquitous system which would be a counterfeit of Christ and his glorious kingdom of righteousness.

While, as John observes, any individual who opposes Christ and his teachings can properly be called an antichrist, our present study will be concerned with the prophecies which relate to the Antichrist which, as we shall see, is not an individual, but a great system which was to take the place of Christ—a clever counterfeit which deceitfully would be established and rule in the name of Christ.

In the prophecies various names are applied to this wicked Antichrist system. In our text we have the names ‘Man of sin’, and ‘son of perdition’. In verse seven of the same chapter we are given the description ‘mystery of iniquity’, and in verse eight, ‘that Wicked’, or ‘wicked one’. Just as the Christ is composed of Jesus, the Head, and the church, his body, who will constitute the ruling house of the Lord in the long-promised kingdom, so the Antichrist is made up, not of one individual, but a whole company of individuals who together claim to be the kingdom of Christ. Thus in the minds and hearts of the unwary it takes the place of Christ’s kingdom.

The importance of properly identifying the Antichrist, the Man of Sin, and of discerning its rise to power, is emphasized in Paul’s two letters to the brethren in Thessalonica. In his first letter, fifth chapter, he explained that the “Day of the Lord [beginning with Christ’s second presence on the earth] so cometh as a thief in the night.” He pointed out that the world would not know about the coming of this day until, as a result, “sudden,” or unexpected, destruction would come upon them. But to the disciples in Thessalonica Paul said, “Ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief.”—I Thess. 5:1-4

Some of the brethren to whom this epistle was written, earnestly desiring the return of Christ and the establishment of his kingdom, interpreted Paul’s words to mean that Christ had already returned. If he were to be present as a thief in the night, and the brethren would know about it while the world would be in ignorance, what could Paul mean except that their Lord and Master had already returned? After all, these brethren knew that before Jesus returned to heaven he was invisible to human eyes except as he miraculously manifested himself to them. And why could he not thus be present again? they reasoned.

When writing to these brethren the second time, Paul endeavored to correct this misunderstanding of what he meant in his first letter concerning the return of Christ and the Day of the Lord. He wrote that he wanted them not to be “shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand.” To this Paul added, “Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that Man of Sin be revealed, the son of perdition.”—II Thess. 2:1-3

It is well to note, in passing, that Paul did not write to the brethren at Thessalonica and say that they were wrong in their understanding of the manner of Christ’s return and second presence. He did not say that it was preposterous for them to believe the Day of the Lord had arrived, for if that be true, the earth would have been destroyed and they, as disciples of Christ, would have been taken up in a rapture to be with the Lord in the literal air. No. Paul knew the brethren had the proper understanding of the manner of Christ’s second presence, that he would be here as a ‘thief in the night’. He knew, just as Jesus explained, that in the beginning of the Day of the Lord, people would continue on about their usual affairs of life—eating, drinking, marrying, and giving in marriage—not knowing the significance of the time in which they were living.

Knowing, therefore, that the brethren at Thessalonica were correct in their understanding of the manner of Christ’s presence, Paul’s argument against their erroneous conclusion that he had already returned was simply the fact that there were certain prophecies descriptive of events which were to occur between Christ’s first and second advents which had not yet been fulfilled. “That day shall not come,” Paul explained, “except [until] there come a falling away first, and that Man of Sin be revealed, the son of perdition.”—II Thess 2:3

Nineteen centuries have passed since Paul wrote these words explaining that there would come a great falling away from the Christian faith—an apostasy—and that there would develop and be revealed a Man of Sin, a son of perdition, and that this would occur before the Lord returned. Is it now possible, looking back down the corridor of these centuries, to see the development of this foretold Antichrist? Has Paul’s prophecy been fulfilled to an extent that makes it unnecessary longer to wait for this development before we can be assured we have reached the end of the age, and that the Day of the Lord is now, indeed, at hand?

We believe so!

There is a mistaken idea, held and proclaimed by some, that the Man of Sin, the Antichrist, is an individual who is yet to appear in the world, and who will be so clever as to deceive practically all mankind into believing that he is God, and, furthermore, that this master deceiver will seat himself in a rebuilt, literal temple in Jerusalem. This theory is at once seen to be in error in view of the fact as explained by Paul, that the spirit, or influence, of the Antichrist or Man of Sin was already working in his day, and its full manifestation awaited only the removal of certain hindrances which then prevented its development.

“Remember ye not, that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things?” Paul wrote to the Thessalonian brethren, “and now ye know what withholdeth that he might be revealed in his time. For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way. And then shall that Wicked be revealed.”—II Thess. 2:5-8

In this second chapter of Thessalonians, Paul refers to the Antichrist as the ‘mystery of iniquity’, and ‘that Wicked’ or ‘Wicked One’. These names clearly show that the apostle is not writing about an individual, but a system, for this is in contrast with the true mystery of God, referred to in the New Testament.

Concerning the true mystery Paul wrote, “Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church: whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfill the Word of God; even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to the saints: to whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”—Col. 1:24-27

Here the Apostle Paul emphasizes one of the great truths of the true Gospel, which is that the disciples of Christ are called to suffer and die with him, so they might live and reign with him. When James and John asked Jesus if they might sit, one on his right hand and the other on his left hand in his kingdom, the Master explained to them that the only condition upon which they could be with him at all in his kingdom was to drink of his cup of suffering, and be baptized with his death baptism. In other words, in order to reign with Christ, they must first of all suffer and die with him.

Those who are thus suffering and dying with Jesus are represented as being baptized into his mystical body. In this way they become a part of the Christ, for, as Paul explains, “The body is not one member, but many,” and again, “Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.” (I Cor. 12:14,27) It is this association with Christ in suffering and death of those who are energized to faithfulness by the hope of reigning with him, that Paul describes as the mystery—a mystery hidden through ages and generations, made known only with the coming of Jesus and the establishment of the Early Church. Here, then, is the true mystery. It pertains to the association of Jesus and his followers in suffering and death now, and together reigning in glory in the future. The mystery of iniquity must, therefore, also involve more than one individual. Besides, if it is the counterfeit of the true, it must involve the idea of reigning in a kingdom.

In a further description of the mystery of iniquity, Paul wrote that his coming would be “after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders.” (II Thess. 2:9) From this, we should expect to find evidence of the handiwork of Satan. And this is not difficult. Near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry Satan appeared to him presenting certain temptations. One of them was that if Jesus would fall down and worship Satan, he would be given all the kingdoms of the world. Jesus knew if he proved faithful he would eventually be the ruler of the world; but here Satan was offering him this kingly position without the necessity of suffering and dying. By acknowledging Satan as overlord, Jesus could enter into his rulership right away.

Clearly, then, this is one of the workings of Satan. It is a way by which he attempts to lead astray those who profess to be guided by the instruction of the Lord’s Word. Jesus did not yield to this temptation, but later, after his faithful apostles fell asleep in death, the vast majority of his followers became confused and were easy prey to the delusion of reigning now. Paul rebuked those having this disposition. (I Cor. 4:8) They overlooked the invitation to suffer and die with Jesus, and, as a group, joined hands with civil governments, and called this unholy union Christ’s kingdom.

Paul wrote, “The mystery of iniquity doth already work,” and so it did. In writing to the church at Corinth, Paul said, ironically, “Now ye are full, now ye are rich, ye have reigned as kings without us: and I would to God ye did reign, that we also might reign with you.” (I Cor. 4:8) Paul did not mean that the church at Corinth had actually united with the civil government and was participating in it as rulers. What he did mean was that the desire to escape sacrifice and become kings, or rulers, was evident in their midst. Perhaps they even surmised that in some manner they were reigning with Christ.

It is contrary to human desires to sacrifice and suffer. Man was created to be the king of earth, and in his fallen state often overlooks the fact that he was not created to lord it over his fellow-man. So the desire to escape suffering, and the disposition to rule, have made many followers of Jesus throughout the age easy victims to Satan’s temptation to reign as kings. While Paul reveals that this attitude was prevalent in the church at Corinth, we are not to suppose that it was, even that early in the age, limited to this one congregation of the disciples.

Satan, of course, was the mastermind which used every opportunity to foster this erroneous viewpoint. We know this from the fact that he attempted to maneuver Jesus into the same false position. However, not much progress could be made along this line in the Early Church, for, as Paul explained, “He who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way.” (II Thess. 2:7) The Greek word in this text, translated letteth, literally means ‘to hold down’. Paul’s explanation is that in his day there was a powerful influence holding down the ambitions of those in the church who would like to become rulers, hindering their attaining to this position, except in their desires.

Nor is it difficult to discover what that hindering influence was. At that time the Roman Empire controlled the so-called civilized world. The Emperor of Rome was not only the civil head of the empire, but the religious ruler as well. One of his titles was Pontifex Maximus, meaning ‘chief religious ruler’. While under this arrangement a great deal of religious freedom was granted to minority religious groups, such as the Jews in Israel, none was permitted to share in the religious rulership of the empire. The Jews, for instance, were not permitted to imprison one of their own people who, according to their law, was a criminal. Only the Roman civil authorities could do this. That is why Jesus was brought before Pilate to be sentenced to death.

It is manifest, then, that professing Christians of that time, no matter how ambitious for power they might have been, could not make any headway in attaining positions of religious authority. They were indeed held down by the fact that the position which they coveted was, for the time, firmly held by another. We are not to suppose, of course, that any one individual, or even group, in the Early Church held any such exalted ambition as to become religious ruler of the Roman Empire. But the disposition to rule was there. This is what Paul tells us.

The fact that the spirit to be manifested in the mystery of iniquity was even then working, proves that this iniquitous thing which Paul describes is not something that would suddenly appear on the scene down here at this end of the age. Rather, it is a system, a counterfeit ruling system, the development of which would begin soon after the death of the apostles, and come to full fruition as soon as that which hindered was removed. Let us, then, take a brief glance through the pages of church history and see what we find.

A “Falling Away”

The Book of Acts, and the epistles of Paul, Peter, James, Jude, and John constitute the most reliable historical records there are concerning conditions in the Apostolic Church, also of the hopes and aims of the believers. Within the fellowship of the saints at that time there were not many wise or noble according to the standards of this world. There were some who, had they continued in the world and followed worldly pursuits, would doubtless have made names for themselves. There was, for example, Luke the physician, and Paul the lawyer and logician.

Generally speaking, however, the members of the Early Church were just ordinary folk whose circumstances in life had prepared their hearts to appreciate the message of hope contained in the Gospel of Christ, the good news of redemption from sin and of resurrection from death. They rejoiced in the assurance that this hope of life in the resurrection would be translated into reality when Christ returned to establish his kingdom, his government. Both the Jewish and Gentile Christians were happy in the belief that there was to be a better government ruling the world than the Roman Empire.

The Early Church did not seek influence in the world, but was taught to be subject to the existing authority and power. While the Jewish religious leaders were often violent in their persecution of Christians, particularly the apostles, the Gentile rulers were not disposed to hinder the simple activities of the church; except on occasions when they thought it would help to pacify those who were so bitterly opposed.

With the exception of the individuals here and there who were ambitious to ‘reign’, such as we have noted, the believers in the Early Church understood that their privilege then was to serve, suffer, and die as ambassadors for Christ in an unfriendly world. They understood clearly that Satan, the Devil, was the spiritual ruler of the present world, and that they could not expect to have any share in the affairs of the world unless they compromised with the Devil, and this they would not do.

With the death of the apostles, however, this situation began to change. Many years had passed since the angels had said to the apostles at the time of Jesus’ ascension, “This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11) As the increasing number of years separated them farther from this promise, the hope of Christ’s return began to lose its vitality in the hearts of many.

Besides, the original generation of believers all passed away in death, and each succeeding generation was farther removed from those who had direct contact with Jesus, and whose outlook was centered so completely on his return and the establishment of his kingdom. As the hope of the king’s return to set up a kingdom became dim, it was but natural that the vast majority of believers should allow themselves to become more and more associated with the world and worldly governments.

The complete falling away from the faith once delivered unto the saints did not occur overnight. It was a gradual deterioration of faith, hope, and practice. As believers increased in numbers and influence, civil rulers took more notice, and bitter persecutions arose. But this did not stop the growth of the church.

While, as it is stated in Lord’sOld Roman World,” the third century saw the church more powerful as an institution: “It was not until the fourth century—when imperial persecution had stopped; when Constantine (the Roman Emperor) was converted; … [that] the church was allied with the state; … the early faith itself was corrupted; … [and] superstition and vain philosophy had entered the ranks of the faithful.”

Quoting further, the same historian says, “When Christianity became the religion of the court and of the fashionable classes, it was used to support the very evils against which it originally protested. The church was not only impregnated with the errors of pagan philosophy, but it adopted many of the ceremonies of oriental worship. … The churches became, in the fourth century, as imposing as the old temples of idolatry.”

Obviously, the historian uses the term ‘Christianity’ in an accommodated sense when he speaks of the time when Christianity became the religion of the court, for by this time the falling away from true Christianity was so complete that the institution which bore the name was, in reality, no longer Christian at all.

Briefly stated, the doctrines of Christianity are these:

Man was created in the image of God, and to enjoy everlasting life on earth, conditional upon obedience to divine law. He disobeyed, and was sentenced to death. God, in his love, provided redemption from death through his Son, Christ Jesus, who returns to earth to establish a kingdom, through the agencies of which redeemed man will be restored to his lost home on earth. The followers of Jesus during the intervening age have the opportunity of suffering and dying with him and thereby proving worthy to live and reign with him in the spiritual phase of his kingdom.

By the fourth century, when the church united with the state, not a vestige of this truth of Christianity was still held by its responsible leaders. In their corrupted theology, man was not created to live on the earth forever, but to remain here only temporarily, and then, through the ‘gateway’ of death to enter heaven, hell, or purgatory. Man, they believed, was not sentenced to death. To them he was immortal and could not die. Jesus did not die as man’s Redeemer, but God, incarnate in a human body, made a pretense of suffering and dying. Christ does not return to establish a kingdom, but the kingdom had already been established by the church’s illicit union with the state. The hope of believers is not to live and reign with Christ, but, by living as best they can now, to escape as many years of torment in purgatory as possible, and eventually be transferred to heaven. Such was the extent to which erroneous beliefs had grown.

This does not imply that there was no one who still held to one or more of the original teachings of Jesus and the apostles. Doubtless there were some, although helpless to do anything except to endure what they could not change. They were as isolated grains of “wheat” in the field which, by the fourth century, had been almost completely overgrown with “tares.”—Matt. 13:24-30,36-43

The “Man of Sin”

We do not call attention to this falling away from the original faith of the Gospel as being in itself proof that the apostate church had become the Antichrist, although this apostasy was one of the essential elements of the mystery of iniquity. Certainly that which was Christian could not be anti-Christian, or anti-Christ. This seems obvious. Nevertheless, it was not the apostate church alone which constituted the Antichrist, or Man of Sin, but the union of that church with the state, the civil governments, to constitute a ruling organization, or institution.

The false church, apart from its alliance with civil governments, is represented in the Book of Revelation as a harlot woman. The true church is, throughout the Scriptures, by contrast, symbolized by a chaste woman, a virgin, waiting for the coming of her bridegroom, Christ, to be united with him in marriage and to share his kingdom glory.—II Cor. 11:2; Rev. 12:1; 19:7; 21:2,10; 17:1-6,15,18; 18:2,3,9,10; 19:2

In the Book of Revelation, John pictures the false church, the “harlot,” as making the nations drunk with the “wine of her fornication”; the doctrine pertaining to the union of church and state. This illicit union is properly designated fornication, for the church, by profession, was supposed to be betrothed to Christ, and to wait for his return to be united with him in marriage. Instead, the fallen away or apostate church decided not to wait for Christ to return, but to unite with the civil powers of the earth, and reign together with them.

The Roman Hierarchy

The union of church and state became a reality under Constantine, and from that time on there developed a rapid concentration of power in the hands of the bishop of Rome, who in due course became the head bishop, or pope. Soon the pope was in a position to crown and uncrown the rulers of Europe. Not only did the church accept and use the power of the state to further its own ambitious schemes, but it also dictated the policies of the civil rulers. Thus, in the pope there came to be a combination of civil and religious authority more arbitrary and totalitarian than anything the world had ever known. And it was all done in the name of Christ.

How true is the description which Paul gave of this iniquitous system. He wrote, “Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshiped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God.”—II Thess. 2:4

As we have noted, the emperors of the pagan Roman Empire assumed the title, Pontifex Maximus, meaning ‘chief religious ruler’. As such, they were looked up to as gods by their deluded subjects. When papal Rome supplanted pagan Rome, the popes took this title. Thus they exalted themselves above the former pagan gods, even taking the place of the chief representative of these, the Roman emperor.

More than that, this position supplanted that of the true God in the hearts of most believers, and substituted the church-state alliance for the true kingdom and the true temple, the meeting place between God and man. In other words, all gods, the true and living God, and the false gods of the heathen, were set aside, and their places taken by this system which was styled Christ’s kingdom. One quotation from a Roman Catholic writer will suffice to emphasize the accuracy of Paul’s forecast of the Man of Sin. It is from “Ecclesiastical Dictionary,” a standard Roman Catholic authority, and reads:

“The pope is of such dignity and highness that he is not simply a man but, as it were, God, and the vicar of God. … Hence the pope is crowned with a triple crown, as king of heaven, of earth and of hell. Nay, the pope’s excellence and power is not only above heavenly, terrestrial and infernal things, but he is also above angels, and is their superior; so that if it were possible that angels could err from the faith, or entertain sentiments contrary thereto, they could be judged and excommunicated by the pope. … He is of such great dignity and power that he occupies one and the same tribunal with Christ; so that whatsoever the pope does seems to proceed from the mouth of God. … The pope is, as it were, God on earth, the only prince of the faithful of Christ, the greatest king of all kings, possessing the plentitude of power; to whom the government of the earthly and heavenly kingdom is entrusted.” This Catholic writer further adds that “the pope can sometimes counteract divine law by limiting and explaining it.”

But let us recognize that these claims are made for the head of a system—not a particular pope. And while the fact that this system has as its head this one man is doubtless the reason it is called the Man of Sin, it is the system itself that is called the Antichrist, which Paul said must develop before the return of Christ, and be destroyed by the brightness of his coming, or presence.

We have seen, then, by way of summation, that there did come a great falling away from the faith once delivered unto the saints; yea, virtually a complete falling away so far as the governing leaders in the nominal church were concerned. We have seen how that desire for power, which began to manifest itself even in the Apostolic Church, ultimately did find expression through the union of church and state. We have traced, though briefly, the persecution against the true saints of God, perpetrated by the false church which illicitly united with the kings of the earth. We have also noted the accuracy with which Paul foretold the claims of this false system—the Man of Sin—to be the supreme religious and civil authority in the earth, capable even, according to its claims, of modifying the laws of God.

With these facts before us, there can be no doubt in the mind of any reasonable person that the foretold Antichrist has already appeared, and that its unholy and counterfeit reign as the kingdom of Christ is now a historical reality. We have presented only briefly the historical evidence of the fulfillment of the Antichrist prophecies, but all reliable church historians verify the facts as we have presented them, even though it is doubtful if many of them recognized the prophetic meaning of these facts.

This recognition of the fulfillment of prophecy would be of no special interest to us, except to satisfy the curiosity, but for the fact that the reign of Antichrist was to take place before the return of Christ and the establishment of his kingdom. Since, therefore, the Antichrist has already appeared, it becomes just one more reason to believe that the true kingdom of Christ, with all its blessings of peace and joy and life, is near.

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