The Scent of a Lie
Perverted theology is not a new fad. The wonder is that we seem to be surprised each time some emerging religious “star” professes to be anointed with a new revelation regarding heretofore obscure portions of Scripture or puts a bizarre spin on a long-settled biblical position. Such conduct has become commonplace in the current era of maverick theologians who trade on the biblical illiteracy plaguing professing Christians in the Western world. The cumulative effect is increased confusion about the central objectives of Scripture, schisms in the body of Christ, and diminished discernment in recognizing heresy or understanding that such new movements may actually be seed plots for cults.
The National and International Religion Report, September 5, 1994, published a report by pollster George Barna. It stated, “‘Evangelicals are dwindling in number. Only 7% of American adults hold evangelical beliefs, compared to 9% last year and 12% in 1992. People who once held orthodox Christian views have embraced a much broader set of beliefs,’ [Barna] said. ‘There is a big trend toward a diverse and inclusive spirituality … Those who strongly agree that the Bible is totally accurate in its teaching dropped from 47% three years ago to 38% this year,’ Barna concluded.” If these figures reflect the reality of the late 90s, we can readily understand what we are reaping as a result of the malicious neglect of sound doctrinal teaching in many of America’s churches. Should the trend continue, there can be little doubt about where it will end.
Solomon was, of course, correct when he declared that there was nothing new under the sun. The fact is that deceit, false teaching, and downright lying have run in cycles through the church since its infancy.
Second Thessalonians presents a textbook example of how much mischief can be wrought when people deliberately distort the truth of God’s Word.
Suffering for the Faith
The exemplary testimony of the believers at Thessalonica was commended by the Apostle Paul in his first epistle: “So that ye were an example to all that believe in Macedonia and Achaia. For from you sounded out the word of the Lord not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God is spread abroad, so that we need not to speak anything” (1 Th. 1:78). Their walk with God and steadfastness in the Word were so firm that they spoke for them to His glory.
At the same time, both epistles indicate that the church was enduring intense suffering at the hands of their enemies. The opposition was so fierce that rioting and assaults rose in the city, and serious (although false) accusations were leveled against the brethren. The charge brought against them has a familiar ring. “And when they found them not, they drew Jason and certain brethren unto the rulers of the city, crying, These that have turned the world upside down are come here also, Whom Jason hath received; and these all do contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, one Jesus” (Acts 17:6–7). On one hand, there was a sort of grudging, unintended compliment: they “have turned the world upside down” on the other, there was a demand for swift and harsh punishment. They were pegged as people who troubled the community because their lives and message contradicted the idolatry practiced by the locals and the licentious lifestyle that went with such religious perversion.
A familiar ring? Yes indeed! We are hearing the same “crying” today from those who have opted for licentiousness rather than righteousness and are possessed with the desire to isolate, repudiate, and punish those whose godly lives stand as pillars of witness against them and the accomplishment of their objectives. As surely as it is true that apostasy inevitably produces iniquity, it follows that those who reject spiritual constraints turn to the state to restrain chose who practice decent living and moral responsibility. Thus, the godly suffer while the ungodly seem to hold the advantage.
The Scent of a Lie
As is so often the case, it was not enough for Satan to foster opposition through rulers who reflected the same odious standards of living as the people who placed them in authority. No, he also chose to strike from within and, in so doing, created the kind of confusion-breeding discouragement that unbelievers could never produce through tormenting the church physically.
Paul placed his finger on a serious problem when he said, “be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of the Lord is present” (2 Th. 2:2). The proposition was branded by the apostle as deception; it simply was not true. He devoted the remainder of the epistle to setting the record straight and revealing the truth.
But why the lie? No one can say for certain, and it is probably not of much relative importance anyway. The point is that someone lied, and therein repose lessons from which we can profit.
It is difficult to believe that men who profess to speak in the name of God and in the interests of His people would lie. For this very reason, charlatans of the worst order can stand in the glare of TV lights, with lips aquiver, and lie to good and godly believers—the same people who trustingly line the prevaricators’ pockets with their hard-earned money. Over time, such chicanery breeds the kind of cynicism so prevalent among us today. Still, the reason these heartless types continue to rise up and prosper is that simple believers are just that—believers. They are people taught by God to trust. So they believe, give, and in the end are often disillusioned when their “voice from God” falls to the folly of his or her own greed and deceit.
Exposing the Exploiters
In 2 Thessalonians Paul corrected the delusion. In 2 Peter God exposed the deceiver. Second Peter 2 is a passage every believer should be thoroughly familiar with, because the chapter brands false teachers in such a way that their lives seem to bear marks that form a warning—a warning to beware and flee those who come in God’s name but don’t measure up as true emissaries of the gospel.
Peter admonished us not to be surprised when “false prophets” rise among us. “There were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who secretly shall bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them” (2 Pet. 2:1). Nothing has changed, we are reminded. What was true in Old Testament times is still a perilous reality: False sheep stalk the flock. But they are marked men whose lives, to their shame, speak loudly.
These are among the distinguishing marks of false teachers:
- The love of money.
- Lying for their own gain: “And through covetousness shall they, with feigned [lying] words, make merchandise of you” (2 Pet. 2:3).
- Pursuing opulent lifestyles.
- Consumed by lust: “As they that count it pleasure to revel in the daytime. Spots they are and blemishes, reveling with their own deceivings while they feast with you; Having eyes full of adultery and that cannot cease from sin” (2 Pet. 2:13–14).
- Oratory without reality.
- Saturated with self: “For when they speak great swelling words of vanity, they allure through the lusts of the flesh, through much wantonness, those that are just escaping from them who live in error” (2 Pet. 2:18).
- Promise liberty through license.
- Deliver bondage and despair: “While they promise them liberty, they themselves are the servants of corruption; for of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he brought in bondage” (2 Pet. 2:19).
The tragedy of the false teachers mentioned in 2 Peter is found first in their own situation. These craven exploiters of the innocent are themselves not true believers. In “denying the Lord that bought them” (2 Pet. 2:1), they exhibit a disdain for the salvation that could have been theirs. Christ died for them too, but rather than turn to Him and become His followers, they chose to become leaders without a message, except one that would advance their evil schemes. Thus they are identified as “The dog [that] is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed, to her wallowing in the mire” (2 Pet. 2:22). Although washed, still a sow; although feeding among the sheep, still a dog. In other words, these men were what has become known through the years as people who make a profession of faith but never truly possess salvation.
Thus the solemn words, “For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in it, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning. For it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them” (2 Pet. 2:20–21).
The greater tragedy, however, lies in the fact that while they themselves transgress with abandon, they take the gullible down with them. Perhaps there is no greater example of this than in cases where cult leaders (false prophets) have led their followers into a kind of despair and desperation that causes them to embrace death in its most gruesome forms rather than face the future.
The message of 2 Thessalonians gives a prescription for avoiding such spiritual disaster. There, as you will discover by reading the articles in this issue, the emphasis is never on the man but ever on the message. What does the Word of God teach in contrast to the deceitful message of a false teacher? As Paul compares Scripture with Scripture, the truth is laid bare. And when the message of the Word is absorbed, believers have a foundation that will not die when the teacher, no matter how revered, passes from the scene. Why? Because the message is most important, not the messenger. Men—good and bad, false and true—come and go. The Word of God has sustained the church for nearly 2,000 years, and it will continue to do so as long as the Lord tarries. Your great need and mine, therefore, is to truly become men and women of the Word!