The Cosmic Conspiracy, Part 19
The great persecution that began after the martyrdom of Stephen was continuing to start fires of revival in lands that these early Christians, who were still very Jewish, would never think of evangelizing without this intervention. Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and now the uttermost parts of the earth (at least from the Jewish perspective of the first century) where the godless heathen Gentiles lived were being invaded with the power of the Gospel. Ancient and mighty demonic principalities were beginning to topple as the disciples of Jesus pushed deeper and deeper into enemy territory. The book of Acts could easily become a screenplay for an epic saga of good overcoming evil and light dispelling darkness.
Nothing that Satan threw in the path of this oncoming train could derail it. The church was unified in the Spirit, codified in the Words of Jesus, solidified by their commitment to their commission, and electrified by the power of the Gospel that they were boldly proclaiming with signs and wonders following. Of course, as with any human-God partnership, there were trials, temptations, and traps that caused trouble. But, it seemed by all accounts that the power of transformation that was being demonstrated around them, was also being displayed among them and within them. The entire venture up to this point was a miraculous demonstration of the wonder of God’s power and love. This truly was amazing grace!
March forward in church history to somewhere around the latter part of the first century. The church was about a generation old, many of the founding apostles were either martyred or had passed away. The next generation of leaders were taking the helm of the ship and navigating the church into the next century. Would this massive movement be able to hold together under the weight of this transition? Many Gentiles had been amalgamated into the family of God. Would this blended family be able to live in harmony with all their cultural differences? If there was ever an opportune time for Satan to send an all out assault against the church, this moment in time looked to be ideal.
The Apostle John seems to have been one of the last remaining founding fathers to leave us with written documentation of the spiritual atmosphere swirling around the late first century church. He was the author of the gospel that bears his name, the book of Revelation, and three short letters that also bear his name. The first of these letters reveals a cancerous disease that had been festering in the shadows undetected for sometime. It must have been benign enough when it entered the Body that it was no cause for concern. But now, about 50 years after its birth, the church’s internal organs of truth were being eaten away by a cankerworm that threatened to defoliate this beautiful tree of life.
In this first letter, John reveals the identity of this diabolical disease:
Dear children, the last hour is here. You have heard that the Antichrist is coming, and already many such antichrists have appeared. From this we know that the last hour has come. These people left our churches, but they never really belonged with us; otherwise they would have stayed with us. When they left, it proved that they did not belong with us. [1Jo 2:18-19 NLT, emphasis added]
This is a chilling revelation. Somehow, these people, who John identifies as “antichrists,” had been living among the body of believers undetected and unchecked until the manifestation of the toxin they carried became evident. It seems that once the poison was injected, the antichrists left the churches only to hunt down other victims. So what was the toxin and who were these people?
These letters from John are the only surviving text of the Bible we have that uses the word, antichrist. It is mentioned in no other place in scripture. However, John reminds his readers that, “you have heard that the Antichrist is coming,” so there was an awareness on some level but there was no revelation of how the antichrist would manifest. The word antichrist can mean, “against Christ.” If someone were against (anti) Christ in the church it would seem to me that spotting this would be a no brainer. The leadership would have dealt with this kind of trouble immediately. In reading Paul’s letters to the first century church we see this to be true. Many false teachers/prophets/apostles were called out. So how did these people and their agenda remain under the radar?
The word antichrist can also mean, “instead of Christ.” This changes everything. There was no wholesale assault against the Christian faith, per se, but a subtle twist in semantics and definitions that was being thrown around. The heart of the teaching of these antichrists was to replace the authentic, incarnated, crucified, and resurrected Christ with a more socially acceptable, intellectual, and ethereal Christ. To these antichrists, the message and teaching of the Gospel were beautiful and lofty, but the suffering Savior for the sin of humanity was not really the essential element of the Gospel. The glory of the message of love should be enough to lift humanity out of the mire of mortality. Christ, as the essence of God, replaced Christ, the incarnation of God. The antichrist message denied that Jesus, in the flesh, was actually God. Once this thought was loosed into the corporate mind of the Church, a wild fire of other heresies began to wreak havoc.
Now, consider this: If Satan could not stop Jesus from coming into the world, if Satan could not tempt Jesus to shortcut His mission, if Satan could not stand against the power of the Kingdom of God being wrought through Jesus’ ministry, if killing Jesus actually was the plan of salvation and the catalyst for the establishment of the Kingdom of God through the church, if every attempt of Satan up to this point to destroy the church through penetration, persecution, and pounding only worked to promote the Gospel, and if his tried and true go to strategy of, “if you can’t beat em’, join em” failed, what else was left?
Here is where the subtle schemes of Satan shine. In a last ditch effort to get a foothold, and eventually a stronghold, into the church, Satan modified the idea of defeating Christ. Now his focus would be on presenting options to humanity to choose what type of Christ they wanted. We love to have options. If all roads can lead to Heaven, who wouldn’t want the freedom to choose the path of least resistance, the one with the most pleasure, or the one that most closely aligned with one’s philosophy of life? If Christ can be a concept, then the narrow way to Salvation can become a super highway to hell. This was brilliant.
The key to understanding this scheme is John’s identification of these antichrists as people who went out from among the ranks of the church. This plot was a deep-state plot. These people were part of the daily fabric of church life for enough time to be accepted, get connected, and then deceive some to be infected with what we call heresy. Heresy is an opinion that is contrary to a standardly held belief. It usually starts with relooking at or questioning a belief system. It has at its roots some form of the truth, but if left alone to grow and bare fruit it becomes toxic. To an astute Bible student, this whole scheme goes right back to the garden when Satan encountered Eve with a heretical line of questioning which started off with, “Has God said?”, and led into “surely God did not mean”... Here we go again!
The culture and spiritual environment that the late first century church found itself in was filled with demonic and occult practices. This was not just prevalent among the Gentiles. Many of the Jewish sects that had settled in the regions outside the direct influence of Jerusalem in the Hellenistic world were saturated with mysticism and esoteric beliefs about the nature of God and spirituality. Many cults and secret societies that had sprung up had belief systems that required special knowledge and revelations in order to enter into a higher form of spirituality. Many of Paul’s letters, especially Colossians and Galatians alludes to these beliefs and practices. One of the most powerful of these groups was the Gnostics (you can do your own research on them) and their poison would plague the church for centuries and cause major strife and divisions that still exist to this day!
So, Satan had finally found his foothold. Satan was now in the counterfeit Christ business. Satan had devised a way to counterfeit Christ by tweaking and twisting the truth just enough so that even great theologians and church leaders have gone astray and created movements and denominations founded on a Christ that is not genuine. I believe that this is why Jesus asked this most central of all questions just before He gave the pronouncement that He was going to establish His Church to be the carrier of truth and the vehicle that the Kingdom of God would come to Earth through. Matthew chapter 16 records this event. Jesus is in the midst of His disciples in the town of Caesarea-Philippi. The backdrop for this conversation was a cave located in the region that was commonly called “the gates of hell,” as it was believed to be the entrance to the underworld. Jesus had been with His disciples long enough and shown them enough miraculous power that they were now ready to come to some firm conclusions about His identity. Jesus looked at His team and asked, “Who do men say that I am?” After some data analysis of popular opinion, Jesus then asks, “Who do you say that I am?” This was THE question!
In a moment of divine inspiration, Peter declares, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (or, you are one with God). Jesus, quick to affirm Peter’s profoundly powerful statement, pins this revelation to the homepage of truth by stating that this revelation is the foundation stone for all further revelation and the building of HIS Church. Jesus later warned that when He would leave the earth that many counterfeits would come in his name and claim that they were the Christ and lead many into deception (Matt 24:5). This is the very definition of anti-christ.
First and second century history reveal and confirm Jesus’ prophetic warning, for there were many who did proclaim to be christ and did lead many astray and began to fracture and syncretize the true Gospel. We still have not fully recovered. Pseudo Christian thought and doctrine abound, and fill volumes of self-help books with the counterfeit currency of Heaven.
While all of this heresy was flowing in and out of the church, Jesus was not sitting idly around in Heaven hoping all of His work laying the foundation of the Church was not an exercise in futility. Jesus invested everything in His Church and had equipped and endowed it with all the resources for the success of its mission. Jesus made a promise to His Church when He commissioned them. He charged them to go into all the world and make disciples of nations. As they went, He promised to go with them and to NEVER leave them or forsake them to the ravages of the darkness He was sending them into.
Jesus told His Church to make disciples. The root of our word, disciple, comes from the word, discipline. Up to this point, the church was having great success and it seemed that Jesus was guiding them through the maze by the internal guidance system of His Holy Spirit. But as time wore on, apathy crept in, and the front door to the church was left open on way too many occasions. In the church’s quest for cultural transformation the culture was creeping in and taking up more and more room around the family dinner table. Soon the voices of influence and guidance of the fathers and mothers of the faith were being challenged by antichrist voices that were threatening to run the ship onto the rocks. It was time for Jesus to step back onto the field and call a holy huddle with His team and get them refocused. It was time for some Royal Discipline!
The book of Revelation, also authored by the Apostle John, gives us an on-the-field report of what Jesus was saying to His team. John was allowed to hear, see, and record Jesus’ assessment, indictment, and instructions to seven key churches located in the regions we now call Turkey and Asia Minor. These seven churches were located in major cities of the region and were situated on major trade routes for the Roman empire that was expanding its borders. Because of impending world events (a war with Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple were imminent), the epicenter of Christianity would soon be shifting to this region. If these churches were not ready to hold onto the button that was about to be passed to them, the Gospel and growth of the church could be severely handicapped, or worse, decapitated.
These churches existed in history thousands of years ago but the messages that Jesus spoke are filled with eternal truth that must be applied to the Church in any generation. I believe that Jesus, in our day, has once again stepped back onto the playing field with thundering footsteps headed towards His Church. In the midst of current world events and the tenuous state of His Church, Jesus is calling a holy huddle. This is a critical season to bend the knee in humility, and for those who have an ear to hear, “listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches!”
In the last installment of this series, we are going to revisit these seven churches where we have been given a field pass to join the huddle. Make sure you bring your helmet!
by Pastor Jim Anan