The Bible prophesies that the emergence of false teachers is not only a reality, but it will also be increasingly frequent in view of the coming of the Lord being at hand. The scale of confusion can grow and increase beyond measure. This is the Great Tribulation, which Christ and John have spoken about in great length. Once it comes, it can sweep the faithless away like a great flood sweeping away any object in its way. We need to take heed to safeguard ourselves and the church from being adversely affected by identifying how the evil forces operate.
a. Give no heed to deceiving spirits
The Holy Spirit expressly warns the church against giving heed to the deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons (1 Tim. 4:1). Since the spirits are invisible, how would a person be able to pay attention to them? Here, Paul joins the doctrines of demons together with the deceiving spirits. What is his logic and intention? To understand this, let us look at the relationship of knowing God and keeping His word. To know God requires us to know and keep His word. Conversely, when attention is on, say, twisted doctrines, it is the same as digressing away from God and giving attention to the evil spirits. This greatly jeopardises one’s relationship with God if prompt actions are not taken to rectify the situation.
Here Paul particularly mentions the doctrines of the demons. The key feature of Satan’s work is to change the word of God. Especially, as the second advent of Christ is approaching faster than ever before, Satan’s work of changing the doctrines of God is increasingly more apparent and frantic. There are two perspectives to this Pauline teaching. First, a doctrine that is contrary to the doctrine of God is not from God and therefore it is a doctrine of Satan. The changing is done by deceptively destroying the conscience of man. When it happens, believers become greatly insensitive to the word of God.
Second, the doctrines of Satan are concerned with the existence of Satan. Since time immemorial, Satan has been masquerading himself as an angel of light. His mind has been corrupted by the pride of his heart, trying to usurp God’s glory of being the only Supreme Being in the entire universe. This is clearly evident in his dialogue with Eve: the snake stated, temptingly, that “you will be like God”. This blasphemes against the very essence of God, Who has declared that He alone is the LORD (The only Self-existent One) and there is no other (Isa. 44:8; 45:5–6, 14; 47:10).
Paul also predicted the same mindset would appear in the son of perdition who sits in the temple, exalting himself above all God (2 Thess. 2:4). This is the working of Satan (2 Thess. 2:9). Paul has detailed his works; by recognising them, the spirits can be discerned (2 Thess. 2:8–10). The spirits are at work in a person:
1. When he constantly becomes puffed up.
2. When he employs unrighteous and deceptive means to achieve his ends.
3. When he does not have any love for the truth of God that he has received.
4. When he takes great delight in unrighteousness.
Such a person is even endowed with great power, signs and lying wonders (2 Thess. 2:9), to draw the undiscerning to his snare and turn them into vessels of unrighteousness.
b. The spirit of the antichrist
The coming of Christ in the flesh was to accomplish the plan of God to save. The Bible clearly says that the word became flesh (Jn. 1:14). This means when Christ was on earth He was a man (Acts 2:22; 1 Tim. 2:5). Towards the latter period of the early church, a school of thought proposed against this very core of God’s plan, suggesting that God being absolutely divine could not have been trapped in the corrupt flesh. They did not believe in the incarnated Christ being God. Thus, the proponents rendered not only the faith of many ineffective but also tainted the complete goodness of God to save.
This is a detrimental concept. It split the church into two opposing camps, which can never be reconciled. According to John, they were the antichrists (1 Jn. 2:18–19) who had gone out from the church. They were no longer of the same fold, though they might not be physically separated from the church. The emphasis here is clear: “they were not of us”. This is a bold pronouncement against the antichrists. Equally true is that they had cut themselves off from the body of Christ by adopting a conflicting doctrine.
John did not talk about the possibility of their return to the fold. It is virtually impossible for anyone who has gone out of the truth to return. Rather, he stressed that “none of them were of us”. There must be a clear distinction drawn between the church of God and the antichrists. There must be no deliberate procrastination and compromise. This is to safeguard the church, and protect her from being infiltrated by twisted beliefs. It is imperative to understand that the devil would not simply forego the foothold that he has gained in the church.
This admonition was given on the ground that it is not the work of man. The work was propelled by the spirit of the antichrist (1 Jn. 4:3). If the work of God is mingled with that of the spirit of the antichrist, it would only be a matter of time until the whole church becomes damaged beyond recognition. The followers of this erroneous teaching had long had the truth they had embraced snatched away from them. They had lost all. Most sadly, they had even lost the Lord Himself (1 Jn. 2:21f). They had no part in the salvation of the Lord. So, whoever proposes that Christ has not come in the flesh is dictated by the spirit of the antichrist.
In the modern day, the subtlety of the trick of the Satan is not about denying that Christ came in the flesh. It is in the claim that the flesh of Christ is different from the flesh of man. This understanding contradicts the work of Christ. Christ being a Man, in essence the same flesh as we are, has overcome death, an example that all believers can follow. To say that His humanity is not the same as ours is to deny the work of Christ in the flesh. This message is not the work of the Holy Spirit but of antichrist.
c. The Spirit of truth and the spirit of error
In the same book, John is quick to bring out the distinction between the children of God and the antichrists. The difference is the former remains with God and the latter has gone into the world (1 Jn. 4:3). To go out to the world is an act of separating oneself from the community of God. They are no longer the servants of the Lord. They are being taken captive by the wicked one to achieve his will. That is they are programmed to go against the church and the work of the Lord. Their works are intended to confuse the word of God and lead the believers away from the truth.
How did the church identify the antichrists in the body of Christ? Apostle John was well aware of the danger of not exposing them. The believers would be misled into thinking that those who preached another gospel are acceptable in the light of the church’s inaction. John, knowing that they (the apostles) are of God, courageously makes their stance clear that anyone who does not listen to the apostles is not of God. With this principle put in place, the distinction becomes crystal clear: the church is able to tell who is of the Spirit of truth and who is of the spirit of error.
The end-time true church is facing greater challenges than ever, with believers finding it much harder to submit to the mighty hand of the Lord. This problem is further compounded with the increase of knowledge and self-centeredness at the persuasion of the world. However, the principle of God remains unchanging. It is always sound to use this principle to measure against any teaching that is not found in the community of faith. We must always follow what the apostles preached. Issues of the Bible on which the apostles kept silent, we therefore keep silent on. With this, the church shall always be able to discern correctly.
d. The three unclean spirits
The River Euphrates is a boundary line of the Promised Land (Gen. 15:18). When the sixth bowl of wrath is poured out, the water of the River is dried up (Rev.16:12), indicating the defence system of the land is removed. This signifies that a war of immeasurable scale is about to break out. That is why the term “Armageddon” is adopted here (Rev. 16:16). It is one of the greatest battlefields of ancient time. Combining the two ideas together, we can gather that the church of God is about to face the challenge of falsehood of an unprecedented nature.
In this bowl’s message, three unclean spirits are depicted as coming out from the mouths of the Dragon, the beast and the false prophet (Rev. 16:13). The three combined represents the work of falsehood at its highest. They would come to gather to fight against the Lord. In other words, they are prepared to have a final showdown against the church of God. They would do whatever they could to deceive the whole world and everyone in it to go against the church. They will gather them to the battle of that great day of God Almighty (Rev. 16:14).
The deception they employ is so rife, unpredictable and subtle that the entire world actually comes under their grip (cf. Lk. 21:34f). They are vile and loathsome, having the sole intent of luring the chosen to forsake the Lord. The only way for believers to combat against this relentless attack is by keeping themselves clean (Rev. 16:15). The keeping clean here entails observing the commandments of the Lord, which is also translated as keeping the garments clean (Rev. 22:14). Being unclean blurs the vision, which means we cannot identify the works of the evil spirits. When the word of God is kept, we are empowered to see clearly the destructive works of the spirits.
“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning” (Jas. 1:17). God’s way of salvation, which is well chronicled in His word, is the principle for humanity to abide by. It is not subject to human scrutiny and amendment. The word of the Lord is the Spirit and the life (Jn. 6:63). To persistently abide in the word brings about the direction of the Spirit and ensures the life that Christ has given to us is sustained in exuberance and vibrancy.
However, the evil one is going all out on the offensive against the church by changing the word of God, knowing that his days are numbered. So, it is absolutely essential for the church and her believers to first hold firmly to the word with complete conviction. The church must recognise that any attempt to move away from the initial form of doctrines is the work of the evil spirit. More critically, in discerning, we ask: “Has this ever been taught and propagated in the early church?” By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirits of error.