NORTHERN STORM BREWING.
Recent events in Syria involving Israel, Russia and Iran have raised an interest in the possibility that events are preparing the way for the fulfilment of the prophecy of Ezekiel 38-9 – the War of Gog and Magog.
Here are some pointers to this.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Russia’s President Vladimir Putin on August 23rd and spoke about why he fears Iran’s presence in Syria. He said, ‘We cannot forget for a single minute that Iran threatens every day to annihilate Israel. It arms terrorist organisations, it sponsors and initiates terror.’ Netanyahu also noted that the Islamic Republic is ‘well on its way’ to controlling not only Syria, but other countries in the Middle East, including Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon. Russia’s Pravda, commenting on this meeting, reported that Netanyahu ‘described a picture of the apocalypse to the Russian president that the world may see if no efforts are taken to contain Iran, which, as Netanyahu believes, is determined to destroy Israel.’ Mr Putin noted Netanyahu’s concerns but offered no assurance that he would move against Iran.
Russia intervened in Syria on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2015, acting in partnership with Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah group, Israel’s deadliest foes, against the moderate Syrian opposition and ISIS. Russia has a military base at Tartus, Syria, which gives it a continual presence in the region. It is bringing its most advanced weapons into the region and establishing itself solidly in the Middle East at a level not seen even at the height of the former Soviet Union. In July Russia signed an agreement to keep its Hmeymim air base in Syria for almost half a century, showing that it intends to remain a key presence in Syria. Russia also has a base in southern Syria near the border with Israel on the Golan Heights. Israel has requested that Russia prevents Iran from setting up any presence within 60 kilometres of its border. Russia has declined to do so.
Iran has called for the elimination of the Jewish state within the next ten to fifteen years. Now it has forces in Syria, just to the north of Israel. It intends to gain a permanent presence in Syria as well as setting up a land corridor in areas under its influence from the Iranian border through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon on the northern border of Israel. It can then use this as a way to bring an army against Israel. Iran has helped Hezbollah to become the dominant political and military force in Lebanon, supplying it with an estimated 150,000 rockets, which are aimed against Israel.
Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman released a statement on August 4th expressing Israel’s view on the seriousness of the latest developments. ‘Iran is trying to turn the whole of Syrian territory into a forward outpost against the State of Israel, with military bases, with thousands of Shi’ite mercenaries that are brought in from all over the Middle East into Syria, with an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) air force base and a naval base. It is setting up factories to manufacture precision weaponry in Lebanon. This is a reality that we do not intend to accept,’ he said.
To show what he meant by this, on 8th September Israel attacked an important military facility in Syria, which it claims is being run by Iran to manufacture munitions and chemical weapons destined for use by Hezbollah. This facility was 60 km from the Russian base in Syria and drew a sharp response from the Syrian government and the Russians. This is the latest in a number of attacks Israel has made on Syria, hitting weapons coming from Iran for use by its ally Hezbollah against Israel.
In recent months Hezbollah’s leader Nasrallah has threatened war with Israel that would involve thousands of Shi’ite fighters from Iraq, Yemen, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan who are now just a short distance from Israel. At Metullah, Israel’s northernmost town on the border with Lebanon, Israeli houses are in the shadow of a large Hezbollah poster on a hill. The sign says ‘we are coming’ in Arabic and Hebrew, and has a photo of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and a picture of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini glowering down.
Turkey is a Sunni Muslim state, which has been on the opposite side to Russia and Iran in the Syrian civil war. In 2015 Turkey found itself in conflict with Russia, particularly when it downed a Russian fighter jet which strayed into its territory while operating in Syria.
However Turkey has been through a time of change, particularly since the failed coup against President Erdogan in 2016. This has led to its growing estrangement from the west and rapprochement with Russia. Turkish troops have also now entered Syria, occupying an area in the north of the country. At the beginning of 2017 Turkey took part in the Russian led peace conference on Syria held in Kazakhstan.
Turkey’s president Erdogan has been issuing repeatedly hostile statements against Israel, accusing it of racism and anti-Islamic actions, particularly over the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. After recent troubles in Jerusalem, he called for Muslims to ‘flood the Temple Mount’ and reclaim the city for Islam.
Erdogan is changing Turkey from being a secular democracy into a radical Islamic state. He has made statements about re-creating the Ottoman Empire, which once ruled over Jerusalem as well as the present territory of Israel, Syria and Egypt. Turkey’s military strength is ranked eighth in the world, with a standing army of around 750,000.
Palestinians and the peace process.
On 24th August Jared Kushner, representing the US President Donald Trump’s negotiating team, met with Palestinian leader Abbas and Israeli PM Netanyahu in order to prepare for talks aimed at reviving the Israeli- Palestinian peace process. The Palestinians gave him an ultimatum, that unless progress is made on launching talks with the Israelis, they will consider themselves no longer committed to the US mediation. Instead they will demand unilateral United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state. He was also told by Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki that ‘there will be no peace without the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.’
This means a complete Israeli withdrawal from the territories Israel captured in the Six Day War, the whole area of the West Bank, Judea, Samaria and the eastern side of Jerusalem. All Jewish settlements in this region would be evacuated. There is no way that Israel will accept such terms. On August 28th at a ceremony marking 50 years of Jewish settlement in Samaria, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed a crowd of several thousand people, vowing that ‘Judea and Samaria, the biblical heartland of the Jewish People that was liberated during the Six Day War, will forever belong to the State of Israel and that Israel will never withdraw from any Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria.’
Because of the vast gulf between the two sides, it is difficult to see how this peace initiative can succeed. If that is the case and the Palestinians go through with their threat it will most likely lead to conflict. Already Iran is re-establishing links with Hamas in Gaza and encouraging it to seek the war option to resolve the issue. Turkey’s leader Erdogan has called for thousands of Muslims to march on Jerusalem to claim the Temple Mount for Islam. The UN General Assembly has already passed a resolution calling for the establishment of the Palestinian State with Jerusalem as its capital and Israel withdrawing to the pre 1967 borders.
Putting it together.
If you put this together you have Russia plus two major Middle East powers involved in Syria, and a threat to Israel from the north, which could provoke a war in the region. Bible prophecy indicates that in the days to come a power to the north will come against Israel in the fulfilment of Ezekiel 38-39, the War of Gog and Magog. The prophecy is addressed to ‘Gog, of the land of Magog, the prince of Rosh, Meshech, and Tubal’ whom God will bring against Israel in ‘acharit ha shanim’, the latter years, the time of the end of this age before the ‘Day of the Lord.’ He will come with allies which include Persia and the ‘house of Togarmah.’ What is interesting is that three of the places which provide key players in this army are now engaged in Syria to the north of Israel.
- Gog of the land of Magog, the prince of Rosh (or chief prince), Meshech, and Tubal. Ezekiel 38.3. Rosh is connected to Russia and Meshech has been connected with Muscovi, the tribe which migrated north to modern Russia and gave the name to Moscow (Moskva in Russian). In Ezekiel 39.1 this one is identified as coming from ‘the far north’ which adds to the view that this prophecy speaks of Russia.
- Persia (verse 5). Modern Iran.
- Togarmah (verse 6). This has been identified as the territory of modern Turkey.
For this event to happen the Jewish people must return to their own land, an event prophesied in many parts of the Bible for the last days of this age, including this passage in Ezekiel:
After many days you will be visited. In the latter years you will come into the land of those brought back from the sword and gathered from many people on the mountains of Israel, which had long been desolate; they were brought out of the nations, and now all of them dwell safely. Ezekiel 38.8.
Once considered an impossibility, both Jewish and Christian commentators are now speculating whether current events are shaping up for the fulfilment of this prophecy. For example Rabbi Pinchas Wilson has written a book, ‘Not just another scenario’ in which he has connected Russia’s move into Syria with the war of Gog and Magog (Ezekiel 38-9), seeing it as a sign ‘as so many End-of-Days elements start to come together just north of the Jewish State.’
One possible trigger for this conflict is a localised conflict between Israel and Lebanon, which results in Lebanon being crushed and Iranian assets there destroyed. This provokes the alliance of nations described in Ezekiel 38-9 to come down against Israel. Another is that conflict arises out of the failure of the peace process causing the allied powers to come down against Israel in order to set up the Palestinian state.
Ezekiel tells us that this army will come against Israel in the latter days, after the people of Israel have returned to their land. There they will experience a shattering defeat as a result of the direct intervention of Almighty God on Israel’s behalf:
‘Therefore, son of man, prophesy and say to Gog, ‘Thus says the Lord God: ‘On that day when My people Israel dwell safely, will you not know it? Then you will come from your place out of the far north, you and many peoples with you, all of them riding on horses, a great company and a mighty army. You will come up against My people Israel like a cloud, to cover the land. It will be in the latter days that I will bring you against My land, so that the nations may know Me, when I am hallowed in you, O Gog, before their eyes.’ …
‘And it will come to pass at the same time, when Gog comes against the land of Israel,’ says the Lord God, ‘that My fury will show in My face. For in My jealousy and in the fire of My wrath I have spoken … I will call for a sword against Gog throughout all My mountains,’ says the Lord God. ‘Every man’s sword will be against his brother. And I will bring him to judgment with pestilence and bloodshed; I will rain down on him, on his troops, and on the many peoples who are with him, flooding rain, great hailstones, fire, and brimstone. Thus I will magnify Myself and sanctify Myself, and I will be known in the eyes of many nations. Then they shall know that I am the Lord.’’ Ezekiel 38.14-23.
So when does this event happen? Arnold Fruchtenbaum in his book ‘Footsteps of the Messiah’ looks at all the possibilities for the timing of the event and comes to the conclusion that the most likely timing of it is before the great tribulation begins. Others have said that it comes after the rapture and at the beginning of the tribulation period. Joel Richardson in his book, ‘The Islamic Antichrist’, says that it is the same event as Armageddon and is led by the Mahdi, the Islamic saviour figure who arises in the end times according to Islamic teaching and comes out of the revived Ottoman Empire (Turkey). In his view it has no association with Russia.
Space does not permit me to go into details of all the arguments on this issue, except to say that if it is just before or just after the rapture, we should expect to see preparations being made now for this event to happen.
One precondition for this to happen is that Jewish people must be regathered to Israel (Ezekiel 38.8). Since the action takes place on the mountains of Israel that would also imply a post 1967 situation, since Israel gained control of the Golan Heights and the hill country of Samaria in that war.
One problem in this regard is verse 11 which says ‘You will say, ‘I will go up against a land of unwalled villages; I will go to a peaceful people, who dwell safely, all of them dwelling without walls, and having neither bars nor gates.’ Some people have said that the reference to Israel dwelling safely cannot apply to Israel today because of the dangers it faces. However the Hebrew word used in verses 8 and 11 for ‘safely’ is ‘betach’ which has the idea of security being in place to defend the people from their enemies. This condition does exist today with Israel’s strong army and anti-missile defence measures. In places in the Bible ‘betach’ is used of a false security which is about to be broken (for example Judges 8.11).
Another objection to the possibility that it refers to a modern battle is the terms used for the weapons used by the army – ‘riding on horses’, ‘bows and arrows’, ‘javelins and spears’ (Ezekiel 39.9). However if Ezekiel had to describe modern instruments of warfare, for example tanks and missiles, neither he nor his readers would have understood what he was talking about. What he did describe was the language of warfare for his time, so it is reasonable to believe that he is talking about a modern war using the kind of weapons available in our time. Interestingly the passage describes the enemy forces ‘coming like a storm, covering the land like a cloud’ which could be describing some kind of airborne attack which is supernaturally destroyed by the Lord. The reference to arrows and javelins could also describe missiles and mortars (Israel’s anti-missile system is called the Arrow Defence system).
When the army comes against Israel a group of nations protest against this action:
‘Sheba, Dedan, the merchants of Tarshish, and all their young lions will say to you, ‘Have you come to take plunder? Have you gathered your army to take booty, to carry away silver and gold, to take away livestock and goods, to take great plunder?’ Ezekiel 38.13.
The merchants of Tarshish have been associated with the western nations, USA, UK, possibly EU nations. Sheba and Dedan are ancient names for Arabia and the Gulf region. This raises another interesting development in the Ezekiel 38-9 line up. In recent times there have been a number of meetings between Saudi and Israeli officials who have a common purpose in wishing to oppose Iran and its push into the Middle East. The newly appointed crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, is reported to enjoy close ties with Israeli defence officials.’ This development ties in with this prophecy in Ezekiel 38 that when Israel is invaded it appears that ‘Sheba and Dedan’ (Arabia) will oppose the invasion and take Israel’s side.
Not that these nations will do anything to save Israel. Ezekiel describes God supernaturally destroying the armies on the mountains of Israel by earthquake, overflowing rain, fire and hailstone 38.18-23. Israel then burns the weapons and buries the dead. 39.11-16. Gog and the armies with him are turned back and no longer able to threaten Israel. ‘And I will send fire on Magog and on those who live in security in the coastlands. Then they shall know that I am the Lord.’ Ezekiel 39.6. Fire falls on Magog (Russia) and the coastlands (distant countries far away from the Middle East, possibly including the USA). This may be as a result of a limited nuclear exchange or a direct judgement of God, breaking the power of these nations.
After this Israel comes to know that the Lord is God and the nations know that God has acted on behalf of Israel.
‘When I have brought them (Israel) back from the peoples and gathered them out of their enemies’ lands, and I am hallowed in them in the sight of many nations, then they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who sent them into captivity among the nations, but also brought them back to their land, and left none of them captive any longer. And I will not hide My face from them anymore; for I shall have poured out My Spirit on the house of Israel,’ says the Lord God.’ Ezekiel 39.21-29.
Since this event would be seen as a defeat for Islam, it could remove the Islamic obstacle to the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. It also makes way for the Antichrist to rise to power as the world looks for a saviour from this kind of war and the Arabs accept a peace treaty which leaves Jerusalem in Jewish hands. This then leads to the betrayal of Israel by the Antichrist who sets up the abomination of desolation in Jerusalem, bringing about the time of Jacob’s trouble leading to the final period of the great tribulation and Armageddon as a separate event from Gog and Magog.
Finally the Messiah Yeshua / Jesus returns in person to the Mount of Olives. Then he will bring an end to war and set up the Messianic kingdom, ruling from Jerusalem for 1000 years and bringing peace and justice to the world as ‘the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our God and of His Christ / Messiah and He shall reign forever and ever.’ Revelation 11.15. Hallelujah!
500 years on – What of the Reformation?
On October 31 1517 Martin Luther nailed his famous ‘95 Theses on the Power of Indulgences’ on the door of the Castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. This act is seen as the starting point for the Reformation, 500 years ago.
Luther’s document condemned the widespread practice of paying money to the Roman Catholic Church in exchange for certificates, called ‘Indulgences.’ The church claimed that these granted pardon for sins committed by payees. He was particularly incensed at the activities of a priest named Tetzel who travelled through Germany offering people release from torments in purgatory in return for putting coins into his money chest with the rhyme:
‘As soon as the coin in the coffer clings
A soul from Purgatory springs.’
Luther saw this as a shameful exploitation of the people with a false promise, that conflicted with the plain teaching of the Bible. With the advent of the printing press, copies of Luther’s writings spread, with many people responding positively to his message, seeing it as a release from the burdens placed upon them by the Catholic Church.
Rome reacted with fury, seeing Luther’s protest as a threat to its control over the people. It condemned Luther as a heretic and ordered him to recant, which he refused to do. Luther’s theses were rejected by Pope Leo X in 1520 and he was excommunicated from the church. At the Diet of Worms in 1521, the Emperor Charles V placed Luther under a ban and ordered the burning of all his books.
Friedrich, the prince of Saxony, protected Luther and gave him sanctuary from where he translated the Bible into German and continued to write pamphlets which circulated throughout Germany. Luther finalised the break with Rome by declaring the Pope to be ‘the very Antichrist, who has exalted himself above, and opposed himself against Christ’. As a result the Lutheran Church came into existence and a movement was born to create Protestant Churches across Europe which were separate from the controlling power of Rome.
Luther taught that the Bible is the final authority for the church, not the Pope and the Roman Catholic clergy. Out of this teaching the Reformation developed these fundamental principles as vital for our salvation:
‘Sola Scriptura,’ by Scripture alone
‘Sola Christo,’ through Christ alone
‘Sola Fide,’ by faith alone
‘Sola Gratia,’ by grace alone
This means that a person can know that their sins are forgiven and they have eternal life in the kingdom of God, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ’s perfect merits alone, based on what is written in the Bible alone. Luther came to this conclusion as he read the book of Romans, particularly the verse:
‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.’ Romans 1.16-17.
Rome had added to the requirements of salvation numerous traditions, such as taking the mass, praying to Mary and dead saints, repeating the rosary, confessing sins to priests, performing works of penance, the teaching of purgatory as a place between heaven and hell which you could buy release from by paying money to the church. None of this is to be found in the New Testament, nor is it true that the Pope is the successor of St. Peter and the universal head of Christianity, who takes the place of Christ on earth.
These additions of the Catholic Church contradict the Bible and deny the meaning of the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. For example according to the Catholic teaching of transubstantiation, Jesus is sacrificed continually through the Mass. Article 267 of the Catholic Catechism says that the priest has the power to change the bread and the wine offered at the mass into the literal body and blood of Christ. Article 278 says: ‘The Holy Mass is one and the same Sacrifice with that of the Cross, inasmuch as Christ who offered himself, a bleeding victim on the Cross to his heavenly Father, continues to offer himself in an unbloody manner on the altar through the ministry of his priests.’
The Bible teaches that the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus on the cross is the once and for all final sacrifice for sin and can never be repeated: ‘And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many’ (Hebrews 9.24-28). We are told to remember the Lord in the breaking of bread and drinking of the cup of wine, but these remain symbols of His body and blood given for us.
The common people were unaware of the gulf between what the Bible teaches and what the Roman Catholic church teaches because the Bible was only available in Latin and only to be read by the clergy. Luther translated the Bible into German so that the people could see for themselves what the Lord Jesus and the apostles taught, something Rome opposed bitterly.
William Tyndale also translated the Bible into English from the original Hebrew and Greek for the first time. He faced huge opposition from the Roman Catholic Church, and had to flee England to Antwerp in Belgium. There he was betrayed and ended up being burnt at the stake in 1536. As he was dying in the flames he was heard to cry out ‘Lord open the King of England’s eyes.’ In 1540 Henry VIII changed his mind about the English translation of the Bible and ordered it to be placed in every church in England, as he broke with Rome and instituted the Church of England.
The Authorised Version of the Bible was produced in 1611 and became a huge influence on the development of Evangelical Christianity, not just in Great Britain but world wide as message of the Gospel spread through the evangelical awakening and missionary movement of the 18th and 19th century.
All of this was considered a disaster by the Roman Catholic Church which regarded itself as the one true church. At the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the Roman Catholic Church declared ‘anathema’ (cursed) those who upheld justification by faith alone. It launched the Counter Reformation which became a militant offensive aiming at eliminating Protestantism.
The Jesuit order played a key role in this work, giving their oath to the Pope as ‘Christ’s Vicar General’ who ‘hath power to depose heretical kings, princes, states, commonwealths and governments’. They vowed to ‘defend this doctrine and His Holiness’ rights and customs against all usurpers of the heretical, or Protestants authority whatsoever, especially against the now pretended authority and Church of England, and all adherents in regard that they be usurped and heretical, opposing the sacred Mother Church of Rome.’ (Jesuit oath).
This led to one of the darkest periods of church history as untold numbers of Christians, Jews and other non-Catholics were tortured or killed if they refused submission to the pope, refused to accept that Jesus Christ was present in the Eucharist or simply refused to be Catholic.
In Germany it led to the 30 Years War through which the papacy tried (and failed) to rid Germany of Protestants, but left the country in ruins. In France the Huguenots (French Protestants) were massacred in 1572 and in 1685 ordered to renounce their faith and join the Catholic Church. In much of southern Europe, Italy, Spain, Portugal, the Jesuits were successful in preventing Protestant beliefs from gaining any hold. By gaining control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, they managed to keep most of central and eastern Europe under Rome’s control.
In 16th century England discoveries were made in the 1560’s of men preaching as ministers in the Church of England, who were in reality Jesuit agents sent to sow discord among Protestants. In 1568 a Jesuit priest posing as a Church of England minister, accidentally dropped a copy of secret instructions on how to undermine and destroy the Church of England. Throughout the reign of Elizabeth I the Jesuits were involved in plots to try to kill her and to re-impose Romanism on Britain by means of rebellions or foreign invasion, such as the Spanish Armada of 1588. This continued after the death of Elizabeth, with the Jesuit inspired gunpowder plot of 1605, in which King James I and his parliament were to be blown up. The Lord nevertheless protected Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries from them perpetrating the horrors that they did in France.
500 years on – how do we remember the Reformation?
As far as most of the church is concerned, not by dwelling on the events I have written about here, but by working for reconciliation and unity of the churches.
In Wittenberg where Luther nailed his famous theses a ‘Luther Garden’ has been planted by the Lutheran World Foundation. Its purpose is to ‘serve the unity of Christianity and underline the ecumenical significance of the Reformation anniversary and its importance for the ecumenical relationships.’ At the centre of the garden are five trees in the formation of the Luther Rose, which is the symbol of Luther’s faith and theology. The first tree is one representing the Catholic Church. Following this we find the Orthodox Church, the Anglican Communion, World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the World Methodist Council as number five. In the video promoting this garden its sponsor says, ‘I hope this garden will one day grow into a park. A park in which people can gather under the trees, a park that grows together, just as our Christian World Religion should grow together one day.’
This garden sums up the dominant spirit in which churches are approaching the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Protestants and Catholics should put aside the differences and conflicts of the past and work for unity among the churches. The theological differences of the past have now been resolved. In fact the Roman Catholics and Lutheran World Federation has signed a ‘Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification’ which is said to have bridged the divide between Catholics and Protestants over justification by faith.
The main message of Pope Francis is one of peace, reconciliation and the unity of people of faith. In October 2016 he attended a Lutheran – Roman Catholic worship service in Sweden as a start to events planned to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. He appealed for forgiveness for the ‘sin of our divisions, an open wound in the body of Christ.’ He added that ‘when together the Christians of different churches listen to the word of God and try to put it into practice, they achieve important steps toward unity.’ Archbishop Antje Jackelén of the Church of Sweden said, ‘We shall pray together with the entire ecumenical family in Sweden that the commemoration will contribute to Christian unity in our country and throughout the world.’
Churches Together in England produced a statement which encouraged ‘all churches in England to mark the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 with sensitivity as we acknowledge our unity in Christ. We have learnt over the past century that unity is achieved by walking together, and we have grown in communion, friendship, reconciliation and healing.’ It called on Christians of all denominations to repent of the causes of division and be reconciled to oneness in Christ.
Most people will consider all this a step in the right direction, a vast improvement over the wars, persecutions and intrigue, which we described in the days following the Reformation. So has Rome really changed? In some ways it has. No Catholic priest today would preach the need to imprison, forcibly convert or suppress non Catholic denominations of Christianity.
However in its core principles concerning salvation and the Gospel, Rome has not changed. None of the teachings of the church of Rome, which the Reformers protested against, have changed. The Protestant Reformation was basically a call to recover the authority of the Bible over the church and to appreciate afresh the fact that salvation comes to us through faith alone.
As was the case five centuries ago, Roman Catholicism is a religious system that is not based on Scripture alone. From the Catholic perspective, the Bible is only one source of authority, but it does not stand alone, nor is it the highest source. Tradition and the authority of the Pope are higher than the Bible, so Catholic doctrine remains open ended and can be added to at any time. Since the Reformation the Catholic Church has introduced more dogmas (i.e. binding beliefs) which conflict with scripture. Examples are the 1854 dogma of Mary’s immaculate conception (meaning that Mary was born free from original sin), the 1870 dogma of papal infallibility, and the 1950 dogma of Mary’s bodily assumption (meaning that Mary was taken up into heaven without seeing death). These dogmas do not represent biblical teaching, and in fact clearly contradict it. Within the Catholic system, this does not matter because it does not rely on the authority of Scripture alone.
When Pope Francis calls for unity among Christians ultimately he is calling for unity on Roman Catholic terms and under Roman sovereignty. At an audience with Catholic bishops he said, ‘The bishop does not gather people around himself, or his own ideas, but around Christ, present in his word and in the sacrament of his body and blood. The bishop is the principle of unity in the church but this does not take place without the Eucharist. Otherwise unity would lose its divine pole of attraction and would be reduced to a solely human, psychological and sociological dynamic.’
Commenting on this in his highly recommended book, ‘The Good Shepherd Calls – an urgent message to the last days church’, Roger Oakland writes: ‘The Vatican and Pope Francis have one thing in mind. There will never be unity unless those who have ‘departed’ from the ‘One True Mother Church’ will acknowledge the presence of Jesus in the Mass. But keep in mind that the Catholic Church holds firmly to the belief that only a Catholic priest has the power to transform the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ and the priest will not dispense the Eucharist to non Catholics. In other words the only way to achieve ecumenical unity is for the ‘lost brethren’ to be absorbed into the Catholic Church.
While the Catholic Church has not changed in this regard since the Reformation, most of the Protestant Church has changed. Much of it is now further away from the truth of the Gospel than the Catholic Church. Liberal theology has undermined faith in the inspired Word of God, to the extent that many of its clergy do not believe the basic truth that ‘Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures and that He was buried and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.’ 1 Corinthians 15.3-4.
Lutheran churches have attacked the Gospel and those who speak up for Jesus. Pastor Olaf Latzel in Bremen, Germany, was severely condemned by his own Lutheran Church for preaching that Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven and that Islam’s Allah is not the God of the Bible. The Lutheran Church of Sweden now requires its ministers to provide same sex marriage ceremonies for homosexuals and has said that it will only ordain pastors who agree to do so. Eva Brunne, the lesbian Bishop of Stockholm, has proposed that markings should be put down inside church buildings to show the direction to Mecca for Muslims to be able to pray there. The Church of England spent most of its recent Synod gathering discussing how to advance the homosexual agenda in the church and voted to ‘welcome transgender people’ by considering preparing a church service as a way to ‘mark a person’s gender transition’. Traditionalists were booed as they voiced their opposition to this assault on biblical moral values.
All of this fits in with the apostasy from the faith which the Bible says will take place in the last days of this age. In 2 Peter 2.1 we read:
‘But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction.’
The liberal Protestant Church denies the Lord, rejecting the Gospel message, questioning the truth of His word and teaching that all roads lead to God. Roman Catholicism also denies that the Lord Jesus bought us salvation through His once and for all sacrifice at the cross, saying that he continues to be offered through the Mass offered on the altar through the ministry of its priests.
The message of the Lord to Thyatira, one of the seven churches of Revelation, has an application to this:
‘Nevertheless I have a few things against you, because you allow that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and seduce My servants to commit sexual immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols. And I gave her time to repent of her sexual immorality, and she did not repent. Indeed I will cast her into a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of their deeds. I will kill her children with death, and all the churches shall know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts. And I will give to each one of you according to your works.’ Revelation 2.20-23.
I Kings 16 tells us how Ahab, king of Israel, ‘took as wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal, king of the Sidonians; and he went and served Baal and worshiped him.’ Jezebel brought false worship of Baal into Israel bringing them under the judgement of God. Through Roman Catholicism false teachings came into Christianity which took it away from the teaching of the early church with its roots in the scriptures and the Lord Jesus, the Messiah of Israel and His word. The Reformation sought to recover the truths of the Gospel and had some remarkable successes in doing so, but sadly much of this has been lost now as the majority of Protestant Churches depart from the truth and deny the true faith in Jesus Christ.
God is calling all people including Roman Catholics and nominal Protestants to repent and believe the Gospel of salvation by faith in Christ alone, and not the religious observances of the different churches. Soon the Lord Jesus is coming to take those who have truly repented and believed the Gospel to be with Himself in the rapture of the church. Then the false church of Rome and ‘her children’, the apostate Protestant Churches, will be cast into the great tribulation. There it will reach its final manifestation of ‘Mystery Babylon the great, drunk with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus’ (Revelation 17.1-6).
The Lord says that He will keep the true church from this hour of trial, another indication that the rapture comes before not after the great tribulation. His message to the faithful church at Philadelphia contains a command to persevere, to continue in the truth and to be ready for His return:
‘Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth. Behold, I am coming quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown.’ Revelation 3.10-11.
2 Thessalonians 2
What is it about?
‘Now, brethren, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, we ask you, not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as if from us, as though the day of Christ had come. Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God. Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? And now you know what is restraining, that he may be revealed in his own time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only He / he who now restrains will do so until He / he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His coming. The coming of the lawless one is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders, and with all unrighteous deception among those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this reason God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie, that they all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.’ 2 Thessalonians 2.1-12.
In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul is writing to the believers there about an issue which was troubling them ‘concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to meet Him.’ In our previous edition (available on request) we looked at Paul’s teaching on this event in 1 Thessalonians 4.13-5.11. This is the famous ‘rapture’ passage in which he tells them:
‘The Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord.’
Paul goes on to indicate that this event will happen suddenly without prior warning when the ‘the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night.’ In the light of this he encourages them to be ready at all times for the coming of the Lord. 1 Thessalonians 5.6-10.
This instruction from Paul to the Thessalonians helps us understand what is the problem they were experiencing which he addresses in 2 Thessalonians 2.1-3. In verse 1 he is talking about ‘the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him’. The two expressions used here refer to the coming of the Lord to the earth with His saints and the ‘gathering together to Him’ which refers to the event of the rapture described in 1 Thessalonians 4. According to the pre-tribulation view of prophecy there is a period between these two stages of the second coming, when the great tribulation will occur on the earth (Matthew 24.15-31, Revelation 6-19). Many people will turn to Christ after the rapture, most of whom will suffer martyrdom and persecution during the reign of Antichrist (Revelation 13.5-10). During this time the saints taken in the rapture will be taken to heaven (John 14.1-3). They will receive their new and glorified bodies which are no longer subject to mortality or corruption (1 Corinthians 15.50-54). They will return with the glorified Lord Jesus to the earth at His Second Coming (Revelation 19.11-16) to be with Him during His 1000 year reign on earth (Revelation 20.1-6).
This means that the rapture of the church marks the beginning of a glorious time when we ‘shall always be with the Lord’ and is a source of comfort for the believing Christian, especially if he or she is going through persecution or trial in their lives.
In the case of the people Paul was writing to in 2 Thessalonians, it appears that someone was troubling them with the idea that ‘the day of Christ had come.’ This cannot be referring to anything to do with the first coming of the Lord, His death and resurrection, since there was no doubt in Paul’s mind that this day had already come and is in fact the basis of our faith in Jesus as Saviour and Lord. It has to have something to do with the second coming of Christ. In the context of this epistle it appears that they thought they were in the time of the great tribulation and that they had missed the rapture of the church. From what Paul says in verse 2 they had received a word in the spirit or a letter, which appeared to be from him (but wasn’t) giving them this impression.
He then assures them that this is not the case. ‘The day of Christ’ (which refers to the great tribulation here) has not arrived. They can know this because two things have not yet happened – the ‘apostasia’, translated here as ‘the falling away’, and the revelation of the ‘Man of Sin.’ Paul reminds them that he had told them about these things while he was still with them (verse 5) and speaks of something or someone restraining them from happening until the time for this to happen. There are different views about Paul means by the ‘restrainer’ in this verse. Is it the spirit filled church whose presence on earth prevents the Antichrist from arising, or the Holy Spirit who is removed from the earth with the rapture of the church? Or is it some political force which has to fall before the antichrist can arise? If he is speaking of the Spirit filled church being removed (as I believe he is), then this is another indication of the pre tribulation rapture.
Paul then gives them the most information which we find in the New Testament outside of the book of Revelation about the ‘Man of Sin’, who is also known as the Antichrist (1 John 2.18) and the Beast (Revelation 13). Paul focuses on these characteristics of the Man of Sin which are also found in other prophetic passages in the Bible.
- He will exalt himself above all gods, both the true God and false gods, and be worshipped as a god himself, committing the ultimate blasphemy. (Daniel 7.24-5, 11.36-37, Revelation 13.1-8, 14-15).
- He is given his power directly by Satan and will come with all power of Satan to deceive people with lying signs and wonders. This will bring a strong delusion on those who refuse to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus, causing them to believe ‘the lie’. Most likely ‘the lie’ is to believe the antichrist is a god. Those who believe this delusion will be condemned or damned. (Revelation 13.1-8, 14-18, 14.9-11).
- He will be destroyed by the coming of the Lord to the earth. ‘Whom the Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His coming.’ Isaiah 11.4, Daniel 7.11, Revelation 19.19-20.
This last point shows us that the one who is being described here has not yet come, but must be a future figure, who will be alive at the time of the Second Coming of Christ to the earth. At this time he will meet his doom and be thrown directly into the lake of fire, along with the False Prophet who causes people on earth to worship him. The Lord will destroy the Antichrist and the Babylon world system which he is ruling over and set up His Messianic kingdom, as ‘the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our God and of His Christ.’ Revelation 11.15.
The identity of the coming Antichrist remains unknown until the day when he is to be revealed. In the days before his coming to power we should expect the spirit of antichrist to be much in evidence. Psalm 2 is a Messianic Psalm which looks forward to the coming of the Messiah to set up His kingdom from Zion, a reference to the Second Coming of Jesus. Prior to this the Psalmist says:
‘Why do the nations rage, and the people plot a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against His Anointed, saying, ’Let us break their bonds in pieces and cast away their cords from us.’ Psalm 2.1-3.
This prophetic psalm speaks of the rulers of the nations coming together against the true God (the Lord / Yahweh) and His Anointed (His Messiah or Christ). In other words they are coming together in the spirit of Antichrist. They are also coming in the spirit of lawlessness wanting to cast away the law of God which they see as a bondage to their sinful desires. In doing this they are also coming against the true church of Jesus Christ. The presence of true believers in Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, bearing witness to the truth of the Gospel and interceding for the world is in some way holding back the final manifestation of wickedness in the person of the Man of Sin, the Antichrist.
What about the ‘apostasia’?
The Greek word ‘apostasia’ is translated in our Bibles as the falling away or the rebellion, interpreting it as a departure from the truth or apostasy in the church which will precede the coming of the Lord. Certainly we do see a departure from the truth in much of professing Christianity today. We have liberal theology undermining the authority of the Word of God. We have ecumenism and inter-faith, accepting Roman Catholicism as authentic Christianity and saying all ways to God are equal. Islam’s Allah is said to be the same as the God of the Bible and deceptive practices like yoga are incorporated into Christian spirituality. We have strange ‘new revelations’ coming in which contradict the teaching of the Word of God. As this apostasy goes through the world, especially the nominally Christian western world, the way is open for antichrist teachings to spread and dominate nations. In this way the falling away from the truth of the Gospel is a sign of the soon coming of the Lord Jesus Christ and is also preparing the way for the coming Antichrist.
However there is another possible interpretation of what Paul meant by ‘apostasia’ as the sign that the tribulation has come. Paul is telling the Thessalonians that they cannot be in the great tribulation period because this event has not yet happened. So if the event to look out for is the apostasy of the church, how do you recognise it? There have been several such departures from truth in the history of Christianity. Paul warned of it happening in his own day (Acts 20.29-31). So which ‘apostasy’ is the definite sign that the ‘day of Christ has come?’
Thomas Ice has an interesting view expressed in his article ‘The Rapture in 2 Thessalonians 2.’ He says that the Greek noun apostasia, usually translated ‘ apostasy,’ is a reference to the rapture and should be translated ‘departure.’ The main points he makes are these.
- The Greek noun apostasia is only used twice in the New Testament, in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 and in Acts 21:21 where, speaking of Paul, it is said, ‘that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake (apostasia) Moses.’ The word is a Greek compound of apo meaning ‘from’ and istemi meaning ‘stand.’ Thus, it has the core meaning of ‘standing away from’ or ‘departure.’ The verb form is used fifteen times in the New Testament. Of these fifteen, only three have anything to do with a departure from the faith (Luke 8;13; 1 Timothy 4:1; Hebrews 3:12). Other uses have to do with departure from one place or person to another. This supports the idea that the ‘apostasia’ referred to in 2 Thessalonians 2.3 is about the departure from one place to another, in other words the rapture of the church.
- Early translations of this passage (for example Tyndale Bible (1526), Cranmer Bible (1539), Geneva Bible (1608) all rendered apostasia as either ‘departure’ or ‘departing.’ Jerome’s Latin translation known as the Vulgate from around the AD 400 renders apostasia with the word ‘discessio’, meaning ‘departure.’ The King James Version was the first to depart from the established translation of ‘departure’.
- The Greek text uses the definite article ‘the apostasia’ which denotes that this will be a definite event. In the Greek language it is not necessary to add the definite article ‘the’ here and using it makes the word very emphatic. It is as if he is saying ‘that apostasia / departure which I was telling you about previously’, a particular type of departure clearly known to the Thessalonian church. This would make sense if he is referring to the rapture which he had previously written about and also supports the idea that Paul spoke of a clear, discernable event. A physical departure, like the rapture would fit just such a notion.
- The Thessalonians had been led astray by the false teaching (2:2- 3) that the Day of the Lord (in this case the tribulation) had already come. This was confusing because Paul offered great hope, in the first letter, of a departure to be with Christ and a rescue from God’s wrath. Paul clarified his prior teaching about this by emphasising that they had no need to worry. The departure of Christians to be with Christ, and the subsequent revelation of the lawless one (Antichrist) has not yet come. Therefore they can look forward to going to be with the Lord and can ‘comfort one another with these words’ about the Lord’s return (1 Thessalonians 4.18).
This is another indication from scripture that the rapture of the church precedes the time of the Great Tribulation and the Antichrist reigning during this time. In the light of this we should be looking for the imminent coming of the Lord Jesus Christ as Paul wrote to Titus:
‘For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works.’ Titus 2.11-14.
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