The Last of the Last Days
Usually when we discuss eschatology (the study of the “last things”), we are discussing the return of Christ in relation to the thousand year millennium of Revelation 20:1-6. However, according to Acts 2:17, 1 Corinthians 10:11, Hebrews 1:2, Hebrews 9:26, and 1 Peter 1:20 “the last days” began with the incarnation of Christ about 2,000 years ago. Yet, in such a long stretch of history there must be a last of the last days, and the Bible does speak on the last of the last days. It is these times that I would like to turn our attention towards in order that we might keep awake and stay vigilant.
The Big Picture
While “the last days” begins with the coming of Christ, Revelation 20 is nevertheless one of the key texts when it comes to discussing the end times. Rightly understood, this text helps us to see the big picture regarding the last days. So, let us briefly look at Revelation 20:1-3. It says,
“Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while.”
In this text the devil is bound and thrown into a pit for a thousand years, but what does that mean? Does it mean that Satan can do nothing at all during that period of time? The text is very specific about the exact purpose of this binding and being thrown in a pit. He is sealed in a pit for a thousand years “so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended.” (v3)
The words, “so that,” tell us that this is the specific purpose of Satan’s being bound. During the millennium Satan will not be able to deceive the nations to keep them from receiving the gospel of Christ. It does not say that he will be bound from causing suffering or from causing various other kinds of trouble. Satan will be kept from deceiving the nations during the millennial kingdom, and that millennium begun when Christ “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them” (Colossians 2:15) by his death on the cross. Satan has already been defeated, and Christ reigns even now!
In other words, Revelation 20:1-3 teaches us that the gospel will be a success. For whatever else Satan can still do, he cannot stop the gospel from advancing to every nation, tribe, and tongue. Jesus said, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:14) That is exactly what we see here in Revelation 20:1-3. Satan will be bound so that the gospel will successfully advance until disciples are made in all nations, “and then the end will come.”
What happens when the end comes? Revelation 20:3 says that Satan will be bound from deceiving the nations, “…until the thousand years are ended. After that he must be released for a little while.” This thousand year period will end, and after that he must be released from the pit. What will that look like. Revelation 20:7-8 says,
“And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea.”
That ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, will be released from his dark dank holding cell so that he can once again reek havoc throughout the entire earth. He will once again be given permission, according to the sovereign decree of God and his infinitely wise purpose and plan, to blind the nations as a form of divine judgement, as the earth is ripened and prepared to be finally “set on fire and dissolved.” (2 Peter 3:12) What a terrible and dreadful day for the multitudes who are lost! As Revelation 1:7 says,
“Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.”
How many will eternally perish on that great and dreadful day? Jesus said,
“For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” (Matthew 24:37-39)
And Peter gives us this very stern warning of how few were saved in the days of Noah,
“…if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly.” (2 Peter 2:5)
Out of the entire world, only “a few, that is, eight persons” (1 Peter 3:20) were saved and the rest perished in everlasting destruction! Jesus says that the end will be similar, and John tells us in the book of Revelation that the devil will be set loose to deceive the nations once again, preparing them for the final judgement and eternal suffering in “the lake of fire that burns with sulfur.” (Revelation 19:20)
The Apostle Paul and the Great Apostasy
There is a remarkable consistency as we look at the New Testament teaching on this. We have already briefly seen how Jesus, John, and Peter are in perfect agreement, but now let us turn to the Paul. In 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4 we read,
“Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.”
We know that no man knows the precise day and hour of the Lord’s return. Jesus tells us that plainly when he says, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” (Matthew 24:36) However, Paul does here tell us about a couple of significant events that must happen before “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him.” (v1) One of those major events is “the rebellion.”
The word “rebellion” is more of a paraphrase than it is a translation of the Greek. The Greek word is “apostasia,” which translated is, “apostasy.” Apostasy is a “defiance of established system or authority, rebellion, abandonment, breach of faith.” (BDAG) The Greek word only occurs one other place in the New Testament in Acts 21:21, which says referring to Paul, “they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses…” Literally, that would be translated, “to apostatize from Moses.”
In other words, apostasy is not something that professing unbelievers do, it is something that professing Christians do. It is a “falling away” (Mounce) from a position once supposedly held. It is an “abandonment” of a former faith. It is a “defiance of established system or authority” as an act of willful “rebellion.” In it’s final form, it is a complete rejection of the Christian faith once professed to be held. However, apostasy can happen gradually over time as the heart is progressively and imperceptibly “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (Hebrews 3:13)
One may, for example, apostatize from one particular doctrine before eventually abandoning the whole “established system” of Christians orthodoxy. So, we see Christians who still profess the triune God, but who have abandoned a biblical view on marriage and homosexuality. This is a partial apostasy. Likewise, we see men who still profess that justification is by faith alone, but they now hold to a Marxist worldview in the social sphere, thus abandoning a biblical view of both the doctrine of man and of reconciliation in Christ. This too is a partial apostasy. Likewise, the Charismatic Movement as a whole is a “defiance of established system or authority” because it rejects the teaching of over 1800 years of church history (including all of the major Reformed Confessions of Faith) in order to establish things like prophecies which “can frequently contain errors” and “will contain elements which are not to be obeyed or trusted.” (Wayne Grudem) This is yet another example of a partial apostasy. Examples could easily be multiplied. John Owen says it this way,
“When any important principle of evangelical truth is forsaken and renounced, especially when many of them are so; when the rule of obedience which the gospel prescribes is habitually neglected; when men believe otherwise than it teaches, and live otherwise than it requires,—there is a partial apostasy from it, whose guilt and danger answer the degrees and measures which in each kind it proceeds unto.”
This partial apostasy generally leads to total apostasy. Therefore, John Owen makes this distinction, “Apostasy from the gospel is either total or partial.” When we speak of apostasy, this does not necessarily mean that certain men have entirely rejected all of the Christian faith all at once, but it does demonstrate a dangerous drift away from “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 1:3) Over the course of time partial apostasy, if it remains without repentance and reformation, becomes mixed with more and more strange doctrines until it becomes total apostasy. This can happen throughout large geographic regions and nations, and it can also happen in individual local churches. Thus we read in the 1689 Confession of Faith,
“The purest Churches under heaven are subject to mixture, and error; and some have so degenerated as to become no Churches of Christ, but Synagogues of Satan.”
Many men comfort themselves in that “there is no such thing as a perfect church,” but apostasy often creeps unnoticeably. It is subtle and crafty, like the serpent of old. You don’t often find out until it is too late. Therefore, we should take all the more heed to this word in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4.
Back to Paul and the Great Apostasy
It is true that an individual may be an apostate from a perfectly healthy church that is not guilty of partial apostasy in any way, shape, or form. However, it is perfectly clear from the context here in 2 Thessalonians 1:3 that we are talking about a massive, widespread, global phenomenon of apostasy. It is “ἡ ἀποστασία,” literally, “the apostasy,” not just “an” apostasy. This is an eschatological event, one which Paul also expresses elsewhere:
“Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1)
“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.” (2 Timothy 3:1-5)
“…evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.” (2 Timothy 3:13)
“For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3–4)
This apostasy is going to happen “first,” that is, before “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (v1) Furthermore, it appears that as the apostasy is happening, “the man of lawlessness” (v3) will rise to lead more and more people deeper into their rebellion against God. So we read in verses 9-12,
“The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.”
This great final apostasy will not merely be people turning away from God according to their own will. There will be two other elements in addition to the sinful cravings of a depraved heart which will fuel this apocalyptic rebellion against God.
First, there will be real Satanic activity and power at work in the world as Satan is “released from his prison” in order to “deceive the nations” “when the thousand years are ended.” (Revelation 20:7-8) It says that this Satanic activity will be “with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.” They knew the truth of the gospel, but did not love it, and therefore all wicked deception and power from Satan will irrevocably snare them and make their apostasy complete so that these dreadful words are true of them,
“For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.” (Hebrews 6:4-6)
Second, there will be a real judgement of God as he actively hardens hearts in his just and holy wrath, sending them “a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false.” Their chance for repentance has run out. There is no more grace. God will not pardon or forgive their sins. It will be his purpose on that day to so give them over to their own unbelieving heart in order that “all may be condemned.” In that day the words of Exodus 22:20 will be fulfilled, “Whoever sacrifices to any god, other than the LORD alone, shall be devoted to destruction.” That is, God will actively harden men’s hearts in righteous judgement in order to set them apart for as an offering to the LORD in their everlasting conscious torment in the fires of hell.
The Big Picture
What does this all mean if we were to summarize the Bible’s doctrine concerning the last days?
It means that the last days began with the coming of Christ. When Christ came, was crucified, was raised on the third day, and ascended to the right hand of God, his triumphant reign began. Satan is bound for a symbolic “thousand years” so that he can not deceive the nations and keep them from faith in Christ. During this time the spread of the gospel is a success, and “in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing” (Colossians 1:6)
Just before that end comes there will be a great apostasy from within the church. When Satan is released from his pit for a short time at the end of the millennium, he will deceive the nations, including the vast multitude of unconverted people who are apart of the visible church. Jesus says, “And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.” (Matthew 24:10-12)
There will be no place for God’s elect to hide on that bloody day. On that day the beast “was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.” (Revelation 13:7-8) Therefore we receive this solemn exhortation in Revelation 13:10,
“If anyone is to be taken captive,
to captivity he goes;
if anyone is to be slain with the sword,
with the sword must he be slain.
Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.”
Apostasy, lawlessness, betrayal, and death will mark those days as God ripens the world for the harvest of the final judgement. Quitting isn’t an option. Jesus says, “But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 24:13) Those who fall away will eternally perish in the judgement that is to come upon the whole earth.
So, we have the triumph of the gospel throughout the ends of the earth as Satan is bound for a thousand years. Then Satan will be released for a little while, which will result in the final apostasy and the rise of the Antichrist as the world draws near to the final judgement. Finally, Christ shall return in glory, “inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” (2 Thessalonians 1:8) Only those who endure in “the obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5) shall be saved on that last day, that is, those whose names have “been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.” (Revelation 13:7-8)
What shall we say to these things? Can we know for sure if we are in the last of the last days?
No, we cannot know for sure if we are in the last of the last days because “concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” (Matthew 24:36) However, Jesus also said in that same context,
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates.” (Matthew 24:32-33)
Time would fail me if I tried to record all of the apostasy in our day, no matter whether it be accounts of partial apostasy or of total apostasy. Worse still, you can’t even begin to show the great majority of professing Christians their blatant doctrinal and practical errors in order to help gently correct them because “they refused to love the truth and so be saved.” (2 Thessalonians 2:10) They have “itching ears” and have already accumulated “for themselves teachers to suit their own passions.” (2 Timothy 4:3) Needless to say, “the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5:16)
Nevertheless, “God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: ‘The Lord knows those who are his,’ and, ‘Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.’” (2 Timothy 2:19) None of God’s elect shall ever perish, for Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” (John 10:27-30) Even if we should be momentarily caught in the snare of some aspect of partial apostasy, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” (Romans 8:33-34) The true Christian is perfectly secure in Christ even in the midst of the darkest days. Hallelujah!
Yet, at the same time, that is not an excuse to be lazy, idle, or indifferent. Take heed to Paul’s words in Ephesians 6:10-13
“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.”
If these words were true for the church in the 1st century, then how much more true are they for us when Satan is “released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth?” (Revelation 20:7-8) This isn’t a time for games. We must not act like those scoffers who say, “Where is the promise of his coming?” (2 Peter 3:4) We should be living in light of eternity. Indeed, the fig branches have become very tender and have put out many leaves as eternity draws ever nearer. Every day I see more and more evidence of apostasy all around me. It is truly breath taking and frightening. Sometimes it seems like I can almost feel the world grow darker day-by-day. It’s like a bad dream, only it’s as real as the air I breathe moment-by-moment. It is as if I could see the work of Satan happening all around me. It is a demonic, evil day. And rather than God granting revival, we see God sending “them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false.” (2 Thessalonians 2:11) How is it that churches professing the name of Christ with a Bible in their hand can do the things they do without any sense of conviction? They are under divine judgement.
Whether or not this is “the apostasy,” these are certainly days of great apostasy. It would be the height of folly and ignorance, as well as a great evidence of a reprobate mind, if any man presumed to be safe in such an evil day while he does not actively clothe himself in the full armor of God and daily “Fight the good fight of the faith.” (1 Timothy 6:12) I am sure that many people will read these words indifferently and go on to perish in “the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” (Revelation 21:8) Nevertheless, for those of us who have ears to hear in these evil days, let us remember these solemn words of the apostle Paul and the writer of Hebrews as we watch the world around us reject the truth and so perish:
“Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.”
—1 Corinthians 10:12
“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.”