by Phil Enlow

One does not need to be a Bible scholar to know that the scriptures contain many warnings about deception. In fact this deception was to be so great that Jesus specially warned his disciples about it lest they be deceived.

Jesus was shortly to go to the cross. He had just spoken to them about the Jewish temple being destroyed. And so in Matt. 24:3 we see the disciples come to Jesus privately to ask him some questions. “‘Tell us,’ they said, ‘when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’”

Please note that the answer Jesus gives is not directed at the world but rather at his followers: “Watch out that no one deceives you.” The world is already deceived. Rev. 12:9. 2 Cor. 4:4-5 tells us that, “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” They are already prisoners of spiritual darkness. Rather, Jesus warned of deception that specially targets believers in order to lead them astray.

Matt. 24:5 continues, “For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many.” The agents of this deception were to be people coming in Christ’s name, that is, they will claim to be sent by Christ, having heaven’s authority behind what they say and do.

A very few of these will actually claim to be Christ, or God’s Son, or something equally blasphemous. The fact that people will actually follow someone like that shows the condition they are in. When the one and only Jesus Christ returns there will be no doubt. Everyone will know it. Of course, at that point it will be too late for anyone who is not ready.

Most deceivers will not go to such extremes, however. The word “Christ” simply means “an anointed one” and that is what they will claim to be. They will cloak themselves in a mantle of supposed divine authority and proceed with their evil work.

Such men actually do have an “anointing” that inspires what they do. They have an ability to attract followers that goes beyond the natural. This ability comes from the master deceiver himself, Satan. Even though they may not be aware of it, they are actually servants of Satan and not the Christ they claim.

Satan’s Rebellion

In the beginning Satan rebelled against his Maker, leading a third of the angels into his rebellion. His rebellion was itself founded on deception, self-deception! Somehow he convinced himself that he could actually succeed in rising up against the Most High. I believe it is a mark of deception that every agent of deception is himself deceived as was the case with Satan. As 2 Tim. 3:13 says, “… evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.”

Satan continued his rebellion by seducing our first parents, Adam and Eve, into rebelling against God and the result is that mankind as a whole has been swallowed up by the terrible darkness of sin and death ever since. Sin reigns and judgment is coming.

Into this terrible darkness Christ came with the light of life. More than just his words and works, the very divine life from which they sprang beamed forth the light of a life that shone in stark contrast to the darkness of corrupted human life. His death and resurrection opened a door of hope that men could be set free from the dominion of sin and death and come to possess that life—God’s life.

As the good news was proclaimed and thousands began to believe, Satan opposed what was happening with every means at his disposal. He hates Christ and any true follower of Christ can expect to be a special target. Christ’s victory at the cross spells Satan’s ultimate defeat. That victory was won on behalf of those from every nation and age who put their trust in him.

Satan’s very nature is to be a liar and a deceiver. It is no surprise, therefore, that one of his chief weapons against Christ’s true followers has been deception, in particular, religious deception. He comes offering a different Jesus, a different spirit, a different gospel. 2 Cor. 11:4. Of course he is careful to disguise these substitutes so that they appear to be the real thing.

In warning the Corinthians against false ministries Paul describes them as, “false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness.” 2 Cor. 11:13-15. The devil wouldn’t accomplish much if he approached Christians as a “devil of darkness”! No! His aim is that men should receive him and his servants as heaven-sent.

Of course Satan has made ­- and continues to make — wide use of direct persecution against the followers of Jesus. However, this has often resulted in a stronger, healthier church that grows in spite of all his efforts to stamp it out. Deception has been his most effective weapon by far.

All-Out War

I believe it is safe to say that deception will reach its peak right before the coming of Christ. 2 Thess. 2:8 tells us of a “lawless one” who will be destroyed at Christ’s coming. Verses 9-12 tell us, “The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.”

That is a picture of Satan mounting an all-out effort as he senses the end nearing. What a terrible hold he will have on all who have rejected truth in that hour. God Himself will send them a “powerful delusion.” The remnant of true believers will need God as we’ve never needed Him before in order to stand in such an hour. What a wonderful promise we have in the words of Jesus: “...surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matt. 28:20.

As we look around the religious landscape today it ought to be apparent to anyone with any spiritual discernment at all that deception is incredibly widespread and varied in its forms. One approach to countering such deception might be to attempt to “catalog” all these forms. We might try to specifically warn against particular men or movements or doctrines, etc. However, such an approach would barely scratch the surface of the problem. As soon as you warn against one deception, a hundred more will pop up.

A Different Approach

I have a burden to approach this issue a little differently than simply to lay out a “catalog” of deceivers and movements. I believe it would be profitable to explore the characteristics of deception, to answer the question, “What does deception look like?” Whatever the details may be when Satan is behind something it inevitably has a different look and feel than true biblical Christianity. John refers to the “Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood.” 1 John 4:6. What God’s people need is help in telling the difference. You might encounter a brand new form of deception but if you can recognize the spirit behind it you will be OK.

In attempting to set forth some of these characteristics I am aware that in some cases basically good men have been influenced by religious tradition and may exhibit some of the characteristics, at least in a measure. In such cases there is a real need to honestly seek God, trusting in Him to reveal the truth of the matter. Many of the religious “systems” of today are rooted more in tradition than they are in the Word of God and the true remnant of God’s people need to be delivered from them as from a prison. Only a knowledge of truth can accomplish this.

There are two broad areas that need to be explored. One area concerns the deceiver. What is a deceiver like? How would you recognize one? Of course we need to quickly acknowledge the imperfections of God’s true servants and recognize that God works through them in spite of those imperfections. Still, there is a difference between a divinely-anointed but imperfect man and a deceiver sent and anointed by Satan. And I believe the Lord can help us to distinguish between them.

The other area we need to explore is the deception itself. How can we recognize it? A common defense against deception is a “creed,” a set of beliefs to which we adhere and by which we measure everything. Of course one fruit of Satan’s activity is that the creeds of the different religious systems are often at serious variance with one another. In addition they are sometimes, at best, dead and ineffective truth and offer little protection against the wiles of Satan. I believe, however, that we can see in the scriptures some clear guidelines that, with the help of the Holy Spirit, can keep us from turning aside into error.

Satan’s Style of Leadership

When I think of the kind of religious leadership Satan promotes I think of Satan himself. Words like “dominion” and “control” come to mind. Isaiah 14:13-14 says of him, “You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’”

Satan may have set out to make himself like the Most High but he is not like Him at all. He is utterly selfish, focused only on his own ambitions, caring nothing for his subjects, wanting only to “sit enthroned.” That is why the scriptures use such words as “murderer” (John 8:44) and “Apollyon,” which means “destroyer,” (Rev. 9:11) to describe him. He will give his subjects the illusion of freedom while keeping them firmly under his control. His nature can readily be seen in the lives of those out of whom Jesus cast devils. Those devils had no interest whatsoever in bettering the lives of their victims, only in using, abusing, and ultimately destroying them and moving on to other victims. They were all about absolute control and it took divine authority to pry them loose and force them to leave.

We can see the kind of leadership Satan encourages in the words of Jesus in Luke 22:25-26, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors.” In these words we can see not only the spirit of dominion but also a self-deception in that the rulers actually think of themselves as Benefactors! “I have total control over you and it’s for your good!”

Listen to the words of Jesus as he draws a contrast: “But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.” Luke 22:26. And so we have dominion leadership on the one hand and servant leadership on the other. It is not a question of whether there is to be leadership but rather the character of that leadership.

Jesus himself is the greatest example of true spiritual leadership. He did not come as a king but as a humble servant. Phil. 2:7-8. In Mark 10:45 Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” In John 13 we see Jesus giving a graphic demonstration of this principle by literally taking the place of a servant and washing his disciples’ feet. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” Verses 13-15.

One Example

As I survey the religious landscape today I’m afraid that much that I see in the way of spiritual leadership bears little resemblance to what Jesus taught. More than that much of it smells more like dominion. Recently Bro. Jimmy Robbins and I returned from a trip. As we began our journey home we went into a little cafe in the airport and fell into conversation with a young lady working there. As we spoke it became evident that she loved the Lord and wanted to serve him. It also became evident that she was enmeshed in a religious system that had her starved, spiritually stifled and terrified to question. She was buried under many layers of supposed spiritual “authority” as a result of a widely-advocated system of church growth and it was killing her spiritually. She was terrified that if she so much as questioned anything or anyone she would in rebellion against God and He would judge her. And the one under whose direct authority she had been placed was, to say the least, no spiritual help.

In the few minutes we had we both tried to encourage her that the kind of dominion authority she was describing was not of God. She didn’t express any of this in a spirit of rebellion but seemed more like an abused sheep simply crying out for the freedom to serve God and grow spiritually. We encouraged her to honestly seek God to lead her and then committed her into the Lord’s hands.

I confess to a good deal of anger when I see and hear of sheep being abused and intimidated in religious systems like that. The Spirit of Christ is all about loving, serving, and nurturing the sheep, leading them to good pastures. But that’s not what Satan promotes. He wants control, whether obvious in what I described above or subtle as is often the case.

Old and New Testament Leadership

One way Satan takes advantage of people in this area is to blur the differences between the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament we see God, in order to fulfill His purposes, establishing a relationship with the nation of Israel. God is a holy God and most of the Israelites were unbelieving idolaters at heart—and the best of them were still sinners. Thus the relationship was necessarily an “arms-length” one. God’s presence dwelled in a very special place, the holy of holies, first in the tabernacle and later in the temple. There the ark of the covenant, the cherubim, and the mercy seat were located. Anyone going in there would instantly die. The only exception was the high priest who went in once a year on the day of atonement. Even then he followed elaborate cleansing rituals and went in only with blood as well as incense so that the smoke would obscure the mercy seat. Otherwise he would die as well. See Leviticus 16.

All of this was meant to teach the people about God’s holiness and their sinfulness and need. The people themselves did not have direct access to God. Special men were needed as intermediaries. If the people sinned and needed to offer a sacrifice they went to a priest and he offered it on their behalf. If they wanted to inquire of the Lord about something they went to a prophet and he delivered whatever word the Lord gave. In addition, as time went along, kings ruled with absolute authority. It is all too common in our day for religious leaders to appeal to Old Testament prophets and priests in order to justify a dominion-style leadership – with them having the dominion, of course!

Under the new covenant everything changed. We have One alone Who is Prophet, Priest, and King, our Lord Jesus Christ. Every believer has access to God freely through Him. When he cried on the cross, “It is finished,” the large curtain that hid the holy of holies was torn from top to bottom. Matt. 27:50-51; John 19:30. God Himself had opened the way into the holiest because of the blood of Jesus! Hebrews, Chap. 9, 10:19-22. When it comes to priesthood, we are all priests.1 Peter 2:5, 9, Rev. 1:6, 5:10.

They Will All Know Me

In Joel 2:28-29 we find this wonderful word of prophecy about what was to come: “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.” In Jer. 31:34 we find the prophecy quoted in Hebrew 8:11, “...they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” No longer were there to be special classes of men that stood between the people and their God. Everyone could approach Him freely. There is only one mediator and that is Jesus Christ himself. 1 Timothy 2:5.

In Matthew 23 Jesus strongly denounced the religious leadership of the Jews. In verses 8-12 he said, “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

Note carefully the words, “...you have only one Master and you are all brothers.” Surely that defines clearly the relationships that exist in God’s kingdom. It is a simple picture. Even though gifts and callings among men may differ only One is in charge. Christ is the head of the church which is his body. Eph. 1:22-23. All the rest are brethren, varying in function, serving one another, but none having spiritual dominion over others.

An Exhortation to Elders

Does that do away with human leadership? Of course not! It just defines its character. Consider what Peter wrote in 1 Peter, chapter 5. In verses 1-4 he writes, “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers — not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.”

Note that Peter does not assume a high position above his readers. He does not talk “down” to them. Remember, this is Peter we’re talking about, one of the original apostles. Yet he does not “command,” but rather “appeals.” And even this appeal is not made from “above” but as a “fellow elder.” His gift and calling were indeed special but his language conveys a man standing beside and among his readers, not someone high and mighty and ruling over them. This fact sets the tone for the entire exhortation.

Peter begins with the simple words, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care....” Words like “shepherds” and “care” surely remind us of the description of our Lord Jesus as the “good shepherd” who “lays his life down for the sheep.” John 10:11. See also the wonderful prophecy of Isaiah 40:11: “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.” There is nothing selfish or abusive in a good shepherd. Rather his personal interests are set aside and his efforts are directed to the welfare of the sheep. He is a servant.

Peter refers to the flock as “God’s flock,” reminding his readers whose the sheep are. The shepherd is a servant, not only to the sheep, but also to the God to Whom they belong. The sheep do not “belong” to the shepherd nor are they there to serve the interests of the shepherd; it is the other way around. The shepherd is not the center of things; the sheep are. It is not his will that is to prevail; it is that of the “Chief Shepherd,” our Lord Jesus Christ, the only Head of the church.

It is in the light of these simple truths that Peter highlights three particular areas of concern when it comes to “shepherding.” The first area concerns the willingness to do it. Peter says in verse 2, “...not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be....” We are selfish creatures by nature and the interests of self must be laid aside in order to properly serve the sheep. This selfish nature causes some to be grudging, to act out of mere duty, even to be resentful of the demands of shepherding. God wants shepherds who serve with a willing heart, following the example of our Lord himself. His spirit of willingness took him all the way to the cross — even with joy! Heb. 12:2.

The second issue Peter tackled was this: “...not greedy for money, but eager to serve....” Should not these simple words cause us to cringe as we survey the religious landscape of today? In this instance the so-called shepherd, instead of grudgingly withholding service, uses the guise of service to serve his own selfish financial interests. The sheep, the work, become a means to a very selfish end. Such a man does not serve Christ at all and it is the sheep who suffer.

Not Lords

The third issue is the particular one that Christ highlighted: (verse 3) “...not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” In verse 2 he had referred to elders as “overseers” yet he now adds, “not lording it over those entrusted to you.” It is difficult for human beings to understand how those two ideas can function together. We are prone to think of an “overseer” as one in charge, a boss, one possessing authority and commanding obedience from those beneath him. Yet God desires overseers who are not “overlords”! There is a monumental difference. The overseer is to lead by example. The overlord leads through control. It is only by God’s grace that this is possible.

Does that mean that there is no submission involved, that each one is to be a law unto himself? Of course not! In verse 5 Peter continues, “Young men, in the same way be submissive to those who are older.” Two things are very significant in this verse. The younger ones are indeed told to be submissive. But the submission is not a blind obedience imposed from above. It is something to be willingly offered. This is clear in that Peter also includes the words, “in the same way.” In the same way as what? In the same way as the elders! Peter is saying that shepherding is itself a form of submission, a setting aside of the interests of self for the sake of the sheep. It, as we have noted, is to be a willing thing, a choice on the part of the shepherd to be a proper under-shepherd, that is, a servant.

Christ’s Example

Think of the ministry of Christ. Did he go around demanding obedience from any and everyone? Of course not! He understood that among the people as a whole there were some who were God’s sheep. Most were not. The sheep were the only ones capable of truly hearing his voice and because they were sheep they would willingly follow him. John 10:27-29. He did not need any kind of force, intimidation or psychology to obtain followers. Nor did he need to “control” them. His trust was in his Father Who worked with hearts.

In John 6 when multitudes stopped following him Jesus simply turned to the disciples and said, “Will ye also go away?” (John 6:67, KJV). Peter answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Verses 68-69. How is it that they knew who he was and others didn’t? Very simply: it was revealed to them by God (Matt. 16:17). Jesus didn’t have to strive to convince them. They were so convinced they wouldn’t leave! They weren’t convinced because Jesus had somehow “brain-washed” them; he simply gave out the truth and his sheep willingly followed.

When true shepherds lead true sheep there will be a willing heart on the part of the sheep not because submission is demanded but because they recognize the voice of the Divine Shepherd as He anoints those with leadership gifts. I don’t mean to oversimplify or to gloss over problems that arise but what I have described is what God is after. Leadership that demands obedience is modeled after Satan and not after Christ.

All of You

Lest the point be overlooked Peter continues, “All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’” (Verse 5). “All of you” certainly includes the elders and highlights the true character of relationships in the body of Christ. There are leaders that God raises up yet everyone in the body is servant to everyone else and Christ alone is Head.

1 Peter 4:10-11 says, “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.” Peter’s words include everyone in the body of Christ.

Wherever a body of believers truly walks in this order Satan cannot get in. Everyone gets their spiritual ability from Christ and uses that ability for the welfare of the whole. No one walks in self-will, pride and independence. Everyone’s will is gladly set aside and the will of God sought. Christ is honored as Head in a practical way and not just vaguely acknowledged as a sort of figurehead. I realize that I am describing the ideal but is this not what the church is supposed to be, what we are all supposed to be seeking? Is that not what the church was for a time after Pentecost?

It is no wonder that in his attempts to corrupt the church and lead it astray Satan has attacked this order in every way he can think of. Basically he has sought to disconnect the church from its Head and to raise up men to rule over other men. Of course, he seeks to raise up men who are actually under his influence and control, whether they are aware of it or not. He thereby becomes the head for all practical purposes. This is simply a manifestation of his fundamental desire to enthrone himself.

To be continued.

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