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“The Falling Away Comes First”

For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus, so that he would not have to spend time in Asia; for he was hurrying to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the Day of Pentecost.

From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church. And when they had come to him, he said to them: ‘You know, from the first day that I came to Asia, in what manner I always lived among you, serving the Lord with all humility, with many tears and trials which happened to me by the plotting of the Jews; and how I kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house, testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. And see, now I go bound in the spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing the things that will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies in every city, saying that chains and tribulations await me.

“‘But none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. And indeed, now I know that you all, among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom of God, will see my face no more. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God.

“‘Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves (even from your own number, NIV) men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears.

“‘And now, brethren, I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.’” (Acts 20:16—32)

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I refer to this well known passage from Acts in order to point out some things that should reflect upon the study we are entertaining on Second Thessalonians chapter two. I suspect that most students of scripture know what I am about to record, but perhaps some have never considered the imminence or historical imperative in the apostle’s remarks and how it parallels this other. We have a tendency to think that apostasy awaited the death of the apostles to raise its ugly head, but nothing could be further from the truth. Both scripture and history bear this out.

Paul’s remarks in parting from Asia were made particularly and directly to the Ephesian assembly’s elders. It was not accidental that they were chosen for this special meeting. He had them assemble to Miletus so that he might speak directly to them, as he had already decided to sail on past Ephesus.

You may recall that the church at Ephesus had been established by Paul and his companions over a period of three years and that it had grown quickly and significantly. Upon the routing of the sons of Sceva, the success of the Christians was noted this way: “When this became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor. Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed their evil deeds.” But the situation was also very tumultuous, and so much so that the Asiarchs, the rulers of the region, and some of whom were acquaintances of Paul, had urged him to leave the area, and not to enter the stadium during the riot stirred up by temple craftsmen. It seems Paul may never have returned that way again. Timothy became associated with this church as did the apostle John in Paul’s absence.

That there were additional churches in this area whose elders might have benefited from such a gathering is without question, as this was the region of the other six assemblies who would in time be singled out for special attention in the Revelation of Christ. But it is the elders of Ephesus that were particularly requested for this audience.

Very particular things were stated. Part of this included: “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard. Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.”

Who had been warned? It was the overseers at Ephesus. What were they warned about? They were warned that false teachers and corrupt men would seek to draw away disciples, and this may indicate that some of them would come out of the group of the overseers themselves.

Are we so challenged that we cannot see that this was a special appeal? That it was not some general warning. This was particularly and specifically directed to the elders at Ephesus and was for their consumption above the others.

What is it called when “savage wolves come in among you and will not spare the flock?” That means the sheep will die, doesn’t it? When the flock dies what does that mean? What is it called when men of out of the church or the group of overseers “will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them?” That means somebody within the assembly would cause division and would split the church. Then some people would lose their interest; and others would leave to avoid the fight. Is that not apostasy? At the very least it meant some Christians would reject the oversight of the assembly and seek to teach their own doctrines and to gain some unwarranted authority within the church.

What was said of the assembly at Ephesus in Revelation chapter two? “You have forsaken your first love.” When you leave your first love, that means you then love another — and you are committing spiritual adultery, doesn’t it.

“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lamp stands: ‘I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lamp stand from its place.

“‘But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.

“‘He who has an ear let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’”

Revelation two refers specifically to some identical circumstances as Paul had mentioned in Second Thessalonians chapter two — of false apostles coming in amongst the church. Apparently they recognized the immediacy of the warning and responded at Ephesus. In Revelation two we also learn of the practices of the Nicolaitans. If they practiced something that was directly condemned by Christ, they were then apostates too, and contributors to a falling away were they not?

In the last post, I noted that we should be able to identify the following without any question: that Paul was warning the Christians in Thessalonica not to be moved or tricked by false teaching concerning the Judgment Day coming from pretenders, whether they were to claim to speak for Paul and with the authority of the apostle (any apostle). This apostasy was also at the heart of his warning to the Ephesian elders. Christians in various places were warned not to be moved if these teachers claimed to be speaking through the Holy Spirit, whether in person or by letter. They were warned not to be influenced by those who made some claim to be apostles or from an apostle.

They (the Thessalonians) should also know that the Day of the Lord had NOT commenced to be upon them — it wasn’t at the door. As noted last time, its conditions to begin had not been met when this was written. But there was a falling away coming at them dead ahead, and its form was identical as it was or would be in other locations. Paul said that the mystery of this iniquity had been already at work. It wasn’t then obvious, but it soon would be. By the time of the writing of Revelation, the Nicolaitans had become a known established group of false teachers warned of in two of the notices to the seven churches. (By the way, in case it is not obvious, you should note that I do not endorse the late date for the writing of Revelation. I very much believe that the entire NT had been written prior to the destruction of Jerusalem. And I have very specific reasons for that view.) These things, in my opinion, all lead away from the same incidents and to the same places and practical conclusions.

To this we can add the warning of John from his third letter.

I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us. So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, gossiping maliciously about us. Not satisfied with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.”

Now we cannot say definitively that Ephesus was here being addressed, or for that matter, that it was the apostle John who wrote these things. But we do know that whoever Diotrephes was he either was put in a position of authority or he had usurped it. That he preferred preeminence should cause us to reflect on how trouble may start in an assembly. One who puts people out of an assembly is exercising authority that is outside of the New Testament. These are all signs of apostasy and all of these had occurred within the time of the apostles. And there are certainly other examples within the writings of the NT worthy of examination. In fact, several of Paul’s letters bear similar warnings.

I will close this selection by noting that the historical record of Polycarp and Ignatius has already been both noted and posted on this site in just the last few weeks, and that their writings, although without the sanction of heaven, clearly point toward the same conclusions — a clear tendency toward apostasy within the first century churches very likely coming prior to the death of all of the apostles, or at the least, prior to the deaths of those disciples who had received the indwelling of the Holy Spirit from them. There is also a clear trend toward the elevation of some teachers who were false apostles, or who claimed some association with the apostles; and then later or along with that, there is the elevation of certain men out of the assemblies or out of the elders of local churches.

The point is that these things were already progressing towards apostasy when Paul had written the second letter to the Thessalonians, and he had said exactly that to them. Things were no different in Ephesus or in the bulk of the other churches written to in the Revelation. It doesn’t require much of an intellectual leap in order to identify or to get closer to an explanation of the other two events at Thessalonica as things were happening in the same form throughout Asia, Achaia, and likely elsewhere. There would first come a falling away, and that would be followed by the removal of the restraining one, then following that, there would be the rise of the “son of perdition.”

My suggested explanation of these other two events will follow in my next post — sometime at the end of this week. Until then, thank you for reading and studying the word of God; and please let me know what you think. Is this well thought out, or do you feel I may have erred in any part of this. Brent will continue to post his thoughts in days ahead as well.