Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
Although Jesus does not use that exact word, there can be no doubt that in Matthew 24:24, He sets forth the truth about the Antichrist: “For there shall arise false christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders, insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.” Jesus teaches that another sign of the end of the world will be the coming of Antichrist. That Jesus refers to that which the church has always called “Antichrist” is evident, first, from the fact that “false christs” are the same as “antichrists.” In the word “false christs” (one word in the Greek), the idea, “antichrists,” is implied. Second, the text links “false christs” with “false prophets,” and Scripture elsewhere teaches that a false prophet will be intimately related to the Antichrist. Third, one is struck by the text’s ascribing “great signs and wonders” to the false christs and the false prophets. II Thessalonians 2 teaches that the Lawless One comes “after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders” (v. 9). Fourth, Jesus stresses that the false christs intend to deceive men, particularly the elect. Speaking of the revelation of the Antichrist, II Thessalonians 2:10 states that he comes with “all deceivableness of unrighteousness” and that in connection with his coming, God will send many men a “strong delusion, that they should believe a lie.” So, it is plain that we are now confronted with the biblical doctrine of the Antichrist.
The truth about the Antichrist is too extensive and too important to be treated in one article. Scripture is detailed in its treatment of Antichrist, and it makes clear that the appearance of Antichrist is a tremendously significant event at the end of time. Therefore, we will consider the Bible’s teaching on the Antichrist in several articles, looking closely not only at Matthew 24 but also at the prophecy of Daniel,Revelation 13, and II Thessalonians 2.
Two things strike us as peculiar in Jesus’ reference to Antichrist in Matthew 24. First, He speaks of them in the plural, whereas we are accustomed to speak of one Antichrist. Second, He calls them “falsechrists,” whereas it is common with us to speak of “Anti-christ.”
When we look through the Scriptures, we discover that several different names are used for the reality that we commonly call Antichrist. II Thessalonians 2 calls him the “man of sin, the son of perdition, and that wicked.” Revelation 13 rather speaks of “the beast.” John’s epistles speak of “antichrist” and “antichrists.” The name that Jesus uses is “false christs.” In this name is the word “Christ.” “Christ” means “anointed” and describes someone who has been appointed and qualified for a certain work in the world on behalf of God. A word that means the very same as “Christ” is the word “Messiah.” “Messiah,” or “Christ,” is the title of one whose work it is to redeem God’s people from sin and death and to renew the creation as God’s kingdom of righteousness and peace. The one who is this Christ is Jesus. He is God’s Anointed, the Servant of Jehovah. The confession of the church through the ages has been this: Jesus is the Christ. He is the Christ in distinction from all other, pretender messiahs. He is the Christ and He only.
A false Christ, therefore, is one who claims to be the redeemer and world-savior, but is not. His claim is a lie. By his lying claim, the false Christ denies Jesus Christ. A false Christ is necessarily an antichrist. This is the name that the apostle John uses. In fact, it is only in John’s epistles that we find the word “antichrist.” In I John 2:18, we read: “Little children, it is the last time; and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time.” Verse 22 of this chapter identifies antichrist as “he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ.” I John 4:1-3 also mentions antichrist: “Beloved, believe not every spirit…. Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world. ”
Literally, an antichrist is a man who is againstChrist, that is, against the one and only Christ of God, Jesus. This name sets forth the essence of Antichrist: he is opposed to Christ. He is against Christ personally; he is against Christ’s body, the church; he is against Christ’s Word, Holy Scripture. But Christ is the revelation and servant of God. The hostility of Antichrist to Christ is, therefore, ultimately enmity against God. He is anti-God. Although he leaves the impression with people that he is motivated by love for the world, by humanitarianism, and although his deeds, superficially considered, seem to support this, it is not love that really moves him, but hatred. The one, main, driving force in all his being and activity is opposition to Christ as God’s Man in the world, hatred for Jesus as God in the flesh. In his opposition, he usurps Jesus’ place and presents himself as the legitimate Christ.
All of this is implied in the name, “false christs.”
But Jesus speaks of more than one antichrist: “falsechrists.” To understand this, we must take note of the fact that there is a coming of Antichrist. It is especially John who instructs us concerning this in the passages that we have already quoted, although Paul also mentions this. In I John 2:18, John writes, according to the original Greek, that the church has heard that antichrist “comes“—not “shallcome,” but “comes.” There is an ongoing process throughout history. Nineteen hundred years ago already, it was the case that Antichrist was in the process of coming. This process of coming involves the presence of many antichrists. Paul teaches the same thing in II Thessalonians 2. He writes in verse 7 of the mystery of iniquity which is working in the world to produce the Antichrist and states that this mystery of iniquity was already present and active in the world over nineteen hundred years ago, in the time of the apostles.
Already in Old Testament times, but especially from the moment of Christ’s ascension into heaven, Antichrist has been coming. The great world-kingdom with its mighty, but wicked, leader will not drop out of the blue. In the future, Antichrist will come fully, but only as the result of gradual development and as the culmination of a long process.
The constant activity in the world to produce Antichrist is that of the spirit of Antichrist, according to I John 4:1-3. There is a personal, crafty, powerful spirit at work in the world in every area of human life, and that spirit is Satan. But he is at work as the spirit of Antichrist, as the spirit that aims at and works for one thing: Antichrist. Here, by the way, you see the formal similarity, the striking parallel, of Christ and Antichrist. Just as Christ has His Spirit, the Holy Spirit, who functions as the Spirit of Christ to realize the Kingdom of Christ, so does Antichrist have his spirit, the devil, who functions on behalf of Antichrist.
The many false christs, or antichrists, are the men and women, raised up by the devil throughout history, who oppose Jesus Christ, present themselves as redeemers and saviors in Christ’s place, and thus prepare the way for the real Antichrist. They are the many forerunners of the Antichrist. Such were Nebuchadnezzar and Antiochus Epiphanes in the old dispensation. Such were the Caesars of the Roman Empire. Since heretical preachers and religious teachers serve the interests of the false christs by their denial that Jesus is the Christ, John refers to them too as antichrists. Today, as in John’s day, the world is swarming with antichrists. All those who deny that Jesus is God in the flesh, that He was born of a virgin, and that He was raised bodily from the dead are antichrists. All those who propagate the message of humanism, that man saves himself and that man himself is mankind’s only hope, no matter how the message is worded and no matter where it is preached, whether in churches, schools, newspapers, or whatever, are antichrists. They are, all of them, part and parcel of the coming of Antichrist.
Just as with Antichrist, so with all of the false christs: they come to deceive. This is their purpose; this is their activity; this is their threat. Because Jesus wanted to warn His disciples against the deceitfulness of these enemies, He called them by the name that He did, “false christs.” Jesus had a practical purpose in mind: to alert us to the tactics and power of Antichrist. Antichrist does not come openly showing his bristling hatred for Christ and the church. He comes with smooth lies. He comes with religious terminology, even the language of old orthodoxy. He operates, especially against the church, by deceit. He is false. He does not say, “There is no Christ and no salvation and no God; I the Bible is all a fraud and the hope of believers, a mad delusion.” But I he says, “Of course, there is a Christ and a God and a salvation, but I am that Christ, and ideal mankind is that God, and an earthly life free from war and poverty is that salvation.”
Jesus spoke of Antichrist’s power to deceive in the last part of the verse: “insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.” I Here, the aim of the false christs is given. Really, the one goal of all the being and labor of Antichrist, all his splendor and achievements, all his heresies and lawlessness is this: deceive, and thus destroy, the church of Jesus Christ. This is the one great ambition of the mighty spirit behind Antichrist, asRevelation 12:17 teaches: “and the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed; which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.”
It is significant that the objects of Antichrist’s wicked designs are called “the elect” by Jesus. Antichrist consciously seeks to destroy the elect. If you would ask him, “Whom do you desire to deceive and destroy,” he would answer: “the elect of God.” Of course, he is ignorant of their identity; God has not given him a peek into the Lamb’s book of life. So, he must seek them out by their manifestation of election in their confession of Jesus Christ and obedience to God’s law. But he seeks the elect, and he seeks them exactly because they are the elect, or chosen, of God. These he desires to destroy spiritually because, fundamentally, he is against God and His Christ. He cannot reach into heaven to assault God, there. He cannot anymore lay hands on Jesus the Christ on God’s right hand. But he knows that the elect church are the body of Jesus, so that to touch them is to touch Jesus. He knows that the elect are the chosen of God, eternally loved and destined for life and glory in God’s Kingdom, so that to destroy one of them would be to wound and defeat God.
Not only is this the purpose of the false christs, it would also be the result, “if it were possible.” Strong words, these. Not to terrify the elect; as if there were the smallest possibility that one of the elect be deceived (there is no such possibility) but to warn us of the power of the foe, so that we be on guard and so that we exert ourselves—now, today—against the powerful deception.
If you ask, “How do the false christs deceive?” the answer is: primarily, by the word of the lie, i.e., by the preaching of false doctrine. Jesus indicated this in the text when He associated “false prophets” with the false christs. As we saw in an earlier article, false prophets are preachers and religious teachers who proclaim heresies. Working in the Christian churches, but standing in the service of the church’s great enemy, they direct men’s attention away from God’s Word, Holy Scripture, to various words of men; away from God’s heavenly Kingdom to man’s earthly kingdom; away from God’s power, grace; to man’s own abilities; away from the second coming of Christ to certain earthly goals.
Contemporary signs and wonders
In support of this false word, the Antichrist does great signs and wonders, i.e., miracles. These will not be mere magical tricks, but astounding deeds that defy explanation in terms of ordinary human power. The power manifested in these miracles will be the enormous power of the devil. The devil will empower the false christs and false prophets to do “lying wonders,” as II Thessalonians 2:9 calls them, i.e., miracles done in the service of the lie, and to call fire out of heaven; as Revelation 13 teaches. Because of, these miracles, many will acknowledge Antichrist as Christ and will worship him as divine.
Secure by the Word
Does this leave the elect believer defenseless? Not at all. He will be able to identify and reject Antichrist, as now he is able to identify and reject the many false christs and false prophets by the Word of God, Holy Scripture. Antichrist is a liar. He contradicts the Scriptures, openly and plainly. The man or woman who knows and loves the truth of Scripture can easily detect him and see through his deceitfulness, and such a man or woman will certainly reject him. The defense of the church is the Word of God.
The Word is a sure defense. Antichrist will fail. His failure is certain because he opposes God, the Almighty. God stands over against this creature, not struggling for mastery but laughing and having that speck of dust in derision. Antichrist’s failure is certain because he pits himself against Jesus the Christ. Christ has died and risen again. He sits in sovereign power on God’s right hand as. Lord of lords, Antichrist included. ”
Antichrist will fail as regards his purpose to deceive the elect. Jesus teaches this when he says, “if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.” “If it were possible!” That is, it is not possible. It is not possible to deceive one elect. For they are the chosen of God. Their salvation is as sure as God’s eternal decree. Their salvation depends only upon God and His love. Since He is almighty, unchangeable, and faithful; their salvation is sure.
This is the comfort of the believing people of God in the midst of the great spiritual conflict now going on. This is their strength to withstand Christ’s enemy.