by Clay Watts

"Avoiding The Great Deception"

This study explores the possibility that believers can be deceived by adhering to a single-minded interpretation of prophetic end times events—and how to avoid it.

For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect-- if that were possible.

Matthew 24:24


These questions form the outline for this study:

Could It Really Be Possible To Deceive the Elect?

The Greek phrase, "if that were possible," is used in several other verses.

Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will." Matthew 26:39

Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus to avoid spending time in the province of Asia, for he was in a hurry to reach Jerusalem, if possible, by the day of Pentecost. Acts 20:16

When daylight came, they did not recognize the land, but they saw a bay with a sandy beach, where they decided to run the ship aground if they could. Acts 27:39

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Romans 12:18

What has happened to all your joy? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. Galatians 4:15


In each case, the sense is that the event is technically possible, although it may be difficult to see how it will come about. In Acts 20:16, for example, Paul subsequently went to Jerusalem for Pentecost, although with much trouble, and the trip ultimately cost him his life. Also, there are many other scriptures warning believers to prepare so that they will not be deceived (see the study "A Prophetic View of Christ's Second Coming"). Therefore, we should take seriously the possibility of the elect being deceived, even though we know that the grace of Christ will ultimately preserve us.  We should never presume on his grace, of course, but should pursue every measure to be prepared.


How Can Paradigms Lead to Deception?

Christians use paradigms (models or rules by which we process information) to interpret the scriptures. Many of these paradigms are essential to the Christian faith. For example, one useful paradigm is that every scripture is given by the Holy Spirit through godly men for our instruction (2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 1:21). This paradigm implies that even though the scriptures reflect the human writer's characteristics, the Holy Spirit is speaking God's words to us, not man's words. We therefore can take the essential meaning of the words as coming directly from God himself. This paradigm allows us to not get caught up in "higher criticism" that whittles away at the authenticity of the scriptures while ignoring God's ability to use imperfect vessels for his perfect purpose. Sincere Christians validate this paradigm through their personal experiences with God's word. They know in their spirits that God speaks to them practical words of love and wisdom throughout every book and verse of the Bible.

There are other paradigms, however, that can lead to problems. One such paradigm might be that all scriptures have a particular interpretation that provides, implies, or supports a doctrinal position. Much instructional scripture should be looked at through this paradigm, but the mere description of historical events and future events should not. The famous stories of the Old and New Testaments have many lessons for us and may be used to illustrate doctrinal positions, but they do not in themselves contain doctrine. For example, the story of the apostles choosing a replacement for Judas before being filled with the Holy Spirit may be used as an illustration of presumption but does not necessarily give doctrinal direction on how to choose a leader. However, Paul's instruction to Timothy on the qualifications of elders is intended to provide such guidance and may be taken as doctrine.

Likewise, end times prophecies which depict future events do not necessarily contain doctrine. However, we are so accustomed to using biblical stories to illustrate principles of doctrine that we often feel obliged to build doctrinal positions from end times prophecy.

One of the most common examples of this is the use of end times prophecies to establish, or support, various positions on when the rapture will occur. This is not harmful if we understand that such positions are speculative and merely represent possible scenarios. However, using the paradigm of interpreting stories and events to support doctrine, many such positions unwittingly are treated as equivalent to doctrine. There are, in fact, conservative denominations or groups who hold a particular view of the rapture as a doctrinal requirement. However, we must be very careful in dealing with unfulfilled end times prophecies. Detailed interpretations resulting in specific scenarios are only possibilities and should not be taken as infallible doctrine.

To illustrate the danger, suppose one believes, as a matter of doctrine, that the rapture will occur prior to the antichrist being revealed. If end times events do not play out exactly this way, then the believer is placed in the uncomfortable position of claiming that a specific person cannot be the antichrist, while there might be massive evidence to the contrary, simply because the believer is still on the earth!

Another paradigm that leads to similar problems is "there is one interpretation but many applications of a scripture." This typically means that there is one basic meaning of the words, but the principle can be applied in many situations. Again, this is valid for instructional scriptures and even historical stories. However, with end times prophecy, there can be multiple interpretations, depending, for example, on whether the prophecy is literal or figurative. A good example of the difficulty in supporting one interpretation is Matthew 24:40-41.

Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.

Like many other parables, the interpretation is not given explicitly so that the hearer will have to use discernment. But interpreters have many different meanings about who is left and who is taken. Is this something that should be clear to us, or is it an example of prophetic scripture that will only become clear in the light of fulfillment? Given this uncertainty, is it appropriate to use a particular interpretation to support a doctrinal position about end times?


What Kind of Deception Is This Verse Talking About?

God is able to preserve and protect his people from all forms of danger and error. Then why would he say that in end times there would be deception so great that if possible even the elect could be deceived? Does God intend to tempt his people to see if they are paying attention? Does he want to threaten us to make us draw closer to him?

No, the answer is that God is a loving God, and he wants us to know what is coming so that we can prepare. He is warning us about the enemy's tricks so we can defeat him by turning his devices back on him and pulling down his strongholds.

But we have to be aware of Satan's devices. We need to know what he is up to and be able to discern clearly what spirits are working to deceive us. Several kinds of deceit are mentioned in the Bible in relation to end times, such as the following:

  • the deceit of wicked men who without shame try to lead others astray into sin
  • those who appear to be religious but appeal to the flesh
  • those who subtly pervert the gospel by preaching well but actually denying Jesus as God in the flesh

Woven throughout these kinds of deceit is a fundamental deception that preys on the elect's desire to see things happen in a predictable, visible way (signs and miracles), not willing to wait for God's perfect timing, and ignoring explicit warnings to the contrary. By expecting events to occur in a certain way, we unwittingly open ourselves to deception. Instead, we need to be patient, knowledgeable of the scriptures, and willing to accept God's way of prophetic fulfillment, however much it may differ from our own preconceptions.


What Are Some Examples of Deception From Which We Can Learn?

There are a number of examples of this type of deceit. By examining these in detail we can derive some principles that will allow us to avoid similar traps.

  • Eve -- couldn't imagine "death"
  • Sarah -- wanted a family her way
  • Golden Calf -- was worshipped in spite of mighty signs from God
  • Joshua -- didn't inquire of the Lord
  • Saul -- gave the people what they wanted
  • Balaam -- one of the most subtle deceptions
  • Modern Israel -- experienced consequences of faith in oneself
  • Job -- overcame Satan's deception through "blind faith"
  • Temptation of Christ -- Jesus' warnings about deception


How Can the Elect Avoid Deception?

As the examples above show, it is very tempting to want to cling to what is familiar and definite, especially if it is in line with the lifestyle we have come to expect. Although we don't like to admit it, we really would like to put God in a box made from our own abilities to conceive precise systems of interpretation. However, God is not only "bigger than all our problems and fears"--he is also bigger than our imaginations and finely reasoned charts with sequences of events that "must" take place.

We need to be knowledgeable of these prophetic scriptures and use our imagination--not to develop single-minded scenarios--but to practice flexibility and openness to what God may do. The wonder of prophecy is that God is going to fulfill a large number of scriptures in a very precise way, and yet in a very creative way that no man would ever devise. If he wanted simply to tell us precise events, he would not use metaphors and mysterious language. Instead, he wants us to get our eyes off the events and focus on him. We can be fooled by people and events, but we will not be deceived if we keep our gaze on him.

In order to filter through the large number of events that will rapidly transpire in the last days, however, we need to be knowledgeable of the scriptures so that we may know we are on the right track and then know what our response should be as we come upon clear milestones. This is where many missed it, at least for a time, at Christ's first coming. They were not open and flexible enough to see prophecies being fulfilled in ways that differed from their preconceptions, even though the precise scriptures were put before them. And therefore, they acted in very inappropriate ways, from not fully recognizing or appreciating him, to ultimately causing his death.

So neither scripture knowledge will do without openness, nor will openness do without knowledge. Both are necessary to bring events into focus so that God's people may know that the time is right for action. There are times to be passive and times to be aggressive, and we need to know when each is needed. Only an intimate awareness of end times scripture can provide the framework to interpret prophetic events as they occur. And then only an intimacy with the Holy Spirit can give us the ability to step out in faith to do not what we expect, but what he directs.



Who Are “the Elect"?

Matthew is referring to God's elect, or chosen ones, who believe in Jesus Christ as their savior. These are the ones who will be with him in heaven:

And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other. Matthew 24:31

The "elect" is not an exclusive group that God chooses because they are perfect. They are people who believe that God's Son, Jesus, died for their sins, taking the punishment on himself, and then rose from the dead to conquer sin once and for all. All they have to do is ask forgiveness for their sins, confess Jesus Christ as their Lord, and then choose to turn from their sins by following the Word of God. As they do this, they realize they have been chosen, or elected, by God’s grace to be in his family, and ultimately to live with him forever.

If you would like to be one of God's elect, you just have to pray to him, right now, that you believe in Jesus as God's Son, that he died for your sins, and that he rose from the dead so that you don't have to die for your sins, but that instead you can have eternal life with him. Ask forgiveness for your sins. Commit to God that you are turning from your sins. Proclaim that Jesus is Lord of your life, and that you will do everything you can to learn about his Word and obey it. You may slip and fall from time to time, but you will get back up, ask forgiveness, and do your best to keep on living for God. Now thank him for giving you this new, eternal life, and for making you part of his chosen family.


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Copyright 2005 by Clay Watts, Dallas, Texas. All rights reserved.


















deceit of wicked men

Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God's wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Ephesians 5:6

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Ephesians 4:14










those who appear to be religious

For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. 2 Timothy 4:3-4

"Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. Matthew 7:15

At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Matthew 24:10-11

For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect-- if that were possible. See, I have told you ahead of time. Matthew 24:24-25












those who subtly pervert the gospel

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. Colossians 2:8

For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough...For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. 2 Corinthians 11:4,13

But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them-- bringing swift destruction on themselves. 2 Peter 2:1

Jesus answered: "Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, 'I am the Christ,' and will deceive many. Matthew 24:4-5















The first example is Eve's deception in the garden of Eden (Genesis 3:1-6) . Eve had no concept of death, and probably could not begin to imagine what it meant. She had never seen anything die. Everything around her was for good. Therefore, when the serpent twisted God's words, he had a sympathetic ear. Eve was very willing to believe him since what he was saying fit her idea, or paradigm, of the world. The fruit certainly was good for food, pleasant to the eye, and it certainly would give her the knowledge of good and evil, as the serpent said. Tragically, she let these immediate gratifications mislead her into believing the lie that she would not die. Her good but naive intentions were far overshadowed by her disobedience of God's explicit warning.

Her deception was then compounded when Adam saw that she did not die and assumed that God's warning must not be valid because the results that he was expecting did not occur. She and her husband paid the ultimate price for refusing to take God's word on simple faith and instead were led astray by their own twisted ideas of what God's word said.



Another example of twisting God's prophetic word to suit our own preconceptions is Sarah's decision to build a family through her maidservant (Genesis 16:1-6) . Her unwillingness to wait for God's timing and his way has created centuries of conflict for God's people through the descendants of Hagar. This example shows that even the elect are susceptible to deception through their desire to see God's will fulfilled by their own efforts. Many have caused grief for themselves and their families by trying to help God and acting prematurely on a prophetic word. (Another famous example of this is Rebekah trying to make sure that Jacob would receive his father's blessing.)


Golden Calf

Another example from the Pentateuch is when the people thought that Moses was not coming back from Mount Sinai and instead began to worship the idols of Egypt (Exodus 32:1-8) . They had just seen many signs and wonders, yet out of their impatience to have things happen in a way they could understand, they reverted to their old ways. Aaron even tried to excuse what he did by mixing the pagan idol worship with a festival and offerings to the Lord. This is particularly sobering to Christians today, because in spite of the intensity of God's presence in the midst of the Israelites, the deception was that much stronger, undoubtedly because the people had seen God perform mighty miracles when they seemed to need them the most. When they were hungry he sent an abundance of food. When they were thirsty he caused water to flow from a rock. Even their enemies were routed supernaturally through Moses' uplifted hands. When God seemed to have deserted them for a time, they wouldn't accept it and immediately sought other sources of comfort, in direct disobedience to God's word. God always warns his people when they are about to be tempted, but too often they ignore the warnings and instead seek to have things happen to suit their own interpretation of his express will.



Another instructive example is the Gibeonite deception (Joshua 9:3-19) . Joshua and "the men of Israel did not inquire of the Lord," but made a treaty with a tribe that they should have destroyed. The Hivites were one of several tribes that continued to be a thorn in Israel's side.



An even more sobering example is that of Saul, who was anointed king by Samuel (1 Samuel 13:11-14) . He began very humbly, chosen sovereignly by God to lead the rebellious people who had rejected God's leadership. This was the source of the deception. The people had a preconceived idea of how they should be delivered from their calamities and distress. They wanted a king like the other nations, a visible sign of power and authority, rather than relying on God by faith. Therefore, their king had a similar fault. When confronted with a serious situation, with the enemy pressing him, Saul acted impulsively, against the command of God's servant, to appease the people and to take matters into his own hand that were meant to be resolved by Samuel, God's prophet. Saul's basic error was not so much disobedience as it was impatience and pride in assuming the priestly role that had been reserved for another. When the perils of end times come, we must fight against the impulse to act on our own behalf, when God's anointed representatives are there to show us the way. We must above all things be patient and sensitive to how God wants to work and not presume that he can only work in a predetermined way. The Word, in the same passage, tells to whom we should listen in times like these. Samuel's claim to credibility was that he had "not cheated or oppressed" the people, nor had he "taken anything from anyone's hand." (I Samuel 12:4)



Another famous example of deception of God's people is the prophet Balaam , who let greed overcome him to the point that he provided the Moabite king Balak with the key to deceiving Israel. Balaam's error was one that is becoming more prevalent in end times. Those who have abundant talents and skills that they initially intend to use for God often are tempted to sell out to the world for material wealth. They keep a semblance of godly behavior, but their heart is not right. Not only do these bring condemnation on themselves, but they lead others astray by telling them that they have liberty as God's chosen and blessed people to do whatever they like, as happened in the church at Pergamum. This is a very subtle deception. The Moabites knew that a frontal assault on Israel was doomed, since their God would give them victory in battle. Moab used this knowledge, with Balaam's help, to boost Israel's confidence in their own invincibility and thus render them susceptible to contamination from their inner moral weaknesses. This is the danger in Christians believing that they are so strong and invincible that they don't have to worry about the enemy. They have built up a preconception of their own status and are unwilling to recognize vulnerability and therefore do not stay on guard against the insidious attack from within.


Modern Israel

A good example of the disastrous consequences of having a preconceived "faith" in oneself is Israel's 1973 Yom Kippur war with the Arabs. The Israelis had conducted a brilliant preemptive maneuver with the 1967 Six-Day War, and began to believe that they were invincible. The enemy, however, took advantage of this delusion and came back when they were least expecting it, in just six years, and on the most holy Jewish holiday. The Jews lost a large number of men and almost did not recover. They simply were not prepared due to their idealistic view of themselves and their destiny. We must not, as Christians, fall into the same trap. Our strength does not lie in exploits of the past, or even in our confidence in prayer power and faith. Rather, our strength is in our total dependence on our Lord. We must seek daily guidance and strength from Him and not presume that He will automatically protect us just because we continue to use the same formulas and techniques that have worked in the past. He does not want us to trust in anything but Him. If we begin to weary of seeking Him afresh daily, we open ourselves to deception by a modern day Balaam who will only be too happy to confirm our invincibility and might "in the Lord" as long as we follow the magic formula.



The most famous Bible example of Satan's attempt to deceive a man in this way is the entire book of Job. In this case, Satan thought he had the perfect set-up. Job was conditioned to expect God's blessings as a result of his righteous and prosperous life. He and his associates developed a strong concept of how God worked, and they would not easily change their paradigm. The battle was particularly difficult since the preconceptions were reinforced by a natural desire for success and wealth. Job, unlike his associates, had an even stronger love for God, and, while not being able to clearly discern the nature of the deception, nevertheless was able to endure the temptation through sheer faith in God's ultimate goodness. What an example for end times saints! We can believe in God's faithfulness to reward our faith, but our ultimate trust is not in our faith, but in His faithfulness. This sounds very basic, but, as we see in Job, it is difficult in practice to trust God when things do not seem to be going the way we expect. The ultimate question is, "How big is our God?" Is he really bigger than all our problems and fears -- or by this do we mean that he is only big enough to solve them in the way and on the schedule that we expect? What we should mean is that he is so much bigger than all these things that they are insignificant compared to our trust in him.


Temptation of Christ

In Christ's temptation by Satan using scripture in Matthew 4 , Jesus demonstrated that we must guard against improper interpretation to meet ungodly motives. We must know the complete Word of God to not be deceived.















Genesis 3:1-6

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?" The woman said to the serpent, "We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, 'You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.'" "You will not surely die," the serpent said to the woman. "For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.












Gen 16:1-6

Now Sarai, Abram's wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar; so she said to Abram, "The LORD has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family through her." Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian maidservant Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived. When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, "You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my servant in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the LORD judge between you and me." "Your servant is in your hands," Abram said. "Do with her whatever you think best." Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.










Exod 32:1-8

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, "Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don't know what has happened to him." Aaron answered them, "Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me." So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt." When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, "Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD." So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry. Then the LORD said to Moses, "Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, 'These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.'











Josh 9:3-19

However, when the people of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and Ai, they resorted to a ruse: They went as a delegation whose donkeys were loaded with worn-out sacks and old wineskins, cracked and mended. The men put worn and patched sandals on their feet and wore old clothes. All the bread of their food supply was dry and moldy.

Then they went to Joshua in the camp at Gilgal and said to him and the men of Israel, "We have come from a distant country; make a treaty with us." The men of Israel said to the Hivites, "But perhaps you live near us. How then can we make a treaty with you?" "We are your servants," they said to Joshua. But Joshua asked, "Who are you and where do you come from They answered: "Your servants have come from a very distant country because of the fame of the LORD your God. For we have heard reports of him: all that he did in Egypt, and all that he did to the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan-- Sihon king of Heshbon, and Og king of Bashan, who reigned in Ashtaroth. And our elders and all those living in our country said to us, 'Take provisions for your journey; go and meet them and say to them, "We are your servants; make a treaty with us." ' This bread of ours was warm when we packed it at home on the day we left to come to you. But now see how dry and moldy it is. And these wineskins that we filled were new, but see how cracked they are. And our clothes and sandals are worn out by the very long journey."

The men of Israel sampled their provisions but did not inquire of the LORD. Then Joshua made a treaty of peace with them to let them live, and the leaders of the assembly ratified it by oath. Three days after they made the treaty with the Gibeonites, the Israelites heard that they were neighbors, living near them. So the Israelites set out and on the third day came to their cities: Gibeon, Kephirah, Beeroth and Kiriath Jearim. But the Israelites did not attack them, because the leaders of the assembly had sworn an oath to them by the LORD, the God of Israel. The whole assembly grumbled against the leaders, but all the leaders answered, "We have given them our oath by the LORD, the God of Israel, and we cannot touch them now.











1 Sam 13:11-14

"What have you done?" asked Samuel. Saul replied, "When I saw that the men were scattering, and that you did not come at the set time, and that the Philistines were assembling at Micmash, I thought, 'Now the Philistines will come down against me at Gilgal, and I have not sought the LORD's favor.' So I felt compelled to offer the burnt offering." "You acted foolishly," Samuel said. "You have not kept the command the LORD your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. But now your kingdom will not endure; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him leader of his people, because you have not kept the LORD's command."











Numbers 31:16

"They were the ones who followed Balaam's advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away from the LORD in what happened at Peor, so that a plague struck the LORD's people.

Revelation 2:14

Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality.

2 Pet 2:15-16

They have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Balaam son of Beor, who loved the wages of wickedness. But he was rebuked for his wrongdoing by a donkey-- a beast without speech-- who spoke with a man's voice and restrained the prophet's madness.











Matt 4:4,7,10

Jesus answered, "It is written: 'Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"...Jesus answered him, "It is also written: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"...Jesus said to him, "Away from me, Satan! For it is written: 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'"