2 Thessalonians 2:11 “. . . A Working of Error”

By Jim R. Everett

There are none so blind as they who will not see!

Jesus said, “If any man will do his will (literally, if any-one wishes to do his will), he shall know of the doctrine …” (John 7:17). If our understanding and exegesis of 2 Thessalonians 2:11 should be incorrect, this much we know for sure  before a man can know, he must want to know and the man who does not want to know will never under-stand.

What power does Satan really have? In view of the clarity of truth, how can Satan deceive? How can man avoid being deceived by his lies? What does the phrase “working of error” mean? How can it be said that God gives man a “working of error”? Is God responsible for man’s being lost?

It is critical, in the study of this text, that we maintain a proper, balanced concept of the sovereignty of God and the free will of man. God rules, but he does not rule in a monothetic manner; that is, his will, in the existence of time, is not “one single element” but he restrains his will to allow man the freedom to choose. For instance, 1 Timothy 2:4 expresses his will  he wishes that all men be saved. Not all men will be saved though, because most men do not want to do God’s will. In harmony with that understanding, we accept the truth that God’s message has two effects on the hearts of free men. It opens the receptive heart  case in mind, Lydia, whose heart the Lord opened (Acts 16:14). It hardens the rebellious heart  consider the Jews of Jesus time (Matt. 13:10-15). In this way it can be said that God hardens men’s hearts, but we understand that it is done indirectly  it is done through his message which offers grace. God created both hearts good and in neither instance did he operate on them contrary to the aspirations of either.

When Isaiah had been sent to Judah, God told him that the message would be met with a hardness of heart and blindness of eyes. Both Judah and the Jews of Jesus’ time could not understand the message, because they did not want to understand. In whatever way we may seek to ex-plain this text, no lost man can ever lay the fault for his condition at God’s feet.

The focus of attention in this study on 2 Thessalonians2:11, is on the phrase “a working of error.” The immediate text (2 Thess. 2:9-12) presents God’s dealings with hearts already hardened, hearts that do not want to believe and do not love the truth. That is clearly demonstrated in Paul’s statements: “. . . because they received not the love of the truth …” (v. 10), “… believed not the truth . . . but had pleasure in unrighteousness” (v. 12). Understanding the phrase “a working of error” cannot be divorced from an understanding of the immediate context in its general con-text with remote contexts interwoven. That procedure will be followed here.

Verses 1-8

In the general context, Paul began by referring to the “coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 1). Then he says that Christ’s coming will not happen until the man of sin be revealed and a falling away occur (v. 3). He follows those predictions with a description of the behavior of the “son of perdition” and an alignment of him with Satan as his source of power to deceive (vv. 4-9). His most effective ploy has been and will always be the lie. Note that in the Greek verse 11 says specifically “the” lie. This is exactly how he deceived Eve in the beginning (cf. Gen. 3:1).

Verses 9-12

The immediate context (vv. 9-12), presents a conflict between the truth and the lie, which is really a conflict between God and Satan. There also existed a heart problem here, because there were hearts which “loved not the truth” and “loved the pleasures of unrighteousness.” Who wins the struggle between truth and lies in men’s lives depends upon the heart’s aspirations.

That Satan has power enabling him to deceive man is obvious  “Even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, and with all deceivableness of unrighteousness” (vv. 9-10a).

Is he able to work real miracles, to do real signs? Notice first that Paul calls Satan’s wonders “lying wonders,” or, literally, “wonders of a lie.” Next, he identifies those miracles with “deceivableness of unrighteousness,” or, literally, “all deceit of unrighteousness” (v. 10a). The Thessalonians would remember that when Paul first came to them his preaching was not of “deceit, nor of uncleanness nor in guile” (1 Thess. 2:3). Such methods are associated with Satan but never with God and his servants.

John says of the land beast: “And he doeth great wonders … and deceiveth them that dwell on the earth by the means of those miracles which he had power to do in the sight of the beast . . .” (Rev. 13:13-14). One way Satan deceives is by his ability to imitate God’s signs by magic and sorcery. Simon the sorcerer knew the difference between his sorcery and Philip’s signs (Acts 8:11-13). Pharaoh’s magicians admitted their inability to match God’s miracles  they also knew the difference (Exod. 8:1-19). If God allowed Satan to do real miracles, he would nullify the witness of his own miracles to verify truth (cf. Mark 16:20; Heb. 2:3-4).

In harmony with our text’s presentation of Satan’s lying signs and wonders, a close parallel could be made to those who, currently, are blindly following the gospel of health and wealth. In spite of the fact that many of those preachers have been exposed as frauds who have no power from God to work miracles, millions are being deceived. Why? Many, plagued with debilitating diseases are desperately grasping for some hope of cure. Others are deluded by promises of wealth. Both are easily duped by skilled charlatans who are nothing more than manipulative magicians. No doubt some of these teachers have deceived themselves into believing that God actually is working through them. Others merely perform in order to accumulate treasures, but Satan can deceive only the heart which does not love truth.

Verses 10-12

There are two statements used by Paul which mean, essentially, the same thing  “they received not the love of the truth” (v. 10), and “they had pleasure in unrighteousness” (v. 12). Understanding this restrains one from blaming God for the condition of the heart and resulting damnation. They did not believe the truth because they did not want it, and they did not want it, because they had pleasure in unrighteousness. The result of their lack of love for truth is covered by the words “perish,” and “damned.”

Verse 11

The phrase “working of error” (2 Thess. 2:11) can be understood as being done by God either indirectly or directly. We have observed previously in this study that God’s message for good has a bad effect on hearts that are unreceptive. In this way, God can be said to have hardened hearts by his requirements of men. However, in this context the word “send” suggests activity on the part of God. It is something God does as a consequence of their having Measure in unrighteousness. How God dealt with Pharaoh serves as a model in history which demonstrates the truth affirmed in 2 Thessalonians 2:11. In Pharaoh’s case God operated upon a heart already hardened by Pharaoh’s own aspirations.

It is said that Pharaoh hardened his heart but it is also said that God hardened his heart (Exod. 7:11-14, 22; 8:12-15, 19, 32; 9:32-35; 10:1-2, 20, 27; cf. Rom. 9:17-18). In an analysis of all the statements made, it appears to me, that not only did God’s message harden Pharaoh’s heart but that after Pharaoh initially hardened his heart, God made him obstinate in order to demonstrate clearly his power (note Exod. 6:1; 7:3-4; 8:22; 10:1-2; 14:3-4, 17-18). Though he could have delivered Israel without any signs or, for that matter at any point in time, he wanted both the Egyptians and the Israelites to know, beyond any doubt, that he was The Almighty. It was necessary that Pharaoh not let Israel go until God had demonstrated his mighty power.

God also affected Nebuchadnezzar’s heart without violating his freedom to choose (Dan. 4:1-37). Though Nebuchadnezzar had been warned by Daniel’s interpretation of his dream about the stump, twelve months later Nebuchadnezzar exalted himself in his pride and God did exactly what he said he would. “Let his heart be changed from man’s, and let a beast’s heart be given unto him and let seven times pass over him . . . till thou know that the Most High ruleth in the kingdoms of men” (Dan. 4:16, 25b).

Establishing those truths makes it easier to understand, not only the meaning of the phrase “working of error,” but also, what God does to the hearts of those who do not want to believe his truth. “Working of error” (NKJV) means “an active power of misleading” (Vincent, 4:67), or “. . . the energy or working that belongs to error” (Lenski, 431). It is true, as we have already observed, that God allows men to believe and practice wrong (cf. Rom. 1:24, 25, 26, 28); however, “send” (pempei, Greek) is not permissive but active. We would never be justified in concluding from this context that error is God’s creation, for that would violate the very nature of God. Rather, errors authored by Satan (cf. John. 8:44), are used by God for those who have actually chosen to do the will of their father, Satan.

When man wants to believe a lie, when he has no love of truth, when he has pleasure in unrighteousness, not only will God allow that but he will also send error’s energy into such a heart that it might believe the lie and be damned. No stronger warning could compel us to love and seek truth above all else.

Guardian of Truth XL: 4 p. 14-15
February 15, 1996