The Return of Christ: The Great Apostasy
Many years ago, while on holiday in Italy with my father, I had the opportunity to visit Pompeii. Those who have visited there will recall a wonderful mosaic ‘doormat’ picturing a chained dog and bearing the words ‘Cave Canem’ – beware of the dog. The dog looks most vicious and unfriendly but the chain would have brought some reassurance to any callers to the house as they would have realised that the dog was being restrained. This is exactly the same imagery that we find in Revelation 20. The devil is being portrayed as being like a chained dog. He remains vicious and cruel and able to roam about with considerable freedom but he is chained. Christ, in His first coming, has bound him. This binding is for a particular purpose – ‘that he should deceive the nations no more’ (verse 3). Right now, in this period of the last days, the Gospel is going forth not just to the Jews, to Israel, but to the nations. Satan is bound in terms of his ability to keep the nations in darkness and rebellion. However, the same verse teaches that, just before the return of Christ, Satan ‘must be released for a little while’ (verse 3).
During this period, just prior to Christ’s return, when Satan is loosed the Antichrist will arise and the people of God will pass through a time of serious persecution and trouble. Coinciding with these events there will be another trial for the church – a trial which God’s people will experience not because of opposition from without but because of the subtle activity of Satan within the church. This ‘event’ – one of the particular signs – is known as the Great Apostasy.
As we try to come to terms with what the Great Apostasy is we will ask a series of questions which, hopefully, will give us a clear understanding of what this ‘event’ is.
What is Apostasy
Whilst there will be a significant falling away before Christ returns we must acknowledge that there have always been apostates within the church from the beginning. An apostate is someone who professes to be a follower of Christ but who, after a period of time, falls away from their outward profession and turns aside from the church and from the things of God. We know, of course, that it is impossible to fall away from Christ if a true work of grace has been wrought in our hearts – John 10:28 & 29. But we also know that there are men and women who claim to be followers of Jesus but who do not persevere to the end and are ultimately seen to be false professors. Jesus reminds us of such people in the parable of the soils where the seed that falls on the stony ground and the seed that falls among the thorns represent those who claim to be followers of Jesus but who through time wither and fade and die (Mark 4:1 to 20). Judas, one of the Twelve, is probably the most notable example of someone who apostatizes.
What is the Great Apostasy?
It is clear from Matthew 24 (verses 5, 10 and 11) that before Jesus comes there will be a significant falling away. 2 Thessalonians 2:3 is probably the clearest passage in this regard. Here Paul is trying to reassure believers who are troubled that they have missed out on the Parousia. During the course of his pastoral counsel to them he mentions that there are certain things that will occur before Jesus comes one of which is ‘the falling away’ (verse 3).
Later in the same passage he goes on to speak about the Man of Sin or the Antichrist further reminding us of the close proximity between his rise, a time of great tribulation for the church and the Great Apostasy.
How can you recognize an apostate
From our human perspective it is very difficult to recognise an apostate. It is even more difficult to discern whether someone who has ‘fallen away’ is an apostate or a backslider. Would you or I have been successful in sussing out Judas if we had been following him around with the other disciples and Jesus? Perhaps John 12 gives us a clue as to one of the things that might be considered the ‘mark’ of the apostate. Here, in this beautiful passage, Mary of Bethany is anointing Jesus in preparation for his burial. It’s an act of extravagant love and devotion on Mary’s part. However Judas is incensed by what he observes. Rather than being moved by Mary’s devotion he is alarmed at what he considers to be extravagant waste. He does not see the inner, spiritual significance of what is happening but is preoccupied with the outward. Apostates are those who move about in church circles, use our vocabulary and give the impression of active involvement in kingdom work. Yet, often that involvement is quite ‘churchy’ – a preoccupation with structures and church business rather than with deeper spiritual issues. The comment of Martyn Lloyd-Jones on Hebrews 6: 4-6 is relevant at this point:
What we are told about these people is not that they are regenerate, not that they are justified, not that they are reconciled to God; but that they have had certain experiences which have brought them into the Church and made them think, and made everyone else think, that they were truly Christian. They had claimed to believe the truth; they had had some remarkable experiences in the realm of the Church together with others, some indeed may have had some of the miraculous gifts. But all this does not necessarily prove that a man is a Christian, that he is regenerate.
How are We to respond apostasy
Often a consideration of these themes has an adverse affect on the true people of God. Genuine believers are concerned about their relationship with Christ, and those who are in danger of falling away remain careless and unmoved. How can I be sure that I am a genuine believer? More significantly, in relation to our studies in the Return of Christ, how do I know that I will be able to stand when Satan is unbound? This counsel might seem rather pedestrian and unsensational but there are really two things you need to do as you consider the Great Apostasy. Firstly, you must keep close to Christ, His people and His Word – what our forefathers would have called ‘the diligent use of the means of grace’. Daily nurture of our souls is vital. Regular meeting with God’s people is essential. Secondly, ‘bathe’ in the promises of God’s Word. Consider John10:28 & 29 and Philippians 1:6. Meditate on Jude’s doxology. Remember A W Pink. On entering a shop in Stornoway he is reputed to have been asked: ‘How are you keeping, Mr Pink?’ His reply: ‘It’s God who does the keeping’.
Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, to God our Saviour, Who alone is wise, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever. Amen.