The "Signs of the Times" (5): Apostasy
In the Old Testament prophecy of Jeremiah, there is a remarkable account of Jeremiah prophesying God's judgment upon the city of Jerusalem and the "court of the Lord's house." What is so striking about this prophecy is that it was spoken within the sanctuary of the Lord's house and pronounced the Lord's curse upon the church of Jeremiah's day. This was not an announcement of judgment upon the "enemies" of the Lord and His people, but upon the church herself for her disobedience and apostasy. We should not be surprised, therefore, to read that the response of the people was one of shock and anger. How could the prophet speak judgment against the sanctuary and house of the Lord? How could he dare to speak of the Lord's anger against and intention to make desolate what was the "apple of His eye" and the unfailing object of His favor? This was spiritual treachery on Jeremiah's part and, consequently, many called for his death! In verse 11 we are told that the priests and the prophets "spoke to the officials and to all the people, saying, 'A death sentence for this man! For he has prophesied against this city as you have heard in your hearing.'"
Reading this account in Jeremiah 26 raises the question — how would the church of Jesus Christ today respond to the prophecy of Jeremiah? It is easy to read the record as it is found in Jeremiah 26 and hold the whole matter at arm's length, as though it did not speak in any direct fashion to the circumstance of the church in our time. Indeed, there are many people who occupy positions of leadership in churches today who would probably react similarly, were a prophet to stand in their midst and decry the church's unfaithfulness, even pronouncing God's judgment against it. Such behavior would probably be regarded as troublesome and obnoxious, even impolite and unseemly. It is one thing to decry the sins of a secular and decaying culture; but it is quite another to decry the sins of the church, especially when it is done in the powerful language of the prophet Jeremiah.
But this account also reminds the church of an aspect of the Bible's teaching about the "signs of the times" that it is apt to forget. That aspect is the Bible's teaching that, among the prominent signs of the times, especially those which express opposition to the gospel of Christ, is the sign of apostasy and unfaithfulness among the people of God. Though it may be tempting to ignore, the Bible teaches that God's judgment begins with "the house of God" (1 Peter 4:17) and that apostasy has always been a feature of the church's life throughout the history of redemption. The prophecy of Jeremiah, like many such prophecies in the Word of God, should alert the church today to the continuing threat of apostasy and makes clear why, in our Lord's teaching about the signs of the times, the sign of apostasy plays such a significant role.
Apostasy as a "Sign of the Times"
In the New Testament's teaching regarding the signs of the times, apostasy among the people of God often figures prominently. It is not only mentioned expressly in those passages which enumerate the various signs of the times, but it is also implicit in many passages which warn the church against unfaithfulness, often buttressed by appeals to the example of the apostasy of the Old Testament people of God.
In the "Olivet Discourse" of Matthew 24, among the first signs of the times mentioned by the Lord is the sign of apostasy or "falling away" among the people of God. In this passage, Christ prophesies that "many will fall away, and betray one another, and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because wickedness is multiplied, most men's love will grow cold" (vv. 10-12; cf. Luke 8:13; 1 Timothy 4:1). Subsequently in the same discourse, Christ adds that "false Christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect" (v. 24). 'These verses present a sobering, even terrifying picture of the church assaulted, not simply by external enemies, but also by enemies within. Those who claim to speak for Christ within the church will actually be "anti-" Christ. And those who are numbered among the visible people of God will, in truth, be opposed to the gospel of the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ. This, together with such signs as the preaching of the gospel to all the world and tribulation, will mark the period prior to the end of the age.
There are other passages as well that speak of apostasy as a characteristic sign of the times.
The apostle Paul, for example, in his first letter to Timothy, warns his spiritual son that "the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith" (1 Timothy 4:1). This departure from the faith may well be occasioned by the pressure of the world's hostility to the gospel, for as the apostle adds in his second letter to Timothy, "in the last days difficult times will come" (2 Timothy 3:1).
Furthermore, in many of the words of exhortation, warning and encouragement in the New Testament, there are indications that apostasy will plague the people of God in this present age. In 2 Peter 3:17, believers are exhorted to "be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men." The book of Hebrews is pervaded by the theme of the church's temptation to fall away from the full truth of the new covenant, a falling away that may make it impossible for her to be restored again to repentance (cf. Hebrews 3:12; 6:6). This possibility of apostasy also undergirds the promise that God will preserve and keep His people from falling. Thus, Jude 24, that well-known doxology with which the epistle concludes, praises God as "Him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before His glorious presence without fault with great joy." It also lends urgency to the exhortation in 2 Peter 1:10, "[t]herefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things you will never fall." The danger of apostasy leads the apostle Paul to remind the Corinthians that this is one of the reasons God secured a Scriptural record of the unfaithfulness of the old covenant people of God (1 Corinthians 10:1-6).
What becomes evident in these passages is that the people of God in this present age will be severely tested and tried in respect to their allegiance to Christ and the truth of God's Word. This testing will prove the faith of some, while exposing the unbelief of others. Not all will withstand the test, but some will prove to be unfaithful. They will fall away or depart from the way of truth, the gospel of the kingdom, and this will occur among those who profess to be of Christ, even among those who are leaders and officebearers of the church! Apostasy is a sign that directly involves and affects the people of God. It is a sign of internal opposition to Christ, not of external opposition by those who make no boast of being God's people. No one should be surprised by this. It has always been a feature of the church's existence in the world short of the end of the age. And it will most certainly be a feature of the church's existence during this present period between Christ's first and second advent.
A "Great Apostasy"?
One question that arises in connection with the subject of apostasy as a sign of the times, has been addressed in our previous article on the sign of tribulation. Does the Bible teach that, like tribulation that will issue in a period of great tribulation before Christ's return, apostasy will issue in a period of great apostasy before the end comes? Do we find a similar pattern here, that there is an intensification of this sign of the times as the end draws near and the return of Christ grows more imminent?
This seems to be the case, though here again we do well not to become too dogmatic or assured of our conclusions. But there are some passages that suggest this. We have already referred to two of these passages in the foregoing. In 2 Timothy 3:1, we read of how "in the last days difficult times will come" (emphasis mine). This passage is paralleled in 1 Timothy 4:1, which warns that "the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrine of demons" (emphasis mine). 'The language employed in both of these passages seems to indicate that, as the end approaches, apostasy will become ever more evident among the people of God.
However, the clearest example of this kind of emphasis is found in 2 Thessalonians 2, a passage to which we will return in a subsequent article on the subject of the anti-Christ. In this passage the apostle Paul is seeking to allay the anxiety of some believers in Thessalonica who were shaken by the report of some that "the day of the Lord has come" (v. 2). In order to alleviate their anxiety, the apostle spells out some of the things that must take place before the day of the Lord.
For our purpose, the important thing to notice is that the apostle warns the church in Thessalonica that the day of the Lord will not come until "the apostasy1 comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction" (v.3). The language used in this text, coupled with the description offered of the "man of lawlessness" (he will evidently be someone of influence and significance within the church, for "he takes his seat in the temple of God," v. 4), intimates that there will be a period of substantial turning or falling away within the church before the coming of Christ. One of the signals that the end is approaching will be this great and unparalleled, at least from the standpoint of preceding history, unfaithfulness among the community of those who profess to be believers.2 Within the orbit of the church, a great turning away or apostasy will occur. And so the apostle warns the believers in Thessalonica against any premature conclusion that the day of the Lord has come; this day will not come until "the apostasy" occurs and the "man of lawlessness" is revealed.
The most likely conclusion that may be drawn from this passage and the others cited above is that the sign of apostasy will reach a kind of intensified and acute expression, in the period prior to the return of Christ. Just as we saw earlier that the sign of tribulation will issue in a "great" tribulation, a period of more acute distress for the people of God, so we see now that the sign of apostasy will also issue in a period of "great" apostasy, a period of more acute and widespread unfaithfulness among the people of God.
Woe to Those Who Are "at Ease in Zion"
I would like now to make some observations about the implications of this sign, the sign of apostasy, for the calling of the church of Jesus Christ today. If apostasy within the church is a sign of the times, and if the threat of apostasy may become more pressing as the time of Christ's return approaches, then there are some inescapable consequences for the people of God and the church of Jesus Christ.
First, this sign reminds us that the church's greatest enemy is not the world without or even the wily devices of the devil himself; the church's greatest enemy always arises within her own ranks! This is an aspect of the Bible's teaching about the sign of apostasy that cannot be emphasized too much. For there are many people in the church who naively believe that the church is immune today from the danger of real apostasy, actual falling away from the truth of the gospel and the Word of God. These people might be willing to concede that the church "is not perfect" and the like, but they never reckon with apostasy as a genuine threat to the well-being and witness of the church. They do not seriously reckon with the reality of apostasy from within the ranks of the church itself. They are unwilling to believe that those who claim to speak in the name of Christ, even leaders and officebearers among the people of God, may be deceived and in serious error.
Such naiveté is clearly exposed in the Word of God as foolishness. Anyone who reads the record of Israel's repeated apostasies or listens carefully to the New Testament warnings against unfaithfulness has to realize that the danger of falling away is ever-present. Indeed, such apostasy functions as a sign of times, as a signal within the unfolding purpose of God that the time is growing short and the day of the Lord is at hand.
Second, no one who takes seriously the biblical teaching about this sign of apostasy can afford the luxury of being "at ease in Zion," blithely confident that the church is a safe haven of rest in the midst of the storm and fury of history. Strange as it may seem to many, the antithesis sometimes cuts across lines within the church, as much as it separates the church from the world.
For this reason, one of the deadliest enemies of the church of Jesus Christ is the sin of institutionalism or denominationalism. Both of these "-isms" express a kind of blind and unyielding loyalty to institutions and agencies that takes precedence over loyalty to Christ and His Word. Whether rooted in nostalgia, sentiment or wishful thinking, such blind loyalty has no place in the life of a believer, certainly not in the life of a Reformed believer. And yet such blind loyalty is found seemingly on every hand.
I experienced something of this, for example, while recently speaking with an elderly member of a Reformed church that faced a decision to stay or leave a particular denomination because of its increasing departures from the Word of God and its confessions. This elderly member at one point exclaimed, "...but I could never leave my denomination; it's unthinkable; I believe in my denomination!" This is an example of the kind of misguided, even sinful loyalty many are willing to give to institutions and denominations, whether they live up to their professed commitments and convictions or not. As far as this church member was concerned, it was inconceivable that her denomination could ever become apostate or fall away from the faith.
The sign of apostasy should serve as an antidote to such thinking, warning every believer and church to beware the sin of denominationalism or institutionalism. We do not place our trust in princes, least of all ecclesiastical princes; nor do we place our trust in institutions. Our trust is in the Lord who alone will preserve His church. He will preserve His church by the working of His Spirit and Word. But He also stands ready to remove the candle-stick from any church that falls away from the faith (compare Psalm 118:8-9; Revelation 2:5).
And third, only that church which remains resolute and vigilant in the preservation of the faith has the right to claim the promise that the "gates of hell" will not prevail against her. The sign of apostasy serves as a clarion call to the church to be on guard against the temptation to fall away, to let go her rich inheritance in the Word of God and the gospel.
The landscape of history is littered with the dead corpses of once strong and vibrant churches. Many churches which once offered sturdy and uncompromising testimony to the truth of the gospel are today no more than social halls or clubs for people with left-leaning political views. They have about them the stench of death! They offer compelling testimony to the truth of our Lord's words regarding apostasy within the church.
This sign of the times ought to be a sufficient deterrent to any complacency. There is no room in a true church of Jesus Christ for smugness or self-satisfaction. The presumption that we "have arrived" or that we are "immune from falling" is just that, a presumption without any basis in the Word of God. As an older pastor once said to me, "No church can claim the promise of our Lord that it will be preserved unless it is able with integrity to sing, 'Onward Christian Soldiers, Marching as to War...'" When the apostle Paul speaks of the coming apostasy that will precede the day of the Lord, he hastens to encourage the church to "stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught ... from us" (2 Thessalonians 2:15). Unless the church remains vigilant and careful to hold fast to the apostolic Word inscripturated in the New Testament, it will become apostate and fall away from the truth.
Thus, with many of the signs of the times, the sign of apostasy speaks a word of warning and a word of encouragement. It warns the church against complacency, alerting it to the dangers faced within and without. But it also serves to remind the church that Christ will preserve a faithful people. It is interesting to notice that, when Christ speaks of apostasy in Matthew 24, He speaks of those who "show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect" (v. 24). This language, though it sounds a note of warning, carries with it also the assurance of steadfastness on the part of the elect church. Those who "make their calling and election sure" need not be afraid, for Christ will keep them in His care.