The Falling Away Was Foretold by God
A Comfort for the Pain
One of the most puzzling, frustrating and heart-rending issues in the religious world is the issue of division. If a person read the Bible carefully before becoming aware of the multiplicity of churches in the so-called “Christian” world, he would be amazed that the religion of Christendom today is made up of literally hundreds of groups with differing doctrines and practices. Just imagine: a first-century disciple is suddenly transported through time, landing in a large city today. No doubt he or she would be shocked at the technology of our generation, but perhaps a greater shock would occur when that person began looking for the church of Jesus Christ! Can you just picture the confusion and emotional pain suffered by such a misplaced disciple? In reality, anyone who has made any effort to find God has been perplexed by the existence of such a divided religious world. When we become aware of the tremendous plea that Jesus made for unity, we are even more dismayed. It has often been said that the cost of a divided Christendom is an unbelieving world. Jesus’ prayer in John 17 shows how clearly he understood this:
John 17: 20-23: My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
The only situation worse than confronting this division would be to confront it without warning. Praise God he did not leave us without warning! Being warned may not correct the departures and the division, but it does show that:
1) None of this took God by surprise.
2) He is not the author of such confusion.
3) We do not have to be a part of it!
If God stands against division, and he clearly does, then our insistence on following his inspired Word, as the early church did, cannot be wrong. Such an approach on our part is neither naive nor arrogant – it is biblical to the core!
Predicted and Predictable
Not only did God predict a departure from his Spirit-inspired message, but such a departure was humanly predictable, given the nature of both man and the universe. One of the well-recognized laws in science is the second law of thermodynamics. That law describes the way available energy is used up. Generally stated, this law demonstrates that order always gives way to disorder, unless something or someone intervenes to prevent it. Examples in our lives abound, from the condition of our yards to our desks to our physical conditioning! Without intervention and careful attention, everyone and everything simply deteriorates on a gradual but predictable basis.
Since this firmly established principle operates in the physical world, we should not be surprised that it operates just as predictably in the spiritual realm. Look back to the example of the Israelite nation in their early days. We read in one page of the Bible that they were strong in their faith, and then we turn a few pages and read that they were weakening and leaving the very principles which had blessed their lives. The Book of Judges shows this tendency over and over, as people repented, did well for a while, but then gradually lost their convictions and went backwards. This same regression is clearly seen in the first century church. As John wrote to the seven churches of Asia (Revelation chapters 1-3), he described their departure from Jesus in doctrine, practice, convictions and heart. This departure came even though the church had been led by inspired apostles and prophets, and warned about such departures by them. “First love” mellowed into lukewarmness, desire was replaced by duty, and zeal gave way to tradition and ritual. Since we are not different in our human nature and tendencies today, we must find out what in the early church lead to the falling away, and then avoid it like the plague it is. If we do not learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it!
The Specific Passages Predicting Apostasy
Numerous New Testament passages predicted falling away (apostasy). Make sure that you read both the passages and their explanations carefully, even if you think you are familiar with them. One of the basic principles of discipleship is to assume nothing! We must develop both knowledge and deep convictions if we are going to successfully wade into the morass of religious error and help other escape it.
Matthew 24:10-12: 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. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold…
In Matthew 24, Jesus describes Jerusalem’s destruction some 40 years later in 70 AD. Throughout those brief decades, false prophets would come to deceive people who might otherwise have been true followers of Jesus. As Jesus said in the previous chapter:
Matthew 23:14: You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.
Notice the progression in Matthew 24 (above). The false prophets water down the commands of God, which results in an increase of sin, which in turn leads to love for God and for each other turning cold. It is true that lukewarmness produces sin, and here Jesus tells us that sin produces lukewarmness! We have been raised in a religious atmosphere in which truth has been diluted beyond recognition. Our society is on the verge of chaos because people ignore the moral demands of God, largely because of smooth-speaking, conflict-avoiding preachers who long ago quit proclaiming God’s demands with authority and without apology. Were Jesus to preach in our society as he did on this earth nearly 2,000 years ago, the result would be the same, but most likely in less time! People would not accept the truth from Jesus and would react – especially to the forceful way he delivered it. The false prophets of this time and ours will face God for their smooth, but incredibly weak and damnable teaching.
Acts 20: 29-30: I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.
Paul, like Jesus, traces the departure from truth back to leaders in error, some within the true church. People from the ranks will not simply wander off doctrinally and start their own movement based on false teaching; it takes leaders to do that kind of damage. This explains the Bible’s numerous warnings about false teachers and leaders, and why they must be exposed and avoided.
Romans 16:17-18: I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people.
Titus 3:9-11: But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.
2 Thessalonians 2: 1-4, 8: Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brother, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us, saying that the day of the Lord as already come. Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for the day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshipped, so that he sets himself up in Gods temple, proclaiming himself to be God…. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendour of his coming.
These passages leave no doubt about evil power rising to oppose God, claiming God’s authority and God’s glory. Because the leader mentioned above identifies himself with God, he is clearly a heretical and apostate religious leader. While questions may be raised about the original application of this text, its warning applies to any group or individuals who assume a glory and power that belongs only to God. And it shows just how prone men are to wanting that exaltation by other men.
1 Timothy 4:1-3: The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth.
In this passage, Paul is very specific in both the prediction of an apostasy and in his depiction of the teachings which lead to it: “The Spirit clearly says…” These teachings were Gnostic in nature. Gnosticism (from the Greek word gnosis, for “knowledge”) was based on the belief that material things are evil; those of this persuasion were either “libertines” or “ascetics.” Libertines claimed that since the flesh was inherently evil, then one could do with the body whatever one wanted; as long as one held the right knowledge, moral behaviour mattered little. (See 2 Peter for a description of these libertines.) The latter type of Gnostic, the “ascetics,” are described in 1 Timothy 4. (See also Colossians 2: 20-23). Some people might view the prohibitions against marriage and foods as less than ideal, but not overly dangerous. God, on the other hand, traces these prohibitions back to deceiving spirits and demons! God says the people who teach these false doctrines, thus becoming pawns of the demons, are hypocritical liars with seared consciences. To downplay false doctrines is to be unlike God in heart and quite dangerous to ourselves and to others. It does take both life and doctrine to be righteous and to guide others into righteousness (1 Timothy 4:16).
2 Timothy 4:1-4: In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage-with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put 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.
Once again, we see a very clear prediction of an apostasy, showing the human tendency to water down the demands of true discipleship. Without strong convictions based on biblical authority, we naturally look for the easy ways in life. As always, there will be false teachers who are more concerned with men’s approval then with God’s approval. Those of Isaiah’s day were charged with similar motives, as they supposedly made this request of the prophets:
Isaiah 30:10: Give us no more visions of what is right! Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions
Modern men may say the same things in a more reasonable and pious way, but God is not fooled. He clearly recognizes our desire to “have it our way,” and he condemns it.
2 Peter 2:1-3: But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teacher among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them- bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their shameful ways and will bring the way of the truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.
Here again, the coming of false teachers is described. They will be secretive and deceptive about how they introduce their destructive heresies. Their influences will be widespread, and the reputation of spiritual truth will suffer. These teachers are motivated by greed as their imaginations run wild. They were libertine Gnostics whose morality was extremely worldly. A careful reading of this chapter will demonstrate that these false teachers were already at work in Peter’s time.
1 John 2:18; 4:1: Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour…Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out in the world.
The antichrist described in John’s writing was not some future world leader, as modern speculators confidently assert. Rather, many antichrists were already doing their work at the end of the first century. The letters of John show that some false teachers were denying that Jesus had been a true man, possessing a flesh-and-blood body. They are called Docetists (from dokeo, “to seem”). Gnostic beliefs had prompted them to originate the idea that Jesus was not really material (which they viewed as inherently evil), but pure spirit who “seemed” to be flesh and blood. Hence, John writes:
2 John 1:7: Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist.
These passages, and others like them, make it abundantly clear that a falling away from the revealed truth of God would occur. This apostasy was beginning in the latter part of the first century and was led by false teachers espousing a variety of errors. Doctrines related to Gnosticism (condemned in the Scriptures) led to certain practices in the Roman Catholic Church. Since these false doctrines were resisted strongly by the Spirit-inspired apostles and prophets of the first century, they must be resisted with the same fervor by true disciples today. The division produced by abandoning biblical principles is an ugly thing in God’s sight, to be sure, but it helps us to know that he anticipated division and gave inspired warnings about the nature of apostasy. To be forewarned is to be forearmed.
An Escape from the Confusion
Despite centuries of biblical departures and false teaching, complete with the hundreds of denominations produced by it, there is a way out of the confusion. It is biblically and practically possible to have one church just like in the Book of Acts. In teaching about the kingdom of God, Jesus said:
Luke 8:11: This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God.
One of the laws of nature is that the seed reproduces its own kind. We would not plant corn and expect watermelons to grow, because we know that the seed always reproduces its kind. Similarly, when the Word of God in its purity is planted in the hearts of men and women, it will produce exactly what it did when the church first began. However, the existence of hundreds of denominations offers a challenge to the thinking of modern man. How can we have just once church again? Keep in mind that the New Testament is quite clear on the “one church” concept. In the short book of Ephesians, we find “one body” mentioned four times (2;16, 3:6, 4:4, 4:25); in chapter 1:22-23, we find that the body is the church.
Ephesians 1:22-23: And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
But the question lingers: How could we have only one church in our setting today? How could any group be the church of the Bible rather than a denomination? Perhaps some illustrations would be of help in showing how a true a nondenominational church is possible. (Keep in mind that “nondenominational” does not mean “interdenominational” as society today wishes to define it. The true definition means “a unified church,” which is unified like the Bible teaches by what the Bible teaches.) Now, let us look at some illustrations.
A Church on an Island
Imagine that 300 international people are marooned on an uninhabited island after a plane crash. Suppose that they were not religious beforehand, but find a Bible in the wreck and start studying it for the first time. They then come to faith in Jesus, repent of their sins and are baptized into Christ. What do they become part and of what church are they part of?
The diagram above shows that the church means the “called out.” Those in the church have been called out of the world, out of sin and out of a lost condition. This means of calling is the word of God according to 2 Thessalonians:
2 Thessalonians 2:13-14: But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Once we have been called by the word of God, we respond to it and are baptized, at which point we are saved and added to the church (Acts 2:38, 41, 47). When the people on the island do that, to which church are they added? Since they are simply following the Bible and do not even know of any denominations, they had to be added simply to the church of Jesus Christ, the family of God. What kind of Christians are they? They could not have become Methodists, Catholics, Pentecostal, Adventists or Lutherans, because they had only the Bible. Therefore, they were simply Christians like the ones in the Book of Acts (Acts 11:26).
But now, let us suppose that the 300 on the island are rescued and return to the mainland. Being now in a spiritual mind-set, they notice all the different kinds of churches, and some of them start looking into other groups. One hundred of them join the Lutheran Church and 100 join the Methodist Church. Since they are already Christians from their experience on the island, it is obvious that to become Pentecostals and Catholics they would have to do something different, or in addition to, what they have already done. What they did on the island did not make them Pentecostals or Catholics. The remaining 100 say, “We are already Christians. Why should we join another group? We’ll find a place to meet and just carry on like we did on the island.”
From the example, we can see that being the church of the New Testament is still a possibility today. But how does God feel about 200 who joined the Pentecostals and Catholics? 1 Corinthians 1 answers this question.
1 Corinthians 1:10-14: I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul?
God demands unity and forbids division. Paul also condemns men’s tendencies to want to exalt and follow men, even good men. The only way we can follow someone is for him to have been crucified for us and then for us to be baptized into his name. Therefore, since God did not want Paulites or Cephasites in the first century, he certainly, does not want Pentecostals, Adventists, Catholics or Wesleyans in our day!
Example from religion in early rural America
Even if we see the possibility of having a present-day nondenominational church, another question often arises: “Why do we have all of the different churches – don’t all churches follow the Bible?” An illustration from the early days of rural America will help us answer this question. In most frontier towns, there was often only one public building available for assemblies. Combined with the scarcity of available ministers, a rotation of denominational services developed in these towns. For example, in a certain town on the first Sunday of the month, a Methodist circuit-riding preacher would come to town and conduct Methodist services. On the second Sunday of the month, a Baptist preacher would arrive and conduct Baptist services. On the third Sunday, the Presbyterian minister would hold his services, and on the fourth, a Catholic would priest hold Mass. The problem is that only members of the ministers denominational group attended that particular service, with the result being that most religious people attended church services only once per month. People began asking why this situation had developed. They also asked, “Aren’t all of the groups preaching the Bible?”
The diagram below helps us to see the problem.
1. Bible + the Methodist Discipline = Methodists
2. Bible + the Baptist Manuel = Baptists
3. Bible + the Confession of Faith = Presbyterians
4. Bible + the Catechism = Catholics
It was true that the ministers preached the Bible when they came to town, but along with it they taught their particular denominational creed. Thus, it was the Bible plus the creed which made the difference. These groups needed unity badly, but the solution called for some serious decisions. You could never expect a Baptist to accept a Methodist Discipline, nor a Methodist to accept a Catholic Catechism, nor a Presbyterian to accept a Baptist Manuel. But all of them could accept the Bible. Therefore, if all of them left their denominational creeds, everyone could worship and work together. The Bible alone does not make Methodists or Baptists of Catholics. It takes creeds to do that. Thus, doing away with creed also does away with denominations, making unity and non-denominationalism possible. Our goal must be unity and not simply union, to be nondenominational and not simply interdenominational.
Another illustration shows that while a church may preach the Bible in some way, this does not make it a true Bible-based church. Actually, anyone can start a church. Just for the sake of illustration, let us suppose that a man called Bob decided to start his own church. He might come up with the elements of the creed for his church in the following way, as seen in the diagram below:
Creed – Bob’s Church.
1. New Testament Moral Laws,
2. Members Wear White Robes (Revelation 7:14)
3. Worshippers Take Off Shoes (Exodus 3:1-5)
4. Meet in an “upper room” (Mark 14:15; Luke 22:12: Acts 1:13; 20:7-11)
If you came to Bob’s church on a given Sunday, his sermon might be on some New Testament moral law, in which case he would be preaching right from the Bible. You would leave saying, “Bob just preaches the Bible at his church,” and on that day, this statement would be absolutely true. But on the next Sunday, he might go to Revelation 7:14, which describes in a symbolic way the purity of those in heaven who have wash their robes spiritually in the blood of Christ, and conclude that we should wear robes to worship today. It might sound reasonable to a person who knew little about the Bible (which covers most people in our society). You might still leave his services saying “Well, it sounded a little different, but Bob did use the Bible.” He could also make a case out of going barefoot and meeting in an upper room. In the first instance, he would go to Exodus 3:1-5 and show how God told Moses to take off his shoes because the ground on which he stood was holy ground. Therefore, since he would teach that since we want to be holy, we need to take off our shoes in worship. Of course, God did not tell us to follow that example, but to the biblically illiterate, it would sound at least reasonable. As for the part about meeting in upper rooms, a number of Scriptures show that the early disciples often met in upper rooms. Every specific reference to the Lord’s Supper has an “upper room” as the setting. Since we want to imitate Jesus and the early disciples, and since it “gets us nearer to heaven,” then we want to observe the same practice.
The point of this illustration is that many churches may seem to preach the Bible, but in reality, they are not consistently doing that. On a given Sunday, the Bible might be preached exactly. On another Sunday, the Bible might be appealed to, but misapplied. The biblically uninformed might not know the difference, and they might believe they are really a part of a Bible church. The need for each person to study the Bible is an obvious application. But the main idea is that a church may seem to be biblically based when actually it is not.
Praise God for Unity!
As we teach others the need for unity based on the Bible alone, we must never take for granted the unity that God has forged in our modern-day movement. Many of us have spent years with religious groups who were characterized by disunity and divisions. As a result, the harmony we presently experience seems almost too good to be true. But, praise God, it is true! Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is being answered before our very eyes. Let us all make sure that we allow him to continue to reign in our hearts and lives, to insure that our human tendencies toward pride and selfishness never move us away from the marvellous unity which we now enjoy by his grace. Unity not only brings us inexpressible joy; it is the only avenue which can lead to our salvation and the evangelisation of the world.
Quick Reference Guide
1. The unity of everyone who desires to follow Christ is the will of God (John 17:20-23).
2. The Word of God must be the basis for this unity (Matthew 7:13-14, 21; John 8:31-32; 17:17)
1. Jesus said that many would lose their love for him and for others within about 40 years from the time he spoke (Matthew 24:10-12).
2. From among the true church, false leaders would arise soon after Paul left Ephesus (Acts 20:29-30).
3. False leaders would reach the point where they would assume position and power reserved only for God himself (2 Thessalonians 2:1-8).
4. The Holy Spirit was quite clear about the impending apostasy, which would include teachings forbidding marriage and the eating of certain foods (1 Timothy 1-4).
5. The time would come when men would seek false teacher who would water down the truth, in order to make them comfortable in their sins (2 Timothy 4:1-4).
6. False teaching is often motivated by greed (2 Peter 2:1-3).
7. The antichrists were already teaching false doctrines about the nature of Christ in the first century (1 John 2:18; 4:1).
1. The Word of God is the seed of his kingdom (Luke 8:11), and when we plant it in the hearts of people today it will produce exactly the church that Jesus built.
2. Jesus is the head of his one body (Ephesians 1:22-23; 2:16; 4:4), and he promised to save all of those who are in that one body (Ephesians 5:23).
3. Paul expected Christians to be perfectly united in mind and thought (1 Corinthians 1:10-13). In the remainder of the chapter, Paul shows that his remarkable unity occurs when Christ and his wisdom becomes the most important thing in all of our hearts.