Apostasy, Then and Now
by Rick Shrader
I think we have finally gotten over any love of Halloween in our churches. That pagan holiday with its ghosts and goblins, witches and broomsticks, can thankfully be gone from our church calendars. I don’t know of any Christian church that celebrated it this year. When the origins of customs remain unknown and harmless (such as birthday cakes or where the days of the week got their names) we may use and enjoy without offense. But when the pagan and anti-Christian meanings reappear we must set them aside.
But in this holiday season, indeed in the end of this present age, I fear a deeper and far more deceptive danger lurks within our churches. From my periodic reading of the book of Jude as well as 2 Peter 2, I was struck by the reality that in the last times there will be false prophets among the people (2 Pet. 2:1) and certain men crept in unawares (Jude 4) who will do irreparable harm to the churches. We usually call such people apostates, people who are pretenders and not real believers yet who stay among the believers and lead them astray into much unchristian belief and activity. We have known these prophecies of Jude and Peter but it had not struck me in such a way that if we are indeed in the end times we must be seeing the very fulfillment of these predictions. We could call this the great apostasy that will come at the end of the age. We might call this the signs of the times. But by whatever description, Scripture often says that such times will come when the end of the age of grace is near. Paul tells Timothy, “Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of devils (1 Tim. 4:1). In the second epistle he says again, “This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come” (2 Tim. 3:1). And again, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears” or who tickle the ears (2 Tim. 4:3). In both the book of Jude and Second Peter, these apostates come into the churches, among God’s people, therefore before the rapture of the church, and draw away the disciples after them.
I’m certainly not a date-setter nor do I believe that anything yet has to happen before the rapture may occur, but I can still believe that these verses speak of a phenomenon that is happening in our day and age. Or I might say it this way, that even if this isn’t THE end of the age, the same things are happening now in our churches that will happen when THE end of the age comes. Either way it is not very pleasant to see the effects of apostasy on the Lord’s churches.
The Lord had very stern words for the churches at Pergamos and Thyatira for allowing teachers to come in and destroy the flock like Balaam allowed Balak to “cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols and to commit fornication” (Rev. 2:14), or like Jezebel who seduced Israel to do the same (2:20). If our shoe fits the description of Jude and Peter we will have to wear it also. Jude wanted to write of the common salvation (Jude 3) but this danger is so destructive that he was led by the Holy Spirit to change his subject matter and deal with this error. He urged the believers to “earnestly contend for the faith” and not just sit by and let this cancer progress. But I wonder, at the end of the age, if we will let the disease go or if we will purge it from our bodies. Will the true believers be removed and the apostate church be left to the antichrist? Will the true church remain faithful to the end? Time will tell.
I find at least twelve damaging characteristics of end-time apostates in Jude and Second Peter. One doesn’t have to look far to find parallels in the churches today. In fact, they are so common I don’t even need to find examples to prove my point. The reader, no doubt, will know of many himself.
The most profound characteristic is that these apostates are not even born again. Jude says they deny “the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ” (Jude 4). Peter says they are “false” prophets (1), reserved for the day of judgment (9), will “perish in their own corruption” (12), and for whom “the mist of darkness is reserved forever” (17). A hypocrite in the Bible (contrary to popular belief) is usually a lost person. He is not a true believer living poorly but is a poor unbeliever pretending to live truly, and can’t.
Jude says they “crept in unawares” (4) and feast among the believers “without fear” of reprisal (12). Peter says they are “among the people” (1) and “feast with you” (13). Imagine! Like Judas, they have given some testimony of salvation and received baptism. Paul told the Galatians they were “false brethren unawares brought in” (Gal. 2:4). All of these descriptions come from words that mean to come in stealthily, falsely.
We don’t have an “easy believeism” problem today, we have a “no believeism” problem! We may have made our mistakes in the past by promoting too many quick salvation decisions but even that was better than requiring no specific decision or experience. Today a person is received in the church with a personal angel-sighting story! And they feast among us without fear of conviction.
Jude uses the word “ungodly” six times in this short one-chapter book, four of those times in verse 15. In verse four he simply says of these men that they are “ungodly men.” Peter compares them to the ungodly in Noah’s day and those in Sodom and Gomorrah (5-6). “Ungodly” (a-sebes) is the opposite of “pious” (eu-sebes). The ancient name Eusebius comes from the latter. The root (sebos) means to venerate, to reverence, to worship, to stand in awe. With an “eu” prefix it means that such people do these things well and are “pious.” With an “a” prefix it means they do not do them at all.
Is it possible to have people in our churches who do not truly worship God; who do not stand in awe of Him; and who do not show reverence to Him? Jude says that the apostles “told you there should be mockers in the last time, who should walk after their own ungodly lusts” (18). Jude’s readers evidently knew these kinds of apostates were there and had done nothing about it. Maybe like the Corinthians (and many today), they boasted in their broad-mindedness (1 Cor. 5:6).
“Likewise also these filthy dreamers defile the flesh, despise dominion, and speak evil of dignities” (Jude 8). Peter adds that they are “presumptuous” and “self-willed” (10). Disrespect has fallen into disrepair today. In those days, however, it was a matter of utmost importance. A man could not hold church office if his children were disrespectful or disobedient (Tit. 1:6). Both Jude and Peter use Michael the archangel as the example of showing respect to authorities, even to Satan, the former Lucifer himself! (Jude 9, 2 Pet. 2:11). But, says Peter, these disrespectful church members are acting like brute beasts (12) who have no conscience of right and wrong and are destroyed without a second thought. These apostates will truly act like “animals” even in the churches.
In both chapters under consideration, more space is given to this vice than any others. Believers who have the Restrainer living within them struggle enough with this sin, but unbelievers who have only the common graces of the world to restrain them, will fall to this sin overtly. These hypocritical apostates turn “the grace of our God into lasciviousness” (Jude 4), “defile the flesh” (8), “walk after their own ungodly lusts” (18), and are “sensual” (19). Peter says they have “pernicious ways” (2), have “eyes full of adultery” (14), and “allure through the lusts of the flesh” (18). And all of this within the local church! Peter’s statement about adultery may be translated “having eyes for an adulteress” or someone who is always looking for his next victim.
Our churches have to take extra precautions because of liabilities as it is. But I wonder if the performance mentality coupled with self-centered immodesty doesn’t also feed this sin of lust. Most modesty is seen as old-fashioned prudishness and even in-house directives for modest dress on the church platform is seen as some kind of legalism. Then we wonder why so many of our own Christian kids have fewer moral standards than the world’s kids. This apostate characteristic will grow worse and worse as the age draws to a close. There will be more “lovers of pleasures” than “lovers of God” (2 Tim. 3:4).
Apostates are in it for what they can get out of it. Jude says they have “men’s persons in admiration because of advantage” (16). This literally means they “admire faces for advantage.” Peter says, “through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you” (3). The words “shall make merchandise” come from emporeuomai from which we get our word “emporium.” They made God’s house into an emporium, a house of business, or a market place. Jesus used this same word when He aggressively drove such moneychangers from the temple because they had made God’s house of prayer into a house of “merchandise” (Jn. 2:16). Paul told Timothy that some perverse men think that “gain is godliness” (1 Tim. 6:5) or, literally, “that godliness is a means of gain.”
Surely we have many today that are using the church to make a lot of money. Like lust, this has always been a problem in ministry, but the avenues for revenues are broader than ever. Dan Lucarini, in his new book (see my review above), says of the contemporary Christian music business,
Now you know the truth about the images you are ‘allowed’ to see. There are powerful and prideful creative forces at work behind the scenes, spending enormous sums of money, time and talent and using all the tricks of the trade. The sole purpose is to manipulate the images of the same artists and worship leaders who are supposed to lead us in authentic praise and worship. No matter what compromised excuse they may give for this, it is no less than ‘Christianized’ idol worship and the marketing of worship for a profit.1
Whether it is the health, wealth, and prosperity gospel or the snake-oil healer, we should say with Peter, “Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money. Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God” (Acts 8:20-21).
Peter says that, “while they promise them liberty, they themselves are the servants of corruption: for of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he brought in bondage” (19). Jude refers to the same when he says that these apostates turn “the grace of God into lasciviousness” (4). Paul said that in the last days these will have “a form of godliness” but will deny “the power thereof” (2 Tim. 3:5). Peter ended his chapter with the sad words about many being led down a false path to liberty but finding servitude to the world and the flesh to which they return like a dog to his vomit (20-22). Many years ago J. C. Ryle wrote, “I should like to know what doctrine of the Gospel has not been abused. Salvation by grace has been made a pretext for licentiousness.”2 The abuse is abundantly apparent in our day.
And So . . . .
I could add many more to the list from these two chapters. Without a doubt our day fits the end time scenario described by Jude and Peter. We cannot know if this is THE end time or whether our time is just amazingly similar to that time. In either case, the situation for the church is dire. Yet for every Pergamos and Thyatira there is a Smyrna and a Philadelphia. For every Balaam and Jezebel there is a Daniel and an Esther. Even if we have left our first love we can remember, repent, and redo so we won’t be removed. May God give us grace to that end.
Notes: 1. Dan Lucarini, It’s Not About The Music (England & USA: Evangelical Press, 2010) 129. 2. J.C. Ryle, “Watch”, Our Blessed Hope, Joseph Seiss, ed. (Philadelphia: Garner, 1884) 47.