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Another sign of the end of the world is apostasy. “Apostasy” means departure. You find this mentioned as a sign of the end in II Thessalonians 2:3, where, in the original Greek language, the word “apostasy” is used: “that day (i.e., the day of Christ, the day of Christ’s second coming-DJE) shall not come, except there come a falling away first.” Literally, the words “falling away” are the word “apostasy,” so that the apostle says that the coming again of Christ will be preceded by an apostasy.

Apostasy is something that takes place within the churches. People who once knew and confessed the truth depart from the truth; those who once were close to Christ fall away from Christ.

Jesus foretold this apostasy in Matthew 24 in answer to His disciples’ question: “What shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?” Although the word “apostasy” does not occur, this is what the Lord spoke of in verses 11-13:

And many false prophets shall rise and shall deceive many. And because iniquity shah abound, the love of many shah wax cold. But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.

Verse 24 also speaks of this:

For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.

The cause of apostasy, according to Jesus, will be false prophets. Many false prophets will deceive many people, so that they fall away from the truth. The seriousness of being deceived and falling away is .indicated when Jesus says, “But he that shall endure unto the end . . . shall be saved.” The implication is that those who are deceived will not be saved. False prophets, therefore, pose a threat to the church, to us and our children. It was the purpose of Jesus in forewarning us of the false prophets to put us on guard against these clever, destructive emissaries of the devil. To shake us into watchfulness, Jesus spoke the astounding words of verse 24: “If it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.” Therefore, the question is an urgent one: who and what are these false prophets, and what is the nature of their work?

We can answer the question, “What is a false prophet?” only by first asking and answering another question, “What is a true prophet?” A prophet is a man sent by God to speak God’s Word on God’s behalf. Two things about a prophet stand out: God sends him, and he speaks the Word of God. The importance of the work of the prophet is that God uses it to save His people. For the prophet brings the Word of God, and the content of that Word is God’s love and grace in His Son, Jesus Christ, unto the salvation of everyone that believes. Through that Word of the prophet, God brings the elect to faith in Jesus Christ, by which faith we are saved. God saves men by the truth! God saves men by the preaching of the truth! Romans 10:13-15 teaches this: whoever calls on God shall be saved, but no one can call on God unless he believes in God, and no one can believe unless he has heard God, but no one can hear without a preacher, or prophet.

The Chief Prophet and Teacher is Jesus Christ Himself. He is God’s great Servant sent into the world fully to reveal to us God’s counsel concerning our redemption. He is the One who in all ages reveals the truth in the hearts and minds of God’s people. It is Christ Jesus who today gives the church pastors and teachers (Eph. 4:11), and it is He who speaks in their preaching, so that God’s elect hear Jesus Christ and are taught by Jesus Christ (Eph. 4:21).

In this light, we can understand what false prophets are. They are preachers and teachers who claim to be sent by God, but are not. They are false as regards their origin and credentials. Outwardly, they appear pious and religious. For this reason, Paul in II Corinthians 11:13, 15 refers to them as those “transforming themselves into apostles of Christ” and “ministers of light” (v. 14). In Matthew 7:15, Jesus noted their deceptive, false appearance when He called them wolves in sheep’s clothing. The fact is that they are sent out by the devil, and, therefore, Paul calls them Satan’s ministers in II Corinthians 11:15.

These prophets and preachers are also false as regards their message, or word. It is not the truth, but the lie, although they herald it as the gospel. They claim to teach the truth. They come with their Bibles in hand and spout texts left and right. But they corrupt and adulterate the truth, and they pervert the gospel.

Thus, the false prophets deceive many. Many are fooled by their appearance and message. The wolf is welcomed into the fold as a sheep, and there he promptly devours men’s souls.

The presence of false prophets is no new thing at the end of the ages. False prophets plagued the church throughout the Old Testament times. Think of their opposition to Jeremiah. They were in large part responsible for the spiritual decline of Judah that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and in the Babylonian captivity. False prophets arose within the New Testament church soon after the apostolic times and deceived many. In fact, the apostles themselves had to oppose the Gnostics, who denied that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh, as I John shows. Then the Arians appeared who denied that Jesus is God. There was also the false prophet Pelagius, who denied that man is by nature totally depraved and who taught that man’s salvation depended upon man himself. There has been continuous succession of false prophets in the world, working in the sphere of the church, from the time that the father of lies himself, that ancient deceiver, the devil, contradicted God’s Word in the Garden of Eden. But they increase as the end draws near. At the end, says Christ, the false prophets will be multitude, and they will deceive many. Culminating in the false prophet of Antichrist, they will deceive the whole world, except those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life (Rev. 13).

The attitude of Jesus and of all Scripture toward the false prophet is quite different from the religious toleration so warmly praised today in the churches. Scripture calls them wolves, seducers, evil men, antichrists, and heretics. This must be the attitude of us who are Jesus’ disciples, even though it gains us the reproach of being unjustly called fanatics and bigots. For only then will we beware of false prophets and only then will we keep them out of our congregation and churches. Tolerance of the false prophet is surrender to him. Even such a thing as the practice of our time to speak of “liberals” and “conservatives” in the church is an unbiblical, dangerous thing. It soon leads people to suppose that liberals and conservatives are equally Christian and equally have a place in the congregation. The Bible knows nothing of “liberals” and “conservatives” – politics, maybe, but not Scripture. Scripture knows only of faithful pastors who bring the Word and faithful saints who receive and confess the Word – who belong in the church – and heretics who corrupt the Scriptures and those whom they deceive -who have no place in the church and must be cut off.

There is good reason for Jesus’ condemnation of the false prophet. First, the false prophet denies the truth which glorifies God. Secondly, he denies Jesus Christ, who is the truth. And, thirdly, the false prophet leads man away from salvation to damnation. Nothing less than this is his work. Matthew 24 implies this when in verse 13 it states that only those who endure, only those who are not taken in by the false prophets, shall be saved. The false prophet causes many to fall away!

Since the meaning of apostasy is that people who once professed Christ do so no longer, that many who once manifested themselves as good members of the church forsake her, and that many who once confessed the truth depart from the truth, the question arises: can believers fall away?

This is impossible. No saint, chosen by God from eternity, born again by the Spirit and believing in Christ with a true faith, can be deceived, fall away, and perish in hell. The very words of Christ in verse 24 that are a strong warning to us concerning false prophets prove that the saints cannot apostatize. Christ says, “If it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.” The plain implication is: It is not possible, and, therefore, they shall not deceive the elect. As Jesus taught in John 10, none that the Father gave to Jesus as His sheep shall perish. This is necessary comfort for us who believe, as we see the number and subtlety of false prophets and as we look forward to an increase in the future. They will not deceive us, nor will we fall away. But this comfort is no ground for carelessness. God keeps us and our children in the way of giving us this warning about false prophets and in the way of our heeding this warning by rejecting the false prophets and their messages.

If the apostasy before the end does not mean the falling away of the saints, what does it mean? How does the falling away actually take place? First, the deceiving of many, and their falling away into perdition, happens over a period of time in the course of several generations. At a certain time, a church becomes contemptuous of the truth or accepts false doctrine. From that time on, the deception increases and the departure from the truth becomes greater and greater. The inevitable result is that the deception becomes total: The Word of God disappears altogether; the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of those originally guilty of heeding false prophets are unbelieving and go lost. This is one way in which Jesus’ words,” Many shall be deceived,” are fulfilled. There is deception on a gigantic scale. It is not that individuals here and there are deceived, but entire denominations of churches fall away.

A second way in which apostasy occurs is the departure of individuals who for a time, and maybe even for a long time, were members of the church, confessed the truth, seemed to love Christ Jesus, and showed themselves as believers. Under the influence of some strange wind of doctrine or the allure of the riches and pleasures of the world, they fall away. They leave the church; they love Christ no more; they deny and despise the truth. Invariably, they take their families to destruction with them, not only their wife and children, but also their grandchildren. Now, they never were true believers. They were the reprobate seed that the devil is always sowing in Jesus’ wheat field. The apostle John had’ his eye on them when he wrote in I John 2:19, “They went out from us, but they were not of us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.” The trouble with them is that they are careless about the truth. They often remain rather ignorant of it. Above all, they do not love the truth. So, they can forsake it.

Men’s lack of heartfelt love for the truth of God’s Word is the reason why God punishes them by giving them over to deception, so that they fall away. For apostasy is not only the devil’s work. It is also a judgment of God on men. This is Paul’s teaching in II Thessalonians 2:10-12. Godsends many people a strong delusion, that they should believe a lie, so that they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness. The reason for this terrible, but just, judgment is: “because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved.” God cannot stand contempt for the truth of His Word.

It is important that Jesus’ disciples, the church, know that apostasy is a sign of the end of the world. For one thing, we do not expect that the church is going to grow tremendously in numbers and that almost the entire world will be converted to Christ. This is not Scripture; this is not Matthew 24. Not only do many never join the church, but there are many who are deceived and whose love waxes cold. Not only does the church not grow numerically, but there are many who fall away. We preach and teach diligently, both to the saints within and the unbelievers without, and we leave the outcome in God’s hands; but in the light of the Scriptures, we look for the church to become smaller and smaller. We do not despair when we see the apostasy taking place, even though we grieve.

As a sign of the end, apostasy speaks to us of the certainty and the nearness of the end of the world. Apostasy prepares the way for Antichrist. Antichrist will persecute the church. Then, Christ will come on the clouds. And the time of the great falling away is now! It is impossible to miss this sign today. A huge part of that which has the name of the Christian church remains enslaved to the lie of salvation by works from which the Holy Spirit delivered us through the Reformation and its gospel of justification by faith in Christ alone. The cults grow with all the astounding speed of a cancer, and their growth is from, the body of the Christian churches, i.e., by way of the apostasy of many. And what dirge can lament the pitiful condition of the Protestant churches today? There is forsaking of the truth of the infallible inspiration of Holy Scripture; of the truth of the Deity of Jesus Christ; of the truth of atonement in the blood of the cross; of the truth of salvation by grace alone, and not by man’s works or free-will. As they leave the truth, they also forsake holiness of life, permitting the violation of all of God’s commandments. And all of this must pass as Christianity. To such an extent are men deceived.

Does Christ give you eyes to see this sign? Then, look for the coming of Christ, which is near. And be spiritually awake, sober and watchful. This was Jesus’ purpose when He told His disciples of the coming of false prophets and their deception of many. This comes out in the words of verse 13: “But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.” Endurance is required of us. The false prophets tempt us. Effort is made to deceive us. Only those who endure shall be saved. We must endure.

How?

By knowing and loving the truth! Know and love the gospel of the Scriptures! Hear it in the preaching every Sunday. See that your children hear it in catechism, every week Study the Bible with other saints who love the truth, and read it daily yourself.

This is the Spirit’s way of preserving you to the end, that you may be saved.