"What is prophecy but history reversed? Nothing. Prophecy is a record of things before they transpire. History is a record of them after they have occurred; and of the two prophecy is more to be trusted for its accuracy than history: for the reason that it has for its source the unerring inspiration of Almighty God; while history,--except in the case of inspired historians--is coloured by the favour or prejudice of the writer, depends for its exactness upon the point of view from which he looks upon the events; and is likely to be marred in a thousand ways by the influences surrounding him,--party considerations, national interest or prejudice; supposed influence upon present conditions and future prospects--all these things may interfere with history; but prophecy is free from such influences. Historians are self-constituted, or appointed by men; but prophets are chosen of God. Selected by divine wisdom, and illuminated by that Spirit which shows things that are to come, prophets have revealed to them so much of the future as God would have men to know, and the inspired writers record it for the enlightenment or warning of mankind, without the colouring or distortion so liable to mar the work of the historian.
"Thus Moses recorded what the history of Israel would be on condition of their obedience to God: and what it would be if they were. Israel was disobedient, and historians have exhausted their art in attempts to tell of their disobedience and suffering; but neither in vividness nor accuracy do the histories compare with the prophecy. So with the prophecy of Daniel in respect to the rise and succession of the great political powers that should dominate the earth, and the final triumph of the Kingdom of God. So with well-nigh all of the prophecies."--(B. H. Roberts, "A New Witness for God," pp. 113, 114.)
A general or universal apostasy from the Primitive Church was both foreseen and foretold. Prophets who lived centuries before the time of Christ predicted the great event, as did also the Saviour Himself and the apostles who continued the work of the ministry after His resurrection and ascension. We are now to inquire as to the fulfilment of these predictions.
Evidence that the apostasy occurred as had been predicted is found in the sacred scriptures and in the records of history other than scriptural. From certain utterances of the early-day apostles it is made plain to us that the great "falling away" had begun even while those apostles were living. The preaching of false doctrines and the rise of unauthorized teachers were referred to as conditions then actually existing in the Church, and not as remote developments of the distant future.
Scarcely had the gospel seed been committed to the soil before the enemy came, and by night sowed tares amongst the wheat; and so intimate was the growth of the two that any attempt to forcibly uproot the weeds would have threatened the life of the grain.--(See the parable of wheat and tares, Matt. 13:24-30)
Paul recognized the fact that the people amongst whom he laboured were losing the faith they had professed, and were becoming victims of the deception practiced by false teachers. In his letter to the churches of Galatia he wrote:
"I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ."
And then, to emphasize the sin of those who thus sought to "pervert the gospel of Christ," he continued:
"But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed."--(Galatians 1:6-9
The context of the passages just quoted shows the nature of the error into which "the churches of Galatia" were in danger of falling. They were embroiled in a discussion as to whether they were bound by certain requirements of the law of Moses, notably that respecting circumcision. The apostle instructs them to the effect that the gospel of Christ was superior to the law; and that moreover, they were inconsistent in contending for one item of the law and neglecting the rest. We have here indication of the effort so persisted in even by those who had joined the Church, to modify and change the simple requirements of the gospel by introducing the elements of Judaism. It must be remembered that even among the apostles some difference of opinion had existed as to the necessity of circumcision; but this had been settled by their prayerful efforts to learn the Lord's will in the matter; and those who sought to foment dissension on this or any other matter of authoritative doctrine were declared to be enemies to the Church, seeking to "pervert the gospel of Christ."
In his second epistle to the "church of the Thessalonians" Paul declares that the spirit of iniquity was then already operative. After predicting the rise of the apostate church, with its blasphemous assumptions of power, as a condition antecedent to the second coming of Christ, the apostle continued as follows:
"For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let until he be taken out of the way. And then shall that Wicked be revealed, whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of his coming."--(II Thess. 2:7, 8.)
The seemingly obscure expression, "he who now letteth will let," may be more readily understood by remembering that in the older style of English "let" had the meaning of "restrain" or "hinder."--(An example of this old-time use of the verb "let" is found in Shakespeare. Hamlet is made to say, "Unhand me, gentlemen. By heaven I'll make a ghost of him who lets me," i. e., of him who restrains or hinders me.) The passage therefore may be understood as a declaration that the spirit of iniquity was already active though restrained or hindered for a time; and that later even this restraint would be removed and the evil one would be in power. In the Revised Version of the New Testament this passage is rendered thus:--"lawlessness doth already work: only there is one that restraineth now, until he be taken out of the way."
Just who or what is referred to as exercising a restraint on the powers of iniquity at that time has given rise to discussion. Some writers hold that the presence of the apostles operated in this way, while others believe that the restraining power of the Roman government is referred to. It is known that the Roman policy was to discountenance religious contention, and to allow a large measure of liberty in forms of worship as long as the gods of Rome were not maligned nor their shrines dishonoured. As Roman supremacy declined "the mystery of iniquity" embodied in the apostate church operated practically without restraint.
The expression "mystery of iniquity" as used by Paul is significant. Prominent among the early perverters of the Christian faith were those who assailed its simplicity and lack of exclusiveness. This simplicity was so different from the mysteries of Judaism and the mysterious rites of heathen idolatry as to be disappointing to many; and the earliest changes in the Christian form of worship were marked by the introduction of mystic ceremonies.
Paul's zeal as a missionary and a proselyter is abundantly shown in scripture; he was equally zealous in seeking to maintain the faith of those who had accepted the truth. The Pauline epistles abound in admonitions and pleadings against the increasing influence of false doctrines, and in expressions of sorrow over the growth of apostasy in the Church. His words addressed to Timothy are both emphatic and pathetic.
"Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. That good thing which was committed unto thee keep by the Holy Ghost, which dwelleth in us. This thou knowest, _that all they which are in Asia be turned away from me_."--(II Timothy 1:13-15; icompare 4:10, 16.)
An excellent summary of important utterances by the Apostle Paul relating to the beginning of the apostasy as a fact in the early apostolic age, has been made by one of the latter-day apostles, Orson Pratt. He writes as follows:
"The great apostasy of the Christian Church commenced in the first century; while there were yet inspired apostles and prophets in their midst; hence Paul, just previous to his martyrdom, enumerates a great number who had 'made shipwreck of their faith,' and 'turned aside unto vain jangling;' teaching 'that the resurrection was already past,' 'giving heed to fables and endless genealogies,' 'doubting about questions and strifes of words whereof came envyings, railings, evil surmisings, perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, supposing that gain is godliness.' This apostasy had become so general that Paul declares to Timothy, 'that all they which are in Asia be turned away from me;' and again he says, 'at my first answer no man stood with me, but all men forsook me;' he further says that 'there are many unruly, and vain talkers and deceivers, teaching things which they ought not, for filthy lucre's sake.' These apostates, no doubt, pretended to be very righteous; for, says the apostle, 'they profess that they know God; but in works they deny him, being abominable, and disobedient, and unto every good work reprobate.'"
Jude admonished the saints to be on their guard against men who were in the service of Satan seeking to corrupt the Church. Addressing himself
"to them that are sanctified by God the Father, and preserved in Jesus Christ," he said: "It was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints. For there are certain men crept in unawares, who were before of old ordained to this condemnation, ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ."--(Jude 3, 4. )
It is plain that Jude considered "the faith which was once delivered unto the saints" as in danger; and he urges the faithful to contend for it and openly defend it. He reminds the saints that they had been told "there should be mockers in the last time, who should walk after their own ungodly lusts;" and adds "These be they who separate themselves, sensual, having not the Spirit."--(Verses 18, 19.) Clearly he is referring to the apostates of such time, who, because of sensual appetites and lustful desires, have separated themselves from the Church.
Dr. Adam Clarke, in his Bible Commentary, treats this passage as follows:
"For there are certain men crept in unawares" to mean, 'They have got into the church under specious pretences, and when in, began to sow their bad seed. In the sacred writings all such persons, false doctrines and impure practices have been most openly proscribed and condemned, and the apostle immediately produces several examples, viz., the disobedient Israelites, the unfaithful angels, and the impure inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah. This is most obviously the apostle's meaning, and it is as ridiculous as it is absurd, to look into such words for a decree of reprobation, etc., such a doctrine being as far from the apostle's mind as from that of Him in whose name he wrote."--(Clarke, "Bible Commentary," Jude 4.)
During the banishment of John the Revelator on the Isle of Patmos, when nearly all the apostles had been taken from the earth, many of them having suffered martyrdom, the apostasy was so widespread that only seven "churches," or branches, of the Church, remained in such condition as to be considered deserving of the special communication John was instructed to give. In a marvellous vision he beheld the seven churches typified by seven golden candlesticks, with seven stars representing the presiding officers of the several churches; and in the midst of the golden candlesticks, with the stars in his hand, stood "one like unto the Son of Man."
The church at Ephesus was approved for its good works, specifically for its rejection of the Nicolaitean heresies; nevertheless reproof was administered for disaffection and neglect, thus:--
"thou hast left thy first love. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent."--(Rev. 2:4,5.)
To the church at Pergamos John was commanded to write, denouncing the false doctrines of certain sects and teachers, "which thing I hate," said the Lord.--(See verses 12-16.) The church of the Laodiceans was denounced as "lukewarm," "neither hot nor cold," and as priding itself as rich and not in need, whereas it was in reality "wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked."--(Rev. 3; see verses 14-21.)
The foregoing scriptures are ample as proof that even before the ancient apostles had finished their earthly ministry, apostasy was growing apace. The testimony of the early "Christian fathers" who wrote in the period immediately following the passing of the apostles, is to the same effect. According to the generally accepted chronology, the prophetic message of John the Revelator to the churches of Asia was given in the last years of the first century.--(AD 96)
Among the historians of that period whose writings are not regarded as canonical or scriptural, but which are nevertheless accepted as genuine and reliable, was Hegesippus, who "flourished nearest the days of the apostles." Writing of the conditions marking the close of the first century and the beginning of the second, Eusebius cites the testimony of the earlier writer as follows:--
"The same author, [Hegesippus] relating the events of the times, also says, that the Church continued until then as a pure and uncorrupt virgin; whilst if there were any at all that attempted to pervert the sound doctrine of the saving gospel, they were yet skulking in dark retreats; but when the sacred choir of apostles became extinct, and the generation of those that had been privileged to hear their inspired wisdom had passed away, then also the combinations of impious error arose by the fraud and delusions of false teachers. These also, as there were none of the apostles left, henceforth attempted, without shame to preach their false doctrine against the gospel of truth. Such is the statement of Hegesippus."--(Eusebius, "Ecclesiastical History," Book III, chapter 32.)
There can be little doubt that the false teachers referred to in the testimony last cited, were professed adherents of the Church, and not outside opponents, inasmuch as they were restrained by the influence and authority of the apostles, and waited the passing of the authorized leaders as an opportunity to corrupt the Church by evil teachings.
A later writer, commenting on the schisms and dissensions by which the Church was rent in the latter part of the first century--the period immediately following that of the apostolic ministry, says:
"It will easily be imagined that unity and peace could not reign long in the Church, since it was composed of Jews and Gentiles, who regarded each other with the bitterest aversion. Besides, as the converts to Christianity could not extirpate radically the prejudices which had been formed in their minds by education, and confirmed by time, they brought with them into the bosom of the Church more or less of the errors of their former religions. Thus the seeds of discord and controversy were easily sown, and could not fail to spring up soon into animosities and dissensions, which accordingly broke out and divided the Church."--(Mosheim, "Eccl. History," Cent. I, Part II; chap. 3:11. See Note 4, end of chapter.)
Another recognized authority on ecclesiastical history, and one whose avowed purpose was to present the truth respecting the Church in its most favourable light, is Joseph Milner, author of a comprehensive "History of the Church of Christ." He comments on the state of the Church at the close of the first century in this wise:
"Let us keep in view what that [the spirit of the gospel] really is. The simple faith of Christ as the only Saviour of lost sinners, and the effectual influences of the Holy Ghost in recovering souls altogether depraved by sin--these are the leading ideas. When the effusion of the Holy Ghost first took place, these things were taught with power; and no sentiments which militated against them could be supported for a moment. As, through the prevalence of human corruption and the crafts of Satan, the love of truth was lessened, heresies and various abuses of the gospel appeared; and in estimating them we may form some idea of the declension of true religion toward the end of the [first] century."
The same writer continues:
"Yet a gloomy cloud hung over the conclusion of the first century. The first impressions made by the effusion of the Spirit are generally the strongest and the most decisively distinct from the spirit of the world. But human depravity, overborne for a time, arises afresh, particularly in the next generation. Hence the disorders of schism and heresy. Their tendency is to destroy the pure work of God."--(Milner, "Church History," Cent. I, ch. 15.)
[Source: James E Talmadge "The Great Apostasy"]