The Threat of Apostasy

Intro: What was the greatest threat facing the 1st century church? Hostile government? Persecution? If we consider the warnings of the apostles contained in inspired scripture, a case could be made for false teaching. Peter warned about such teachers in his epistles. 2 Pet. 2:18-22“For when they speak great swelling words of emptiness, they allure through the lusts of the flesh, through lewdness, the ones who have actually escaped from those who live in error. 2 While they promise them liberty, they themselves are slaves of corruption; for by whom a person is overcome, by him also he is brought into bondage. For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning. For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them. But it has happened to them according to the true proverb: “A dog returns to his own vomit,” and, “a sow, having washed, to her wallowing in the mire.” (NKJ)

The new Christian was vulnerable. In the 30 years following the resurrection of Christ, the gospel spread to all recesses of the earth. Converts were made from all sections of the pagan world. It would seem likely that unless these new converts from idolatry were well-trained they could easily be persuaded to return to the idols.

The threat of apostasy in the early church was real. The three books of the N.T. that were specifically written to warn and forestall the apostasy of new Christians are

  • 1 & 2 Peter; written to the Jews of the dispersion who had been converted to Christ;
  • and the book of Hebrews – written to the Hebrew Christian warning them not to return to Judaism. – Does that tell us that even those who have known God for a long time are vulnerable to abandoning Him when the going gets tough?

I. Peter describes apostasy as a disgusting and tragic event. It undoes everything that forgiveness and salvation provide (It is as though the pig had never been washed). We need to develop 4 important perspectives about apostasy – God teaches us this:

A. It is possible“take heed you who think you stand; lest you fall.” The Calvinist is tragically wrong here. It is possible for a Christian to abandon Christ. This does not impugn the sovereignty of God, Jesus’ power to save or the efficacy of his blood. There is no Biblical promise of security apart from either a stated or implied faithfulness on the part of the Christian. Jesus Himself stated “he who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt 10:22). Peter describes those who had “escaped” and are “again entangled” and “overcome”.

B. It has tragic consequences – It has the effect of our personal abandonment of God. Once a person turns away from God, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to return. There is a point of no return – when the person can no longer be influenced by the Spirit through the word. Heb 6:4-6or it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 if they fall away,* to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame.

C. We must prepare against it now. Heb 3:12-1512 Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; 13 but exhort one another daily, while it is called “Today,” lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. 14 For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end, 15 while it is said: “Today, if you will hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”*

D. If you left, you can return.

II. The Journey of Apostasy: 5 Separate Passages in the Book of Hebrews Give The Overall Picture of Turning Back:

  • Heb. 2:1Therefore we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away.
  • Heb. 3:12 – “Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God;
  • Heb. 6:6if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame.
  • Heb. 10:39But we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul.
  • Heb. 12:25See that you do not refuse Him who speaks. For if they did not escape who refused Him who spoke on earth, much more shall we not escape if we turn away from Him who speaks from heaven,

A. It is depicted in different language and connotes both a sudden and a slowly digressive movement away from God.

B. It can be a drifting away, a falling away, drawing back, or a refusal to hear that ends in a turning away.

III. The Nature of Apostasy – What does it mean to fall away from God? Apostasy is an intentional falling away or withdrawal, a defection. Heb. 10:26-29 – 6 For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins,27 but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries. 28 Anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace?

A. “Sin willfully” – the term deliberately or willfully appears first in the Greek sentence structure, showing emphasis. It is the presumptuous continuing sin. Lightfoot says this passage ….speaks not so much of an act of sin but of a state of sin, for the force of the verb is repeated action—”if we go on sinning,” “if we continue to sin,” “if we persist in sin” … That is, if enlightened men persist in “departing from the living God” (3:12), if they willfully abandon Christ and repudiate His covenant (v. 29), there is for them no way of forgiveness”

1. The justice and certainty of God’s reaction to apostasy is revealed in the judgments of the Law of Moses. At the word of two or more witnesses the idolater was put to death. How much sorer punishment…? Sin has consequence.

B. The Apostate Rejects the Person and Work of Christ – notice the description…

1. To apostatize is to spurn and trample under foot the Son of God. The verb katapateo (“to trample under foot,” “deny,” “despise”) “denotes contempt of the most flagrant kind” (Moffatt) It is used in the New Testament of salt paths that are trodden underfoot (Mt. 5:13), of seed sown that is trampled down (Lk. 8:5), etc. In the writings of the Greeks it is often used of laws or oaths that are trampled down, i.e., disobeyed or unkept.

2. To apostatize is to count the blood of the covenant common like any blood. It is the blood which the apostate has been cleansed by, that blood which is God’s only means to make men holy. There are those who turn their nose up to God and have no regard for what He has done for them. They reject His love, and the expression of it. This describes those who have at one time embraced that love and accepted the gift of His grace.

C. Insults the Holy Spirit

1. The Spirit is here called the “Spirit of grace” (contrasted with Moses’ law) “to bring out the personal, gracious nature of the power so wantonly in­sulted.”

D. Another compelling picture of apostasy: Spiritual Adultery: Throughout scripture God proclaims that apostasy is spiritual adultery before Him. 2 Cor 11:2-4“I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him. But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough. (NIV) Apostasy is a personal abandonment of Christ, just as physical adultery. What would you think and feel if I told you I left my wife for another woman? That decision rocks our senses and even colors how we treat the one involved. Even in our “open-minded” society we view that decision as severe abandonment.

1. Consider the emotional response of God toward the spiritual adultery of Israel –

Ezek. 6:9“Then those of you who escape will remember Me among the nations where they are carried captive, because I was crushed by their adulterous heart which has departed from Me, and by their eyes which play the harlot after their idols; they will loathe themselves for the evils which they committed in all their abominations.”

Hos. 11:8“How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I set you like Zeboiim? My heart churns within Me; my sympathy is stirred.

2. It is the love of God that makes apostasy so tragic. In almost every human case of divorce there is fault on both sides. But God has done nothing to send you away. In fact, He loves you in spite of your unfaithfulness, and desires to win you back to Him. Do not turn your back on Jesus.

IV. The Antidote to Apostasy – The Hebrew writer does not just warn. He also instructs these Christians how to protect themselves against going back…

A. Look Back and Remember Your Suffering (Renew your commitment)Hebrews 10:32-34“But recall the former days in which, after you were illuminated, you endured a great struggle with sufferings: 33 partly while you were made a spectacle both by reproaches and tribulations, and partly while you became companions of those who were so treated; 34 for you had compassion on me in my chains, and joyfully accepted the plundering of your goods, knowing that you have a better and an enduring possession for yourselves in heaven.(NKJV)

1. These passages (along with similar statements in 5:12ff) indicate that the readers had been Christians for some time, and had even suffered hardship as a result of their faith.

2. A striking term is used to describe the insults they received— theatrizo, to be made a “theatrical display,” “held up to shame,” to be made a “public show”. The term is taken from the practice of arraigning and punishing criminals before a crowd assembled in the theater. They were held up to public scorn, taunted and jeered at, and even physically kicked about and abused.

3. Not only did they suffer like this, but they had actively ministered to the needs of their afflicted brothers. Christians imprisoned in ancient times had to be visited and fed.

4. They had not only met their losses with calm detachment but had even joyfully accepted the plundering of their goods. Others could take their goods here, but not in heaven. Of these harassed yet cheerful Christians Robinson has observed: “No doubt their eschatology was a help to them… But it should always be a mark of the spirit of the Christian that he should own nothing, outside himself, to which he cannot say goodbye with a smile” (Robinson, p. 151).

B. Look Forward and See Your Reward – (Renew your Hope) Heb 10:35-36 “Therefore do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward. 36 For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise:

1.  “Do not cast away your confidence– alludes to the disgraceful act of a cowardly soldier throwing down his shield and running away. We must stay and fight. Suffering and persecution can cause some to give up the fight.

2. We have need of endurance, so that we may get what we are seeking. To patiently stick with it because you know God will deliver. He uses the same verb found in the Septuagint version of Habakkuk 2:3– “For the vision is yet for an appointed time; But at the end it will speak, and it will not lie. Though it tarries, wait for it; Because it will surely come, It will not tarry.”

3. They needed to do the will of God Their human wills might run counter to His will; still they were not to compromise that will in their lives. The implication perhaps is that they might, in the words of 1 Peter, have to “suffer according to God’s will” and if so, they must will to do His will and persevere. In chapter 4 they were to reach out, press forward, do not fail, as the Israelites did, to gain the promised inheritance.

C. Live by faith – (Keep Trusting God) Hebrews 10:37-39For yet a little while, And He who is coming will come and will not tarry. 38 Now the just shall live by faith; But if anyone draws back, My soul has no pleasure in him.” 39 But we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul. – How long must I keep on? A little while… and your deliverer comes… You must trust (live by faith) and not draw back –tuck your tail and run.

D. Stay with Christ – The writer of Hebrews consistently encourages the Christians to “give heed”, “hold fast”, and “be faithful”; But to what were they to hold fast to, or be faithful to. What did the writer use as the drawing power to keep these Christians from returning to Judaism and sabotaging their salvation?

1. The focal point of his argument is possibly found in 2 concise statements:

a. Heb. 3:1Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, Christ Jesus, – He then elaborates on the superiority of the Priesthood of Jesus, and how Jesus’ ministry fulfilled and far surpassed the religious system they had been converted from.

b. And then late in the book, after he has made his point about Jesus’ sacrificial work, and spoke of others who are his witnesses, He states it again: Heb. 12:1-2Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross,

Conclusion: God is confident that you can endure to the end. You don’t need to quit. If you have you can come back through repentance. Look to Jesus – the finisher of your faith.