Chapter 17 - The Great Apostasy

The pure church of the apostolic period was not to continue ever with glories undimmed. It was God’s will that she should remain the same, but conditions among men were destined to bring about a great change in her spiritual affairs; therefore, inspiration has given us in advance a description of the great Apostasy. (See II Pet. 2:1-2; Matt. 24:12.)

A Falling Away


Paul gives us a particular description of the Apostasy. To the Thessalonians he says concerning the second coming of Christ, “Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshiped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God” (II Thess. 2:3-4).
By consulting the historical facts we find that these predictions were only too true. Even before the death of the Apostles themselves the Apostasy was beginning to work. In the seven churches in Asia Minor, addressed in Revelation 2-3 we find proof of this sad deflection.

The Apostasy Universal


Now the history of the church since it first became extensive has always been interwoven with the political affairs of nations and kingdoms. In the early ages its expansion was practically limited to the boundaries of the Roman Empire; therefore, its development and character were largely bound up with the fortunes of that empire itself. From the time of the permanent separation of the empire into eastern and western divisions, the churches of the East and the West gradually became more and more separated from each other and were designated by the term “Greek” in the East and “Latin” in the West, on account of the prevailing languages. Finally, the rupture became complete.
We must remember that before this separation took place, and while the churches East and West were closely united, the great Apostasy set in and affected the church universal. Therefore, since the separation we have simply two great divisions of the one great apostasy. Out of the one division developed the churches of the East—Greek, Old Syrian, Gregorian (Armenian), Abyssinian, Nestorian, Coptic, and others; while from the other divisions arose the Papacy in the West, and out of it Protestantism with its many divisions, as we shall see presently. Since the fortunes of the West, political and ecclesiastical, were destined to rise to greater heights and to overshadow and eclipse the fortunes of the East, the prophecies are naturally directed more particularly to the Western Empire, bringing into prominence the development of ecclesiasticism.

The Papacy


In the passage already quoted—II Thessalonians 2:3-4—it is the Papacy that the Apostle so graphically describes, as anyone who has a knowledge of church history can easily see. The description is so real that one could almost think that it was written after the development of the Papacy itself.
In this connection the Apostle shows that the seeds of apostasy out of which the Papacy was to grow were already planted, for he says, “The mystery of iniquity doth already work” (vs. 7). Though this church apostate grew up by degrees in the West, it attained great dominion and authority, civil and ecclesiastical, so that Rome became as thoroughly Christian (so-called) as it had previously been pagan. In fact, it was simply the Roman Empire in the West in another form, arrayed in a Christian garb instead of a heathen one. It is, therefore, described in the prophecies of the Revelation as the successor of the dragon, or heathen Rome, reigning in his stead and exercising his dominion and power.
“And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy. And the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion: and the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority” (Rev. 13:1-2).
The heads and horns of this beast prove his substantial identity with the dragon of chapter 12, as already explained. Verse 3 of chapter 13 says that one of his seven heads was wounded, then healed, after which “all the world wondered after the beast” and worshiped him. The explanation is to be found in Revelation 17, where the same beast appears again with its seven heads and ten horns (vs. 3). Here the seven heads are represented as seven kings, or powers—the seven distinct forms of government that ruled successively in the Roman Empire.
These heads and horns, however, pertained to the beast simply as a political power. The ecclesiastical part is in this seventeenth chapter described under the symbol of a corrupt woman sitting on this beast and directing it, which thus describes the Papacy to the very letter. “And I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet-colored beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet color, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication: and upon her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus: and when I saw her, I wondered with great admiration” (Rev. 17:3-6).
This description agrees with chapter 13, to which I have already referred, where the beast power, as a beast, represents the political dominion; while the ecclesiastical, or church, phase is represented by the human characteristics ascribed to the beast, one of which is persecution. “And it was given unto him to make war with the saints, and to overcome them: and power was given him over all kindreds, and tongues, and nations” (vs. 7). *
*For a comprehensive and detailed description of the Papacy set forth in these prophecies—its substantial identity with heathenism, its extravagant claims, its violent persecutions, the practical universality of its sway, and the time prophecies concerning the length of its undisputed reign, culminating in the great Sixteenth Century Reformation, I refer the reader to my book, The Revelation Explained, pp. 128138, 169-185.

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