The New Testament both prophesies and documents the first-century apostasy
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has proclaimed to the world consistently since its beginning that there was an apostasy of the church founded by Jesus during his Palestinian ministry and led by his Apostles following his ascension. 1 This is a fundamental belief of the Latter-day Saints. If there had not been an apostasy, there would have been no need for a restoration.
Latter-day Saint theology asserts that the church of the Savior and his Apostles in the Old World came to an end within a century after its formation. 2 The doctrines which its inspired leaders taught were corrupted and changed by others not of similar inspiration, the authority to act in God’s name was taken from the earth, and none of the Christian systems that existed after those developments, though they did some good things, enjoyed divine endorsement as the Lord’s own church. (JS—H 1:19; D&C 1:30.)
Possibly the best single witness of the apostasy of New Testament Christianity is the New Testament itself. The New Testament writers prophesied that apostasy would take place in the Church and that the Church in fact would be overcome by it. Just as significantly, the New Testament actually records apostasy happening as the book was being written. As time progressed, the heresies against which the Apostles contended became increasingly virulent and increasingly successful, as the record attests. Near the end of the first century, the apostolic record came to a sudden close.
In this article, we will first look at prophecies of the apostasy, then at the actual New Testament chronicle of the apostasy itself.
The New Testament contains several statements made by Jesus and his Apostles about the future of their work. Though the Apostles labored with great zeal to bring souls to the Lord and establish the Church throughout the world, still their prophetic utterances concerning the end result of their efforts foretold tragedy. In short, they knew that the Church would fall into apostasy shortly after their time, and they bore candid testimony of that fact, as the following passages demonstrate.
In Matthew 24, Jesus prophesied of events that would transpire in the near and distant future. Matthew 24:9-11 [Matt. 24:9-11] records a prophecy of great importance concerning the future of the Church (and the Joseph Smith—Matthew rendering of this passage places it clearly in the context of the latter days of the early Church). 3
“Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name’s sake.
“And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another.
“And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many.”
Here we learn that the Apostles would be afflicted, hated, and put to death for Christ’s sake. Yet the killing of the Apostles was not the cause of the apostasy. Other references clearly teach that Christianity died from an internal wound, the rejection of true doctrine by the members of the Church. Still, the death of those who alone held the authority to lead the Church could only mean the death of the Church itself.
Verse 10 provides a valuable prophecy of the rejection of truth by the Saints: “then shall many be offended.” The Greek verb skandalízô in the passive voice, translated offended in the King James Version, more accurately means, in a theological sense, “to give up one’s faith” or “fall into sin.” “Many,” the Savior foretells, will do it at that day.
Verse 11 records an additional prophecy—that many false prophets would arise and would “deceive many” (italics added). Recall that the historical context here is the last days of the apostolic era, when the Apostles would be afflicted, hated, and killed. Taking their places in the minds of many would be what the Savior calls “many false prophets.” 4
To the elders of Ephesus, Paul made this prophecy:
“For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock.
“Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.
“Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears.” (Acts 20:29-31; italics added.)
With the wolf metaphor, Paul was probably not describing physical attack or external persecution as much as he was foreseeing the rise of evil forces within the church and their gaining power over the Saints.
2 Thessalonians 2:1-12
In the second Thessalonian letter, Paul taught that the day of Christ’s coming would not take place until the “falling away” and the revelation of the “man of sin,” “the son of perdition.” (2 Thes. 2:3.)
The term “falling away” may give the incorrect impression of a process of drifting or gradually losing ground. The original Greek term, apostasía (from which we have the English word “apostasy”), means something much more drastic. Ancient sources use the term to describe political rebellion and revolution. 5 In verses 3 and 4, Paul asserted that the rebellion would supplant God from his position in the Church. The chief feature of this time of rebellion would be the triumph of the “man of sin … who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God.” (2 Thes. 2:3-4.) 6
The “man of sin,” generally equated with Satan, 7 would exalt himself over all that is divine and assume the place of God in the Church. Of historical and theological significance is the fact that in Paul’s prophecy the church structure survives. But God is not at its head, making that church—following the appearance in it of Satan—no longer the church of God.
To say that Satan sits in the place of God in Christianity after the time of the Apostles is not to say that all that is in it is satanic. Indeed, Latter-day Saints should rejoice—as the heavens undoubtedly do—at the great works of righteousness and faith, and the leavening influence on the world, of those whose lives are touched in any degree by Him whose gospel the Saints enjoy in its fulness. Still, “the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16) is absent from all but the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which the Lord himself has proclaimed to be “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth” (D&C 1:30). Satan’s goal of hindering many of God’s children from returning to their Father’s glory is thus realized. How appropriate, therefore, is Paul’s description of him sitting in the place of God in the church of the apostasía.
1 Timothy 4:1-3
In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he prophesied concerning the departure of some of the Saints from the faith:
A few decades after Paul foretold the departure of some from the faith in the “latter times,” Jude wrote of “certain men [who had] crept in unawares” (Jude 1:4), reminding readers that the Apostles had warned earlier that “there should be mockers in the last time who should walk after their own ungodly lusts.” (Jude 1:17-19.) Similarly, John expressed to the readers of his first letter the certainty of the fact that they themselves were in “the last time” (eschátê hôra—see 1 Jn. 2:18-19). Clearly John and Jude knew that they were not in the final era of the world, but their words reveal the fact that they knew that they were in the final day of the Christian church, when the night of apostasy was beginning. 9 While many of the signs of apostasy they spoke of apply readily to the “latter days” preceding the second coming of Jesus Christ, it appears that their primary focus was on the apostasy in process in the first century A.D.
As we have seen in other prophecies examined so far, the departure from the faith would be a defection from true principles of doctrine. What Paul saw was not an abandonment of religion but a shifting of loyalties from the true faith to a false faith.
2 Timothy 4:3-4
Paul’s final prophecy of the abandonment of true religion is found in the last chapter of 2 Timothy, where he talks about men replacing “sound doctrine” with “fables.” Again, Paul saw a willful rejection of true doctrine and its replacement by doctrines that were untrue but more to the liking of the hearers. Notice that the people involved, although unwilling to put up with correct teachings, desired teachings nonetheless. Having “itching ears”—a desire to hear religion—they would acquire teachers whose doctrines were acceptable to them. [2 Tim. 2:3-4]
2 Peter 2:1-3
Paul was not alone among the Apostles in prophesying doom for early Christianity. In 2 Peter, the chief Apostle foretold the introduction of false teachers into the Church:
“But there were false prophets also among the people [of old], even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily [i.e., secretly] shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction.
“And many shall follow their pernicious ways; by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of.” (2 Pet. 2:1-2.)
In Revelation 13 we read John’s vision of the victory of the forces of Satan over the Saints of the Lord. In his vision, John saw the appearance of a beast, which was an agent of the devil. “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.” (Rev. 13:7, italics added.)
The Prophet Joseph Smith said that this beast was “in the likeness of the kingdoms of the earth.” (JST, Rev. 13:1.) Kingdom, in a scriptural context, can mean any kind of institution, movement, force, or power—religious, political, or otherwise. In viewing John’s beast in the light of its context in Revelation 13 and other prophetic statements concerning the fall of the Church, we can identify it as the institutions or forces that prevailed over (or, more accurately, corrupted) true Christianity, leaving an apostate Christianity in its place.
The foregoing passages demonstrate that Jesus and his Apostles knew that the Church which they headed would come to an end shortly after their generation. But perhaps even more striking than the prophecies of apostasy is the evidence of apostasy actually taking place as the New Testament was being written. In the writings of the Apostles we have ample evidence that as the Christian church grew so also did the cancerous elements within it that finally led to its death. The New Testament not only foretold the death of the Church, but it also recorded it as it happened. In fact, the end of the New Testament essentially heralds the end of the Church.
In order to demonstrate that fact, let us examine in chronological order several issues from the New Testament epistles. It will become apparent that as the first century progressed, the doctrinal and behavioral problems against which the Apostles struggled became increasingly severe. In the earliest letters, written midway through the first century, the Apostles had to contend with relatively harmless issues of doctrinal misunderstanding. But by the time the last letters were written at the end of the century, the heresies were so malignant that the Apostles could no longer hold back the tide of apostasy.
1 and 2 Thessalonians (ca. A.D. 50-51)
In the Thessalonian letters, the doctrinal problems to which Paul had to address himself were corrected fairly easily. In both letters, misunderstandings concerning Jesus’ second coming are evident. In 1 Thessalonians, the problem was the belief that those who were alive when the second coming took place would have an advantage over those who had died previously. (See 1 Thes. 4:13-17.) In the second letter, Paul refuted the idea that the “day of Christ” was “at hand” (2 Thes. 2:2) by prophesying of the apostasy that would precede that day (see 2 Thes. 2:3-4).
We can assume that a belief such as that which Paul countered in 2 Thessalonians could have grave implications for the Church. Without examining the hypothetical possibilities, we could conclude that without Paul’s corrective letter the Thessalonian Saints may have developed greater problems. The Church was fortunate that Paul, by virtue of his apostolic priesthood authority and divinely endowed spiritual gifts, could speak the Lord’s word to ensure the integrity of the Church. One might ask, what happens to the Church when such men are no longer in it?
James (ca. mid-50s A.D.)
In the letter of James, it is clear that the Apostle was contending against incorrect ideas concerning the nature of faith in relation to Christian works. His corrective words include “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” (James 2:26.) An underemphasis of the works of the gospel is perhaps not the kind of problem that would bring all of Christianity to ruin, and James gave us no hint that he expected wholesale apostasy because of it. Yet those who were guilty of disregarding the importance of works had a “dead” religion, to use James’s word, and a “dead” religion certainly has no power to save. Perhaps without James’s letter more serious problems could have developed.
1 Corinthians (ca. A.D. 56)
If 1 Corinthians is a realistic indicator, the church at Corinth developed serious problems in doctrine and behavior not long after it was founded. In chapters 1 to 4 [1 Cor. 1-4], for example, Paul wrote concerning factions or divisions that had developed in the Corinthian church around various authorities. The mere thought that some may have been focusing their allegiance on him rather than on Christ was so offensive to Paul that he considered himself fortunate that he had not baptized more of them into the Church, “lest any should say that I had baptized in my own name.” (See 1 Cor. 1:10-16.) It can be argued that giving allegiance to one church leader over others is, in lesser degrees, not the stuff from which apostasy immediately develops. It is clear, however, that if left uncorrected it could bring more serious problems of allegiance and doctrine into the Church.
In chapter 5, Paul reprimanded the Corinthian Saints in the strongest of terms for allowing a case of incest to go uncorrected. He commanded in the name of the Lord that the guilty party be excommunicated. Paul said, “Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?” (1 Cor. 5:6), speaking of the damaging potential of allowing a moral problem as serious as incest to remain unpurged. It should be recalled that a few years later Paul prophesied that the abandonment of true religion would be accompanied by the acceptance of degenerate standards of moral behavior. (See 2 Tim. 3:1-4.)
First Corinthians deals with doctrinal heresies as well, among which were the misuse of the sacrament (1 Cor. 11) and a distorted understanding of spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12-14). Yet perhaps the most revealing doctrinal problem at Corinth was the belief of some that there is no resurrection. In chapter 15 Paul established the validity of the doctrine that Jesus rose from the dead and that all people would do likewise, pointing out that Christianity is meaningless if there is no resurrection. (See 1 Cor. 15:14, 17-19.)
To deal with each of these issues at Corinth, Paul wrote decisively and firmly. We have no way of knowing to what degree his letter motivated the Corinthians to reject the false ideas circulating among them, but the issues involved were serious and potentially very damaging.
2 Corinthians (ca. A.D. 57)
In 2 Corinthians Paul reveals much of himself, his problems, and his actions. Among the Corinthians were some who had attacked Paul’s doctrine and his dedication to the work of the Lord. Paul felt the situation was serious enough to warrant a frank defense. And so, in a manner not usually characteristic of Paul, he spoke of his sacrifices in behalf of the gospel—his whippings, imprisonments, stonings, shipwrecks, pain, hunger, and thirst—and of his visions and revelations. (See 2 Cor. 11:23-27; 2 Cor. 12:1-12.) Paul said he was speaking foolishly in doing so (see 2 Cor. 11:21, 23), yet as a representative of the Lord he had an obligation to defend his own integrity and that of his message. If the Corinthian Saints rejected Paul, the messenger who brought them the gospel, what would prevent them from rejecting the message as well?
Galatians (ca. A.D. 58)
In the letter to the Galatians, Paul responded to a movement within the Church that countered his teachings with a Judaized Christianity and attacked him personally. Among the Jewish converts in the Church were those who held that members must observe certain Jewish practices to be saved. It appears from the letter that the success of the anti-Pauline Judaizers was high, which caused Paul a great deal of concern. Paul accused the Saints of turning to what he called “another gospel” under the influence of those who would “pervert the gospel of Christ.” (Gal. 1:6-7.) Among other things, he accused them of looking back to the Law of Moses for salvation (Gal. 3:1-5), observing Jewish holidays (Gal. 4:10), and accepting circumcision again (Gal. 5:2-4). So emphatic was he with regard to the apostolic authority of his message and its divine origin that he punctuated his rebuke by saying that even if “an angel from heaven” came teaching doctrine different from what he had taught, it should be rejected! (Gal. 1:6-12.)
Colossians (ca. A.D. 61)
In Paul’s epistle to the Colossians, we find the earliest evidence for gnosticism in the early Christian Church. 10 Gnosticism was a false philosophy that had at its focus a belief that spirit was perfect and holy but that matter, and all that was created of it, was entirely evil. This idea held that God was a being of pure spirit and could have nothing to do with man, a creature of matter (and therefore evil); so instead of worshipping God, gnostics revered an extensive hierarchy of lower deities. It is probable that in his letter to the Saints of Colossae, Paul attacked just such a heresy by denouncing what he called the “worshipping of angels.” (Col. 2:18.)
One problem Christian gnostics faced was that Christians believed Jesus Christ to have been both God and man. Because Jesus had a body of matter, his position in the heavenly hierarchies was problematic for gnostics. Paul responded forcefully to this ambivalence regarding the role of Jesus when he emphasized in Colossians 1:16-17 and 2:9-10 [Col. 1:16-17; Col. 2:9-10] His preeminence over all. 11 Note the power of his words as he defined Jesus’ position:
“For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him.” (Col. 1:16.)
Paul proclaimed the Savior to be “the head of all principality and power.” (Col. 2:10.) He warned the Colossians to “beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.” (Col. 2:8.) Gnosticism and related heresies were a serious problem for the Church. Such beliefs were so antithetical to the doctrines of Jesus and the Apostles that attempts to merge and reconcile them contributed to the corruption of the original faith. Extra-biblical sources tell us that gnosticism played an important role in the first centuries of Christian history. 12 Whereas the religion of the Apostles did not continue, its gnosticized counterpart did.
1 Timothy and Titus (ca. A.D. 63)
The pastoral epistles give additional evidence that apostate doctrines were widespread in Christianity even while Paul was still alive. A major source of heretical teaching was gnosticism.
The term gnosticism comes from the Greek noun gnôsis, which means “knowledge.” Gnostics believed that they had secret “knowledge” that had been passed on to them by Jesus or the Apostles. They held that it was through this gnôsis that one was saved, for it enabled him to rise above the evil physical world. Paul may have been warning Timothy to beware of such false “knowledge” when he wrote: “O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and disputations of what is falsely called knowledge [gnôsis].” 13
In 1 Timothy 1:3-4 [1 Tim. 1:3-4], Paul counseled Timothy to teach others to avoid “fables and endless genealogies.” Similarly, he admonished Titus to “avoid foolish questions, and genealogies.” (Titus 3:9.) We know that genealogy for worthy purposes was known among early Christians. (See Matt. 1:1-16; Luke 3:23-38; Acts 4:36; Philip. 3:5.) What Paul was referring to here was quite different, since he denounced it in the context of speculative doctrinal contention that was “unprofitable and vain.” (Titus 3:9.)
Gnosticism’s dualism of pure spirit on one extreme and evil matter on the other gave rise to an extensive genealogy of subordinate deities, each descending from one more holy than himself. In some second-century gnostic systems, there were as many as 365 levels in this chain of divine beings. 14 Many commentators believe that Paul’s prohibition against “endless genealogies” refers to this type of structure. 15 Such diverting speculations do not edify in faith, Paul said, but “minister questions.” (1 Tim. 1:4.)
The pastoral epistles show other signs of the popularity of false doctrine in the Church. Paul warned Timothy of those who teach ideas other than the word of Jesus Christ. Those who do so are obsessed with “questions and strifes of words,” out of which come “perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds.” (1 Tim. 6:3-5; see also 2 Tim. 2:23.) He told Titus:
“For there are many unruly and vain talkers and deceivers, specially they of the circumcision:
“Whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole houses, teaching things which they ought not. …
“Wherefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith,
“Not giving heed to Jewish fables, and commandments of men, that turn from the truth.” (Titus 1:10-11, 13-14.)
2 Timothy (ca. A.D. 67)
Paul’s final letter, written to his beloved associate Timothy, was penned while the aged Apostle awaited his execution in Rome. In this pathetic setting, Paul spoke of the apostasy as having already begun. He warned Timothy against “profane and vain babblings: for they will increase unto more ungodliness. And their word will eat as doth a canker.” (2 Tim. 2:16-17.) He mentioned two men guilty of spreading false doctrine who had ruined the faith of some by teaching that the final resurrection had already taken place.
Perhaps Paul’s most sorrow-filled words are those found in 2 Timothy 1:15 [ 2 Tim. 1:15]: “This thou knowest, that all they which are in Asia be turned away from me.” His choice of words is grim evidence of apostasy among the churches in Asia. Paul had taught the gospel there thirteen years earlier, and the people had accepted it in tremendous numbers. (Acts 19:8-22.) But now they were turning from him, and from his message as well. (See 2 Tim. 2:16-18, 23-26.) He saw the time when the churches would become corrupted, “having a form of godliness; but denying the power thereof.” (2 Tim. 3:5.)
Jude (ca. A.D. 80)
By the time the epistle of Jude was written, the apostasy was well underway, as Jude’s words attest. He exhorted his readers to “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” (Jude 1:3.) As Elder James E. Talmage wrote, “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.” 16 A translation of the Greek original of verse 4 [Jude 1:4] shows the cause for Jude’s concern: “Certain people have infiltrated among you; and they are the ones you had a warning about, in writing, long ago.” 17
Jude continued by likening the apostates of his day to several from more ancient times. Among other charges with which he condemned them was the assertion that they “despise dominion and speak evil of dignities” (Jude 1:8), an overt act of rebellion similar to that described in 3 John [3 Jn.].
Near the end of the letter, Jude reminded the readers, “Remember ye the words which were spoken before of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ; how that they told you there should be mockers in the last time, who should walk after their own ungodly lusts.” He emphasized that this day had now arrived: “These be they who separate themselves, sensual, having not the Spirit.” (Jude 1:17-19.) Elder Talmage commented, “clearly he is referring to the apostates of the time.” 18
Revelation (ca. A.D. 96)
In John’s apocalypse we find convincing evidence that apostasy was finally destroying the Church. The evidence is found in the messages to the seven churches of Asia in chapters 2 and 3.
To Ephesus the message contained both congratulations and condemnation. (Rev. 2:1-7.) The Ephesians had been successful in rejecting false apostles and other apostate influences, yet they had “fallen,” succumbing to certain evils. Without immediate repentance, John warned, they would be cast off by the Lord.
Similarly, the Saints at Pergamos were told that if they did not repent the Lord would destroy them quickly. (Rev. 2:12-17.) They were guilty of false religion, characterized as “the doctrine of Balaam,” the Old Testament prophet who led Israel into apostate worship.
To Thyatira the condemnation was of the same sort. (Rev. 2:18-29.) Though worthy of congratulation for good works, the Saints there were guilty of allowing a heretical movement referred to by the name Jezebel to “seduce” them into apostate practice. Jezebel was infamous for guiding Israel into the worship of false gods. Though challenged to repent before, those who had been seduced by the heresy had refused. Those who had not been tainted by the doctrine, who had “not known the depths of Satan,” were commanded to “hold fast” to what they had.
To Sardis the communication was somber: the church there was “ready to die.” (Rev. 3:1-6.) Only a few had not defiled themselves. If the rest did not repent, their names would be blotted out of “the book of life.”
Philadelphia received a more promising message. (Rev. 3:7-13.) It had a “little strength” left, and if it held fast, no one would take its crown.
The two remaining messages are those to Smyrna (Rev. 2:8-11) and Laodicea (Rev. 3:14-22). The Saints in Smyrna were praised, and no faults were mentioned concerning the church. But a tragic fate awaited them. They would be imprisoned and suffer martyrdom. They were admonished not to fear what was coming and to be “faithful unto death.” In so doing, they would receive a “crown of life” and would “not be hurt of the second death.” In contrast, the Lord’s word to Laodicea was that the church there was spiritually “wretched,” “miserable,” “poor,” “blind,” and “naked.” Because of its indifference to the things of God, he would spit it out of his mouth.
If the messages to the seven churches of Asia paint a fair picture of the overall status of early Christianity, one cannot avoid the conclusion that the prophecies of apostasy were then being fulfilled. Of the seven churches, only two were not condemned, and one of those was to suffer martyrdom. One church was ready to die because of its sins; another was to be spit out of God’s mouth. Of the rest, all were guilty of serious error, and each was told in strong terms that if it did not repent it would be rejected.
1 and 2 John (ca. A.D. 98)
John’s letters are the latest writings of the New Testament. The view that they provide of the Church at the end of the century is a tragic one. John told his readers that the last hours of the Church had come, as prophesied, and that the powers of apostasy were among them in force:
Continuing, John stated that the antichrists had come from among the Saints: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us.” (1 Jn. 2:19.)
Later in his letter, John warned his readers further about apostate influences among them: “Many false prophets are gone out into the world.” (1 Jn. 4:1.) John clearly was writing about false prophets within Christianity. Recall that in his letter from Patmos to the Ephesians he made mention of false apostles who had been discovered and repelled. (Rev. 2:2.)
Next, John gave the means by which his readers could test a person or prophet to see if he were of God:
“Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God:
“And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.” (1 Jn. 4:2-3.)
The belief that Jesus had not really come in the flesh but had only appeared to do so is called docetism. 20 This belief was based on the gnostic view that it would be impossible for a divine being such as Christ to be associated with matter, since matter was evil. Docetism denied, therefore, the humanity of Christ, his physical suffering, his physical death, and his physical resurrection; he only seemed to have a physical body.
John denounced as deceivers and antichrist those “who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh” (see 1 Jn. 2:22-26; 2 Jn. 1:7) and pleaded with the Saints to hold fast to true doctrines: “Let that therefore abide in you, which ye have heard from the beginning. If that which ye have heard from the beginning shall remain in you, ye also shall continue in the Son, and in the Father.” (1 Jn. 2:24.)
3 John (ca. A.D. 98)
John’s third letter focuses on apostasy. In it he made reference to one Diotrephes, a local Church leader who, as John put it, “loveth to have the preeminence” among the Saints. (3 Jn. 1:9.) In his capacity as an Apostle, John had written to him, but Diotrephes would not receive him. Neither would he receive “the brethren,” and he would not let his congregation do so either. In fact, he excommunicated those who would. (3 Jn. 1:10.)
This was apostasy by any definition. It was rebellion against divinely instituted authority. John promised to deal with the offending leader when he could, but if Diotrephes did not recognize John’s authority, no doubt he would not have responded to his discipline either. Hence, by the third generation of Christian history, not only doctrinal apostasy was taking place, but some were in open rebellion against priesthood authority. With their rejection of John, they severed the final legitimate link of doctrinal and priesthood authority between Christ and the church that bore his name.
Suggested Dates of the Letters Chronicling the Apostasy
1 and 2 Thessalonians
ca. A.D. 50-51
ca. mid-50s A.D.
ca. A.D. 56
ca. A.D. 57
ca. A.D. 58
ca. A.D. 61
1 Timothy, Titus
ca. A.D. 63
ca. A.D. 67
ca. A.D. 80
ca. A.D. 96
ca. A.D. 98
The New Testament does not preserve for us a complete history of the Christian church of the first century A.D. We possess in addition to the Gospels only the twenty-eight chapters of the book of Acts—most of which is not a history of the Church but a history of the career of one Apostle—and less than two dozen letters. These documents give us only a faint view of the seventy-year period which they span. There are major gaps in our knowledge of the activities of the Apostles, their lives, their teachings, and their deaths.
We do know that in the early years following the resurrection of Jesus the Apostles added additional members to their number as vacancies required. 21 Eventually, however, the succession ended. By A.D. 95 only John remained, as far as we know. When John left his public ministry, apostleship ceased. Had it been God’s will, others certainly could have been chosen. But clearly it was not. The apostasy did not happen because the Apostles were gone; the Apostles were taken because the apostasy had occurred. 22
When Jesus sent his Special Witnesses into the world, he commanded them to bear testimony of him. They did this in two significant ways. First, they traveled far, preaching the gospel and bearing witness of Jesus wherever they went. Second, they left their testimony in the form of the records that we call collectively the New Testament. This record, preserved for all generations, is the written testimony of those who were commissioned to be “witnesses unto [Christ] … unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The Apostles were kept on earth long enough to fulfill the divine command. They did not fail.
As we have seen, the Lord knew, and his Apostles knew, that the Saints would turn away from the true faith that had been taught to them. We have seen also that it happened—slowly at first, but with increasing speed in each succeeding decade. And, as we have seen, with the rejection of true religion came the rejection of true authority as well. Concerning this, Elder Mark E. Petersen stated, “But this all had been predicted. The Lord foresaw this apostasy. As he would not perform further miracles before the unbelievers at Capernaum, neither would he leave his anointed Twelve in an apostate group. So John was taken from among men.” 23
With the last Apostle gone from the church, the night of apostasy was upon it; and so it would remain until the dawn of another day—the day of the Restoration.