Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Tragedy of Apostasy: Mark 14:17-21

Audio available here
(Due to a technical glitch, part of the introduction is missing in the audio. The remark I made at the end of the message on the audio has to do with a piece of anonymous hate mail I received on the Thursday prior to the Sunday when this message was preached.)

They say that confession is good for the soul, and I have a confession to make. I’m not proud of it, but I feel I need to just get it out in the open. I have a problem with prejudice. No, I don’t mean racial prejudice. My prejudice has to do with snakes. When I see a snake, I assume it is up to no good. In fact, I would say that my prejudice is more accurately described as a hatred. I think the only good snakes are dead ones. Now, animal lovers will tell me that I need to change my views on snakes. They tell me I need to give snakes a chance. They say there’s some good snakes out there. The Scarlet Kingsnake, for instance, I am told makes a wonderful pet and kills other problem species. And I know people who say they are beautiful. They are colorful with bands red, black, and yellow along their body. But there is another snake that is colorful with bands of red, black, and yellow along its body which is deadly venomous. The Coral Snake has the second most potent venom of any snake found in the United States. The Kingsnake and the Coral Snake look almost just alike. The difference is in the order of the colors in their stripes. A little poem is used to tell them apart. When red meets black, venom lacks. When red meets yellow, it will kill a fellow. But my prejudice against snakes is such that when I see one, I don’t take the time to recite poetry or to ask the snake if he is friend or foe. When it comes to snakes, looks can be deceiving, and the deception could be deadly.

The same can be true of those who call themselves Christian. Among those who call themselves Christian are those who have genuinely been born-again. Through the convicting and regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, they have turned from sin and placed their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. And then there are those who have taken the label of Christian upon themselves without ever having been genuinely converted. They have found church involvement to be of some benefit to their life and are fond of certain aspects of Christian practice. But they are not genuinely saved; they are apostates. The word apostate or apostasy refers to a counterfeit believer. It is one who pretends to be a Christian, and one who may in due time turn their backs on Jesus altogether. They do not lose their salvation, because you cannot lose something you never had. By their defection from the faith, they demonstrate themselves to have never been saved. True believers are empowered by the Holy Spirit to persevere in the Christian faith; apostates rely upon self-effort, and when that is exhausted, they fall away.

Christian history has seen many apostates. And the Scriptures tell us that in the last days, we can expect many more. In His parable of the wheat and the tares in Matthew 13, Jesus told of how the enemy comes in the night and sows tares, or weeds, among the wheat. And both grow together in the same field, but when harvest comes, they will be gathered and separated. The wheat will be brought into the master’s barn, and the tares will be thrown into the fire. That parable is about apostasy. There will always be tares sown among the wheat, and there will always be false believers found amongst the faithful. It was true of Jesus’ 12 disciples, and it will continue to be true among His people until He returns. In our brief passage today, Jesus warned His disciples concerning the tragedy of apostasy as He indicated that one of them would betray Him. And we must take heed to these words and receive them as a warning against this tragedy as well. Several tragedies of apostasy are found here in these verses.

The first of these tragedies are seen in our Lord’s words in vv18 & 20.
I. Christian involvement does not prevent apostasy (vv 18, 20)

That should go without saying, for only those who are involved in Christian activity can commit apostasy. It is only those who have the appearance of being Christian and who make the claim of being Christian who may in fact be apostate. But this is a tragedy nonetheless. Notice what Jesus says of the one who is going to betray Him. He says in v18, “One of you will betray Me – one who is eating with Me.” He says in v20, “It is one of the 12, one who dips with Me in the bowl.” Notice the closeness of this one to Jesus. Here He is gathered for Passover, an observance usually partaken with one’s family with His disciples. These 12 are those for whom He spent a night in prayer before choosing them to be His own. And one of them, as Jesus says in John’s gospel, “is a devil.”

It is significant that twice Jesus mentions the fact that He will be betrayed by one who has fellowshipped with Him at the table. His words here echo the 41st Psalm, in which David laments the betrayal of Ahithophel, who had been his trusted friend. He says, “Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted up his heel against me.” In that culture, sharing a meal together was a precious symbol of friendship and loyalty. To betray someone with whom you had shared a table, a meal, even a single dish, was an unthinkable act of treachery.

Someone has said, “Friends are something we never have enough of, and seldom have as many we think.” Have you ever felt like that? David felt that. Ahithophel had been his trusted counselor, and he turned his back on David to conspire in the rebellion of Absalom. Jesus felt it too. He knew in advance that one of those whom He had chosen to be with Him and to serve Him, with whom He had shared a table of fellowship, would turn his back and betray Him.

Christian activity and church involvement does not a Christian make. It is possible to walk the aisle of the church, have perfect attendance in Sunday School, to be a teacher, a deacon, even a pastor, to be the best dressed, friendliest person in the church and not be born again. Conversion is not the result of our works. Ephesians 2:8-9 is as true today as it was when Paul wrote it: “by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Christian involvement may in fact be a false assurance that keeps one from seeing his or her true need for salvation. The question is, “What are you trusting to save you?” And if the answer is anything you have done, like walking an aisle, joining the church, attending the church, or anything else that is done out of self-effort, then a person is not saved. Our only hope of being saved is Jesus. We must trust Him alone – His death as the payment for our sins, His resurrection as the assurance of His promise. And until a person has turned from self-reliance and self-effort to cast themselves wholly upon the mercy of God in Jesus, they remain lost in their sins no matter how involved he or she may be in Christian activity. They are apostate unless they have been genuinely born again. And that is a TRAGEDY!

Is it possible that in some Baptist church today somewhere in America, there sits one or more individuals who call themselves Christian, who are regularly involved in Christian activity, who on the surface appear to be Christian, but who will betray Jesus and fall away from the faith? I would say that, if among the 12 whom Jesus hand-picked to follow Him there could be apostates, then it is not only possible but probable that the same is true in many congregations today. Immanuel Baptist Church is no exception. And that is a tragedy to think that one with whom we have enjoyed fellowship, one who has sat by our side Sunday by Sunday, one who has been involved in the work of the Lord in this church, could actually not be saved, and one day turn his or her back on Jesus and walk away from the faith altogether.

I understand human nature enough to know that when you hear that, you will be inclined to think, “I wonder who it could be? Could it be him? Could it be her?” But I believe this is the wrong question to ask. And here we move to the second tragedy of apostasy found in this passage.

II. It is possible to be apostate and not know it. (v19)

When Jesus said, “One of you will betray Me,” notice that the disciples did not begin consulting with one another speculating who it might be. They do not say, “I bet He is talking about Judas.” Instead, each one to the man, including Judas, says, “Surely not I?” Here sits Peter, James, John, and Andrew, each of whom having had the opportunity of private fellowship with Jesus as His inner circle. Yet these even question, “Lord, will it be me?” Here sits Judas Iscariot, who has already struck the deal with the Sanhedrin for the betrayal, and even he asks, “Surely not I?”

One of the most crucial doctrines of the Christian faith is the total depravity of man. We are born sinners. No exceptions. Since Adam and Eve fell to sin in the garden, every person ever born with the exception of the Lord Jesus Himself has a sinful nature. Total depravity does not mean that we are as bad as we could possibly be. No matter how bad a person is, it isn’t hard to imagine that they could be worse! Rather, total depravity means that sin has infected every part of our being. Sin affects our reasoning, our decision-making, our thought patterns, our actions, our relationships, and every other aspect of our lives. Timothy George, our esteemed Southern Baptist brother and Dean of the Beeson Divinity School at Samford University, prefers to use the phrase “Radical Corruption” to describe our sinful state. Perhaps that better captures the idea.

Now, because of our radically corrupted nature, we are all capable of unthinkable evil. No one is exempt. Jeremiah 17:9 says it like this: “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; Who can understand it?” What that means is that I am unaware of the capabilities of my own heart. I can’t even understand myself. Do you realize that Jesus knows your heart better than you do? He knows more than you and I do what we are truly capable of. Therefore, when He says, “One of you will betray me,” the appropriate response is not, “Well I know it won’t be me, so who is talking about?” The right response is, “Lord, could I be that one?” And were it not for the work of the Holy Spirit in producing perseverance in those who are genuinely converted, it very well could be me, or you, or any other person who calls themselves His follower.

The Apostle Paul issued a warning in 1 Cor 10:12: “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall.” Jesus statement here about the self-deceiving nature of apostasy needs to shake us all into a soul-check. As I prepared these words this week, I had to come aside with the Lord and say, “Oh Lord, you know my heart better than I do. If I am falsely assured or self-deceived, please convict my heart of the truth.” What am I trusting in to save me? My own goodness? My own efforts? My own words? God help me if that is true. I trust in Christ alone to save me, and to secure me unto Himself for eternity. I am no better than the hymn-writer who confessed in that great hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” that he is “prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love; Here’s my heart Lord take and seal it for Thy courts above.”

I do not want to be paralyzed in my Christian walk by endless doubts of my own salvation. John tells us that he wrote his first epistle that we may know that we have eternal life. God wants us to rest in the finished work of Christ and to be assured of our relationship with Him. But at the same time, I know that there are worse things than moments of soul-searching doubt. Namely, progressing through life in false assurance of salvation when one really isn’t saved would be eternally and infinitely worse than a moment of passing doubt. In 2 Corinthians 13:5, Paul says, “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test?”

It is just as possible for us as it was for the twelve, that in our midst may very well be one or more who is self-decieved, lost in sin without knowing it, trusting in all the wrong things to save them. Will we be spiritually mature enough to say, “Lord, is it me?” and examine ourselves as we have been admonished? Or will we arrogantly walk on in presumption and assume, “It can’t be me, he must be talking about someone else.” I hope you are right. But a moment spent with Christ in the examination of your own soul in the light of the promises of His word could make a tremendous difference for each of us in this life, and more importantly in the life to come.

This brings us to the third tragedy of apostasy.

III. The consequences of apostasy are of unspeakable severity (v21)

Jesus says, “Woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed.” This word Woe occurs frequently in the New Testament. It is a word of pain, of sorrow, of grief. It always expresses unpleasant realities. Almost always it precedes a pronouncement of judgment as it does here. Woe to this betrayer, Jesus says, for “it would have been good for that man if he had not been born.” The consequences of his apostasy are unspeakable. Jesus does not declare what those consequences will be, He only says that nonexistence would be preferable to it. Better, He says, to have never lived at all, than to face what awaits the apostate in eternity. What could this be? Well, we know that eternity only offers two destinations, and heaven hardly fits this description. It is plainly and painfully obvious that Jesus is speaking of the horrors of hell; horrors of such intensity that to speak of them would do injustice to them. He merely says that given the choice, one would choose to never even have lived than to end up there.

It has been said that in our day people by and large do not believe in heaven and hell. I think that is only half true. I think that a good many people believe in heaven, and that they wrongly believe that everyone will end up there. Just hang out at funeral homes and listen to the things that are said. I have stood beside the casket of hardened atheists, who to my knowledge, never came to repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus, though ultimately only God knows for sure. And in those moments I have heard well-intentioned people say idiotic things like, “Well, at least they aren’t suffering anymore.” Beloved, if that person did not know the saving grace of Jesus, they haven’t begun to fathom the suffering that awaits them. And unlike the sufferings of this life, which are only temporary, the sufferings of hell are eternal.

On the surface, what noticeable difference is there between Judas Iscariot and Simon Peter? Both were called by Jesus to follow and serve Him. Both spent the better part of three entire years with Him. Both heard His wondrous teachings, and saw His glorious miracles. Yet one was saved and the other was lost. One had been genuinely converted to faith in Christ, the other was an apostate. One will spend eternity in heaven, the other, well it would be better for him if he’d never been born. But did they not both turn their backs on Jesus? Indeed they did. But Peter demonstrated the genuineness of his conversion by returning to the Lord in repentance, and he was restored. Judas went out and hanged himself in despair.

Now there are those who would say that it isn’t fair that Judas would have to suffer an eternity in hell because of his apostasy. After all, did Jesus not say, “The Son of Man is to go just as it is written of Him”? In other words, wasn’t Judas just carrying out God’s plan in handing Jesus over to die? So, he really didn’t have a choice did he? Why should he suffer these unspeakable consequences? Herein is the age-old conundrum of divine sovereignty and human freedom. Time does not permit us to discuss this in detail, but a little explanation is in order.

God knows the free actions that human beings will take in any given circumstance. And He providentially arranges the circumstances we find ourselves in so that our free actions further His purposes. His foreknowledge of our actions is perfect and infallible. But the moral decision to act remains our own free choice. Therefore, when we choose to sin, we are not absolved of moral responsibility. God’s foreknowledge and His providence did not force our hands to act. God chose to bring about a particular set of circumstances in creating this world and in sending His Son into this world to die for human sin. And those circumstances entailed Judas’ betrayal. Judas is not a blind victim of fatalistic providence and foreordination. He is a responsible moral agent who made a free choice. He did not determine Judas’ actions, but He determined the circumstances Judas found himself in. The choice, however, was Judas’ to make. And he chose to betray the Lord. Therefore, God is able to bring about His own purposes through the free action of Judas, and yet Judas remains accountable for his action. He will face the consequences of apostasy, and those consequences are unspeakably tragic.

The same is true of others who make a shipwreck of their own souls by resisting the Spirit’s promptings to be converted and who abandon Christ fully and finally. It isn’t that they lose their salvation. They never had it to begin with. And as a result, it would be better for that person had they never been born, than to face the unspeakable torment of hell.

The tragedies of apostasy are innumerable. But in this passage, these three stand out. Christian involvement does not prevent apostasy. Apostates may be self-deceived. And the consequences of apostasy are unthinkable. Understanding these tragedies should prompt us to respond in particular ways. Most importantly, we should heed the words of Paul in 2 Cor 13:5 to examine ourselves to see if we are in the faith. How do you do that? First, consider this question: If God were to ask you, “Why should I let you into heaven?” what would you say? If you would answer anything other than, “Jesus Christ died for my sins and rose again, and I have put my trust completely in Him to save me,” then you are trusting in the wrong things to save you. Being a good person, attending church, joining the church, being baptized, taking communion, saying your prayers, or any number of other good things, will not save you. Christ alone saves. So we must ask ourselves, “What am I trusting to save me?” And the answer should be Christ alone. Second, we should examine our lives for evidence that the Holy Spirit abides in us. In Galatians 5, Paul contrasts the deeds of the flesh with the fruit of the Spirit. Where a life is dominated by the flesh, it will be marked by immorality , impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. But where the Spirit of Christ indwells and fills a believer, his or her life will be characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Other biblical assurances of regeneration include a love for and obedience to God’s word and love for other believers. We must ask ourselves, “Are these things present in my life?” And if through that self-examination, one discovers that he or she is actually not saved, then that individual should with all haste turn to Christ in repentance and faith and be born again. Many times, embarrassment and pride will stand in the way. A person who has played the church game for many years will not actually want to admit that they were actually unsaved. But beloved, if one of us is apostate, it would be a severe tragedy to let pride stand in the way of the opportunity for salvation. We must humble ourselves and cast ourselves on the mercy of God if that is the case.

Then secondly, the knowledge of apostasy and its tragedies, should move us to prayer for Christ’s church. There will always be tares sown among the wheat. We must be in prayer for the church to be led by regenerate, Spirit-filled believers, and that the falsely assured apostates in the church will be prevented from disrupting the fellowship and function of the body. And combined with this prayerfulness should be a determination to always be sharing the gospel, not only outside the walls of the church but inside as well. We need to share our testimonies with each other, and share with one another the promises of God’s words. We never know when a casual conversation may actually be a divine appointment in which God is going to use our words to draw a person to salvation.

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