The Certainty of Apostasy
some will fall away from the faith, (4:1c)
The key to unlock this passage is the phrase in verse 1, some will fall away from the faith. There will be those, like Judas, Demas, and the false disciples of John 6:66, and those often warned in Hebrews, who abandon the faith. Fall away is from aphistēmi, which means “to depart from,” or “to remove oneself from the position originally occupied to another place.” It is a stronger term than either the word translated “straying” in 1:6, or the one translated “suffered shipwreck” in 1:19, and refers to a purposeful, deliberate departure from a former position. This term can refer to a simple geographical leaving (cf. Luke 2:37; 4:13; Acts 5:37; 12:10). But in the spiritual sense, it refers to those who come very close to the truth that saves, only to leave. Jesus used this verb when He described some who hear the gospel as being like seed falling on soil that has rockbed below the surface: “Those on the rocky soil are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no firm root; they believe for a while, and in time of temptation fall away (aphistemi)” (Luke 8:13). Here it is used to describe apostasy, to identify the tragic reality that some will act like Judas and turn their face from eternal joy to choose hell.
An apostate is not someone struggling to believe, but one who willfully abandons the biblical faith he had once professed. As already noted, the faith refers to the content of divine revelation that constitutes what Christians believe (cf. Jude 3). This phrase, then, describes an apostate, a rejector of Christ from within the ranks of the church.
In this passage, Paul gives us six features of apostasy: its predictability, its chronology, its supernatural source, its human purveyors, its content, and its error.
The Predictability of Apostasy
But the Spirit explicitly says (4:1a)
Whereas apostasy should sadden and outrage believers, it should neither shock nor surprise them, because the Spirit explicitly says that it will occur. This prediction is part of His ongoing revelation in Scripture on the subject of apostasy. In the Old Testament, He warned of the consequences of apostasy (Deut. 28:15:ff.; Ezek. 20:38), and gave numerous examples of apostates (Ex. 32; 1 Sam. 15:11; Neh. 9:26; Ps. 78). The New Testament also warns of apostasy, particularly at the time of the end just before the Lord’s return. Our Lord warned of false christs who would deceive many (Matt. 24:4–12). Paul wrote to the Thessalonians about the wholesale departure from the faith that will take place during the future time of tribulation (2 Thess. 2:3–12). Peter and Jude warned of mockers, who, in the end time would depart from the faith (2 Peter 3:3; Jude 18). The apostle John cautioned that “it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have arisen; from this we know that it is the last hour” (1 John 2:18; cf. 4:1–6). But apostasy, though escalated in the end time, is not limited to that era. The writer of Hebrews exhorted his readers, “Take care, brethren, lest there should be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart, in falling away from the living God” (Heb. 3:12; cf. 5:11–6:8; 10:26–31).
Paul knew that Ephesus would not be spared efforts to deceive people into abandoning the truth. In his farewell address to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:29–30 he said, “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.”
As the revelation from the Spirit in Scripture shows, apostasy is predictable, and inevitable. There will always be those who make a temporary response to the gospel, but have no genuine faith in God. We should not be surprised when they leave, and should remember the words of John, “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, in order that it might be shown that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19).
The Chronology of Apostasy
that in later times (4:1b)
Paul defines the time frame in which apostasy will take place as the later times. The later times include, but are not limited to, the eschatological future. The first coming of Christ ushered in the later or last times, which was the Messianic era. First John 2:18 supports this fact when it says simply, “Children, it is the last hour.” First Peter 1:20 states that Christ “has appeared in these last times for the sake of you.” The writer of Hebrews informs us that God “in these last days has spoken to us in His Son” (Heb. 1:2), and “now once at the consummation of the ages [Christ] has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (Heb. 9:26). From the first coming of our Lord to His return, through all this age of the church, apostasy will occur and escalate toward the end when “most people’s love will grow cold” (Matt. 24:12).
The Source of Apostasy
paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons (4:1d)
As already noted, apostasy is generated by demonic beings. Ephesians 6:12 says that the battle for the truth and the kingdom of heaven is a struggle “not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Paying attention to is from prosechō. The verb expresses more than merely listening to something. It means “to assent to,” “to devote oneself to,” or “cling to something.” The present tense of the participle shows that apostates continually cling to demonic teaching. They understand the facts of the gospel intellectually, and outwardly identify with the Christian faith. Since their hearts are not right with God and they do not have the Spirit to teach and protect them (cf. Jude 19), however, they are lured away by deceitful spirits. Planos (deceitful) comes from the root word from which our English word “planet” derives. It carries the idea of wandering, and thus came to mean “seducing,” or “deceiving.” Demons are called deceitful because they cause men to wander from the orbit of the truth. The Holy Spirit leads people into saving truth (cf. John 16:13), while these unholy spirits lead them into damning error.
Apostates are not actually the victims of sophisticated university professors, false religious leaders, or wickedly clever writers or speakers. They are the victims of demonic spirits, purveying lies from the depths of hell through such humans. False teaching is thus something far more than a human aberration, it is nothing less than the doctrines of demons. The subjective genitive indicates this is not teaching about demons, but teaching done by them. Satan and his agents have concocted all manner of lying theologies to confuse and deceive. To sit under false teaching that contradicts the truth of Scripture is to be taught by demons, and to put one’s mind and soul in jeopardy. It is no wonder, then, that the Bible cautions against exposing oneself to false doctrine.
In his second epistle, the apostle John wrote,
Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves, that you might not lose what we have accomplished, but that you may receive a full reward. Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds. (vv. 7–11)
We are to rescue those under the influence of false teaching like we would snatch a stick out of the fire, being careful not to get burned ourselves (Jude 23).
Deuteronomy 13:12–18 gives us a very straightforward warning about apostasy:
If you hear in one of your cities, which the Lord your God is giving you to live in, anyone saying that some worthless men have gone out from among you and have seduced the inhabitants of their city, saying, “Let us go and serve other gods” (Whom you have not known), then you shall investigate and search out and inquire thoroughly. And if it is true and the matter established that this abomination has been done among you, you shall surely strike the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying it and all that is in it and its cattle with the edge of the sword. Then you shall gather all its booty into the middle of its open square and burn the city and all its booty with fire as a whole burnt offering to the Lord your God; and it shall be a ruin forever. It shall never be rebuilt. And nothing from that which is put under the ban shall cling to your hand, in order that the Lord may turn from His burning anger and show mercy to you, and have compassion on you and make you increase, just as He has sworn to your fathers, if you will listen to the voice of the Lord your God, keeping all His commandments which I am commanding you today, and doing what is right in the sight of the Lord your God.
That sobering warning shows how seriously God wants us to view apostasy. It was to be cut out of the nation of Israel like cancer from a human body.
The history of demonic seduction dates back to Satan’s successful tempting of Eve in the Garden of Eden. Throughout human history, culminating in the terrible influence of demons in the Tribulation (Rev. 9:2–11; 13:14; 16:14; 18:2, 23; 19:20; 20:2, 3, 8, 10), deceitful spirits will ply doctrines of demons. Through God’s mercy, however, true believers will not succumb (Ps. 44:18; Heb. 6:9; 10:39; Jude 24–25).
1 Discerning the Spirit’s “clear” (rhētōs, GK 4843; only here in the NT; cf. Philo, Leg. 1.60) voice in the present (legei, “says,” is in the present tense), Paul finds that the heretics fulfill end-time prophecy (Mt 24:11 par.; cf. Ac 20:29–30; 2 Th 2:3; 2 Pe 2:1). The preponderance of false teaching is a mark of the “later times” (cf. 2 Ti 3:1: “last days”). Ultimately, the heretics are not acting on their own accord but are “following” (“giving heed to,” prosechō + dative; cf. 1:4; 4:13) deceiving spirits and demonic teachings (cf. 1 Ki 22:21–23; 1 Jn 4:1). In their case, Paul’s desire for the spiritual preservation of those under his charge is frustrated, for they have already “abandoned [aphistēmi, GK 923; cf. Heb 3:12] the faith” (pistis, GK 4411, regularly used in the PE in an objective sense with subjective overtones), being led astray by dark forces (daimoniōn, GK 1228, “demons,” cf. 1 Co 10:21–22; see also 1 Ti 1:20; 3:6–7; 5:15).
1. But the Spirit expressly says that in later seasons some will depart from the faith.
“The Spirit says,” that is, “is now saying.” To whom was the Spirit speaking? Acts 20:29, 30 leads me to think that the apostle meant “to myself” (perhaps also to others). The Spirit, then, is saying that “in later seasons”—eras of this new dispensation, eras definitely marked out in God’s foreknowledge—some will depart or apostatize from the faith (objective sense), the body of redemptive truth, the Christian religion.
The Spirit was saying this expressly (“in stated terms”). There was neither doubt nor vagueness about it. A half dozen years ago Paul, addressing the elders of the churches located in the very region where Timothy was now laboring, had spoken as follows: “I know that after my departure grievous wolves will enter in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.” A few years after that speech recorded in Acts 20, the apostle, writing to the Colossians from his first Roman imprisonment, had warned them against accepting the error that faith in Christ’s atoning work has to be supplemented by ascetic beliefs and practices (Col. 2). And now, writing to Timothy from Macedonia, he is distinctly informed by the Holy Spirit that the error, already present in its incipient form, will grow and develop in the manner indicated in verse 3.
Men will depart from the faith by giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of demons. As the context indicates (and see also 1 John 4:6 where “the spirit of seduction” is contrasted with “the Spirit of truth”), these spirits are not men but demons. Like planets that seem to wander back and forth among the constellations, these spirits wander; moreover, they cause men to wander. They seduce, lead astray. By giving heed to them one is giving heed to doctrines of demons (cf. 2 Cor. 4:4; Rev. 13:11, 14).
4:1 There are two ways in which the Spirit might be thought of as speaking expressly. First of all, what Paul is about to say was certainly given to him by divine revelation. But it might also mean that throughout the Scriptures, and particularly in the NT, it is expressly taught that the latter times will be characterized by departure from the faith.
Latter times means “in later times,” periods of time subsequent to that time when the apostle was writing.
Some will depart from the faith. The word some is characteristic of 1 Timothy. What was a minority in this Epistle seems to have become the majority in 2 Timothy. The fact that these people depart or fall away from the faith does not mean that they were ever saved, but simply that they had professed to be Christians. They knew about the Lord Jesus Christ and had been told that He was the only Savior. They professed for a time to follow Him, but then they apostatized from the faith.
One can scarcely read this section without thinking of the rise of cults in our own day. The way these false systems have spread is accurately described here. A great part of their membership is made up of persons who were formerly in so-called Christian churches. Perhaps at one time these churches had been sound in the faith, but then they drifted toward the social gospel. The cultist teachers came along offering a more positive message, and these professing Christians were ensnared.
They give willing heed or assent to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons. Deceiving spirits is used here in a figurative sense to describe the false teachers, indwelt by evil spirits, who deceive the unwary. Doctrines of demons does not mean teachings about demons, but rather doctrines which are inspired bydemons or have their source in the demon world.
4:1 Paul begins a series of instructions specifically for Timothy. the Spirit expressly says: Paul may be referring to various prophecies inspired by the Holy Spirit concerning defection from God’s truth (Dan. 7:25; 8:23; Matt. 24:4–12), or he might be speaking of a revelation the Spirit had given to him. Depart here means literally “to stand away from.” There will be various seasons in which some people will depart from their faith (1:19, 20). The reference here is not to a loss of salvation but to a failure to walk obediently (John 19:25–27; 1 Cor. 3:1–3; 11:29, 30). The impact of satanic attack and influence is described in vv. 1–3. Doctrines of demons refers to following occult practices.
 Köstenberger, A. (2006). 1 Timothy. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, pp. 532–533). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 2091). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.