God has always called prophets, authorized by Him, to teach people on earth the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is a pattern that God has always followed. While the pattern is always followed, it doesn't mean, however, that God has had a prophet on the earth at all times.
Whenever there is an authorized servant of God, a prophet, on the earth to oversee the instruction of people and the administration of gospel ordinances it is known as a dispensation. Meaning it is a period of time when a prophet is called to dispense the glorious truths of the gospel to earth's inhabitants.
God has given all of His children agency; the privilege and freedom to choose whatever they want and to receive the attached consequences, good or bad, of those choices. God sends prophets to teach what is correct and good so that people can exercise their agency and choose that which is good. However, because people have their agency, people also have chosen wickedly throughout time. They choose to reject the prophets, rebel against them and God, and in many instances ultimately choose to kill the prophets.
When individuals or large groups of people, including nations, reject God-revealed truths and abandon the prophets sent to teach them it is known as apostasy. Whether an individual chooses to reject the truth or is born and raised and taught false ideas by their parents, in either case one is living in apostasy.
The scriptures are replete with examples and references of apostasy. In the Old Testament we read of the apostasy of the nation of Israel. After Moses led the children of Israel, or the Israelite nation, out of the bondage of Pharaoh in Egypt the Lord offers them the same covenant and blessing that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Israel) received.
These are the words of the covenant, which the Lord commanded Moses to make with the children of Israel...That thou shouldest enter into covenant with the Lord
thy God, and into his oath, which the Lord thy God maketh with thee this day: That he may establish thee to day for a people unto himself, and that he may be unto thee a God, as he hath said unto thee, and as he hath sworn unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. Deuteronomy 29:1, 12-13
In the same covenant, the Lord warns Israel of what will happen if they choose to reject this covenant.
Lest there should be among you man, or woman, or family, or tribe, whose heart turneth away this day from the Lord our God, to go and serve the gods of these nations; lest there should be among you a root that beareth gall and wormwood; And it come to pass when he heareth the words of this curse, that he bless himself in his heart, saying, I shall have peace, though I walk in the imagination of mine heart, to add drunkenness to thirst: The Lord will not spare him, but then the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven. Deuteronomy 29:18-20
The words of Moses include the explanation of why these curses will have come upon Israel should they occur. It is because of the forsaking and rebellion against the Lord and His covenant that they will be cursed.
So that the generation to come of your children that shall rise up after you, and the stranger that shall come from a far land, shall say, when they see the plagues of that land, and the sicknesses which the Lord hath laid upon it...Even all nations shall say, Wherefore hath the Lord done thus unto this land? what meaneth the heat of this great anger? Then men shall say, because they have forsaken the covenant of the Lord God of their fathers, which he made with them when he brought them forth out of the land of Egypt: For they went and served other gods, and worshipped them, gods whom they knew not, and whom he had not given unto them: And the anger of the Lord was kindled against this land, to bring upon it all the curses that are written in this book: Deuteronomy 29:22, 24-27
The book of Judges chronicles the later generations of the Israelites who had received the covenant of which Moses spoke. The Israelites had settled into the land of Canaan and were led by the prophet Joshua. But we read of their apostasy from the true ways of the Lord.
And the people served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders that outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great works of the Lord, that he did for Israel. And Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died, being an hundred and ten years old...And also all that generation were gathered unto their fathers: and there arose another generation after them, which knew not the Lord, nor yet the works which he had done for Israel. And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord, and served Baalim: And they forsook the Lord God of their fathers, which brought them out of the land of Egypt, and followed other gods, of the gods of the people that were round about them, and bowed themselves unto them, and provoked the Lord to anger. And they forsook the Lord, and served Baal and Ashtaroth. Judges 2:7-8, 10-13
Again the scriptures illustrate the Israelite apostasy as they elaborate on the actions of the Israelite nation.
And the children of Israel dwelt among the Canaanites, Hittites, and Amorites, and Perizzites, and Hivites, and Jebusites: And they took their daughters to be their wives, and gave their daughters to their sons, and served their gods. And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord, and forgat the Lord their God, and served Baalim and the groves. Judges 3:5-7
God continued to reach out to the Israelite nation, sending them judges to try and bring them back into the way of the Lord. But it wasn't until a new prophet was called that Israel again emerged from the spiritual darkness of this period of apostasy. Samuel was the new prophet chosen by God.
And Samuel spake unto all the house of Israel, saying, If ye do return unto the Lord with all your hearts, then put away the strange gods and Ashtaroth from among you, and prepare your hearts unto the Lord, and serve him only: and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines. Then the children of Israel did put away Baalim and Ashtaroth, and served the Lord only. 1 Samuel 7:3-4
Without divine guidance, an authorized servant of God receiving revelation, man is left to its own wisdom. No matter how sincerely a person may believe and practice their religion, if it is not founded in the divine gospel as revealed by God to His prophets it will not lead us on the correct course and is apostasy.
The pattern of divine guidance through prophets, followed by the rejection of their teaching and the apostasy of the people is repeated time and again in the scriptures. The prophet Isaiah spoke frequently of this.
Behold, the Lord maketh the earth empty, and maketh it waste, and turneth it upside down, and scattereth abroad the inhabitants thereof...The earth mourneth and fadeth away, the world languisheth and fadeth away, the haughty people of the earth do languish. The earth also is defiled under the inhabitants thereof; because they have transgressed the laws, changed the ordinances, broken the everlasting covenant. Isaiah 24: 1, 4-5
As I said before, God always follows the pattern of providing authorized servants, but He has not always had prophets on the earth because of the wickedness of the people.
For the Lord hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep, and hath closed your eyes: the prophets and your rulers, the seers hath he covered...Wherefore the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men. Isaiah 29:10, 13
The pattern of wickedness leading to apostasy continued throughout the Old Testament. When Jesus Christ was born and a new gospel dispensation commenced. He formally organized His church and called 12 apostles. The word apostle means "one sent forth." Apostles not only were prophets who received revelation (see Matthew 16:15-17 & Revelation 19:10) but were also called to be special witnesses of Christ's divinity and of His bodily resurrection from the dead (see Acts 1:22).
The Savior, Jesus Christ, set up His church with prophets and apostles guided by divine revelation. The apostle Paul made this clear in his epistle to the Ephesians.
Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone. Ephesians 2:19-20
And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive. Ephesians 4:11-14
Before Jesus was crucified, Christ promised Peter that he would receive the keys of the kingdom of heaven or the authority to act in the name of Christ on the earth. This consisted of not only the priesthood authority, but special duties that only select prophets were given. These special duties are known as keys. Here is the promise Jesus made.
And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Matthew 16:19
The fulfillment of this promise came to Peter, James, and John at the Mount of Transfiguration. For a complete accounting of this remarkable event, please see Matthew 17:1-13, Mark 9:2-13, and Luke 9:28-36. It was Christ's intention that the authority and power to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ would remain in the hands of His apostles after His death.
The Church of Jesus Christ did continue on for a number of years after the death of Jesus Christ. Matthias was called to fill the vacancy in the Twelve Apostles after the betrayal of Judas (see Acts 1:23-26). The apostles called others to serve with them in declaring the word of God (see Acts 6). Saul was chosen as an apostle and is known thereafter as Paul (see Acts 9 & 13). And missionary work is authorized to go to not only the Jews, but also to the Gentiles, or in other words the rest of the world (see Acts 10).
Yet even with so much early success, the Lord and the Apostles new that the church Christ set up and the authority to administer the gospel and its ordinances would be lost from the face of the earth. Even ancient prophets prophesied of the apostasy that would occur after the death and resurrection of Christ.
Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord: And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, and shall not find it. Amos 8:11-12
Jesus taught His disciples of Jerusalem's impending destruction and of the apostasy that would follow.
And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world? And Jesus answered and said unto them, Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many...For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect. Matthew 24:3-4, 24
Paul echoed the words of the Savior as he spoke to members of the church.
Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. 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. Acts 20:28-30
Paul prophesied of our day to his fellow saint Timothy concerning evidences of future apostasy.
Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron; Forbidding to marry and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. 1 Timothy 4:1-3
And later Paul said to Timothy:
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables. 2 Timothy 4:3-4
The prophets, apostles and Jesus himself knew that there would still come another time when people would reject the gospel and the earth would fall into apostasy. They knew there would come a day when no authorized individuals would be found on the earth to administer the gospel and its ordinances such as baptism.
Perhaps the most glaring prophecy concerning this comes from an epistle that Paul wrote to the saints, or members of Christ's church, in Thessalonica. Paul writes concerning the timing of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and is pleading with the saints to not be misled by teachings as though they were coming from the apostles. He states that there would first come a falling away from the truth before the Second Coming. Here are his words.
Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him, That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand. 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. 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3
The "falling away" that Paul spoke of is the loss of authorized servants of the Lord on the earth to teach the true gospel of Jesus Christ. This happened. The prophets and apostles were eventually killed or taken from the earth. This came about because people chose to reject the prophets and apostles and rebel against God. This brought about the long prophesied "famine of hearing the words of the Lord." This period of time began within approximately 100 years of the death of Jesus Christ. And it ended in the year 1820. Much of this time is known in history books as the "dark ages", for indeed without the true gospel of Jesus Christ found on the earth it was dark. This time is also known as the Great Apostasy.
Jesus Christ has always called prophets. Periods of apostasy have occurred all through human history. Jesus established his church on the earth, but it too fell into apostasy. These things did happen, but God has ushered in a new dispensation and we are living in it.