It’s somewhat reassuring (at least I think it is…) that there are so many New Testament passages about false teachers. That might seem like an odd statement to make, but hear me out. As I hear about some preachers today, many of them with a lot of fame and a lot of money, who distort the truth, it’s hard not to become disheartened. However, we are warned time and time again that false teachers will come. They will distort the message of God into something evil for their own desires and gain. So, I may get disheartened, but God knew what would happen and God, in his justice, will deal with the issue.
So, what do these false teachers look like? There’s a number of things that they do or say, which tells you they are false teachers, set out to only help themselves:
they give permission for immoral behaviour;
they reject other authorities;
they pollute their own bodies;
they think about profit;
they are grumblers and fault-finders;
they boast about themselves;
they flatter others to manipulate;
they are divisive;
they follow their own desires or instinct;
and, most importantly, they deny the significance of Jesus Christ.
So, then, this helps us realise what a real teacher is:
they don’t permit immorality;
they are humble and submit to others;
they lead a life of purity;
they are self-sacrificing;
they are joyful and encouraging;
they admit their faults;
they praise others with authenticity;
they honour and respect others;
they seek unity;
they seek the kingdom first, pursuing the Lord’s will through the leading of the Holy Spirit;
they preach the importance of Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord.
Jude also tells us how to treat others, and given the context, perhaps those who are caught up by these false teachings. It is to show mercy, “snatching them from the fire” (v. 22), but also to hate the practices of those who err.
He also gives advice on how to stay in line with the faith. You are to build up your faith and pray in the Holy Spirit. In that way we can stay in God’s love and be patient for the mercy of Jesus’ arrival.
And finally, Jude ends with this doxology, which I am just going to paste here because it’s great:
To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy— to the only God our Saviour be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.
2 John is a single chapter and it is pretty short. Essentially it is the ancient equivalent of snopes.com or factcheck.com. It is warning the members of a church (who the author – probably the disciple John – calls the lady chosen by God and her children) about false teachers that are travelling around spreading a false gospel.
It essentially says that if the teacher does not teach about Jesus Christ coming in the flesh then they are wrong. He also reminds the church to continue in love.
This short letter is actually quite a helpful lesson in the age of fake news. What are the main criteria of what we consume, post and share? Well, perhaps that it promotes love and testifies of Jesus Christ? I wonder what social media would look like if we followed those rules.
Yesterday, I wrote a post on 2 Peter 2 about how false teachers were condemned and how Peter is very emphatic about how much he detests them.
It left me with a lot of questions, which I posted up on Facebook. (Forgive the poor grammar on the post below, it was for an informal context.)
I got a few responses, some of which were surprising. Mostly, I was surprised about how many people have encountered false teaching of some kind. This made me sad and somewhat concerned. However, I’ve had a brief chance to reflect on this and also to distill the answers I got.
Fear of the Lord
Whenever we are discussing what is the right and what is wrong interpretation of the Bible, I think the starting point is always this:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.
If we want the wisdom to avoid false teaching, we need to start off with a fear of the Lord. Is this that we are meant to be shaking in our boots when we think about our faith? No, I don’t think that’s what it means. However, what it does mean is that we are not to be confident in our own intellectual capabilities when trying to discern the Lord’s ways. Here are a few verses to back this thought up:
He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed, miracles that cannot be counted. (Job 9:10)
“Can you fathom the mysteries of God? Can you probe the limits of the Almighty?” (Job 11:7)
Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; his greatness no one can fathom. (Psalm 145:3)
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! (Romans 11:33)
This does not mean we accept all teaching blindly, or shrug our shoulders and decide we’re going to stop thinking about things. God gave us brains and the ability to reason; these are to be used not wasted. But even those abilities are God given and, as we are created in the image of God, it is God who is the ultimate source of all truth and knowledge. Therefore, our first step is to humbly submit ourselves, our intellect, or assumptions, to the Lord.
I know that I am often guilty of doing the exact opposite: I doggedly and stubbornly argue a point because I have decided that my intellect is far superior than everyone else’s. However, I have tried to get into a habit (perhaps an annoying one) of always asking questions first. The other day, I was in a Bible study and we were reading Matthew 3. It talks about the Kingdom of God. I could probably articulate a response in what the Kingdom of God is, but I put myself in the position of not knowing and I asked what it meant.
So, prayerfully humble yourself and acknowledge you need the Holy Spirit’s help and the help of the wider church, the wisdom of those around you, to be able to grasp God’s ways and purposes.
Know your master’s voice
The Pharisees got pretty angry for what Jesus said and even wanted to stone him. (If Jesus can be declared a false teacher, that’s a warning for all of us.) In John 10:25-30, he tells the Pharisees this:
Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”
If we are to be disciples of Jesus, sheep to the great Shepherd, we need to be listening to his voice so that we may follow him. The shepherd in Jesus’ day was more than just a kid that sat in fields, playing the pan-pipes, cuddling lambs. The sheep were in danger from wild animals and could easily be killed. The sheep listened to the shepherd’s voice because he kept them safe, he provided them with food by leading them to areas with grass and water. We are to be pursuit of Jesus’ voice through scripture and prayer in order to receive protection and nourishment. Jesus taught us to pray that we would be delivered from the evil one. In the passage above, it clearly shows that it is Jesus and God the Father who keep us safe, and this is safe from erroneous teaching, too.
The more we will know the Bible, the more we can spot false teaching. The more we understand the nature and the character of God, the more we can discern his ways. But God takes an active role in this as well, as Romans 12:2 says, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” We need to let the scripture transform our mind as we read it.
It’s all about Jesus
If the message you are hearing glorifies something other than Jesus, it is wrong. If a teacher puts their thoughts, theories, ministries, miracles, fame and fortune on a pedestal above Jesus, they are wrong. If it puts anything other than Jesus at the centre of your life and your world it is wrong. If the teaching puts your wealth, your job, your health, your family, your sexual desires, your hobbies, your comfort, your security, your sense of control, your reputation, your to-do list, your pride, your friendships, your home, your sense of self-worth, your intellect, your feelings, your deepest wishes at the centre of your life instead of Jesus… it is wrong. All of those are to be put into submission to Jesus. There is no desire in your heart that should be left out of this. It all has to be chucked in the bin in pursuit of Jesus. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is complete nonsense. The Christian hierarchy of needs is just a triangle with Jesus in the middle.
The apostle Paul puts it like this:
The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash—along with everything else I used to take credit for. And why? Because of Christ. Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him. I didn’t want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ—God’s righteousness.
Philippians 3:7-9 (The Message Version)
This is not because Jesus is horrible and wants us to be miserable; it is in fact the opposite. Jesus is God; he is from heaven. Anything he can offer is far better than anything we can get here. Jesus is so, so generous; so generous in fact that he gave his life for us. He owes us nothing more than this, and yet he still shows us new mercies each morning. We just need to make sure that Jesus is the priority in our life.
But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
This isn’t some cosmic manipulation: Jesus saying that if you give me good ratings I’ll give you good things. It’s just that Jesus knows what’s good for us. We were made to live with God in the Garden of Eden. But we get distracted by shiny things here. Nor is it some divine vending machine: put a few prayers and worship songs in, stick a few coins or notes in the offering basket, and we get what we want. In fact, the more we look to Jesus, the less important our dreams and desires become to us. We start realising that we have our fullness and identity in the work of Christ.
If you want to check whether your views of Christ align with the biblical truths of Christ, I would take some time in Colossians. (I’ve linked Biblegateway.com showing to two versions side-by-side, the NIV and The Message.) In fact, read the whole New Testament, and then the Old Testament. But in the mean time, I’ll just put one of my favourite passages about Jesus here.
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour.But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.
This is definitely one of those passages that you read and you find yourself more uncertain that when you started. It is definitely on my “go back to and read more on” list (which, by now is about six pages long). It reveals my woeful and inadequate knowledge of scripture and leaves me in awe of those who have a more comprehensive knowledge. Maybe, one day I will get there.
The passage is mostly about false teachers and the consequence for their actions. (It doesn’t look hopeful for them.) It compares them to fallen angels, who, having known the truth, have turned their back on it. Peter actually goes as far as to say it would have been better had they not known the truth at all, rather than knowing and still preaching heresies.
One interesting point is that in verse two, it suggests that false teaching will bring the way of truth into disrepute. I certainly think this is true and I can see how people have become cynical about Christianity due to what they have heard from preachers.
I think this passage raises certain questions:
How do we make sure that we don’t become on of the “many” that follow false teachers?
How do we test the motives of teachers?
How do we make sure that our motives are always God honouring when we preach the good news?
I perhaps don’t have certain answers on this. I think this is an opportunity for prayer and pondering. (Granted, all Bible reading should be an opportunity for this.) I wonder if you have any thoughts on the matter. I might do a follow up post on this.