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.
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.
Perhaps the most famous part this chapter is “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason to the hope that you have.” This verse has always made me ask myself a few questions.
What is the hope that we have?
What is the reason for this hope?
How do we give the answer in a clear manner?
Who is asking us these questions and why?
The passage this verse comes from is in the context of suffering, mainly suffering on account of your faith. It asks us to give account of our hope in the face of threats and problems. Now, this is perhaps why the question is being asked in the first place. Hope and optimism is not unusual when things are fine. If you’ve got a nice house and healthy bank account, no one is going to be surprised when you seem a bit perky. However, when you are facing genuine trials and opposition, it may seem a little more unusual. (It is a possible barrier to evangelism for missionaries in poorer contexts. When we preach how joyful we are because we know Jesus, they may be thinking it’s not Jesus but our wallets that are making us so cheerful. But that’s probably another blog post entirely.)
Now, these passages about suffering always trouble me. I’ve never really suffered for my faith. There was one time at secondary school where someone said, “I hate how you always tell me about your faith.” I then pointed out, she was in fact at a Christian Union event and I was answering a question she just asked. (And then I burst into tears.) But that’s hardly suffering. So it makes me wonder if I’m doing it wrong if I’m not suffering. And then, should I be asking the Lord for suffering? (I haven’t made my mind up on that one yet, so I may hold off on that prayer for a while.) But it makes me wonder about the state of the church in the West. Is the legitimacy for our witness hindered precisely because we have it too good? If you listen to stories of the persecuted church, there are incredible testimonies of churches flourishing under heavy opposition. In Europe, where everything is more comfortable, it is seen as a dying out-dated phenomenom. In America, Christianity is perhaps too closely associated with the “Karens” of the world. We have what we want, and often we believe we deserve it. In fact, the stories of suffering believers often come as a surprise even to “comfortable” Christians, and are perhaps a bit unsettling. So it’s easy to see how a testimony of hope is powerful in such a context.
And the reason for the hope is clear: in their hearts they revere Christ as Lord. It’s interesting that the word “revere” is used here. It’s not love or some other warm emotion. Revere suggests a respect or fear towards someone. There is perhaps a clear implication: Christ is Lord. If suffering in obedience is a part of his will, then it is right. I interviewed my Khmer best friend about hope in troubles, and he said the most important thing to do is to fear God. This is, of course, interesting and jarring to the ears of British (and I suspect of other) Christians. We often soften God and perhaps do a disservice to our faith in doing so. Of course, God is love and cares for us. But he isn’t safe and cuddly.
How then do we bring a theology of suffering and fear of God back into our churches? How to we then give reason to the hope that we have?
I have been keeping up with my Bible reading, but not with the blogging. Although the most important aspect is, of course, reading the Word, writing about it can really help me consolidate and concentrate on what I’m reading. Over the last few days, my internet has been intermittent in the evenings, so blogging was a bit harder.
In Amos 7, the prophet begged the Lord not to show his wrath against Israel. However, God finally told Amos enough was enough. He had measured the people of Israel and the results showed that they were left wanting. They did not measure up. God, the God of justice, needs to correct this.
Obviously, Amos’ prophecies upset a few people and in this chapter, he was told to leave. However, Amos told them that it was God who had told him to say these things and the consequences for Israel’s disobedience would be dire.
Amos 8 again shows the sin of the people of Israel. Their dishonest economic practises have disadvantaged and oppressed the poor. The people have cheated or sold short their goods. They “trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land”.
As a result, God will destroy them. Not only this, but he will hide his face from them. This is perhaps more terrifying, that though they seek for the word of God, they will not find it. Amos 9 reiterates how total the destruction of Israel will be. It seems utterly hopeless.
However, the book of Amos ends with Israel’s restoration. Despite this destruction, he will lift Israel again. There will be redemption. There will be rebuilding. There will be hope. Is this the time we live in, when Jesus is restoring and redeeming this world? Sometimes it’s hard to know which. But we can have hope, that God is restoring his people back to him; that Jesus will come again and Jerusalem will once and for all be made new.
These are the questions that Amos 7-9, and indeed the whole book, have made me ponder:
What current political or economic practises are happening that are detestable to the Lord?
How are we complicit in the trampling and oppression of the poor?
What will the consequences for us?
How do we let justice flow like a river?
How do we show are we a people of hope of a new heaven and new earth?
How do we usher in God’s holy and just kingdom to where we are?
There seems to be two themes in this chapter: pride and complacency. We see that the people of Israel are enjoying life. The drink wine, have beautifully furnished homes, eat delicious food, listen to music, relax and have fun. It all seems great.
But this wealth and status has made them arrogant. They look down on the poor; they have stopped caring about them. It also means they’ve forgotten about God and his desires. Their worldly gain has been their spiritual loss. It’s stopped them doing what is right and good.
And the result we be destruction. The big mansions will be destroyed. Israel will be oppressed. The Lord detests their ways.
God calls the people of Israel to repentance. He tells them again and again “Seek me and live.” This is what we are to do. We too are sinners; like Israel we turn astray. Although our idols are not the gods of foreign nations, we have idols. But we are to seek God and live.
He is particularly condemnatory of those who “turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground”; “hate the one who upholds justice” and “detest the one who tells the truth”. Those who levy unfair taxes will see their wealth and homes destroyed. Those “who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts” are to experience God’s wrath. Again, it feels like these accusations can be about many people we see today in the media, people in very influential positions.
It’s interesting what it says in verse 13. It says, “Therefore the prudent keep quiet in such times, for the times are evil.” It makes me wonder if this too is a moral judgment against the “prudent”. It seems a bit like cowardice here. It also makes me ask, “Are these evil times?”
Verse 14-15 set some ways to please God and live: seek good, love good, maintain justice and hate evil.
The end of Amos 5 is pretty famous. It mentions religious ceremonies. They are doing what is seen to be right. Here, perhaps, is the emphasise on the word seen. These offerings, festivals and assemblies are outward displays of righteousness. However, they are just window-dressing; they are glitter on a turd. You can still smell the stench, no matter how much you put on.
For it is the lack of justice, the oppression, the hatred of truth that is what angers God and is what needs to change.
And the more I read Amos, the more I feel it was written for now. For the times are evil.
Amos 4 continues to list Israel’s crimes. Oppression of the poor was given as a sin again, as well as gloating about offerings. God had already tried to warn them and bring hunger and crop failure and war on them. However, they still refused to return to the Lord.
It’s interesting as it’s easy to think of God as petty and vengeful towards the Israelites. They slighted him and now he’s punishing them to the extreme. But there’s things we should remember:
God deserves glory. He made the universe, he is all powerful, he is mighty and full of love. He deserves recognition.
The Israelites were treated with special favour, which they have rejected.
For God to be just, there needs to be a consequence for sin. Rejecting the one holy God is the biggest sin there is.
So in the light of these things, God is only seeking what is due to him and is only responding in the way a just, powerful God would.
Amos 3 speaks of God’s special relationship with the people of Israel. He has chosen them and they have rejected him. Therefore, they will be punished. This punishment is presented as a sure thing. This is done through a series of rhetorical questions that seem to state the obvious. Therefore, this retribution is just as obvious.
Verse 7 tells us that God uses his prophets to reveal his plans. This is so his people can know about it.
The plan is that the people of Israel will be overrun by its enemies and will be destroyed.
Amos uses some farming similes, that reflect his status. Israel will be like the remains of a lamb pulled from a lion’s mouth. There will only be scraps left.
At the end of the chapter you get an idea of Israel’s wealth. There are winter palaces and summer palaces and houses adorned with ivory. This isn’t a poor pitiful nation. They are rich and they are well off. And they have abandoned the Lord.
This, like Amos 2, is scary. Symbols of wealth are all around us: holiday homes, big houses, lavish decor. These thing are pointless if you do not follow the Lord; these things can’t save you and these things will be gone when judgment comes.
Chapter 1 of Amos is pretty much about the divine judgment of God against the nations surrounding Israel. These nations have committed terrible sins against God’s people: Israelites being killed and enslaved, breaking treaties with them, women were killed and even the pregnant women were slaughtered. The atrocities they did were horrible.
But God will punish them, tearing down the walls of their capitals, bringing fire to their cities. Their kings will flee or perish.
Often, the Old Testament prophecies are somewhat unpalatable for modern readers. They speak of retribution and revenge. God seems cruel and hard.
But we need to remember, God is holy. He is just and good.
Our societies see guilt and innocence in very black and white terms: you did it or you didn’t. However, I think the Biblical idea of sin is far more complex and pernicious than that. It kills and spreads. It’s like a disease that infects and ruins, like yeast in dough. Therefore, when we read these chapters, we perhaps have to think of sin as being more than we can define and therefore the cost of it more than we can say.
But it does make us ask a number of questions of our faith and reflect upon what we believe:
Do we trust God enough to believe in his justice?
Do we have faith that God’s plan is right?
Do we believe that God’s ways are perfect?
Do we believe that he is love?
This passages definitely challenge our thinking.
However, God loves his people. He loves other nations too. This is why prophets are sent: they warn people. God want the people to turn back to him and to find his mercy. However, sadly with the case of a lot of prophets, they don’t heed the warning. Because of God’s just nature, something needs to be done about the wrongs they have committed. So, when they fail to seek God’s mercy, they find themselves at the hands of his justice.
This chapter concludes the book and ends with the judgment of the enemies of Israel and justice for God’s people.
All the nations seem to come together at the Lord’s command at the Valley of Jehoshaphat. Jehoshaphat means “the Lord judges”, so therefore suggests that this about when everyone is finally judged at end times. God will judge the nations for what they did to Israel and his people.
God almost taunts the nations in this passage to come fight him. He tells them to bring everyone, even the weakest, to attack him in battle. And then he says that he will sit to judge them. He doesn’t even attack back, he just sits. Then he plucks them like a ripe harvest. It’s not the image of an epic battle; it’s a picture of God just harvesting them like crops. There’s no resistance, no power to fight back. He tramples them like grapes in the winepress.
The whole of heaven and earth will tremble at God’s judgment, but the people of Israel will find refuge in him.
At this, Jerusalem will never be threatened again. She will always be holy and blameless; full of wine and milk. The other nations will be desolate and empty, but Jerusalem and Judah will live forever.
I think this chapter just goes to prove the awesome judgment of God. His judgment is right and holy but also mighty and powerful. We often turn God into Santa Claus, who merely gives good things and if you’re really bad, you might get cross off the list. But that’s it. However, this chapter speaks of a God who is so powerful, he does not need to defend himself against all the nations. They’re a joke to him. He just destroys them like grapes underfoot.
Proverbs 9:10 tells us that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” Joel 3 perhaps goes to show why.