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.
1 Peter reminds us of the need for humility. He directs this both to the leaders and to the flock. The leaders are to be humble shepherds, gently guiding them. They are not to lord it over them, and they are to serve eagerly, because God has entrusted this job to them. This is a really beautiful picture of leadership: one where the leaders are compassionate, joyful, wise and understanding.
The humility, however, is not just for the leaders. The younger people in the church are to submit to their elders. The motivation for this humility is interesting: because it is what God wants and God delights in the humble.
Often, we equate humility with modesty: a playing down of our achievements. But there is more to it than that, I think. There is an inherent knowledge that God is King and that we are sinful and fallen. Where Paul writes that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of who I am the worst” in 1 Timothy 1:15, that is an expression of humility. When we recognise our dire need to God, we will be eager to find leaders to guide us; we will refrain from think ourselves better than those we lead.
Therefore, when Peter tells us to humble ourselves under God’s mighty hand, it is this. It is us recognising that God is in control, he is mighty, his purposes prevail; whereas we are weak, poor and not in control of our surroundings. But, in this comes blessing. God will lift us up. Also, when we recognise that our situations are beyond us, it becomes easy to cast our anxieties on God. He cares and he is capable to help us. I know that the act of letting God take control of my life and my problems requires a great act of will-power. I arrogantly assume I can handle it but it is obvious I can’t.
The next few verses perhaps then give us cause for anxiety: the devil is on the prowl. I don’t know, but my list of worries often excludes this one (it’s usually where I put my passport or about some plan). Are we, then, called to think about this more often. We are meant to be in a state of readiness, prepared to go into battle. I don’t know about you, but I don’t often feel that way.
Another interesting thought, is that we are to stand firm in the faith but with humility and grace. We are to have absolute confidence in the faith we have. But this is not born out of our intellectual capabilities or knowing the right answers. In fact it’s the opposite. We know we can’t fathom the acts and purposes of God. They are far beyond our reason. But because of that, we can be confident in something greater than ourselves.
We are, therefore, called to fight knowing that we have the victor on our side.
James 4 deals with a few issues: quarrelling and fighting; not receiving what you want from God; not following the world’s pattern; life with the Spirit; humility; true repentance; slander; and finally, arrogance. It quickly moves from one topic to the other, but James manages to link them all.
The quarrelling and fighting is caused by our sinful nature, envy and desires. These desires are a result of not receiving what we want from God, such as wisdom. Of course, it is proper to ask God for things, but James points out that his readers ask these things for selfish reasons: self-indulgence or for superiority. Therefore, God does not grant these things. Rather we should be asking, in prayer, in humility and for the sake of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
He then goes to rebuke people for following the world’s pattern. That is one of selfishness, egocentric behaviour and a sense of entitlement. It does make me think about modern Western society. (Especially when we consider the response of simple things such as having to wear masks in the face of COVID-19. ) It seems that personal rights, freedoms, liberties, comforts take a higher importance than obeying Scripture. This, of course, means careful consideration about appropriate responses to oppression. (I do not think there’s a Biblical argument to not fight against injustices. I’m just not yet sure how.)
James then reminds us, that we are to embrace the way of God and the indwelling of the Spirit within us. This is where we humbly acknowledge our sinful nature, and with a grief and burden from sin, cry out to God. James, here, does not ask us to be miserable but instead recognise the gravity and repugnance of our sin. The joy comes in knowing that we are given grace and that God lifts us out of our sinful state.
This humility makes us realise that we cannot slander others, because we don’t have a leg to stand on. Who are we to condemn others when we know the full state of sin within our own hearts? We perhaps only know a few of the sins of our neighbours; but if we were honest about ourselves, we truly know how terrible and sinful we truly are.
The humility also has another response: that we are aware our lives and times are God’s and not our own. Of course, 2020 has been a huge lesson in this. We are to know that we are living within God’s will, so therefore must be humble and not boastful. We cannot say that are plans are certain and not make huge boasts about business ventures or mighty schemes. Because, we simply do not know what tomorrow brings.
What are my motives when I ask for something in prayer?
How do we put obedience, submission and scripture over person desires, wants and ambitions?
James is named after its author, rather than its recipient, as in some of the other letters. It is likely that this is James, the brother of Jesus. This letter is also probably addressed to Christians of a Jewish heritage, given its style and its content. (Thank you, Biblegateway plus for the wealth of information!)
The first verse talks about the tribes of Israel scattered among the nations. The original context is a) a play on words (James is English for Jacob, one of the tribes b) reverent c) referencing prophesies. So in that one line, you can see how rich that text is. However, as some reading it in a cafe in Phnom Penh, it has a significance for me: linking both the past and present. It’s often hard to consider ourselves as a part of the story of the Old Testament, but we very much are.
James does not hold back any punches. Between verses 4-8 James addresses:
perseverance and joy in the face of temptations
perseverance leading to maturity and completion in faith
asking for and receiving wisdom in generous portions
believing that you will receive the wisdom
those who doubt are double-minded and shouldn’t expect wisdom from God.
Then verses 9-11 discuss how those that are humble are exalted, but riches wither and fade humiliating those in high position (this humiliation, James ironically notes, is something to take pride in). James was the leader of the church of Jerusalem, where urban slums would have existed. Furthermore, the Jews during James’ time were persecuted, leading to poverty, so it was likely many of his readers were facing great difficulties.
However, once again, it definitely speaks to me as someone currently living in a country that faces poverty. I don’t want to fall into the trap of simplifying the difficulties of the poor or using the cliched “they are so grateful for what they have”. That being said, the outworking of these verses about perseverance is evident. The faith of the believers in Cambodia, who do need to overcome these struggles, is far richer and deeper and simultaneously more simple in their assertions. They say God helps them. There doesn’t seem to be the caveats or scepticism you might see elsewhere. Maybe it is this that is the humiliation of the rich: our poorer faith.
James, again, not holding back, blames anyone who fails to resist temptation. Circumstances, difficulties and, certainly not, God do not cause people to fall into sin. Our desires and the fulfilment of those desires does.
James reminds us of God’s goodness and generosity. Only good gifts come from God, so the bad is not from God. One of the gifts is grace and rebirth, which we must remember in times of temptation.
Verses 19-26 are also highly practical. It’s based around the idea of listening, but leads onto the idea that we should listen to what the word tells us and act on it. It calls out hypocrisy, saying those that listen to the word but don’t act are like those who can’t remember their own reflections after looking in a mirror.
It also challenges me about the future. I will be doing a lot of training over the next few years (including an MA). This makes me reflect on how I should put these ideas into practise and not treat it just as an academic exercise.
These verses are also interesting, telling people to hush their mouths and don’t be hasty to speak in anger. Given the context of the time was a lot of angry and revolutionary Jewish people, this is counter cultural. It also makes me wonder about how Christians respond to the Black Lives Matter and issues those that are oppressed and persecuted. Again, this gives rise to questions about a theology of oppression and justice, one that I haven’t really thought about or formulated for myself. But, evidently, thoughtless, angry and ill-considered statements aren’t the way forward. I think, however, James asks for a practical response rather than one of just words: in the last verse of the chapter he asks for the care of orphans and widows.
The process of blogging about my Bible reading seems to more often create questions rather than answers. I decided to make a note of them here, so I can hopefully go back to them and answer them. I might even do some posts where I try to reflect on them and give my personal thoughts.
How do I persevere in times of trials?
How do I live with humility despite being from a privileged Western background?
Who or what do I blame for my failures?
How do I make sure I put teachings into practise?
How should I respond with words and action to injustices in this world?
This chapter begins with how we should respond to being united in Christ: with humility, by being like-minded, putting others before yourselves. We are to consider Christ and his mindset, which Paul tells us in what is perhaps one of the earliest hymns in the church’s history.
who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!
The hymn goes on to tell us how God raised Christ, and how every knee will bow and every tongue will acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord.
The next passage is interesting in terms of the idea of salvation. We are clearly saved by faith and grace and not by works. However, verse 12 tells us to “continue to work our your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose.” This still puts the authority at God’s feet, but it’s not passive and we’re not to just kick our feet up and relax. We are to be willing and active participants in the work the God is doing and we should be actively obedient to his will and purpose.
Paul tells the Philippians the way they can be blameless and pure, and it probably surprising what he write. He tells them to not grumble or bicker. I know I’m definitely guilty of grumbling, and if I don’t actually bicker, I know I want to!
The last part of the passage is about Timothy and Epaphroditus. Both are willing, faithful and sacrificial servants to God and both submit themselves to Paul. The testimony here of their faith is an encouragement to us, especially when hearing about their struggles. You get the sense that they are joyful and committed despite everything that happened to them. It definitely reminds us to persevere in unity and love for one another despite what happens.
This chapter is quite challenging. Paul asks us to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” And the bar is set really high. To do that we need to be
completely humble (v. 2);
gentle (v. 2);
patient (v. 2);
bearing with one another in love (v. 2);
united in the Spirit (v. 3);
putting off our old self (v. 22);
made with a new attitude (v. 23);
created like God in true righteousness (v. 24);
holy (v. 24);
putting off any falsehood (v. 25);
speaking truthfully (v. 25)
building one another up with our words (v. 29);
rid of all bitterness, range, anger, slander, brawling, malice (v. 31)
kind (v. 32);
compassionate (v. 32);
forgiving (v. 32).
Paul also tells us we must not
live as the Gentiles do (v. 17);
give ourselves over to sensuality (v. 19);
indulge in impurity (v. 19);
be full of greed (v. 19);
be corrupted by deceitful desires (v. 22);
sin in our anger (v. 26);
let the sun go down while we are still angry (v. 26);
give the devil a foothold (v. 27);
steal (v. 28);
let any unwholesome talk escape our mouths (v. 29);
grieve the Holy Spirit (v. 30).
That’s quite a list!
However, it’s in the context of the previous chapter promising us that Christ is working in us and the rest of the chapter about the body of Christ. We’ve been given prophets, apostles, evangelists, teachers and pastors to teach and encourage us. They help us to grow into mature believers that are equipped for every service.
So with Christ working in us through the Spirit and through unity in the body of Christ, we can live a life worthy of our calling.
Psalm 2 continues the idea of what happens to those who oppose God and his rule and those who seek him. Seeking God always leads to blessings.
The Matthew passage really struct me. It just emphasised Jesus’ lowly beginnings. When the Magi asked about where the baby king was, no one knew. We can judge by Herod’s order to execute all babies under two, that Jesus had already been a baby for a substantial time. Yet Herod, the religious leaders and teachers had not yet realised he was there. Jesus was completely anonymous and unknown. He was born in a shed full of animals. He was the adopted child of his father; reliant on a man who was not his biological father. He was then to become a refugee and become stateless. He was born a nobody. But a nobody that angels worshiped and the Magi traveled miles and months to see.
(A side note: Mary and Joseph stayed in Bethlehem after Jesus’ birth – maybe to be with Joseph’s family. Also, what happened to the shepherds in the intervening time?)
There’s a stark contrast between Jesus’ parents, Mary and Joseph, and Herod. Both Mary and Joseph were pretty insignificant from a worldly point of view: both were obedient, humble, righteous and in many ways extremely courageous. Herod was powerful and influential; he’s the one that has multiple archeological ruins dotted around Israel and Palestine associated with him. Yet he was fearful and petty and cruel. He actively sought to oppose the prophecies in the Old Testament. He thought he could beat those odds.
Genesis 2 tells us that we often believe lies about God before we act against God. Sin comes as a result of a misunderstanding of God’s character. What misunderstandings do I have? What lies do I believe about God?