The Expository Files


Beware of False Teachers

Ephesians 4:14,15

Few things, if any, contribute to lifelong faithfulness more than the combination of discernment (the ability to distinguish truth from untruth, based on a study of God's word) and conviction (the willingness to take a stand for the truth once it has been discerned). Stability in the truthful teaching of God's word is not only a mark of Christian maturity, the lack of it makes new converts vulnerable to the loss of their salvation. Paul wasn't wasting words when he said that "that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head -- Christ" (Eph. 4:14,15).

Many modern thinkers hold to the concept that "truth" is totally subjective, and that the more mature a person is, the less dogmatic he will be about anything. But the New Testament view of maturity is different. Solid, stable truth is held up as a worthy goal, and Christians are urged to get past the stage as quickly as possible where they're apt to be blown back and forth by "every wind of doctrine." We're not to be stubborn, of course. But neither are we to be gullible. Although we're to hold our convictions gently and humbly, the fact remains that we are to hold them. And as time goes by, we're to become more skilled at seeing through deception. We can't acquire perfect knowledge, but we certainly can grow to "full age" and be among those "who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil" (Hb. 5:14). In short, we can learn to discern -- and we're in danger if we don't.

All those who have obeyed the gospel need to be reminded that the devil's power to destroy people lies in his ability to deceive them, leading them away from the truth upon which their salvation depends (Jn. 8:31,32; 2 Cor. 11:1-4). His weapon has always been the lie (Jn. 8:44), and it is still the horrible means by which he defrauds people of their hope (Col. 2:8,18). For this obvious reason, the New Testament warns against what the devil can do. In particular, it warns against what he can do through those human teachers who further his program by being false teachers. Let's look at some of these warnings.

(1) Jesus taught, "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits" (Mt. 7:15,16).

(2) When Paul met with the Ephesian elders for the last time, he said, "For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears" (Ac. 20:29-31).

(3) Paul said that he was afraid that some of the Corinthians might be misled. "But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ" (2 Cor. 11:3).

(4) To the Galatians, Paul expressed grave concern. "I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ" (Gal. 1:6,7). "O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified?" (Gal. 3:1).

(5) Occasionally, Paul warned against specific false teachers. "Alexander the coppersmith did me much harm. May the Lord repay him according to his works. You also must beware of him, for he has greatly resisted our words" (Phil. 4:14,15).

(6) The Second Epistle of Peter was written primarily to warn its readers about false teachers. A detailed study of this letter would in itself be an education in the importance of maintaining God's teaching and rejecting the devil's. For our purposes here, we can only mention one or two of Peter's points. In 2:1,2, he writes that "there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed." In 3:17,18, he concludes by saying, "You therefore, beloved, since you know this beforehand, beware lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked; but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and forever. Amen."

(7) In Revelation, Christ rebuked the church in Pergamos for their indifference toward the false teachers in their midst: "But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam . . . you also have those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate" (Rev. 2:14,15).

In numerous other passages, we hear of things like "false brethren" (Gal. 2:4), "false apostles" (2 Cor. 11:13,14), "false prophets" (Mt. 24:11), and even "false christs" (Mk. 13:22). Wherever we go in the Bible, we're confronted with this reality: the existence of any true thing is always accompanied by the devilish possibility that it will be counterfeited. Perhaps the Psalmist summed it all up long ago: "Through Your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way" (Psa. 119:104). Whatever is false is to be rejected, no matter who promotes it or under what circumstances. There is a great need for us to beware.

It seems to me, however, that we should try to keep our balance here (not to mention our humility). After all, a failure to be vigilant about doctrinal truth is not the only thing that can cause us to be lost. There happen to be some other bewares in the New Testament. One of them is in Ac. 13:40, where Paul warned his audience, "Beware therefore, lest what has been spoken in the prophets come upon you." He then quoted Hab. 1:5, a prophetic condemnation of those who would reject God's truth, and applied it to his Jewish hearers. They were rejecting the truth because it didn't agree with the "official" position they accepted as normative, and they'd be lost for their failure to rethink their tradition. What about this possibility today? Are we so foolish and arrogant as to think that the beware of Ac. 13:40 applies only to our doctrinal opponents and never to ourselves? The Christian who has a healthy aversion to false teachers will never ignore the possibility that he himself may be the false teacher (2 Cor. 13:5). And even when the truth is what we're teaching, there is still the beware in Gal. 5:15, where, after having warned his readers to remain doctrinally sound, Paul also warns them, "But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another!" Having all the doctrinal truth in the world won't save the soul of the teacher who bites and devours his brethren.

But that said, let's come back to the point. We need to beware of false teachers. Though vulnerability to false teaching is a special problem for the inexperienced, all of us need to be alert. If any of us thinks we've never been led away from the truth, we're being silly. "Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall" (1 Cor. 10:12). Let's face it: testing for truth requires more self-honesty and hard work than most of us are disposed to. When we're "listening" to someone else, we're often not really listening. And when the time comes to "evaluate" what's been taught in the light of the Scriptures, we often don't really test the teaching against the Scriptures. We test it against what we've previously believed or what certain others believe. William James once said that "a great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices." Most of us are personally acquainted with that tendency, aren't we?

Since what takes up residence in our minds is of great consequence with regard to our salvation, we must constantly be on guard. We mustn't just say we're being careful, we must actually be careful. We must really and truly apply the Berean test to everything we hear: "These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so" (Ac 17:11). As long as we live in this world, John's warning will always be needed: "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world" (1 Jn. 4:1).

By Gary Henry
From Expository Files 16.11; November 2009