There are a lot of religions for people to follow today. Eastern religions are spreading all over the world. Extreme cults (that lead to tragedies such as the mass suicides of the Branch Davidians in Texas and Heaven’s Gate in California) continue to appear. Other more established cults continue to spread their message by door-to-door canvassing. And then there are numerous spin-offs from established denominations, that over-emphasize one aspect of biblical truth at the expense of all others.
While false teachers seem to characterize these religions, the Bible says, “Beware of false prophets” (Mt. 7:15 NIV), because they can also appear in any church. They are also referred to as “false teachers” and “false apostles.” All of them will be called “false teachers” in this series.
False teachers are mentioned somehow in all except two of the 27 books in the New Testament. For example, Christ warned against the Pharisees and Sadducees in the Gospels. The Book of Acts tells us of false teachers who promoted idolatry, occult practices and Jewish traditions. In the Epistles, many verses warn of false teachers within the Church, including two whole books, Galatians and Jude. And much of Romans urges believers to turn away from Jewish legalism.
The most common word used to describe false teachers is that they are deceivers, who lead people astray. They distort the truth in order to draw followers after themselves (Acts 20:30), and make them zealous for their cause (Gal. 4:17). False teachers can leave a trail of destruction, like savage wolves among sheep (Acts 20:29). They can also bring teachings from demons (1 Tim. 4:1).
Paul reminded those in Ephesus daily for three years to “be on your guard” against false teachers (Acts 20:31). The Bible indicates that the best defense against false teachers is to become mature in the Christian faith.
A Sign Of Maturity
The immature are “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming” (Eph. 4:14). They are blown off course like a sail boat in a storm. However, the mature are not deceived or blown off course because they “have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (Heb. 5:14).
The Three Tests
It is important to evaluate those that promote a new or different teaching. In fact, all teachers should be tested “to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 Jn. 4:1). In a more general sense, believers should “test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil” (1 Th. 5:21-22).
The church at Ephesus must have heeded Paul’s warning, as it was commended: “I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false” (Rev. 2:2).
There are three clear tests for recognizing false teachers: the Jesus Test, the Gospel Test and the Fruit Test.
The Jesus Test
The Jesus Test for distinguishing good from evil states that, “Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist … This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood” (1 Jn. 4:2,3,6).
Similarly, the Bible also asks, “Who is the liar? It is the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist – he denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also” (1 Jn. 2:22-23). Such people do not agree with what the Bible says about Jesus Christ (2 Jn. 7; Jude 4).
In Matthew 16:13-16, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say I am?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” This conversation occurred after Christ warned the disciples of the false teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
So, the question to be answered in the Jesus Test is this: Who is Jesus Christ? False teachers deny that Christ is the divine Son of God, believing him to be nothing more than a great teacher. Some of those who fail the Jesus Test are: Animist, Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian Scientist, Hare Krishna, Hindu, Jehovah’s Witness, Humanist, practicing Jew, Mormon, Muslim, New Ager, occult worshiper and Scientologist. All these groups worship physical things or follow false beliefs (Rom. 1:23,25; Col. 2:8; 1 Tim. 6:20). Christians believe that Christ is divine and human (Jn. 1:14; 10:30; Phil. 2:5-8), sinless (Heb. 4:15), eternal (Jn. 17:24), and the Creator (Col.1:16). Jesus is truly unique.
The Gospel Test
Besides believing in a different Jesus, the Bible also states that false teachers promote a different gospel: “For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted … such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ” (2 Cor. 11:4,13).
To the Galatians, Paul writes: “I am astonished that you are … turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all” (Gal. 1:6-7). He then states that these false teachers were “trying to pervert the gospel of Christ” and should be “eternally condemned” (Gal. 1:7-9). These strong words are repeated to emphasize their importance.
So, the question to be answered in this test is: What is their gospel? The Bible says that the root cause of all our problems is that everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s requirements – resulting in death (Rom. 3:23; 6:23). The only means of rescue is salvation by faith in Christ (Eph. 2:8,9). “Different gospels” do not present this truth. They either add to it or take away from it, and Revelation warns against this tampering with aspects of the Gospel (ch. 22:18-19; 1:5; 4:11; 21:1-22:6).
A “different gospel” may also deceive by using words similar to the true gospel, but giving them different meanings. Three examples are the works gospel, the pleasure gospel and the greed gospel.
The works gospel adds extra requirements to the true gospel, such as the rules and regulations of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Mt. 16:5-12). Simply put, it says there are things you must do to get saved and stay saved.
Followers of the pleasure gospel “never stop sinning” and entice others by “appealing to the lustful desires of the sinful human nature,” while they are “slaves of depravity” (2 Pet. 2:13-22). They “change the grace of our God into a license for immorality” (Jude 4).
Those caught up in the greed gospel “think that godliness is a means to financial gain,” despite the warning that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” that causes people to “wander from the faith” and “pierce themselves with many griefs” (1 Tim. 6:5,10). Examples of the greed gospel would be the “health” and “wealth” gospels so prevalent today.
The Fruit Test
It is God’s will that we be fruitful. Jesus said “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing … I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last” (Jn. 15:5,16).
Jesus warned, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them” (Mt. 7:15,16,20). He also said, “Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briars. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks” (Lk. 6:44-45).
So, the question of this test is: What kind of fruit is evident? Is the divine nature or the sinful nature most evident? The former is characterized by the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. The sinful nature may involve idolatry, sexual immorality, selfish ambition, pride and dissension (Gal. 5:19-23).
A related question would be: Is there evidence of spiritual growth? For example, in another book that deals with false teachers, John writes, “It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as the Father commanded us” (2 Jn. 4).
It can be seen that the three tests get at the core of Christianity. If we use them to distinguish good and evil, then there are two possibilities, a pass or a failure. The consequences of these are now considered in turn.
Those That Fail The Tests
False teachers within the Church are a serious issue because they lead to divisions rather than unity (Rom. 16:17; Ti. 3:10; Jude 19). The biblical response is to warn them twice and then “have nothing to do with them” (Ti. 3:10). For example, at Galatia Paul resisted false teachers by not giving in to them for a moment and standing firm against them (Gal. 2:5; 5:1). He also opposed Peter, a fellow-worker, to his face when Peter failed the gospel test (Gal. 2:11-13). The reason for this is that false teachings can spread as yeast works through a batch of dough (1 Cor. 5: 6-7; Gal. 5:9).
False teachers within the Church should be confronted (Ti. 1:13; Rev. 2:2), in order to silence them and stop their influence on other believers (1 Tim. 1:3; Ti. 1:11). If they do not cease, they should be expelled in order to avoid contaminating the local church (Rom. 16:17; Gal. 4:30; 1 Tim. 4:7; 2 Tim. 2:21). This also applies to those practicing sexual immorality (1 Cor. 5:1-13). It is the method to be followed when contending for the faith (Jude 3). Elders are responsible for this – they are to be on their guard and protect the church as a shepherd protects the sheep (Acts 20:28-31). They should not ignore false teachers, hoping they will go away.
We should not welcome or help false teachers from outside the church, as this causes us to share in their wicked work (2 Jn. 10-11). This is consistent with keeping ourselves from idols (1 Cor. 10:14; 1 Jn. 5:21). We should also “have nothing to do with them” (2 Tim. 3:5). In all situations involving false teachers we must remember this warning: “Do not be misled: Bad company corrupts good character” (1 Cor. 15:33).
Those That Pass The Tests
We need to make sure we correctly identify those that pass the Jesus Test, the Gospel Test and the Fruit Test. For example, John told Jesus, “we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” Jesus replied, “Do not stop him. No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us” (Mk. 9:38-40). The disciples were rebuked for using the wrong test. Likewise, we should be careful not to use the wrong test when assessing other believers. It would be wrong to treat other believers as false teachers, just because they are “not one of us.”
It is interesting to note that the Lord told Peter in Corinth, “I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:10). Likewise, God has people in every town and nation, and we should not be afraid to associate with people who pass the tests, otherwise we become like Peter in Galatians 2. If God accepts them, we should too (Acts 10:34-35; Rom. 15:7).
Finally, we should test ourselves: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you – unless, of course, you fail the test?” (2 Cor. 13:5).
Do we live as though Jesus is God? Do we add to or take away from the gospel of salvation by faith in Christ? Do we drift into different gospels such as that of works, pleasure or greed? What sort of fruit is evident? Is there spiritual growth?
The Bible contains all the principles we need to live the Christian life. Yet it is possible to over-emphasize minor parts of the Bible and under-emphasize major parts. It is wrong to build a major theology from a Bible passage taken out of context. For example, there are numerous verses in the New Testament about loving one another – a major part of the Christian faith (Jn. 15:17) – while there are only a few about speaking in tongues. It would be wrong to act as though speaking in tongues was a more important issue than loving one another. As has often been said, we should never major in the minors!
Published, July – September 1998
How are you travelling?
During a visit to the Netherlands I was amazed at the number of boats and bicycles throughout the country. The boats and bicycles are used for transport and recreation. Many of the boats sail along a network canals. Others are house boats. One company combines the two modes of transport by offering bicycle tours with overnight accommodation on a barge.
The word “nether” means “lower”. The Netherlands as the name suggests is a low-lying country. Almost half of the land is below sea level. Elsewhere, the elevation rarely exceeds 50 meters (or 160 feet). Vaalserberg near the border with Belgium and Germany is the nations highest point at 321 meters (or 1053 feet) above sea level. Yet it is only 25 kilometers (or 16 miles) from canals near the Maas river.
Boating is a way of life to the Dutch. There are numerous canals, rivers and lakes and some locks between waterways at different heights. The total length of the navigable canals is approximately 7,000 kilometers (or 4,350 miles). Some canals are elevated to carry boats above the freeway. Two wonderful cruising areas are the Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht region and the lake region of Friesland in the north.
In the New Testament we read that Jesus and His disciples travelled in boats, while Paul travelled in ships. The most dramatic voyages in the bible are Jonah’s towards Tarshish and Paul’s to Rome (Jon. 1:1-2:10; Acts 27:1-14). A violent storm arose on both occasions and the ship threatened to break up. The sailors were afraid and they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship (Jon. 1:5; Acts 27:18). Due to miraculous circumstances no lives were lost.
Jonah and Paul were both sent to the headquarters of an empire; Ninevah, the Assyrian capital, and Rome, the Roman capital. Jonah was running away from God by travelling in the opposite direction to God’s command (Jon. 1:2-3). Paul was obeying God (Acts 23:11). This reminds me we are all travelling in the journey of life. Which direction are you going? If you are going in the wrong direction, are you willing to acknowledge this and turn to God like Jonah?
There are approximately 18 million bicycles in the Netherlands, which is more than one per person. Bicycles can go along narrow alleys and other places where other motor vehicles can’t. They can also be taken on trains and ridden in the city and in the countryside. This reminds me of the parable of the great banquet, which is an illustration of the gospel message being spread across the world (Lk. 14:16-24).
After the original invitations to the banquet were rejected, the invitation went to whoever could be found from the “streets and alleys of the town” and the “roads and country lanes” (vv. 21, 23NIV). This includes all kinds of thoroughfares. It is like the pattern of evangelism, which includes people in all kinds of places—“you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). “Jerusalem” was the city they were in at the time and the chief city in Judea. “Judea” was the surrounding region that had a large Jewish population. “Samaria” was an adjacent region that had no dealings with the Jews. “The ends of the earth” at that time was the known world around the Mediterranean Sea. This is the pattern of evangelism that was followed by the early church—firstly Jerusalem (Acts 1:1-7:60), then surrounding and adjacent regions (Acts 8:1-9:31), and then more distant lands (Acts 9:32- 28:31). It shows that evangelism should begin in your neighbourhood and extend across the globe. So, let’s take the gospel whenever and wherever we travel, on bike, boat or some other way!
Written, January 2003
After the apostle Paul rescued a slave girl from demon possession, her owners realized that they could no longer make money from her fortune telling. So, they seized Paul and Silas and accused them before the magistrates (Acts 16:16-24). A crowd joined in this attack and Paul and Silas were stripped, flogged and thrown into the inner prison. This disappointing and painful situation could easily lead to depression and disillusionment. How did Paul and Silas react? Luke records: “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:25 NIV). In a seemingly hopeless situation, they sang praises to God. Where did their joy and encouragement come from?
God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are the sources of encouragement for the believer (Acts 9:31; Rom. 15:5; 2 Th. 2:16-17). This kind of encouragement is not something we have, but something we get from God. The Greek words translated “encourage” and “encouragement” in the New Testament are paraklesis and parakaleo. The most common ways to get encouragement are to meditate on certain Scriptures, on the gospel message of salvation through Jesus Christ, on Christ’s return and on our Christian faith shared with other believers.
The Bible is encouraging because it is God’s special message to humanity. Paul wrote, “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). This means that the Scriptures are encouraging, and following them brings hope into our lives.
Paul taught that a local church was to be led by a group of elders (Ti. 1:5-9). One qualification of an elder was that “he must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Ti. 1:9). The “trustworthy message” that was taught by Jesus Christ, Paul and the other apostles has been recorded in the Bible. An elder encourages the congregation by teaching and following the sound doctrines of the Bible, the truths of Scripture.
After urging the believers to “stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter,” Paul wrote, “May our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and God our Father, who loved us and by His grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word” (2 Th. 2:15-17). Also, prophets brought the message from God before the New Testament was available in a written form; and their messages “encouraged” the believers (1 Cor. 14:3,31).
The Gospel Message
The gospel is encouraging because it is the key to forgiveness of sins and eternal life. When the synagogue rulers said to Paul and Barnabas, “If you have a message of encouragement for the people, please speak,” Paul preached the gospel (Acts 13:15). He began with the Old Testament and concluded with, “I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you” (Acts 13:16-41). The gospel of Jesus Christ is always encouraging.
Paul described his mission this way: “My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ” (Col. 2:2). Here we see that encouragement is linked to an understanding that all believers are part of the Church (Col. 1:26-27). Paul also wrote, “We sent Timothy … God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith” (1 Th. 3:2).
Christians “may be greatly encouraged” because they “have fled to take hold of the hope offered to them” in the gospel (Heb. 6:18). In this image they are fleeing to heaven from a world bound for judgment.
The return of Christ to bring all His followers into heaven is encouraging because it means an end of the sorrow, suffering and disappointment of this sinful world. Believers are commanded to encourage each other with the fact that they “will be with the Lord forever” (1 Th. 4:18). The promise of Christ’s return so believers “may live together with Him” is a great encouragement (1 Th. 5:10-11). In view of Christ’s return and the resurrection of the dead, believers should “meet together” to “encourage one another” (Heb. 10:25).
The Christian faith is encouraging because it is the practical demonstration of living according to the Bible, the gospel and Christ’s return. Paul longed to visit the believers in Rome so they could be “mutually encouraged by each other’s faith” (Rom. 1:11-12). The encouragement here is from each other’s faith, not any external circumstances. He also wrote, “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus” (Rom. 15:5). Here, encouragement and unity are associated with following the Lord. Paul was also encouraged when he heard about the faith of the believers at Thessalonica (1 Th. 3:7). Likewise, John had “great joy” when told about believers who continued to “walk in the truth” (3 Jn. 3-4).
Let’s be encouraged by God’s promises in the Scriptures, in the good news of salvation, in Christ’s return and in the faith we share with other believers. These are all linked, with the gospel being the core message conveyed by the Scriptures and Christ’s return being the hope of the gospel. It’s interesting that these facts do not depend on our circumstances, but in fact bring encouragement amidst struggles and suffering.
Also, let’s “encourage one another daily” in the faith so we will not be “hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Heb. 3:13). We are told to use these same means to encourage others (2 Cor. 1:4). Those with the gift of encouragement should exercise their gift amongst believers (Rom. 12:8). It seems as though Barnabas had this gift as his name meant “son of encouragement” and he encouraged the church at Antioch (Acts 4:36; 11:22-23).
When life is difficult, remember Paul and Silas in prison. Don’t follow your feelings or seek encouragement only from circumstances, as you soon will be disappointed. Don’t forsake the Lord when life gets tough. Instead, encourage yourself and others by remembering all that God has done.
Published, April 2008
The word “Bible” comes from the Greek word for “the books,” while the word “Scripture” comes from Latin and refers to “writings.” The Bible is a selective history of God’s dealings with mankind between creation and the first century AD. It is a collection of 66 books and letters that have a remarkable unity; they were written over a period of at least 1,500 years by 40 men of the Jewish and Christian faiths.
The Bible is called “the Word of God” (1 Th. 2:13 NIV) because the writers “spoke from God” and wrote the words that God gave them (2 Pet. 1:20-21). It is God’s letter (or book) to us. In the original language, “all Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16).
The two chief doctrines in the Bible are “the Law” and “the Gospel.” In the Law God tells man what to do and what not to do. The chief purpose of the Law is to show us our sin, which is worthy of God’s eternal punishment. The Gospel tells us the good news of our salvation in Jesus Christ. The word “Gospel” is an old English word that means “good news.” The purpose of the Gospel is to show us our Savior, Jesus Christ and bring us to faith in Him.
The Bible reveals the secret of eternal life; it contains “words of eternal life” that can change our eternal destiny from hell to heaven (Jn. 6:68). The Bible inspires faith in Jesus (Rom. 10:17); it was written so that we may believe and trust in Jesus Christ as the Son of God (Jn. 20:30-31; 2 Tim. 3:15).
Furthermore, the Bible is the most reliable source of spiritual growth, encouragement, lessons on life, and a healthy mind (Acts 20:32; Rom. 15:4; 2 Pet. 3:1-2). It was also written to provide guidelines for our corporate activities as the Church and warnings on inappropriate behavior for Christians (1 Cor. 4:14; 10:11; 1 Tim. 3:14-15).
The entire Bible is “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” so that each believer “may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). It teaches us about God and His purpose, and directs us into a way of life that is pleasing to God and rewarding if we obey Him. We should examine it (Acts 17:11), memorize it (Dt. 6:6-9; Ps. 119:11), and read it (1 Tim. 4:12-13). As our body is built from the food we eat, our mind is built from the thoughts we assimilate. We should do what the Bible says (Jas. 1:22-24) because it is to be obeyed (Mt. 7:24).
The Bible illuminates like a light that helps us to see and understand (Ps. 119:105). It is also like a seed that has life and grows (Lk. 8:11), and a sword that helps in our battle against Satan (Lk. 4:1-13; Eph. 6:17; Heb. 4:12). These illustrations show the importance of the Bible; it is more than just another book. For example, there was a revival when the Scriptures were rediscovered after being lost for over 50 years. King Josiah had the people pledge to obey them; they stopped idolatry, reinstated the Passover and got rid of mediums and spiritists (2 Ki. 22:8-23:25; 2 Chr. 34:11-35:19).
So, to answer this question in brief, we read the Bible because it is unique – it is a life-saving, life-changing book – the most important book we will ever read.
Published, September 2006