A measure of maturity
Have you ever googled a Biblical or spiritual topic? You’ll find an amazing the range of ideas and interpretations, because anyone can post their thoughts on the web. There is no quality control! So, how should we deal with teachings which don’t match Scripture? There are many of these posted on the internet for anyone to read. Today we see how Paul addressed such a situation in Thessalonica.
In our previous article we looked at the first chapter of Paul’s second letter to the believers at Thessalonica. Paul encouraged them to persevere in their trials, suffering and persecution by reminding them that their primary relationship was with the Father and the Son; who are the source of grace, peace and endurance. By holding out against the pressures and temptations of this life it was evident that God was at work in their lives in developing character and maturity. The Thessalonians were so occupied with suffering and persecution that they forgot about their hope for the future. So Paul gave them an eternal perspective with a vision of the appearing when their suffering will be replaced by glory. There will be great power and glory when the Lord and His followers are revealed for all to see. He also reminded them that in future things will be set right and the truth will be evident to all. God is going to punish the persecutors and those guilty of wicked deeds. There will be retribution. This would have helped them to cope.
Not only were the believers in Thessalonica suffering physically, but they were being attacked by a false teaching. A rumour was spreading about the end of the age.
The False Teaching (2 Th. 2:1-2NIV)
Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to Him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come.
Paul now addresses a misunderstanding that had arisen in Thessalonica. Because of the persecution they were enduring, some thought that they were in the tribulation—the first part of the day of the Lord (1 Th. 5:1-11). If this was so, then the rapture must have already occurred and they had been left behind. False teachings such as this are unsettling and alarming—they introduce doubt and uncertainty about the truth and can destroy the unity within a church. Paul now addresses this false teaching. Firstly, he says that it didn’t come from him and secondly, he corrects it.
There was a rumour that the idea that they were in the day of the Lord came from Paul. Some said it was a prophecy—a direct revelation from God, others that Paul had taught it by word of mouth, and others that he had written it in a letter. Paul says that these were only allegations; they were not true. He also refers to the rapture: “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to Him”. The Greek word before this clause is translated “concerning” in most bibles, but a better translation is “because of” or “by”. It is clear from 1 Thess 4:13 – 5:11, that the rapture and the day of the Lord are different events; in fact they have been divided into separate chapters in this instance. The word “concerning” implies that 2 Thess 2 is about the rapture, but this is not the case. Instead, Paul is saying that because of the rapture they should not think they were in the day of the Lord. By the rapture they will be taken to heaven before the day of the Lord occurs on earth.
The sequence of future events is evident in the book of Revelation. At present the church is on earth. The next event is the rapture when all believers (dead and alive) will be resurrected to heaven. Then while the church is in heaven, there will be a period of tribulation on the earth, which will end with the appearing of the Lord in great power and glory. This will be followed by the 1,000 year reign of the Lord on the earth and then the eternal state of the new heaven and the new earth.
The false teaching said that they were in the tribulation period, which was not the case as the church was still present on earth.
The Antichrist (2 Th. 2:3-5)
Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God. Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things?
Paul then helps them not to be deceived again on this topic. He says that two things need to happen before the day of the Lord is present. First, there is a “rebellion”. This Greek word, which is also used in Acts 21:21, means “defection from the truth” or “apostasy”. This seems to indicate a major rejection of faith in God during the tribulation. During a time of great persecution many will turn away from the faith rather than suffer and die (Mt. 24:10-12). Instead of love there will be betrayal, hate, wickedness and false prophets.
Then the “man of lawlessness” will be revealed. He is the antichrist, because he sets himself up as God and no other form of worship will be allowed. He even has an idol of himself in the temple in Jerusalem (Rev. 13:14). This event, which marks the middle of the tribulation period, had been described earlier by Daniel and Christ (Dan. 9:27; Mt. 24:15). Furthermore, the antichrist is a “man doomed to destruction”, because he is destined to be tormented forever in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:10). The same description was also given to Judas Iscariot (Jn. 17:12). Paul had previously told them about these things, but they had forgotten them.
The Restrainer (2 Th. 2:6-8)
And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of His coming.
Paul says that the antichrist will not be revealed until that which is holding him back is taken away (v.6). He will certainly be revealed when he displays miraculous power through signs and wonders (v.9).
In v.7 it is evident that the antichrist and the power of evil are being held back by a person or a group of people. The Greek word for the restrainer means to “hold fast or down” and is used as a metaphor. Paul doesn’t say who the restrainer is; some have suggested it the principal of law and order as found in human government or the Holy Spirit or believers as indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit indwelling believers seems to fit best. Jesus said, “When He comes, He will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment” (Jn. 16:8). The Spirit is here because the world rejected Christ and He went back to heaven. The fact that He is here demonstrates the world’s guilt. Also, when he wrote about testing false teachers, John said “every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 Jn. 4:3-4). Those who do not acknowledge that Jesus was divine are following the spirit of antichrist. But believers can overcome such false teachers because the Holy Spirit helps them detect error.
Believers are like salt and light in this world: in this sense they hold back the “power of lawlessness” (Mt. 5:13-14). Salt preserves and light removes darkness. Their influence on the world through the indwelling Holy Spirit will be removed at the rapture and the restraint on lawlessness will be gone (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19). We see that the power of lawlessness was already at work in Paul’s time and we know that evil is present in our world today (v.7). But it will be fully revealed during the tribulation. This universal evil will be present on earth until the restrainer is removed—then it will be judged. For example, the great flood didn’t come until Noah’s family were safely in the boat and Sodom was not destroyed until Lot’s family were safely away from the city. So, God will not judge the evil in this world until He has taken His people to safety in heaven.
Although the Holy Spirit is omnipresent, He came to the earth on the day of Pentecost to indwell believers (Jn. 14:16-17). He will leave the earth in this sense when all believers are raptured to heaven. Of course in the tribulation He will still be in the world convicting people of sin in the same way as in Old Testament times.
So in v.8 we see that the antichrist will be revealed during the tribulation and his reign of terror is described in the next section. At the end of this period, the antichrist will be destroyed when the Lord appears in great power and glory (Is. 11:4).
How evil works (2 Th. 2:9-12)
The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with how Satan works. He will use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie, and all the ways that wickedness deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.
The antichrist will work like Satan works. He will be able to do miracles and people will be amazed at his signs and wonders. Many will be deceived and believe that that these miracles prove that he is divine (v.10). But this is a lie; Satan and demons can also perform miracles. In that day, God will send a powerful delusion so that those who deliberately rejected the truth will believe the lie that the antichrist is the Messiah (v.11); God on earth. As most people rejected the real Messiah, most people in the tribulation will accept the false Messiah. This shows how much Satan and sin have affected humanity.
Those deceived are described as: “perishing”, “they refused to love the truth”, they “have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness”. Because of their unbelief, they will be condemned by God—their names will not be written in the book of life (v.12; Rev. 20:15). However, we also know that many people will be saved in the tribulation (Rev. 7:9-14).
So how does this evil work?
- In the unseen spiritual world—that’s how Satan works.
- It can use counterfeit miracles.
- Deceptively—things that seem to be good finish up being destructive.
- In those who have no time for God or the Scriptures.
Thanksgiving (2 Th. 2:13-14)
But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.
After describing the antichrist and his followers, Paul now contrasts them with the Christians at Thessalonica. This change from bad news to good news is indicated by the word “but”. He thanks God for saving them (v.13). This salvation involves the past, the present and the future. In the past, God chose them to be believers in the early church. But the Bible doesn’t teach that God chose others to be destined for hell. Instead His desire is that all would be saved (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9), but many reject this offer of salvation. In the present, the Holy Spirit convicts people of sin and the need to accept the gift of salvation. In the future, Christians will share in the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ, because they will be with Him and like Him forever (v.14). That’s a summary of God’s work throughout history and in our world today.
Both God and humanity play roles in this salvation. The three members of the trinity are mentioned in v.13; God chose them, the Lord loved them and the Spirit sanctified them. On the human side, the Thessalonians were called to be believers when God used Paul to preach the gospel to them (v.14). Also, the people needed to believe (v.13) and act on the truth of the gospel.
Paul now concludes his message saying despite the hard times they were going through, they should “stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you” (v.15). This is the key verse of this chapter. In those days doctrine was taught verbally by apostolic and prophetic messages and written in letters. But we now have the teachings of the apostle Paul and the other inspired authors written in the Bible, which should be the foundation and anchor of our faith. So, the defence and remedy against false teachings is to follow and obey the instructions and principles in God’s Word.
Paul urged them not to quit or give in to evil but to draw on the resources that God had given them to handle the pressures of life. Similarly, he told those in Ephesus to—“stand against the devil’s schemes”; “stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand”; and to “stand firm” (Eph. 6:10-18).
Paul’s Prayer (2 Th. 2:15-17)
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.
Then he prayed that God would encourage and strengthen them inwardly in order to produce good deeds and good speech outwardly. Their greatest resource was God Himself. By mentioning both the Son and the Father, he is emphasizing their unity. Paul also mentions three things about God: He loved them, He gave them “eternal encouragement”, and He gave them “good hope”. Likewise, because of the gift of His Son for us, our sin has been forgiven and so believers have the eternal encouragement now and the hope of a future with the Lord. So our source of encouragement and hope should be God’s promises in the Bible. Also, note that the Christian life is not just words to know, but deeds to do. All the principles of God’s word need to be put into practice. Otherwise, we are hypocrites if we say the right words but never apply these to ourselves.
Other false teachings
There are many references to false teachings in the New Testament. These often related to mixing Jewish religion or Greek religions with Christianity. Paul faced Jewish legalism, the gospel of good works and those forcing Jewish customs on others. The Gnostics, who believed that matter was evil, had myths that required special knowledge and wisdom to interpret. For example, Hymenaeus and Philetus denied the bodily resurrection and thought there was only a spiritual resurrection (2 Tim. 2:17-18). Such philosophy (Col. 2:8) is seeking wisdom outside God’s revelation—it puts human reason above God.
Others: opposed the truth (2 Tim. 3:8); taught false doctrines, myths and endless genealogies (1 Tim. 1:3-7); worshipped angels, and promoted harsh rules and treatment of the body (Col. 2:16-23); prohibited marriage and certain foods (1 Tim. 4: 1-3); and promoted controversies and quarrels over words (1 Tim. 6:3-5). These false teachers were conceited (1 Tim. 6:4), selfish (Rom. 16:18), cunning, crafty and deceitful (Eph. 4:14). They were influenced by demons (1 Tim. 4:1). Their teachings brought strife and spread like gangrene and cancer and destroyed peoples faith like these diseases destroy bodily tissue (1 Tim. 6:4; 2 Tim. 2:17-18).
We need maturity in order to distinguish good from evil and to avoid being blown off course by false teachings (Eph. 4:13-14; Heb. 5:14). False teachers could be recognised by their false view of Jesus (1 Jn. 4:1-3), their false gospel (Gal. 1:6-9), and their bad fruit (Mt. 7:15-20). Don’t welcome false teachers or false teachings into your house or the local church (2 Jn. 7-11), instead keep away from them and have nothing to do with them (Rom. 16:17-18; 2 Tim. 2:21; 3:5-9). Finally, false teachers will be judged by God (2 Pet. 2:1-21).
Lessons for us
Paul taught the young believers at Thessalonica about future prophetic events. This gave them an eternal perspective and helped them endure suffering and persecution. Likewise, we should include prophecy when teaching young believers.
But the Thessalonians had forgotten what Paul had told them about the future. This shows the importance of being reminded of the truths of scripture. Just because we have heard or read them in the past, doesn’t mean that we will remember them in the future. We can be reminded by personal Bible study and by listening to teaching from the Bible.
Two of our greatest resources are God and the truths of scripture. Like the Thessalonians we should also “stand firm and hold fast” to the principles of God’s Word. Let’s live by the true teachings, so we won’t be deceived by the false ones. This will lead to maturity and being able to distinguish between what is true and what is false.
When we hear new teachings, don’t ignore them. Instead check with the Bible as we may have forgotten what we have learnt from it. If you are uncertain about a particular teaching consult with someone who is “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2).
What is “the lie” that Satan is spreading today? You can run your own life. You can do whatever you want to. It’s called humanism; the worship of humanity. It is opposite to the gospel, which says we should hand our life over to the Lord, who will encourage and strengthen us to live with Him.
Written, April 2007
See the next article in this series:
- Don’t be lazy
A praising, unified and serving church
The word “church” is the collective name for all true Christians and for those that meet together regularly. It is the theme of the letter of Ephesians. In this article we look at what Ephesians says about God’s plans for the church.
Plans For The Future Era
In Ephesians 1:3-14 Paul describes the spiritual blessings we have through God the Father, the Lord Jesus and the Holy Spirit. The phrase “In Christ Jesus” (or a similar one) occurs at least ten times in this passage. Clearly, Christ is the centre of all God’s plans for the church. “In Christ” refers to the spiritual union of Christ with believers, which is symbolised by the metaphor “body of Christ” (Eph. 1:23; 2:26; 4:4,12,16; 5:23, 30). It also describes the believer’s position, but not necessarily their practice.
As God plans to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ, the goal toward which all history is moving is to unite all things in the physical world and the spiritual world under Christ (Eph. 1:10). The Greek word used here means “to sum up”. In a world were things don’t always make sense we can look forward to a time when everything will be brought into a meaningful relationship under the leadership of Christ.
This will happen during the Millennium (“when the times will have reached their fulfilment”), which will be when God’s kingdom will come to earth and when His will “will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 6:10). It will be a time of universal dominion: Christ will reign as King of kings and Lord of lords. The one who is now despised by many will be the Lord of all, the object of universal worship; “Therefore God exalted Him to the highest place and gave Him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11NIV).
In this coming era, the church will reign with Christ over the whole universe (Eph. 1:18-23; 2:6-7). Although He is far above the rest of creation, because the church is closely related to Him, like the body is joined to the head, and it is seated with Him, it will share His rule over the universe. What a great prospect to look forward to! It’s part of our hope and inheritance.
Three times in this passage Paul praises God for His grand plan for the future (Eph. 1:6, 12, 14). likewise, praise should also be our response to God’s great plan for the Lord and for His church
Plans For The Present Era
God’s plan is that people will hear the gospel and believe it to be sealed by the Holy Spirit as a deposit of the inheritance that awaits them (Eph. 1:11-14). Such people are part of His global church and should be a part of a local church. The church is God’s people of all nations (Rev. 5:9) who lived between the day of Pentecost in about 30 AD and the rapture, when all believers are resurrected and transformed to enter heaven. Unless we have accepted God’s gift of salvation through Jesus Christ, we will not share in these plans for the church.
The church is God’s plan for the present era. It was a new category of people, a new humanity, that was made known to Paul by direct revelation from God (Eph. 2:15). God used the Holy Spirit to reveal this new truth about Christ and the church to the New Testament apostles and prophets, such as Paul (Col. 1:26).
The animosity between the Gentiles and the Jews was replaced with loving relationships when they became fellow members of the church with equal access to God (Eph. 2:11-22). This was because, “through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 3:6). So, in the church, all believers share three things in common. First, they are heirs together (“joint-heirs” in Greek), sharing the same inheritance, being “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17). Second, they are members together (“joint-body”), being fellow members of the same body, having equal positions before God in the church. Third, they are sharers together (“joint-sharers”), having the same promises that are the result of Christ’s work of salvation. For example, they share the Holy Spirit and all that is promised in the gospel message.
This is a radical idea. There is no basis for discrimination in the church. What a change from the Old Testament era when the Gentiles were pagans outside the promises that were made to the Jews. Now, all believers of all races and cultures and standings in life share equally in the privileges.
One of God’s purposes is to use the church to teach the angels about His manifold wisdom (Eph. 3:10-11). Although Adam and Eve sinned, God had a plan of salvation. He sent His Son to die, rise from the dead and ascend back to heaven so that sinners from all nations can confess their sin and trust in the saving work of Christ and become members of the church who will be honoured as the bride of Christ throughout eternity. Those who had been rebels were now part of God’s people. Those who were enemies were now partners. What an amazing drama!
Unity In The Church
Paul now shows how God made provisions for those in the church to live and work together in unity (Eph. 4:1-6). Christians are urged to live in accordance with their calling, which is as members of the body of Christ. In the rest of the letter Paul teaches that this means working for unity in the church, purity in our personal lives, harmony in our homes and vigilance against the powers of evil.
He lists four important attitudes and behaviors for the church (Eph. 4:2): be humble, not conceited or arrogant or dictatorial; be gentle, not judgemental or critical; be patient; don’t retaliate when provoked; and bear with one another in love, by accepting those with different convictions. These are Christlike and believers are to follow His example (1 Cor. 11:1).
Then he writes: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). When God created the church He destroyed the rift between the Jews and the Gentiles. All such distinctions were abolished in the church. All Christians are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Nothing can destroy this fact. Nothing can destroy this unity that has been made by God. We can’t create this unity of the shared spiritual life, but we can disturb it. So, we are told to work to keep it by living at peace with one another. We all have different convictions over debatable matters, but these should be overlooked so we can work together in peace for our common good. Of course we should have unity on the essentials of our faith. For the non-essentials there is liberty and we should be able to agree to disagree in a humble, gentle, patient and loving way.
We are to concentrate on the basis of our Christian unity instead of being occupied by our differences (Eph. 4:4-6). Seven reasons are given for this: there is one body, which is comprised of all true believers from Pentecost to the rapture and as a physical body grows from a single cell and every cell shares that original life, every believer shares the spiritual life associated with the Holy Spirit and they share an eternal destiny; there is one Spirit, who indwells all true believers; there is one hope, which is to be with the Lord for eternity and to be like Him (1 Jn. 3:2); there is one Lord, who is the ultimate authority (Phil. 2:9-11); there is one faith to be believed, which is the body of truth in the New Testament (Jude 3); there is one baptism, which could be the baptism of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13) or the water baptism by which believers express their allegiance to Christ; and there is one God, who is the supreme ruler of the universe.
The Lord’s prayer was that believers may be unified in showing the character of God and of Christ (Jn. 17:20-23). This unity is important for the salvation of sinners. Can they see Christ in believers as the Father was seen in Christ? When they see this unity, they have a reason to believe that Jesus was the Son of God and not just a gifted man. The unity of believers can convince unbelievers of the mission of Christ.
Maturity In The Church
Although there is a unity in the church as the body of Christ, there is also diversity. We are all different in some ways and have different gifts and roles to play, like the different parts in a body. The purpose of these gifts is (Eph. 4:12-13): to equip believers for works of service, which means that everyone in the congregation should be trained in some aspects of Christian service; then by serving one another, the church will be built up (spiritual gifts are for the “the common good” and are not to be exercised individualistically, 1 Cor. 12:7); to help maintain our unity; and to produce maturity as God wants us to be grown up, responsible and well-adjusted people. Our standard for maturity is, “How much am I like Jesus Christ?” (Eph. 4:13, 15).
This growth process is to continue until the rapture when (Eph. 4:13): we will reach unity in the faith and in our knowledge of the Lord (our unity is not based on attitudes or feelings but on the truths of scripture which involves the doctrines about Christ and a common understand about God’s Son); and we grow to maturity in our spiritual development (as the perfectly balanced character of Christ).
When these spiritual gifts are operating and the congregation are actively serving the Lord, three dangers are avoided (Eph. 4:14):
- Immaturity – as children need exercise to grow into maturity, believers need to be involved in active service to become mature. Otherwise, they will be as the writer to the Hebrews says, “by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!” (Heb. 5:12). Such people don’t know what they believe and are reliant on others.
- Instability – immature believers tend to be spiritually fickle, they keep moving around to follow the latest novelties.
- Gullibility – immature believers can be deceived by false teachers who use religious words and appear zealous and sincere. Unfortunately they have not studied the Bible well enough to discern good from evil. As Hebrews says, “solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (Heb. 5:14).
If these characteristics are present, then we are still childish and immature.
Then Paul describes the proper process of growth in the congregation (Eph. 4:15-16). As right doctrine is essential (“speaking the truth”), we need to learn the fundamentals of the Christian faith. As the right attitude is also essential (“speaking the truth in love”), our conversation must always be accompanied with love. This is consistent with the requirement to bear with one another in love (Eph. 4:2). In fact love is another important theme of Ephesians where it is mentioned 15 times; more than in any other of Paul’s letters.
As believers are equipped to use their gifts in active service they “will in all things grow up into Him who is the head, that is, Christ”. In every area of their life they will become more like Christ. They will more accurately represent Him before the watching world.
Next we are told that the body grows and builds itself up in love as each part does its work (Eph. 4:16). The Lord is the source of this growth; it is “from Him”. After all He said to Peter, “I will build my church” (Mt. 16:18) and Paul wrote that it’s only God who brings spiritual growth (1 Cor. 3:5-9). Then the body is said to be “joined and held together by every supporting ligament”. In our human bodies the bones are held together by joints and ligaments and the organs are also attached by ligaments. Each part of our bodies needs to play its particular role, otherwise we are sick or injured. Likewise for the spiritual body of the church. Each member has a particular function to carry out and the church body grows as they carry their role. Otherwise the church is not healthy. God puts believers together in the church so that their different spiritual gifts work together in harmony (1 Cor. 12:18-24). He creates unity from our diversity.
The church grows as the congregation feed on the Bible, pray, worship, serve and witness for Christ. This is accompanied by a growth in love. As believers are equipped to use their gifts in active service and they serve and carry out their role in the church, they grow closer to one another in love and unity. In fact, maturity and unity in the church are impossible without love, which brackets these passages (Eph. 4:2, 16).
Lessons For Us
God has definite plans for His church, which we need to take into account when developing the vision and goals for our local church. Christ is the centre of these plans. With respect to the grand plan for the future to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ, we should be a praising church. With respect to His plan for the present, we should be a unified church. Are we working hard to maintain the unity of the Spirit by living in peace with each other, praying for one another, forgiving one another and not holding grudges?
Are we equipping believers for works of service? Are we in active service for the Lord? Are we becoming more like Christ? Are we doing our work in the local church? Are we helping the congregation grow and be built up towards maturity? Are we God’s co-workers; His agents, His subcontractors (1 Cor. 3:9)? Are we honest and loving? Let’s not hinder God’s plans, but work together with Him.
Remember God has put us in the body of Christ where He wants us to be, among the Christians He wants us to be with, because we need them and they need us. As each part of the body accepts this and serves one another, each part is doing what it was designed to do. We need to accept one another and let each carry out their function to ensure a healthy church.
Written, September 2008
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
In his first letter, the apostle John described those he wrote to as follows: “I am writing to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of His name. I am writing to you, fathers, because you know Him who is from the beginning. I am writing to you, young people, because you have overcome the evil one. I write to you, dear children, because you know the Father. I write to you, fathers, because you know Him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young people, because you are strong, and the word of God lives in you, and you have overcome the evil one” (1 Jn. 2:12-14 TNIV).
This passage was written to believers. John used a term of affection – often used by a teacher to his disciples – when he referred to them figuratively as “dear children” (teknion 2:12). Indeed all believers are children of God (Jn. 1:12-13; 1 Jn. 3:1). He noted why they were enabled to be called children of God: “because your sins have been forgiven on account of His name.” It’s important for us all to realize, know and remember what Jesus Christ has done for us. By trusting in His work on the cross our sins are forgiven. What a joy to be liberated from the guilt and penalty of our sins!
John mentioned three stages of Christian growth in these verses: young children, young people and fathers. These stages are like infancy, adolescence and maturity. Let’s look at each of them.
The Greek word translated “dear children” in verse 14 (paidion) is different from that in verse 12 (teknion), as it means the youngest believers – those immature in the Christian faith. As babies recognize their parents at a young age, infants in the Christian faith knew “the Father” (1 Jn. 2:13). In fact, the Holy Spirit within them recognized God as their Father (Gal. 4:6). They may not have known very much, but they knew that God was the Father who loved them by sending His Son to die for them. As spiritual children, they experienced God’s forgiveness.
But spiritual infants can’t distinguish between good and evil, or teach others, or apply the Bible’s teaching to their lives (Heb. 5:11-14). Instead, they rely on others to help them through life. Like babies they are still selfish, needy and dependent on others. But a prolonged childhood is not healthy and leads to problems and difficulties. As children need to grow physically into young people and then into adults, so believers need to grow from infancy in the faith towards maturity. One of the reasons John wrote this letter is that we might turn from the sinful ways of immaturity (1 Jn. 2:1).
The fathers knew “Him who is from the beginning” (1 Jn. 2:14). Elsewhere John wrote: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1). So this reference is to knowing Christ. This knowledge is different from that of infancy – it’s the experience gained over a lifetime. Mature believers know the Lord well through their life experiences, and have enjoyed knowing Him for a long time. They have learned to obey God’s commands (1 Jn. 2:3). Their relationship with God, which is given top priority, is their security in life. The only thing that matters in a world where we eventually lose everything else, is our relationship with and knowledge of God.
Adolescence is the period between childhood and adulthood. John mentioned three things about the spiritual youth: they were strong, the word of God lived in them, and they had overcome the evil one (1 Jn. 2:14).
They were strong. Youth is a period of energy and enthusiasm. Paul wrote, “Be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes” (Eph. 6:10-11). The weapons for spiritual battle include the Bible (Eph. 6:14-18). These young people were spiritually strong because they used these weapons daily.
The Word of God lived in them. This was why the youth were strong and had overcome Satan. When God’s Word lives in us, we are equipped for God’s work: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that all God’s people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Also, our motives are judged: “For the Word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). In addition, our lives can be pure: “How can those who are young keep their way pure? By living according to Your word” (Ps. 119:9). Furthermore, there can be spiritual growth. When Paul said farewell to the elders of the church at Ephesus, he said, “Now I commit you to God and to the word of His grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32).
The Bible can build us up to further maturity when it is studied and applied to our lives. It is the means of spiritual growth from infants to young adults and then to mature adults in the Christian faith. If we desire to grow to spiritual maturity and to be spiritually strong, the Scriptures must live in us as well. That’s why God’s Word must be uttermost in our lives. It offers eternal principles for every area of life, and with the Holy Spirit’s help the Bible provides power for living and for overcoming Satan and sinful desires.
They had overcome the evil one. Youth is a time of conflict and wrestling with Satan. The goal of Satan is to separate us from God and to use sin as the tool to accomplish that separation. But Jesus promised that believers can overcome the sinful world (Jn.16:33; 1 Jn. 5:4-5). The presence of sin and evil will be a constant reality as long as we live in this world, but the Lord has assured us that in Christ we have the strength and power to overcome them. Here the spiritual youth learned the secret of victory – it’s through Christ. The Lord defeated Satan in the desert by quoting the Scriptures. This emphasizes the importance of constantly reading the Bible and having it ready to repel the attacks of Satan.
God’s Word Is The Key
Let’s move on from immaturity and strive for spiritual maturity in our lives. The secret of growth along the path to spiritual maturity is assimilation of God’s Word, which makes us spiritually able to overcome Satan’s temptations.
Published, July 2007
Opportunities for spiritual development
God can seem so distant when we are going though difficult times of trial and trouble. Yet the Bible teaches us that God is always at work for our good (Rom. 8:28).
The Christian faith, like the human body, requires exercise in order to keep healthy. Otherwise it will grow weak and useless (Jas. 2:14-26). The trials in our lives can be viewed as opportunities to develop our “spiritual muscles” in four areas of our lives.
Trials Develop Patience And Maturity
Besides prayer, the most common theme associated with suffering is that of developing patience, perseverance and endurance. In such times our faith is being exercised and tested and we become more mature (Jas. 1:2-4; 1 Pet. 1:6-7).
God does not want weak Christians who give up when they face difficulties. Instead, Paul says “we do not lose heart,” and he reminds others, “you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering” (2 Cor. 4:16-17; Heb. 10:32 niv). The illustration in these verses is that of a contest or a battle. Near the end of his life Paul stated, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7).
Christ is the greatest example of perseverance: “Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb. 12:3).
Patience is a characteristic of the divine nature (Gal. 5:22). Paul told the Thessalonians: “We boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring” (2 Th. 1:4). He also urged them to continue to persevere: “May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance” (2 Th. 3:5).
Another illustration is that of training and discipline within a family. Here God is viewed as a parent disciplining a child: “God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in His holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:10-11).
So God uses trials and hardships to mold and refine our character, like metal is refined and molded in a furnace. Through these we learn what is most important in life, and our values, priorities, attitudes and behavior are developed. We are transformed and God’s image and likeness are more evident in us (2 Cor. 3:18). This vision of maturity enables believers to joyfully endure trials and suffering (Rom. 5:3-5; Jas. 1:2-4).
For example, David faced adversities in preparation for being king of Israel. His perseverance in facing the opposition of wild animals (like the lion and bear), enemies (like Goliath), and countrymen (like Saul and his men), gave him the experience which developed his skill to lead his nation.
Trials Increase Reliance On God
Paul saw that the reason for the hardships that threatened his life in Asia was, “that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:9). He knew that God supplies all our needs (Phil. 4:19).
The Bible also states that: “He who has suffered in his body is done with sin. As a result, he does not live the rest of his earthly life for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God” (1 Pet. 4:1-2). Physical suffering makes us realize that we are accountable to God and we need to live for Him.
Paul understood that he was given the “thorn in the flesh” so that he would acknowledge Christ’s power rather than take the credit himself and become proud. As Christ’s power is more evident in times of human weakness, Paul delighted “in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties” (2 Cor. 12:7-10).
Similarly, Paul could write that our bodies are likened to “jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body” (2 Cor. 4:7-11). Due to physical weakness we learn to persevere by God’s power and not our own strength.
Trials Encourage Care For One Another
God calls on His people to support those facing trials and troubles through helping, praying and comforting.
°Helping: We are to “share with God’s people who are in need” (Rom. 12:13; 2 Cor. 8:13-14; 2 Cor. 9:12). In fact, “if anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him,” then he is not behaving as a Christian should (1 Jn. 3:17).
Paul thanked the Philippians for sharing in his troubles and sending him aid (Phil. 4:14-18). He also remembered those who helped him when he was in prison (Phile. 12-13). The principle is to “remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Heb. 13:3). This could include standing side by side with those who are being persecuted (Heb. 10:33).
°Praying: When Peter was in prison, “the church was earnestly praying to God for him,” although they were surprised by his miraculous escape (Acts 12:5). And Paul was confident that the Corinthian church’s prayers helped to deliver him from hardships and suffering (2 Cor. 1:10-11). He also asked others to pray for his struggle against unbelievers (Rom. 15:30-31).
°Comforting: We are told to “rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Rom. 12:15). As God comforts us in our troubles, we in turn can comfort those facing trials and difficulties (2 Cor. 1:3-4).
Trials Strengthen The Church
Christianity has flourished under persecution. For example, when the early Church was being persecuted, the Christians left Jerusalem and evangelized wherever they went (Acts 8:1,4). This resulted in Christianity being spread across the Roman empire.
When Paul was imprisoned he was glad that the gospel was being preached by others and that his Christian faith was widely known (Phil. 1:12-18).
The Church is also strengthened in difficult times as more believers grow towards maturity and realize their dependence upon God and express this through prayer and praise. There is also an increase in care for each other by helping, praying, and comforting.
Finally, we must keep in mind that our troubles are insignificant when compared to eternity with Christ (2 Cor. 4:17-18). We always need to view the present in the context of a vision of the eternal.