Why I’m writing today is a bit different than normal. There is a disturbing sect of the Christian movement that seems to be once again in the course of history gaining traction. To put it bluntly, these are those who direct their focus on those voices who seem to be skilled at interpreting prophecy. This is not a unified and organized movement, and it is not at all new either. Rather, these persons exist in a variety of congregations, denominations, and nations. Yet, despite this diversity, there are certain characteristics that seem to be shared amongst them. These characteristics are generalizations such as a large weight put on symbols and signs, emphasis on certain preachers and teachers, a hyper-elevated view of the Hebrew language and Hebrew culture, and an association of hidden knowledge with biblical wisdom. This sort of neo-Gnosticism is something I have seen in churches all over the world. In fact, it seems to be more prevalent in non-American nations. This is not because Christianity is somehow more correct in America, but my theory is because there is easier access to theological education in America. That being said, there are more than a lot of these groups in America, so there is no exception. This sect often appears as a small group or Sunday school class in an otherwise Bible-believing church. Sometimes it encompasses the whole church, sometimes a group of churches. And sometimes a speaker or group of speakers may gain an entire following, national or international.
The pattern is almost always the same. A teacher claims to have some deep insight into a prophetic passage, usually from the Old Testament, and that new insight has direct implication on either today’s world or the impending future. There is usually a sense of urgency and fear to this new teaching, and the folks who sit under that teacher are consistently in awe at their teacher’s insight and knowledge. Did you know that there is the Hebrew letter shin that overlays Jerusalem, and that shin is the first letter of the Hebrew word shem, which means “name,” and God said, “I will put my name on the city?” Does a comment like that sound familiar to you? I heard this recently from a relative of mine along with one about the person they had heard it from, saying, “He [the writer] really has his thumb on prophecy!” My relative’s comment will work great for the purpose of having a case study for us to build our discussion on. Using this scenario as a launch point, it will be good for us to talk about how the New Testament believer ought to approach prophecy, how we are to interpret symbols and signs, and the dangers of false teachers.
Before I move any further, it must be said that there seems to be no biblical reference to any particular holiness of the Hebrew language or culture. It is strange to me that this is even an issue in a post-resurrection world. Yet, I suppose there is often a belief that the old ways are better, even if there is a Bible verse saying that in the case of the Bible, they “serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things,” and “the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities.” So, the author of Hebrews, in writing to the Hebrew people, submits that the practices and customs described in Torah were fulfilled in the New Covenant through Jesus Christ. Therefore, if you are a believer, there remains no special consideration for Old Testament customs, as now we have the revelation of the true, good, and heavenly things that these practices represented. This is why the apostle Paul says in his letter to the Colossians, “Therefore let no one pass judgement on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” Your own interpretation aside, to me, the evidence points towards a view of ancient Hebrew customs and culture as inferior to those of the New Testament church. Not that those ancient ways weren’t good, but they weren’t final. They were instituted to point to Messiah and his church, which has now been manifest and fulfilled through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the work of the Holy Spirit to gather the people of God and build the church, the bride of Christ.
There is also no absence of evidence arguing against a special holiness of the Hebrew language. Most prominent would be the usage of language in Scripture itself. The Old Testament has large portions writing in Hebrew, of course, but also Aramaic. Aramaic and Aramaic loanwords are found all over the Old Testament, chiefly Ezra and Daniel. Jeremiah 10:11 records God himself giving prophecy to Jeremiah in Aramaic. These different languages in the Old Testament do not even take into account dialectal differences, clear examples being the unique dialects of Qoheleth in Ecclesiastes and the unknown author of Esther that display Phoenician and Ugaritic features. Chronicles too has Canaanite affinities in its language. These dialect differences reveal a reality regarding the rich tapestry of dialects and cultures patterned across Judea and the surrounding area. With the addition of time, which the Old Testament covers a lot of, the argument for an idealized Hebrew quickly falls apart. There is no historical sense in which a language could exist through so many centuries, across diverse terrain, and be spoken by such a variety of people without undergoing an untold number of changes and shifts. There is also no biblical sense in which Hebrew is the end all be all of languages that God has instituted as a holy language. It is important, also, to consider the Tower of Babel in Genesis chapter 11. The text says that God “confused the language of all the earth.” There is no exception in this verse for Hebrew to exist as the proto-human language, or Garden of Eden language, like people sometimes suggest. The whole earth becomes affected because they all spoke the same language. There does not seem to be in the word “all” room for a remnant of “Ademic” speakers. Perhaps God knew that human beings would idolize such an Ademic language if it did persist, as they currently do Hebrew, Latin, or Greek in Christian traditions.
The New Testament provides even more evidence against a “Holy Hebrew.” Primarily, the New Testament doesn’t acknowledge the Hebrew Bible. Old Testament quotes found in the New Testament are taken from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. This, combined with an absence of Hebrew texts in 1st century Roman Empire archeology, strongly suggests that Hebrew was largely a dead language by the time of Jesus, although most scholars place the official time of death in the following centuries. This corresponds historically with Hebrew’s decline with the Assyrian conquest of Israel in the 8th century, the Babylonian conquest of Judah in the 6th century BCE, as well as the rise of Greek in the Hellenized world starting in the 4th century BCE. Assyrian propagation as a world superpower of the Aramaic language and the spread of Greek after Alexander the Great’s conquests can be compared to the spread of English in the modern world, albeit with different scale geographically and chronologically. The result was a 1st century that we now know today to be associated with Greek as the universal language of the Roman Empire. It was this language that God chose to be the vehicle for the New Testament.
Ultimately, language should not be idolized. Neither should places, objects, dates, events, buildings, people groups, or anything else that is not the Lord our God. Following Sennacherib’s failure to conquer Jerusalem in 701 BCE, the people of Judah became convinced that there was some significance to the temple in Jerusalem in which God would not allow it to be conquered by a pagan nation. This mindset is often called 701 BC Theology, and is preached against in multiple parts of the Old Testament. The most well-known example of God warning against this is in Jeremiah 7. God declares through Jeremiah, “Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’” Linguistically, repeating a word or phrase three times in Hebrew is to be taken as a superlative, but literally it demonstrates the issue I’ve described. By this point, the people of Israel and Judah have lost many of the places that they considered holy throughout their history. Places like Shiloh or Shechem, where God’s presence could once be found, were no longer centers of worship, and only Jerusalem remained. Additionally, while the rest of historical Israel was conquered easily by the Assyrian empire, they were somehow turned back at Jerusalem. The conclusion of the people of Judah was that God must need his temple, and so he wouldn’t allow it to fall. God’s response is to demonstrate how he is dependent on nothing, especially a building, as his presence also leaves Jerusalem. This temple exit is elaborated on in Ezekiel’s account given in chapter 10. Furthermore, in Ezekiel 11, we read that the glory of the Lord leaves Jerusalem all together and moves to “the mountain that is on the east side of the city,” which is the Mount of Olives.
A few Old Testament prophecies continue to shed light on this idolatry of God’s temple, and the futility of it. The first is Daniel 11:31, and the description of God’s temple being profaned, and the second is Malachi 3:1, and the description of God returning to the temple. In Malachi, God implies that he has left the temple, but will one day return when Israel is restored. The first nail in the coffin for 701 BC Theology is the destruction of the first temple by Nebuchadnezzar II in 587 BCE. God makes it apparent that he absolutely will allow the temple to fall in order to judge the sins of the people. Furthermore, this idea that the presence of God has abandoned the temple due to the sin of the people, and the prophecy that the temple will be profaned are both validated in the actions of Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 167 BCE, who entered into the Holy of Holies of the second temple and sacrificed a pig on the alter in the name of Zeus. This single action in history shows us that God indeed had removed his presence from Jerusalem. For, if his presence had remained, Antiochus IV Epiphanes should have died when he entered the Holy of Holies. The second temple is further profaned by Herod the Great, when he placed a Roman eagle above it. Finally, the second temple was also destroyed in 70 CE.
I point out the case study of the temple and Israel’s idolatry of it to show how dangerous religion can be when focused incorrectly. Today, this same idolatry sneaks itself into Christianity, manifesting itself through an unhealthy focus on rituals, places, or knowledge. Make no mistake, the temple was a good thing, yet the people turned it into a stumbling block. In the same way, many people today turn good things into their own stumbling blocks. In the way of Romans chapter 1, we all to often begin to worship the created rather than the Creator. These sects that I am talking about have simply fallen into this trap. The most dangerous thing about worshiping good things is that the idol is often wrapped in truth. Take the temple. It actually was, at one point, the seat of God’s presence on earth. There’s real power in that, make no mistake, and it should be feared and revered. However, that reverence became sin when the people began holding the temple in higher regard than the God who dealt with them there. In the same way, people now often focus their lives on aspects of the Christian faith and lose track of the Gospel of God that sustains those things.
The same can be said about prophecy. A few years ago, I had the misfortune of having to sit in a Bible class once a quarter that was taught by a man who thought far too highly of his own knowledge, had had quite the following of people who were equally as impressed. Our strawman teacher had a particular interest in prophecy and its deeper meaning and would spend year after year leading his students all over the major and minor prophets. He would go on and on about every word and detail, drawing out from each jot and tittle a deeper meaning that other people weren’t aware of. Mind you, it mattered very little if that prophecy had already been fulfilled, or been addressed either in history or the New Testament, he had a new meaning that he alone discovered. The result was a man who was very conceited teaching absolute uselessness to the people who followed him. Here are some red flag buzz words provided from his students, you’ll note they orbit the word “deep:” “Oh he is just so deep in his teaching,” “He really goes in depth and takes the study to that next level,” “He really goes into so much detail, and digs deep into the scripture.” Now, these responses wouldn’t have been so bad if my question which prompted them hadn’t have been, “What have you been learning in his class?” See, not even the student in his class had any idea what they were supposed to take away from this “deep” teaching.
I called this teacher a strawman because this scenario is a great representation of how idolatry can creep into teaching in the modern church. This teacher has all but forgotten the Gospel, in all honesty, and in so doing he has sucked a group of disciples along with him into a weird vortex of modern Gnosticism. When I think of these modern gnostics, I think of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” This is Paul’s methodology with the Corinthians as he explains it in 1 Corinthians 2:1-2. Paul definitely had his reasons for taking this approach with the Corinthians, but he explains throughout his letters to the Corinthians that chief among them was to win souls and edify the church. Now, in the context of church teachings, it is the second purpose that is to be focused. When teachers of God’s word begin with the motivation, “What can I teach that people haven’t learned yet?” instead of, “How does this edify the church?” they can quickly lose sight of what’s important, i.e. the Gospel.
We’ve already mentioned the author of Hebrew’s description of the shadows of the good things to come, but there are some things that have already come. It is for this reason that the author of Hebrews tells readers to “bear on to completeness the beginning this of Christ.” After providing a plethora of Old Testament proofs concerning Jesus, the author reminds us that those things in the Old Testament are “elementary,” as many translations take it. This is especially regarding imputed righteousness, as the text says, “for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness.” This passage is referring to those who are still looking back for meaning in that which has already been revealed in Jesus Christ. Indeed, the book of Hebrews as a whole could be argued to be a work focused on the logical progression from the Old Testament to the New. This is important to remember. After all, we as Christians are not under the Old Covenant and its stipulations and practices, but rather under the New Covenant. The book of Hebrews is a great resource at pointing out why that is important and to our benefit. However, it is often the case that people are not satisfied with what they are given.
2 Timothy 4:3-4 is often cited as a warning against false teaching, and it is one indeed. “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. Now, in the realms of Fundamentalism, there is a sense that “false teaching” refers to the liberal drift that is so common today. This is true, in part, but liberal Christianity by no means consists of the entirety of Christian heresy. Here in 2 Timothy, we also see these false teachings regarding prophecy and observances. First, we see that the people are not satisfied with the gospel of Jesus Christ and him crucified. In the context of 2 Timothy, these are those who deny that Christ suffered and the Christian will suffer in the same way. They are those who have the appearance of godly service, but deny its power. Notice how here there is a similar disconnect between Paul’s teaching and their perception of truth as with the Corinthians. Paul says he is a Christian, but he suffers greatly, and his hearers are unsatisfied with that dichotomy. They want something more, something humanly great, and so they go looking for something or someone to match that mental image.
This remains true today. Many who identify with the Church have heard the Gospel of Christ, understand what it asks of them, and yet feel that there must be more. This is when they seek out those teachers who have “more” knowledge, such as our strawman from before. Through their new teaching, they exploit that dissatisfaction and convince their students that if they are enlightened and if they are listened to enough their students will also reach enlightenment. The focus quickly shifts from the word of God to the teacher’s own pedagogy. That teaching is mixed in with the word of God so as to make it palatable, but it is nevertheless false. These teachers use the Bible as the spoonful of sugar that makes the poison go down. The deception is total. The teachers are deceived, because pride has blinded them from the truth, and the students are deceived by their unbelief. Here, in this deception, is the serpent’s specialty: twisting the word of God into that which pleases humanity.
So, how do we combat false teaching? The first is Biblical literacy. Many Christians believe they know the Bible through and through, and yet still think “God helps those who help themselves,” is a Scriptural reference. The Bible must be read, studied, meditated on, prayed, and applied by the Christian every day. This is often included as a part of spiritual discipline, and for good reason. When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, Satan once again turned to twisting the word of God to attack Jesus, but it was Jesus’ own knowledge of Deuteronomy that fought Satan back. The word of God is our sword with which we fight the devil, just as it was for Jesus. It is imperative too, that you read and study the actual Bible, and not just a commentary, study notes, or Bible study. These others are tools and they can have great use, but they are not the inspired word of God. A teacher of mine would often condemn his students for “reading everything but the text.” He was commenting on the problem of people reading these supplements and believing that in so doing they are studying the Bible itself. This is wrong of course, as by doing so, you are merely studying corrupt human interpretations of the Bible. Written by the strongest of the faith, that corruption is minimal, but their interpretation is nevertheless not divine. The Bible, however, is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, reproof, for correction, and training in righteousness.
This rote Bible knowledge is necessary for the second technique for combating false teaching. This technique is to test everything. 1 John 4:1 prescribes this method, saying, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” This is great advice, but it begs the question, “How do we test these spirits?” The answer is the word of God. Through the Bible, God has given us perfect revelation. The revelation of God’s word is perfect in that it is the entirety of that which God has desired to reveal to humanity through his word. In short, there is no other testament. This is Paul’s warning in Galatians chapter 1 verse 8, which says, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” Unfortunately, both John and Paul’s warnings are useless for us unless we know what it is we are being taught. In other words, we cannot know what is false teaching if we ourselves don’t know right teaching. In the same way, having thorough knowledge of Scripture allows us to immediately counter false teaching with counter-evidence from the Bible, much like Jesus in the wilderness. This technique is no different than any other application of rhetoric. If someone makes a proposition, it must be backed with evidence, and that evidence must be matched up against counter-evidence. If a proposition is made without evidence, it must be thrown out. If it is made with evidence, but that evidence doesn’t beat its counter-evidence, then it must likewise be thrown out.
The final technique for fighting false teaching is also the most helpful for the Christian life, however, it is also the hardest. This technique is also heavily reliant on faith and the Holy Spirit’s work in the Christian’s heart. This technique is to be completely satisfied in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When our soul is satisfied entirely by the grace granted to us by the completed work of Christ in his life, death, and resurrection, then we have for ourselves an unshakable foundation that the winds of false teaching can never budge. This is the argument of the heart of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. He says in chapter 4 that the Lord,
gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.
This foundation can be seen here as something on which the entire Church is to be built. Additionally, Paul prays that Christians be “rooted and grounded in love,” and “to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” This unshakable satisfaction in the Gospel also comes from fervent study of Scripture. As Peter corroborates with Paul in 2 Peter 3,
And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given to him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability.
See the stress that Peter places on knowing and understanding Scripture. This is an affirmation of his opening greeting, which said, “May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge he has granted us to his own glory and excellence.” This promise, revealed to Peter and then to us, is the satisfaction that I am calling for. Therefore, we must strive to not be like Peter’s following warning, but rather to be effective and fruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that knowledge only comes through the careful and intentional study of Scripture.
To be perfectly satisfied in the Gospel affects not only our ability to combat false teaching, but also our entire life. Our faith is strengthened the more we drink deep of the knowledge of Christ, our evangelism is empowered when we look ahead to Jesus, and our worries dissolve into perfect rest knowing that we have received every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ. When we read Paul’s words to the Corinthians, that he came to them preaching only Jesus Christ and him crucified, and say in our souls “Amen, that is enough,” we will no longer have an appetite for human wisdom or so-called hidden knowledge. Instead, our souls begin to develop a new craving: more Jesus. This new craving begins to point us back to the word of God in an effort to know more of Jesus. This is the heart of the psalmist when it was penned, “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.” There is now no need for the old festivals, observances, feasts, sacrifices, liturgies, or covenants. There is no knowledge or prophecy that has not now been revealed. This is why Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians chapter 1, “For all the promises of God find their yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our amen to God for his glory.”
Prophecy does have a right and proper place in the Christian religion, but it is not how these false teachers use it. First, both the Hebrew navi and the Greek prophetes carry as their primary sense something like “one who speaks the words of a deity.” In other words, the words denote a spokesperson. We might say with more Christian words that a prophet, then, is one who proclaims the word of God. The reason such a definition is important is because a misguided definition of something like, “one who predicts the future,” fails to capture biblical prophecy. The prophets in Scripture proclaim the word of God concerning events past, present, and future. How, then, can prophecy and the work of prophets be confined strictly to the future tense? Indeed, it cannot. So then, there remains an office today in which Christians in the Body of Christ preach the word of God. And when those preachers proclaim their message, we test that message against what we know to be the complete revelation of God, the Bible. Therefore, do not be led astray by false teachers who espouse the “deep” things of the Bible, but without its power. They who speak words which have the sound of Scripture, but care little about its true fulfillment, that is the Gospel. They claim to find signs and symbols all over the pages of the Bible, and conveniently those symbols and signs align perfectly with their own motives.
Finally, there lies a heavy burden on those who would claim themselves to be teachers of God’s word. James 3:1 says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” Peter gives us both a warning of them and a warning to them in 2 Peter 2:1-3, saying,
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.
These teachers do not drink deeply of the Gospel, and the thirst of their followers will neither be quenched. Peter continues in verse 17,
These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm. For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved. For, speaking loud boasts of folly, they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely scraping from those who live in error. They promise freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved. For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. What the true proverb says has happened to them: “The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.”
The ancient test of a true prophet was to see if what he said proved true. In Peter’s warning, we see the same thing. “They went out from us, they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” is how John puts it in 1 John 2:19. The conclusion of all of this is that God will reveal the true nature of all things eventually. In the meantime, we must guard ourselves from being deceived by false teachers and prophets. We must be weary of those who claim deeper knowledge; not that having deep knowledge is wrong, but that we are testing every claim against the word of God. Furthermore, we must reject any who claim that the Gospel alone is not enough for our salvation, and attempt to add or shift focus to other practices and observances. If any of this sounds like a personal attack on your church/Sunday school class/small group, I would advise you to seriously consider if what is being taught is the Gospel. “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” If you can’t genuinely see how the things your teacher is teaching, or an author is writing, build up the Church and further the advancement of the Gospel, run. Seek Jesus, Christian, and satisfy yourself in his Gospel alone.