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Before departing from Ephesus, the apostle Paul gathered to himself the Elders of the church and spoke words of encouragement, exhortation, and stern warning. The latter proved to be prophetic. "I know that after my departure," said Paul, "fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them" (Acts 20:29-30).

It's simply stunning to think that from within the body of Christ, indeed, from within that very group to whom has been given the sacred task of leading and teaching the people of God, "fierce wolves" will emerge. Such people have no regard for the spiritual health of God's people. They have even less regard for the truth. They are utterly self-serving. In order to gain a following and increase their authority, they speak "twisted things" and undermine the confidence of God's people in the finality and sufficiency of the work of Christ.

As I said, Paul's words proved to be prophetic, for we read in both of his letters to Timothy of the presence and destructive influence of false teachers in the church at Ephesus. And don't think for a moment that the scenario that played itself out in the first century cannot occur again in ours. In fact, it does, often on a daily basis. Fierce wolves, touting their academic credentials or pastoral experience, maneuver their way into positions of power in the local church. They pass themselves off as "apostles of Christ" (2 Cor. 11:13b), duly called and commissioned by the risen Lord and invested with the spiritual authority to lead the church.

They use all the right words, speaking often of "Jesus" and the "gospel" and the "Spirit", all the while injecting into such terms heterodox definitions and drawing implications that undermine the faith of those whom they supposedly serve. They will often talk of "righteousness" (2 Cor. 11:15) and portray themselves as servants of what is good and godly. Soon, though, and ever so subtly, the "righteousness" on which they insist takes on a new shape, develops a different scent, and feels legalistic rather than liberating, ultimately sapping the confidence of God's people rather than strengthening it.

There's no indication that anything sinister is afoot; not initially, anyway. They would never openly claim to be "servants" (2 Cor. 11:15) of Satan! Oh, no. They are his sworn enemies, or so they say. And, in all likelihood, they are altogether unaware of the ultimate source of their spiritual energy. They go about their ways, teaching "twisted things" and calling it truth, unwitting accomplices in Satan's diabolical strategy to destroy the body of Christ. The result, notes D. A. Carson,

"is an entire network of leaders, nicely installed in the church, who actively work against the gospel in the name of the gospel, seduce the people to another Jesus in the name of Jesus, and in the name of greater Christian maturity instill a deadly triumphalism that renders impossible ‘sincere and pure devotion to Christ' (2 Cor. 11:3,4)" (100).

What I've been describing is set forth in terse and frightening terms by the apostle Paul, for just such a scenario had developed in the church at Corinth:

"For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds" (2 Cor. 11:13-15).

These men claim to be genuine apostles (v. 13b), men who serve Christ and are deserving of the authority which that exalted office entails. But Paul labels them "false apostles", impostors, intruders, interlopers who consciously serve themselves and unwittingly do the Devil's dirty work.

They were false for reasons already articulated in 2 Corinthians. They preached "another Jesus" and a "different spirit" and a gospel "different" from the one Paul proclaimed (11:4). They are false because they failed in every respect to reflect the character of Christ (10:1; 13:4). They are false because they employed cunning and deceit to achieve their goals (11:13). They are false because Christ had not commissioned them, as he had Paul (1:1). They are false because they did not serve God's people but oppressed and abused them (11:20). They are false because they diluted the truth and peddled the gospel for personal gain (2:17). They are false because they trespassed on foreign ground, where Paul had been assigned to minister (10:14-16). They are false because, as "deceitful workmen" (11:13), they misrepresented themselves, as well as their motivation and goals, and ultimately labored to lead people away from the truth of the sufficiency of righteousness through faith in Christ alone.

The presence of such false apostles is dangerous and disappointing, but it is not a surprise. Satan, whose ministers they are (whether consciously or not), regularly disguises himself and his tactics, assuming the guise of an angel of light. For more on our enemy's nature, names, and ways, see the previous meditation.

How do such men gain a foothold in the life of the church in our day? What has opened the door to their presence and insidious influence? One significant contributing factor, notes D. A. Carson, is the new definition given to the term "tolerance". He explains:

"The appeal to limitless toleration - not just toleration of the other chap's right to be wrong, but toleration pushed so far one can never say that anything or anyone is wrong - presupposes the greatest evil is to hold a strong conviction that certain things are true and their contraries are false. Worse, this presupposition operates because of an antecedent presupposition: confident knowledge in religious matters is impossible. But if we hold that God has revealed himself to men, supremely in the person of his Son, but also in the words and propositions of Scripture, then however many interpretative difficulties may still afflict us, we have no right to treat as optional anything God has said. Indeed, never to say any opinion is wrong presupposes one opinion is right - viz., the one saying no opinion is wrong. Either this is illogical, or the proponent of this view really means the one certainly correct opinion is that no other opinion should ever be dismissed as wrong. But how has he or she attained such certain knowledge? Few opinions are less liberal and tolerant than the form of liberalism fiercely intolerant of everything but itself" (101).

This ugly reality forces us to think more deeply about the nature of temptation and sin and how Satan's work in the human heart unfolds. Permit me to cite Carson at length. His words are worthy of your close attention:

"Most believers are not enticed into sin by the prospect of committing great evil. Far from it; they rationalize their way into committing evil by seeing in it some kind of good, or at very least by blocking out the evil dimensions. They cheat on their income tax, not because stealing and lying are gross sins, but because (they tell themselves) there is so much government waste, because government takes more than its share, because everybody is doing it, and because no one will ever know. They gossip about neighbors and friends, not out of conscious disobedience to God, but because they feel they are passing on truth, the result of mature discernment. They nurture bitterness and hate against a spouse or a fellow believer, not because they hunger to ignore the unambiguous warnings in Scripture against bitterness and hate, but because they are persuaded their emotions are not evil after all, but simply justifiable instances of righteous indignation.

Exactly the same warped motives often prevail in their doctrinal judgments. Christians will be seduced into thinking there is no hell, not because they choose to be selective about what teachings of Jesus they will accept, but because they have heard some extrapolations on the theme of God's love that not only go beyond the biblical text but also deny some other part of Scripture. They will offer generous support of heretical teachers who appear on television, not because they love heresy, but because the scoundrels on the screen talk fluently of joy, peace, triumph, experience, and of some sort of Jesus - and who can be against such things?" (103).

Sin is subtle. So, too, is Satan. But as Paul said before, "we are not ignorant of his designs" (2 Cor. 2:11). Though he may come to us as "an angel of light" (v. 14) and his workers as "servants of righteousness" (v. 15), we have the mind of Christ. We have the infallible revelation of his Word. May God grant us insight into its truth and the discernment to judge rightly.