In regards to potential threats to the church, some are very familiar with the quote,
“We have far more to fear from within than from without.” It is what follows that brings me to my knees, “The unbelief indulged, the doubts expressed, the darkness cherished, encourage the presence of evil angels, and open the way for the accomplishment of Satan’s devices.” (SM1, 122).
No one wants to be labeled a false teacher, yet Peter recognizes the deceptiveness of the human heart. That’s why he said prophecy does not stem from there (2 Pet. 1:21). How should we, the people of God, relate to those among us who stealthily (Gr. pareisago) bring in new ideas inconsistent with a biblical worldview usually carrying the suggestion of unlawful or underhanded channels? While it is more cordial to advocate caution, the way Peter deals with the issue is first to point to the past (“false prophets also arose among the people”) to get a handle on the present (“just as there will be false teachers among you”). A case study can give us some perspective on God’s assessment of this problem.
Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel’s Encounters with False Prophets
God’s prophets leading up to and during Israel’s Exile were chosen as God’s agents of grace who were to proclaim God’s word faithfully. Sometimes that meant words of comfort and sometimes words of rebuke. Unfortunately, Judah’s fascination with false prophets is well documented in the Hebrew Bible (OT) (cf. Jer. 6:13-14; 8:11; 14:13-14; 23:17; Ezek. 13:10-16; Mic 2:6-11; 3:5, 11).
Isaiah and a Global Perspective
Isaiah’s consternation was more generalized and applicable to nations beyond Israel’s borders, and dealt with the problems of (1) the source of knowledge of the future (i. e. occultism; Isa. 8:19; 19:3), (2) equating creation with the Creator (Isa. 40:18–31; 41:21–29; 44:6–8), and (3) unbelief in God’s clear message (Isa. 6:9–8:22). We see these elements alive and well in our day. (1) More subtly are the proclamations of unbelieving scientists (secular prophets) who are presently predicting the end of the world via things like entropy (the second law of thermodynamics) or climate change. But God is sovereign and His Second Coming will result in the end of this world (2 Thess. 1:5–10; 2:8; Rev. 19:11–21). More aggressively the mediums in media spread their deceptive messages through spiritualistic encounters, which may give a semblance of accurate prediction in a small sense, but has no moral component to it like biblical prophecy. (2) The move of Hollywood towards Eastern mysticism often goes unnoticed and its fascination with Buddhism and yoga has found many unwitting adherents. The distinction between the Creator and creature is becoming less apparent. (3) Isaiah said a time would come when people would call right wrong and wrong right (Isa. 5:20). We see many modern ethical views that espouse situational ethics, relativism, and even moral skepticism all in the name of “intellectual freedom.” Some of God’s people in influential positions accepted these notions for various reasons; the point is they arose from the people and misled the faithful.
Jeremiah and God’s Method of Transformation
During Jeremiah’s ministry Judah’s last king, Zedekiah rebelled against God’s counsel and messages from false prophets like Hananiah (Jer. 28:1–17) and Shemaiah (Jer. 29:24–32) encouraged some to think that geopolitics was the answer to their circumstances. Evidently, their influence was so strong that Jeremiah had to send a letter to the exiled community in Babylon (Jer. 29:1–23). People in our day have strong views on the role of politics in pushing forth a “Christian agenda” or “repressing the tide of Islam” that is spreading the world over. Jeremiah tried to get the people to see that God was not using the channels they assumed to bring about His purposes. God is sovereign and engaged on the world stage in ways we know not of, but from the biblical counsel that we do have, we know that church and state is a dangerous combination (whether from the left or the right) because not all views of Christianity will be tolerated and ultimately an ecumenical view of faith waters down the distinctives of the Adventist message.
Ezekiel and an Understanding of the Times
For Ezekiel, the words that characterize these false prophets’ visionary experiences (13:1–16; Heb. shavʿ “false”; qesem “divination”; kasab “lie”) describe the type of messages that come from private and in this case pernicious interpretations of events (Heb. millibbam “from their heart,” v. 2; cf. 2 Pet. 1:20–21). Instead of protecting and sealing the breaches with faithful messages from God, the false prophets’ lies make use of the breaches like sly foxes in a vineyard, running about through the ragged walls and damaging the vine shoots (cf. Son. Sol. 2:15; Neh. 3:35). Having an “understanding of the times” (1 Chron. 12:32) is crucial to know how God is leading in order to encourage the faithful. Yet, two different reactions emerged as to the faithful prophet’s messages: (1) he was seen as a doomsayer and alarmist, and some people were saying Ezekiel’s words would come to nothing since nothing happened yet (12:22; cf. 2 Pet. 3:3, 4), and (2) they intimated that prophecy is irrelevant for them since “he prophesies of times far off.” This class of naysayers do not doubt biblical prophecy is real, only that its fulfillment is so far away that it is of little consequence to their immediate lives.
Just as there will be False Teachers…
Paul warned the Ephesian elders that after his departure “fierce wolves” would come in among the people not sparing the flock, speaking twisted things, and drawing away the disciples after them (Acts 20:29–30). Note Peter and Paul both say that “teaching” is the method of deception. Remember, prophecy is centrally focused on Jesus and His work of atonement on earth (life, death, and resurrection) and in heaven (High Priestly ministry). So, Peter notes that their teaching denies the Lord who bought them. His use of the term bought (Gr. agorazo) takes us to the marketplace where Christ’s redemptive work purchased us back from slavery to sin. John writes of Jesus,
Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation, Rev. 5:9.
So, Peter’s point is not that they have left the church necessarily, but they deny Christ, who say of His method of redemption, only the first phase is needed (the cross) and do not put emphasis on the second phase (the heavenly sanctuary ministration). Ellen White writes, “The intercession of Christ in man’s behalf in the sanctuary above is as essential to the plan of salvation as was His death upon the cross. By His death, He began that work which after His resurrection He ascended to complete in heaven. We must by faith enter within the veil, “whither the forerunner is for us entered.” Hebrews 6:20. There the light from the cross of Calvary is reflected.” (GC, 489.)
Jesus, our Priest is the Answer
What these modern false teachers who deemphasize the whole work of redemption do not see is that Jesus’ ministry for us right now addresses all the issues brought up. The book to the Hebrews gives clarity and insight on how Jesus addresses these issues. First, as to the source of knowledge of the future, Jesus within the veil is the Object of our faith, but He is also the Subject of our faith. “In these last days, he has spoken to us by his Son, whom…after making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (Heb. 1:2–3). It is Jesus in the heavenly sanctuary who speaks to us about these last days. Second, as to equating creation with the Creator, it is made clear that as our High Priest, Jesus is superior to the OT mediators (1:5-7:28) and to the OT systems of reconciliation (8:1–10:39) because He is God enfleshed. Regarding unbelief in God’s clear message after Jesus sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high His work includes putting His laws in our hearts (Heb. 10:16). So, the content of His Lordship is clear. Jesus is the answer to our circumstances because He is our merciful and faithful High Priest (Heb. 2:17). Our problem is sin, without addressing that our work in the world is of no consequence. As Jesus changes us, the external circumstances of life are put into perspective. Finally, the interpretation of events should be seen in the light of Jesus’ providential leading as we look to Him, seated at the right hand of the throne of God (Heb. 12:2).
Read the Sabbath School Lesson for this week, “False Teachers.”