Exposing False Teachers

In his exposure of these false teachers, Paul gives us six identifying marks that can guide us to discern the presence of “wolves in sheep’s clothing” in our midst today.

First, false teachers distract Christians from obeying the truth of the gospel (v.7). Paul compliments the Galatian believers for running a good race. Running a race was one of Paul’s favorite images for living the Christian life. Here this image portrays how well they were obeying the truth. The gospel set the course for their life, and they were running well in that course. The reality of their belief in the truth about Christ was demonstrated by their obedience to Christ. But then they were distracted, tripped and so hindered from running this race.

Paul asks them, Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth? The question is rhetorical. Paul knows the answer. But by asking the question this way he exposes the false teachers’ negative effect on the life of the believers. The picture is of a runner who distracts another runner, blocks his way, cuts in on him and trips him. Everyone would have been very angry with a runner who did such a thing. He would have broken the clear rules against cutting in or tripping in the foot races of the Greek festivals. He would be immediately disqualified and excluded from the festival.

The false teachers are hindering the Christians from obeying the truth of the gospel with all their talk about joining the Jewish people and keeping the law. All those who get the church off on a tangent, away from the clear direction given by the central truth of the gospel, are like these false teachers. They should be disqualified and excluded from the churches.

Second, false teachers replace the call of God with their own deceptive persuasiveness (v.8). That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you, Paul informs his readers. When Paul had preached the gospel, the Galatians heard the voice of God calling them through Paul (1:6). But when the false teachers teach, all that can be heard is flattery, boastfulness and empty rhetoric. They are skillful orators.

No doubt they claim to be giving God’s message backed by Scripture. But all one can hear through their strident voices is a harsh repetition of the demands of the law. What a contrast to “the one who called you by the grace of Christ” (1:6) and the God who “called me by his grace” (1:15). Their message is all about the works of the law, not about God’s work of grace in Christ. So obviously their persuasion does not come from God, who always calls by his grace.

Third, false teachers gain control over the whole church (v.9). Just as a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough, so the negative influence of a few false teachers has penetrated the whole church and is quickly coming to control the direction of the church. False teachers are like that; they seek to dominate every situation in the life of the church.

Fourth, false teachers cause confusion and discouragement (v.10). When the Galatians were converted, they related to God with the joyful confidence of children, calling him “Abba, Father” through the Spirit. But their confidence in God’s grace has been badly shaken by the false teachers, who threaten them with the judgment of God if they do not keep the law of God. They are confused and discouraged. So Paul reassures the Galatians of his confidence in the Lord regarding them: I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. And then he turns the tables on the false teachers by putting them under the judgment of God: The one who is throwing you into confusion will pay the penalty, whoever he may be.

Fifth, false teachers spread false reports about spiritual leaders. We may infer that verse 11 is Paul’s response to a false report that had been given about him. Since the immediate context focuses on the corrupting influence of the false teachers, it seems reasonable to suppose that they claimed Paul’s support for their campaign to circumcise the Gentile believers.

We don’t know on what basis they would have done this.  Perhaps if this letter was written after Paul circumcised Timothy, as recorded in Acts 16:3, they may have appealed to that incident. Or maybe they pointed to Paul’s own willingness to continue his Jewish way of life even after his conversion (see 1 Cor 9:20). Whatever their basis may have been, they gave a false report about Paul to strengthen their own position.

Paul had, of course, preached circumcision before his conversion. He had been “extremely zealous for the traditions” of Judaism (1:14). But after his conversion he preached the cross of Christ as the only way of salvation. True, he continued to support Jewish Christian adherence to the traditional Jewish way of life. But he consistently resisted anyone who tried to “force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs” (2:14). That was a key point of his autobiography (1:13–2:21). Paul proves that the report that he is still preaching circumcision is false by pointing to the fact that he is being persecuted (5:11).

Both non-Christian Jews and many Christian Jews fiercely opposed Paul precisely because he did not require circumcision. His refusal to require circumcision clearly implied that it was not necessary to belong to the Jewish nation to belong to the covenant people of God. By denying the exclusive claim of the Jewish people to be the only true people of God, Paul seemed to deny the reason for the Jewish people’s very existence. No wonder, then, that they persecuted him from one country to another. If Paul had preached circumcision, then he would not have been persecuted by the Jews. By preaching circumcision, he would have been communicating that it was necessary to belong to the Jewish nation because the salvation of God was available only to those within this nation.

Paul says in verse 11 that if he has communicated that salvation is only in the Jewish nation by preaching circumcision, the offense of the cross has been abolished. For then the message that salvation is only through the cross of Christ would have been denied. The offense of the cross is that it denies a “most favored nation” status, a “superior race” category, as the reason for God’s blessing. For the blessing of God comes only through the cross, where the judgment of God upon all was removed by Christ’s death (see 3:13-14). The message of Christ crucified is offensive not only to Jews but also to the pride of all who want to claim some personal merit as the basis of God’s approval.

Sixth, false teachers emphasize sensational rituals. Verse 12 sounds terribly harsh and crude, but we must interpret it in its historical and cultural context. It would indeed have been a sensational ceremony if all the male members of the Galatian churches had been circumcised by the false teachers. But then, Paul says, somewhat sarcastically, if they really want to put on a sensational show, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!  He is probably referring here to a barbaric ritual that actually took place in his day in Galatian pagan temples.

The priests of Cybele, the mother goddess of the earth, castrated themselves with ritual pincers and placed their testicles in a box. (Such a box is now on display in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England.) The false teachers were leading the Galatian Christians to think that the ritual of circumcision was a sacred act that would bring them into fellowship with God. But Paul has already said that “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value” (v.6). Now he puts the ritual of circumcision in the same category as the ritual castration of the Galli, the priests of the mother-goddess of the earth, Cybele; it had no more significance to the Gentile Christians than any of the other barbaric, bloody rituals practiced in the ancient world.

So Paul has totally discredited the value of circumcision and the motives of the false teachers who want to impose it upon the churches in Galatia. They only “want to make a good impression outwardly” (6:12); they want to boast in their sensational ceremony (see 6:13). Since their motive is to put on an impressive ritual show, they might as well learn a few lessons from the pagan priests, who really know how to put on a good show when it comes to using a knife on the human body!

It is never pleasant to expose the deceptive, destructive tactics of the “false brothers.” But it is necessary to do so in order to protect the freedom of fellow Christians. Of course circumcision is not an issue today. But we are constantly faced with a choice between different religious options. They are not all the same; they are not all spokes on a wheel leading to the same hub. Some religious options lead to slavery and imprisonment. Only by obedience to the truth of the gospel of Christ can we protect the freedom that is ours in Christ.

Galatians 5: IVP New Testament Commentaries from the full series on Bible Gateway at http://www.biblegateway.com/resources/ivp-nt/toc/

Micah Chapter 7

In this chapter, the prophet Micah, in the name of the church, sadly laments the woeful decay of religion in the age wherein he lived, and the deluge of impiety and immorality which overwhelmed the nation, which levelled the differences, and bore down the fences, of all that is just and sacred:

“Woe is me! for I am as when they have gathered the summer fruits, as the grape gleanings of the vintage: there is no cluster to eat: my soul desired the firstripe fruit. The good man is perished out of the earth: and there is none upright among men: they all lie in wait for blood; they hunt every man his brother with a net. That they may do evil with both hands earnestly, the prince asketh, and the judge asketh for a reward; and the great man, he uttereth his mischievous desire: so they wrap it up. The best of them is as a brier: the most upright is sharper than a thorn hedge: the day of thy watchmen and thy visitation cometh; now shall be their perplexity. Trust ye not in a friend, put ye not confidence in a guide: keep the doors of thy mouth from her that lieth in thy bosom. For the son dishonoureth the father, the daughter riseth up against her mother, the daughter in law against her mother in law; a man’s enemies are the men of his own house.” (Micah 7:1-6)

The prophet, for the sake of the church, prescribes comforts, which may be of use at such a time, and gives counsel what to do.

1. They must have an eye to God

“Therefore I will look unto the LORD; I will wait for the God of my salvation: my God will hear me.” (Micah 7:7)

2. They must courageously bear up against the insolences of the enemy

Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy: when I fall, I shall arise; when I sit in darkness, the LORD shall be a light unto me. I will bear the indignation of the LORD, because I have sinned against him, until he plead my cause, and execute judgment for me: he will bring me forth to the light, and I shall behold his righteousness. Then she that is mine enemy shall see it, and shame shall cover her which said unto me, Where is the LORD thy God? mine eyes shall behold her: now shall she be trodden down as the mire of the streets.” (Micah 7:8-10)

3. They must patiently lie down under the rebukes of their God

“I will bear the indignation of the LORD, because I have sinned against him, until he plead my cause, and execute judgment for me: he will bring me forth to the light, and I shall behold his righteousness.” (Micah 7:9)

4. They must expect no other than that the trouble would continue long, and must endeavour to make the best of it

“In the day that thy walls are to be built, in that day shall the decree be far removed. In that day also he shall come even to thee from Assyria, and from the fortified cities, and from the fortress even to the river, and from sea to sea, and from mountain to mountain. Notwithstanding the land shall be desolate because of them that dwell therein, for the fruit of their doings.” (Micah 7:11-13)

5. They must encourage themselves with God’s promises, in answer to the prophet’s prayers

“Feed thy people with thy rod, the flock of thine heritage, which dwell solitarily in the wood, in the midst of Carmel: let them feed in Bashan and Gilead, as in the days of old. According to the days of thy coming out of the land of Egypt will I shew unto him marvellous things.” (Micah 7:14-15)

6. They must foresee the fall of their enemies, that now triumphed over them

“The nations shall see and be confounded at all their might: they shall lay their hand upon their mouth, their ears shall be deaf. They shall lick the dust like a serpent, they shall move out of their holes like worms of the earth: they shall be afraid of the LORD our God, and shall fear because of thee.” (Micah 7:16-17)

7. They must themselves triumph in the mercy and grace of God, and his faithfulness to his covenant

“Who is a God like unto thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of his heritage? he retaineth not his anger for ever, because he delighteth in mercy. He will turn again, he will have compassion upon us; he will subdue our iniquities; and thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea. Thou wilt perform the truth to Jacob, and the mercy to Abraham, which thou hast sworn unto our fathers from the days of old.” (Micah 7:18-20)

With that comfortable word the prophecy concludes.

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  1. Pingback: Faith Like Potatoes, or Biblical Faith? | Truth in Reality

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