Since the beginning of time, there has been a war against God’s truth. From Satan’s fall to the garden of Eden to the false prophets of Ezekiel’s day who cried “peace” when there was no peace, to our day, there have always been those who speak against God’s Word and lead God’s people astray if they can. The world has always known false teachers.
In our day, we are bursting at the seams with them. Everyone knows they exist, even if they are unable to identify them, but not all seem to realize the danger they pose. For some, false teachers are the fringe group that is better ignored; for others, they are just Christians who think differently than we do. So how do we rightly view false teachers, and are they as threatening as some suggest?
We should first define what we mean by a false teacher. What we do not mean is someone who gets a doctrine such as the issue of baptism wrong. That would be an error, not a heresy. When we think of a false teacher, we think of the example given by the Apostle Paul, who writes to the Galatian Church, “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!” (Gal 1:8). A false teacher distorts the gospel in some way. In other words, false teaching often touches the person or work of Christ. Doctrines such as salvation by grace alone through faith alone, the sinless life of Christ, the deity of Christ, the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ, the gospel, and the necessity of repentance, are non-negotiable doctrines, and to teach anything contrary is to become a false teacher.
A second distinction of a false teacher is someone who, after having an error corrected, refuses to adjust his teaching. Of course, we all teach error, and for most of us, if we realized where that error was, we would correct it. But refusing to correct an error once exposed as an error makes one a false teacher when we speak of central doctrines that affect one’s faith. One has to move from “I didn’t know what the Bible said” to “I don’t care.” At that moment, a false teacher is born.
In the book of Acts, Apollos is an excellent example of someone teaching an error because he was teaching the Baptism of John, not knowing anything different. However, when corrected, he adjusted his teaching accordingly, and it is said that “he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, demonstrating that Jesus was the Christ” (Acts 18:28).
So the first question is: just how dangerous are false teachers? Secondly, how do we respond to false teachers? To answer these questions, there’s no better person to turn to than Jude, the half-brother of our Lord. Jude paints the most robust imagery of the false teacher anywhere in Scripture. He describes false teachers using five main illustrations and, in those, answers the question, “how dangerous are false teachers?”
The first illustration Jude gives is that of a hidden reef. A hidden reef is an underwater coral formation, rock, or ledge that every mariner would fear hitting. The hidden reef poses a severe threat to ships because it is hidden. Of course, with the technology today, you might think that Jude’s illustration loses a bit of its weight, but ships still wreck today due to reefs. In 2012, a cruise ship holding over four thousand people struck a reef, keeled over, and partially sank off Isola del Giglio.
The illustration here is that false teachers, if not made known, can bring in teaching so destructive that it makes a shipwreck of faith. For example, in 1967, the Torrey Canyon hit an underwater rock causing it to spill thirty-one thousand gallons of oil into the ocean before it could be stopped. The illustration is powerful: false teachers will sink your faith if you believe the doctrine they teach.
The second illustration Jude gives is “clouds without water.” Peter uses a similar phrase in 2 Peter 2:17, calling false teachers “springs without water.” The picture here is of something that promises to bring what is excellent and life-bringing, the rain, yet the rain never comes, becoming a source of immense disappointment. Imagine the farmer desperate for rain, and though there are dark clouds promising rain, it never comes, leaving behind only dissatisfaction. False teachers are the same, like clouds without water; in the end, they only bring disappointment because their doctrines deceitfully promise what they can’t deliver—life.
We are then told false teachers are like autumn trees without fruit. This points out the utter uselessness of a tree that doesn’t bear fruit. Jude goes even further, saying they are “doubly dead and uprooted.” This is striking when we consider the words of Jesus in Matthew 15:13, “Every plant which My heavenly Father did not plant will be uprooted.” Essentially, Jude pronounces that these teachers are judged as that which God did not plant.
The next illustration will ruin some of your trips to the beach, and for that, I am sorry. The imagery here paints perhaps the most vivid picture of how God views false teachers more than any others. He calls them “wild waves of the sea, casting up their own shame like foam.” We understand wild seas: unruly, untamable, unteachable, destructive, and so forth, but what is so bad about sea foam? Here’s where you decide never to play in the foam again. Seafoam is generally a collection of dead organic material such as rotting algae, fish scales, decayed coral, and other debris. The more dead fish parts, putrefying plant life, and sea scum, the more foam is produced. Yuck! In extreme cases where there is significant foam, people must be warned because as the bubbles in the foam burst, it can expose the skin to toxins. This is God’s description of the false teacher.
The last picture offered is that of a wandering star, which is really to say, a shooting star, communicating that there is something of a bright flash, and then it vanishes into utter darkness. False teachers are often flashy, but what they leave will be burned up, have no substance or lasting presence, and ends in darkness.
In a culture where the 11th commandment (thou shalt be nice) is all the rave, Jude brings the stark reality that false teachers are so deadly that they must be called out for what they are. Jude started his epistle with a desire to speak of the positive things of the faith, but instead, the Holy Spirit moved his hand to write a warning about false teachers, a warning we desperately need in our own time.
Now that we see just how vile, deadly, and deceptive false teachers are, the remaining question is how we respond to them. At the end of this short epistle, Jude teaches us that we should always desire to see false teachers come to Christ. No Christian should ever delight in the fact that men will go to hell. And yet, we are also cautioned to take great care when dealing with false teachers. For some—those who follow false teachers but are not yet fully convinced—we are to show them the truth, hoping that they will embrace it willingly. We reveal the truth to others a little deeper in deception, hoping to snatch them from the fire, knowing they are near peril. And for those who are the teachers and leaders themselves, for most of us, our role is to pray and warn. Still, for those who have the opportunity, we should call them to repentance and Christ, but approach them as ones who have polluted every fiber of their being with evil and deal with them using extreme caution.
At the end of the day, if we are to care for our own souls and look after our fellow brothers and sisters, we must view false teachers the way God describes them. We must see their teaching as that which can sink a soul into the pits of hell like a reef takes down a cruise ship or oil tanker. We must see the doctrine they teach like sea foam filled with death and decay, knowing that they are fruitless and uprooted, awaiting God’s judgment, and then we should be spurred on to guard our own doctrine even as we pray that some will be snatched out of the flames.