In the last couple of posts we’ve been taking time to correct deficiencies in our thinking about spiritual war, in order to avoid the trappings of declaring wrong enemies on a wrong battlefield, by looking at the Scriptures for how they are to inform our thinking. There we found that understanding the nature of spiritual war begins with understanding that God is sovereignly in control and that all authority has been given to His Son Jesus. Therefore, it is misguided to presume that Satan is either a rival force or authority instead of more accurately a created being under the control of almighty God. We then saw how Satan is allowed a leash, or chain if you will, to tempt through internal desires. Of course, it may go without saying that Satan has other devices and interests, but for now we are focused on the spiritual war elements of temptation and deception. This latter point of deception, as we saw, has two primary elements both of which bring external dangers within. The first is through deceptive teachers and the second is through deceived professors of faith. In this post we will continue developing these aspects of deception within.
We have seen how our Lord laid the foundation for this near the conclusion of His Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:15-23. However, the New Testament has much more to say on the matter of this internal danger of deception through false teachers and prophets coming in and leading many astray. The apostle Paul warns of this very danger as he concludes his exhortation to the Ephesian leaders in Acts 20:29-30
“I know that after my departure 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 emphasis added
Undoubtedly this prophetic word from Paul became a reality as he writes a further warning to his young protege Timothy who is in Ephesus (see 1 Timothy 1:19-20; 4:1-3; 2 Timothy 1:15; 2:17-18; 3:1-9). This warning from our Lord, which was evidence through the ministry and writing of Paul, was not limited to Ephesus. Peter, writing in his general epistles warns of the influx of modern false prophets, just as there had previously been false prophets under the Old Covenant (2 Peter 2:1-3). Of course, this deception by false teachers and prophets who infiltrate the gatherings of believers should not surprise as we are told even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.
12 And what I am doing I will continue to do, in order to undermine the claim of those who would like to claim that in their boasted mission they work on the same terms as we do. 13 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.2 Corinthians 11:12-15
This passage is somewhat familiar, or at least it should be, however it deserves some contemplation as it relates to our subject of deception’s dangers from within. As with all of Scripture, we do an injustice to our understanding and rightly dividing of the Word if we do not look at the surrounding context. Sometimes, this is just a few verses, noting the audience and purpose of the book, while other times it may extend to a couple of chapters if not the entire book. Here, this particular subject on the nature of false apostles extends at least to the beginning of 2 Corinthians 10 running through the end of chapter 11. We ought to note also that that within this section, Paul offers his most extensive defense of his ministry, a subject he often picked up out of necessity. When we back up to 2 Corinthians 10:1-6 we observe that Paul begins his defense with a tone of humility following the pattern of meekness and gentleness of Christ. He then introduces our subject, spiritual war, by stating the following:
3 For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. 4 For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. 5 We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, 6 being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.2 Corinthians 10:3-6
In opening up this section, Paul lays out the terms of spiritual warfare, namely that it is NOT a battle in the flesh, despite the fact that we are fleshly beings. The next verse is a clear charge that physical weapons are not the weapons in this war, rather spiritual weapons which have the power to “destroy strongholds”. Wars have been fought and continue to be fought in the name of Christ with fleshly weapons, whether they were the swords of the Crusades and Inquisition or more indirect weapons of our own day. In verse 5, we get a feel for what the strongholds of the opposition look like as they use arguments and “lofty opinions” against the knowledge of God. In other words, either by discrediting or encouraging disbelief, or positively stated encouraging belief in a false god or different gospel of Christ. Secondly, the enemy uses disobedience. Two primary targets are doctrinal and practical: belief and morality, in that order. Before we engage in “modern” spiritual warfare, assuming that the battle is between political conservatives and liberals and that our spiritual weapons are snark and memes, we need to let the passage continue.
As the discussion develops, Paul shifts from his opening introduction on the nature of spiritual war to a defense of his own apostleship, marked with humility and confidence in Christ, as we have seen, over and against that of false apostles who are full of boasting and served by self-interests. Moving into chapter 11, we get a bigger picture of the nature of the Corinthian problem that Paul is addressing by reading of his concern that deception from Satan, as with Eve, has led them to believe in another gospel and in another Christ. These “super-apostles” (vs. 6), likely skilled in rhetoric, have infiltrated the Corinthian gatherings and are preaching another Christ, another gospel, another morality, in the hopes of capturing the thoughts and lives of the people. Said simply, Paul’s chief concern is not those outside the church in the world, rather his concern is the deception that has come inside the church. All of this culminates in the passage from 2 Corinthians 11:12-15 cited above that warns against false apostles and teachers who enter in, disguised as servants of Christ, following the pattern of their own master Satan, who himself is disguised as an angel of light. Again, the danger is not outside in the form of liberals, unbelievers, atheists, etc. The danger is deception from within with those wolves disguised as sheep who repurpose truth into a lie. That’s the meaning of another Christ and another gospel. A classic example of this if of course the Israelites fashioning a golden calf and declaring it to be the god that delivered them out of slavery in Egypt.
We can now bridge together our Lord’s warning from Matthew 7 and a practical example of it occurring in Corinth to form a foundational basis on the danger of wolves in sheep’s clothing infiltrating the assembly of believers. With this warning before us, clarity is added to the other warnings against false teachers in Scripture. Examples abound such as Acts 20:28-31, previously cited, in Paul’s final discourse with the Ephesian elders warning them against incoming wolves in turn leading to men rising up, “from among your own selves” speaking distorted or perverse things in order to gain a following. Again, highlighting the internal dangers of deception in this spiritual war. Further we have the example of Galatians and similar warning language of, “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.” Followed by the example of “false brothers secretly brought in” to spy on the fellowship and ultimately deceive them concerning the nature of salvation (Galatians 2:4). Additionally, Philippians 1:15-17; 3:2ff; Titus 1:10,12; and 2 Peter 2:1-22 introduced with the following verse again highlighting the internal dangers, “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.” (2 Peter 2:1) And let us not forget that Jude had intended to write of the common salvation among believers, but instead was led by the Holy Spirit to write specifically and urgently noting that, “certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” Jude 4
With all of this evidence before us, it is clear that the danger of deception from within through false teachers, their false doctrine and false practices, should be one that every believer in every gathering is aware of and alert for. 1 John 4:1 exhorts us to test the spirit to see if it is from God because many false prophets have gone out into the world, and they are indeed antichrist. May we be ever so vigilant in this regard because these wolves may not at first be evident because they are cunning and slick, as Satan was with Eve, stating the truth but with elements of distortion.
In the next post, Lord willing, we will look at the second of our deceptive dangers, that which relates to the deception of false belief, as we round out our understanding of spiritual war.
Soli Deo Gloria