Several years ago, a group of 5 so-called New Testament scholars put their heads together, and came up with the idea of going through the Gospels and marking which statements of Jesus were original, and which were made up by the apostles. They used beads to vote on each passage. If they thought that a particular statement of Jesus was genuine, they would mark it in red. If they thought it was probably genuine, they marked it in pink. If they thought it was more likely invented by the apostles, they marked it in gray, and if they “knew” that Jesus never said it, they marked it in black. What was their criteria by which they judged these things? Primarily, it came down to this: anything that sounded like the early church was obviously invented by the early church, and did not come from Jesus Himself. These 5 “scholars” were called the Jesus Seminar. They published their version of the Gospel in all these different colors. I hope you can see how absurd this all is. If the early church was actually based on Jesus’ teaching, then we would expect all of Jesus’ teachings to find echoes in the early church. So, rather than looking different from the early church, we would expect Jesus’ teaching to look just like what the early church taught. These scholars were incredibly arrogant to think that they knew better than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John what Jesus actually said. The most harmful result of their labors, of course, was that people started to lose confidence in the pages of the Bible. Then they started to think that if they didn’t like something that Jesus said, such as one of His sayings about Hell, then they could just label it as something that the church put in later, and so they could ignore it. This is an example of false teaching that has disastrous consequences for anyone who trust in it. That kind of teaching is like leaven. It spreads through your whole system of doctrine until nothing is certain anymore, and you don’t even have the Jesus of the Bible. In fact, it results in total shipwreck.
What I want us to see tonight is not only that false teaching is much, much worse than we usually think it is, but also that true teaching is much more important than we think it is. What I mean is this: most Christians today do not care about doctrine at all. We don’t care what someone is saying, as long as it is sincere, and as long as they look loving when they do it. In fact, we often judge a person’s teaching on how it makes us feel, whether loved or not. The thought of comparing a person’s teaching to actual Scripture, like the Bereans did (and were highly commended for doing so) in the book of Acts, never crosses our minds. What I hope we can see here is that Jesus warns us to be on our guard against false teaching.
Our story here starts with the disciples overlooking something rather important: they had forgotten to bring any bread. So, when Jesus talks to them about leaven, the disciples naturally jump to the logical (but erroneous!) conclusion that Jesus was talking about literal bread. But how exactly did they come to this conclusion? Well, the disciples were probably thinking that Jesus was commanding them not to get bread from Pharisees or Sadducees. But Jesus quickly corrects their false idea of what He was saying. He reproaches them for the slowness of mind. Verse 9 says, “Do you not yet perceive?” “Don’t you understand yet?”, Jesus is saying. “If bread were really a problem, don’t you think I could create another miracle like I did with the 4,000, and the 5,000? Aren’t you forgetting that I could create bread our of stones, if I wanted to do so? You are standing and talking with the one who is the very Bread of Life! Stop worrying about bread when you’re in the presence of God Almighty! Instead, worry about a different kind of problem. Instead of lack of bread, worry about the presence of false teaching.”
Now, that is a perspective on false teaching that is worlds different from most of us. What is Jesus saying? He is saying that false teaching is a greater problem than lack of bread! Lack of bread means that you might go hungry. It might even mean that we could starve to death. But false teaching means that the soul could be in danger of eternal hell-fire! This is why false teaching is so dangerous. It is because false teaching leads people astray into the path of destruction. I am reminded of the scene in John Bunyan’s book Pilgrim’s Progress where the main character, a pilgrim named Christian, is on the way to the Celestial city, another name for heaven. He still has the burden of guilt on his back, and he wants so much to get rid of it. Shortly after his entrance into the path, however, Mr. Worldly Wiseman comes to him and tells him of a great moral teacher named Mr. Legality, who can remove the burden, supposedly. However, as Christian goes off the path towards Mr. Legality’s house, there is a mountain (symbolic of Mount Sinai) that threatens him until he can go no further. Then Christian realizes that instead of helping with the burden, this advice really made the situation far worse. The false teaching of salvation by law-keeping, you see, only made it clear all the more to Christian, that he could not get rid of this burden, no matter how hard he tried. The only way Christian got rid of his burden was by traveling to the foot of the cross, where the burden loosened from off his shoulders, bounced on down the hill, and disappeared into an empty tomb.
You see, the teaching of the Pharisees was legalistic. There are some scholars who would dispute that interpretation of Judaism in this period, but it seems fairly evident that the Pharisees were legalistic. They thought that obeying the law of God was actually possible for sinful man, and so they tried to insure that it could happen. They figured that they could make up a bunch of laws, which, if you kept them, would make it so that you wouldn’t break the actual law of God. This was called “putting a fence around the law.” The trouble was, as we have already seen, they wound up putting their laws ahead of God’s law, teaching as commandments the opinions of mere men. Ironically, the Pharisees were right about one thing: and that is that salvation is by law. They were wrong, however, about who could perform that perfect obedience to the law. They thought that mere humans could do it. However, it should be clear to us that mere fallen humans cannot obey the law. But Jesus can. And it is His law-keeping that is reckoned as ours if we trust in Him.
Now, the Sadducees, as we saw last week, did not believe in the resurrection. Jesus tangled with them in another part of the Gospels, where He had shown from Moses, which was the only part of the OT that the Sadducees thought was inspired, that God was the God of the resurrection. We saw this in our Easter sermon this year. The passage from the burning bush where God says that “I am the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Israel” proves the resurrection, since God is not God of the dead, but of the living. So the Sadducees taught wrong things as well.
Why should we beware of false teaching like this? What makes false teaching so dangerous? Here is a principle that is absolutely vital to understand: doctrine always results in practice. What we do always stems from what we believe. There is no such thing as impractical doctrine, unless it is false doctrine, in which case it still affects our lives. The Pharisees believed that salvation was by law-keeping. Therefore, they became legalists, and did not trust in the grace of God. The Sadducees believed there was no resurrection. Hence, obeying the law wasn’t really important at all.
Let me give us some modern examples of false teaching and how they affect our lives. There are some people out there who believe that God is always changing His plans in accordance with what people do. So God is not really sovereign. He is always moving on to plan B. If that is the case, then why pray to God at all? If God’s original plan could always be thwarted by mere men (and if mere men can thwart God’s plan, then certainly Satan could!), then there is no point in praying to God. We should only pray if we know that God can do something about the problem. You see how a wrong idea of God could threaten our prayer lives? Or, take the doctrine of the Jehovan’s Witnesses. They do not believe that Jesus Christ is fully God. However, if Jesus is not fully God, then He could not have borne the sins of all His people, for that punishment is infinite. Only Jesus as fully man and fully God could have borne our sins upon Himself. In short, if Jesus is not fully God, then there is no salvation whatsoever. Despair is the only result. Take the recent book entitled The Shack. In this book, William Young writes about a man who lost his 6-year old daughter to a vicious killer. He loses his faith in God. But then he gets a letter telling him to meet God in the Shack, the very place where his daughter was killed. He meets with God in a physical form. The Father is this large African-american woman, Jesus is a carpenter, and the Holy Spirit is this wispy, mysterious, Asian woman. This is blasphemous, since God does not have a body like men, and only the Second Person of the Trinity became incarnate. Furthermore, the outcome of the book is that God is not all-powerful. There are so many doctrinal problems with the book that it is difficult to know where to begin. However, I will say just this: in the book, man becomes the judge of God. Rather than God judging us, we judge God. This puts man in an unbearable state of pride and arrogance. We won’t be tempted in the least to repent of our sins until God repents of His sins. It makes God into a very human person. This will wreck our souls if we follow that path.
Paul says in his letters that we should be well-grounded in doctrine, so that we are not swayed here and there by every wind of doctrine. I hope I have shown that false teaching can make us shipwrecked. The only way to safety is in trusting Christ, and believing correct doctrine. How do we know if something is correct doctrine? Ultimately we know that if something preaches the full Scriptural doctrine of Christ, and preaches the full doctrine of justification by faith alone, and preaches the biblical doctrine of God, then it is true. The Scripture is our touchstone for knowing whether something is true or not. We should be like the admirable Bereans, always testing what we hear against what Scripture teaches. Now, the creeds and confessions of our church can be helpful in this regard as well. We should not think of them as inspired or inerrant, like Scripture is. However, we as a church confess that the creeds and confessions of our church are accurate summaries of what Scripture teaches. So, we can use the confessions of the church to help us this way as well. In fact, they become very important once we realize that, as one venerable old Dutch pastor said, “Every heretic has his text of Scripture.” In other words, every heretic says and thinks that he is just following what Scripture says. Of course, he is twisting Scripture, but that can be difficult to see. The confessions of the church help us here, since every confession of the church was formulated against certain heresies. It would take too much time to show you this. However, we can see that the Nicene Creed, for instance, was formulated against the teaching of Arius, a heretic who taught that Christ was the first created being, and that Jesus was not fully God. In fact, Arianism is the precursor to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They believe the same thing about Jesus. The Nicene Creed guards us against such teaching by proving from Scripture that Jesus is fully God and fully man. All the confessions of the true church are summaries of Scripture’s teaching that we can use to see what false teaching is, and how dangerous it can be. We always need to be on our guard. False teaching is everywhere. Therefore, we need to beware the leaven of the Pharisees, Sadducees, Jehovah’s Witnesses, anyone who denies justification by faith alone, anyone who denies the Trinity, anyone who denies Scripture, anyone who denies that Jesus is fully God and fully man in one person. These are absolutely central.
One last comment. It is entirely possible that we could disagree with someone else about something that is not central to the Christian faith. For instance, we disagree with Baptist brothers on what age a person should be to be baptized. I hope we can all realize that although this disagreement means that we cannot exist in the same denomination with them, we are still part of the true church of Christ with them. I have many Baptist brothers and sisters who are true believers. In other words, we need to realize that some things are more central and important than others. We need to develop that discernment so that we can stand for truth when it is something central to the Christian faith, and where we can be gracious and patient when it is not something central. Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees, but do not beware of the teaching of Jesus Himself, or the teaching of the Bible. Cling to that which is good, and reject what is false.