Truth and Falsehood

Posted on 01 April 2008

Evangel 20:3 (Autumn 2002)

Truth and Falsehood

Evangel 20:3 (Autumn 2002)

In Jeremiah 23:9-22, the prophet accuses the popular preachers of his day as running with a message which God had not sent them to deliver (21). His challenge is accompanied by a statement of the criteria by which the false teacher can be distinguished from the authentic one. His message has a timeless relevance.

  Jeremiah isolates five characteristics of the false teacher. Firstly, he notes that a false teacher is quite able to quote from Scripture. The sentiments expressed in verse 17 can be found almost verbatim in both the Scriptures available to Jeremiah and in the hymns that he would have often sung in the Temple. Indeed, the promise of peace and protection, the reassurance that God will not abandon his people and the guarantee of future rewards are echoed in the New Testament. They constitute part of the delight we all experience in reading and listening to the word of God. Secondly, Jeremiah observes that false teachers can offer a plausible interpretation of Scripture; even appealing to its plain sense. The passages and themes upon which the false teachers drew might appear to support the emphases in their ministries and imply that it was Jeremiah who was out of step with the revelation of God. After all, it was he who was apparently denying these sublime and reassuring truths! Thirdly, however, Jeremiah notes that the false teacher is usually unconditionally optimistic and reassuring. Here we begin to draw near to the heart of the problem of false teaching. A survey of Jeremiah’s overall message indicates that he did not deny the truths that the false teachers proclaimed (how could he?). The fault lay with their lack of balance; they kept on saying the same things (see verse 17) without due recognition of other truths which tempered and qualified the way in which reassurance should have been offered. This leads to Jeremiah’s fourth point. He notes that false teaching is usually ‘soft’ on moral challenge. What was abominable (verse 14) was the failure to set the truths of God within the framework of the moral challenge to holiness. Whether or not the charges made in verse 14 were literally true, the false teachers’ messages effectively promoted widespread ungodliness (verse 15) by offering words of bland encouragement to those who needed to hear the ‘sharp-edged’ side of God’s message (see 17,22). Finally, Jeremiah indicates that false teaching has its origin in the unredeemed heart. Thus, in verse 16, he claims their messages were self-devised, driven by the desire for popular recognition: proclaiming what they and their hearers wanted to hear.
 
  All this remains a challenge in our highly subjective and self-focused world (and church). As teachers we, too, can be driven by our feelings (and assume they are the Holy Spirit’s voice) and we can slip into assuming that what is good for me (and gives me a sense of peace) is God speaking. We can also encourage ministries that are long on encouragement but short on challenge. The acid test, as Jeremiah realized, was whether teaching produces genuine holiness (compare verse 22).
 
  Jeremiah also makes the positive assertion that authentic ministry emerges from the lips of people who have stood in God’s council (verse 21). The profounder implications of this claim cannot detail us in the present discussion. However, at the very least, it implies that true teachers have spent sufficient time in listening to God rather than the spirit of the age so that when they speak it is a counter-cultural, God-driven message.
 
  In order to undertake this effectively, it surely implies that the teacher is self-critical and capable of standing back from his or her world: able to assess both in the light of the word of God. Such requires accurate understanding of the world and an ability to ‘rightly divide the word of truth’.
 
  The present edition of Evangel is designed to help promote authentic interpretation and application of Scripture. Thus it contains several herrrieneutical discussions; aimed at sharpening the ability to correctly interpret the Bible. It also includes material that helps us understand the world into which we are called to speak. It is to be hoped that such material will foster a faithfulness to God’s word which will not place us under the judgement of the Jerusalem prophets (see especially verse 14b).

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