An Easy Way to Discern False Teaching

The Pharisees and Sadducees asked for a sign from heaven, or a sign that the kingdom of heaven was truly at hand. They were asking for a sign of the end-times; Jesus, though He seemed to agree that the signs should accompany the coming of the kingdom, called them a wicked and adulterous generation because they sought that type of sign. The Pharisees and Sadducees disagreed in their eschatology (study of end-times). They chose to make their end-times views points of contention between their two parties and as they interacted with Jesus. Now, Jesus teaches His disciples about the nature of false teaching.

Matthew 16:5-12

And the disciples came to the other side of the sea, but they had forgotten to bring any bread. And Jesus said to them, “Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

They began to discuss this among themselves, saying, “He said that because we did not bring any bread.”

But Jesus, aware of this, said, “You men of little faith, why do you discuss among yourselves that you have no bread? Do you not yet understand or remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets full you picked up? Or the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many large baskets full you picked up? How is it that you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread? But beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

Then they understood that He did not say to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Jesus’s teaching (v. 5-7)

And the disciples came to the other side of the sea, but they had forgotten to bring any bread. And Jesus said to them, “Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
They began to discuss this among themselves, saying, “He said that because we did not bring any bread.”

The disciples forget bread. Jesus teaches them to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. The disciples mistook Jesus’s teaching. He was warning them, and all they heard was a reprimand because they forgot the bread. If we are trying to communicate one idea and others seem to hear it wrongly and twist it into something on which we would never insist, we are in good company.

How often do we, before we are fully sanctified, hear the wonderful instruction of our Lord and, because we have made following Christ about our works, hear God’s word reprimanding us instead of warning us for our good? Thus, we come face-to-face with another example of narcigesis—centering Christ’s teaching on ourselves and our works. When we read the Bible, listen to a sermon, or participate in biblical discussion, we do not do so expecting God to reprimand us at every turn of the page. Remember, God gave His Law and Gospel to reveal Himself and His work, not primarily to modify our behavior or tell us how incorrect we are. Yet, we often assume God simply wants to fix us. As a result, we imply that the only reason people need to be in church is if something is outwardly wrong with them that needs to be fixed—we need to correct some behavior. This could not be further from the truth. We are here to know God more together—to seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, not our own. The more we know God, the more He will sanctify us. Our goal is to know God more, not fix people. This requires our elders, here to mean pastors, to work hard at preaching and teaching the whole counsel of Scripture—sound doctrine.

False teaching (v. 8-12)

But Jesus, aware of this, said, “You men of little faith, why do you discuss among yourselves that you have no bread? Do you not yet understand or remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets full you picked up? Or the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many large baskets full you picked up? How is it that you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread? But beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
Then they understood that He did not say to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

While Jesus did not reprimand His disciples because of their outward action, He did reprimand them for not knowing Him and His work. Ironically, that’s the very thing Jesus is warning the disciples about. After being instructed to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, the disciples automatically jump to outward works, which is the leaven of the Pharisees Jesus warned them about. Thus, the text leads us to consider what sort of teaching we should beware of:

1) The difference between biblical and false teaching is directional. Jesus taught it was not what went into the mouth that defiled a person but what came out (Cf. 15:1-20). There, it is revealed that every bending of the Law gets at the condition of the human heart like a mirror rather than telling people how they can become righteous like a checklist. According to the way the Pharisees used the Law, as opposed to Jesus’s use of the Law, what went into people defiled them or made them righteous. A pharisaical teaching of the Law insists that if we can avoid certain things (e.g. certain types of music, certain images, certain foods or drinks, and certain places) we can be pure and holy. With the addition of the Sadducees and the introduction of eschatological thought, the focus of this discourse is broadened to include not only religious practice but, also, doctrine (e.g. end-times, signs, and wonders). Even with regard to doctrine, the Pharisees and Sadducees were concerned about what they were taking in.

Jesus’s use of the Law was different, even opposite. He sees self-made religion and self-abasement as unprofitable even though it seems spiritual (Cf. 15:8-9; Colossians 2:21-23). He referred to those who sought to take in signs and wonders as wicked and adulterous (v. 4). In contrast to the Pharisees, scribes, and Sadducees, Jesus taught that it was what came out of a person, practice and doctrine, that either defiled that person or justified him—because what comes out comes from the heart (Cf. 15:18); Root produces fruit. We cannot produce good roots by hanging good fruit on a tree.

The more deeply we know God’s word, the better for us. One does not need to have an intimate knowledge of every biblical detail to discern between biblical and false teaching. False teaching focusses on what is outside the body, that which is taken in. Biblical teaching focuses on knowing God and His work and sees the human heart transformed so that the person bears the fruit of the Spirit naturally. False teaching tells people what to do and what signs to look for. Biblical teaching strives to convey who God is and what God is doing, trusting God to do the work of sanctification. The Pharisees, scribes, and Sadducees taught, ‘Don’t eat that. Look for a sign.’ Jesus taught, ‘You of little faith; Have you so quickly forgotten who I am and what I am doing?’

2) False teachers say some correct things. Jesus is not telling His disciples to beware of every single little teaching. He is speaking in generalities. Later, in Matthew 23:3, Jesus will instruct the crowds and His disciples:

 Therefore all that they (the Pharisees and scribes) tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them. 

Jesus agrees with some of what the Pharisees teach. Instead of nitpicking every little teaching or telling people to ignore them altogether, Jesus gets at the foundation of false teaching. Someone is not a sound teacher because he or she gives some sound advice or says something quotable that seems good. False teachers can be correct about some things. Similarly, sound teachers can be incorrect about some things. Jesus does not instruct His disciples to nitpick every little thing others say. In fact, Scripture reveals that it is useless to nitpick everything said and leads to the ruin of those listening (Cf. 2 Timothy 2:14). Instead, we consider the general bend of someone’s teaching. Is it about us, our work, and our experiences, or is it about God, His work, and the real condition of our hearts? Too often, we are so quick to label someone a false teacher because they associate with someone else or say something we don’t like. These are not godly measurements. Instead, we consider whether they are teaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ or a different, strange, gospel.

It’s not like the signs are a small issue. The kingdom of heaven really cannot be at hand without the presentation of the foretold signs from heaven. Jesus teaches His disciples to beware of the teachings because they have taken an inappropriate priority over knowing God and His work. That is why we can still have fellowship with those who disagree with us about many doctrines, including those related to end-times. There are things more worthy of our consideration than others. There are essential doctrines, here to mean essential for unity and godliness (e.g. doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone). There are nonessential doctrines, here to mean nonessential for unity and godliness (e.g. wine for communion, paedobaptism, or pre-tribulation rapture). All things are important and worthy of our consideration, but we want to keep the main thing the main thing.

3) False teaching is like leaven. It is present throughout the whole lump of dough. False teaching is tenacious. Every religion, denomination, and local church this side of the resurrection has in its midst the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. We need to be aware of this, never assuming that we are correct about everything we thing or that one teacher or another is correct about everything. That’s idolatry. We don’t know what we don’t know. Our favorite preachers and teachers don’t know what they don’t know. I have been writing and teaching seriously since 2009. I look back on some of the things I wrote and taught, being entirely convinced I was correct at the time, and wonder how I could ever have believed and taught some of the things I did. People loved it and said they learned much from my work, but it was incorrect. It was atrocious. I would never want anyone to go back and read my earlier books.

Jesus does not instruct His disciples to nitpick every teaching. He simply instructs them to beware. Be aware that false, anthropocentric, teaching is present. Be aware that people misunderstand, misrepresent, and misappropriate God’s Law and Gospel. Be aware that they might not know what they are doing. This is why I am convinced that the only biblical church is a truly reformed church. Forget nitpicking little doctrines to categorized what is truly reformed and what is not (e.g. the paedobaptism controversy). We learn from Jesus, here. To be truly reformed is to live by the mantra Semper Reformanda, always reforming, with regard to doctrine and practice. Be aware of the leaven. Always strive to sincerely return to the source of the faith, a proper understanding of God’s holy word. Know God. Know His work. Be transformed. In the resurrection, we will be perfect as He is perfect (Cf. 5:48).

In this, we learn something about who Jesus is. His character and desire is consistent with God’s desire through the Old Testament. He desires to be known, not prostituted for the sake of self-made religion (Cf. Genesis 1:27; Exodus 6:7; 7:5, 17; 10:2; Deuteronomy 6:4-25; 14:4, 18; Job 12:9; Psalms 19; 46:10; Isaiah 5:16; Jeremiah 5:21ff; Ezekiel 11:12; Hosea 6:6; Matthew 9:13; Romans 1:20).

Jesus’s Identity According to Matthew 14-17:

Who Jesus is:Who Jesus is not:
The expected Messiah (Isaiah 35:4-5; 61:1-2):
The one who would heal His people, take their infirmities, raise the dead, and restore justice to the earth.
John the Baptist; the new Elijah (Cf. Malachi 4:5-6):
Not merely a prophet, teacher, or good person.
Compassionate provider; Israel’s Messiah (Cf. Exodus 3:6-9; 34:6; Psalm 78:38-39; 2 Kings 13:23; Isaiah 14:1; 49:13; Lamentations 3:32; Zechariah 10:6).Not merely  an inspirational figure or brilliant strategist. Not limited by human means.
The Son of God; the king who perpetually sits on the Messiah’s throne prepared through King David (2 Samuel 7:14-17; see also Proverbs 30:4; Isaiah 7:14; 9:6-7; Daniel 3:25; Micah 5:1-3 concerning the “Son of God” motif in the Old Testament). Israel’s deliverer.Not a wish-granter or halfway savior.
The one who upholds God’s Law and justifies the Father’s people from the inside out (Cf. Genesis 49:10; Isaiah 29:13-14; Jeremiah 23:5).Not the one who abolishes God’s Law according to people’s preferences, traditions, or philosophies (Cf. Matthew 5:17).
The one who engages and uproots false teachers, churches, and religions in His own perfect timing.Not the one who instructs his people to attract the world into the church no matter the cost or hunt down false teachers and their ministries.
The one who came to the lost sheep of Israel and through whom the nations of the world are blessed (Genesis 12; 15; 22).Not the one who condemns people based on religious ritual, standards, or traditions (outward acts).
The one who takes the infirmities of His people (Isaiah 53:4) and who makes provision for those who glorify the Father with their whole lives.Not a slot machine for people to use for their own glory or exaltation by putting in time, money, or self-righteous works.
The one who upholds God’s Prophets and focusses attention on Scripture rather than on signs of the times.Not a showman who idolatrizes the miraculous.
The one who wants to be known (Cf. Genesis 1:27; Exodus 6:7; 7:5, 17; 10:2; Deuteronomy 6:4-25; 14:4, 18; Job 12:9; Psalms 19; 46:10; Isaiah 5:16; Jeremiah 5:21ff; Ezekiel 11:12; Hosea 6:6; Matthew 9:13; Romans 1:20).Not one who desires to see His name built up into human-centered religion.

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