Portraits of False Teaching
During this first half of the book of Jude, Jude has been explaining the false teaching that has crept into the church through false teachers. You might say Jude is pointing out the problem before getting to the solution of how you are to positively contend for the faith. In these short verses, Jude has pointed back to the Old Testament for examples and errors that happened to the people of God. He has given seven examples of stories that show the outcome of the false teaching but also points out the false teaching itself. The people who died in the wilderness for their unbelief, the angels who rejected god’s authority, the wicked sins of the immortality of Sodom and Gomorrah, the blaspheming glorious ones, the way of Cain, Balaam’s error, and Korah’s rebellion. Jude will paint us a picture of the false teachers but not from events found in the Old Testament but through images found in nature.
Before we look at these images, I want to spend a brief amount of time unpacking this term of false teaching. What makes someone a “false teacher?” It all depends on how you define this term. Now in a way, a false teacher is a person who teaches the bible inaccurately. Now, this is a broad category, which I will call the black-and-white approach. If this is our definition, then I think all of us would be classified as false teachers. I know I have changed positions on Bible verses before, I taught them one way and then years later I find myself disagreeing with my previous position. Both cannot be correct; it is either one or the other. This black-and-white approach is not helpful because then everyone is a false teacher. After all, we are all sinful and we cannot assume we perfectly interpret and teach every Scripture. So, what would a Biblical definition of false teaching be? First, we must understand that false teaching is the opposite of true teaching. That false teaching is dependent upon there being such thing as true doctrine. So false teaching is anything counter to true doctrine. So false teaching then seems to distort, deny, or depart from this true teaching (Gal 1:6-9, 1 Tim 4:1-5, Rom 16:17-18, 2 Pet 2:1-3). When we speak of this we generally refer to this not in every aspect of the Bible (as pointed out before) but in doctrines found in the Bible. Although we should seek to search the Scriptures to see if it is true (Acts 17:11).
A helpful tool I like to think about is how this interpretation of Scripture affects other portions of Scripture. There is a great deal of difference between getting the character of God wrong and the use of the term “Christ’s circumcision” in Colossians 2:11. Or as Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 15, that he delivered of first importance (1 Cor 15:3). Paul has some leveling system where he can explain that the Gospel is of first importance. It is not to say there are no other important matters. So when we get to heaven there will be either former Baptists or former- Presbyterians, we both cannot be correct. However, I would not walk around calling my Baptist brothers and sisters false teachers. Another factor that we see Biblically is not just how they distort, deny or depart from the truth, but the teachers themselves. They are described as deceiving, looking like sheep but inwardly they are wolves (2 Cor 11:13-15, Matt 7:15-20). They are vain talkers (Tit 1:10-11). So it is their doctrine but also their character. How do we know a false teacher, we need to know our Bibles and ourselves. The Bible warns that false teachers lead people astray (Matt 24:11, 24), but we are also told that some people want to be led astray. Paul says to Timothy that some people have itchy ears and find the teachers they want to listen to (2 Tim 4:3-4). We need to be careful to know what true teaching is to avoid false teaching. If you would like a short book on the subject, I recommend a book called, “A Field Guide to False Teaching,” which is published by Ligonier Ministries. This small book helps unpack many of the false teachings that can be found in the church today. However, we will start to limit ourselves to the book of Jude at this point. What images does Jude use to paint for us to understand these false teachers who we should be on the lookout for?
Jude explains that the false teachers are like hidden reefs at your love feasts. The key to this phrase is that they are hidden. These hidden reefs are like rocks that sit just below the surface of the water. From the ship’s perspective above the water, it is clear sailing but then this shard hard object can bring down this boat in the water. I doubt many accidents in the ocean occur with head-on collisions with other boats, most of the time I would assume it is what is unseen is the most dangerous. Like icebergs that sank ships like the Titanic, it is 90% of the iceberg that causes the most damage. These false teachers are like these hidden rocks under the surface of the water, you have no idea they are there before it is too late. This is what Jude had said before they had crept in unnoticed. These false teachers are sitting at the table with the members of this church for their fellowship meals and they have no fear. Peter says, “They count it a pleasure to revel in the daytime. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, while they feast with you” (2 Pet 2:13). They take great joy in their deception, or possibly the outcome of their false teaching, love of money or fame.
The next image is that of a shepherd. The image is quite different from the image we would imagine. The image of a green pasture with the shepherd in the middle surrounded by relaxed sheep. This image is one of blood and guts the shepherd covered in blood, not from a predator attacking the sheep but from the shepherd slaughtering his sheep to have a meal. The image of a true shepherd is that the good shepherd would lose their own life to save the sheep, but the false shepherd will rather have the sheep die than themselves (Eze 34, Jer 23). The horrific portion of this image is that the sheep are the victims of their greed. The one who is meant to care for the flock is the one doing damage to them. The false teachers claiming to be God’s leaders are hurting God’s people. Like a doctor who has made an oath to do no harm, with their fingers crossed, deliberately harming their patients. They feed their pride, ego, power-hungry plans, their financial portfolio, and other aspects. But the portion that we do not often think about is at the expense of the sheep. They cause damage to their lives and also their faith.
The next image is a waterless cloud. The image of a cloud that appears overhead, the excitement of rain, but is short-lived when the cloud is blown away. The cloud has the appearance of rain but then is gone within a moment. The image is helpful for us, but not as vital for us. We understand the need for rain to water and give life. However, this is not within the mountains of Virginia. This is during the middle east, the dry region of the world. Thomas Schreiner explains it like this, “The idea is that the opponents were like clouds that hover overhead with the prospect of rain and then are blown away without providing water. So too the false teachers promised to slake the thirst of those who heard them but left them parched.” This is exactly the tool of Satan, promises the best and pays the worst. This is exactly the point which the author of Proverbs states, “Like clouds and wind without rain is a man who boasts of a gift he does not give” (Prov 25:14). This is the outcome of the false teaching, that in the end there is nothing, it is pointless. Think again of what Paul said to Timothy, that people will seek out false teachers to suit their passions (2 Tim 4:3). But if the teaching is false then the promises are false as well.
The next image we are given is the fruitless tree, in late autumn. After a season when the tree is meant to produce fruit, the tree is bare and empty. The leaders when it comes down to it have no fruit in their ministry. Often, they will boast of ‘fruit,’ numbers in their churches, books they have written, and things that are seen. Jude says that they are twice dead, a true believer is twice-born (John 3), however, a false teacher is twice dead, dead in their sins and dead on that final day of Judgement (Rev 2:11, 20:6). Fruit is not always seen and measurable in numbers but in character, heart, and faithfulness. The image of a fruitful tree is very common throughout the scriptures (Ps 1:3; Jer 17:6, 8; Matt 3:10). The passage I think Jude is referring to is that of Jesus in Matthew 7:15-20 (cf Luke 6:43-44):
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:15–20)
A leader will never be perfect, they are sinful. However, they will be faithful; and fruitful. Leaders should be known for their godly character, godly heart, and godly fruit in their lives. Now to be honest this is one that changed me, I can always do more. But I pray that God would use me to grow fruit. That I would be faithfully fruitful. That as I abide in Christ and Christ in me that fruit would be upon this branch as I am connected to the vine. That I would be like the tree planted by the streams of living water, bearing its fruit in its season (Ps 1:3).
The fruitless trees show the lack of their fruit. But this image shows us the opposite, their wicked works. The focus is not on the waves, but on the foam which the waves leave behind. Jude is referring to Isiah 57:20, “But the wicked are like the tossing sea; for it cannot be quiet, and its waters toss up mire and dirt.” The foam is their wicked deeds, which they perform. The false teaching shows false works. The false teachers leave trash in their wake. One commentator points out, “Instead of edifying other Christians, it soils them like the dirt thrown up by a stormy sea.” Like cities that once were booming centers of industrial growth, but now all that is left is ruin and poverty. This is the truth of these false teachers, the sheep have not devoured they are left with terrible damage. This is the effect of false teaching is that the damage that is done is left behind. You see this in the burnt-over district from Charles Finney. I have said this many times in this series but the false gospel is no gospel at all. If you are left with a gospel that is distorted, denies the realities of the gospel, or deserts the gospel altogether, you do not have the good news of Jesus, you get the fake news of the false teachers which is like trash left behind after a horrible storm.
The last image Jude gives us is of a wandering star. Now this can have various interpretations, stars can be referred to as the fallen angels (Isa 14:12–15; Rev 8:10; 9:1). This might be a reference to verse 6. We see this has similar terms of gloomy darkness. If this is the interpretation the focus is the false teachers and rejecting the God-ordained authority. However, the second interpretation focuses on verse 11 and Balaam’s error (plane). Jude uses a similar word to speak of the ‘wandering’ (planētēs). If this is the case the focus is not so much on the false teachers but on what they are doing, mainly leading people astray. Balaam leads the Israelites into the path of sexual immorality. The wandering stars lead people astray. This is one key of false teaching, that it causes people to sin (Matt 24:11, Mark 13:5, 22). This is why James warns his readers, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (Jam 3:1). Or as Paul writes to Timothy, a young pastor, saying, “Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions” (1 Tim 1:6–7). The role of a ‘truth’ teacher is to proclaim what God says in his word, no more and no less. They lead people to Christ, not to falsehood. Jude speaks of this stricter judgment that his brother James said, they have a place with their name on it in the utter darkness.
What then is our hope? The faith that has been delivered to the saints. Not this false teaching with false motives, titles, hope, fruit, works, and direction. But found in Christ, our Lord, and master. It is found in the true Gospel of Grace, not some distorted and perverted version of this false grace. Paul likes to call it the ‘truth of the gospel’ (Gal 2:5, 14). Of the hope which we have only through this true gospel, “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:13–14).