HOW TO DEAL WITH FALSE TEACHING
STUDY 3: KNOW WHAT THE OLD TESTAMENT SAYS ABOUT FALSE TEACHING
© Copyright Rosemary Bardsley 2007
False teaching is teaching or belief that is contrary to the teaching of the Bible. It is sometimes called ‘heresy’. Its perpetrators are called variously ‘false prophets’, ‘false teachers’, or ‘false apostles’, as well as a range of rather scathing and derogatory terms which are quite instructive about the nature and origin of false teaching.
The Bible’s opposition to false teaching is on two levels:
- Its condemnation of all belief systems in which worship is given to any thing or to any being other than the God defined and affirmed by the Bible to be the only God.
- Its condemnation of all corruptions of truth that are taught and/or believed within the physical group of people that identifies as the people of God, whether Israel, the Old Testament people of God, or the Jews living at the time of Christ, or the church [the body of people meeting together in the name of Christ].
In the Old Testament false teaching has five primary aspects:
 The initial deception in Genesis 3 which resulted in Adam and Eve believing Satan’s lies and rejecting God and his Word.
 The on-going worship of idols or created things, in which substitute ‘gods’ replaced God.
 Belief in occult powers and involvement in or with occult practices.
 Messages brought by false prophets, whom the Lord had not sent, and whose messages deceived the people.
 Worship supposedly directed to the one true God, but not conforming to his instructions for worship, and not accompanied by a life that reflects real knowledge and acknowledgement of God. [For example: Lev 17:8,9; Isaiah 1]
A. THE GENESIS 3 DECEPTION
In Genesis 3:1-6 we can identify several characteristics of false teaching:
- It originates in Satan [the reference to the serpent; see Revelation 12:9, 20:2]
- It is not initially blatantly obvious – it is subtle and deceitful [verse 2: the reference to the serpent’s craftiness; also the fact that Satan assumed the form of, or spoke through, a snake is part of the deception];
- It generates doubt about the revealed Word of God – ‘Did God really say …?’ [God had already given Adam his clear command in Genesis 2:17.]
- It makes the truth appear unattractive and restrictive [Satan’s exaggeration and miss-quoting of the truth … ‘You must not eat from tree in the garden.’]
- It makes man think he has some power or authority over the truth [In Eve’s reply she seems to think she needs to defend God]
- It adds to the revealed truth [‘and you must not touch it’.]
- It ends up with an outright denial of the truth [‘You will not surely die’], and
- It misrepresents God [here it contains an inference that God is deliberately keeping something good from man - ‘for God knows ….’]
- It camouflages its spiritual harmfulness behind an outward innocence and apparent goodness [the fruit in itself was ‘good for food and pleasing to the eye’]
- It generates discontent with what one has already been given by God
- It appeals to human pride and human hunger for power [‘desirable for gaining wisdom’]
- Its end result is that man rejects the revealed Word of God
- It recruits adherents and thus multiplies its impact [Eve gave some to Adam and he ate it.]
From this point onwards God’s revealed truth has been in conflict with the deceptions of the evil one, who throughout the history of the world has employed similar tactics to those evident here, to keep people from believing God’s truth, or to tempt those who have a knowledge of God’s truth to reject or corrupt it.
There are three additional points arising from this narrative which help us to be aware of the deceptive nature of false teaching:
- The presence of the ‘miraculous’. Here, in this talking serpent, is a supernatural event. A ‘miracle’. Yet it is not a ‘miracle’ from God’s hand. To this present day false teaching is often accompanied by ‘miracles’, and these are held up as validation of the teaching. Yet Jesus and the apostles warned that the latter day false teachers would work extremely powerful signs and wonders.
- The offer made by this first false teaching ‘your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God’, is an extremely deceptive and malicious promise, enticing them to reject the real word of God and their real, God-given identity, with the offer of gaining a flawed version of something they actually already possessed as God’s gift, by means of an action they themselves would perform. ‘You will be like God’. Yet they already were, by God’s action, created in God’s image and in God’s likeness [Genesis 1:26,27]. False teaching lures us away from what we already are and have by God’s gift, telling us we can or must gain or maintain that gift, or, in reality, a flawed imitation of that gift, by our own action.
- In addition, it promised them they would ‘know good and evil’ as though such knowledge was desirable. They already knew and enjoyed perfect and absolute good. ‘Evil’ existed only as something God had prohibited. Their choice to believe Satan precipitated them into a devastating and destructive acquaintance with evil, and a relativised concept of good; the real good was now beyond their reach. False teaching never tells the real truth about itself or the empty nature of its promises.
B. IDOLATRY AND FALSE GODS
 The first mention of idols or images occurs in Genesis 32, where Rachel stole her father’s household ‘gods’. A few chapters later Jacob, returning to Bethel to build an altar, instructs his household and everyone with him to get rid of their foreign gods [Genesis 35:1-4]. Although no teaching had as yet been recorded against idolatry, Jacob obviously considered the presence of idols in his camp inappropriate for one who was about to build an altar to the living and omnipresent God he encountered at Bethel [Genesis 28].
 In the issue of idolatry, including the worship of created things, is faced head on:
Underlying truths about idols and idolatry:
- God is contrasted with the ‘gods’ [Ex 15:11; 18:11]
- Idolatry is seen as an expression of corruption [Deut 4:16,25]
- Involvement in idolatry brings a curse [Deut 11:28; 27:15]
- Even fulfilled prophecies and miraculous signs don’t validate the message of a preacher who teaches people to practise idolatry [Deut 13:1-3]
- Idolatry is described as ‘detestable’ and a ‘bitter poison’ [Deut 29:17,18]
- Demons are associated with idols [Deut 32:17]
- Turning to idols is forsaking the one true God [Deut 32:18]
- All gods but God are forbidden [Deut 5:7; 6:14; 7:25]
- Making idols and associated objects is forbidden [Ex 20:4,23; 34:17; Deut 4:16-19,23,25; 5:8; 16:21-22]
- Invoking the name of other gods is forbidden [Ex 23:13]
- Honouring or worshipping idols, or created things, is forbidden [Ex 20:3,5; 23:24; 34:14; Deut 4:19; 5:9]
- Entering into agreements with idols is forbidden [Ex 23:32]
Commands concerning idols and idolatry:
- The destruction of idols and associated objects is commanded [Ex 23:24; 34:13; Deut 7:5,25; 12:2-3;]
- The people are warned to be very careful to prevent the corruption and deception of idolatry [Deut 4:15; 11:16; 12:30; ]
- God must not be worshipped in the same way idols are worshipped [Deut 12:4,30-31]
Outcomes of idolatry:
- God passed judgment on the ‘gods’ of Egypt [Ex 12:12]
- Involvement in idolatry brings destruction [Deut 8:19]
- Disobedience of these commands invoked the extreme anger of God [Ex 32:1-10]
- Those among God’s people who entice others into idolatry, and those who practice idolatry, must be exposed and punished [Deut 13:6-15; 17:2-7]
- To choose idols instead of God is to choose death instead of life [Deut 30:11-20]
- God hides his face from those who turn to other gods [Deut 31:17-18]
The rest of the Old Testament, particularly the books of history and prophecy, draws repeated attention to Israel’s departure from the standards concerning idolatry that were put in place in Exodus and Deuteronomy. The references are too numerous to list. It forcefully asserts how abominable and detestable it is for the people of God to forsake the living God, who is the one true God, and who revealed himself in and through their history, and to worship in his place man made idols or created things.
God knows that he alone is God [Isaiah 40:18,25; 43:10; 44:6,8; 45:5, 18; 46:5,9], and that all else that men might call ‘god’ is empty and powerless, mere human creations. His indictments against idols and idolatry are not mere jealousy, they are inevitable and necessary. To forsake him, who alone is God, for these other ‘gods’ is incredibly foolish and incredibly disastrous.
Perhaps the most poignant passages are found in Jeremiah:
In the Old Testament, forsaking the one true God for idols [which are repeatedly referred to as powerless and worthless] is termed ‘prostitution’, ‘adultery’, ‘detestable’, ‘lewdness’, and seen as breaking the covenant relationship with God. It was on the basis of their attitude to idols that each of the kings of Israel and Judah was assessed, and it was this fundamental sin of rejecting God for idols that brought devastating and destructive judgment to both Israel and Judah.
As Ezekiel points out, idolatry is not just a matter of external physical idols, but is a matter of the heart: ‘men have set up idols in their hearts’ [Eze 14:3-7].
C. OCCULT POWERS AND PRACTICES
The first biblical references to occult practices record their limited power [re: the limited ability of the magicians of Egypt, contrasted with the power of God working through Joseph and Moses]. In Deuteronomy involvement with such practices is clearly forbidden, and described as detestable to God.
Among the occult practices described and/or forbidden in the Old Testament we find:
- Horoscope readers [the word for ‘magician’ in Genesis 21:8, Exodus 7:22; 8:7 means ‘horoscopist’]
- Incantations [Exodus 7:2; 8:7; Isaiah 8:19]
- Mediums, necromancers, familiar spirits [Lev 19:31; 20:6,27; Deut 18:11; 1 Sam 28:3-9; 2 Kings 21:6; 23:24; 2 Chron 33:6; Isaiah 8:19; 19:3]
- Spiritism, wizards [Leviticus 19:31; 20:6,27; Deut 18:11; 1 Sam 28:3-9; 2 Kings 21:6; 23:24; 2 Chron 33:6; Isaiah 8:19;19:3]
- Magicians [Daniel 2:10; 4:7]
- Divination, oracles, witchcraft [Deuteronomy 18:10; 2 Kings 21:6; 2 Chron 33:6; Eze 13:7,9,23; Isaiah 2:6; Jer 27:9; 29:8; Daniel 4:7; Zech 10:2]
- Sorcery, enchantment, magic spells [Deut 18:10; 2 Kings 21:6; 2 Chron 33:6; Isaiah 47:12; Daniel 2:10; 4:7]
- Interpretation of omens [Deut 18:10]
- Casting spells [Deut 18:11]
- Talking with the dead [Deut 18:11; Isaiah 8:19; 19:3]
- Astrology [Isaiah 47:13; Daniel 2:10; 4:7]
- Magic charms [Eze 13:18,20]
- Superstitions [Isaiah 2:6]
- False dreams [Jer 23:25-28,32; Jer 29:8; Zech 10:2]
The Bible criticizes such practices and those who engage in them. They are seen to be substitutes for the one true God and his word.
D. FALSE PROPHETS AND FALSE MESSAGES
In the Old Testament era God was in the process of revealing himself to and through his chosen people, Israel, preparing them and the rest of the world for the coming of his final self-revelation in the incarnation of his Son, Jesus Christ. God’s self-revelation was being progressively given in verbal form and progressively recorded in written form. In the absence of a complete and static body of recorded revelation the potential for any individual to stand up and claim to speak from the Lord was great, and the potential for people to seek out those thought to have messages from the Lord was equally great.
Anticipating the existence of false prophets with false messages God put two criteria in place by which to recognize them:
Deuteronomy 13:1-3a: ‘If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, “Let us follow other gods” (gods you have not known) “and let us worship them,” you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer.’
Deuteronomy 18:22: ‘If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the L ORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.’
The criteria by which to recognize a true prophet are:  what he says comes to pass, and  he does not turn people away from the true God to other gods. The first by itself is not enough.
Concerning false prophets and their messages the Old Testament teaches:
About the nature of the false prophets:
- They are presumptuous [Deut 18:20]
- They are deceitful and corrupt [Jer 6:1,13; 8:10b]
- They have no sense of shame or guilt about what they are doing [Jer 6:15; 8:12]
- They are evil, unjust and godless [Jer 23:10,11,14]
- They reject God’s real message and true messenger [Jer 26:7-11]
- They provoke the Lord by the evil they do [Jer 32:32]
- They are arrogant and treacherous [Zep 3:4]
- They are greedy for financial gain [Jer 6:13; Mic 3:11]
About the source of their messages:
- They prophesy by the power of false gods [Jer 2:8; 23:13]
- They are not sent by God [Neh 6:10-14; Jer 14:14,15; 23:21,32; 26:15; Eze 13:6 ]
- They get their message from the occult, and from their own minds, imaginations and spirits [Jer 14:14; 23:23; 27:9; Eze 13:2-3,17; 22:28 ]
- Their messages [‘oracles’] are their own words [Jer 23:36]
- They speak about their own dreams as if they came from God [Jer 23:25-28a, 32; 29:8-9]
- They have not received their message from God [Jer 23:18,22; Eze 22:28]
- They use each other's false messages as if they were God’s messages [Jer 23:30]
- Men [Isaiah 29:13]
About the nature of their messages:
- They teach lies [Isaiah 9:15; 28:15b; Jer 23:32; 27:10-16;29:9; Eze 13:6,22; Zech 13:3]
- Their words are meaningless and not from the Lord [Jer 5:13]
- Their message is dishonest and/or deceitful [Jer 6:13; 14:14; 23:16-17; Eze 13:10-16; Micah 3:11]
- The content of their messages is idolatrous [Jer 14:14]
- They teach false visions [Eze 13:6,8,23; 22:28]
- They distort the word of God [Jer 23:36]
- Their words are deceptive and worthless [Jer 7:4,8; Lam 2:14
- They are legalistic [Isaiah 28:10,13; 29:13]
- It is a covenant with death [Isaiah 28:15]
About the impact of their messages:
- Their lies are loved by the people [Jer 5:31]
- Their message gives only superficial relief [Jer 6:14; 8:11]
- They give false hope and false security [Jer 6:14; 23:16-17; Eze 13:10-16]
- They lead people astray [Jer 23:13,15,32; Eze 13:10; Micah 3:5]
- Their messages do not help the people [Jer 23:32]
- They dishearten ‘the righteous’ [Eze 13:22]
- They are intimidating [Neh 6:10-14]
Warnings to false prophets and/or those to whom they speak:
- They will be condemned and punished [Deut 18:20; Is 9:14-15; Jer 23:15,40; Zech 13:1-6]
- Those who listen to them come under judgment [Jer 14:16]
- God is against them [Jer 23:31; Eze 13:8-9]
- God does not acknowledge their ‘oracles’ [Jer 23:33-38]
- God’s people must not allow themselves to be deceived by them and their dreams [Jer 29:8]
We would do well to take these descriptions of false prophets and their messages to heart. Although set in the Old Testament era, they are not confined to the Old Testament era; what was true about them is in most respects true of contemporary false teaching within the church.
Let us take warning form the words of the Lord through Jeremiah:
D. SUPERFICIAL AND/OR SYNCRETISTIC WORSHIP
As the people of Israel turned to idolatry or listened to the messages of false prophets many continued to maintain an outward appearance of worshipping the true God. They continued to offer the sacrifices and offerings commanded in the law of Moses; sometimes they even continued to pray to God. They lacked, however, any observable evidence that they really acknowledged him as God in their lives. Their history provides ample indication that their fundamental rejection of God and his truth inevitably led to a break-down in moral standards and social justice.
Such superficiality and such hypocrisy, and such syncretism [the merging of two belief systems], were abhorrent to God and attracted his judgment. For example:
- Offerings and sacrifices do not substitute for obedience [1 Sam 15:22-23; Hosea 6:6]
- The hypocritical offerings, sacrifices, Sabbaths and prayers of the people are obnoxious to God [Isaiah 1:10-17]
- Incense, offerings, and superficial worship that does not follow through into a godly life are not acceptable [Jer 6:19-20; 7:1-8, 23-26; Amos 5:22-24]
- Syncretism is not acceptable [Jer 7:9-10]
- Such is God’s rejection of their superficial worship and their idolatrous syncretism and the inevitability of his judgment that he told Jeremiah not to pray for them [Jer 7:18 – read 7:1-29; 11:14; 14:11]
The false teaching and false beliefs embraced by the Israelites, were not a matter of mere theoretical issues or points of religious debate that had no relevance to life and reality. Rather, while their acceptance of false teaching most certainly negated the validity of their claim to a relationship with God, it also deeply impacted their morals and their lives both as individuals and as a society. The same is true today.
The Old Testament has taught us much about false teaching – what it teaches, what God thinks of it, and what it does to us. It stands as a strong and terrible warning to us to be alert and diligent, to watch and to pray, lest we also fall prey to the strong deceptions that are in the world and in the church today. Contemporary deceptions, though different in some specific details, are fundamentally similar to Old Testament false teaching in their underlying concepts, in their mode of operation and in their final outcomes.