False Teaching and the Signs of the Times
Nailing Today’s Forecast but Missing the Season
This past Sunday at Westgate I preached on Matthew 15:32-16:12 and how Jesus guards his flock against the false teaching of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The passage opens with a story about bread, where Jesus’ miraculously feeds his sheep—4,000 of them—with just seven loaves and few fish (15:32-39). It also closes with a story about bread—not literal bread as the disciples mistook, but the metaphorical leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees—that is, their false teaching, which Jesus warns his sheep against (16:5-12).
In between those two stories we see what Jesus is concerned about, as the Pharisees and Sadducees confront Jesus again, demanding that he perform a sign from heaven in order to prove his divine authority and power (16:1-4). Of course they’re not really interested in another sign (the feeding of 4,000 wasn’t good enough?), and Jesus calls them on it. But does so in a rather playful way.
The Greek word for heaven in 16:1 is the same as the word for sky in vv. 2-3. The religious leaders have asked for a sign from heaven. Jesus says, ‘You see signs in the heavens all the time, and know just how to interpret them. Red evening: sunny day tomorrow. Red morning: storm’s coming.’ They have all these theories on how to read the day’s weather—should I wear my sunglasses or grab my umbrella? But, Jesus says, they have missed the bigger signs—the signs of the seasons, or times. They’re still living like it’s winter in the middle of May. But Aslan is on the move. The winter has ended and the signs of spring are all around—signs of the new work God is doing through Jesus. The religious leaders are blind to these signs.
After Jesus rebukes them, he proceeds to warn his disciples against their false teaching. And as we keep reading the New Testament, we see that false teaching remains an ongoing threat for the church (cf. Acts 20:28-31; 2 Tim. 4:1-4). As I applied this warning in my sermon on Sunday, I noted two mistakes that both the Pharisees and Sadducees make—two things we must guard against: (1) they depart from the Scriptures, either adding to it (e.g. Matt. 15:1-9) or taking away from it (e.g. Acts 23:8); and (2) they therefore miss the one to whom Scripture is pointing, Jesus (Jn. 5:39-40). We then looked at several modern examples of false teaching and how they fail both of these tests, making the point that sound doctrine comes from God’s Word, and points us to the death and resurrection of Jesus.
As I continue to reflect on this passage, I think there is yet another way it helps us understand what is wrong with various kinds of false teaching today. That is to apply the very imagery that Jesus uses in 16:1-4 to describe what’s wrong with the Pharisees’ and the Sadducees’ teaching to some of our modern heresies: nailing today’s forecast while missing the season.
Again, the Pharisees and Sadducees knew how to read the day’s weather, but they missed the bigger movement of seasons or times. The analogy of seasons actually provides a helpful metaphor for seeing the story of God’s plan of redemption unfold: from the summer of God’s original creation, to the autumn of humanity’s fall, to the winter of bondage under the law and sin, to the spring of living between the cross and new creation, to the future summer of new creation ahead. Besides departing from Scripture and missing Christ, most modern day heresies are marked by their confusion of the seasons. They fail to read the signs of the times.
Here are some examples of how that plays out, beginning with some of the false teachings we looked at on Sunday, with a few others thrown in for good measure.
(You can chalk this post up to ‘things I wish I had said on Sunday but didn’t think of till Tuesday.’)
Legalism: Living like it’s still winter in the flowering of spring. Legalism, at its core, is attempting to gain God’s acceptance through personal performance (e.g. being good enough, doing more good things than bad, going through the motions of church). Yet it perpetuates our bondage to sin because the law is neither capable of nor intended to give life. Now that Jesus has come and fulfilled the law through his obedience and his death, he offers grace and life to all who believe. To continue in legalism is to forfeit spring’s promise and continue slogging it out in a land where it is always winter and never Christmas.
The Prosperity Gospel: Living in spring as though summer is completely here. The prosperity gospel (i.e. ‘health and wealth’ gospel) takes promises that God has made about the summer of his new creation (e.g. no more pain, sin, or death, Rev. 21:1-4) and demands that he grant them in the present. It overlooks the fact that it’s still spring, and that during spring the Christian life is often marked by suffering. To put it in other terms, we live in the cross time, and the crown time is not yet here. The prosperity gospel confuses the times, and then blames those who find themselves suffering for their lack of faith. Worse than that, it turns the gospel of God’s grace into a means of personal gain.
Nominal Christianity: Trying to make the most of winter with no concept of spring or summer. Nominal or ‘name-only’ Christianity is the cultural Christianity that goes through the religious motions but bears little resemblance to biblical Christianity. Christian Smith has described it well as “moralistic therapeutic deism.” Like legalism, it’s stuck in the winter of sin’s bondage. But unlike legalism, it’s not very concerned about the coming of spring. It simply wants to make the most of winter, asking God to bring some more warm blankets, or a new pair of skis—whatever we think will make us happy and improve our lives here and now. Jesus is an unimportant part of this story, unless he can buy us a lift ticked or some ski lessons.
License: Living in constant repetition of fall. License is similar to nominal Christianity, but more nuanced and insidious. It is of course the opposite of legalism—instead of adding commands to Scripture in order to perform for God, it removes commands from Scripture and minimizes its moral authority in order to live however we want. In essence, it’s a continual replaying of the fall—rejecting or rewriting God’s word so that we can take his place and call the shots—but now justified by a cheap version of grace that empties God of his holy character and exploits his mercy.
Theological Liberalism: Living in spring as though autumn never happened. Theological liberalism is what the enlightenment and modernistic progress have done to our concept of God: relegated him to a minor role, if not having written him entirely out of the script. The energy given to Scripture is focused on “demythologizing” it—that is, removing any trace of “myth” (by which they mean anything supernatural or miraculous). They recognize the problem of winter, that the world doesn’t work the way it should. And they are optimistic about the prospect of a utopian summer. But they deny that autumn ever happened—that humanity is corrupted by sin and separated from God—and so have declared the spring of human ingenuity and progress as the hope for the world. A hope that comes at the expense of the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ.
Postmodernism: Living in a fog so think you’re never sure what season it is. Postmodernism rightly cried foul of modernistic optimism. But it’s so suspicious of any claims of knowledge that it’s not willing to choose between sunglasses or an umbrella, let alone weigh in on what season it is. We’re too conditioned by our culture or blinded by our preconceived notions to make such judgments, and so it’s much safer just to stay in the fog. The problem of course is that the sun is shining, and the fog is lifting in Christ. So what seems at first like humility is little more than a brazen rejection of God.
Orthodox Christianity: Living in the spring, looking to the summer. Sound doctrine comes from Scripture and point us to Christ and the finished work of his death and resurrection. It acknowledges there was an original plan, the summer of creation. That that plan was corrupted in the autumn of the fall. That Israel endured a long winter looking for her promised Messiah. And that Jesus came and fulfilled the law, freeing us from sin and death through his life, death, and resurrection for us. With his resurrection came the dawn of springtime. Yet the summer of new creation is not yet here. We live in the meantime. And knowing this makes us both realistic and hopeful as we live out our days between the cross and new creation. Realistic about the ongoing battle of sin and difficulties of suffering; hopeful because we know this is not the end of the story, that our victory is already secure in Christ, and that he is with us now to accomplish in us and through us his good purposes for his great glory. God’s glory will prevail in the end. He will be faithful to return and complete what he has started. And what a glorious day that will be. Come, Lord Jesus.