How do you discern the presence of false teachers in the church? How do you distinguish false teachers from true teachers? From the very earliest days of the Christian church, there have always been false teachers. Whenever you find the genuine article, beware of Satan’s counterfeits.
In today’s world, to listen to some people, you would get the idea that there is no such thing as a false teacher in the church. It seems today that almost anything can pass for Christian truth.
Heresy is considered by many to be a dirty word. After all, who wants to be known as a heresy hunter? Who wants to be considered narrow and bigoted as to say that his view of the truth is the only view of the truth? In fact, in some circles, if you affirm evangelical Christianity, you are labeled a religious terrorist.
Departure of false teachers from the fellowship of the church confirms their unsaved status (vv. 18-19).
The presence of false teachers is a sign of the end times (18) and their defection is proof of their true nature (19). John says that you have heard that there will be an antichrist (singular) that is coming in the future. That is a reference to a final world ruler who will arise in the end times according to the book of Revelation. No one knows when that will happen. We are not on the planning committee for the return of Christ; we are on the reception committee.
John says there were many antichrists (plural) that appeared in his own day. These are false prophets who pretend to be Christian but actually are not. Their presence leads John to conclude that “it is the last hour.”
If John thought the last hour was in his own day, and here we are more than 1900 years down the road, that is one long hour! I’ve been through what seemed like some interminably long hours in my life: in school, church, at the hospital, and a host of other long hours. Of course, we have to understand that God does not operate on Eastern Standard Time, Central Time, or Mountain Time; rather He operates on his time.
When the Scripture writers talk about “the last hour,” they are not speaking about duration of time, which is the way you and I calculate time. What John means is not time as it is reckoned sequentially, time as it tick-tocks off the clock second by second, but rather an epoch of time. Since the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, in symbolic eschatological terms, we have been in the last days or the last hour.
If you were Satan, how would you go about diluting and destroying the church of the Lord Jesus Christ? Well, you might say: “let me bring foreign pagan armies in and try to kill all the Christians.” But that has never worked. If I were Satan, I would sow the seeds of false teachers within the church. I would not enter the church and say that Jesus is a liar and Jesus is not divine. I would come in just like an angel of light and with crafty cunningness I would lead the sheep astray little by little through false teaching.
That is what Satan does. He has his counterfeits in the churches and outside the churches. What does a counterfeit imply? The real thing. Why do people not counterfeit $3 bills? There is no such thing as a $3 bill. Satan counterfeits what is true. So he has his counterfeit preachers who are in churches today. There are churches today with a false prophet, a counterfeiter, standing behind the pulpit teaching people. Jesus told us we should not be surprised about that. He said there will always be false prophets. Jesus said that when he goes away (after his resurrection), there will be many false prophets that arise who will lead many astray. They will claim to be the Messiah and they will deceive many.[i]
How are you going to know the difference between a false teacher and a true Christian teacher? A false teacher departs from the fellowship of the church (19).
Have you noticed that virtually every cult that is out there today was founded by someone who came out of the church? They became disgruntled with a church or denomination. They left the church to form what they called the “true church.” There have always been those throughout church history who claim that everybody else before them got it wrong but then suddenly God spoke the truth to them personally.
The departure of false teachers serves an important purpose: to make clear to the true church that false teachers were not part of the true church.
B. H. Carroll used to say:
“When you see a star fall you know it’s not a star.”
Stars don’t fall; stars shine. We call them shooting stars but astronomically that is incorrect. When you see a star fall, what you are seeing is not actually a star. When you see a person who may be a member of a church turn his back on Jesus and orthodox doctrine and depart into false doctrine, in the vast majority of cases, you can be guaranteed that person was not a true Christian in the first place. Profession does not necessarily mean possession.
Speaking of Jesus’ parable in Matthew 13:2–30 and 1 John 2:19, James Boice is right on target:
“The implication of Christ’s parable and John’s statement is that some Christians are so much like non-Christians and some non-Christians are so much like Christians that it is impossible to tell the difference between them in this life.”[ii]
[i] Matthew 24:11
[ii] James M. Boice, The Epistles of John (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), p. 87.