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4. Instruction Concerning False Teachers in the Church (Titus 1:10-16)

The Portrait or
Disposition of the False Teachers

1:10 For there are many rebellious people, idle-talkers, and deceivers, especially those with Jewish connections,

This section is introduced with “for,” which gives the reason why elders with the doctrinal qualifications described in verse 9 are needed. Furthermore, this section elaborates on those “who speak against” or stand opposed to the truth. The presence of false teachers (always a problem for the church in any age and place) requires leaders who have the ability to expound and defend the faith. This also reminds us that exposing false teachers is a task that belongs to the leadership of the church as the shepherds who are to protect the sheep from the wolves who come in sheep’s clothing (Matt. 7:15; Acts 20:28f). Protection against such is done, of course, through sound biblical exposition. Unfortunately today, too often church leaders are too involved with administrative duties and in seeking to keep the flock entertained.

Heresy, of course, involves the teaching of false doctrine, but false teaching always extends itself into the behavior of its adherents. It will always have a negative impact on the lifestyle of those infected “for as a person thinks in his heart, so is he” (Prov. 23:7). As these false teachers stand in opposition to the truth, so they will lead lives that are “detestable, disobedient, and unfit for any good deed” (1:16).

Were these false teachers unsaved? Were they those who had never trusted in Christ as their Savior? Paul does not directly answer that question, but because they are described as rebellious, as deceivers, and as detestable, it is often assumed they are unbelievers, and it may very well be that some were, but not necessarily, at least not all of them. To assume that is to miss the application this passage can have to believers who fall away from grace into some form of legalism and then seek to impose that on the body of Christ. This a problem that the church has faced from the beginning as evidenced in Acts 15, Galatians, Colossians, and Hebrews.

Finally, how are such recognized? What are the clues we should look for? This will be delineated in the portrait that follows.

They are “many”

“For there are many rebellious people.” We are often lulled into sleep because we are so unsuspecting. The apostle firmly tells us that there are “many” who stand opposed to the truth (vss. 9, 14). The problem we face is no small matter for there are numerous opponents to the grace of God in Christ.

They are “rebellious”

“Rebellious” is anupotaktos, “not subject to authority or rule” and so “undisciplined, rebellious.” The ultimate authority for any teacher is the Word of God as represented by the apostolic teaching passed down from the Lord Jesus (cf. John 16:12-16 with Tit. 1:9; 1 Thess. 4:1-2; 2 Thess. 3:6). Here is truly one of the tell-tale signs of a false teacher, namely, a rebellious spirit of independence from the truth of Scripture as the final authority. They often possess a defiant attitude toward the authority of God’s Word or to the authority of God’s servants. As Wiersbe points out, “Beware of teachers who will not put themselves under authority.”59 This refusal to submit to God’s Word is even more evident from the next description.

They are “idle talkers”

“Idle or empty talkers” is the Greek mataiologos from mataios, “empty, idle, futile, powerless” and lego, “to speak.” Paul uses a similar word, mataiologia, “idle or empty talk, fruitless discussion” in 1 Timothy 1:6 of the false teachers discussed there. When anyone rejects or stands opposed to the grace message of God’s truth as it is revealed in Christ and as it is found for us in the canon of Scripture, their words will of necessity be without power, just futile discussions that cannot lead to the spiritual deliverance God gives us in Christ. This is why it is so absolutely necessary that we have elder/overseers who hold fast to the faithful message in accord with the apostolic tradition of Scripture. It is this and this alone that has the power to change lives. Their empty talk dealt with (1) fictitious tales or legends added to Old Testament history—tales about Adam, Moses, Elijah, and other Old Testament saints, and with (2) legalistic and ascetic rules that are futile for dealing with the flesh (cf. Col. 2:16-23).

They are “deceivers”

“And deceivers” takes us to the product of their “empty talk.” “Deceivers” is phrenapates, “self-deceiving, a deceiver.” It is from phren, “mind” and apate, “deceit, deceitfulness.” The false teachers are those who craftily (cf. Eph. 4:14) deceive the minds of others as well as themselves (cf. 2 Tim. 3:13). Though they were empty talkers, they were undoubtedly quite articulate and impressive, but what they said was empty because it had no biblical content or substance.

When you “boiled it down,” it was just so much hot air. Furthermore, they excelled in talking, not in doing. They could tell others what to do, but they did not do it themselves. Note especially Titus 1:16. The great tragedy was that they deceived people by their false doctrines. They claimed to be teaching truth, but they were peddlers of error. Because they themselves were deceived by Satan, they deceived others, “teaching things they ought not to teach” (Titus 1:11, NIV)60

They are those “with Jewish connections”

“Especially those with Jewish connections” gives us a clue as to the identity and the nature of the false teachers troubling the Cretan churches. This not only points us to one of the sources of the false teaching being promoted, but to its nature as a legal system of works which sought to add something to the grace work of God in Christ. Literally, the text says, “especially those of the circumcision” (peritome). This noun is found 36 times, 31 of which are in Paul’s epistles. It can mean: the right of circumcision itself (John 7:22), the fact of being circumcised (Phil. 3:5), or it may be a synonym for the Jews and even for Jewish Christians because they practiced circumcision as a religious rite (e.g. Acts 10:45; 11:2; Gal. 2:9-13; Tit. 1:10).

The word statistics given above show that the word-group is important chiefly in the Pauline epistles and Acts, where it illustrates the tension between Paul and the circumcision party. In the early Christian communities there was a tension between hoi ek peritomes pistoi, the believers from among the circumcised, i.e. the Jewish Christians (Acts 10:45; cf. Acts 11:2; Rom. 3:30; Gal. 2:12; Col. 4:11; Tit. 1:10), and hoi legomenoi akrobystia, those called uncircumcision, i.e. the Gentile Christians (Eph. 2:11; cf. Acts 11:3; Rom. 4:10; 1 Cor. 7:18). These two groups, associated respectively with Peter and Paul, constantly clashed, because the Jewish Christians insisted that circumcision was necessary for salvation: “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1; cf. Acts 15:5, where circumcision and the keeping of the Law are linked).61

Paul’s use of the term circumcision to refer to the Jews calls attention to the kind of issues that were at the heart of the false teaching facing the Cretans—some form of Judaistic religious works added to faith in Christ for salvation and or sanctification in addition to Jewish myths which will be discussed below (see Tit. 1:14; 1 Tim. 1:4; 4:7; 2 Tim. 4:4).

What is it that we bring to God when we come to Him for the salvation He offers us in Christ? Only our sin—period!! There is nothing, absolutely nothing else that we can bring to attain salvation in the sense of eternal life or of capacity to be changed. As Lutzer expresses so well:

To the person who says, I want to do something about my broken relationship with God,” grace says, “if you really understood the issues you wouldn’t talk that way. God did something about your broken relationship with Him, and the only thing you can do is to humble yourself and accept it!”

Let me be clear. When you come to Christ, you do not come to give, you come to receive. You do not come to try your best, you come to trust. You do not come just to be helped, but to be rescued. You do not come to be made better (although that does happen), you come to be made alive!

Augustus Toplady had it right:

Nothing in my hands I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress,
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die!

You do not come to Christ to make a promise; you come to depend on His promise. It is the faithfulness of God and not your own that gives the gift of grace.62

The Practices or
Deeds of the False Teachers

1:11 who must be silenced because they mislead whole families by teaching for dishonest gain what ought not to be taught. 1:12 A certain one of them, in fact, one of their own prophets, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.”

The Must Regarding the False Teachers, “they must be silenced”

“Who must be silenced” points us to the responsibility for both Titus and the elders of any congregation of believers. Just as there is the moral necessity for elders to be men who hold firmly to the faithful message (1:9), so there is the moral necessity for these men to silence the false teachers. “Silenced” is a rare word, epistome, “to bridle” and then metaphorically, “to stop the mouth, to silence.”63 There are at least two responsibilities here: “The offenders must be refused opportunity to spread their teachings in the churches; the term also includes silencing them by a logical refutation of their views, making further dissemination impossible.”64

“Because they mislead whole families by teaching for dishonest gain what ought not to be taught” points us the nature of their seductive activity and why they must be silenced. In this we have more clues as to their identity. Here we see the motive, “dishonest gain,” the method “teaching what ought not be taught” (false doctrine), and the multiple result, “they mislead whole families.”

The Motive of the False Teachers, “dishonest gain”

We have a saying or quip in this country that is often used when there is some question about the legitimacy of a particular pursuit or activity because of financial motives. It’s “follow the money!” While money is not the root of all evil, the love of money is. One of the crucial character qualities and a mark of identification for a true shepherd of God’s people is purity of motives not only regarding money (cf. 1 Tim. 3:3; Tit. 1:7 and 1 Pet. 5:2), but for all forms of self-centered agendas—position, power, praise, possessions, etc. (see 1 Thess. 2:1ff). This has always been an evil that has threatened godly leadership whether political or spiritual.

2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. Prophesy and say to those shepherds, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flock? 3 “You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat sheep without feeding the flock”’” (Ezek. 34:2-3).

While the shepherds in the above passage refer to the rulers, the principle is the same.

Israel’s leaders did not serve their flock. Their first error was to put their own interests above those of the people (vv. 2-3). Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Israel’s kings had added to their wealth at the expense of the common people. They viewed the flock as a source of wealth to be exploited rather than a trust to be protected.65

Significantly, Paul not only viewed ministry as a trust from God to be guarded with great care, but exhorted others to follow his example (see 1 Cor. 4:1-2; 9:17; 1 Tim. 1:18; 6:20; 2 Tim. 2:2; Tit. 1:7). Teachers of the Word have a right to be paid a fare wage for their ministry, but they must be careful of their motives (see 1 Cor. 9:4ff; Gal. 6:6; 1 Tim. 5:17-18). The motive must be the glory of God, love for God and loving ministry to people.

The Method of the False Teachers, “teaching what ought not be taught”

Their idle talk was undoubtedly presented under the guise of teachings that were important for the spiritual well being of the various homes or house churches where they sought a following. But their teachings consisted of things that must not be taught, i.e., tales and legalistic rules that were not in accord with the sound teaching of Scripture. They undoubtedly made the claim they were teaching Scripture, but it was way off the mark. It is clearly amazing what some people think they are getting out of the Scripture! They come to the Bible and then spiritualize it, take verses totally out of context, and import their own ideas on the text. In essence, they reject the clear explanations found in the Bible itself of what the truth consists of.

Dr. David Cooper used to say, “When the plain sense of Scripture makes good sense, seek no other sense.” There is no need to find “deeper meanings” to the plain teachings of the Word of God. Such an approach to the Bible enables a “student” to find anything he is looking for!66

This reminds us that we must always be like the Bereans who searched the Word daily to see if what was being taught was in accord with the Scripture. Regarding these, Luke wrote: “These Jews were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica; for they eagerly received the message, examining the scriptures carefully every day to see if these things were so. Therefore many of them believed, along with quite a few prominent Greek women and men” (Acts 17:11-12).

False teachers always either misuse the Bible (as taking verses out of context) or add to it (some rule or religious duty done for merit) or take away from it (like denying the sufficiency of Christ).

The Multiple Results of the False Teachers, “they mislead whole families”

Because of the brevity of the statement, it is uncertain whether the term “families” refer to house churches or to some of the families in the church. If it is a reference to house churches, it would refer to the disastrous influence of the false teachers who were given the opportunity to teach (cf. the warning of 2 John 7-11). If the reference is to various families, then it could refer to the effect of the false teaching as it was carried home and into the family circle and promoted by the fathers as the head of the household. The Greek word for “families” is the plural of oikos, “house, household, family.” It often refers to a family which may include the servants. This statement, however, may also refer to the doctrine of these false teachers which was challenging the biblical concepts regarding the household or the family. “To judge by 2:1-10, their teaching may have spawned a disregard for the accepted patterns of behavior in the various social relationships. Either way, the word whole here suggest that the influence of this doctrine was thorough…”67 “Mislead” is a rare word, anatrepo, “to overturn, upset, ruin, destroy.” The stress is on the disastrous effects on the families or households.

The Manner of Life of the False Teachers, “always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons,”

With the statement, “A certain one of them, in fact, one of their own prophets, said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons,’” the apostle calls on one of Crete’s former and ancient religious teachers to expose their true character and manner of life.

These Cretan false teachers were all the more dangerous because of the known nature of the people on whom they preyed. As evidence, Paul quoted a line from Epimenides (6th-5th century B.C.), who was held in honor on Crete as a poet, prophet, and religious reformer. The NIV rendering, “one of their own prophets,” implies that Crete boasted a number of such prophets, a point not raised by Paul. The original, “A certain one of them, their own prophet,” stresses that the quoted verdict came from one who had intimate knowledge of his own people and was esteemed by them as a “prophet.” Paul was willing to accept this evaluation in order to underline the authority of his own judgment. The quotation establishes the picture without exposing Paul to the charge of being anti-Cretan. It put the Cretans on the horns of a dilemma. They must either admit the truthfulness of his verdict concerning them or deny the charge and brand their own prophet a liar.68

In ancient times, “to play the Cretan” meant “to lie” or to Cretanize (kretizein) was “to lie.” In the next verse the apostle will affirm that this statement about the Cretan populace is true, which reminds us of an important truth. Without the saving grace of the Lord Jesus, societies and cultures tend to perpetuate their fallen character. Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), a French traveler, historian, and politician toured America to see what made it tick and, based on his observations, he became convinced that the source of America’s greatness lay in pulpits ablaze with righteousness. “He credited much of America’s remarkable success to its religious nature; it was later called a nation with ‘the soul of a church.’”69 Today, we have largely lost that character because we are turning further and further away from the God of the Bible. One of the devastating products of modernity is that the beliefs, ideals and traditions that once inspired, disciplined, and restrained Americans—things that have been central to the character of American democracy—are losing their compelling power to shape or direct our culture as it once did.

Paul’s statement, using one of their own prophets as evidence, was a stinging indictment! Here was a group of people, much as we see in America today, who basically lived for their own appetites. And the adjectives used here are striking. These false teachers were not just “liars,” but “always liars”; not just “beasts,” but “evil beasts”; not just “gluttons,” but “lazy gluttons.” As Wiersbe points out, “They were celebrities, not servants. They ‘lived it up’ at the expense of their followers, and (true to human nature), their followers loved it!70 Is this not a telling picture of what we see happening today and often even in the name of Christianity.

The Reprimand and
Denunciation of the False Teachers

Their Reprimand (1:13-14)

1:13 Such testimony is true. For this reason rebuke them sharply that they may be healthy in the faith 1:14 and not pay attention to Jewish myths and commands of people who reject the truth.

“This testimony is true” declares that the prophecy of Epimenides was fulfilled in the attitudes and behavior of the false teachers. Note the correspondence between Paul’s indictment of these who were promoting religious lies, rebellious, idle talkers, deceivers (vs. 10), and the three-part saying by the Cretan prophet: liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons (vs. 11).

“For this reason,” i.e., because of what they really are, “rebuke them sharply.” “Rebuke” is the verb elencho used in verse 9, “correct those who speak against it.” The emphasis in this word is that of an exposure that convicts and hopefully convinces. But because of the serious nature of false teaching and the character (or the lack thereof) of the false teachers, it is to be done “sharply.” This is apotomos, an adverb meaning “abruptly, curtly,” and hence, “sharply, severely, or rigorously” (cf. 2 Cor. 13:10). It is derived from a verb that meant “to cut off,” which is suggestive. But since the goal is that they may be healthy or sound in the faith, the thrust here is rigorously.71 This is not to be taken lightly and rigorous steps are to be taken to address the false teachers or those being taken in by their teaching in order to cut off their influence.

Generally, “them” is taken as a direct reference to the false teachers. They would obviously be dealt with whenever they sought to gain a hearing in the church, but it seems clear that the action demanded would also include those church members who were known to be receptive to the claims of the false teachers. Primary reference to the endangered church members seems clear from the contemplated results of the action commanded.72

“That they may be healthy in the faith and not pay attention to Jewish myths and commands of people who reject the truth” points to a twofold purpose, but the second purpose also describes something of the source and nature of the false teaching.

The first purpose (vs. 13) is that they may be healthy in the faith. “The faith” refers to the body of apostolic truth or the body of revealed truth that we now find complete in the Bible. That “they may be healthy” is the same verb used in verse 9, “healthy or sound teaching.” It is used again in 2:1-2. The tense of the verb is a continuous present pointing to the need for constant spiritual health. “Healthy” naturally refers to that which is in accord with God’s revealed Word or the faith that is free from the contaminates and toxic beliefs of the world and false teachers. “Hence, to be ‘sound in the faith’ (Tit. 2:2) means to hold the received apostolic doctrine as normative and binding.”73 Spiritual health is always impaired when anyone seeks to feed their soul on unhealthy or diseased doctrine, regardless of the source. Being sound in the faith is the primary goal and that which becomes the root for changed and godly lives.

The second purpose (vs. 14) points to that which is essential to being healthy or sound in the faith, (1) refusing to pay any attention to Jewish myths and (2) commands of people. “Refusing to pay attention” is in the present tense which calls for this as a continuous pattern if life.

“Jewish myths” were legends or fictitious tales added to Old Testament history—tales about Adam, Moses, Elijah, and other Old Testament saints that were characteristic of the false teachers in Ephesus and Crete. Many of these tales were found in the apocryphal and pseudepigraphical writings of Judaism. For parallels compare 1 Timothy 1:4; 4:7; and 2 Timothy 4:4.

The “commands of people who reject the truth” refer to the various legalistic and ascetic rules that people try to add to the gospel of grace and our liberty in Christ. But let’s remember, these legalistic rules or commands of men are futile for dealing with man’s sin and the flesh (cf. Col. 2:16-23). “These commands were evidently Jewish-Gnostic ritual observances that the false teachers sought to make binding on Christians” (cf. 1 Tim 4:3-6).74

But more precisely, what were these commands of men? In some cases they were Old Testament regulations that were no longer valid for the Christian with the coming of Christ, like circumcision or observing the Passover. In other cases they could be New Testament practices like baptism or the Lord’s supper, but presented as a means of salvation or sanctification rather than as pictures and testimonies of the work of Christ and a result of His grace operating within the heart of the believer. But they could also included a host of things that were to be done or not to be done in order to gain God’s favor—things not spelled out in Scripture. Many groups have their lists of do’s and don’ts—especially the don’ts—the nasty nine or the dirty dozen pushed by rigid, grim-faced, exacting, kill-joy legalists.

Let’s also note that the apostle links the fact of the commands to the rejection of the truth. “Who reject the truth” is an attributive participle that describes the kind of people who, rejecting the truth of grace and Christian liberty, seek to force rules and regulations on others for either salvation or sanctification or both. “Reject” is a very picturesque term, apostrepho, “to turn away from” or “turn one’s back on,” and so “to reject, repudiate.” Further, it is in the middle voice which stresses the subject’s personal involvement or participation in the action. As such, this term carries the idea of turning one’s back on the truth which, of course, is the message of grace. Grace is a message that is difficult for man as a whole to accept, but especially for the religious-minded person who thinks in terms of working for salvation or sanctification.75

Their Denunciation (1:15-16)

1:15 All is pure to those who are pure. But to those who are corrupt and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their mind and conscience are corrupted. 1:16 They profess to know God but with their deeds they deny him, since they are detestable, disobedient, and unfit for any good deed.

In view of the Jewish and perhaps even Gnostic influence and the mention of “commands of people,” these false teachers were assuredly seeking to load the people down (cf. Matt. 23:4; Luke 11:46) with religious and ascetic rules that concerned food or drink, matters of a feast, a new moon, or Sabbath days (Col. 2:16-23; 1 Tim. 4:1-5). As a result, like the Pharisees, they were externalists who, with their excessive concerns over outer circumstance and appearance, sought to conform and judge others on the basis of their own external do’s and don’ts. This was an outgrowth of Pharisaic or Judaistic influence.

…The Pharisees multiplied minute precepts and distinctions to such an extent, upon the pretense of maintaining it intact, that the whole life of Israel was hemmed in and burdened on every side by instructions so numerous and trifling that the law was almost, if not wholly, lost sight of.76

“All is pure to those who are pure” is a maxim that shows Paul’s perspective, which, as an apostle of Christ, was that of the Lord Jesus.

There is nothing outside of a person that is able to make him unclean by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that makes him unclean” (Mark 7:15).

He said, “What comes out of a person makes him unclean. 7:21 For from within, out of the human heart, comes evil ideas, immorality, theft, murder, 7:22 adultery, greed, evil, deceit, debauchery, envy, slander, pride, and folly. 7:23 All these evils come from within and make a person unclean” (Mark 7:20-23).

But the devastating indictment is seen in the next statement, “but to those who are corrupt and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their mind and conscience are corrupted.” The real problem was what was on the inside, “both their mind (their thinking, viewpoints, attitudes) and conscience (their standards and norms, their view of what was right and wrong) were corrupted.” “Corrupted” is the perfect tense of miaino, “to stain, defile, pollute.” The perfect tense focuses on an abiding state as a result of past choices. When a person either rejects the truth of salvation by grace as an unbeliever or, because of other forces (pressure from Judaizers or legalists or one’s past background, etc.), seeks to add works into the picture for sanctification or to maintain salvation, their mind or their thinking processes become defiled, polluted. This naturally also impacts the conscience, which influences faith and actions, and it becomes defiled as well.

Paul refers to the conscience six time in the pastorals (1 Tim. 1:5, 19; 3:9; 4:2; 2 Tim. 1:3; Tit. 1:15). But what exactly is the conscience? “Conscience” is suneidesis, “consciousness, be conscious of” or “moral consciousness, conscience, have a conscience about something.” It is, in essence, a court of appeal, the place of our standards and norms, our sense of right and wrong as to doctrine and behavior. It is our place of moral awareness, but it is useless if it is not a good and cleansed conscience. Thus, in 1 Timothy the apostle teaches us that the goal of our instruction (referring to the communication of sound teaching) is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a non-hypocritical faith. So what is a good conscience?

“Good” is the Greek agathos. It is used of that which is good in the sense of beneficial in its results and actions (Matt. 7:11; Eph. 4:29; Rom. 8:28); of what is fit, capable, and useful as well as what is morally right or wholesome. A good conscience is first of all one that is morally fit and right, but also fit or capable of functioning properly. It is the opposite of a conscience that has been seared and callused (cf. 1 Tim. 4:2) or defiled by a belief system of dead works (cf. Heb. 9:14). A good conscience, the opposite of one that is defiled or seared, is:

    1. A conscience with a biblical set of standards and norms or concepts of right and wrong, one that has been cleansed from dead works (ceremonial rules and human commandments) and ordered according to the grace principles of the Word (cf. Heb. 5:14; 9:14).

    2. A conscience that is sensitive and functioning correctly versus a conscience that has been callused or made insensitive either by dead works (touch not, eat not, etc.) or by being ignored (cf. 1 Tim. 4:2).

    3. A conscience that is cleared of guilt through keeping short accounts with God, i.e., by the immediate confession of sin, which clears the conscience (cf. Acts 24:16; 1 Tim. 3:9).

    4. An active conscience that judges and approves only those thoughts, goals, motives, words, and deeds of the heart which are in harmony with the principles of grace and the great goal of biblical instruction, namely, love, good works or Christ-like service and character.

Thus, Titus 1:15 demonstrates that true purity lies not in observing external rites and regulations, but in the inner purity of a heart that has been cleansed and regenerated through personal trust in the person and work of Christ as a finished and complete provision for our salvation (cf. Heb. 9:13-14). It is this that leads to moral rightness and character of life and the capacity to discern what is truly good and evil (Heb. 5:14). Thus, the heretics’ obsession with external purity grew out of a failure to rest in the sufficiency of the finished work of Christ. By this they cut themselves off from the One who could cleanse and empower them to live the Christ-exchanged life.

With verse 16, Paul gives the clincher and virtually sums up the matter as it related to these false teachers.

Their Profession: “They profess to know God.” The apostle makes this somewhat emphatic by the word order. Literally, “God, they profess to know.” As previously mentioned, this does not mean that the false teachers were necessarily unbelievers. One of the problems facing the church from the beginning was that those who had come to Christ, later sought to add the rules and regulations of Judaism to the message of grace. This was the problem Paul was dealing with in the book of Galatians (cf. 3:1f; 5:1-2, 6, 11; 6:15) and which faced the early church (Acts 10:45; 15:1f, especially note vs. 5).

Thus, to “profess to know God” could mean simply to know Him as Savior (cf. 1 Thess. 1:8), but it could also be a profession to know him in a deeper and more intimate way through observing the rules and regulations they were seeking to impose on others. The Greek term used here for “to know” is oida, which can mean “to be (intimately) acquainted with, to stand in close relation to” (cf. Matt. 26:72, 74; John 7:28).77 Though the word ginosko, “to know, recognize, perceive,” is used, this concept is clearly in view in the Savior’s reply to Philip. Jesus was not questioning whether Philip knew Jesus at all or as his Savior. Instead, he was questioning the depth of his knowledge of the Lord.

Things have not changed. We see the same thing today. Some claim a deeper level of experience or knowledge of God because they keep certain taboos or because they speak in tongues, insisting that anyone who wants to be truly spiritual must do the same.

Their Practice: “But with their deeds they deny him.” “Deny” is arneomai, “to refuse, disregard, disown, repudiate.” But denial can manifest itself in various ways. It may mean the opposite of acknowledging something like denying that Jesus is the incarnate Christ (1 John 2:22) or it can apply to the failure of a believer to care for his own, a behavior that is inconsistent with those who are walking in fellowship with the Savior (1 Tim. 5:8).

Generally,… arneomai means to fall back from a previous relationship with him into unfaithfulness. This is the meaning of the denial of Peter (Mk. 14:30, 68, 70). The opposite to this denial is “to hold fast” (Rev. 2:13), or “to be faithful” (2:10). Used absolutely, arneomai can mean to abandon fellowship with the Lord (2 Tim. 2:12).78

In other words, the false teacher, if truly saved, has slipped back into works or legalism and has fallen from the grace way of life or the previous grace relationship he had had with the Lord when he first accepted Christ.

When a believer lives in the light, power, and freedom of God’s grace, he or she has the power to deny ungodliness as a part of his or her life (cf. Tit. 2:12). But to turn one’s back on grace will, in some degree, lead to a life that denies Him by deeds that give little or no evidence of fellowship or of a Spirit-empowered walk with God. An important truth of the New Testament is that one of the results of turning our backs on the concept of grace—even as believers—is that it leaves us under the control of the flesh or our life-dominating patterns. This is stressed by Paul in Colossians 2:23 and Galatians 5:1-5. In other words, adding any system of works for salvation or sanctification means the benefits of our new position in Christ are rendered inoperative as long as such a spirit of legalism exists. It amounts to a revision of the gospel which means we have fallen from the grace way of life into the futility of a life lived under the power of the flesh (cf. Gal. 5:1-5 with 16-26).

So how did they deny Him? This is explained in the following words that point to their true condition. Falling from grace into legalism is a horrible thing because of what it does, not only to the person who has so fallen, but because of what it does to God’s glorious message of grace and to others. Thus, in describing their condition, Paul has some very strong words.

Their Condition: “Since they are detestable, disobedient, and unfit for any good deed.” With these words the apostle shows us the true nature of legalism by showing us just how ugly and useless legalism makes a person. This clause describes how the legalists denied God though they professed to know Him intimately and were able to lead other to know Him intimately.

“Detestable” is bdeluktos, “abominable, detestable.” It carries the idea of “disgusting.” It occurs only here in the New Testament though bdelugma, “abomination, detestable,” occurs six times. The apostle used such a strong word to help us see God’s perspective toward teachers who turn away from grace into legalism and who teach other to do the same. They are detestable because they are killers on the loose.

There are killers on the loose today. The problem is that you can’t tell by looking. They don’t wear little buttons that give away their identity, nor do they carry signs warning everybody to stay away. On the contrary, a lot of them carry Bibles and appear to be clean-living, nice-looking, law-abiding citizens. Most of them spend a lot of time in churches, some in places of religious leadership. Many are so respected in the community, their neighbors would never guess they are living next door to killers.

They kill freedom, spontaneity, and creativity; they kill joy as well as productivity. They kill with their words and their pens and their looks. They kill with their attitudes far more often than with their behavior. There is hardly a church or Christian organization or Christian school or missionary group or media ministry where such danger does not lurk. The amazing thing is that they get away with it, day in and day out, without being confronted or exposed. Strangely, the same ministries that would not tolerate heresy for ten minutes will step aside and allow these killers all the space they need to maneuver and manipulate others in the most insidious manner imaginable. Their judgmental spirits remain unjudged. Their bullying tactics continue unchecked. And their narrow-mindedness is either explained away or quickly defended. The bondage that results would be criminal were it not so subtle and wrapped in such spiritual-sounding garb.

This day—this very moment—millions are living their lives in shame, fear, and intimidation who would be free, productive individuals.… They are victimized, existing as if living on death row instead of enjoying the beauty and fresh air of the abundant life Christ modeled and made possible for all of His followers to claim.

That whole package, in a word, is grace. That’s what is being assaulted so continually, so violently…79

Such, in unbelievers and believers alike, is truly detestable. No wonder the apostle emphatically states, “For this reason rebuke them sharply that they may be healthy in the faith.”

“Disobedient” is apeithes. The term refers to a disobedience that is the result of a lack of trust or a failure to be persuaded.80 Failure to trust or rest in the person and work of Christ as Savior as an unbeliever or to rest in the sufficiency of death and resurrected life as a Christian leads to disobedience to the will of God. In the context, apeithes points to the problem of hypocrisy. They denied Him by their hypocrisy. They preached one thing, but privately did another, As a result, they denied God by not living consistently and in accord with the truth of grace. Amazingly, Peter is an illustration of this.

2:11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he had clearly done wrong. 2:12 For until certain people came from James, he had been eating with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he stopped doing this and separated himself because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision party. 2:13 And the rest of the Jews also joined with him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray with them by their hypocrisy. 2:14 But when I saw that they were not behaving consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “If you, although you are a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you try to force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Gal. 2:11-14, emphasis mine)

Ralph Keiper has given an illuminating paraphrase of Paul’s rebuke of Peter:

“Peter, I smell ham on your breath. You forgot your Certs. There was a time when you wouldn’t eat ham as a part of your hope of salvation. Then after you trusted Christ, it didn’t matter if you ate ham. But now when the no-ham eaters have come from Jerusalem you have gone back to your kosher ways. But the smell of ham still lingers on your breath. You are most inconsistent. You are compelling Gentile believers to observe Jewish law which can never justify anyone.… Peter, by returning to the law, you undercut strength for godly living.”81

“And unfit for any good deed” points us to the fruit, the result of what happens when people turn their backs on the truth of grace and the sufficiency of the finished work of Christ, not only for salvation or eternal life, but for sanctification or the experience of a Christ-exchanged life. “Unfit” is adokimos, “rejected, not standing the test,” and then “unqualified, worthless, unfit.” It is the a negative of dokimos, “approved or accepted” having passed the test. It was “used as a technical term for genuine, current coinage, but also applied to persons enjoying general esteem.” Thus, adokimos was used in some very interesting ways:

This word is used to describe a counterfeit coin which is below standard weight. It is used to describe a cowardly soldier who fails in the testing hour of battle. It is used of a rejected candidate for office, a man whom the citizens regarded as useless and of no value. It is used of a stone which the builders rejected. If a stone had a flaw in it, it was marked with a capital A, for adokimos, and left aside, as being unfit to have any place in the building…82

As previously mentioned, one of the themes of this book is “good works.” One of our purposes in life is usefulness in the service of Christ and in ministry to others. It is only through faith in Christ, however, and through abiding in the sufficiency of His life that we can become fit for good works so that they can pass the test of God’s judgment.

Through the believer’s new life in Christ—as one translated out of darkness into the light of Christ—we stand approved in Christ (cf. Rom. 16:1) and are made fit (qualified) for a share in the inheritance of the saints (cf. Col. 1:12-14). But though qualified for a portion of the inheritance (rewards), we must remain faithful and abide steadfast in our confidence in Christ so that we are living out of the source of His life and sufficiency. The reason is that Christ Himself will pass judgment on our works (dokimazo, “test and approve or disapprove”) at the Judgment Seat (Bema) of Christ where we will receive for the things done in this life (cf. 1 Cor. 3:13; 2 Cor. 5:9-10; Rom. 14:10, 12). Indeed, He is even now the tester of our hearts (cf. 1 Thess. 2:4).83


As is obvious from the reference to Jewish connections (vs. 10) and to Jewish myths and commandments of men in verse (vs. 13), the false teachers were seeking to revise the doctrine of salvation and/or sanctification by adding certain religious works (do’s and don’ts) to the gospel message. And let’s remember that the gospel is not just a message of salvation from sin’s penalty, but one that includes God’s deliverance from sin’s power and reign over our lives. As in Galatians, such was not truly a gospel, but a perversion of the message of grace. These false teachers not only needed strong rebuke that would expose their error, but set forth the truth in such a way that the false teachers, along with those who were listening to their teaching, might become sound or healthy in the faith—the body of apostolic truth as it had been passed down through the apostles including Paul. Without this, they would remain in the disastrous condition described in verse 16, “detestable, disobedient, and unfit for any good deed.”

With this in mind, we might also compare Paul’s statement in Colossians 1:11. There he is speaking of the results of being filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding. In the context of Colossians, this means an understanding of all that the believer possesses in Christ. One of the problems facing the Colossians were false teachers who were teaching that, in addition to faith in Christ, one also needed to observe certain religious and ascetic rules (cf. 2:4, 6-23). Thus, one of the results of such full knowledge is “bearing fruit in every good deed, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might for the display of all patience and steadfastness.” In other words, it is entirely possible to engage in good deeds or religious works, but have them rejected as unfruitful because our works have been produced outside of full confidence in Christ. Unless our works are the product of a life empowered by God’s grace as we rest in the sufficiency and enablement that Christ gives, our works will be adokimos, “rejected, useless” and so “unfruitful,” at least from God’s standards and judgment.

59 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books,1997), electronic media.

60 Wiersbe, electronic media.

61 H. C. Hahn, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1986), electronic media.

62 Erwin W. Lutzer, How You Can Be Sure That You Will Spend Eternity With God (Moody Press, Chicago, 1996), 45-46.

63 G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament (T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh, 1973), 174.

64 D. Edmond Hiebert, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, New Testament, Frank E. Gaebelein, General Editor (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1976-1992), electronic media.

65 John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck, editors, The Bible Knowledge Commentary (Victor Books, Wheaton, 1983, 1985), electronic media.

66 Wiersbe, electronic media.

67 Philip H. Towner, 1-2 Timothy & Titus, Grant R. Osborne, series ed., The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, 1994), 230.

68 Hiebert, electronic media.

69 Charles Colson with Ellen Santili Vaughn, Kingdoms in Conflict (a Copublication of William Morrow / Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, 1987), 47.

70 Wiersbe, electronic media.

71 Walter Bauer, F. Wilbur Gingrich, and Frederick W Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), electronic media.

72 Hiebert, electronic media.

73 D. Müller, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1986), electronic edition, STEP Files, 1999.

74 Hiebert, electronic media.

75 See the author’s study, Grace, Why It’s So Awesome and Amazing on this web site.

76 Merrill F. Unger, The New Unger’s Talking Bible Dictionary, ed., R. K. Harrison, contrib. ed., Howard F. Vos & Cyril J. Barber (Moody Press, Chicago), electronic media.

77 Bauer, Gingrich, and Danker, electronic media.

78 H. G. Link, E. Tiedtke, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1986), electronic edition, STEP Files, 1999.

79 Charles R. Swindoll, The Grace Awakening (Word Publishing, Dallas-London-Vancouver-Melbourne, 1990), 3-4.

80 In all other passages, where apeithes, the noun apeitheia (disobedience) and the vb. apeitheo (be disobedient) occur, the context suggests disobedience to God, mostly in contrast with faith (O. Becker, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology [Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1986], electronic edition, STEP Files, 1999.

81 Ralph Keiper, cited in When the Saints Come Storming In by Leslie B. Flynn (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, a Division of Scripture Press Publications, Inc., 1988), 42.

82 William Barclay, The Letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon (The Westminister Press, Philadelphia, First Edition 1956), 281.

83 “Approved” in 1 Thessalonians 2:4 is the perfect tense of dokimazo, “to test for the sake of approval.”

Related Topics: False Teachers