The Doom of False Teachers
The Missouri Baptist Convention has published a new resource called The Last Apologist: A Commentary on Jude for Defenders of the Christian Faith. The 275-page book is available in print and Kindle editions on Amazon, and in print from the MBC. But we also want to make each of the 16 chapters available online. This post features Chapter 12: Wild Waves and Wandering Stars: The Doom of False Teachers.
Previously: Can Apostates Be Christians?
These are the ones who are like dangerous reefs at your love feasts. They feast with you, nurturing only themselves without fear. They are waterless clouds carried along by winds; trees in late autumn – fruitless, twice dead, pulled out by the roots; wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shameful deeds; wandering stars for whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever! (Jude 12-13 HCSB)
Driving west on a county road in central Missouri, I watched in fascination as a meteor streaked brilliantly against the predawn blackness of a moonless sky. Meteors, or shooting stars, are fairly common. They are fragments of rock or iron from outer space that enter the earth’s atmosphere. They range in size from less than a gram to more than 60 tons, and if they survive their fiery journey across our skies and thus become meteorites, they can strike the earth with enough force to leave huge craters, destroy property, and injure people.
The most destructive meteorite strike of the 20thcentury occurred in a remote area of Siberia in 1908. The so-called Tunguska Event leveled more than 80 million trees and covered almost 850 miles. Astoundingly, no one was injured.
More recently, the Chelyabinsk meteor that entered earth’s atmosphere over Russia in 2013 was brighter than the sun, exploding about 18 miles above the earth and producing a hot cloud of dust and gas, with an atmospheric impact so intense that it resulted in a large shock wave, damaging 7,200 buildings and injuring 1,500 people.
The meteor I witnessed that dark morning was nothing like the Siberian event or the Chelyabinsk fireball, but it was the brightest shooting star I had ever seen. It seemed to hang in the sky for a long time before dimming and then vanishing on the horizon. It seemed so big, so bright, and so close that I expected it to strike the earth, create a fireball on impact, and shake the ground. But nothing happened. I explored for signs of an impact but saw none. I even checked the news; surely someone else had seen this brilliant meteor paint the sky. Nothing. No news reports. No trending social media. Silence. And blackness.
The apostates of Jude’s day are like meteors. They seemingly come out of nowhere. Stealthily, they slip into the church. And when they gain a foothold as teachers, they blaze above the Christian landscape – bright, striking, dazzling, eclipsing local church leaders who labor in obscurity for the kingdom. And then, after attracting so much attention, they are gone. The blackness from which they came returns to them – or rather, they return to it. A flash in the predawn sky of the first century is traded for an eternity in outer darkness.
How are false teachers like natural phenomena?
Natural phenomena often make good object lessons. Jesus frequently uses commonly known articles from nature to drive home spiritual points. In the parable of the wheat and tares, for example, He illustrates the counterfeit work of Satan in this present evil age (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43). In the story of the mustard seed, He shows His disciples how the kingdom of heaven advances from humble beginnings to towering majesty (Matt. 13:31-32; Mark 4:30-32; Luke 13:18-19). And in the parable of the dragnet full of fish, Jesus makes it clear that, in the age to come, God separates the citizens of the kingdom of heaven from those in Satan’s domain (Matt. 13:47-50).
Jude follows this style of teaching. He compares false teachers to five phenomena from nature: dangerous reefs; waterless clouds; fruitless trees; wild waves; and wandering stars.
First, Jude likens false teachers to dangerous reefs that present a very real threat to doctrinal integrity. Reefs are ridges of jagged rock, coral, or sand just above or below the surface of the sea. Often they are beautiful, colorful formations that teem with sea life and attract snorkelers. But they also feature sharp outcroppings that can rip open the hull of a ship or pierce the flesh of an unsuspecting diver.
In like manner, false teachers project attractive personas that lure immature believers with promises of sexual freedom and personal autonomy. But in the end, the apostates’ rejection of sound doctrine, and their renunciation of a good conscience, cause them to suffer the shipwreck of their faith. But that is not the end. Like sirens – the mythological half-bird, half-woman creatures who lure sailors to destruction by the sweetness of their songs – these false teachers entice their pupils to join them on the rocks of spiritual destruction (1 Tim. 1:19).
Jude writes that false teachers attend the congregation’s “love feasts,” nurturing only themselves. Initially, love feasts are intended to be regular church gatherings where fellowship, encouragement, instruction, and care are experienced. “The feast was similar to a contemporary potluck dinner held on the Lord’s Day,” writes John MacArthur. “Believers would gather to worship, hear the teaching of Scripture, celebrate Communion, and then share their common love meal.”
Over time, however, false teachers so taint the love feasts, and so corrupt their attendees, that the feasts cease to be held. In 1 Cor. 11:17-22, the apostle Paul chastens the Corinthians for turning the Lord’s Supper, observed during these times, into a drunken and gluttonous event. He reminds the Corinthians that because of this, some among the congregation are experiencing the chastening of Christ through sickness, weakness, and even death (vv. 27-30).
Even so, the false teachers fearlessly seek to satisfy their fleshly desires at these communal gatherings. Shrugging off any sense of Christian conscience, and sloughing off the mantle of authority, they illustrate the excesses of a libertine lifestyle with complete disregard of the consequences. These false teachers, writes Kenneth Wuest, “have no compunctions of conscience about participating in the fellowship of evangelical believers, posing as Christians.”
Paul warns Timothy that some false teachers are “liars whose consciences are seared.” They have rejected the truth for so long, and have embraced “teachings of demons” to such an extent, that they are incapable of experiencing remorse for the damage they do to the spiritual well-being of others (1 Tim. 4:1-2). When professors of the Christian faith trade the fruit of the Spirit for the god of their bellies, the false teachers who lead them astray celebrate victory rather than bemoan defeat. The love feasts are designed for Christian fellowship and selfless ministry, but false teachers have twisted them into opportunities for self-indulgence.
Jude describes the apostates as “nurturing only themselves.” The word “nurturing” is from poimaino, which means “to shepherd.” Unfortunately, they care for no one but themselves. Jude may have in mind Ezek. 34:2b-4, which reads, “Woe to the shepherds of Israel, who have been feeding themselves! Shouldn’t the shepherds feed their flock? You eat the fat, wear the wool, and butcher the fatlings, but you do not tend the flock. You have not strengthened the weak, healed the sick, bandaged the injured, brought back the strays, or sought the lost. Instead, you have ruled them with violence and cruelty.”
As a result, the Lord declares, “Look, I am against the shepherds. I will demand My flock from them and prevent them from shepherding the flock. The shepherds will no longer feed themselves, for I will rescue My flock from their mouths so that they will not be food for them” (Ezek. 34:10).
As Thomas R. Schreiner notes, “The reference to shepherds indicates that the opponents were leaders, claiming that they had the ability to guide and lead God’s people. But they had no concern for anyone but themselves. They did not exert effort and care for the flock but instead used their positions of leadership to establish a comfortable life for themselves.”
It is a solemn calling to be a shepherd over God’s flock. Christ serves as the consummate example. He is the good shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep (John 10:11). In contrast, as Warren Wiersbe points out, false shepherds “useand abusepeople in order to get what they want, and yet all the while, the people love it! Paul marveled at this when he wrote 2 Corinthians 11:20 – You don’t mind, do you, if a man takes away your liberty, spends your money, takes advantage of you, puts on airs, or even smacks your face?”
Like tropical reefs, adding continuously to their heft as coral and algae attach to them, false teachers indulge their flesh at the expense of unsuspecting pupils. They shepherd no one else as they grow larger and ever more dangerous. Jude sounds an alarm to the church: These charming, charismatic leaders are not who they seem, and their false doctrines only entice gullible followers to shipwreck themselves on the reefs of demonic teachings.
We should note in Jude 12 that the words “without fear,” rendered “without the slightest qualm” in the NIV, come from the Greek aphobos, which means “shamelessly.” The false teachers experience no pangs of conscience when they fill their bellies and puff out their chests at the expense of those they steer toward the rocks of spiritual destruction.
Nothing brings more anticipation in times of drought than gathering thunderheads above the horizon. How discouraging it is, however, when the only products of these swirling clouds are flashes of lightning and the rumbling of thunder. The clouds billow overhead and cast their shadows, display their sound and fury, and then drift away.
Palestine boasts an arid climate. Its people depend on rain at key times to sustain life, and perhaps nothing is more disappointing than mounting storm clouds that pass overhead without surrendering a drop of water.
Perhaps Solomon has this in mind when he writes, “The man who boasts about a gift that does not exist is like clouds and wind without rain” (Prov. 25:14).
Jude likens false teachers to clouds that tease us with the promise of rain but leave us high and dry. In a parallel passage, Peter likens them to “mists driven by a whirlwind” as they utter “bombastic, empty words,” promising freedom while being unwitting “slaves of corruption” (2 Peter 2:17-19). They promote indulgence in the flesh as a gift of God’s grace. In the end, however, libertine behavior fails to produce the promised spiritual satisfaction. Like rainless clouds, false teachers cast wide shadows but cannot quench their pupils’ spiritual thirst.
The word translated “waterless” in Jude 12 (anudros) also appears in Matt. 12:43, where Jesus describes an unclean spirit coming out of a man. The spirit roams through “waterless places” looking in vain for rest. “By describing false teachers in the same way that Luke describes demons, Jude reiterated the connection between the apostates and their satanic sources.”
If Jesus’ reference to “waterless places” seems elusive to us, it may help to know that this reflects a popular idea in His day that the parched deserts of Syria, Arabia, and Egypt are haunted by demons, who from these places launch invasions against unsuspecting people. In the apocryphal Book of Tobit, the demon Asmodeus flees to the upper parts of Egypt (8:3). And in Rev. 18:2, we’re told that Babylon the Great, now fallen, is a dwelling for demons and a haunt for every unclean spirit.
Perhaps demons prefer barren places over lush landscapes because they don’t want to be reminded of the beauty of God’s creation, or because, like waterless places, they are void of spiritual nourishment. It also may be argued that desolate places symbolize those locations on earth that have not been well watered by the gospel; therefore, they make fertile ground for demonic influences.
Orchard workers labor year-round to ensure a bumper crop. They tend the soil, prune the limbs, ward off destructive pests, and use creative methods to keep unseasonable frosts at bay. Despite their best efforts, orchardists sometimes discover at harvest time that certain trees drop their leaves without ever producing fruit. The promise of a harvest goes unfulfilled, and the orchard worker must decide whether to labor another year with this tree or pull it up by its roots.
In Luke 13:6-9, Jesus tells a parable about a barren fig tree. The owner of the tree complains to the vinedresser that he has sought fruit for three consecutive years on this tree but has found none, and he instructs the vinedresser to cut it down. The vinedresser asks for one more year, promising to dig around the tree, fertilize it, and nurture a good crop if at all possible. “Perhaps it will bear fruit next year,” says the vinedresser, “but if not, you can cut it down.”
The parable is in reference to the nation of Israel, which has proven unresponsive to the Word of God. The Lord is patient, but there is a limit to His forbearance. Like the prophets of old, the Jewish people in first-century Israel reject God’s message – and further, reject God’s Son, the promised Messiah.
The analogy of fruitless trees finds an even broader application to the nation of Israel in the account of Jesus cursing the fig tree (Matt. 21:18-22; Mark 11:12-14, 20-25). Jesus comes upon a fig tree with leaves but no fruit. Alfred Edersheim explains that, in Palestine, fruit appears beforethe leaves. Therefore, this tree offered the promise of fruit but failed to deliver.
It was a perfect object lesson for Jesus to share with His disciples. The nation of Israel, led by prophets, scribes, and interpreters of Scripture, is spiritually dead. As proof, the people are on the verge of calling for the crucifixion of the very Messiah they were raised up to worship. Now, the Savior’s longsuffering is slowly turning to judgment, which falls hard on Jerusalem about 40 years after this encounter. In A.D. 70, the Roman general Titus besieges the great city, destroys the Temple, kills roughly one million Jews, and scatters the rest.
Though the Temple has not yet fallen at the time of Jude’s epistle, the author writes of a similar spiritual barrenness displayed by false teachers who have infiltrated the early church. He describes them as “trees in late autumn – fruitless, twice dead, pulled up by the roots.” What a contrast to the godly man whose delight is in the Lord’s instruction. As the psalmist notes, “He is like a tree planted beside streams of water that bears its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers” (Psalm 1:3).
The word “fruitless” in Jude 12 comes from the Greek phthinoporina, a compound term that captures the idea of waning, or wasting away, in late autumn. Jude’s reference is to autumn trees without fruit at the precise time they are expected to bear fruit. Not only do they fail to produce a crop; they are incapable of doing so, and thus they are fit only to be pulled up by their roots and burned. In like manner, these false teachers are as devoid of spiritual fruit as twice-dead autumn trees.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus provides His disciples a similar warning about false prophets. They appear as sheep, although inwardly they are ravaging wolves. “You’ll recognize them by their fruit,” He says. “Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, but a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit; neither can a bad tree produce good fruit” (Matt.7:16-18).
Of course, thorn bushes and thistles are incapable of producing nutritious food; it is not their nature to do so. Similarly, false prophets, who are spiritually dead, bear only the nonedible fruit of false doctrine. And what becomes of them? “Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So you’ll recognize them by their fruit” (Matt. 7:19-20).
If there is any doubt about Christ’s comparison of false prophets to fruitless trees, He goes on to explain that some false prophets are so heavily invested in deceiving others, they have deceived themselves: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of My Father in heaven. On that day many will say to Me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in Your name, drive out demons in Your name, and do many miracles in Your name?’” Jesus does not deny that the false prophets did these things. He simply responds, “I never knew you! Depart from Me, you lawbreakers!” (Matt. 7:21-23).
For Jude, the false teachers who infiltrate the church must seem very much like the Jewish religious leaders about whom Jesus warns the apostles. They promise rich and satisfying spiritual food but produce nothing edible. Like twice-dead trees that farmers pull up by their roots and use for firewood, false teachers are destined for outer darkness, where the fires of judgment are never quenched.
Edward Pentecost writes, “The dead condition of apostate leaders was indicated by two things: (a) they did not bear spiritual fruit in others, and (b) they were without spiritual roots themselves, and thus faced judgment.” As Jesus tells His disciples concerning the Pharisees, “Every plant that My heavenly Father didn’t plant will be uprooted” (Matt. 15:13).
The sea has a way of revealing its secrets. Deep ocean currents, plate tectonics, violent storms, salt water tides, and other natural phenomena combine to churn up history from the ocean floor and deposit it on our shores. Usually, these once-hidden relics are messy, chaotic, and corroded – but always, they are revealing. In a similar way, over time, false teachers expose their true nature – unredeemed, vile, narcissistic, greedy, lustful, unfulfilled. Jude likens these interlopers to the wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shameful deeds.
The word translated “wild” in Jude 13 is agrios, meaning fierce, untamed. Like churning ocean waves, false teachers not only lack good works; they produce evil ones. What they do is likened to “the grimy foam that coats a beach, leaving a sticky residue of shame behind.”
Scripture often uses the sea as a symbol for those who don’t know God. In that vein, Jude may be building his case on a statement from the prophet Isaiah: “But the wicked are like the storm-tossed sea, for it cannot be still, and its waters churn up mire and muck” (Isa. 57:20).
As false teachers pontificate with great, swelling rhetoric, they inexplicably dredge up the wretched refuse of their hearts. Their arrogance, immorality, irreverence, and insubordination wash up on the shores of God’s kingdom and reveal their true character. As Jesus reminds us, “A good man produces good out of the good storeroom of his heart. An evil man produces evil out of the evil storeroom, for his mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart” (Luke 6:45).
In the apostle John’s glimpse of the future, from his exiled perspective on Patmos, he reports, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea existed no longer” (Rev. 21:1 – emphasis added). The Greek word John uses for “new” is kainos, which means “different from the usual, better than the old, superior in value or attraction.” In other words, God does not simply annihilate the old order of things and start again from scratch; He purges the sinful and fallen cosmos and restores it to its pristine beauty.
But why does the sea vanish? One possible interpretation is that John likens the sea to the earth’s unredeemed people and their legacy of sin. Once Christ returns and sets things right, only the saved of all time remain. The wicked are resurrected and summoned before the great white throne, then cast into the lake of fire, leaving the glory of God to fill the earth: “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord’s glory, as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14).
Drawing from the influence of Daniel’s vision of the four beasts on early Christianity, N.T. Wright notes, “The sea has become the dark, fearsome place from which evil emerges, threatening God’s people like a giant tidal wave threatening those who live near the coast. For the people of ancient Israel, who were not for the most part seafarers, the sea came to represent evil and chaos, the dark power that might do to God’s people what the flood had done to the whole world, unless God rescued them as he rescued Noah.”
Charles Swindoll offers these thoughts: “To people of the ancient world … the sea was a mysterious, frightening, and dangerous place, characterized by chaos and possessing the power to kill without warning…. In the book of Revelation, the sea also served as a symbol … of disorder, violence, or unrest that marks the old creation. John’s imagery of the sea elsewhere in Revelation designates it as an origin of all kinds of cosmic evil. It could also represent the unbelieving nations who persecuted God’s people. Clearly, in ancient times, the sea stood for chaos and calamity, disorder and destruction.”
Perhaps Jude, in referring to false teachers as “wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shameful deeds,” seeks to connect them to the earth’s wicked, who ultimately find themselves in the lake of fire. The chaos and carnage their apostate lives have produced return to them in hell and become their everlasting companions.
Jude has used illustrations from the natural world – the sky, the earth, and the water – to describe the evil deeds of false teachers. Now, he offers one final example – this one from outer space. He writes that apostates are like “wandering stars.” The phrase could signify planets in their elliptical orbits, which make them appear to wander. But more likely, Jude is referring to meteors, oddly shaped chunks of asteroids or comets that flash brightly as they invade the earth’s atmosphere.
We should note the parallel between verse 12 and Jude 6, where gloomy darkness is the holding cell of certain fallen angels. Ultimately, Satan, demons, and false teachers all punch their tickets for the same everlasting terminus: outer darkness, eternal fire, hell. It is a place specifically created for the Devil and his angels (Matt. 25:41). However, people who reject the revelation of God and refuse His gracious offer of eternal life find themselves spending eternity the way they lived their earthly lives: independently of God. While Satan masquerades as an angel of light, and his minions disguise themselves as ministers of righteousness, their self-made brilliance flames out, and their once-lofty trajectory wobbles toward a dark eternity where no flint is struck and no light is created.
Note the manner in which several New Testament passages depict the final judgment of the wicked:
- Describing the “sons of the kingdom” – Israelites who reject the Messiah – Jesus says they “will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 8:12).
- In the parable of the wedding banquet for the king’s son, Jesus describes a man invited to the feast who arrives in his own clothing (the filthy rags of his own righteousness), having refused the wedding garment offered freely by the host (the righteousness of Christ). The king responds to the man’s insolence the only way he can to protect his son’s honor and to ensure the delight of his guests. He commands his servants, “Tie him up hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 22:13).
- In the parable of the talents, Jesus describes an “evil, lazy slave” who rejects his master’s grace and squanders his call to serve. The master tells his servants, “And throw this good-for-nothing slave into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 25:26, 30).
- Lastly, the apostle John sees a great white throne in heaven, and Jesus seated on it. The “dead, the great and the small,” stand before the throne and are judged according to their works. Books are opened – most significantly, the book of life, in which Christ searches in vain for their names. “And anyone not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:11-15).
Fire and darkness await the wandering stars. Although we may rightly wonder how flames and blackness can coexist, it appears that Jesus and the New Testament writers use these two natural elements as symbols of the wicked person’s indescribable suffering through an endless night, far from the inviting glow of the banquet hall, and banished from the feast spread across the king’s table.
Unlike meteors, fixed stars guide navigators through treacherous waters and into safe harbors. Our Lord is “the Bright Morning Star” (Rev. 22:16), and Christians are called to “shine like stars in the world” (Phil. 2:15). Anyone foolish enough to fix his course by the cascading light of a falling star is bound to be led astray. Similarly, as Edward Pentecost notes, “the prominence of apostate leaders is short-lived, useless, and false. They do lead unwary followers astray, pretending to be what they are not. They will therefore be swallowed up into the blackest darkness forever; eternal judgment is certain for them.”
John MacArthur writes, “Apostates often appear for a short time on the stage of Christianity. They promise enduring spiritual light and direction but deliver nothing but an erratic, aimless, worthless flash. The utter blackness and darkness of hell has been reserved forever for them.”
Next: Look! The Lord Comes: The Prophecy of Enoch