May 12, 2008

Evangelism and Exposing False Teachers – Acts 13:4-12

Posted in Evangelism, Gospel, Worldviews at 3:16 pm by Dan Lowe

Following is a manuscript of the sermon preached at Maranatha Baptist Church on Sunday morning, May 11, 2008:


We live in an increasingly “spiritual” culture.  Everywhere we look… people are talking about “being spiritual”… whatever that means.  This week I read an article about spirituality (I can’t remember where… sorry!) in which a woman described herself as “very spiritual.”  When asked how she expresses her spirituality, she said that she runs 5 miles a day and recycles. 

Is this “being spiritual”? 

There are a lot of people out there claiming to be spiritual and there are a lot of people trying to tell us how to be spiritual and many of their teachings are diametrically opposed to Scripture.  Everywhere we look today, we see false teachers who are doing their best to turn people away from the truth of God as described in the Bible.

Everywhere we look there are prophets of secular humanism.  This is the worldview which rests on Darwinism and modern social-psychology.  Some of its basic tenets are:

1)      Human beings are not created… we evolved. 

2)      There is no God… we are an accident of nature…

3)      If there is a “god” at all… it is nature, since we sprang forth spontaneously and randomly from nature.  Hence the almost religious adherence to environmentalism today. 

4)      People are basically good…and we are getting better… after all, that is what evolution is all about.  We are improving. We are becoming better… stronger… faster… smarter…

5)      Since there is no God, there is no absolute right and wrong. Therefore, we can decide for ourselves what is right and wrong…

6)      There is no afterlife since human beings are nothing more than a cosmic accident.  Therefore you should live for the moment.  Go for the gusto!  Be all that you can be!  Just do it!  Get all you can while you can, because, in the end, he who dies with the most toys wins.

As popular as this worldview is, it seems to be fading somewhat, because if you follow it through to its natural conclusion, then life is pretty meaningless.  Therefore we see more and more people seeking their understanding of ultimate truth elsewhere.

Many people are finding their meaning in life in new age spirituality.  We have seen an incredible rise in the popularity of new age spirituality since the 1960’s.  Technically this is a worldview called Monism or Pantheism, both of which encapsulate the idea that all is one.  Everything in the universe is connected to everything else.  There is one infinite source of energy in the universe and everything is bound up in it.  A popular description of this worldview is summarized by the Jedi knight Obi Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars movies when he says, “(The force is) an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.

It is amazing how popular this belief is today.  Everyone from the Dalai Lama to the Yin/Yang wearing teenager down the street holds to this worldview… often inconsistently… but they are espousing it nonetheless.

Perhaps the most vocal advocate of this recently has been Oprah Winfrey.  If you haven’t already heard, she has now started her own weekly classes on spirituality where she appears alongside Eckhart Tolle, teaching through his book, “A New Earth.”  You can view these courses online and many, many people are.  The teaching advocated in these classes is really nothing new.  It is simply the same old new age spirituality.

Here are a few of Oprah’s explicit beliefs:

1)      She explicitly denies the biblical understanding of God and Jesus Christ.

2)      She rejects the notion that there is only one way to God.

3)      She denies the biblical understanding of sin.

(Note:  You can read an excellent review of these courses from a biblical worldview by Don Whitney at The Center for Biblical Spirituality website.  It can be found here .)

Make no mistake about it; Oprah has a lot of converts.  In a November 2005 poll conducted by… 33 percent of 6,600 respondents said that Oprah has had “a more profound impact” on their spiritual lives than their pastors. (Cited by Mark Driscoll in a post entitled “Is Oprah a Cult Leader.”  You can find the whole post here .)

This is real.  False teachers are everywhere.  Whether it is the syncretistic blending of secular humanism and new age spirituality that we find in “The Secret” by Rhonda Byrne (i.e. tap into the energy of the universe to draw to yourself everything you want in the here and now) or the reinvention of the historical Jesus in “The DaVinci Code” by Dan Brown, false teachers are everywhere.

We see numerous warnings against false teachers in Scripture:

2 Timothy 4:3-4 (ESV) – 3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.

1 John 4:1 (ESV) – 1 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.

2 Peter 2:1-2 (ESV) – 1 But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. 2 And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed.

Matthew 7:15-16 (ESV) – 15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.

False teachers abound in the world in which we live.  And we should not kid ourselves; these false teachers are not harmless.  They are leading people by the hand into the pits of hell.  They are actively opposing the work which God has given us to do in proclaiming to the gospel to sinners.

How does this affect our efforts at evangelism?

In Acts 13:1-12, we see how Paul and Barnabas dealt with false teachers…

Acts 13:1-12 (ESV) – 1 Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. 4 So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. 5 When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them. 6 When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they came upon a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus. 7 He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. 8 But Elymas the magician (for that is the meaning of his name) opposed them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. 9 But Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him 10 and said, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? 11 And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and unable to see the sun for a time.” Immediately mist and darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking people to lead him by the hand. 12 Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord.

There are three aspects of the ministry of Paul and Barnabas here which I think are important…

1)      They engaged in an empowered ministry…

2)      They engaged in an evangelistic ministry…

3)      They engaged in an exposing ministry…

Empowered Ministry:

One of the most striking aspects of this passage is the centrality of the Holy Spirit in everything which is taking place. Beginning in verse 2, we see that:

1)      It is the Holy Spirit Who begins this mission.  He communicates with the church leaders in Antioch and directs them to begin this missionary work.

2)      The Holy Spirit appoints Barnabas and Saul to this ministry.  Notice that they are to be set apart “to Me”.  They are to be set apart to the Holy Spirit to do His work of spreading the gospel throughout the earth.

In verse 4, Paul and Barnabas are sent out by the Holy Spirit and the implication is that He led them from Antioch… to Seleucia… to Cyprus and the port-city of Salamis.  This is where their missionary efforts began in earnest.

All of this is guided by the Holy Spirit.  He is leading them.  He is guiding them.  It is His ministry and He is working through them to accomplish it.

The overarching theme of the book of Acts seems to be the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit through the Church of Jesus Christ.  In Acts 1:1, Luke says, “In my first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach…  The implication is that Jesus started something that is not yet finished. 

Now I want to be clear about something.  Jesus’ work in providing salvation for His people is absolutely complete.  When He died on the cross, He cried out, “It is finished!” (Jn 19:30)… and it is finished.  There is nothing left to be done in order to save us from our sins.  Jesus lived a righteous life on our behalf to merit eternal life for us.  Jesus died on the cross, suffering the punishment for our sins once for all.  The work of salvation is complete.

But the work of announcing this good news is not.  Jesus began to preach the gospel, but His earthly ministry never took Him beyond the boundaries of Palestine.  His work is being continued today by His Spirit, through His people.

We would do well to remember this.  As we go out to share the gospel… whether it is on the other side of the world or the other side of the street… we are taking part in His work.  We must rely upon the Holy Spirit to apply the finished work of Christ to lost sinners through the hearing of the gospel message.  And when some are saved… we must give Him all the credit and glory.

 Paul and Barnabas were engaged in an empowered ministry of evangelism…“When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews…

This was Paul’s normal procedure when he came into a new city.  We will see it over and over again in the book of Acts. He would typically go into the synagogue and take advantage of the opportunity which was often granted to him to preach the gospel to his Jewish brethren.

What was the message that they preached?   We aren’t told the details of their preaching in this passage, but an analysis of Paul’s sermons in the book of Acts tells us that they were all pretty much the same.  Paul’s preaching always centered on the same basic elements:

1)      When he spoke to Jews… he would begin with the Old Testament.  He would talk about God and remind his hearers of the great God who created all things, particularly how God had “created” Israel.  Then he would remind them of the promises from long past that God would send a Messiah… a Savior and King… to save sinful men and women from sin.

2)      Then he would talk about Jesus and point out how He is the fulfillment of these Old Testament promises.  He would typically emphasize Jesus’ sinless life (active obedience) and His substitutionary death on behalf of sinners (passive obedience.)

3)      Then he would call men and women to respond to this message in repentance and faith in order to be saved from the wrath of God to come.

This is the message of the gospel and this was the message that Paul always preached (I Cor 2:2.)  There is no doubt that this is the message Paul and Barnabas preached in Cyprus, from Salamis all across the island until they reached the capital city of Paphos.

What were the results of this preaching?  Were a lot of people saved?  Were they laughed out of town?  We can’t know for sure, but it seems that they must have made quite a splash on the island of Cyprus (no pun intended), because they drew the attention of the proconsul of the island, a man named Sergius Paulus.  That is no small feat.  He was a very important man.  He was the governor of the entire region.  Despite the fact that there were only three of them (Paul, Barnabas and John Mark), they managed to draw the attention of the most important political figure on the island.  He had heard something of the message they were preaching and he wanted to hear more.  So he summons them to appear before him so that he can learn more about this good news they are proclaiming.

It is important for us to note that their ministry was founded upon the preaching of the gospel.  In a moment, we will see them dealing with the opposition of false teachers, but their ministry was not primarily a ministry of pointing out error.  Foundationally, their ministry was built upon preaching the gospel.

The same should be said of us.  The proclamation of the gospel is the foundation upon which we build our ministries.  The gospel alone is “of first importance” (I Cor 15:3) in the Christian life and ministry.  Every one of us, whoever we are, is called to proclaim the gospel and trust in the power of God in the gospel to save sinners.  The gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…” (Rom 1:16.)  We must believe this… and build our lives and ministries upon that which is powerful to save us and those we minister to.

The gospel is powerful and when it is preached, we should expect that there will be a response, for there always is.  Some people will be saved… some will want to hear more… but there will be some who oppose the message of the gospel.  That is what we in verses 6-12, as Paul and Barnabas engage in a ministry of exposing false teachers.

Not only did their preaching of the gospel bring them to attention of the proconsul, but it also caused them to pop up on the radar screen of a man named Bar-Jesus.

This man Bar-Jesus… or Elymas as he is called in verse 8… is a very interesting individual:

1)      We are told that he was a magician or sorcerer.  Literally he was a μάγος which was originally a term used to refer to Persian fire priests.  They were men who engaged in astrology and necromancy… speaking with the dead… in order to gain special knowledge or power (Ben Witherington, “The Acts of the Apostles”, 396.)  He was explicitly pagan in his spirituality.

2)      But at the same time… he is called a Jewish false prophet.  A prophet is one who receives direct revelation from God.  But notice that he is specifically a “Jewish” false prophet.  This does more than tell us his ethnicity.  It tells us the type of false prophet he was.  He was a “Jewish” false prophet, meaning that he claimed to have direct revelation from the God of the Jews. 

What we see here is a man involved in a very syncretistic form of religion.  Syncretism is a blending together of different elements from differing religions or worldviews.  What we have here is a little bit of Persian spirituality and a little bit of Jewish religion…all rolled into one. 

We see this all around us today.  People take a little of this and a little of that and mash it all together and call “my spirituality”

Let me give you a couple of examples…

1)      We see this in people who call themselves Christians and affirm the Bible has truth in it, but find their preferred expression of spirituality through Eastern spiritual practices like transcendental meditation. 

2)      We see this in people like Oprah… who will quote Jesus as a good teacher… but deny that He is the unique and eternal Son of God.  This is hard to reconcile with the biblical account of Jesus.  Jesus stated quite clearly that He is the unique and only Son of God.  He stated “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, no one comes to the Father, but by Me” (Jn 14:6.)  If He was wrong about this… that He is the only way to God… then how can He be a good teacher?  He was either insane… or a liar… both of which disqualify Him as a good teacher.  You can’t have it both ways…

This is syncretism… a blending together of differing religious views… and that is exactly what this man Bar-Jesus was doing.  He is a Jewish false prophet who engages in the practices of Persian fire priests.  He studies the stars and communicates with the dead and, apparently, he claimed to communicate with the living and true God of the Jews as well.  All this is rolled into one.

He must have been fairly successful and popular, because here we see that he was “with the proconsul.”  This probably means that he was an advisor to governor.  He was a man of some importance.

But Paul and Barnabas are a threat to him.  His spirituality and theirs are mutually exclusive.  So he was actively opposing them.  Specifically we are told that he was attempting “to turn the proconsul away from the faith.”  The word translated “turn away” is διαστρέφω (pronounced diastrepho in the Greek) and it means to distort or to pervert something (BDAG, διαστρέφω.)  He was doing all that he could to continuously distort the thinking of the proconsul so that he would not accept the message of the gospel.  He was twisting the proconsul this way and that so that he would not come to a knowledge of the truth.

Paul talks about these kind of men in II Timothy 3, where, first, he describes the nature of the world (i.e. people are lovers of self… lovers of money… lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God), then he describes the character of those who lead these people astray…

2 Timothy 3:6-9 (ESV) – 6 For among them (i.e. worldly people) are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, 7 always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. 8 Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith. 9 But they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all, as was that of those two men.

Here Paul is speaking of men like Bar-Jesus.  They creep in unsuspecting and take advantage of those who are weak-willed and weak in their understanding and doctrine.  They are constantly teaching these unsuspecting people their forms of spirituality, but it is a spirituality which never leads them to the truth.  In fact, the Greek implies that those who imbibe too much of this teaching will never be able to come to the knowledge of the truth.

These false teachers are like Jannes and Jambres, which are the traditional names given to the priests in Egypt who opposed Moses.  If you remember the Exodus account, the Egyptian priests were able to imitate some of miracles which God performed through Moses (Exodus 7-8.)  These false teachers are like them.  They seem powerful and knowledgeable, but they are corrupted in mind and disqualified in regards to the faith.  And Paul says that they will not get far…

This man, Bar-Jesus, like Jannes and Jambres and the false teachers described here, was trying to twist and distort the proconsul’s understanding of truth so that he would never come to a knowledge of the gospel.

But the Holy Spirit has other plans.  Remember this is His mission.  He is the One who began it and He is the One who has appointed these messengers.  And here we see that He is the One who empowers His messengers to overcome false teachers.

Paul opposes this false teacher boldly and it is very instructive to see how he does it here…

1)      Notice that this is the work of the Holy Spirit.  He is “filled with the Holy Spirit.”  He is guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit in this.  It is the will of the Holy Spirit to engage this false teacher.

Christians are often accused of being judgmental if they point out the error of false teachers.  However, here we see that it is the will of God for Paul to point out this false teacher.  Paul is exposing this false teacher under the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit.

2)      He publically identifies this man as a false teacher… “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?”

Paul doesn’t pull any punches here.  He “calls it like it is.”  Bar-Jesus “an enemy of all righteousness”… a personal opponent (χθρός) of all that is right.  He is full of all deceit and villainy.  Notice that he is not just misguided.  He isn’t a sheep being led astray.  No.  He is a false shepherd, full of all deceit and villainy.  Ultimately… he is a son of the devil.  His name means something like “son of the God of salvation”, but, in actuality, he is a son of the devil.

In the end, Bar-Jesus is not the opponent they are facing here.  The devil is.  The devil is the one behind this false teacher and ultimately he is behind all false teaching (I Tim 4:1-2.)  Bar-Jesus is just the human instrument which the devil is using to oppose the spread of the gospel.

3)      The third thing Paul does is point out specifically what this false teacher is doing wrong… he is “making crooked the straight paths of the Lord.”

Paul seems to be referring to Isaiah 40:3 (ESV) – 3 A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  In the gospel accounts (Mk 1:2-5), we see that this was fulfilled in the person and ministry of John the Baptist, who announced the coming of the Messiah and called men and women to repent and turn to God in preparation for the Messiah.

Bar-Jesus is doing the opposite of what John the Baptist did.  Rather than preparing the way for the gospel, he is making crooked the straight ways of the Lord.  He was putting as many obstacles in the path of the gospel as he could.  He was obscuring the truth.  He was twisting the truth and the minds of his hearers so that they would not believe.

4)      Fourth… Paul calls him to repent…“…Will you not stop making crooked the straight ways of the Lord?

Paul calls him to stop this wickedness and turn away from this sin (The same thing can be seen when Peter confronted the magician Simon in Samaria.  He pointed out his sinfulness and called him to repent (Acts 8:22-23.))

5)      Fifthly… Paul tells him of judgment to come

He will be blinded by God for his sin.  This may seem a little harsh to some, but in Deuteronomy 13, the punishment for being a false prophet is death by stoning.  In many ways, Bar-Jesus is getting off easy.  Also notice that Paul says he will be blinded “for a time.”  This might imply that this blindness will be only temporary.  God is being gracious with Bar-Jesus by not requiring his life of him immediately.  But if he would not repent, there would be an even greater punishment to come…

Revelation 21:8 (ESV) – 8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

The hand of God was against Bar-Jesus and this opposition to the gospel is crushed.

In II Timothy 3:9, speaking about false teachers, Paul said, “…they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all, as was that of those two men.”  The folly of Bar-Jesus was made plain to all… perhaps most of all to the proconsul, Sergius Paulus.

Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord.”   Don’t miss what is said here.  The judgment of God upon Bar-Jesus had an effect on the proconsul… but he was also amazed by the “teaching / doctrine (διδαχή) of the Lord.  It was through both the proclamation of the gospel and the exposing of this false teacher that God sovereignly drew this man to Himself in salvation.  In this case, the result of preaching the gospel and refuting the heresy of false teachers is that people were saved.

There are false teachers all around us today; men and women seeking “to make crooked the straight ways of the Lord.”

What do we do about this?

We have a good model presented for us here…

1)      First and foremost… we keep proclaiming the truth.  There is no greater antidote to falsehood than the truth.  As Christians, we must be gospel people, committed to proclaiming the gospel constantly… to ourselves… to our families… to our friends… and to all those around us.  We must know the truth of the gospel and proclaim the truth of the gospel.  The gospel must be the bedrock upon which our lives and ministries are built.  The gospel alone is of ”first importance” (I Cor 15:3.)

2)      But we must also refute the false teaching which we encounter in life.  If you are sharing the gospel with others, then you will run into these false teachings.  Whether it is secular humanism, new age spirituality, false interpretations of Scripture or distorted accounts of the historical Jesus.  If you are engaging the lost and sinful world in which we live, then you will encounter the fruit of false teachers.

Pastors/elders are explicitly commanded to refute it (Titus 1:9-11, I Tim 4:1-6), so don’t be mad at your pastor when he when points out false teachers.  Be mad at him if he doesn’t…

But what about everyone else?  Do all Christians have an obligation to point out false teachers and teaching?

On some level, it is necessary for each and every one of us to refute false teachers if we are to fulfill the Great Commission to “teach them to observe all things whatsoever (Christ) has commanded us” (Matt 28:19-20.)

What do you say to your coworker who asks you what you think about Oprah’s new classes on spirituality?  Do you point her out for what she is… a false teacher?  Isn’t that what Paul did?

What do you say when someone points you to a book like “The Secret” or “The DaVinci Code”?  Do you identify how those authors are wrong?  Isn’t that what we see Paul doing here?

I’m not wise enough to come up with a strategy on my own… none of us are.  Scripture is inspired by God so that we may be “equipped for every good work” (II Tim 3:16-17.)  We must rely on God’s method of exposing false teachers:

1)      Recognize false teachers and teaching…

2)      Identify it for what it is…

3)      Point out how it is wrong…

4)      Call people to repent and trust in Jesus Christ…

5)      Warn them of the judgment to come.

Take the words of the Apostle Paul to Timothy to heart and apply them in your own life and ministry… whatever that might be…

 2 Timothy 4:3-5 (ESV) – 3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. 5 As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.



1 Comment »

  1. drjmarkh said,

    Great sermon.

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