May 22 – Avoiding Man–Centered Theology

From among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves.

Acts 20:30

Many forces hinder our understanding of this basic truth: the goal of every Christian’s life is to become more like Christ. Humanistic psychology is one such force. It teaches that man exists for his own satisfaction—he must have all his perceived needs and desires met to be happy. As a result, in many churches spiritual growth is often equated with ironing out life’s problems and finding personal fulfillment.

That kind of mentality ultimately leads to a man–centered theology, which is diametrically opposed to what the Bible teaches. The goal of salvation and sanctification is that we be conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29). It’s been well said that faith looks out instead of in, and the whole of life falls into line. The more you know Christ and focus on Him, the more the Spirit will make you like Him. But the more you focus on yourself, the more distracted you will be from the proper path.[1]

Guard the Flock

I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears. (20:29–31)

It is not enough for a faithful shepherd to feed and lead his flock, he must also protect it from predators. Paul had no doubt that after his departure false teachers would threaten the Ephesian church, as they already had entered the church at Corinth (2 Cor. 11:4) and the churches of Galatia (Gal. 1:6). Whenever the truth is proclaimed, Satan can be expected to counter it with the lies of false doctrine. It has always been so. Paul’s striking description of false teachers as savage wolvesnot sparing the flock echoes that of the Lord Jesus Christ (Matt. 7:15; 10:16). Because of the serious danger they pose to the church, the Scriptures condemn false teachers in the strongest language. Peter vividly describes them in 2 Peter 2 as “those who indulge the flesh in its corrupt desires and despise authority” (v. 10); “unreasoning animals” (v. 12); “stains and blemishes” (v. 13); “having eyes full of adultery …having a heart trained in greed …accursed children” (v. 14); “springs without water …mists driven by a storm, for whom the black darkness has been reserved” (v. 17); “slaves of corruption” (v. 19); dogs returning to their own vomit and pigs wallowing in the mud (v. 22).

True to Paul’s prediction, false teachers did come in among the flock at Ephesus and attack it (cf. Rev. 2:2). Even more subtle than the attack of false teachers from outside the church, however, is the defection of those within. Accordingly, Paul warned them that from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Perverse is from diastrephō, which means “to distort,” or “to twist.” False teachers twist God’s truth for their own perverted ends. Draw away is from apospaō and could be translated “to drag away” or “to tear away.” If the undershepherds are not vigilant, Paul warns, the wolves will drag their sheep away to devour them.

Tragically, even the Ephesian church, where Paul himself ministered for three years, saw such defections among its leadership. In his letters to Timothy (who was then the pastor of the Ephesian church), Paul condemned the false teachers who had arisen from within the Ephesian congregation (1 Tim. 1:3–7; 2 Tim. 3:1–9), even naming some of them (1 Tim. 1:20; 2 Tim. 1:15; 2:17).

Jude also warned in his epistle of the insidious danger of false teachers who arise from within the church:

Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. (vv. 3–4)

But these men revile the things which they do not understand; and the things which they know by instinct, like unreasoning animals, by these things they are destroyed. Woe to them! For they have gone the way of Cain, and for pay they have rushed headlong into the error of Balaam, and perished in the rebellion of Korah. These men are those who are hidden reefs in your love feasts when they feast with you without fear, caring for themselves; clouds without water, carried along by winds; autumn trees without fruit, doubly dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up their own shame like foam; wandering stars, for whom the black darkness has been reserved forever. (vv. 10–13)

These are grumblers, finding fault, following after their own lusts; they speak arrogantly, flattering people for the sake of gaining an advantage. (v. 16)

To guard their flocks from attacks from both outside and inside the church, the undershepherds must do two things. First, they must be on the alert. Knowing that the savage wolves are awaiting an opening to attack their flocks, they must be vigilant. Charles Jefferson describes the importance of the shepherd’s vigilance:

The Eastern shepherd was, first of all, a watchman. He had a watch-tower. It was his business to keep a wide-open eye, constantly searching the horizon for the possible approach of foes. He was bound to be circumspect and attentive. Vigilance was a cardinal virtue. An alert wakefulness was for him a necessity. He could not indulge in fits of drowsiness, for the foe was always near. Only by his alertness could the enemy be circumvented. There were many kinds of enemies, all of them terrible, each in a different way. At certain seasons of the year there were floods. Streams became quickly swollen and overflowed their banks. Swift action was necessary in order to escape destruction There were enemies of a more subtle kind—animals, rapacious and treacherous: lions, bears, hyenas, jackals, wolves. There were enemies in the air; huge birds of prey were always soaring aloft ready to swoop down upon a lamb or kid. And then, most dangerous of all, were the human birds and beasts of prey—robbers, bandits, men who made a business of robbing sheepfolds and murdering shepherds. That Eastern world was full of perils. It teemed with forces hostile to the shepherd and his flock. When Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Habakkuk talk about shepherds, they call them watchmen set to warn and save.

Many a minister fails as a pastor because he is not vigilant. He allows his church to be torn to pieces because he is half asleep. He took it for granted that there were no wolves, no birds of prey, no robbers, and while he was drowsing the enemy arrived. False ideas, destructive interpretations, demoralizing teachings came into his group, and he never knew it. He was interested, perhaps, in literary research; he was absorbed in the discussion contained in the last theological quarterly, and did not know what his young people were reading, or what strange ideas had been lodged in the heads of a group of his leading members. There are errors which are as fierce as wolves and pitiless as hyenas; they tear faith and hope and love to pieces and leave churches, once prosperous, mangled and half dead. ( The Minister as Shepherd [Hong Kong: Living Books for All, 1980], 41–42, 43–44)

The faithful shepherd must also warn his flock. Paul had done so during his own ministry at Ephesus; he reminds the Ephesian elders of how night and day for a period of three years he did not cease to admonish each one with tears. Admonish is from noutheteō, which refers to giving counsel with a warning involved (cf. Col. 1:28). The pattern of Paul’s ministry shows the importance of warning believers about false teachers. He admonished the Ephesians for a period of three years, caring for each one of the flock (cf. v. 20). So compelled was he to warn them that he hardly had time for sleep, ministering night and day (cf. 1 Thess. 2:9; 2 Thess. 3:8). Nor was it a mere academic exercise for Paul—he punctuated his warnings with his tears. He wept because he knew the terrible consequences when false teachers infiltrate. Only by following Paul’s example can the faithful undershepherd protect Christ’s flock from the savage wolves and diseased sheep who constantly threaten it.[2]

  1. “I know that after my departure, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30. Even from among your number men will stand up to speak perverse things to draw away disciples after them.”

“I know.” Again Paul employs the verb to know. He is fully cognizant of the perilous condition in which the believers will find themselves after he has left them. He speaks from innate knowledge: “Savage wolves will come in among you.” Wolves are predators that attack the flock and slaughter many of the sheep (compare Matt. 7:15; 10:16; John 10:12).

“After my departure.” Paul introduces the concept departure in general terms. After the departure of the apostles, many of the seven churches in the province of Asia showed spiritual lethargy (Rev. 2:1–3:22). Paul himself continued to warn the church of Ephesus through his pastoral epistles to Timothy (e.g., 1 Tim. 4:1; 2 Tim. 3:1–9).

“Savage wolves.” The metaphor of wolves attacking the flock is a portrayal of false teachers who enter the church to deceive the members and lead them away from the faith. Both Peter and Jude oppose false teachers and scoffers who have furtively slipped into the church and led the people astray. For instance, these teachers deny the return of Christ, despise authority, reject Jesus Christ, repudiate Christian conduct, and live in immorality (see, e.g., 2 Peter 2; Jude 4–19).

“Even from among your number.” Not only do false teachers slip in among the members of the church (compare Jude 4), but even within the church the danger of heresy is real (see 1 John 2:18–19). Some people in the church become false prophets, who at times disguise themselves as angels of light (2 Cor. 11:14). They purposely strive to draw believers away from the truth of the gospel.[3]

20:29, 30 Paul was well aware that after his departure, the church would be attacked from without and from within. False teachers, wolves in sheep’s clothing, would prey upon the flock, showing no mercy. From within the fellowship, men would aspire to places of prominence, speaking perversions of the truth, and trying to draw away the disciples after themselves.[4]

[1] MacArthur, J. (2001). Truth for today : a daily touch of God’s grace (p. 159). Nashville, Tenn.: J. Countryman.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1994). Acts (p. 326). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles (Vol. 17, pp. 733–734). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[4] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1649). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.


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