A few years ago when I was working to re-establish the ministry of Eagle TV in Mongolia, I spent some time looking at the ministry of the Apostle Paul in the book of Acts.
While we often think of Paul as a great orator for the fundamental doctrines of the faith, in fact most of the speeches given by Paul as recorded in the book of Acts revolved around or touched on a single topic.
The Apostle Paul’s first recorded words at the beginning of his ministry were not about Jesus, but a rebuke to a man who misappropriated the name of Jesus for his own purposes. The man was called “Bar-Jesus” in Acts 13:4-12 which literally means, “Son of Jesus.” Paul confronted this man’s heresy in front of many witnesses saying, “Will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?” (13:10)
What makes this remarkable is that Luke, the author of the book, could have chosen to write out one of Paul’s many messages about the Messiahship of Jesus, or many proofs from the Old Testament of His identity. Instead, Luke chose Paul’s first recorded words in ministry to be a rebuke of a false teacher.
In this period of Paul’s ministry the church was less than 20 years old. That got my attention. You see, I live in Mongolia; and the Mongolian church is less than 20 years old. The early church, just like the Mongolian church, already had a recognized leadership of those raised up by the Apostles and their disciples to help guide the young church into maturity. Though most of the Apostles were still alive at this time, many in the church embraced various forms of aberrational or heretical teaching. Much of the New Testament is actually a defense against various heresies including Jewish legalism, antinomianism, and the appropriating of Christianity, or Jesus’ name, into aberrational religious teaching. In fact, in the 11 recorded speeches of Paul in the book of Acts, six of them warn about heresy or teachers who will turn people away from Christ and to themselves, or he is forced to deal with idol worship (13:4-12, 14:8-18, 15:1-29, 16:16-19, 17:22-24, 20:17-36).
When reading Paul’s writings in the New Testament the theme of heresy arises time and again. Paul’s fight against early church heresy was a vigorous and a necessary one. Paul saw early on in his ministry the need for a young church, unfamiliar with the history of the Old Testament, to be brought into a full understanding of the Divine nature, Jesus’ exclusivity, and the holiness of a righteous and loving God. To combat against the aberrations or heresies in the young church, Paul focused on two types of heresy:
- The misuse of the name and reputation of Jesus for the purpose of advancing false religion or material gain, and
- False teaching that draws believers away from devotion to Christ, and instead draws men to themselves.
Paul’s defense against such heretics within the church was simple. He used his own behavior as a guide for the early church. Paul noted that he never profited from the sharing of the Gospel with those he tried to reach—implying that false teachers within the church would do just that. For such teachers Christ is a ministry meal ticket.
That the author of the book of Acts places such an emphasis on Paul’s fight against heresy should not be brushed aside quickly—especially for for missionaries working with a young national church, or pastors working in a church with many new believers. The newness of faith and excitement of relationship with the eternal God of the universe can often leave the new believer, or new body of believers open to even newer ideas that were never part of God’s plan for his people. A young church, like a young teenager, is not yet mature, but is growing into maturity. It often has many of the marks of a mature person, including strength and passion, but its vigor still awaits the temperament of experience and a practiced hand with the things of God.
From the Apostle Paul we learn that a new believer, or a new body of believers, whether a small group or a national church, is susceptible to three carriers of heresy:
- False Testimony – Diverting attention from Jesus to mere men,
- False Leaders – Receiving gain instead of providing it, and
- False Teaching – Diverting truth away from obedience and faith, to slavery and tradition.
In each case Paul openly rebuked false testimony as sin, false leaders as sinful, and false teaching as ineffectual against the ravages of sin. By openly and directly exposing heresy within their midst quickly and without hesitation, Paul saved the early young church from traveling down a road that would lead to its demise.