Already in the days of the apostles, clever men sought to worm their way into Christ’s church. Their words sounded similar to God’s eternal truth, but with shifts of their own. Some tried to synthesize the gospel with commonly held religious views. The world prefers a familiar “gospel,” less “repent or perish” and more “there is good in you just waiting to be realized.” Others added their own ideas and practices, usually under the guise of “being really spiritual.” Others never turned their backs on the world but tried to bring the world into the church (Jude 4). The response of the faithful must be to run away from such men as quickly as possible. They are unlikely to be changed; if we become party to their schemes, ideas, and controversies, we are likely to be changed for the worse.
The implication of this warning for us is that God’s truth humbly proclaimed and received does not cause division among godly men. Those truly called by him to preach and teach do not disturb the sheep with novel doctrines or cause them to take offense by their arrogance, lordly dominance, or ungodly lives. They do not seek to make disciples for themselves (Acts 20:30). Faithful men do not seek utopias based upon perfectionist dreams, and thus give offense to humble believers by laying upon them heavy burdens that God has nowhere commanded. In the days of late medieval Romanism, Luther rightly called its troop of popes and priests “wild boars,” for they trampled upon Christ’s vineyard and gobbled up everything for themselves. In our present context, foxes or snakes is an equally fitting metaphor, for they slither their way into the confidence of the faithful and speak cleverly so that it is difficult at first to identify their errors. Nevertheless, their true colors will be made manifest. Our Lord promises: “By their fruits ye shall know them.”
Divisions and Offenses (v. 17)
Two kinds of divisions seem to be in view. The first is teaching that disturbs the unity in the truth that all godly men ought to cherish among themselves. This unity is built up among us as we all “speak the same thing,” God’s holy and clear word, without addition or subtraction. Paul elsewhere calls this the “unity of the Spirit” (Eph. 4:3), for it is his particular work to write God’s truth upon our hearts and to subdue us to a teachable frame of mind. He authors no new revelations but always leads, teaches, and strengthens us with the Scriptures of Jesus Christ. Thus, men who bring forward new doctrines out of their own giddy minds or cleverly refashion God’s truth in a way that alters its true significance are guilty of a great sin against the Holy Spirit and divide God’s people by turning them away from the “truth that accords with godliness.” It does not matter what these men intend, for there is never any excuse for turning one inch away from God’s word. Many will say that a crisis in the church or world warrants a “new approach” to truth or worship, but this is not meekness and faith speaking but fear and unbelief. “Sound doctrine” promotes true unity; man’s doctrines divide. This is because there is no power or usefulness in what comes out of man. God only honors his truth.
He speaks in the second place of “offenses” or “scandals.” These have to do with disturbances of love and peace within Christ’s vineyard. They may be caused by speaking God’s truth in a hateful or arrogant manner. Many disturbers of the peace of the church speak the truth, but they speak it with haughtiness, as if they are the final arbiters of truth and error. Others divide over secondary matters and make a man “an offender for a word.” Some are busybodies who cannot rest content unless everyone thinks as they do and would turn everything upside down in an attempt to achieve an impossible perfection. More common offenses are gossip, tale-bearing, taking sides in controversies between brothers, and refusing to cover transgressions with love. Since we are so sinful and find it as easy to give offense as to breathe, we must abide in our Lord Jesus Christ. In fellowship with him through the Spirit, he will form his meek and gentle character in us. Then, instead of dividing those for whom Christ died, we shall be peacemakers and builders of the unity of the Spirit in our midst. And when we find that we have given offense to the body, either by our mishandling of God’s word, careless, unloving words, or divisive attitudes, we shall be willing to confess our error. Humbled, we shall not say, “But he has also sinned against me!” That may be, but we are first responsible for ourselves. By confession and repentance, we may be a blessing to Christ’s vineyard rather than a disturber of it.
Our Lord spoke strongly against those who “cause divisions” and put a stumbling-block before others. Such divisions will come, he said, but “woe unto the man through whom they come. It were better for him had he never been born.” This is the reason that he rebuked his disciples for arguing over who would be greater – then set a child in their midst. It is the reason that he washed his disciples’ feet. It explains his disdain for those who would for their own purposes set him up as king. He would have nothing to do with the kingdom of God on man’s terms, to promote man, and to use others only as step-stools to further their own agendas. It is also the reason that he pointed out the piety of the widow and her two mites, encouraged forgiveness unto seventy times seven, directed us to take the lowest seat at the feast, told men to build upon the rock of his word, and “went about “doing good.” Life is beautiful if lived not for self but for others. There is much in the world that might be recovered for God and his glory if only those who profess to know the King live simple, meek, and self-forgetting lives. We lack the strength to do this, but “his name is Jesus!” As our Savior lives in us by his Spirit, we shall promote the good of others and not “seek our own.” We shall serve without demanding a gold medal or gratitude for our poor service. We shall speak God’s truth without thinking that men should fawn over us. When we give offense, we shall be quick to confess it and made amends with humility. Christ Jesus will increase in us, and this will be enough for us, for he is our joy and peace.
A Necessary Shunning (v. 17)
The Holy Spirit urges us to “mark” such men, and to avoid them. How shall we be able to identify them so as to be able to shun them? They equate themselves with the cause of Christ, as if they are the Head, understand all things, and have a corner market on all truth. When they do speak God’s truth, they do so with an angry or divisive spirit that disrupts love and gives no room for the Spirit’s gentle, patient work of sanctification in the body of Christ. They seek honor from men, and not from God (John 5:44). They are easily peeved or offended if confronted or questioned. They do not say with the apostle, “Follow me as I follow Christ,” but simply “follow me.” They insist upon submission to their every word and whim as if they are oracles of heaven. They tend to sow discord among brothers and whisper against those who will not quietly submit to their agendas. Their words say one thing; their lives another. Jesus said in Matthew 7 that men may do many mighty works in his name, as Judas did, but they are “lawless.” Their hearts and lives do not manifest the obedient fruit of the gospel: righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. True teachers of men must be taught by God first, for the Holy Spirit breaks down the pride and ambition of those whom he uses to build Christ’s church. But where men divide the faithful, are lightning rods of controversy, do not chiefly seek God’s honor by plain speaking of his truth and encourage love among lovers of truth, we are to avoid them like the plague.
This warning is as necessary for us as it was for the Roman believers. Our age has institutionalized self-promotion. Coupled with the egalitarian lie that every man has a right to be heard and to do what pleases him best, it is no wonder that Christ’s vineyard is in some places overrun with men who seem to carry division and offense with them wherever they go. When they reach a new place, they must vilify the old one. If there is a controversy, they must be at the center of it. If a brother has a speck of sin or thinks differently about a minor point, he must be exposed. Many simply will not keep their mouths shut but insist upon adding fuel to the fires of division. Nothing will do but that men must take their side in controversies, for their opinion must be the correct one. Where is waiting upon the Lord to make things clear? Where is our Savior’s meekness and gentleness? We serve the body better by leading quiet lives of love, faith, obedience, and humility.
When the gospel is at stake, or the peace and purity of the church is threatened, then it is time to engage in the conflict. Even then, however, it must not be to line up behind favorite men, for this deepens division. We must encourage all parties to repent, seek peace through righteousness, and put the honor of our Lord before every other consideration. If we need to speak out, let it be without partisanship or whispering. Let us humbly speak God’s sufficient word to all parties. His truth will overcome all the divisions and offenses of men. This is how our Lord Jesus Christ overcame them. He spoke the truth and lived meekly. He took our scandalous lives upon himself, bore the full curse of our wickedness, and rose to deliver us from the power of sin. Let us not be afraid to bear his shame and to follow his example of lowliness. Then, we shall be less likely to cause divisions and give offense. If we are speaking of Jesus, defending God’s clear truth, and seeking for his love and peace to rule in our midst, we shall freely forgive, as we have been forgiven, cover offenses with love, and seek the good of those who hate and abuse us. We shall go to our brother, confront him where necessary, humble ourselves and be willing to be confronted with our own faults. Nothing exhausts the fires of divisions like the soft answer of Jesus Christ and his gospel.
Contrary to the Doctrine (v. 17)
We cannot give this soft answer unless we have “learned Christ” (Eph. 4:20). He teaches a different doctrine than divisions and offenses. His doctrine renovates the entire inner life so that we are made meek, loving, and godly. The doctrine of Jesus Christ is a living union with a Person, the “fairer than ten thousand,” “full of grace and truth” Son of God who has become our Mediator, our Head, and our Vine. The Christian faith makes so much of apostolic doctrine (Acts 2:42) because it is utterly captivated by the person of Jesus Christ. Doctrine reveals him. It is like the many folds of his robe, each fold showing us something more wonderful about his person and work, and therefore showing us the glory and love of the Father. As that truth sets forth a crucified Savior, it humbles us. As is reveals a raised and reigning Savior, it empowers us to seek God’s kingdom and righteousness, not by strife and ambition but by each disciple devoting himself to pleasing Jesus Christ and making him the vital center of his life. He is the Word, the speaking Savior whose voice calls us from our tombs of sin and gives us joy as we believe and obey him. And his truth is always unto love, which edifies. The goal of our faith is the Christ-life, in which love for him and faithfulness to his word is practiced and channeled into every relationship, activity, and thought. It cannot be otherwise, for we have been crucified with Christ (Gal. 2:20). He lives in us by his Spirit to transform us and all things by the powerful word of his grace.
Servants of the Belly, not of Christ (v. 18)
Only by holding fast to the Head and his word can we serve him. Those who cause divisions do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul again uses his full Messianic title. He does so in order that we may be dominated by this thought: serving Jesus Christ is the essence of discipleship. We serve him by seeking and promoting his kingdom, believing and obeying his truth, and loving his people. Pleasing him must be our chief concern. Not what pleases and promotes me, but what honors him is the beating heart of the Christian. To be like him – what a daring proposition! He is bold and gentle, genial and serious, compassionate and uncompromising. Can we serve him and be party to a division in his body? Can we serve him and give offense by ungodly lives? And since in this life we barely learn to crawl as his disciples, does this not also mean that we shall be very humble, more willing to listen than to demand that others take our view of things, and constantly confess our sins and ask for mercy?
Thus, those who divide and give offense are not only living contrary to sound doctrine, but they are serving their own belly. This “belly” includes all the ways that we live for ourselves. For some, it may be pleasure; for others ambition and the preeminence in the body; for others cold judgmentalism. The belly of sin is very bloated. It shakes and sways in every harsh word we speak against one another, in each thread of gossip we share, and in the slightest departures from his word. Nothing is uglier and more dissatisfying than serving our own bellies. God has made us to be happy in serving him. He sent his Son to recover us to life’s grand and fulfilling purpose. And since our redemption from sin’s curse and penalty cost him so dearly, we should immediately resolve to make serving Jesus Christ our life. This is not done simply in what men call “religious” activities. For us, life must be religion – the religion of Jesus, a living sacrifice. See him turning the water into wine – did he not by this sanctify common joys? See him take up the babes in his arms, thus rejoicing in their coos, smiles, and cries? Nothing escaped his observation, his joy, and his compassion.
To serve him is the most daring of enterprises. It will empty us. It will force us to come back to him time after time, confessing our weakness and failings, but then also be lifted up and encouraged by his love, grace, and strength. To serve him will make us face our sinfulness, that we cannot serve him unless he helps us and that we cannot live in the world in a sanctified way unless he indwells us by his Spirit. He will help us. Following men’s parties and principles will not help us. Giving offense to others by careless words and hard hearts will not help us. Coming to Jesus Christ will help us. The deepest joy and highest privilege of each day is to come to him for help, in matters great and small.
Clever Deceivers (v. 18)
When men come to us with their clever words and fair speeches, we must not be deceived. They say things like, “Buy in to this paradigm, and your marriage will be better.” Or, “If your church will follow these steps, you will be more relevant.” The cleverness of men trying to improve upon God’s truth knows no bounds, and it is especially deceptive when they quote verses. It sounds so appealing. It is all ineffectual. Only by serving Jesus Christ and holding fast to his word can we have peace and righteousness. This is not a “clean” path. “He goeth before his sheep” (John 10:3), and the paths he takes are not always the comfortable ones. He will challenge and sift us. He will teach us the painful truth of “He that loveth his own life shall lose it” (John 12:25). He will baptize us with fire, piercing and cleaning out our filth at levels we did not expect. This is so that we may serve him better, give a fuller testimony to his grace, and be able to tell the world, “There is nothing more satisfying than to serve Jesus Christ.” Let us not be deceived but learn of Jesus Christ. He is our wisdom and life.