This morning I read the verses of 1 Timothy 3, a passage that describes the qualifications of those who may be leaders within the church. And having read those verses, which tell of the kind of godly character that must be present in the life of one who would be a pastor or elder, I was drawn to some words from the prophet Jeremiah, words that focus on what happens when we ignore such qualities and raise up unsuitable leaders.
Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.'”
The twenty-third chapter of Jeremiah falls near the halfway point of the book, in the midst of a section where the prophet is foretelling the end of the Davidic dynasty and the coming captivity of God’s people. In this chapter Jeremiah pronounces judgments against the false prophets who had become a plague within the nation. Though these words were spoken some 600 years before Christ and in a particular time and context, his words ring as true today as they did then. “They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you'” (16, 17).
What was a problem then is a problem now. So many men and women today speak visions of their own minds, and teach what has so evidently not come from the mouth of the Lord. So many say that it shall be well with people whose souls are in grave danger; they seek to show from Scripture that Christ will save those even who have never heard his Word, and who have never humbled themselves before the Lord. They say, “It shall be well with you” to those who sit in the pews but have never had their hearts of ice melted by the Lord. They speak lies and blasphemies, all the while claiming to speak for God.
The next verse, verse eighteen, teaches us how to choose good and noble teachers of the Word. If only we could master this simple piece of wisdom the church would be revitalized!
“For who among them has stood in the council of the Lord
to see and to hear his word,
or who has paid attention to his word and listened?”
This verse cuts to the heart of the difference between leaders who are godly and leaders who are only godly in pretense. A godly leader is one who has not only stood in the council of the Lord, and has thus seen and heard his Word, but one who has paid attention and listened. He has listened not just with his ears, but with his heart. Many of the most popular leaders can appear godly–they can quote the Bible at will and can discuss Christian doctrine with the best of them. Yet what they lack is humility–true humility. True humility, the humility we learn about in the Bible and the humility God requires of us, is a submission to God and a submission to the Scriptures as he has given them to us. Leaders that honor God are those who are humble before God, not only hearing, but listening and applying. They are leaders who humble themselves before this Book, knowing and believing that it is perfect and good and sufficient. They know that all they can offer is this book. No wisdom arising from their own minds can truly bring help to a needy soul. They know that all they can offer is what God provides.
Here is God’s indictment of the false prophets, who claimed to speak for him, but in reality, spoke only their own folly (verses 21 and 22):
“I did not send the prophets,
yet they ran;
I did not speak to them,
yet they prophesied.
But if they had stood in my council,
then they would have proclaimed my words to my people,
and they would have turned them from their evil way,
and from the evil of their deeds.”
Here we see another mark of false teachers. The false prophets ran to prophecy with an arrogant boldness that was not characteristic of the difficulty and gravity that accompanied true prophecy. And as we saw in the previous verses, these false prophets had not listened to the Word of the Lord. Had they been attentive to the Lord, they would have proclaimed the truth of God to the people, who would have turned from their evil ways. But instead the prophets tickled the peoples’ ears, telling them only what they wanted to hear. They told the people that God was not angry with them, and that it would go well with them. They told them this despite open rebellion against God.
Doesn’t this sound suspiciously similar to the warning Paul gave Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:3-4? “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, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”
The time is coming and has come. In fact, it seems that this has been the refuge of sinners since the dawn of time. When people are in rebellion against God, they gather for themselves teachers who will condone their sinful lifestyles instead of condemning them in the name of the Lord. This is not preaching that condemns ungodly lifestyles and pleads with men to turn from their selfish ways. Instead, it is preaching to the choir, preaching that may stir the mind or the emotions, but preaching that is devoid of the Spirit and his power to truly pierce the heart and the conscience.
Look now to verses 23-32.
Am I a God at hand, declares the Lord, and not a God afar off? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the Lord. I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, ‘I have dreamed, I have dreamed!’ How long shall there be lies in the heart of the prophets who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart, who think to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, even as their fathers forgot my name for Baal? Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? declares the Lord. Is not my word like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces? Therefore, behold, I am against the prophets, declares the Lord, who steal my words from one another. Behold, I am against the prophets, declares the Lord, who use their tongues and declare, ‘declares the Lord.’ Behold, I am against those who prophesy lying dreams, declares the Lord, and who tell them and lead my people astray by their lies and their recklessness, when I did not send them or charge them. So they do not profit this people at all, declares the Lord.
The Word of the Lord is powerful, the most powerful tool in the Christian’s arsenal, the most powerful thing in the world. The Lord, through the mouth of his prophet, compares it to fire that consumes and to a hammer that can smash great rocks into pieces. Later on in Scripture we see that the Word of the Lord can do more than break rocks; God’s Word can soften a hardened heart and breathe life into death. False teachers pretend to speak forth this all-powerful Word, yet they speak only their own dreams and the interpretations of their sinful hearts. God hates these words. He hates those who blaspheme his name saying “declares the Lord” or “This is the Word of the Lord” or “The Bible says” or “God says” or “God told me” when in reality such people are declaring nothing more than their own depravity and their own hatred of their Maker. God is against these people for they do not profit his children. They lead them astray, they confuse them, and they make a mockery of God.
Turn back to the first verse of this chapter. “‘Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!’ declares the Lord.” The Lord will hold those in positions of teaching and authority doubly-responsible for being true to his Word. To the false prophets of Jeremiah’s day, and surely to the false teachers of our day, God says, “I am against [those] who use their tongues and declare, ‘declares the Lord.’ Behold I am against those who prophesy lying dreams, declares the Lord, and who tell them and lead my people astray by their lies and their recklessness, when I did not send them or charge them. So they do not profit this people at all, declares the Lord.”
The challenge for those who read such words is clear: choose your teachers with the utmost of care! Examine those who stand in the pulpit and those whose books you read. Choose to place yourself under the teaching of those who are humble before the Word of God and who treat it with gravity and respect. Give your attention to those who have stood in the council of the Lord to see and to hear his Word, and who have paid attention to the Word and who have listened–truly listened.