What’s one of the easiest ways to discredit the truth? With a false witness.
Look at Acts 16:16-18:
As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and a brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling. She followed Paul and us, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.
Paul, Silas and Luke are in Philippi spreading the gospel. They’ve met a wealthy woman, Lydia, “a seller of purple goods and a worshipper of God” (Acts 16:14). When she hears Paul proclaim the gospel, the Lord opens her heart and she comes to faith in Jesus. This is pretty fantastic—she’s wealthy, influential and she’s giving it all to follow Jesus. That’s the fruit we all want to see, isn’t it?
And then we meet this slave girl. She’s got a “spirit of divination.” She’s a demon possessed fortune-teller. And she starts following Paul and his crew, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.”
What’s interesting here is she’s telling the truth.
They are servants of the Most High God, and they are there to proclaim to the Philippians the way of salvation.
And what does Paul do? “Greatly annoyed”—which may be one of the greatest understatements in all Scripture—Paul turns and commands the spirit to get out. This phrase, “greatly annoyed” only appears one other time in Acts, in chapter four verse two. There it’s the priests and religious leaders in Jerusalem who are greatly annoyed.
At who? Peter and John, “because they were teaching the people and proclaiming Jesus the resurrection from the dead” (Acts 4:2).
(But I digress.)
So Paul sees this demon-possessed girl, who has made her owners rich with her fortune-telling abilities. She’s following them around, telling the truth about who they are… so why does this greatly annoy Paul?
Because he doesn’t want people assuming she’s one of his partners in ministry. And it’s entirely possible that this was the very reason the girl was following after them in the first place! She was known for being accurate (otherwise her owners would hardly have become wealthy, no?), and she’s there telling the truth, specifically to discredit Paul’s ministry.
Sneaky, isn’t it? It’s no wonder Paul is a bit peeved.
As much as I wish this type of activity ended after the end of Paul’s ministry, sadly it’s still a favorite and effective tactic of the enemy of our souls.
Some time ago, I watched a video of a well-known former pastor whose theology is more than a little whack (at the time he was still teetering on the edge of trying to be orthodox—he’s since given up). In this video he was talking about Job and God’s response to Job’s demands for answers. What’s funny is he was correct in his explanation. He got the point of the text and communicated it effectively. Meanwhile, this is a man who has denied the divine authorship of Scripture, has tried to make universalism palpable, and is pretty sure that whatever trend in culture that’s happening is a movement of the Holy Spirit that we need to get on board with in the name of love.
But he still got it right.
Another time, I watched a clip of a holy-roller type televangelist, one with a sharp suit and a lot of bling. This guy, at a conference, calls out an “evangelist” as a false teacher, one whose stories of kicking people in the stomach to heal them and falsely saying that Jesus would come make a guest appearance at his circus (only to say “I meant spiritually” when Jesus didn’t show up physically) and adultery are renowned.
The funny thing was, the holy roller was exactly right in everything he said, biblically. Every word. This guy, who has falsely claimed to heal men and women, told lies, distorted the truth, got it right.
So what’s the deal?
I’ll be honest, this passage gives me pause. This is a hint of what Paul talks about a few chapters later when he warns the Ephesian elders that from among their own number, fierce wolves would emerge. Not only would these wolves rise up to devour the flock, but they would be a hindrance to the work of the true church in this way:
As a false witness—whether they get much wrong but occasionally get it right, or they might be right in much of what they say but their character is unbelievably questionable—they have the best opportunity to discredit the truth.
I’m not saying we need to start doubting the salvation of those around us or our own for that matter (if you’re a believer, that is. If not, “Hi, can I tell you about Jesus?”). Frankly, endless navel gazing and hand-wringing dishonors Jesus. But we should always pause to give the Holy Spirit an opportunity to bring to light anything that’s conflicting in our actions and beliefs.
- Do we have a pattern of behavior that serves no purpose but to hinder the gospel?
- Do we continue to run unabated into dangerous theological ground, refusing to heed correction from pastor, friends and, ultimately, Scripture?
- Or, do we seek repentance for our incorrect doctrine and our sinful patterns that are a stumbling block on the way to the stumbling block of Christ?