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All God’s Children Have Names (Part 10)

A Warning Against False Teachers - “I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned” Romans 16:17-20. Paul concludes his letter to the Roman ecclesia by warning the brethren against the danger of false teachers.
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A Warning Against False Teachers

“I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned” Romans 16:17-20.


False Teachers

Paul concludes his letter to the Roman ecclesia by warning the brethren against the danger of false teachers. Almost every phrase in this section is an obvious allusion to the Genesis record of the serpent and the woman’s seed, in which the serpent subtly cast doubt on God’s Word while instructing Eve contrary to that Word.

These false teachers in Paul’s day were almost certainly Judaizers. These were Jewish members of the ecclesia of Christ; they believed in Christ, but nevertheless felt that keeping the Mosaic Law was still essential to salvation, or at least highly desirable for all believers. These Judaizers would often seek to convince Jewish believers (and even Gentile believers) to follow their practices also (see Gal 1:6-9; 3:1; 5:3-5), presumably because the Judaizers’ belief was that it was a more righteous way of life than simply believing in the gospel of Christ. In Paul’s analogy, they played the role of the serpent — they were tempters in the garden of God. Likewise, Jesus had spoken of the Pharisees in his day as the serpent’s “seed” (cp Matt 3:7; 12:34; 23:33; John 8:44). Following the example of their spiritual “father” (i.e., the serpent in Eden), they professed a superior knowledge and thus were able to lead away gullible ones (2 Cor 11:13-15).

Even if the Judaizers didn’t succeed in pulling Jewish Christians back to the Law, the Temple and the synagogue, they may still have succeeded in driving wedges between the Jewish believers and their Gentile counterparts. They may have achieved this by encouraging Jewish believers to take controversial positions on non-essential issues, which in turn created harshness and unrest in that segment of the ecclesia.

There are divisions that are uncalled for, and therefore sinful.The influence of this particular adversary or “Satan” was drastically reduced by the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 A.D. But the final crushing of “Satan” in all its aspects must of course be the work of the glorified Christ and his saints at his second coming.

Robert Roberts speaks of these:

“There are divisions that are uncalled for, and therefore sinful. Paul refers to such [in Rom 16:17]. He was referring, no doubt, to the factions arising out of personal preferences, but the warning applies to all divisions that ought not be made… It is possible to go too far in our demands upon fellow-believers. How far we ought to go and where to stop, is at one time or other a perplexing problem to most earnest minds.” (True Principles and Uncertain Details, The Christadelphian, 1898, p. 182.)

The schisms or divisions caused by the Judaizing element in the early ecclesias were wrong, for two reasons:

  1. They were based on matters of questionable importance (as Robert Roberts called it above: “personal preferences”), which were neither fundamental nor essential — but were certainly “contrary to the teaching [of unity] you have learned” (Rom 16:17).
  2. As if holding firm to the first principles were not enough, these brethren were putting unnecessary stumbling blocks in the path of other believers, making their journey to the Kingdom even more difficult (see Matt 23:15).

Rom 16:17: I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them.

I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions: “Urge” (“beseech”: KJV) is “parakaleo”: to call alongside, to encourage. It is the same word used in various forms for “exhort” or “exhortation”, and should refer, not to a command, but to an encouraging or beseeching in love. As though Paul were saying, ‘I cannot and will not command you in this, but I will urge you in the kindest possible way…’

“Divisions” is the Greek “dichostasia”, and may signify dissensions and party spirits, without necessarily going as far as disfellowship or excommunication of others.

It is important to note that Paul advises the brethren to “mark” (KJV), or watch out for, and then to “avoid” those who cause divisions (1 John 2:19), not those who follow them. The reason for taking special notice of those who cause dissension and division is that they may deceive the “naive” or “simple” (Rom 16:18).

This is a distinction comparable to that between the wolves and the sheep in Christ’s parable of John 10. The wolves must be marked out and branded for what they are, and even for their own possible reclamation, but especially to warn the flock upon which they prey. The causers of division are the ones to be wary of — not the ones being led in the wrong direction! The simple sheep must be protected, not lumped together with the wolves so that all alike are avoided. To avoid the sheep because they might be guilty, or because we might become guilty by association with them, is to go further than the apostle ever intended.

To avoid the sheep because they might be guilty, or because we might become guilty by association with them, is to go further than the apostle ever intended…And put obstacles in your way: The Greek “skandala” (the plural of “skandalon”) means stumbling blocks, and, specifically here, causes of sin. The term is too general to yield anything specific to our knowledge of the propagandists. However, the same word is used in Rom 14:13, where the context suggests influences within the congregations that tended to elevate various elements of the Mosaic Law to the level of first principles of the Faith (cp the same word in Rom 9:33; 11:9).

That are contrary to the teaching you have learned: “The teaching” could refer to the whole of the gospel, as in Rom 6:17, or more specifically to the “spirit of unity” which Paul taught in Rom 15:5,6 and elsewhere.

Keep away from them: Ekklino” means to avoid or stay away from. The same word occurs in 1 Pet 3:11: “turn from evil”.

Romans 16:18: For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people.

For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites: That is, “their own belly” (KJV). This is a euphemism, by which is meant, of course, natural appetites or desires which are inappropriate:

“For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things”

(Phil 3:18,19; see Titus 3:3; 2 Pet 2:18).

Some men emphasize what is misleading or even false because they are interested in controversies and quarrels, and thus they are prone to envy, suspicions and friction (1Tim 6:3-5). Other men do so because they are seeking improper financial gain (v 5).

The allusion to the appetite or belly seems to make sense only if the serpent in the garden of Eden (Rom 16:20) ate the fruit of the tree itself. Consider these points:

  1. Eve saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food (Gen 3:6).
  2. The serpent was more crafty or subtle than any other creature (Gen 3:1).
  3. Perhaps the fruit itself gave the serpent the power of speech — i.e., to be like the “Elohim” (Gen 3:5).
  4. “You shall not surely die!” (Gen 3:4) implies: ‘See! Look at me. I ate the fruit and I’m not dead!’.
  5. The subsequent curse of the serpent was to crawl upon its belly, and to eat dust (Gen 3:14).

Paul alludes to this serpent-like beguiling of Eve again: “I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor 11:3).

By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people: Smooth talk and flattery are always the tools of unscrupulous salesmen and promoters.

“Smooth talk” is “chrestologia”: attractive speech; it occurs only this once in the New Testament. Literally, it means: kind words — but in the context it plainly implies deception masquerading as kind words.

Barclay writes, “The Greeks themselves defined a ‘chrestologos’ as ‘a man who speaks well and who acts ill’. He is the kind of man who, behind a facade of pious words, is a bad influence who leads astray, not by direct attack, but by subtlety, who pretends to serve Christ, but in reality is destroying the faith” (Daily Study Bible: Romans).

“Flattery” is “eulogia”, a word that simply means good speech, i.e., blessing and praise. But sometimes such speech may be excessive and spoken with ulterior motives — then it becomes self-serving flattery. Good words spoken in good causes are a great blessing, and their usefulness is increased. But on the contrary, good words spoken in bad causes may become destructive many times over. The tongue is a small part of the body, but it can generate a little spark that ignites a great fire (Jas 3:5,6).

“Naive” people are unsophisticated believers, who may be inclined to listen to anyone who speaks in a pleasant and kindly manner. In fact, they may be so much inclined in that direction that they may not bother to test what they have heard by the Bible itself (1Thess 5:21). In just such a way, they may unconsciously fall into the trap of believing what is not true simply because it is spoken in the most charming or exciting way.

Before they realize it, the listeners may be subtly pointed or led in the wrong direction, and in turn they may mislead others. Such naive believers are either unaware of or indifferent to the command of Christ:

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Matt 7:15).

Likewise, the naïve may pay no attention to the words of John:

“Dear friends, do not believe every spirit [i.e., teaching], but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1John 4:1).

Romans 16:19: Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I am full of joy over you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.

Paul was confident that his readers could handle this threat because they had a reputation for following the apostles’ instructions. The innocent among God’s people tend to accept false teachers, and the wise normally reject them. Paul wanted his readers to be wise (like a serpent) concerning all good, and innocent (like a lamb) only regarding evil (Matt 10:16). To paraphrase Paul, ‘I want you to be wise enough to know how to protect yourselves, but at the same time I want you to be innocent enough so as to do no harm to anyone else.’

Romans 16:20: The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you.

The God of peace: For the apostle who wrote the letter to the Romans, peace was:

  • unity with God, made possible only by justification through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 5:1);
  • the state of mind achieved in a life controlled by God’s spirit, that is, God’s character and teachings (Rom 8:6);
  • a life of calmness and goodwill toward all men, to be found in those who truly had faith in God (Rom 12:18; 14:19); and
  • the result of a solid hope in God’s promises, accompanied by a joy-filled life in Christ (Rom 15:13).

As Paul begins to wrap up his letter to the Romans, this is the second time in the conclusion alone that Paul refers to “the God of peace” — the first time being Rom 15:33: “The God of peace be with you all.”

Given Paul’s presumed purpose in writing to the Romans, “the God of peace” is a very persuasive phrase. It is as though Paul, in using the phrase time after time, is encouraging his readers to seek for that unity of fellowship which the gospel enjoins. The forgiveness of sins through Christ binds all believers, Jew and Gentile, in one Body — a Body characterized by joy in one another’s company, and goodwill toward all men.

Will soon crush Satan under your feet: Here is a plain allusion to Gen 3:15: “And I will put enmity between you [the serpent] and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”

In this case, the serpent or “satan” (the adversary) undoubtedly refers to human beings. The context describes “smooth talk and flattery” by which the serpent “deceives the minds of naive people” (Rom 16:18). Particularly, this was the Judaizers, who sought to draw other believers, especially Gentile believers, away from their freedom in Christ and into an enforced bondage to the Law of Moses.

Likewise, in 2 Cor 11, the “satan” (v 14) or “serpent” (v 3) is equated with “false apostles [who] masquerade as apostles of Christ” (v 13) but preach a different gospel (v 4) by which they exploit other believers (v 20).

The “soon” here suggests that Paul was looking forward to the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, which actually happened only a few years later, even though after Paul’s own death. The removal of the Temple with its services and sacrifices would be visual evidence to corroborate the New Testament teaching that salvation could no longer be found in God’s special temple at Jerusalem. The new house of worship — the new “temple” — would henceforth be the spiritual Body of Christ, the ecclesia or congregation of believers throughout the world.

Paul’s final blessing magnifies God’s grace, as does this whole epistle. Usually such a benediction signals the end of a Pauline letter (e.g., 2 Cor 13:14; Gal 6:18; Phil 4:23; 1 Thess 5:28; 2 Thess 3:18; 2 Tim 4:22; Phlm 1:25), but the apostle has still more to say this time.

There is some variation among New Testament manuscripts here in Romans 16: 20 as well as in verses 24 and 27 — concerning the phrase “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.” Of course, none of the variations have any effect on the fundamental meaning of these verses.

The question is whether the phrase appears once, twice or three times (among some combination of verses 20, 24 and 27), and precisely where it should be placed in the text in each instance. The second question, of course, is the exact wording in each of the possibilities. Understandably, these questions have caused some disagreement among textual scholars.

Perhaps Paul and his secretary sent several slightly different letters to the various small house-churches of the large Roman ecclesia (see Rom 16:5,10,11,14,15). Once scribes began to copy each of those letters for later generations, then the small textual variations would start showing up also.

George Booker
(Austin Leander, TX)

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