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(Romans 16:17–18) We Interrupt This Letter . . .

(Romans 16:17–18) We Interrupt This Letter . . .

Ref: Romans 16:17–18

In Romans 16:17-18, the Apostle Paul interrupts his letter of commendation to warn the Church about false teachers. It's a warning as relevant to us today as it was to those Christians in Rome. So let's join Stephen in this message as he gives us the marks of a false teacher.

Additional messages in this series are available here: When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder


“We Interrupt This Letter…”

Romans 16:17-18

We are all aware of the fact that just about any product you now purchase comes complete with a warning label of some sort, right?

If an effort to avoid even the most foolish lawsuits, companies now include warnings that reveal the utter lack of common sense.  Here are some I’ve uncovered:

  • A warning label on a baby stroller reads, “Remove child before folding.”
  • A brass fishing lure with a three-pronged hook on the end warns: “Harmful if swallowed.”
  • An electric hand blender warns; “Never remove food or other items from the blades while product is operating.”
  • A warning on one electric drill made for carpenters read, “This product not intended for use as a dental device.”  Your dentist probably uses one of those.
  • A cardboard car sunshield that keeps sun off the dashboard warns; “Do not drive with sunshield in place.”
  • A 12-inch rack for storing compact disks warns; “Do not use as a ladder.”  Probably because one of them was, the owner broke his leg and sued the company.
  • Here’s an interesting warning label on a cartridge for a laser printer that read, “Do not eat toner.”  But you’re in college – and you’re hungry – and it’s late at night.
  • Many household irons come with a warning that includes, “Do not iron clothing while on your body.”

Okay, how many of you have done that?  Me too.

If you’re like most people, you never even bother to read the directions, much less the warning labels.

The truth is life is filled with them and for good reason.

It isn’t all that rare to read or hear of some tragedy that came because a warning was not heeded.

Like the time 20 years ago when the Shuttle Challenger exploded after take-off, killing all 7 members of the crew.  Later investigation revealed that NASA had ignored the warning of engineers that cold weather could affect the O-rings, allowing fuel to leak, which it did and it exploded moments after take-off.

Or more recently, the findings of the 9/11 investigation that uncovered the now-famous warning from an FBI office in Arizona that had sent a warning that Arab pilots were suspiciously training at U.S. flight schools.

More than ever, we realize the need for a system of warning.

It was in 1963, during the Kennedy Administration, that The emergency Broadcast System was initiated so allow the president to address the entire nation in an emergency . . . providing necessary warnings or instruction.

You’re probably familiar with that 35-40 second test, a colorful pattern on the television screen – that loud obnoxious tone, followed by the familiar phrase, “We interrupt this program for a test of the Emergency Broadcast System.”

The system can be used for national emergencies or local weather emergencies as well.

I have listened online to old radio shows where the program was interrupted by breaking news about the Battle of Normandy in World War II, the surrender of the Japanese nation.

It always began with those words, “We interrupt this program.”

Those words have a way of grabbing your attention, don’t they?

They herald something significant – perhaps a special warning that just might mean the difference between life or death.

If you’ve been with us these past few weeks, the letter of Paul to the Romans has been reaching its concluding remarks with one greeting after another.

Then, almost suddenly, Paul stops and begins to dictate a warning . . . a severe warning that is filled with pathos and passion.

In Romans chapter 16, Paul interrupts his greetings with these words, beginning with verse 17, Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you leaned, and turn away from them.  18.  For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting.  19.  For the report of your obedience has reached to all; therefore I am rejoicing over you, but I want you to be wise in what is god, and innocent what is evil.  20.  And the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.  The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you.

21.  Timothy, my fellow worker greets you and so do Lucius and Jason . . . back to greetings.

Sandwiched in between a series of one greeting after another is this rather passionate series of alarms.

It’s as if Paul says, “We interrupt this letter for an emergency situation with life and death implications.

He seems to interrupt his closing words with a warning.

It is so sudden that some believe it wasn’t a part of his original letter – that it was added later.

However, there isn’t any reason to doubt that Paul, here at this moment in greeting his beloved friends and fellow workers, is compelled out of love to throw in another warning.

Frankly, Paul was always warning the church.

After three intense years among the believers in Ephesus, his final words, primarily directed to the Ephesian elders of the church, were a severe and passionate warning where he said to them, “Be on guard for yourselves and of all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.  I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.  And from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.  Therefore be on the alert. (Acts 20:28-31a)

Paul warned the Galatian believers with strong words regarding their slide back toward justification by works.  He wrote, “I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel.” (Galatians 1:6)

Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthian church ended with a final warning to watch out for those who didn’t love the Lord (1 Corinthians 16:22)

Paul’s final words to Timothy warned him that people will naturally gravitate to preachers and teachers with spiritual sounding platitudes that “tickle their ears” and promise them self-satisfaction rather than challenge them through sound doctrine to pursue selfless living.  (2 Timothy 4:3-4)

So it isn’t really unusual here that Paul interjects a serious warning to the Roman believers at the end of his letter.

And Paul is basically warning them of false teachers – why? 

Two reasons: first, because they divide the body (verse 17)                                                                                                                                                                                        and secondly, because they deceive the believer (verse 18).

Go back to verse 17.  Now I urge you, brethren – literally, I beg you – I beseech you.  This is the word used by Paul a chapter earlier when he begged the believers to pray for him (15:30).  This is the same word used in chapter 12 verse 1 where Paul wrote, “I urge you therefore brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice. . .”

I beseech you.  This word was used in Paul’s day of a commander challenging his troops before they went into battle.

This is the ultimate speech where the difference can be life or death.

False teachers don’t announce themselves.  Heresy doesn’t crash through the front door, it sneaks in the back door.

You see, what’s especially dangerous about the devil is that he doesn’t always attempt to destroy churches by attacking them – sometimes he joins them.  The doctrines of demons are often accepted by a majority vote of the body.

Paul says, “This is an emergency warning to my beloved friends!”

Be alert for two things . . . Paul gives us them in verse 17,  they will bring dissensions and hindrances. 

The word “dissension” and hindrances are far more serious than hair splitting over minor interpretations; or about immature believers who are divisive because of some personal issue. 

John MacArthur, Romans: Volume 2 (Moody Press, 1994), p. 372

This is far more serious.  Notice how Paul connects the dissensions and hindrances to the last phrase in verse 17 – “contrary to the teaching which you learned.”

Paul is warning them to watch out for those who challenge and undermine divinely revealed apostolic teaching – this is the faith – the teaching.


Follow them, Paul warns, and there will be hindrances to your faith.

The word hindrance is from skandalon – which gives us our word scandal.  It’s the Greek word that refers to the bait stick of a trap . . . as soon as the animal pulled at the bait tied to the stick, the stick – or the skandalon – was pulled away and the trap was sprung. 

Paul isn’t thinking of moral scandal or scandalous behavior, he’s warning them of doctrinal scandal – that is, the adding of something to the gospel that will trap unsuspecting believers and trap them in some doctrinal error.

Adapted from James Boice, Romans: Volume 4 (Baker, 1995), p. 1929

The warning sounded in the first century and it must sound in the 21st century.

Whether it is someone trapped within Catholicism – believing that the works of penance and mass must be added for salvation;

-Or the Protestants who sprinkle their babies to ensure their place in the covenant.

-Or the Church of Christ who insists that believers be baptized by immersion in order to secure their salvation.

-Or the 7th Day Adventists who insist that worship must take place on Saturday and all who worship on Sunday are following the mark of the beast – and condemned.

And on and on.

The harshest words of Christ were directed toward the religionists of his day who so burdened down those who wanted to worship God.

During the days of the Old Testament, the law required that any animal sacrificed must be unblemished.

By the time of Christ, the temple had appointed inspectors who were to examine the animal.  They charged a fee, in today’s economy it would have been equivalent to $5.00. 

As a practice the inspectors rejected the animals, finding some fault with them.  In this way, the pilgrims would have to buy one of the temple animals which were raised and kept by the priestly system. 

The only problem was the exorbitant cost of temple livestock.  Outside the temple system, an ordinary pair of turtledoves would range from $15-20.00.  In the temple, in the court of the Gentiles where animals were sold, a pair of turtledoves would cost as much as $400.00!

It was nothing less than extortion in the name of God.

Little wonder that the first thing Jesus did when he arrived at the Temple was fashion a whip and clean house.  He said to them, “You have turned my Father’s house into a den of what? thieves.” (Matthew 21:13)

You are selling access to God . . . you are stealing from those who want to worship God.  You are charging fees for forgiveness.

That wasn’t the first time and it wasn’t the last time religion sold forgiveness.

This month, on October 31st, 1517, Martin Luther lit a torch that became the Protestant Reformation.  Even though he was a faithful Catholic monk, he was already beginning to preach against the doctrine of indulgences – the belief you could pray a prayer or buy a candle or take a mass and thereby earn time off from purgatory.  He was also preaching that justification was by faith alone and that the scriptures, not the church, were the final and ultimate authority.  It was his cry of sola scriptura – the scriptures alone – that helped solidify the primacy of God’s word. 

It was when Johann Tetzel came to Wittenberg selling special indulgences that Martin Luther was deeply stirred. 

Luther wrote out 95 theses, or 95 statements, that he wanted debated by the ecclesiastical scholars of his day.  Luther objected to what Johann Tetzel was saying to the people.  Tetzel had been commissioned by the Pope to raise money for the renovation of St. Peters in Rome and as he sold indulgences or certificates of sins forgiven – Tetzel was preaching this sentence, quoted and rebuked by Luther in his 28th thesis, “as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

In other words, give your money to the church and when you do, one of your deceased loved ones will get out of purgatory. 

Tetzel was selling plenary indulgences – or complete indulgences.  And you could apply the indulgence not only to some loved one but to yourself.  You could literally buy your way out of purgatory and into heaven.

This and other issues finally unglued Martin Luther and the reformation was soon under way. 

Martin Luther wrote in his 32nd thesis: “Those who believe that through letters of pardon (or these certificates of indulgence) that they are made sure of their own salvation – [they] will be eternally damned along with their teachers.”

No wonder the controversy exploded.

You say, well that’s old stuff . . . why raise an issue that happened 500 years ago?

Because the plenary indulgences of Martin Luther’s day reached another climax only 6 years ago when the church declared the year 2000 a special year of Jubilee.  The Pope made available once again plenary indulgences – not partial, but complete absolution or pardon through the earning of an indulgence.  He opened the doors of St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome and other European cathedrals, promising that during this year – the year 2000 – that those who made pilgrimages to these sacred sites would receive a complete indulgence – literally, all their time in purgatory would be immediately commuted and they could go straight to heaven.

Adapted from A.D. 2000: Year of Jubilee” by David J. Engelsma, Professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament at Protestant Reformed Seminary

That is nothing less than selling access to God.  Charging fees for forgiveness.

Paul is saying, “keep your eye on those who deviate from the teaching which you have learned.”

Now if you think I’m being too hard on Catholics, just wait, I’m getting to the Protestants.

I’ll do my best to offend everybody.

Not only is Paul deeply concerned over false teachers who have departed from the truth – the faith – he is also deeply concerned over false teachers who misrepresent the truth and deceive the body.

Notice verse 18; For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting.

They are, literally, smooth talkers – chrestologia – they use fair, plausible speech.  Literally, they are smooth and positive in their speech.

Peter added his warning when he writes, “There will be false teachers among you . . . who follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned; and in their greed they will exploit you with false words.” (2 Peter 2:3)

Paul told the Corinthians, these false teachers will talk about Jesus, but they are really preaching a different Jesus (2 Corinthians 11:4).

Like the false teaching of Mormonism that would tell you today that they have placed their faith in Jesus as their Savior. 

Same name, but a different Jesus altogether; not the incarnation of the one true and living God, but one of  many gods.

These false teachers, according to Paul are slaves, not of the Lord but their own desires – their own belly – literally, their own appetites.

They are driven by self-interest and self-gratification; sometimes for fame, for power over their followers, always for financial gain.  Many of them enjoy pretentious lifestyles, they are involved in sexual immorality as a rule rather than as an exception.

Macarthur, 374

Paul wrote of them to the Philippian church and said, “Their end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things.” (Philippians 3:18-19)

The trouble is, they pretend to speak for God.  They seem to speak for Christ.  They seem to be interested in the gospel.  The truth is they are really interested only in themselves . . . their work . . . their name . . . their bank account . . . their power.

Evaluate their speech in light of the faith and they will be introducing another gospel . . . a false Christ . . . ultimately a false hope.

Their gospel is positive, but it is pointless. 

Paul warned the Colossians, “See to it that no one takes you captive through empty deception . . .” (Colossians 2:8)

Jude said that these false teachers will “flatter people for the sake of gaining an advantage” – whether that advantage is fame, a following, self-satisfaction that they seem to be helping people, or a number of other reasons.

The televangelists are multiplying like rabbits in our generation.  And for many of them, their message is empty deception. 

All you need to do is claim your divine lottery ticket and you will have everything you ever imagined.  Of course, the lottery tickets come by way of their ministry and so if you’ll send them your seed gift of faith, you’ll get your ticket in the mail.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Jesus is not a genie.  You can’t rub a lamp and expect Him to jump out and give you whatever you want.

The true gospel is not a call to self-fulfillment, even though that might sound appealing; the gospel is a call to self-denial. 

The gospel of self-fulfillment was made popular in our modern American world by Norman Vincent Peale who introduced the power of positive thinking. 

He was the original modern American chrestologia – smooth, positive speaking.  His message was picked up by Robert Schuller, and more recently, Joel Osteen.  These men have huge ministries and attract thousands of people to their services and  their writings.

Their message is fairly simple, and terribly deceptive.  God wants you to be happy . . . your greatest problem is a low self-esteem and negative thinking.  What you need to do is elevate your mind and your self-image; put an end to your negative thinking and speaking.  You need to focus on what will make you fulfilled and happy and pursue those things because God wants you to be successful and healthy and happy – His greatest goal is your success.

In Robert Schuller’s book, Self-Esteem: The New Reformation, he wrote, “It is precisely at this point that classical theology has erred in its insistence that theology be ‘God-centered’ and not ‘man-centered.’  He wrote, “If we follow God’s plan, we will feel good about ourselves and that is success.”

He wrote further that the gospel isn’t about being a sinner, but about a low self-image.  In fact, he made the comment that “once a person believes he is an unworthy sinner, it is doubtful that he can be [saved.]  How twisted is that?”

How contrary to the truth is that?!

John MacArthur, Hard to Believe (Thomas Nelson, 2003), p.4

Christianity is no longer giving up everything for the pleasure of Christ, but getting everything for our pleasure from Christ.  The goal of God is no longer his glory, but our gratification.

This is how Robert Tilton can tell his television audience, “Not only is worrying a sin, being poor is a sin when God promises you prosperity.”  How different from the Son of Man, who did not even have a place to lay his head.

Boice, p. 1931

How different from those who stood for Christ and were, Hebrews recorded, “destitute, afflicted, ill treated, [living] in caves and holes in the ground – God’s inspired record declared of these people that they – were men of whom the world was not worthy. (Hebrews 11:37-38)

2000 years ago Paul sounded a warning!  Let me interrupt this letter with an emergency message . . . watch out for man-centered, self-absorbed, self-exalting, sin-denying salvation, scripture-diluting, ego-flattering teaching.

Paul warned Timothy of this very thing when he said “[the time will come] when men will be lovers of themselves.” (2 Timothy 3:1-2)

It is little wonder then with this false gospel that man cannot be condemned.  Man isn’t really a sinner . . . the gospel isn’t really necessary.

When asked on nationwide television if someone who doesn’t believe in Jesus Christ is going to heaven, Osteen replied, “I don’t know . . . I’m going to leave that up to God.”  Even when the talk show host, Larry King, persistently asked him about people who denied the deity of Christ, he would respond with, I’m going to leave that up to God.”

That may strike you as a positive, kind response.  I believe it is a betrayal of the gospel.

Yes, we are to leave it up to God but God has already told us what He decided.

He said it through Peter, who preached, “He, Christ is the corner stone . . . and there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven that has been given to men, whereby we must be saved.”  (Acts 4:12)

God declared it centuries earlier through Isaiah, the prophet, “I, even I, am the Lord; and there is no Savior besides Me.” (Isaiah 43:11)

The problem isn’t that preaching the gospel is confusing.  The problem is that now, more than ever, preaching the gospel requires courage and that seems to have gone missing.

You can’t preach the true gospel without sin and hell and condemnation and a cross and bloodshed and guilt and death.

Where are the leaders in our generation who will say with the Apostle Paul, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”  (Romans 1:16)

Anything else is an empty promise.

The gospel is really bad news first . . . and then, when you admit your sin and depravity and guilt before God and you seek to run from it into His everlasting arms, then and there you discover the amazing grace of God that saved a wretch like me.

Now what do we do?

Paul provides some very practical advice that I have implemented today.

First, identify false teachers. Notice verse 17, the first part, Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who casue dissensions and hindrances or traps contrary to the teaching which you learned.

Keep your eye on them . . . find out who they are – watch out for them.

I can imagine the believers in Rome, after reading this, gathered together and said, “Who is it in our city who is preaching and teaching contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ?”

We need to keep our eye on them . . . the Greek word is skopein – which means to mark – to observe.  Skopein gives us our word, scope . . . for microscope – to carefully observe – or telescope – to watch from afar.

Put them under the lens of scripture and carefully analyze their teaching . . . don’t get caught unaware.  Don’t get duped.

They are smooth talking speakers . . . there is appearance without substance.Sam Gordon, Fighting Truth Decay, (Ambassador, 2002), p. 81

Augustine said centuries ago of these false teachers, “Beware the man who abounds in eloquent nonsense.”

Paul writes, “watch out for them.”  Would you notice this was a command to the assembly!  As an assembly, guard the truth – and guard one another.  I don’t know about you, but I need the discernment of other believers to help me see things I miss – to evaluate errant teaching we might not catch. 

We need each other to guard against false teaching.

Not only are we to be alert to false teachers and identify them, secondly, Paul commands us in effect, to avoid their influence. 

He writes, in the latter part of verse 17, “turn away from them.”

Evaluate them, but don’t be influenced by them.

Lenski writes that Paul’s use of the ekklino means to incline away from them.

R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of Romans (Augsburg Publishing, 1936), P. 916

Keep up your guard . . . stay critical in your thinking . . . don’t be, as Paul writes here in the latter part of verse 18, among those who are deceived because of unsuspecting hearts.

Paul interrupts his letter with an emergency broadcast signal for the saints . . . let me warn you, he writes, because you are my beloved friends.

Paul didn’t shake up their assembly because he didn’t care; he warned them because he deeply cared.

Steve Farrar who was with us this past summer, wrote in his book, “Standing Tall” about a family who had taken shelter in the basement as a severe storm passed over their town.  The radio warned that a tornado had been spotted.  When the storm had passed by, the father opened the front door to look at the damage.  A downed power line was emitting a shower of sparks in the street in front of their home.  Before the father realized what was happening, his five year old daughter had ran near the edge of the lawn, heading for that sparkling wire in the street.

“Laurie, stop!” he yelled.

Laurie just kept going.

“Laurie, STOP!”

Laurie ran right for the enticing cable.

“Stop now, Laurie” he screamed as he ran after her.

But Laurie reached it first and grabbed it and was instantly killed.”

It looked like fun . . . it seemed like something good to experience . . . but it was not only fatal, but deathly dangerous.

In this text, Paul effectively tells the church in Rome that they have at least 2 needs:

  1. A need for discernment – he basically tells them to wise up!  Look around . . . be aware . . . think critically . . . don’t believe everything you hear!  Just because it’s positive and smooth and pleasant and it makes you feel important . . . it might be deadly.
  2. A need for humility – he told the church to not only wise up, but listen up!

Maybe for you, you’re thinking, “I’ll never get caught up in false teaching . . . I can spot heresy at 200 yards.”

For you, your challenge has nothing to do with false teachers.  It may have everything to do with false living.

And you are being warned.

Maybe God, at this very moment, through this passage of scripture, is interrupting your life with a very important announcement . . . with a warning . . . with a challenge.

Take the warning seriously.  This interruption of an emergency signal could be the difference between life and death.

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