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Beware of Men

 "....beware of men...." Jesus warned His disciples. He did not say, "Beware of bad men." The warning might just as well include good men. In things divine, in things that concern the worship of God, "....beware of men...." Matt. 10:17. Luther remarked that religion was never more endangered than when it was in the company of reverend men.


The Bible begins with the record of how the Creator made man in His own image (Gen. 1:27). But something went wrong in this Creator-creature relationship. Now we see the creature trying to conform God to his own image. Idolatry is simply man's attempt to make God in his own likeness. Man wants to worship the god of his own conception, which is really only an extension of himself. Says the Lord, " . . . thou thoughtest that I was altogether such a one as thyself. . ." Ps. 50:21 Human nature takes the doctrines of the Bible and bends them or molds them to suit the image of the god which man has set up in his own mind. Man has an insatiable urge to project himself into the work of God and mold it according to his own idea.

Man's disposition to conform God, His doctrines and His work to his own image, is condemned by the second commandment. God is jealous for His own image. The work of God is not to bear the image and superscription of man. Therefore, ". . . beware of men..."

The Conscience and Human Authority

When God spoke the law on Mount Sinai, the very mountain was fenced in from the people. No human hands were permitted to touch even the mount, much less the law itself. Uzzah was slain when he put his hand on the ark. There is a place for human authority — whether it be church authority, parental authority or civil authority; but when it comes to binding and loosing the conscience with moral and spiritual law, only God can legislate. He declares, "Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you." Deut. 4:2. The church is not called to be a legislator, but an ambassador (2 Cor. 5:20). An ambassador must not impose his own laws or even express his own opinion. He represents only the will of the government which sends him. So Jesus charged His disciples, "Whatever you forbid on earth, shall have already been forbidden in heaven. And whatever you permit on earth, shall have already been permitted in heaven." Matt. 18:18, An Expanded Translation (Kenneth S. Wuest).

The passage does not mean that heaven will ratify anything men do down below in the name of church authority. The original verbs of the Greek text (as brought out in the preceding translation) make it clear that Christ charges His disciples that they must only forbid what has already been forbidden in heaven—nothing else. They are not to act out their own feelings or opinions. They are simply to declare what Christ has said. Thus the Lord's prayer will be fulfilled, "Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven." Matt. 6:10.

Unto no man or body of men has Christ delegated authority to legislate on doctrine.1 No authority other than God Himself should pass laws which can bind or loose the consciences of men. Said Christ, ". . . teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you . . . ."Matt. 28:20. The disciples were to teach what Christ had taught—that which He had spoken, not only in person, but through prophets and apostles, included. Human teaching is shut out. There is no place for tradition, for man's theories and conclusions, or for church legislation. No laws ordained by ecclesiastical authority are included in the commission. None of these are Christ's servants to teach.

When the Word of God is mixed with faith, it will profit the receiver. But when it is mixed with human opinions and decrees, it becomes like the bread which Ezekiel was commanded to eat. The Lord said unto the prophet:

Take thou also unto thee wheat, and barley, and beans, and lentiles, and millet, and fitches . . . and thou shalt bake it with dung that cometh out of man, in their sight. And the Lord said, Even thus shall the children of Israel eat their defiled bread ...—Ezek.4:9, 12, 13.

Luther declared:

    I want to have the pure unadulterated Scriptures in all their glory, undefiled by the comment of any man, even the saints, and not hashed up with any earthly seasonings. But you [the schoolmen] are the very people who have not avoided profane and vain babblings (to use Paul's words, 1 Tim. 6:20), and have wanted to cover these holy and divine delicacies with human glosses and pep them up with earthly spices. And like Ezekiel (Ezek. 4:12) my soul is nauseated at having to eat bread baked with human dung. Do you know what this means? . . . The word of man when added to the Word of God serves as a veil to the pure truth. Nay, worse, as I have said, it is the human dung with which the bread is baked, as the Lord figuratively expresses it in Ezekiel. — Martin Luther, Answer to Latomus, Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster Press), Vol.16, pp.344, 345.

The writer of Hebrews makes special mention of Moses for being faithful in all the affairs of God (see Heb. 3:5). It was his faithfulness to do exactly what the Lord commanded. When he built the tabernacle, it is repeatedly said that he did everything "as the Lord commanded Moses" (see Ex. 40). Moses added no specifications of his own. He did not do what was right in his own eyes, but exactly "as the Lord commanded Moses."

In his diligence to keep self out of sight and to make the will of God supreme in everything, Moses was a type of Jesus. In the garment of Christ's perfect character, there was not one thread of human devising. He did not do His own will, but the will of Him who sent Him. He was so fully emptied of self that the Father alone appeared in His life. Thus, Christ's work bore the image and superscription of God.

The Image of a Man

In Daniel 2 history is presented under the figure of an image of a man. The kingdoms of this world were kingdoms of men. They were the result of man's genius, ambition and selfishness. The feet of the image were a mixture of iron and clay. Daniel declared, ". . . they shall mingle themselves with the seed of men . . ." Dan. 2:43. The Word of God is likened to seed—the good seed of the kingdom. The seed of men, by way of contrast, would embrace the doctrines and opinions of men.

The "little horn" power of Daniel 7 is represented as having eyes "like the eyes of man." Dan. 7:8. This power was formed when members of the church of Christ began to do that which was right in their own human eyes. Christ established a pure church. It had a pure government and a pure faith. But when churchmen began to look at the problems of church government through the eyes of their own understanding, they gradually developed echelons of church office and a hierarchy of human authority that resulted in the papacy. When human scholarship and theology tried to explain the mystery of the incarnation and sinlessness of Jesus, the result was the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. When natural reason attempted to explain how an immature Christian who had not reached a state of sinlessness could enter heaven, it came up with the teaching of purgatory. There was a gradual, almost imperceptible substitution of human teaching for divine revelation. As were the "eyes" of the "little horn," so was its "mouth that spake very great things." Dan. 7:20. Its words — its dogmas and decrees—were the doctrines and commandments of men.

In Revelation 13 the same power is represented as a beast having the number of a man's name. Paul calls it the "man of sin." All this demonstrates that it is merely the product of human nature. It is actually the supreme revelation of human nature existing in a corporate capacity.

The Danger of Good Men

The oppressive ecclesiastical system portrayed in Bible prophecy came into being because God's professed people did not give due heed to Jesus' warning, ". . . beware of men . . ." We will fail to learn the necessary lesson unless we realize that those who helped form this system were not all wicked, scheming men. Many good men helped form the papal system. For instance, Augustine (A.D. 350-430) was the greatest of the Latin fathers. After a riotous youth, he was converted to Christianity. He became a brilliant Christian scholar. When it came to upholding the Christian faith against Pelagius, Augustine was the man for the hour. On the nature of sin he was a clear Christian thinker. Church historians point out that he was the spiritual father of the Reformation. One has only to read the Reformers to recognize that Augustine was the quarry from whence they dug many of the stones for the Reformation.

Yet the astonishing thing is that this same Augustine was just as much the father of the Inquisition. He justified the use of force against the heretical Donatists, arguing that compulsory worship was implied by the Lord's command, "Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come In . . . " Augustine's most famous work, The City of God, took him seventeen years to write. It presented a heady concept of the role of the church in the world. He saw the church as the great stone of Daniel 2, which would subdue the whole world to Christ. The City of God was the product of Augustine the saint at his best. In it his imagination of what the church could do for Christ soared to lofty heights. Yet the very genius of its human philosophy inspired the creation of the papacy. It was Augustine who conceived the idea of the church developing into a type of Jewish theocracy. He advanced the idea that the church was the custodian of an infallible system of doctrine, and that salvation was available only to those who would submit to its discipline. In the eyes of this great and good man, the church would be greatly blessed and greatly honored if she fulfilled the role outlined in The City of God. But after Augustine died, it was his idea that lived on, playing a vital role in the creation of the most oppressive religious system.

Sacred history justifies the Master's warning, " . . . beware of men . . ." Some imagine that this only means, "Beware of evil men." But sacred history demonstrates that good men may be more dangerous than evil men. Even when a good man puts his mold on the work of God, nothing but evil will come of it. Good men are often the more dangerous because their influence in religious things is greater. Think of the great evil wrought by Gideon after God had used him mightily to deliver Israel from the Midianites. Instead of waiting for divine guidance, he began to plan for himself. The fact that he was a mighty man of valor, greatly favored of the Lord, made his departure from the truth the more dangerous. The people were led away from God by the very man who had once overthrown their idolatry.

Think of John Calvin, the pious theologian of the Reformation. No one can deny that he was a man of faith and prayer. That he accomplished great good in the service of God is a matter of history. Yet the same John Calvin was the spiritual father of some Puritan bigotry and intolerance. He was partly responsible for the martyrdom of Michael Servetus. Calvin's co-worker, the saintly William Farel, presided over the "holy rite" of burning the heretic. This earnest Christian minister could actually bow his head in sincere prayer, asking God's blessing upon the abominable act of burning a man who denied Reformed orthodoxy. Think of James and the other leaders at Jerusalem, who counseled Paul to go to the temple and participate in a ceremonial purification. The whole scheme was politically motivated. It was the product of human nature and brought great loss to the early church.

" . . . beware of men . . ." The work of God is not to bear the image and superscription of men; it is not to be spoiled by human devising. Even when good men do what is right in their own eyes (which is the most natural thing to do), the work of God is molded to the image of the creature instead of to the image of God.

The second commandment forbids man to worship or honor God according to man's idea of how God ought to be honored. God must be worshiped according to His idea of how He ought to be worshiped. God's reaction to men's honor is reflected in David's response to man's idea of honor. When one claimed that he performed meritorious service for David by slaying king Saul, he incurred the fatal wrath of the king. On another occasion two men proudly brought the head of Ishbosheth to David, thinking to win his congratulations. How surprised they must have been when he commanded them to be slain! So men bring their offerings to the Lord. If these offerings are the product of their own idea of worshiping God, they are no more acceptable to God than was Ishbosheth's head acceptable to king David (see 2 Sam. 4)—or Cain's offering to God.

The antichrist beast of Revelation 13 is the man of sin. He has a name and the number of a man. The main thought we should get out of the word "beast" is that this is a creature which presents itself as an object of worship, whereas Revelation 14 commands men to worship the Creator. The antichrist may combine some of the most beautiful and brilliant ideas for human betterment. Yet this whole religious system bears the mark, or signature, of the creature. The number of man's name shows from whence it originates. It bears the image and superscription of man. ". . . beware of men . . . "

1 Replying to those who wanted to make the decrees and deeds of the church articles of faith which were binding on the conscience, Luther said:

. . . no one should believe even the church itself when it acts or speaks without and beyond Christ's words. In Christ's words it is holy and certain, while beyond Christ's words it is surely a poor, erring sinner, although undamned for Christ's sake, in whom it believes.

I wanted to say this in rebuttal to those stiff-necked boasters who constantly chatter about the church, the church, the church, although they do not know what the church or its holiness is. They simply pass over that and make the church so holy that Christ has to become a liar on account of it and his words are robbed of all their validity. Against this, we in turn must shout exultantly, "Say what you will about the church, let it be as holy as you please, still Christ cannot become a liar on that account." In its teaching, praying, and believing the church confesses that it is a sinner before God and that it often errs and sins; but Christ is truth itself and can neither lie nor sin. Therefore, insofar as the church lives and speaks in the word and faith of Christ, it is holy and (as St. Paul says [1 Cor. 7:34] righteous in spirit. And insofar as it acts and speaks without Christ's word and faith, it errs and sins. But whoever makes an article of faith out of the sinful deed and word of the church defames both church and Christ as liars. — Luther's Works (American ed.; Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press; St. Louis: Concordia, 1955-     ), Vol.34, p.76.