Those Grievous Wolves
January 7th, 1979 @ 10:50 AM
THOSE GRIEVOUS WOLVES
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1-7-79 10:50 a.m.
And to the uncounted thousands and thousands of you, who on television and on the two radio stations are listening and watching this hour, may God fit just the right blessing of encouragement for us, as we begin the work of our Lord in the new year of 1979. In our preaching through the Book of Acts, we are in chapter 20, and the passage from which the message is taken is verses 28 through 31 [Acts 20:28-31]. This is the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and this is the pastor, delivering the sermon entitled Those Grievous Wolves. Now we read the text, Acts 20:28-31:
Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all of the flock, over which the Holy Spirit hath made you overseers, to feed, to shepherd, to tend, to care for the church of God, which He hath purchased with His own blood.
For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock.
Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.
Therefore watch, and remember—
Then Paul reminds them of his own soul-winning ministry—
by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears.
…publicly, and from house to house,
Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul, to these pastors of the church at Ephesus, lays before them his earnest appeal: to take heed to yourselves, to shepherd, to care for the flock, which God purchased with His own blood [Acts 20:28]. Then he uses a little conjunctive particle, g-a-r, gar, translated here “for” [Acts 20:29]. That little particle always refers to the statement just made, and gives the reason for what he’s just said. So the statement that he’s just made is, we are to take heed to ourselves to shepherd, to care for the church of God, which He purchased with His own blood [Acts 20:28]. Gar, “for” [Acts 20:29]—then he gives the reason for that appeal:
For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock.
And of your own selves shall men arise speaking heretical—
anti-God, anti-Christ, anti-church things—
to draw away people after them.
Therefore watch, and remember…
I think, as I read through these Holy Scriptures, there are two animals that are used to describe those who decimate and destroy the church of God; one is a little fox. In the Song of Solomon, second chapter, fifteenth verse, it reads, “The little foxes that destroy the vines” [Song of Solomon 2:15]. I think that is an image of worldliness, coming into the lives of the people of God that pulls them away from the Lord.
In the last chapter of the last letter Paul wrote, he says, “Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world” [2 Timothy 4:10]. Worldliness will take you away from God: “The little foxes that destroy the vines” [Song of Solomon 2:15].
“For the love of this world is enmity against God” [1 John 2:15], wrote the apostle John. And the pleasures and the interests and the compromises that we know in this world, will destroy our spiritual life, and will destroy the church of the living God [1 John 2:16-17]. “Little foxes that destroy the vines” [Song of Solomon 2:15]: worldliness.
The second animal, the imagery of which is used to describe those who destroy the churches of our Lord is a wolf; described by the apostle Paul in our text as “grievous wolves.” What could he mean by that description, “grievous wolves that enter in and destroy the flock”? [Acts 20:29]. I think you have a key to it in the word translated “grievous” here [Acts 20:29]. The word that the inspired apostle Paul uses—and I think every word in the Scripture is infallible, inspired [2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21]—the Spirit of God caused Paul to choose this word and not another word— the word that Paul uses is barus, barus. And it has two meanings, and they are amazing meanings when you look at them. One of the meanings of barus is “heavy, weighty, burdensome” and finally, “hard to be borne and grievous”—barus, translated here “grievous, heavy, weighty, burdensome, hard to be borne, grievous” [Acts 20:29].
Now the second meaning of that word is astonishing! The word also means “influential, dignified, attractive, authoritative.” What an opposite in meaning! And when we put the two together it becomes very apparent the “wolves” that Paul is describing who enter in, and who rise up, and who decimate and destroy the churches of our Lord; these are ecclesiastics. They are influential, and dignified, and authoritative, and they rise in the church, and they enter into the church, and they destroy the gospel message of Christ and decimate the flocks of our Lord. Isn’t that an astonishing thing, what Paul says? And he says these “grievous wolves” [Acts 20:29]—these churchmen, these ecclesiastics of great dignity and authority—he says they arise from two sources. One: he says they enter in from the outside: they are unregenerate; they are unconverted; they are humanists; they are speculators; they are philosophers—but they get into the church and they destroy it!
You have an instance of that in Paul’s writing in the 2 Corinthian letter, the eleventh chapter. He speaks there of false teachers, and false apostles, and false prophets, who come into the church and deceive the people [2 Corinthians 11:13]. Then he says in the next verse, “And no wonder: for Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light” [2 Corinthians 11:14]. These who come with superior wisdom, and great dignity, and authority, and they enter into the church unconverted, unregenerated, and they deceive and lead astray the people.
Then he speaks of a second group. Also he says, “Of your own selves shall men arise, speaking heretical and anti-Christian things, and draw away men after them” [Acts 20:30]. You have an example of that in the third letter of the apostle John. There he describes “Diotrephes, who loveth to have the pre-eminence among them” [3 John 1:9]. And Diotrephes opposes the apostle John himself, and leads the people into heresy [3 John 1:10]: the decimation and destruction of the church by these “grievous wolves,” who are learned, and gifted, and authoritative ecclesiastics, but they destroy the church of God.
Now the apostle Paul says, “These men, these grievous wolves, will arise among you upon my departure” [Acts 20:29]—immediately! That’s such an astonishing thing: that before the church has hardly been founded, and the great gospel message been preached—immediately, immediately his heels are hounded by those who make wreckage of the faith, and who destroy the flocks of the Lord. When I read the life of the apostle Paul in the Book of Acts, and when I read his epistles, I see that, just as he said, immediately these false teachers, these grievous wolves, these learned influential ecclesiastics come along, hounding him wherever he went, and destroy the faith [Acts 20:29]..
That’s the reason the epistle to the Galatians was written. Judaizers came, immediately following Paul, saying to the people, “You cannot be saved by faith, just by trusting Jesus; you must also add all of these good works. You must be circumcised, and you must keep all of the laws of Moses, else you cannot be saved” [Galatians 6:12-13]. Immediately that came to pass! And when you turn and read through the epistles of the apostle Paul, all through them, do you find these false teachers and false apostles. For example, in the second chapter of 2 Timothy he speaks of Hymeneus and Philetus who he says, “have made shipwreck of the faith, saying that the resurrection is already past” [2 Timothy 2:17-18]. That is, they were allegorizers and spiritualizers, and they took the great historical facts of the Christian faith and read them into all kinds of fanciful and speculative notions. And he mentions one: the very heart of the Christian faith is the resurrection of the dead. The reason for that is because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And these learned teachers, Hymeneus and Philetus, says there is no such thing as a resurrection. It’s spiritual, and the only resurrection there is, is that of a spiritual life, but there is no physical resurrection—which would mean Jesus did not rise.
The tremendous destruction of the faith by these ecclesiastics who rise up in our midst, and who by allegory, and by mythology, and by spiritualizing take away the truth of the faith. That happened, Paul says, “immediately after my preaching” [Acts 20:29]. And that same thing has characterized the Christian church in all of the decades and the centuries since. If you hold in your hand a history of the Christian church, page after page and every page in it will be characterized by confrontation, and by controversy, as those who are defending the truth will battle against those who are seeking to destroy it by heresy and false doctrine [2 Timothy 3:1-5,13]. That’s the history of the church through the years and the centuries.
And to our great lament and sorrow, it is the history of the church today in this present hour and time in which we live. There are those who have arisen in the name of academic scholarship, great authorities, they are men of dignity, and influence, and erudition, and they have taught, and they have preached, and they have emptied all of the churches of Europe! When you attend those services there in England, in Europe, it is as though you were standing in a mausoleum; the church is sterile, and barren, and dead, and empty. And that same theology, those same ecclesiastics have depressed on a tragic and downward trend, all of the great mainline historical denominations of the Christian faith. Fewer attend the services, fewer go to the mission field, fewer are converted, fewer are reached, and the graph goes down, and down, and down, and down.
You’ll marvel at how those men are able to grasp the minds of the preachers and the minds of the denominational leaders, and to lead them into courses, and into doctrines, and into beliefs that destroy the faith, destroy the denomination, destroy the churches. They teach us that man is innately inborn good. They teach humanism: “We don’t need to be redeemed. We’re already the children of God. We’re already saved, and the man just needs to be made aware of his salvation.” They teach that blood redemption, and the crucifixion of Christ, and repentance, and the acceptance of Jesus as a personal Savior has no part or place in the church. And instead of the gospel, they substitute a social and an institutional Christianity; and they make of the church nothing other than self-improvement societies. And the gospel is never heard, and the churches die, and there are no converts, and no additions, and no baptisms, and the whole thing begins to decay and to collapse in itself. And lest we think—lest we think that may be true of “those people over there,” and of “those denominations out there,” and of “those folks over yonder”—lest we think this applies just to them but it doesn’t reach us, may I read, may I read?
A milestone was recently marked with the sale of the First Baptist Church of Winnipeg, Canada and the dissolution of the congregation. During the generation in which Winnipeg was transformed from a tiny, sprawling town to a metropolitan city, the First Baptist Church was one of the great religious bastions of the West. A long line of distinguished preachers, among whom John McNeal was perhaps the most widely known, kept the Baptist pulpit a power in the city. Unfortunately Baptist congregations do not thrive in liberal theology, and as the old Baptist families who had maintained the church passed away, new ones were not converted; they did not come to replace them. And the church found it impossible to maintain itself in a downtown location, so this year the congregation decided to sell the downtown building and go out of business.
Then there is another item. There is significance not only for the Baptist churches, but for all the major denominations in the fact that the Pentecostals who bought the church is every Sunday night taxing the auditorium capacity of 1500 seats. What is happening? When we embrace a theology and follow a pattern of church life that destroys the churches and brings to an awesome, catastrophic, downward trend, the association—the communion of churches called a denomination.
And then lest we think, “Well, that might have happened up there or way over yonder,” let us look at ourselves. I hold in my hand the lead editorial of the current issue of our Baptist Standard, the weekly magazine of our Baptist General Convention of Texas. And the lead editorial concerns the decline that has set in our Southern Baptists. It means that baptisms have decreased for the third year in a row; we’re in a trend down, and down, and down. And Sunday school enrollment in Southern Baptist Churches is projected to decline, and then other groups and organizations in the denomination are on a downward trend.
You wring your hands, “What is happening? What has overwhelmed us?” We are becoming prey to a system and to a theology that is destroying our faith, and the preaching of the gospel, and the winning of the lost, and the baptizing of our converts, and the building up of our churches. So Paul writes as though he were speaking to us today. He writes:
Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over which the Holy Spirit hath made you overseers, to care for, to tend the flock of God
. . . For there are arising grievous wolves who enter in, and destroy the flock.
And of your own selves are men arising who take away from the faith.
Watch therefore, and remember.
And then he calls us back to the great commitments that made us, out of which we were born:
Watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with many tears
. . . publicly, and from house to house,
Testifying to the Jews, to the Greeks, to everybody, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Lord God Himself, in the second chapter of the Apocalypse, of the Revelation, addressed this same church at Ephesus. And this is what He said:
Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love . . .
Repent ye therefore, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and remove thy lampstand out of its place, except thou repent, except you turn.
What are those “first things?” What is that “first love?” It is very apparent “by the space of three years”—that is all of the time of his ministry in Ephesus—“I ceased not with many tears [Acts 20:31] from house to house, testifying repentance toward God, and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” [Acts 20:20-21]. Our first commitment, our first assignment, our primary and first mandate from heaven is this: namely, the Great Commission [Matthew 28:19-20]. We’re to win people to Jesus. We’re to testify, teach, make disciples. We’re to baptize our converts, and we are to instruct them in the mind, and in the work, and in the service of the Lord. And however a thousand other things we may do, that is primary and first. When we turn aside from it, the Lord says: “I will come, I will take away your lampstand, except you turn—except you repent” [Revelation 2:5]
That is our commitment, our dedication in this New Year into which God hath given to us; we’re going to turn, we’re going to repent, we’re going to do those first works. Our first love: witnessing, testifying, knocking at the door, talking, explaining, inviting, bringing to Jesus this whole great vast metroplex. That’s the thing that builds us up, that’s the carrying out of the great commandment of our Lord. That’s the reason God saves us, spares us, blesses us: doing this first thing for Jesus. And when we turn aside from it, immediately we begin to die. God withdraws His blessing, and finally removes our lampstand out of our midst.
May I take something in the Great Depression, in the days in which I began my ministry? There came to America in those days an ignorant, unschooled, untaught Italian immigrant. And there in the city, he built him a hot dog stand, and he began his work of selling hot dogs. He made the best ones in the city, and he said it. He got the most succulent, and juicy, and delicious wieners, and he got himself mustard, and chili, and relish, and pickles, and onions and he walked up and down the street, and he hawked his wares, the best hot dogs in the city; big, juicy, covered with all kinds of condiments, whatever you like, the best tasting, the finest buns, “My hot dogs!” And his business grew, making them delicious, appetizing, good and telling the world about it, the best hot dogs in the city.
He became successful, made money. And he said, “My boy, my boy, he no be ignorant like me. My boy, I send my boy to the college. He learn to read-a the newspaper, and he learn to read-a the books. And my boy, he be smart. He be smart.”
So the old untaught, ignorant, uneducated Italian immigrant sent his boy to college. So the boy came home to visit his papa on vacation. And while the boy was there in the hot dog stand, he heard his father talking over the telephone, and the father was ordering so many luscious buns, and so many big juicy delicious wieners, and he was ordering all kinds of relishes, and chili, and pickles, and onions.
And the boy listened to him, aghast. And when the father hung up the phone, he came to him and said, “Papa, Papa, you don’t read-a the newspaper. You don’t know. Papa, we in a great depression. Unthinkable! You order all of those buns, and all of those wieners, and all of those condiments. Papa, you don’t know. You don’t read. We in a great depression.”
He says, “Papa, you go back to that phone, you order half that many buns. You order not those big delicious wieners. We’re in a big depression. You order those little skinny ones, and cut down on the chili, and the mustard, and the onions, and the pickles, and the relish, because we in a great depression.”
And the father: “My boy, he smart. He goes to college. He read-a the books.” So the father halved his order, and he got little skinny wieners, and he got little dried up buns, and he cut down on the mustard, and on the onions, and on the chili sauce, and on the relish. And he didn’t go up anymore up and down the streets: “The best hot dogs in town! Big, delicious wieners! All kinds of mustard and chili, and all kinds of relish. The best hotdogs in town! Come!” He didn’t go up and down the streets anymore, and his business fell off, and people didn’t come, and they didn’t buy his hot dogs any longer.
And the old, uneducated, ignorant Italian immigrant said, “My boy, he smart. My boy, he go to the college. My boy, he read-a the books. My boy, he read the newspapers. My boy, he smart. We are in a great depression.”
Man, no wonder you’re in a great depression! You don’t go up and down the streets any longer saying, “Bless God! Got the best Savior and the most marvelous Friend in the world. ‘Come, taste and see that the Lord is good’ [Psalm 34:8]. Best place in the world, in the church! Best way to rear your children under God’s heaven is to rear them in the name of the Lord.” Don’t do it anymore. Don’t invite anymore. Don’t have a product in which we are committed and are happy about and rejoice in any longer.
“My boy, he smart. He read-a the books. He go to the college. He understands we in a great depression.” And the church dies, and the denomination dies, and the faith dies, and the people die, without God and without hope in the world. That’s what he’s talking about. “Nevertheless,” says the Lord,
I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love… Repent therefore, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and remove thy lampstand out of its place, except thou repent, except ye turn.
Man, would you like to still be alive and the newspapers say, “On such and such day, they sold the First Baptist Church. In the days when those preachers preached the gospel, and the people witnessed to the saving grace of the Lord, it flourished. Then they lost their faith, and they gave themselves to other things.” And it isn’t delicious any longer. It isn’t attractive anymore. And the people don’t crowd around the stand. They pass it by.
Just to remind us, as Paul reminds the church here at Ephesus: God helping us, the Holy Spirit working with us, we’re going to turn. We are going to repent. We’re going back to that first work and that first love. We are going up and down the streets of this city. We are going to knock at every house, every one of them.
Jesus: it’s life everlasting to know Him [John 3:16; 10:27-30]. Jesus: it’s the health and happiness of your home—Jesus. It’s the way to rear these children: Jesus, the Savior of our souls. Come, love the Lord with us, serve the Lord with us, magnify His name with us.
This year is a year of turning. It’s a year of evangelism. It’s a year of soul-winning. It’s a year of personal appeal and invitation. As the days unfold, God is giving us the wisdom—how all of us can share in it, beautifully, marvelously, wondrously—every one of us, how to invite others.
And I can tell you this, in all experiential honesty: there’ll never be a joy you will experience in your life like the joy of seeing somebody come down that aisle. You were in his home. You know the names of his children. You met his wife. You talked to them. You prayed with them. You invited them to the Lord. And there they are, down here at the front, giving the pastor their hands and their hearts to God.
That’s it. That’s the big thing. When we turn aside from it, we die. When we give ourselves to it, we live. God bless us. That’s our invitation to your heart this precious moment.
We’ll stand and sing in a minute. And as we stand and sing the hymn, to give your life to the blessed Jesus [Romans 10:8-13]; to bring your family and all of you in the fellowship of our wonderful church [Hebrews 10:24-25]; to pray with us; to love God with us; to serve the Lord with us, make the decision now in your heart. And in a moment when we stand to sing, just stand up walking down that stairway. Stand up walking down this aisle. That first step will be the most meaningful you will ever make in your life. Make the decision now. And when you stand up, “God help me, here I am. I’m on the way.”
We are still on television and on radio. Wherever you are, if you have never given your heart to Jesus, open your soul heavenward and God-ward. Let the Lord come into your life. It will be the dearest, sweetest experience you have ever known. And wherever He comes there is blessing, and healing, and happiness. It is the presence of God Himself. Bless you in your business. Bless you in your home. Bless you in your family. Bless you with your children. Bless you in life, stand by you in death, take you to heaven someday where we see God’s face and live [Revelation 22:3-5]. To accept the Lord as your Savior, just bow your head wherever you are and say, “Lord Jesus, I give my life to Thee. Strengthen me. Forgive me. Save me.” And He will do it [Romans 10:13]. In this throng of people in God’s house this sacred hour, “Pastor, I have decided for God and here I am, this year and every year, this life and in the life to come, in time and in eternity I am walking with the Lord.” Do it. God bless you and angels attend you as you make that decision and commitment. As we stand, come and tell me about it. “Pastor, I give you my hand. I have made that decision for God, and here I am” [Ephesians 2:8]. Do it now, while we stand and while we sing.
A. The appeal of Paul –
to care for the flock(Acts 20:28)
B. The reason for the
appeal – wolves entering in among them
II. Two animals used to illustrate how the
church can be grievously hurt
foxes an image of worldliness(Song of Solomon
2:15, 2 Timothy 4:10)
wolves an image of ecclesiastical leadership untrue to the faith(Acts 20:29)
1. Barus – “heavy,
weighty, burdensome, hard to be borne”; “influential, dignified, authoritative”
These authoritative false leaders are of two kinds
Enter in from outside, the unregenerate, unconverted(Acts 20:29, 2 Corinthians 11:13-14)
Those on the inside who lead astray(Acts 20:30,
3 John 9)
III. The wolves immediately appear
A. Paul warns they will
come upon his departure(Acts 20:29)
hounding his heels
and Philetus spiritualize doctrine of bodily resurrection away(2 Timothy 2:17)
B. They have appeared
through the years of church history
C. No less true in the
D. Our Baptist
communion is not immune
IV. We face the appeal of Paul(Acts 20:28, 31)
A. He calls us back to
the great commitments that made us (Acts 20:31)
1. The warning of
the Savior to this same church (Revelation
B. Turning aside from
the first works(Matthew 28:19-20)
C. Let us repent, turn,
and do the first works