Those Grievous Wolves
January 7th, 1979 @ 8:15 AM
THOSE GRIEVOUS WOLVES
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1-7-79 8:15 a.m.
This is the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor delivering the sermon entitled Those Grievous Wolves. In our preaching through the Book of Acts, today will be the last messages from the twentieth chapter, and the text is verses 28 through 30; Acts chapter 20, verses 28 through 30:
Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Spirit hath made you overseers, to feed—
to shepherd, to care for, to tend—
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, remember . . .
Then he speaks of his own example of pastoral shepherdly ministry [Acts 20:32-38]. Paul here gives a reason for the appeal that he has made to them. Speaking to the pastors of the church at Ephesus; “Take heed therefore unto yourselves . . . to shepherd, to care for, the church of God, which He hath purchased with His own blood” [Acts 20:28]. Then he begins the word with a g-a-r, the Greek gar “for” [Acts 20:29]. Gar is a little conjunctive particle that introduces a reason for the statement previously made. Having made this appeal to take care of the church, then he introduces the reason for the appeal he’s just made, “for” [Acts 20:29], then he avows it:
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-Christ, anti-God, anti-church—
Things, to draw away men after them.
Therefore watch, and remember . . .
You know, if I could use the biblical imagery of animals for the devastation and decimation of the churches of God, I’d choose these: one, the little fox, and second, the grievous wolf. The little fox, to me—which is spoken of in the Song of Solomon, the second chapter, the fifteenth verse: the little fox that spoils the vines—to me, that is an image of the worldly things that attack and destroy the church. The little foxes, that destroy the vines [Song of Solomon 2:15]: worldliness, worldly love, worldly pleasures, worldly compromises.
As John wrote it, the love of the world is enmity to God: “Love not the things of the world” [James 4:4; 1 John 2:15]. Loving them, they pull you out of the ministries, and the services, and the dedications to the Lord. It inevitably does. In the last chapter of 2 Timothy, Paul speaks of Demas: “Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world” [2 Timothy 4:10]. Worldliness will do that; the things of the world, loving the things of the world, the pleasures of the world, the emoluments and rewards of the world; the little foxes that destroy the vines [Song of Solomon 2:15].
There is a second image, an animal that destroys the people of God; “I know this, after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock” [Acts 20:29]. There is, to me, an amazing description of these wolves that destroy God’s churches. I find it in the word translated “grievous.” The Greek word is barus and it’s an unusual epithet. First—it has two meanings—first meaning: barus means “heavy,” so came to mean “burdensome” and thus “grievous,” barus. But it also means honorable, dignified, authoritative. Isn’t that an amazing thing, that that word has that double meaning? Burdensome, heavy, grievous, but also dignified, honorable, authoritative.
Now I believe every syllable of this Bible is inspired [2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21]. This word is used because the Holy Spirit of God directed the apostle to use it. Now, there is a reason why he uses that word barus, translated here “grievous”; these grievous wolves [Acts 20:29]. If I could put both of those meanings together, he’s talking about the authoritative, and dignified, and honorable, and acceptable churchman; the ecclesiastic who stands in places of authority, pulpit, professorial chair, denominational leadership, a man of great authority, and he decimates and he destroys the churches of God. Isn’t that an unusual thing? “After my departing shall grievous wolves” [Acts 20:29], dignified, authoritative ecclesiastics, and they come from two sources, he says [Acts 20:29-30]: Paul says they come from the outside, some of them [Acts 20:29]. They shall “enter in among you, not sparing the flock” [Acts 20:29].
In the eleventh chapter of the second Corinthian letter, Paul describes false apostles, false preachers, false preachers, and he says that it is no wonder, for Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light to deceive the people [2 Corinthians 11:14-15]. Now these are those who unregenerate, unconverted men of standing in the world, who enter into the authoritative positions in the church and destroy God’s people [2 Corinthians 11:14-15]. Then he speaks of another kind, not only these on the outside—they haven’t been saved, they are not converted—there are reasons of their own personal and worldly reasons why they come into the circumference and communion of the church. But not only they, he says, there are those of your own number who shall arise, speaking heretical and “perverse things to draw away disciples after them” [Acts 20:30]. An example of that would be Diotrephes who is spoken of in 3 John; a man who loved to have the pre-eminence among them and opposed the sainted apostle John himself [3 John 1:9-10]. That’s a remarkable thing! The churches, attacked from the outside by these in great authority and dignity and honor, and then inside of the church, these who arise who decimate and destroy the flock [Acts 20:29-30].
Now Paul says that this will happen immediately. “For this I know,” he says, “that after my departing”—immediately after I am gone—“shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock” [Acts 20:29]. When I read in the Bible the story of the life of Paul in the Book of Acts, and especially as I read his epistles, his letters, in his own day, in his own time immediately these grievous wolves, these teachers, these false apostles and false teachers, immediately they came into the church; immediately [Acts 20:29].
The reason why the epistle to the Galatians was written was because of the Judaizers who were always hounding the steps of the apostle Paul. These were the men who said you cannot be saved by faith alone, by trusting the Lord Jesus. You must trust the Lord Jesus, yes, but also you must keep the law. You must do good works. It is not by the grace of Christ you are saved, but you are saved by the grace of Christ and all of the good things, the obedience to the laws [Galatians 2:16, 3:1-14]. That saves you. Judaizers: you have to be, in their language and in their day, you have to be circumcised and you have to keep the law of Moses [Acts 15:1, 5, 24], or else you can’t be saved. Immediately those false teachers and false apostles dogged the steps of the apostle [Galatians 2:4-5].
Or take again, out of almost endless illustrations; in the second chapter of 2 Timothy, Paul’s last letter, he speaks of Hymeneus and Philetus, “These,” he says; we don’t know anything about them, but they were honorable teachers and leaders in the church. Hymeneus and Philetus, they have spiritualized and allegorized the resurrection away, saying, “That is already past. You were resurrected when you were spiritually introduced to the Lord and accepted Him as your Savior, and there is no actual resurrection” [2 Timothy 2:17-18]. Man, that sounds modern and familiar and up-to-date! “So there is no actual resurrection; it is spiritual!” And these men who allegorized and spiritualized the Scriptures, and finally make them to mean whatever they themselves might choose in their vivid imaginations to mean.
That immediately happened: “This I know,” he says, “after my departing—immediately—shall these grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock” [Acts 20:29], leading the people astray. And that has been the truth of God through the years. That’s why I had you read this passage in Timothy, chapter 3 [2 Timothy 3:1-5, 13]. This has been the story of the church through the centuries. It has been afflicted by false teachers; these men of stature and of dignity and of authority who stand in pulpits and in professorial chairs and in great denominational places of leadership, and lead and destroy God’s churches.
If you had a book of church history in your hand, what you would read as you turn the pages of that history would be the ceaseless and endless battle of the churches of God against false teachers. It has never ceased; century after century, decade after day, battling for the truth, trying to keep pure and unsullied the revelation of God in Christ Jesus as we read it on these sacred pages. And the same battle characterizes the churches of God today: grievous wolves entering in, not sparing the flock [Acts 20:29]. Anybody who loves Christ, anybody who loves the church, anyone who has in his heart a prayerful desire to see our Lord magnified and exalted in the earth, he could not help but weep and cry and lament at what has happened today to the churches! There is a theology, there is a preaching today that has emptied all of the churches of Europe, all of them; dead, barren, sterile, empty, unattended. Hurts your heart, kills your soul just to attend the services, you and half a dozen others in those great mausoleums; having a name to live, but dead! And that same modern theology taught by these grievous wolves has depressed a downward trend in all of our historical mainline denominations; fewer and fewer and fewer their story. Fewer converts, fewer missionaries, fewer in attendance, fewer in numbers, fewer in outreach, down and down and down; breaks your heart.
You could weep and lament these grievous wolves that destroy the people of God [Acts 20:29]. When you listen to them, this is what they preach, this is what they teach: humanism, the inborn goodness of men. No need for redemption; all of us are already saved. The man just needs to be made aware of his salvation. Instead of the gospel, preaching a social and institutional Christianity; instead of calling men to repentance and to faith, gathering the people together and turning the church into a self-improvement society.
In my reading I came across a modernist missionary in the Philippines, a liberal missionary in the Philippines—not very many of them, because they don’t send out missionaries, but this one happened to be in the Philippines—and he said to a friend, “I have found a way to make our churches, our native churches self-supporting.” And the friend said, “Wonderful. What is it?” And he said, “I am going to teach the people to raise better pigs, to raise better hogs, and then when they raise better pigs and better hogs, why, they’ll have a better income to support the church, and it will be self-supporting.” And when you read that, you think of the missionary going into a far country to teach the prodigal [Luke 15:11-32] how to raise better hogs and how to raise better pigs instead of getting them out of the hog pen and into the Father’s house. And lest we think that we are now just observing people outside of our own communion and outside of our own faith, let us look at us; let us look at ourselves. May I read you this?
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 of Winnipeg was one of the great religious bastions of the West. A long line of distinguished preachers—among them John McNeil was perhaps the most widely known—kept the Baptist pulpit a power in the city. Unfortunately, Baptist congregations, particularly liberal Baptist congregations, do not seem to thrive. As the old Baptist families who had maintained the church passed away, new ones—
they didn’t make any converts—
new ones did not come to replace them, and the church found it impossible to maintain itself in a downtown location. This year the congregation decided to sell their building. 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, every Sunday night is taxing the auditorium to capacity. They don’t have enough room with the one thousand five hundred seats to take care of the throngs who attend.
And then, we. Have you read the current issue of the Baptist Standard, our Texas weekly journal? The editorial is “Inclined Decline: Southern Baptists.” It means that baptisms have decreased for the third year in a row. Sunday school enrollment in Southern Baptist churches is projected to decline; winning fewer people, witnessing to fewer folks, baptizing fewer converts; a decline. It isn’t just they and they. It isn’t just Europe. It isn’t just the northern strip of anterior states in America. It is we. It is our folks; it is our people; it is our churches.
This admonition of the apostle Paul, we must faithfully face today in our generation; that’s why he made the appeal:
Take heed unto yourselves, and to the flock over which Christ hath made you overseers, to shepherd, to tend the church of God, which He purchased with His own blood. Remember therefore, and watch.
[Acts 20:28, 31]
Remember what? Watch what? Then he speaks of his ministry in Ephesus:
That by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears, from house to house, pleading repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.
[from Acts 20: 31. 20-21]
The Lord Jesus, in the second chapter of the Revelation, addressed this same church, the church at Ephesus to whose pastors the apostle Paul is here speaking. And this is what the Lord Jesus said to this same church. He said:
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 thou turn!
[Revelation 2:4 5]
What are those first works? What is that first love that Ephesus was beginning to turn from? Why, it’s the assignment God has given us in the earth. That is the Great Commission [Matthew 28:19-20]. Our assignment is not to clean up the pigpen. It’s to get the prodigal out of it, and in the Father’s house [Luke 15:11-32]. Our great assignment is not social or institutional. Our Great Commission is witnessing, soulwinning, baptizing our converts, teaching them the things Christ has revealed to us [Matthew 28:19-20]. That’s our great assignment. And when we turn away from it, decimation, disintegration, death, rigor mortis immediately sets in, and the churches begin to die; all of us. And, of course, there’s a reason for my emphasizing this passage in our presence today and on this first Sunday of the new year. It is our proposal, it is our earnest dedication, it is our commitment that we shall turn and do those first works. We’re going to give ourselves to the great assignment that Jesus laid upon our souls: evangelism, soulwinning, witnessing, bringing people to Jesus, baptizing our converts; in Sunday school classes and in every area of life that we can touch, teaching them the things He has commanded us to keep. That’s our proposal for this year, and the Holy Spirit is guiding us in it. And when we do those things there’s no death; there’s life! There’s no decline; there’s growth. There’s no fetid breath of decadence and decay; there’s life and living. God in heaven help us.
There came to America an Italian immigrant, uneducated, untaught, unschooled. This old man, an immigrant in America, had him a hotdog stand. And in the days of the Great Depression in which I began my ministry, in the days of the Great Depression that old Italian immigrant, uneducated, untaught, unschooled, flourished. He had the most succulent and delicious big wieners you ever saw, and he had luscious hot buns in which to place the wiener, and he had all kinds of pickles, and mustard, and relish, and chili, if you wanted it to put on that hotdog. And he stood out there on the street in front of his place, and he hawked the best hotdogs in town: “Come and taste for yourself!” and he had more business than he knew what to do with. He was flourishing.
He was making money, so he said, “My boy, he getta the education; I no education, I no school, I no college, I no the books, but my boy? He going to be educated!” So he sent his boy to college, and after the boy had been to college, he came back on his vacation. And he was in the hotdog stand, and he was listening to his father put in the order for the day; so many buns, so many big delicious wieners, so much mustard, so many pickles, so much relish, so much chili.
And the boy was aghast, and when his father put up the telephone, he came to him and said, “Papa, you no read the newspapers! You no understand, we in a great Depression. That’s too many buns, that’s too many hotdogs, that’s too much relish, that’s too much mustard! We in a great Depression.” Now he says, “Papa, you must order little tiny wieners, little skinny things, and cut down on the mustard, and cut down on all of these other things, and cut down on the price of those buns, and cut down on the number.”
So the old man no longer stood out in front of his store, and no longer walked up and down the street, and no longer hawked his wares, saying, “The best hotdogs in town! Come taste for yourself! All the mustard you want, all the chili, all the onions, all the relish, all the pickles. Come, the best hotdogs in town!” The old man no longer did it, and he bought little skinny wieners, and he bought little buns, and he cut down on all of the relish. And the business began to taper off, and he began to lose all of that lucrative clientele who ate hotdogs at his stand.
And after his business went down and down and down, the old man said, “My-a boy, my-a boy, he smart! My-a boy, the boy, he educated! My boy, my boy, he go to the college; my boy, he read-a the books. My boy, he understand, my boy, he right, he smart; we in the deep Depress-i-on!”
That’s exactly with the church, exactly! We smart; we been to the college! We read-a the books! We no longer walking up and down the streets, telling the world what a good thing it is to love Jesus; what a marvelous thing it is to rear your family in the Lord! We’re educated now, we smart now; we read-a the papers. We’re building the institutional Christianity, and as surely as God lives, the message the Lord addressed to the church at Ephesus—this church—He speaks to us today:
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 turn—except thou repent.
I have no grief against ten thousand things in which the denomination, the church, and our own congregation are involved. I’m just saying to you when we don’t do these first things, the same decadence and decay that has destroyed these other denominations and destroyed these other churches will also destroy us; grievous wolves who come in and substitute for the gospel all of these other things [Acts 20:29].
This is our assignment. First, foremost, above everything else, we’re to witness, and to testify, and to visit, and to knock at the door, and to speak to people and tell them how good it is, how wonderful it is, how amazingly blessed and precious it is to give your heart to Jesus, to bring your children up in the faith. “Come, and taste, and see that the Lord is good” [Psalm 34:8]. And to that end we dedicate all of the energies of our own souls and of this precious and wonderful congregation.
And that’s our invitation to your heart today, taking Jesus as your Savior [Romans 10:9-10]: “Going to start this new year with Him. Going to walk the glory road with our blessed Redeemer, and I’m coming to the Lord today, and I’m putting my life in the circle and circumference of the people of Christ. I’m joining my heart and hand with you in that wonderful church, and here I stand.” As God shall press the appeal to your heart, as the Holy Spirit shall invite, answer with your life. When we stand to sing this appeal in a moment, down that aisle or down that stairway: “Here I am, pastor. I’m bringing my family. This is my wife, my children; all of us are coming today.” Or maybe just a couple you, or maybe just one somebody you, what a glorious, marvelous time to respond, now, this precious moment, this first Lord’s Day of a glorious new year. When we stand in a moment to sing, take that first step—it’ll be the most meaningful you’ll ever make—and angels attend you in the way as you come, while we stand and while we sing.