by Spiros Zodhiates
"Desiring to be teachers of the law; understanding neither what they say, nor whereof they affirm."
According to German playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, "Nothing is more frightening than ignorance in action," and, in a sense, Goethe's observation concurs with the Apostle Paul's instructions regarding false teachers. In the first century, a difficulty arose in the Ephesian church because some counterfeit disciples began taking on teaching roles within the congregation, using their position as an outlet for publicizing erroneous doctrine.
These unbelievers resorted to "empty talk" (mataiología ; v. 6) and wanted to become teachers of the (Mosaic) Law (nomodidáskalos). Sadly, the so-called "teachers of the law" were focusing on the customs explained in the Old Testament while entirely avoiding the new commandment of love issued by Jesus in the upper room (see v. 6, cf. Matt. 5:43-48; John 13:34).
The Greek verb thélo\ (to determine) sheds light on the attitude with which the false teachers were promoting their worthless doctrine. There are two verbs in biblical Greek that are both translated "desire," yet each carries a distinct connotation. Boúlomai (, to wish) suggests the presence of inner aspirations, but in a purely passive sense. In other words, a person may wish to have a certain position or possession, but boúlomai does not indicate that he is doing anything to turn that wish into reality.
On the other hand, thélo\ (to determine) implies an active effort to bring one's desire to fruition. This verb originates from the noun théle\ma (2307) which is often translated "will" but could just as easily be rendered "purpose" or "determination." While the Scriptures refer to the will (théle\ma, desire) of man (Luke 12:47; 23:25; John 1:13; 1 Cor. 7:37; 16:12; Eph. 2:3; 1 Pet. 4:3; 2 Pet. 1:21), most of these verses only emphasize humanity's aversion to anything spiritual.
In contrast to the desires of mankind, the Father also has a determination (théle\ma), which Paul frequently called "the will of God" (Rom. 1:10; 12:2; 15:32; etc). Interestingly, when the apostle referred to his own calling as the Lord's minister, he frequently noted that it was by God's will and not his own (1 Cor. 1:1; 2 Cor. 1:1; Eph. 1:1; Col. 1:1; 2 Tim. 1:1).
However, this group of supposed sages of whom Paul was speaking-those who had turned away from love (v. 5) and resorted to empty instruction (v. 6)-had determined within themselves to become teachers of the Law. Their calling did not originate with God, as it had with the apostles, but was the invention of their own skewed imagination.
Paul makes it clear that the teaching of these false instructors was meaningless, because even they did not understand (noéo\ , to comprehend with the mind) what they were saying. The Greek conjunction mé\te, (neither, and not) occurs twice in this verse, first as "neither" and then as "nor." This compound word consists of two negative particles, mé\, the relative negative, and te, not only.
Paul's use of mé\te, because it begins with the relative negative mé as opposed to ou, the absolute negative, indicates that the false teachers had some vague understanding of what they were broadcasting but not to the point where it had transformed their own lives or helped to mature the believers around them. In fact, if their doctrine resembled the myths and genealogies Paul referred to earlier, we know that those esoteric teachings were completely incapable of assisting believers in their Christian walk (v. 4).
Interestingly, so much of what the apostle elucidated regarding these false teachers can be traced back to their detachment from true love (agápe\, selfless love). Generally speaking, when unbelievers turn away from agápe\, they unavoidably fail to fulfill the greatest commandment: to love the Lord with all their mind (Matt. 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27). The Ephesians referred to here in verse 7 could not understand God's love nor could they love Him with their mind and heart because love is not first understood with the intellect but believed (pisteúo\, to trust) spiritually by faith.
Furthermore, the self-appointed teachers were attempting to speak logically (légo\) but were unable to do so, because true logic (ho lógos, logic, intelligence), which is only found in the person of Jesus Christ (John 1:1), was not dwelling within them. Their instruction, instead of originating from God's infinite intelligence, was borne out of their twisted human reasoning (dialogismós , thoughts, opinions) and pride which at its core is malicious (pone\rós, evil) and damaging (Matt. 15:19).
In addition to having warped logic, these unbelievers were plagued with incomplete knowledge (gno\sis, factual knowledge; 1 Cor. 13:8, 9, 12). On the other hand, true believers realize that they are undergoing a process of growth that will culminate at Christ's future coming (Matt. 5:48; 1 John 3:1-3). In a sense, this process could be termed "progressive perfection" because the believer is made more and more complete (téleios, perfect) as he matures by God's power.
Finally, Paul noted that these counterfeits did not intellectually comprehend (noéo\ ) what they were affirming (diabebaióomai , to assert strongly). This compound Greek verb consists of the preposition diá, thorough, and the verb bebaióo\, to confirm. In this statement, diá serves to intensify the definition of bebaióo\, which essentially means these unbelievers were asserting supposed truths with a certainty that made their teaching sound believable. For the unlearned or those young in the faith, these false doctrines were extremely harmful and could have diverted them from the path of righteousness.