Wolves and Sheep: How to Spot a False Prophet
The Bible Warns of False Teachers
There was an article in the Sunday School Times that told the story of an examination given in a grade school in which the teacher asked the children: "What is false doctrine." As fast as he could ask the question, up went a little boy's hand. And then he gave this answer: "It's when a doctor gives the wrong medicine to the people who are sick!"
False doctor'n is right. That little boy was unknowingly summing up the danger of many preachers today. There are doctors in the pulpits of our world who are giving the wrong "medicine" to sin-sick souls.
There are false religious leaders all around us who claim to speak for God, just as there have always been. So we have to be very careful who we follow. The New Testament world was full of these people who sounded and even looked good. They were smooth talkers and charismatic, getting many to follow them. The problem was so bad that there were whole books of the Bible written about various false teachers. These books include Galatians, II Peter, and Jude. However, these aren't the only places in Scripture that give us warnings about these false prophets.
Our Lord Himself, in His famous Sermon on the Mount, has this to say:
"Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruit. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to Me, "Lord, Lord" will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter." (Matthew 7:15-21).
The Apostle Paul, when leaving Ephesus, was deeply troubled and with tears gave this warning to the elders there:
"Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His 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, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears" (Acts 20:28-31)
Just as in the days of Jesus and the Apostles, there are still false prophets in our time. And it is imperative we make sure that they aren't leading us or the rest of God's people astray. We must find out what Scripture teaches us about these people in order to recognize them. And their fruit should warn us whether or not they are from God. Here are three major signs that you are dealing with a false prophet.
I. False Prophets/Teachers Distort the Gospel
There were many in the New Testament world who were distorting the true Gospel message, making it a Gospel of works rather than the good news of salvation by grace through faith. The Bible plainly teaches that it is not by works of righteousness which we have done, but it is all by the mercy and grace of God, through faith in Jesus Christ (Titus 3:5; Ephesians 2:8,9).
The book of Galatians was written to speak out and warn against a distortion of the Gospel. There were certain men known as the Judaizers that were telling the Galatians that they needed to add the following of the Law and circumcision to the Gospel in order to be saved. The Apostle Paul gave his strongest rebuke against these men. He wrote:
"But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!" (Galatians 1:8,9).
The word accursed here is the Greek word anathema. This refers to devoting someone to eternal destruction in hell. Paul clearly took the distortion of the Gospel of the grace of God quite seriously.
II. False Prophets/Teachers Fail to Display the Fruit of the Spirit
None of us is perfect, and neither will the leaders of the Church be perfect. However, if you examine a person's life, there should be evidence of a sincere love of the Lord Jesus Christ, and evidence of the fruit of the Spirit developing in his life. The book of Galatians tells us that the Holy Spirit develops in the true believer nine characteristics of a person who is truly saved. They include love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
A true Christian leader should set the example for a godly lifestyle. Once again, that doesn't mean sinless perfection. That will not happen in this life. But if their lives aren't reflecting this fruit, then there is a problem.
I recently heard a sermon by Chuck Swindoll where he gave some qualities to look for in one who isn't reflecting the true fruit. He states that false teachers:
- Are more interested in popularity rather than truth.
- Are more interested in receiving rather than giving.
- Their personal life is a seduction to evil rather than an attraction for good.
- They lead people away from God rather than to Him.
These are some good guidelines to look for in deciding whether or not a leader is truly from the Lord. The bottom line is that a true Christian leader will seek to glorify and reflect the Lord Jesus Christ. They will not want to live for themselves, but Him.
III. False Prophets/Teachers Use Godliness as a Means of Gain
A false prophet or teacher is one who, at heart is selfish. He doesn't care about the Lord or about the people to whom he is ministering. Rather he is looking to get whatever he can for himself. He looks for what the world is looking for; money, power, and fame. Paul talks about it in I Timothy 6:3-7. He tells Timothy:
"If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing; but he has morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions, and constant friction between men of depraved mind and deprived of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. But godliness actually is a means of great gain when accompanied with contentment. For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either. If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content."
As you look at a leader, it may not be readily apparent what is in his heart. But as you watch his life and hear what he focuses on in his sermons and teaching, it will soon become apparent if God is at the center of his life. And if someone's sermons are constantly asking for more and more money, then it is an indication that he may be seeking to use godliness for financial gain. If these sermons bring attention to him rather than God, that should be taken as a warning to flee from him and his ministry as soon as possible.
The Apostle Paul in II Corinthians 11:13-15 is discussing the false Apostles which were causing him troubles as well as leading the people of Corinth astray. He said this about these men:
"For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their actions."
As we can see here and earlier in Galatians, Paul didn't mince words about these people who would distort the Gospel of the Grace of God and neither should we. This concern for the distortion of the Word of God is further seen in the amount of writing that the New Testament authors, in general, have done on the subject of false prophets. If Scripture takes this seriously it is surely something that every Christian must watch out for as well.
The wolves in sheep's clothing are just as prevalent in our day as they were in the first century and we need to be on guard against these teachers with their counterfeit Gospel. The major way to do that is to know God's Word ourselves so we won't be lead astray.
I have been told that the way that Federal Government employees are taught to spot counterfeit money is to study the real thing so closely that they will see the fake right away when they pick it up. We all need to know Scripture that well so that any false doctrine preached will be seen immediately for what it is. In our day and age, we have to be the ones who hold fast to the truth and expose those who would distort the historic Christian faith.
We must remain faithful ourselves to the Gospel of the grace of God. And we, at all cost, have to keep these false teachers from leading God's people astray with their silver-tongued lies. May God give us the strength and the wisdom to remain true to Him and to His Word.
© 2012 Jeff Shirley