Beware Of False Prophets And False Teachers (Part Two)
"I did not send these prophets, but they ran. I did not speak to them, but they prophesied" (Jer. 23:21).
Just because someone claims to be a prophet or teacher from God, does not mean that he is. In fact, Jesus warns that "many false prophets will arise, and mislead many" (Matt. 24:11). We have a great responsibility, therefore, to be alert for false leaders.
Last month, I described four ways to distinguish false leaders from the godly leaders the Lord gives to the church. I invite you to now consider three more distinguishing marks.
5. False leaders have a distorted theology of Christ; true leaders keep their focus on Christ. A central mark of a false prophet or false teacher is distorted theology regarding the Person and work of Christ. The Apostle Peter warns that there will "be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them..." (2 Pet. 2:1). Jude describes false leaders as those who "deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ" (Jude 4). The Apostle John instructs us to "not believe every spirit, but to test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God..." (1 John 4:1-3). Likewise, the Apostle Paul exhorts us: "See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. For in Him all the fullness of the Deity dwells in bodily form" (Col. 2:8-9).
The theology of the Person and work of Christ is, of course, of utmost significance. In fact, the whole focus of the New Testament is upon Christ, from the beginning of Matthew, "The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ…" (Matt. 1:1), to the end of Revelation, "The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen" (Rev. 22:21). In between, the pages of God’s Word highlight Christ’s virgin birth, His divinity, His powerful ministry, His sinless life, His sacrificial death, His resurrection, His ascension to the right hand of the Father, and His promise to come again.
In light of the centrality of Christ, it is not surprising that false prophets, false teachers and false religious groups distort the view of Christ. The spirit of the antichrist is very much at work in the world (1 John 4:3), and that spirit is opposed to all that God wants to accomplish through Christ. Beware of any person or group that in any way diminishes the Person or work of Christ, including His miraculous birth, His divinity, His death on the Cross, His resurrection or His Second Coming.
On the other hand, true leaders keep the focus on Christ, exalting Him above everyone and everything else. Their preaching and teaching is centered in Christ (1 Cor. 1:23; Col. 1:28), and their theology about Christ is in harmony with the emphasis of the New Testament and long-standing church tradition. As the Apostle Paul declared, "For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake" (2 Cor. 4:5).
6. False leaders have ungodly character; true leaders are consistently godly. Another significant mark of false leaders is ungodly character. In the days of the Old Testament, the Lord lamented through the prophet Jeremiah: "…My heart is broken within me...‘For both prophet and priest are polluted; even in My house I have found their wickedness.... Also among the prophets of Jerusalem I have seen a horrible thing: The committing of adultery and walking in falsehood; and they strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that no one has turned back from his wickedness. All of them have become to Me like Sodom…’" (Jer. 23:9-14). The prophet Zephaniah added, "[Jerusalem’s] prophets are reckless, treacherous men; her priests have profaned the sanctuary…" (Zeph. 3:4). How tragic that the leaders were so full of moral pollution, wickedness, falsehood, recklessness and treachery. And from them, pollution had gone forth into all the land (Jer. 23:15).
The same was true in New Testament times. Jude describes false leaders as "ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness..." (v. 4), men who "defile the flesh, and reject authority" (v. 8), men who follow after their own lusts, and who speak arrogantly and flatter people for their own advantage (v. 16). The Apostle Peter likewise notes how they indulge the flesh, despise authority, practice deception and live in sin (2 Pet. 2:10-14). They promise freedom "while they themselves are slaves of corruption…" (2 Pet. 2:19).
Such ungodliness and deception can be cleverly cloaked. For example, Jesus declared of the ungodly religious leaders of His day, "For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness" (Matt. 23:27-28). Of course, Jesus saw right through the disguise and pointed out that these men liked to draw attention to themselves (Matt. 23:5-6; Luke 20:46), did not practice what they preached (Matt. 23:3) and were not just, merciful or faithful (Matt. 23:23).
Notice the stark contrast with godly leaders. The Apostle Paul, for example, shared how his exhortation did not come from "error or impurity or by way of deceit" nor "with flattering speech…nor with a pretext for greed," nor did he seek glory from men (1 Thes. 2:3-6). Instead, he conducted himself "devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly" (1 Thes. 2:10).
He exhorted Timothy to set an example in "speech, conduct, love, faith and purity" (1 Tim. 4:12), and to uphold the highest standards for other godly leaders: "An overseer…must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, uncontentious..." (1 Tim. 3:2-3). In other words, the character of a true leader is consistent and godly in every aspect of his life. Whenever there are signs of inconsistency or ungodliness in a leader’s life, beware.
7. False leaders bear bad fruit; true leaders bear good fruit. An indication of a false leader is that he produces bad spiritual fruit. Jesus teaches, "Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits…" (Matt. 7:15-16). On the outside they may appear innocent, harmless and meek, but the fruit of their ministry reveals that their ultimate concern is not the well-being of the sheep. They are "ones who cause divisions" (Jude 19). They are shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of God’s pasture (Jer. 23:1). They are "savage wolves…not sparing the flock" and they "draw away disciples after them" (Acts 20:29-30). The Apostle Paul warns, "…keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting" (Rom. 16:17-18).
On the other hand, the true leaders that Christ gives to the church equip the saints, and build up the saints toward unity in the faith (Eph. 4:13). They use the authority the Lord gives them "for building up and not for tearing down" (2 Cor. 13:10). They give "no cause for offense in anything" that could discredit their ministry, but instead are commendable in every way: "in much endurance, in afflictions…in labors…in purity, in knowledge, in patience, in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in genuine love, in the word of truth, in the power of God…" (see 2 Cor. 6:3-10). And through such faithful ministry, the Gospel produces spiritual fruit (see Col. 1:6-7).
Be Ever Watchful
We can be very grateful for good leaders who keep careful watch over our lives as those who will give account (Heb. 13:17). But at the same time, we must be ever alert to the threat of false leaders who would in any way bring harm to the body of Christ. The Apostle Paul points out that "evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived" (2 Tim. 3:13). And the Apostle Peter warns that many will follow the sensuality of false teachers, and the truth will be maligned (2 Pet. 2:2).
We must, therefore, be very discerning and protect ourselves from false leaders. Their condemnation is certain; for them, "the blackest darkness has been reserved forever" (Jude 13). We dare not come under their influence, but must see that no one misleads us (Matt. 24:4).
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