Beware Of False Prophets And False Teachers (Part 1)
"And many false prophets will arise, and will mislead many"(Matt. 24:11).
"For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect. Behold, I have told you in advance" (Matt. 24:24-25).
"…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..." (Acts 20:29-31).
Scripture warns us very clearly to be on the alert for false prophets and false teachers in the last days. The need for discernment is critical because such false leaders arise from among us (Acts 20:30; 2 Pet. 2:1), come in sheep’s clothing (Matt. 7:15), creep in unnoticed (Jude 1:4), secretly introduce their destructive heresies (2 Pet. 2:1), and can even show great signs and wonders to try to mislead God’s people (Matt. 24:24). They are deceitful workers and can disguise themselves as apostles of Christ and servants of righteousness (2 Cor. 11:13-15).
The danger is compounded by the fact that in the last days many people "will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; and will turn away their ears from the truth…" (2 Tim. 4:3-4). The condition is similar to Jeremiah’s day: "An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land: The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule on their own authority; and My people love it so!..." (Jer. 5:30-31). Many people today, even within the church, are opening the door and welcoming, and even embracing, the ministry and message of false teachers.
Thankfully, the Lord not only warns us about false leaders (teachers, prophets, shepherds and apostles), but He also shows us in His Word how to identify false leaders from the godly ones that He gives to the church. I invite you to consider four such distinguishing marks at this time, and additional ones in the next issue of the Herald.
1. False leaders want others to serve them; true leaders desire to serve others. Jesus emphasizes that in God’s kingdom, the strong are to serve the weak: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant...just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:25-28). Likewise, after washing His disciples’ feet, He instructed them, "If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet…" (John 13:14). God gives leaders power and authority so that they might serve others.
False leaders, however, abuse power by exploiting others to their own benefit. They mostly care about themselves (Jude 1:12) and "speak arrogantly, flattering people for the sake of gaining an advantage" (Jude 1:16). They are similar to the bad shepherds in Ezekiel’s day: "Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flock? You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat sheep without feeding the flock. Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and with severity you have dominated them" (Ezek. 34:2-4).
Be suspect whenever you see a leader draw attention to himself and to his own needs rather than to the needs of others. A true leader is humble and considers others as more important than himself, giving special attention to those who are especially vulnerable, such as the sick, the poor, the oppressed and the lost. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11).
2. False leaders focus on money; true leaders focus on ministry. A good indication that someone is a false teacher is when he focuses on money and material possessions, and teaches that godliness is a means to financial gain. This is such a widespread false teaching today, even though the Scriptures clearly warn against it. For example, the Apostle Paul, in the context of unsound doctrine, writes about "...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 by 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. But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs" (see First Timothy 6:3-10).
The same problem plagued God’s people in Old Testament days. Listen to Jeremiah, Micah and Isaiah lament the pathetic conditions: "For from the least of them even to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for gain, and from the prophet even to the priest every one deals falsely" (Jer. 6:13); "Her leaders pronounce judgment for a bribe, her priests instruct for a price and her prophets divine for money" (Mic. 3:11); "And the dogs are greedy, they are not satisfied. And they are shepherds who have no understanding; they have all turned to their own way, each one to his unjust gain, to the last one" (Isa. 56:11).
Jesus warns, "Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed…" (Luke 12:15). We must be especially alert of false teachers in this regard because they have hearts "trained in greed" (2 Pet. 2:14) and "in their greed they will exploit you with false words" (2 Pet. 2:3). Of course, they cloak their deception by using (actually, misusing and twisting) biblical terminology, but in the end, their focus is still on money and material possessions.
Consider how much this contrasts with a godly leader such as the Apostle Paul: "I have coveted no one’s silver or gold or clothes. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my own needs and to the men who were with me. In every thing I showed you that by working hard in this manner you must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’" (Acts 20:33-35). Paul also wrote, "For we are not like many, peddling the Word of God, but as from sincerity, but as from God…" (2 Cor. 2:17). Godly leaders are to be "free from the love of money" (1 Tim. 3:3). And again, Paul’s words to Timothy: "If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content" (1 Tim. 6:8).
3. False leaders whitewash sin; true leaders preach repentance. An integral part of the message of a man sent by God is the call to repent of sin and return to God. The prophet Micah, for example, contrasted his ministry with the false prophets and priests of his day who hated good, loved evil and led God’s people astray: "On the other hand I am filled with power – with the Spirit of the Lord – and with justice and courage to make known to Jacob his rebellious act, even to Israel his sin" (Mic. 3:8). In fact, the Lord sent all the Old Testament prophets to preach repentance: "I have sent to you all My servants the prophets, sending them again and again saying: ‘Turn now every man from his evil way, and amend your deeds, and do not go after other gods to worship them...’" (Jer. 35:15).
Repentance is a major focus as well in the preaching and teaching in the New Testament. John the Baptist preached repentance (Matt. 3:1-2), Jesus preached repentance (Matt. 4:17), Peter and Paul preached repentance (Acts 2:38; 3:19; 26:20), and in the letters to the seven churches, Jesus continued to stress the necessity of repentance (Rev. 2:5, 16, 21, 22; 3:3, 19). Godly leaders do not skirt the issue of sin, but hit it head on and issue strong calls to repentance. They admonish people to forsake sin and return to the Lord.
False prophets and false teachers, however, water down the seriousness of sin. The Lord declares of them: "They keep saying to those who despise Me, ‘The Lord has said, "You will have peace"’; and as for every one who walks in the stubbornness of his own heart, they say, ‘Calamity will not come upon you’" (Jer. 23:17). He also declares, "So My hand will be against all the prophets who see false visions and utter lying divinations.... It is definitely because they have misled My people by saying, ‘Peace!’ when there is no peace. And when anyone builds a wall, behold, they plaster it over with whitewash; so tell those who plaster it over with whitewash, that it will fall..." (Ezek. 13:9-11). Instead of rebuking sin, they actually encourage "the wicked not to turn from his wicked way and preserve his life" (Ezek. 13:22).
False prophets and false teachers are more concerned with pleasing others and offering self-help than with stressing the need for each person to deny self, take up his cross and follow Christ. They do not treat sin seriously, and do not expose it to ward off judgment. They flatter others and promise favor with God without repentance and obedience.
4. False leaders misuse the Word of God; true leaders proclaim the whole counsel of God. Not only do true leaders preach and teach repentance, they are faithful to proclaim "the whole purpose of God" (Acts 20:27). They realize that "all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness" (2 Tim. 3:16). They do not distort the Word of God or water it down, but they "preach the Word" and "reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction" (2 Tim. 4:2). They are diligent to present themselves approved to God as workmen who do not need to be ashamed, "accurately handling the Word of truth" (2 Tim. 2:15). They do not preach nor teach their own word, but God’s Word, regardless of how popular or unpopular it may be. They set forth the Word of God plainly and powerfully. They do not follow the whims of popular theology, but "contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints" (Jude 3).
False prophets and false teachers, on the other hand, malign the way of truth (2 Pet. 2:2). They draw only from the portions of Scripture that serve their purposes, and even then they pervert and distort the Word of God to their advantage (Jer. 23:36; Gal. 1:7; 2 Pet. 3:16). They "speak a vision of their own imagination, not from the mouth of the Lord" (Jer. 23:16), "prophesy from their own inspiration" (Ezek. 13:2), and follow "their own spirit" (Ezek. 13:3).
Of course, false teachers can be very deceitful and convincing. This is why God’s people must be alert, must take the whole counsel of God’s Word to heart, and must consider present-day teaching in light of the doctrine that has been passed down through the ages. Again, Jesus warns that many will be misled. We must grow up in Christ so that we are not "...tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by the craftiness in deceitful scheming..." (Eph. 4:14).
In next month’s issue, I will share additional distinguishing marks of false and true spiritual leaders.