"Dedicated to strengthening and encouraging the Body of Christ."

Beware Of False Prophets And False Teachers

By Rich Carmicheal

    “Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many” (Matt. 24:11).

    “For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.  See, I have told you beforehand” (Matt. 24:24-25).

    “…Savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.  Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch...” (Acts 20:29-31).

    Scripture warns us very clearly to watch 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 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 according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth” (2 Tim. 4:3-4).  The condition is similar to Jeremiah’s day:  “An astonishing and horrible thing has been committed in the land:  the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule by their own power; and My people love to have 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 seven such distinguishing marks.

    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 those who are great exercise authority over them.  Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him 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, your Lord and Teacher, have 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 12) and “mouth great swelling words, flattering people to gain advantage” (v. 16).  They are similar to the bad shepherds in Ezekiel’s day:  “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves!  Should not the shepherds feed the flock?  You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool; you slaughter the fatlings, but you do not feed the flock.  The weak you have not strengthened, nor have you healed those who were sick, nor bound up the broken, nor brought back what was driven away, nor sought what was lost; but with force and cruelty you have ruled 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 corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain.  From such withdraw yourself.  Now godliness with contentment is great gain.  For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.  And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content.  But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition.  For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (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:  “Because from the least of them even to the greatest of them, everyone is given to covetousness; and from the prophet even to the priest, everyone deals falsely” (Jer. 6:13); “Her heads judge for a bribe, her priests teach for pay, and her prophets divine for money…” (Mic. 3:11); “Yes, they are greedy dogs which never have enough. And they are shepherds who cannot understand; they look to their own way, every one for his own gain, from his own territory” (Isa. 56:11).

    Jesus warns, “Take heed and beware of covetousness…” (Luke 12:15).  We must be especially alert of false teachers in this regard because they have hearts “trained in covetous practices” (2 Pet. 2:14) and “by covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words” (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 apparel.  Yes, you yourselves know that these hands have provided for my necessities, and for those who were with me.  I have shown in every way, by laboring like this, that you must support the weak.  And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (Acts 20:33-35).  Paul also wrote, “For we are not, as so many, peddling the Word of God; but as of sincerity, but as from God…” (2 Cor. 2:17).  Godly leaders are not to be “greedy for money” (1 Tim. 3:3).  And again, Paul’s words to Timothy:  “And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content” (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:  “But truly I am full of power by the Spirit of the Lord, and of justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin” (Mic. 3:8).  In fact, the Lord sent all the Old Testament prophets to preach repentance:  “I have also sent to you all My servants the prophets, rising up early and sending them, saying, ‘Turn now everyone from his evil way, amend your doings, and do not go after other gods to serve 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 (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 continually say to those who despise Me, ‘The Lord has said, “You shall have peace”’; and to everyone who walks according to the dictates of his own heart, they say, ‘No evil shall come upon you’” (Jer. 23:17).  Instead of rebuking sin, they actually “strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that no one turns back from his wickedness” (23:14).

    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 counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).  They realize that “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).  They do not distort the Word of God or water it down, but they “preach the Word” and “convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching” (4:2).  They are diligent to present themselves approved to God as workmen who do not need to be ashamed, “rightly dividing the Word of truth” (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 delivered 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 heart, not from the mouth of the Lord” (Jer. 23:16), “prophesy out of their own heart” and “follow their own spirit” (Ezek. 13:2-3).

    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 to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting” (Eph. 4:14).

    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 bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them...” (2 Pet. 2:1).  Jude describes false leaders as those who “deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ” (Jude 4).  Likewise, the Apostle Paul exhorts us:  “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ.  For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (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 our Lord Jesus Christ be with you 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 the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants 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:  “...‘For both prophet and priest are profane; Yes, in My house I have found their wickedness....  Also I have seen a horrible thing in the prophets of Jerusalem:  they commit adultery and walk in lies; they also strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that no one turns back from his wickedness.  All of them are like Sodom to Me…’” (Jer. 23:9-14).  The Prophet Zephaniah added, “[Jerusalem’s] prophets are insolent, treacherous people; her priests have polluted 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 men who turn the grace of our God into lewdness...” (v. 4), men who “defile the flesh, 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…” (2:19).

    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 indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.  Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside 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 (23:23).

    Notice the stark contrast with godly leaders.  The Apostle Paul, for example, shared how his exhortation did not come from “error or uncleanness, nor was it in deceit” nor with “flattering words…nor a cloak for covetousness,” nor did he seek glory from men (1 Thes. 2:3-6).  Instead, he conducted himself “devoutly and justly and blamelessly” (2:10).  He exhorted Timothy to set an example “in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12).  He also instructed Timothy to uphold the highest standards for other godly leaders:  “[An overseer]…must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober­minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent…but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous” (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 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 “persons 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 the disciples after themselves” (Acts 20:29-30).  The Apostle Paul warns, “…Note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them.  For those who are such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple” (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 edification and not for destruction” (2 Cor. 13:10).  They give “no offense in anything” that could discredit their ministry, but instead are commendable in every way:  “in much patience, in tribulations…in labors…by purity, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, by the Word of truth, by the power of God…” (see Second Corinthians 6:3-10).  And through such faithful ministry, the Gospel produces spiritual fruit (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 grow worse and 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 “is reserved the blackness of darkness forever” (Jude 13).  We dare not come under their influence, but must see that no one misleads us (Matt. 24:4).

    – Reprinted from an earlier issue of Herald of His Coming.