“If you are going to place poison on a shelf where you have healing medicines, you had better label it clearly.”
Life is full of warnings. Cigarette packs warn of lung cancer and other medical problems. Medicines warn against taking them if you have high blood pressure, heart trouble, prostate trouble, or stomach trouble. They also warn against giving them to underage children or taking them with other medications. Highway signs warn of railroad crossings, overpass ice, sharp curves, and inclines.
President Wilson warned Germany before he entered the United States into World War I. His warning came after the sinking of the British passenger liner, the Lusitania, on which were some Americans. And then, there was the sinking of the Sussex, a French passenger ship on which were some Americans. Further, there were sinkings of American merchant ships. Wilson finally asked Congress for a Declaration of War.
The Warning Against Deceivers
False prophets were not new to the Jewish people. Moses had warned them: “If a prophet or dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder comes true, concerning which he spoke to you, saying, ‘Let us go after other gods (whom you have not known) and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams” (Deuteronomy 13:1ff).
Jesus taught the same thing: “See to it that no one misleads you. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will mislead many” (Matthew 24:4).
John wrote, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
When Paul met with the Ephesian elders on the beach near Miletus, he said to them, “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you.…Therefore be on the alert” (Acts 20:29).
False prophets usually gain a hearing. People look for someone or something to believe in (why else would thousands have followed Hitler and committed the crimes he led them to commit). Jesus warns us against false prophets. We need to be alert for those who would deceive us.
The most dangerous thing about false prophets is that they claim to speak for God. They are often received by God’s people.
God, in speaking to Jeremiah, said, “The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule in their own authority, and my people love it” (5:31).
Such people are more dangerous to God’s people than those who claim to be ungodly. These false prophets are on the inside. They destroy God’s people instead of caring for and nurturing them. Sometimes, God’s people allow Satan and the forces of evil to use them to wreak havoc in God’s churches.
The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were prime examples. They pretended to care for the people and to have their best interests at heart. They pretended to be interested in their souls and to represent them before God. But they had their own interests at heart and were looking out for themselves.
Jesus says to beware of such people. Not merely to notice them or sense them but to guard against them. They are like beasts that prey on the weak and unsuspecting.
Wolves were the common enemy of sheep in Palestine. They searched for the stray or straggler. They are clever and wily like false prophets. We need to place ourselves on spiritual alert.
False prophets often come in sheep’s clothing. Prophets were often recognized by what they wore. Elijah wore rough and uncomfortable clothing. John the Baptist wore a coat of camel’s hair.
Shepherds also wore clothing made of wool. False prophets are like the wolf in the cartoon that dressed like a sheep to catch a sheep. By impersonating a shepherd, the false shepherd can deceive the sheep. Some in God’s churches are false prophets and can deceive if we are not spiritually alert.
The Didache, one of the earliest Christian writings after the New Testament, gives several ways to distinguish a true from a false prophet. True prophets would not remain a house guest for more than two days. A true prophet would only ask for bread and water. A true prophet’s lifestyle would correspond with what they taught.
Other ways to tell a true person of God from a false is that they don’t proclaim one must enter the narrow gate to be saved. Their doctrines don’t disturb.
The People’s Temple Christian Church led by Jim Jones is a modern-day example. Many of his followers had been raised in Christian homes. Some saw a chance for higher Christian fellowship and service. Jones knew how to inspire hope. He seemed to care for them and performed many needed services. He preached, claimed to cast out demons, and did miracles and healings. He created what seemed to be a warm Christian community. But there were signs that all was not kosher. Almost a thousand of his followers committed suicide in the jungles of Guyana, South America, thinking they were serving God.
Another example was the followers of David Koresh. He led the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. At times, he claimed to be the Son of God, but he led his followers to a burning inferno.
The Warning to Examine Ourselves
How do we and others know who we are? By examining our fruits (just like looking at a fruit tree).
God’s followers have always been characterized by at least two things: they have been commissioned by God, and they carry his message. We must bear fruit, and the Bible tells us what the fruits of the Spirit are.
A prophet was judged by his lifestyle. Looking and sounding like a prophet didn’t mean he was from God. His lifestyle indicated his authenticity. There was no need to be deceived if a person looked closely.
Jesus uses an illustration. Grapes are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are figs gathered from thistles. From a distance, it might appear to be a fig tree or grapevine, but a closer investigation will show the true nature.
Our fruits tell our story to others. A study of our motives, standards, attitudes, and works show where our loyalties lie. We are not saved by our works, but we are saved to produce good works.
We are to bear love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Our deepest desire should be to glorify and honor God. John Calvin said, “Nothing is more difficult to counterfeit than virtue.”
The Warning of Coming Judgment
Jesus said, “Every tree that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
This is the destiny of false prophets and those who reject God. It is the destiny of those who enter the broad gate and walk the broad way. It is the fate of all who reject faith in God. False prophets and unbelievers are not destroyed by God, but destroy themselves.
Dr. Martin-Lloyd Jones said, “A Christian can generally be known by his very appearance. The man who really believes in the holiness of God, and who knows his own sinfulness and the blackness of his own heart, the man who believes in the judgment of God and the possibility of hell and torment…this man is going to show all that in his personality.”