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Wolves and Sheep: How to Spot a False Prophet: Matthew 7:15-20

I am a Christian pastor who wishes to bring glory to God in all that I do, and to help people through my writing to know Him better.

wolves-and-sheep

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, called these evil people 'wolves in sheep's clothing.' A wolf in sheep's clothing has now come down to us in the English speaking world as an idiom used to describe those playing a role contrary to their real character, with whom contact is dangerous, particularly false teachers.

Here is what our Lord has to say about these dangerous individuals. He states:

"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." (Matthew 7:15-20).

It is interesting that Jesus wasn't the first to use the symbolism of a a wolf to talk about dangerous leaders. The prophet Ezekiel, in speaking about God's judgment on the sinfulness of Jerusalem, gives this assessment:

"Her princes within her are like wolves tearing the prey, by shedding blood and destroying lives in order to get dishonest gain." (Ezekiel 22:27).

And we find also, later in history, after Jesus' resurrection, 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)

Sadly, just as in the days of Ezekiel, as well as in the time of Jesus and the Apostles, there are still false prophets in our midst today in this century. And it is imperative that 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 evildoers in order to recognize them.

Jesus tells us that these individuals can be spotted by the discerning Christian. But just how can we do that? To explain this he uses the metaphors of two trees with two types of fruit.

I. You Recognize a Wolf and a Sheep by their Fruit

Christ compares the false disciples to trees producing bad fruit. The true disciples, on the other hand, produces good fruit.

The wolf in sheep's clothing may have a seminary degree and be biblically literate in every way. However, his main purpose is to prey upon the innocent and the unlearned. He seeks to harm the true sheep both physically and spiritually. And he is there to lead them to ruin.
The wolf is the symbol of evil and destruction. And that is the result of the fruit that he produces. In the wild wolves will kill sheep by attacking the throat, similar to the manner in which a coyote kills a sheep. Wolves, however, will damage the underlying tissue much more. Wolf damage is deep, leaving evidence in underlying tissues. And, of course, they feast on the dead sheep.

Sheep, are the symbol of innocence and purity throughout the Bible. While at the same time they can be very perceptive. Here is what Chad Napier, a contributing writer on the website Christianity.com has to say about these creatures:

"Sheep are also very perceptive animals. In John 10:27, Jesus taught that his “sheep” hear his voice, he knows them, and they follow him. Thus, it isn’t the appearance of the sheep, but its ability to ascertain the voice of the shepherd that differentiates it from other animals."

And it is by sticking close to the Shepherd and following his voice that the sheep remain safe and learn to discern the bad fruit that the wolves are producing. With that in mind, let's be good sheep, listen to the voice of God's Word, the Bible, and take a look at the fruit of a wolf so that we are able to spot him when he tries to devour us.

II. False Prophets/Teachers Distort the Gospel

The first bad fruit that one can notice is a distortion of the gospel. In fact there were many in the New Testament world who were distorting the true message, making it a gospel of works rather than the good news of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone. 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 wolves in sheep's clothing. 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 extremely seriously.

III. False Prophets/Teachers Fail to Display the Fruit of the Spirit

A second bad fruit that can be noticed in a wolf is a failure 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 some 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 brings about 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 (Galatians 5:22,23).

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:

  1. Are more interested in popularity rather than truth.
  2. Are more interested in receiving rather than giving.
  3. Their personal life is a seduction to evil rather than an attraction for good.
  4. 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 for Him.

IV. False Prophets/Teachers Use Godliness as a Means of Gain

The next rotten fruit that you can observe in a wolf is the use of 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, sex 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.

V. False Prophets/Teachers Scatter and Divide Congregations

A final bad fruit of a wolf is the fact that they scatter and divide whole congregations of God's people. It happened in the days of Jeremiah as he preached to the crumbling nation of Judah. In Jeremiah 23:1, the prophet detailed the results of faulty pastors or teachers when he warned:

"Woe be unto the pastors that destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!”

And, of course, we already quoted the section in Acts 20 where Paul was talking with the Ephesian elders. He says in Acts 20:29 that:

“I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.”

A real sheep is not a bloodthirsty killer. They are rather harmless pack animals who will do no harm to anyone. However, a wolf's nature is to devour and destroy. This will come out eventually, no matter how hard they try to conceal it.

Jesus tells his disciples in Matthew 10:16 that He is sending us out into the midst of these evil people. Therefore He warns us that we have to be able to discern them and avoid their evil intentions. He puts it this way:

“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.

We have to follow the lead of our Shephard and be wiser than the false teachers are so that these evil wolves won't divide and conquer us as they have so many others in the past.

Conclusion

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 that seriously, it is surely something that every Christian must watch out for as well.

The wolves in sheep's clothing are just as prevalent, just as vicious and destructive 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. And it is by remaining close to the Shepherd in order that He will protect us from these evil people.

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 any of 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

Comments

Jeff Shirley (author) from Hesperia, Michigan on July 28, 2012:

You're certainly right lifegate. There seem to be more wolves out there than ever before. And it frightens me that many Christians today are so unaware of what the Bible says. We seem to have biblical illiteracy, and it is hurting the Church. We as spiritual leaders must continue to stress the importance of knowing the Word of God. Thanks for your comments.

William Kovacic from Pleasant Gap, PA on July 28, 2012:

GodTalk,

Thanks for the age old warning that needs to be sounded again. I wouldn't be surprised if there isn't a wolf for every sheep. We must be on guard and know the Scriptures for ourselves. It's when we depend on another to give us the truth that we get confused. Thanks for sharing this important message,

William Kovacic from Pleasant Gap, PA on July 28, 2012:

GodTalk,

Thanks for the age old warning that needs to be sounded again. I wouldn't be surprised if there isn't a wolf for every sheep. We must be on guard and know the Scriptures for ourselves. It's when we depend on another to give us the truth that we get confused. Thanks for sharing this important message,

Jeff Shirley (author) from Hesperia, Michigan on July 28, 2012:

Thank you for stopping by and for your comment.

Super Lux from Singapore on July 27, 2012:

well written.

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