Jesus warned: ‘Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.’ (Mt.7:15)
In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice Antonio observes:
‘The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
a goodly apple rotten at the heart.
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!’
Jesus teaches us how we might discern the false from the genuine: ‘Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit…Thus, by their fruit you will recognise them.’ (Mt. 7:17-20)
A tree takes time to bear fruit; take time to judge it by its fruit. The advice we give people leaving a cult is to take the time you were robbed of last time to think things through properly.
2. False Prophets are Impressive
Jesus warned his followers: ‘False Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect-if that were possible.’ (Mt.24:24)
In John’s gospel we read of the official who begged Jesus to heal his dying son. Jesus’ response is sobering, especially for those who insist on ‘signs following.’ ‘Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders you will never believe.’ (Jn.4:48) There is disappointment, a rebuke in his words.
It wasn’t reluctance to heal that motivated this remark; Jesus went on to heal the man’s son. It was the shallow faith in the spectacular as opposed to simple faith in God’s Son that prompted such a scathing condemnation.
Have you ever heard, ‘Say what you like but you have to admire [name the cult] for [name the virtue]’? It seems it is easy to impress people, especially those who so want to believe. Don’t be easily impressed.
3. False Prophets are Self-Serving
Paul, in his letter to Christians in Rome, wrote of, ‘people [who] are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people.’ (Ro.16:18)
Poverty isn’t especially virtuous, nor is wealth, of itself, necessarily evil. But it has been observed that greed begins where poverty ends. Greed isn’t about getting on in life, but about getting more in life. More money, more power, more property, more prestige, serving the unquenchable appetite for more.
Jesus said, ‘Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ (MT.8:20)
The great cloud of witnesses of Hebrews 11 (Heb.12:1) considered themselves aliens and strangers on earth. (Heb.11:13) False prophets are very much at home in this world.
Another phrase for ‘smooth talk and flattery’ is ‘salesmanship.’ One of the most common crimes among believers of all stamps is affinity fraud. The most common attraction is ‘you can have more.’ False prophets count on that sense of common cause, greed for more, and use flattery to gain your loyalty. Common cause can make us drop our guard.
Don’t be naive; ‘Test everything, Hold onto the good. Avoid every kind of evil.’ (1 Thess.5:21)
4. False Prophets are False Teachers
Peter wrote about, ‘false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them-bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their shameful ways and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up.’ (2 Pet.2:1-3)
Doctrine is increasingly falling out of favour today. But false teachers bring false doctrine. It is interesting that the word heresy derives from the Greek hairesis meaning simply to choose, in this context to choose between parties. False prophets use doctrine to cause division, make people choose. Paul faced many such challenges in his ministry and it was he who used the word heresy in a derogatory sense to warn against those who cause division in the church.
CS Lewis once said, ‘Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.’ Heresy is spread by false prophets via false doctrine. Good doctrine must exist, though not just to refute the bad but to help identify the good. This is what Jude has in mind when he urges, ‘contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.’ (Jude 3)
5. False Prophets Offer False Hope
‘This is what the Lord Almighty says:
‘Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you;
they fill you with false hopes.
They speak visions from their own minds,
not from the mouth of the LORD.” (Jeremiah 23:16)
This is not a new problem. Jeremiah wrote of false prophets who lie, offer false hope, make it up as they go along (speak visions from their own minds). People fear terrible consequences if they dare question such ‘prophets’ because they claim to speak in the name of God.
But God’s counsel is ‘Don’t listen to them!’ We have nothing to fear from ignoring them, indeed, the sooner we see them for what they are the safer we will be. John cautions us, ‘Dear friends, 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 Jn.4:1-2)
If we test the spirits and discover a true servant of God what have we lost in following John’s counsel? If a false prophet see what we have avoided.
6. False Prophets Should be Exposed
‘And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ.’ (2 Cor.11:12-13)
Such combative, derogatory language is unpopular even in pulpits today. Not so for Paul, whose love of the Lord, dedication to the gospel, and care for the lost drove him to cut the ground from under anyone who stood in the way of advancing the work of the kingdom.
Paul tells us we are not ignorant of Satan’s devices (2 Cor.2:11). In another place he urges us to stand firm against the schemes of the devil (Eph.6:11). There is a force at work behind error and every time we hold up error to the light of truth he loses ground. Every time false prophets are challenged and resisted he loses ground.
Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’ (Jn.8:31-32)
It is to bring that freedom we work.