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Beware of False Prophets

Author's note: The term "prophet" has been used in this article to describe anyone who falsely claims authority within a religious group—whether a prayer group or a larger body—and often uses that authority for evil ends and/or selfish purposes.

Real people have been used to illustrate the points raised in this article. However, as the intention of the author is to draw attention to the traits that expose false prophets, and not to expose the people themselves (even though that would probably be a good idea), their identities have been concealed.

In the late 1980's, a famous tele-evangelist went on record saying that the Spirit had told him that Castro would die in the 1990's. "The Spirit tells me," he proclaimed, "Fidel Castro will die in the 90’s. Oooh my! Some will try to kill him and they will not succeed. But there will come a change in his physical health, and he will not stay in power, and Cuba will be visited of God."

Then, obviously carried away by his own rhetoric, he continued, saying that the Lord also told him that "in the mid 90’s, about ’94-’95, no later than that, God will destroy the homosexual community of America!!"

The book of Deuteronomy asks—and answers—the question that many of us might have: "How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?" (Deut. 18:21)

If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him. (Deut. 18:22)

As we all know, Castro, though ailing, is very much alive. As for homosexuals, far from being destroyed, they appear to be thriving. This prophet surely spoke presumptuously!

Time reveals such people for what they are. Regrettably, we can no longer afford the luxury of waiting for the truth to be revealed to us in time, because it very much looks like we might be running out of it. Consequently, we would do well to heed Jesus's warning (in Matthew 24) that "many false prophets would appear and deceive many people" in the last days, and be able to recognize such people when we encounter them.

Though Jesus also said that by performing great signs and miracles they would deceive even the elect—if that were possible, there are many things that give such men away. These are some of them:

They Bear Bad Fruit

"Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise 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. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. (Matthew 7:15-20, emphasis added)

The easiest way to tell a false prophet from a true one is by looking at the fruit he bears—the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). Unlike the more "glamorous" and sought after gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12), these fruit cannot be faked.

A true man of God will be loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle and self-controlled at all times, not just during those moments when he in on a stage or grandstanding in the midst of an audience. Being in the presence of such a man often results in a feeling of well-being in us. We might be convicted by some of the things he might say, but there will be a hopeful optimism that accompanies the conviction.

A man who is not from God, however, will not be able to bear any of the fruit of the Holy Spirit. While some are able to put on an act in public (several are so arrogant they don't bother!) their behavior in private will reveal them for what they truly are. They are unloving, far from patient, exhibit little trace of gentleness, and in no way resemble the man of God described above. Many are downright sinful, and lead others astray as well. It is very difficult to be in the presence of such people and not experience a nagging feeling of disquiet, if not worse.

The fruit of the Spirit is not only a way of recognizing a false prophet; it can also serve as a guide to recognizing a bad Christian because we are all required to bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit—and in great abundance (John 15:8).

They Preach a False Gospel

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.

They keep saying to those who despise me,
'The LORD says: You will have peace.'
And to all who follow the stubbornness of their hearts
they say, 'No harm will come to you.'

But which of them has stood in the council of the LORD
to see or to hear his word?
Who has listened and heard his word?

(Jeremiah 23:16-18)

We like to sleep well at night, and as a general rule tend to dislike those who disturb that peace. False preachers don't want to be disliked—their bank balances depend on it—so they preach a gospel that is patently untrue, or at best, half true, filling us with false hopes and lulling us into a sense of complacency.

They will speak of God's loving and merciful nature, telling us we need have no worry about our salvation because it is assured for us if we merely believe in Jesus, and no amount of sinning can stop us from reaching heaven. They will preach of blessings and prosperity, making no mention of the salvific aspects of poverty and suffering.

Peter warns of these men: "But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them." (2 Peter 2:1)

Even those without any evil agendas sometimes put their own spin on Scripture. I once heard a man proclaim from the pulpit that Jesus never performed the miracle of fish and loaves described in Matthew 14. What actually happened, he said, was that a young boy pulled out the bread and fish that he had with him and decided to share it with those near him. Seeing what he did, everybody else around him was moved to take out the little snack boxes that they were carrying and share their food as well, and so everybody ended up eating!

I don't believe this man was a "false prophet;" I think he was just trying to be clever, but the fact remains that such people can lead us astray with the nonsense they preach. So how do we recognize those who preach a false gospel? Some bankers might have a solution.

The Bank of England has a counterfeit department whose task it is to identify fake notes. They spend hours studying currency notes. The notes that they study, however, are not fake, but real notes! They do this, so that when they come across a counterfeit note they will instantly recognize it.

We need to be like the people at the Bank of England, studying the Word of God so thoroughly that when we come across somebody who is preaching a fake gospel, the alarm bells will instantly go off and we will be on the alert.

They Are Greedy

In their greed these teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up. (2 Peter 2:3)

I once heard a relatively famous preacher claim that the Holy Spirit insisted he buy a Rolls Royce for his wife as any other car would be unsafe for her to drive in. This preacher, if you believe him (many do!), had once been to heaven and met God the Father there.

Another famous preacher, who said the Holy Spirit told him he should wear Armani suits and travel in Lear Jets, claims that Jesus shares stage space with him! All these wild stories are woven so that we can be parted from our money more easily. (A friend of mine once sent this particular gentleman a prayer request; she got an immediate reply—asking for a donation. The minimum amount accepted was US$25!)

Some preachers won't leave their homes if they aren't assured of first class travel and five star accommodation. Others won't move an inch if they aren't assured of an audience numbering at least 50,000. I can only shake my head in awe at the sheer audacity of their demands. They obviously missed Jesus's instructions to his apostles: "Do not take along any gold or silver or copper in your belts; take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic, or sandals or a staff; for the worker is worth his keep." (Matthew 10:9,10)

I don't deny that travelling the way that Jesus commanded would be too extreme—and possibly impractical—for most people in this age. Nor do I deny that money is needed for ministry; after all, even Jesus had a fund for his work. (John 13:29) But when the main reason for ministry appears to be "fund raising" that ensures the preacher can live in greater luxury and travel in greater comfort at the expense of somebody who might be struggling to take care of bare necessities, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.

They Are Arrogant and Despise Authority

This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the sinful nature and despise authority. Bold and arrogant, these men are not afraid to slander celestial beings. (2 Peter 2:10)

I recently came across a man who was immensely blessed. He had talents that would be the envy of many. He had put them all in the service of God and I knew that he would do even greater things than he already was to bring people to God. And yet, as I spoke to him I realized that he was in danger of jeopardizing his own salvation even as he led others to it, because he was immensely arrogant. Believing himself extraordinarily blessed, he didn't think he needed to put himself under the authority of any other, especially those he considered inferior to himself.

Men like this abound. They are very dangerous, both to themselves and to others, because when we don't place ourselves under authority we leave ourselves open to corruption by the enemy, who can easily mimic the voice of the Holy Spirit, and cause us to do his will, even as we believe we are doing the will of God. The only safety valve is having somebody overseeing us.

I know of several such men who have gone out of control. Their arrogance makes them believe that they are "anointed"—to the exclusion of everybody else—and while they might not slander celestial beings, they slander just about everybody else. (There is one such man who is doing the rounds in my neighborhood claiming that I am Satan! God bless him!)

Regardless of how "anointed" such men (or women) might seem to be, if they do not work under the authority of the Church and a Spiritual Director, beware of them. Also beware of those who claim they have exclusivity over the anointing of the Holy Spirit.

They Are Boastful and Exploit the Weak

For they mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of sinful human nature, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity—for a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him. (2 Peter 2:18,19)

It is generally an accepted fact that the people most likely to turn to God are people beset by problems that have grown larger than their own ability to solve. Very often these problems are emotional, making the people suffering from them extremely vulnerable. While a man of God will try to assist in solving these problems, a false prophet will manipulate them to suit his own need—either materially or for other purposes.

A few years ago 80 people belonging to a pseudo-Christian sect perished in a fire during an FBI assault on their compound. All these people had somehow come under the spell of a charismatic leader who believed he was the reincarnation of King David, and were willing to do anything he said, from having sex with him to dying for him.

We need to understand when we are vulnerable and take precautions that our vulnerability is not exploited by those who are "slaves of their own depravity" as Peter warns.

Peter clues us in on further ways to recognize false prophets in the second chapter of his second epistle. Other verses we might wish to study are: Lamentations 2:14, 1 Timothy 6:3-5; 1 John 4:1, 2 Corinthians 11:13-15, 20 and all of Matthew 24.

A final note of caution. Even as we educate ourselves on the subject of false teachers, it might be wise to understand that the lessons we learn are best put to use by being more discerning about what we are taught, rather than being more judgmental about those who teach us.

May the Spirit be with you.

Aneel Aranha (Jan 29, 2007)
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