Wolves in the Pulpit (Part 1)

Matthew 7:15-20

Tom Pennington  •  January 5, 2014
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We're continuing our study through our Lord's most famous sermon, and we're in chapter 7. We're in the conclusion of Jesus' famous message. And today we come to a paragraph in which Jesus warns us about wolves. On August 20th of last year, the Associated Press reported about what it called "a freak incident" just south of the town of Victor, Idaho. This is what the Associated Press article said: "A southeastern Idaho ranch lost 176 sheep as the animals ran in fear from two wolves that chased through a herd of about 2,400 south of Victor. Sheepherders for the Siddoway Sheep Company heard the wolves about 1 am, but they didn't know the extent of the damage until they saw the sheep piled up on each other the next morning at daybreak." Almost all of the 176 sheep died from asphyxiation as they crushed each other's bodies in an attempt to get away from the danger of the wolves. About 10 of them died from bite wounds, and one was partially consumed by the wolves. The article goes on to say, "Idaho Wildlife Services State Director Todd Grimm says it's the greatest loss by wolves ever recorded in one instance in the state." And then he says, "About nine years ago, wolves killed 105 sheep on one night." If you have sheep, wolves are a serious threat.

None of us has had to live with the threat of wolves attacking our sheep, and yet we understand the danger of predators. When my family lived in southern California, we lived on the edge of the hills, and we had to always be aware of the coyotes that roamed the hillsides and were a threat to small animals and pets. And even here in Texas, we have a huge hawk that has taken up residence and made a nest in one of the live oaks in our backyard. And Sheila and I are constantly aware of the fact that if we're not careful and on our guard, our tiny little dog might show up on the appetizer menu for that hawk. But in Galilee, near Capernaum, where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, sheepherding was a staple of the economy. Sheep dotted the surrounding hillsides. In fact, it's likely as Jesus preached this message, the people listening to him could look around and see sheep grazing on the nearby hillsides. And so it was appropriate that in that context, he chose the picture of wolves attacking sheep to illustrate one of the greatest dangers to your soul and to mine.

As I said, we are looking at the conclusion of Jesus' sermon. The conclusion begins in Matthew 7:13 and runs through the end of the chapter. And in this conclusion, Jesus warned us about three dangers relating to His kingdom. First of all, there's the danger of finding the wrong entrance. In verses 13 and 14, which we looked at several weeks ago, Jesus explains the danger of entering—instead of the narrow gate that leads to life—finding an entrance that's popular, that's wide, that's inviting, but that leads instead to destruction and not the promised eternal life. There's another danger—a second danger. It's in verses 15 to 20, and it's the danger of false prophets. The third danger begins in 7:21 and runs down through verse 27. It's the danger of a false profession—of claiming to know Jesus Christ, claiming a relationship with Him—but that not, in fact, being the reality.

Now, as I said, we have already studied the first danger: the danger of trying to enter Jesus' kingdom through the wrong gate, the wrong entrance. Today we come to the second great danger—the danger of false prophets. Now, the connection with the first danger is obvious. One of the chief ways that people find themselves entering the wrong gate is because they have been directed there by false prophets. Understand the picture Jesus draws. There are, standing at the entrance of the wide gate, a collection of false teachers and false prophets—hucksters—who were saying, "This is the way. This is the way to God. This is the way to eternal life. This is the way that will end you in God's presence." Jesus says, "As you seek to find and enter the narrow gate, watch out for those who would deliberately try to lead you astray and invite you to enter the way that leads to life, when instead, you have entered the way that leads to destruction." Let's read together what our Lord says in warning us. It's Matthew 7:15-20. Jesus says,

Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. 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.

Jesus warned His disciples, both then and now, to beware of false prophets. Jesus said, "Look out for wolves in the pulpit." Now, the structure of this paragraph is pretty straightforward, but let me lay it out for you, and then we'll begin to let it unfold. The first point that Jesus makes we could call the serious warning about false teachers. It's verse 15: "Beware of the false prophets." There's the serious warning. The second point he makes is the real danger with false prophets. And He says, they "come to you in sheep's clothing." That's what makes them dangerous. He ends verse 15 by pointing out the true nature of false teachers. They are actually inwardly ravenous wolves. And then in verses 16 to 20, we have the recognition of false teachers. How do you know a false teacher? Jesus lays out criteria by which we can make that determination. So that's how the paragraph unfolds. Let's begin to unpack it together.

Let's begin today with Jesus' serious warning about false teachers. Notice how He begins in verse 15: "Beware of the false prophets." He begins with an imperative, a command: Beware. The word means "to look out for, to pay careful attention to, to be on guard against something that is a serious danger." We understand this. This is how we use this word. If you have a vicious dog, who's likely to attack an intruder or someone it doesn't recognize, you put a sign on your gate. It says, "Beware of the dog." It means there is a serious risk to you physically—to your wellbeing—here. Be on guard. Be informed. Pay attention. Look out for this. Now, the command Jesus gives us in the Greek text is in the present tense. In other words, it's a command to keep on doing something. Jesus means we are to stay constantly on the alert. There is never a time when this threat diminishes. We must remain vigilant. Now the fact that Jesus warns us to beware of false prophets makes it clear that this is an ever-present and very real danger. Do you understand Jesus is saying to you, "You better look out for, you better be on the alert against, here is a danger to your soul"? In fact, false prophets exist in every age. Wherever there is the true, Satan is there to produce the counterfeit. This has been true from the beginning of time.

In fact, let me take you on a brief journey back to the Old Testament. Moses, in Deuteronomy 13 and Deuteronomy 18 (passages we'll look at some today and again next week), predicted that false prophets would come. The first false prophet that we meet in living color is Balaam. We meet him in Numbers 22-24. He was a pagan prophet hired by Moab to curse the people of God—to pronounce a curse on them. He was a prophet for hire. He was willing to craft his message to accommodate the highest bidder. In fact, there was nothing that Balaam wouldn't say in exchange for enough money. This, by the way, is always a mark of false teachers. They are primarily doing what they're doing out of greed, as we'll see next week. But you remember, with Balaam, God thwarted his plans and Moab's plans, and God forced him to prophecy the truth and good for Israel. But with Balaam began a tradition of false prophets throughout Israel's history—throughout the Old Testament. Now these false prophets in the Old Testament, again and again, they prophesied peace and safety when God had promised judgment. They prophesied victory in battle, when God had promised the defeat of His people in battle. They refused to tell the people the truth; instead, they always told the people what they wanted to hear. Again, this is a mark of false teachers.

When you come to the New Testament, in the New Testament era, there are still false teachers. In fact, in the ministry of Jesus there was a group of false teachers contemporary with him. They were the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Read the gospel record. Read what Jesus has to say about this group. For example, in Matthew 23—speaking of the Pharisees specifically—he says, "When you make a convert—when someone comes to believe what you have believed—you make him a son of hell." They were false prophets. They were false teachers leading people away from heaven, away from God. When you come to the Apostle Paul's ministry, he had to deal with false teachers throughout his ministry, as well. There were, you remember, the false apostles in Corinth, those who called themselves apostles but weren't, in 2 Corinthians 11. There were the Aesthetics in Colossae, those who felt that by harming their bodies by abstaining from certain things or doing harm to their bodies, they were earning God's favor (Colossians 2). There were the false prophets in Thessalonica that prompted Paul to urge the believers in Thessalonica, "Don't accept all prophecies at face value. Test them to see if they're in agreement with previous revelation" (1 Thessalonians 5). There were false prophets in Ephesus trying to undermine the ministry of Timothy, Paul's protégée, his young son in the faith. In 1 Timothy 1, Paul names them by name: "Hymenaeus and Alexander." And in 2 Timothy, he adds another one, Philetus. By the way, there's nothing wrong with naming the false teachers of your generation by name. I intend to do a little of that next week. It's right to do that, to point out the danger. And of course, if you're familiar with the New Testament, you know that there were always the Judaizers, those who believed in Jesus, and faith, and grace, and the gospel we believe, but they added to the gospel that you also had to be circumcised if you were a Gentile and you had to keep the Law of Moses. They made the gospel another gospel. That's why the Jerusalem Council had to happen in Acts 15. That's why Paul wrote the book of Galatians. Peter devoted an entire chapter of his second letter to warn his readers about false teachers. Jude, the half-brother of our Lord, devoted his entire New Testament letter about the danger of false teachers. False teachers existed throughout the age of the apostles. In fact, when you come to the ministry of the apostle John, the last living apostle, there were still false teachers, and he addressed them in 1 John and in 2 John. And, in fact, when you come to the book of Revelation, the last book of our New Testament, John writes to those seven churches in Asia Minor—actual churches that existed at the time—and in several of those churches there were false teachers that he had to warn them about. But false teachers didn't stop with the age of the apostles. In fact, Paul warned us that it would get worse. In 2 Timothy 3:13, he says that throughout the church age in which we live, "evil men and imposters will proceed from bad to worse." It's going to get worse. "Deceiving and being deceived." When we come to the very end of the church age, there will still be false prophets. In what we call the Olivet Discourse, in Matthew 24 and 25, as Jesus talks about the future and what will come at the very end, he says in Matthew 24:11, "Many false prophets will arise" at that time.

Now, I've just taken you on that little stroll from the beginning of biblical history to the very end of biblical history, and wherever you go—wherever you chop the sausage—you find false teachers. Here's the important point for you to understand: The same is exactly true in our day, as well. You see, Jesus' warning about false prophets is every bit as crucial for you to understand today as it was for Jesus' hearers in the first century. He's telling you to be alert for false prophets. This is an extreme danger to your soul.

Now, who are these false prophets? Well, the word that Jesus uses, the Greek word that's translated "false prophet," is made up of two Greek words, both of which have come from Greek directly into English. They weren't translated; they were transliterated—basically the letters just brought into English. And we use them in our English language. The Greek word is "pseudoprophetes." "Pseudo"—we use that word. We understand it's false, it's a lie, it's deception, it's not real. And "prophetes" is simply the Greek word from which we get the English word "prophet." It's brought straight over into English. So, it's a false prophet, a pseudo prophet. So what's a true prophet? In both the Old and New Testaments, a true prophet is a person who claims to be personally sent by God, and who claims to speak the very words of God. Wherever you find a prophet, those two things are always true. A true prophet is sent by God, and he speaks the very words of God. When a true prophet opens his mouth, he is speaking the very words that God wanted him to speak. So a false prophet (or a pseudo prophet) is one who claims that God has sent him when God, in fact, has not, and because God hasn't sent him, the message that he claims to be the truth from God is not the truth from God. Instead it is filled and permeated with lies and deception. He's not speaking the very words of God, but rather error and falsehood. Now, there is some truth in it. Isn't there always? There has to be enough truth for the error to be believable. But it's permeated with lies. The false prophet, Jeremiah tells us, speaks lies generated from his own heart; but he tells the people listening to them that they are from God. In fact, let's turn back to Jeremiah. Go back to Jeremiah 14. Jeremiah prophesied near the fall of the kingdom of Judah, and he's telling them, "God's going to bring judgment. God's going to bring judgment because of your sin, your idolatry, your rebellion. God's going to bring judgment against His people." But Satan raised up false prophets who contradicted Jeremiah, and said, "No, no, no, no. God loves you, and He's not going to do that to you. You are going to have peace, and you're going to have safety." And so Jeremiah has to deal with these guys. And look at Jeremiah 14:13. Jeremiah says, "But 'Ah, Lord God!' I said. 'Look, the prophets are telling [Your people], "You will not see the sword, nor will you have famine, but I will give you lasting peace in this place."'" That was the message of peace and safety the false prophets brought. They were telling people what they wanted to hear. "The Lord said to me, 'The prophets are prophesying falsehood in My name. I have neither sent them nor commanded them nor spoken to them; they are prophesying to you a false vision, divination, futility and the deception of their own minds.'" They're lying. I didn't send them, and those aren't My words. They're not speaking the truth. It's out of their own minds and hearts. That's where it comes from, and they're lies.

Sadly, the lies of false teachers are extremely effective. They were effective in Jeremiah's time. Most of the people believed the false prophets and not Jeremiah. And they are still every bit as effective today. In fact, Jesus said at the end times (Matthew 24:11), "Many false prophets will arise and [they] will [deceive] many." They'll deceive many. Listen, most people listen to the false prophets. Why? Because they're telling them what they want to hear.

Now, although false prophets are deceivers and are always deceiving others; they are, at the same time, in another sense, deceived themselves. You see, they are under the influence of Satan. Satan has deceived them. If I had time, I would take you to 1 Kings 22 and show you an interesting, really a fascinating, account where there is this scene in heaven: God wants to get Ahab to go into battle, and He invites feedback from the angels and even Satan and the demons that have come, as you see in Job 1, to report to God. And He says, "OK, how are we going to do this?" And there is discussion, and one said this and one said that. And then, one of the evil spirits speaks up and says, "I will put a lying spirit in the mouth of the prophets." In other words, Satan is the one who energizes false teachers. That's always true, whether they realize it or not. That's why, in John 8:44, Jesus said, every lie,—and false prophets are liars—every lie comes from Satan, "the father of lies."

But I want you to turn to 2 Corinthians 11, because here, Paul makes this point very clearly. He's dealing with the false teachers in Corinth. Verse 4, he expresses his concern. He says, "If one comes and preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted, you bear this beautifully." He says, in other words, you so lack discernment that if some guy comes along preaching a different Jesus, a different gospel, you receive it. You say, "Isn't that wonderful."

Now, who were these guys? Notice down in verse 13. There were, in Corinth, "false apostles." Pseudo apostles. They claimed to be official representatives of Jesus just like Peter and Paul. But they were, instead, verse 13, "deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ." And Paul says we shouldn't be surprised, because "even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light." Listen, Satan, if he were to show himself, would not show up in the caricature of a red suit with horns and a pitchfork. If Satan showed up here this morning, he would look just like an angel. He'd look like Moroni of the Mormons. He would present himself as this beautiful, attractive, winsome, holy creature. "Therefore," verse 15, "it is not surprising if," notice this, "his servants…" Who's he talking about?—the false teachers, the false apostles. They are servants, either wittingly or unwittingly, of Satan, and therefore they "also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness." This is how false teachers are. They are under the power of Satan himself. They are his servants. Sometimes knowingly, I think, and other times unwittingly, but nevertheless, his servants.

You understand that there are many today who can legitimately be called false prophets in every sense of that expression? There are those who actually claim to speak revelation from God, but whom God has not sent and whose messages are not in keeping with God's previous revelation. This is especially true in segments of the Charismatic movement devoted to healing and prophesies and the prosperity gospel. Understand that so-called Christian television is filled with false prophets. But that's not the greatest danger. You know, if all false prophets looked like Benny Hinn, it wouldn't be too much of a problem for us, because some of them are transparently frauds. But that's not the real danger. There is a more subtle form that this danger takes.

I want you to turn with me to 2 Peter 2:1. Peter writes, "But false prophets also arose among the people." Here he's talking historically. "False prophets"—same expression Jesus uses in our text—but he says "arose," in the past tense, "among the people." He's talking about the people of Israel. He's looking back in the Old Testament times, and he's saying consistently false prophets have shown up among the people of God in Old Testament times. And now he updates it to today: "Just as there will also be false teachers," (different word), "among you." You see, false prophets claim to be speaking direct revelation from God, and there are some of those around today. But false teachers don't necessarily claim to be speaking revelation from God. They simply are teachers. They claim to be explaining God's Word to you. They claim to be teaching you the truth about what God's Word really means, bringing you enlightenment, bringing you clarification. Notice how he describes them. They will be "among you." That is, they will permeate the visible church. And they "will secretly"—they're not open about this, most of them. They're not going to tell you they're preaching something contrary to the faith once for all delivered to the Saints. They're going to "secretly introduce destructive heresies." They're going to introduce teachings which are contrary to sound doctrine, which creates division and divisiveness, and which ultimately is destructive. "Even denying the Master who bought them"—this doesn't mean that they were actually Christians. Remember, they claim to be. They claim salvation, they claim to know Jesus, they claim to be His servants. And Peter is taking that as an image and saying, if that's true, they have denied the Master they claim. They have denied His sovereign Lordship in their lives, both in their teaching and in their living. And they're "bringing swift destruction upon themselves." So there is a more subtle form of this danger.

Now, with that in mind, I want to give you the categories. When you examine the biblical evidence, you discover that there are two basic categories of false prophets, and then there are some subcategories you need to understand as well. Let me help you understand this. First of all, there are, biblically-speaking, false prophets who direct people to the worship of false gods and idols. Turn back to Deuteronomy 13, because Moses warned about this kind of false prophet who would come among God's people. Deuteronomy 13. Let's begin the last verse of Deuteronomy 12, because it's part of the paragraph, and it's key to understanding what's unfolded here. "Whatever"—this is Deuteronomy 12:32—"Whatever I command you, you shall be careful to do." He's talking about the commands from God, through Moses, so God's Word, we could say. Whatever God's Word says, "you shall be careful to do; you shall not add to nor take away from it." So, he says, let me give you an example. "If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you,"—here's a man who claims to speak God's revelation, who claims to have some dream where God spoke to him, some vision—and he says, you don't believe me? Well, let me give "you a sign or a wonder." Let me do something that appears miraculous to confirm that I really speak for God. "And the sign or the wonder comes true." He appears to work a genuine miracle, but here's his message:

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; for the Lord your God is testing you to find out if you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall follow the Lord your God and fear Him.

"And," here's the key, "you shall keep His commandments." Back to verse 32 of chapter 12. What's commanded you? What's in the Word? Listen to God's voice. That means listen to His Word. Serve Him and cling to Him. So the standard for receiving a prophet wasn't even his capacity to work a miracle. It was, is what he says in keeping with what God has already spoken? He goes on to say, verse 5:

But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has counseled rebellion against the Lord your God who brought you from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, to seduce you from the way which the Lord your God commanded you to walk [in His Word]. So you shall purge the evil from among you.

You see, there are false prophets among God's people who try to lead them to worship a false god. You say, "Does that still happen today?" Absolutely that still happens today. This is exactly what happens with Mormonism. They come to you and say, "We're just another branch of Christianity. We believe in Jesus." What they fail to tell you is that when you really drill down on what they teach, they worship a different God, a different Jesus. They have a different gospel. Same thing is true with the Jehovah's Witnesses. They present to you a Jesus who is a created being, who didn't always exist, who is non-eternal, who is non-equal with God. And they say, "Oh, we're Christians, too." There are false prophets who direct the people to worship false gods.

But there's a second category of false prophets, and these are, in some ways, more dangerous. These are those who claim to direct people to the true God, but there's something significantly aberrant in what they teach. They are guilty of one or more of the following marks. Let me give you some distinguishing marks of a false prophet like this. They may not have all of these marks, but they will have one or more of them—combination of them.

First of all, false prophets champion a false source of authority that contradicts previous revelation. A false source of authority—we saw that in Deuteronomy 13. But let me show you a New Testament example. Turn to 1 John 4. We're going to come back to this passage next week, Lord willing. But John, writing near the end of the New Testament era, warns the people to whom he writes about false teachers. Verse 1, 1 John 4, "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." He's basically creating a dichotomy between false teaching and error and true teaching—the truth, between false teachers and true teachers, and between their being energized by demonic spirits or by the Holy Spirit. And he says, I want to help you discern between those. And he gives here, what Jonathan Edwards calls in the following verses, "the distinguishing marks of a work of the spirit of God." Again, we'll come back to this text, Lord willing, next week. But I want you to just notice verse 6. Here's one mark of the spirit of God and a true teacher. "We are from God; he who knows God listens to us." That is, listens to the authorized representatives of God, listens to the apostles of Jesus Christ, listens to those whom God has truly sent. In other words, they listen to the Word of God. "He who is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error." Invariably, when false prophets come along, they will either point you to a different authority other than the Scripture, or they will point you to an authority in addition to the Scripture. "Oh, it's fine. Believe the Bible, but believe the writings of Joseph Smith." Or, "Believe the tradition that's been passed down through the church." Or whatever it might be. They champion a false source of authority.

A second mark of these kinds of false prophets are they teach a false Christ or a false gospel. We saw this in 2 Corinthians 11. There in Corinth they were teaching another Jesus and another gospel. But let me take you to a couple of other passages. Notice 2 John, John's second letter, just a couple pages over. Second John 7. John is writing to warn the church about false teachers, and he says in verse 7, "Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist." He's saying, listen, one of the measurements of a false teacher is that they are wrong about the person of Jesus Christ. In the case of those he was attacking, they denied the humanity of Jesus. In other cases, they deny His deity. They deny something that's true about Jesus. And so he says in verse 9, "Anyone who goes too far"—or goes beyond what Scripture teaches—"and does not abide in the [true] teaching [about] Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son." Therefore, if somebody "comes to you and does not bring" the legitimate, biblical teaching about Jesus, "do not receive him into your house." Don't be hospitable to him in the sense of helping him in his ministry. "Do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting"—the one who encourages him—"participates in his evil deeds." Understand that false prophets, false teachers, come often with a false Jesus, some aberration about the person of Jesus Christ.

They also come with a false gospel. Notice Galatians 1. Paul wrote this entire book to deal with the false gospel of the Judaizers. But in Galatians 1, he says, verse 6, this is "a different gospel." But it's not really a different gospel. Notice verse 7, it is a "distort[ion of] the gospel of Christ." This is what false teachers do. They distort the true gospel in some way. They add to what the gospel teaches. They add to grace, and it's not grace alone and faith alone, it is grace and…, or faith and…, Jesus and… And he says, verse 8, "But even if we,"—that is if Paul himself—"or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you,"—in other words, what's recorded in this book. If they come with a gospel other than the one that you have already had presented to you, already had written to you, let him "be accursed," let him be damned, pronounce a curse on him. They come with false Christs and false gospels. This is the mark and trade of a false teacher. John Stott writes, "It is surely not an accident that Jesus' warning about false prophets immediately follows his teaching about the two gates and the two destinations. For false prophets are adept at blurring the issue of salvation. Some so muddle or distort the gospel, that they make it hard for people to find the narrow gate." This is what false teachers do.

Now, who are these who teach a different Jesus or a different gospel? Well, they're either heretics (that is, those who openly reject one or more of the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith) or they're what Scripture calls apostates (that is, those who once claimed to embrace the true faith but now have rejected it and now are intent on getting others to reject it as well).

There's a third mark of false prophets. They encourage a lifestyle of license as opposed to personal holiness. Turn back to Jeremiah again, Jeremiah 23. This is always true of false teachers. They take one of two approaches. This is one of them; I'll share the second one with you in just a moment. Notice Jeremiah 23, and by the way, keep your finger here for a moment, even when I have you turn, because we are going to come back here again shortly. Look at verse 14, "Also among the prophets of Jerusalem I have seen a horrible thing: The committing of adultery"—the prophets involved in adultery—"and walking in lies." Their lifestyle is like this. We'll talk more about that next week. But here's the effect of their ministry: "They strengthen the hands of the evildoers, so that no one has turned back from his wickedness. All of them have become to me like Sodom, and her inhabitants like Gomorrah." Notice verse 17, the prophets—the false prophets—"keep saying to those who despise Me, 'The Lord has said, "You will have peace"'; and as for everyone who walks in the stubbornness of his own heart, they say, 'Calamity will not come upon you.'" ("God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.") Listen, this is always a common theme with many false prophets. It is to encourage a lifestyle, a teaching that encourages sin rather than turning people away from sin. "It's ok." In Revelation 2 (I don't have time to take you there), but in Revelation 2, to one of the seven churches, John writes and he talks about a woman whose pseudonym is Jezebel. She is a prophetess in the church. She claims to be a Christian, claims to be a teacher, claims to be directing people to God, and yet she, by her message, is encouraging immorality and sexual sin. False prophets often take this tack. They encourage a lifestyle of license. Beware of the man who claims to be a Christian, who perhaps even has a lot of correct doctrine, but whose lifestyle encourages people in their sin.

But that's not always the tack that false prophets take. That brings me to a fourth mark of false prophets. Sometimes, false prophets take the opposite approach. They promote legalism and asceticism, as opposed to personal holiness and the fruit of the Spirit. In other words, they say, "No, you can't just live however you want. Instead, you've got to keep these rules—these man-made rules." That was true of the Pharisees, wasn't it? Jesus said to them in Mark 7, you have undermined "the Word of God by your tradition"—by your rules. In Colossians 2, the ascetics, were saying, don't touch, don't taste, don't handle; that will make God pleased with you. But turn to 1 Timothy 4. Paul predicts that this is going to get worse. 1 Timothy 4:1, "But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith,"—that is, they will apostatize. They will have once claimed to embrace the true faith, but then they'll desert it and they'll pay "attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines [whose source is] demons." In other words, this kind of doctrine comes from Satan himself, from demons, but it comes to people, notice verse 2, "by means of the hypocrisy of liars"—that's false teachers—who are "seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron." And what do these false teachers teach? Notice verse 3, they "forbid marriage and [they] advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth." So these false prophets take the opposite approach to license. They say, "No, listen, you want God to be pleased with you? You want Him to be happy with you? You've got to keep these rules that aren't in the Bible. You've got to do these things that are going to somehow show Him how serious you are, that are going to earn His favor."

A fifth mark of false prophets and false teachers is always true, and that is they consistently tell people what they want to hear. Now, go back to Jeremiah 23, and notice how Jeremiah puts this. Jeremiah 23:16, "Thus says the Lord of hosts, 'Do not listen to the words of the prophets who are prophesying to you. They are leading you into futility; they speak a vision of their own imagination, not from the mouth of the Lord.'" And then, as I read a moment ago, verse 17, "They keep saying to those who despise Me, 'The Lord has said, "You will have peace"'; and as for everyone who walks in the stubbornness of his own heart, they say, 'Calamity will not come upon you.'" They are telling them the opposite of what the true prophet is saying, they are contradicting previous revelation, and they're telling the people exactly what they want to hear. Verse 18, "But who has stood in the council of the Lord, that he should see and hear His Word? Who has given heed to His Word and listened?" Verse 21, "I did not send these prophets, but they ran. I did not speak to them, but they prophesied. But if they had stood in My council,"—if they really were representing Me—"then they would have announced My words to My people, and they would have turned them back from their evil way and from the evil of their deeds." But false prophets aren't like that. They consistently tell people exactly what they want to hear. In fact, Paul warned Timothy about this at the very end of his life. Turn to 2 Timothy 4. You remember Paul charges his young son in the faith, as Paul himself nears the end of his own earthly life, he says to him, verse 2 of 2 Timothy 4, "Preach the Word." Read the Bible, explain the Bible, apply the Bible. Read the text, explain the text, apply the text. And do that, Timothy, verse 2, whether it's popular—whether it's "in season"—whether it's not popular—or whether it's "out of season." "For the time will come," verse 3, "when they will not endure sound doctrine." People will not endure sound doctrine. That's not what they're going to want. But they will want "to have their ears tickled, [and therefore] they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance with their own desires." What that means is, teachers who will tell them what they want to hear. "And [they] will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths." You see, false prophets always tell people what they want to hear. They inevitably give people a false sense of security. They make them feel comfortable in their sins. They don't warn them about God's coming judgment. The most dangerous thing about false prophets and false teachers is sometimes not what they say, but what they don't say. They emphasize the love of God, but they avoid the holiness, the righteousness, the justice, the wrath of God. They emphasize the value of humanity and of human persons, but they avoid the total depravity and sinfulness of man that makes him subject to the wrath of a holy God. They offer an easy salvation without the hard demands of discipleship when Jesus says, "You must deny yourself, and take up your cross, and follow Me." We must remain constantly vigilant for those who are guilty of these aberrations. They are false teachers. We must beware.

But let me encourage you. If you're a true believer in Jesus Christ, false prophets will never be able to lead you into damning error. They will never lead you to believe in a false Christ, a false way of salvation, or a flawed view of the fundamentals of the Christian faith. It can't happen. I love what Jesus says in the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24:24, when he says, many "false prophets will arise," and they are going to deceive many. He says, they "will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible…the elect." It's not possible. If you are truly in Christ, you will never be led into damning error. But—and here is why Jesus warns us—the teaching of false prophets can still thwart your spiritual growth. They can confuse you and distract you from true kingdom priorities. That's why in Ephesians 4, you remember, Paul says you need to grow up because "children,"—spiritual children—are "tossed here and there by…every wind of doctrine." There is a lack of stability in their lives.

In fact, as we finish our time together, turn to 2 Peter 3:17, "You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand,"—knowing what beforehand? Verse 16, that there will be false teachers who "distort…the Scriptures." "You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, be on your guard so that you [will not be] carried away by the error of unprincipled men." There are false teachers. And what happens if you are carried away by their error? You will "fall," not from grace, but "from your own steadfastness." From your spiritual stability. You will be confused, and mislead, and tossed here and there like a spiritual infant. So there's a very serious warning. Jesus says, "Beware. Beware of false teachers." You say, "Well, that's great. I want to be. I know they're all around me. How? How do I recognize a false teacher?" Well, Jesus tells us how, and next time we'll look at it together.

Let's pray. Father, thank you for this warning from Your Word. Help us to take it seriously. Lord, help us to remember that You wouldn't have warned us if it weren't true, if there weren't a real danger to our souls. Father, I pray that You'd help us to learn from what our Lord teaches here and avoid that danger, that we would remain stable, steadfast, always abounding in the work of the Lord until He comes. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.