Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither [can] a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.Matt. 7:15-20
The first mention of the word prophet is ascribed to Abraham when the Lord instructed Abimelech in a dream, “Now therefore restore the man [his] wife; for he [is] a prophet, and he shall pray for thee, and thou shalt live.” [Gen. 20:7a] Another early use of the word prophet by the Lord was his instruction to Moses, “And the LORD said unto Moses, See, I have made thee a god to Pharaoh: and Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet.” [Ex. 7:1] These were, however, God ordained prophets in contrast to false prophets noted by Jesus in this week’s scripture reading.
Continuing in the Old Testament, the Lord also provided guidance to the nation of Israel following their exodus out of Egypt. In this, he laid out a clear mandate on how to deal with false prophets to ensure falsity did not prevail among them, “And that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death; because he hath spoken to turn [you] away from the LORD your God, which brought you out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you out of the house of bondage, to thrust thee out of the way which the LORD thy God commanded thee to walk in. So shalt thou put the evil away from the midst of thee.” [Deut. 13:5] The ominous theme of this chapter in scripture literally pertained to any person responsible for influencing, convincing or coercing the Israelites to follow after other, or rather false gods.
True & False Prophets
Overall in scripture, there were sixteen notable prophets of the Lord whose words of wisdom are recorded in separate books in the Old Testament. Scripture also records evidence of eleven false prophets. Involvement from the Lord with his true and legitimate prophets always received his sanction, “If there be a prophet among you, [I[ the LORD will make myself known unto him in a vision, [and] will speak unto him in a dream.” [Num. 12:6] The Lord however was always against false prophets who often led his people astray as shown by one of his true prophets, “Behold, I [am] against them that prophesy false dreams, saith the LORD, and do tell them, and cause my people to err by their lies, and by their lightness; yet I sent them not, nor commanded them: therefore they shall not profit this people at all, saith the LORD.” [Jer. 23:32]
False prophets, were no doubt in existence, especially in the Old Testament as evidenced in this passage from one of the oldest books in the Bible, “If there arise among you a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and giveth thee a sign or a wonder, And the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spake unto thee, saying, Let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them; Thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams: for the LORD your God proveth you, to know whether ye love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” [Deut. 13:1-3]
Jesus Confirms Prophecy
In the New Testament, Jesus affirmed the presence and legitimacy of the Lord’s elected prophets during his teaching and preaching to the people, “He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with [their] lips, but their heart is far from me.” [Mark 7:6] He also indicated the reality of false prophets as great deceivers of the people when he said, “And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many.” [Matt. 24:11]
Interestingly, John the Baptist’s father was identified as a prophet in scripture who prophesied through the Holy Ghost, “And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Ghost, and prophesied.” [Luke 1:67a] This tends to parallel Peter’s comments in one of his letters clarifying that prophecy came through the Holy Ghost, or Holy Spirit, “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake [as they were] moved by the Holy Ghost.” [2 Pet. 1:20-21]
Perils of Falsity
It is most notable from scripture though, that in the reality of a fallen world, falsity is prevalent in many walks of life. During the early ministry of the apostles, they encountered this, “And when they had gone through the isle unto Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew, whose name [was] Bar-jesus.” [Acts 13:6] While sorcery may have found its sweet spot in movies and television it is indeed correlated to false prophecy in scripture. In addition to false prophets (Acts 13:6), there were also false witnesses (Acts 6:13), false apostles (2 Cor. 11:13), false brethren (Gal. 2:4) and false priests (Jer. 8:10), all of which created tremendous turmoil and misinformation at times among faithful believers in God. To be aware of false prophets is indeed only part of what believers need to be wary of in their faith walk with God.
The apostle Peter wrote extensively on these collective concerns in his letters, “But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. And many shall follow their pernicious ways; by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of. And through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you: whose judgment now of a long time lingereth not, and their damnation slumbereth not.” [2 Pet. 2:1-3] To be sure, Peter was forthright in his preaching warning for people to beware of false prophets given their propensity to cause people to stumble in their faith.
Disguise of Falsity
The deception of false prophets is also more complex as noted by Jesus in this week’s scripture in that they come to you in sheep’s clothing. Jesus frequently used the word sheep to signify both the Israelite people (Matt. 15:24) and for all people of God (Matt. 25:32-33). He also described his disciples as sheep among wolves upon their departure into towns to minister on his behalf, “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” [Matt. 10:16] Sheep therefore implied traits of docile innocence and meekness but false prophets cloaked themselves in this appearance in their attempt to deceive followers of God.
The True Shepherd
It is also with notable importance that Jesus referred to himself as being the shepherd of his sheep, or his people, “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.” [John 10:11] This is also cross referenced further in Heb. 13:20 and 1 Pet. 2:25. Jesus also used a figurative example to demonstrate his role as shepherd of the sheep and how his followers know who he is in this regard, “But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice.” [John 10:2-4]
The contrast of sheep then to ravening wolves is rather self evident in that one is quite harmless and gentle and yet wolves are often ferocious, pack-like in nature and devour their prey. One of the Lord’s ancient prophets used a figurative reference to wolves in this same context by saying, “Her princes in the midst thereof [are] like wolves ravening the prey, to shed blood, [and] to destroy souls, to get dishonest gain.” [Ezek. 22:27] Knowing this about the nature of wolves helps us to be alert to the character of false prophets in that they do not always appear to be what they actually are underneath their appearance.
Take for example, Pauls’ comments as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles written by Luke. Paul gave figurative examples of people resembling wolves among believers, “For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock.” [Acts 20:29] Nothing could be more devious than for wolves in sheep’s clothing to assimilate themselves within the church of believers; unbeknownst to the true followers of God and yet likely being deceived in the process.
As for the word ravening, this was rarely used in scripture but it always tended to bring with it negative connotations as shown by Jesus’ words as pertaining to the Pharisees. This is notable of the Pharisees who were seen as the religious elite of the Jews and yet their ways were symbolic of hypocrisy in virtually everything they did in their role. Jesus is noted in this scripture, “And the Lord said unto him, Now do ye Pharisees make clean the outside of the cup and the platter; but your inward part is full of ravening and wickedness.” [Luke 11:39]
The theme of this week’s scripture tends to flow congruently with last week’s scripture reading about the strait gate versus the broad way in that both passages illustrate and recommend one of two options for people. This week, the option, or warning is to be alert and to not become beguiled by false prophets. In today’s world that could involve anyone teaching or preaching from a platform of religious falsehood. Instead, people are instructed rather to follow God and to bring forth good fruit. This must first occur through the new birth when the Spirit of Christ indwells a believer as recorded by the apostle, “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” [1 John 3:9] The new birth indeed produces a good tree which in turn brings forth good fruit.
To close off this week’s Bible study on Beware of False Prophets, while prophecy is evident in the early church, it does not necessarily play an active role today in the church today among believers. There were no doubt very compelling prophetic statements made during the earthly ministry of Jesus such as from the Jewish high priest Caiaphas when referring about what would happen to Jesus, “And this spake he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation; And not for that nation only, but that also he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad.” [John 11:51-52]
For the most part though, prophecy began to diminish early on and Paul wrote on the aspect of prophecy even being of less importance than other godly attributes, “And though I have [the gift of] prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.” [1 Cor. 13:2] The last recorded prophetic visions in scripture were given by the apostle John throughout the book of Revelation as recorded in this example, “Blessed [is] he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time [is] at hand.” [Rev. 1:3]
A Word of Caution
As believers in Christ, we should always beware of false prophets. This means being alert to false methods of teaching and preaching that will lead us astray from the one true God in scripture. Falsity often comes through an insidious admixture of truth and lies where false doctrine tends to propagate itself among unsuspecting people. This intertwining of truth with lies was Satan’s tactic with Eve in the garden and with the ill-fated intent to tempt Jesus in the wilderness.
These false methods or teaching are also a common methodology that is common practice with cults where words and terminology may sound like authentic Christianity but they are warped, distorted and redefined by deceptive leaders. Quite often, this is based on self-created false prophets who have personal visions, dreams, or who come across supposed new findings of scripture and discoveries, who claim they know end of times date predictions, or new interpretations of scripture.
These are commonalities with cults and they are clearly wolves in sheep’s clothing. A telltale characteristic of cults is a works-based gospel instead of the gospel of grace. Paul explained, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: [it is] the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” [Eph. 2:8-9] In his other letters, he strongly contested a gospel based on self effort, “And if by grace, then [is it] no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if [it be] of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.” [Rom. 11:6] Cults prey on this strategy of keeping their followers forever tied to the organization, never knowing or having the assurance of eternal salvation through the grace, mercy and atoning work of the Lord Jesus Christ [Jn. 3:36, 5:24, 10:28, Rm. 10:9, 13, 1 Jn. 5:11-13]. Seekers of faith must beware of signs of the times with these false prophets.
The True Gospel
Let us therefore conclude with a valuable reminder from Paul, for all Christian teaching and preaching must always align fully with the true message of the gospel. This was recorded with bold words added here in this study for emphasis and clarity of the message.
Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures.1 Cor. 15:1-4
Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures. [1 Cor. 15:1-4]
The reason Jesus Christ was manifest in the flesh (1 Tim. 3:16) is because he is the eternal God (John 8:58). He came to seek and to save that which is lost (Luke 19:10) meaning you and me. The reason Jesus Christ died for our sins (Rom. 5:6-8) is because we are sinners (Rom. 3:23) and need a savior (John 4:42). Our sins required a sinless (otherwise known as a perfect) sacrifice ( Heb. 4:15). God was the only one who could ever accomplish this for us. The reason Jesus Christ rose from the grave is because he has conquered death and hell (Rev. 1:18).
The gospel message demonstrates why apostles like John wrote warnings about false prophets, “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.” [1 John 4:1] John continued to caution believers in one of his other letters by noting these overriding concerns that people need to be aware of, “For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist.” [2 John 1:7]
Apostles like Paul and John were indeed the bearers of good fruit for without them we would not have most of the New Testament as we know it today. Let us now go forth and beware of false prophets that come to us in sheep’s clothing!
Bible Study Questions
- In this study on Beware of False Prophets, why do you think it was common for Jesus to use animals such as sheep and wolves in his messages to the people?
- There are currently many false prophets in the world today under the guise of cults but why do you think people become beguiled and follow after them?
- In this study, how many notable prophets of God had their words recorded in the Bible?
- Is this verse true or false from Jesus in Matt. 24:11, And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many.
- Since false prophets guided people to follow after and serve other gods (which were not gods at all) where do you think they received their power to do such things?
- How would you define ravening wolves and what are they likened to in this study on beware of false prophets?
- If there is someone whom you have listened to or followed that fits the definition of a false prophet? Would you consider repenting of this now for your faith?
WORD GUIDE – * (ravening – fierce, ferocious, devouring)