The Marks of False Prophets

False prophets are all around – can you spot them?

The end of the Sermon on the Mount is like the foot of Hacksaw Ridge. Jesus is a battalion commander, and he is giving final orders and advice to his soldiers before sending them into the fire. One of the last bits of counsel he gives is the warning, ‘Beware of false prophets.’

Jesus gives this warning because he knows that the enemy, the devil, has always relied on the use of false prophets. A basic strategy of the devil is to confuse God’s people by surrounding them with a crowd of conflicting voices. The idea is that – if you can’t dampen the courage of Christians – perhaps you can distract or deceive them. This was a tactic used by the devil against Adam and Eve in the garden; it was a move he played against Israel in Canaan; and it’s still a favourite strategy at work today against the church.

Once a person becomes aware of the threat of false prophets, the imperative question is, how does one identify them? Unfortunately, they don’t wear a common uniform or speak with a strange accent. Therefore careful discernment is require to spot them. Below are five common signs to look out for.

1 – They contradict the Word of God

The final test of truth is the Word of God. Any person who contradicts the Word of God cannot be a servant of God. Now most false prophets are not so careless as to attempt a direct assault on the integrity of the Word. They tend to twist, add, subtract, or explain away rather than object frankly. The classic example of this is the serpent in the garden. The first move of the serpent was to twist God’s command so as to make the generous Creator appear to be a selfish tyrant. Did God really say…watch out for such words.

2 – They Fleece You

Jesus warns that false prophets dress as sheep but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. In other words, false prophets are driven by self-interest, and their desire is to use other people for selfish gain. I wish that Christians weren’t so naïve as to be taken in by religious scams. However, the number of celebrity pastors flying privately owned learjets indicates that Christians are not as discerning as they ought to be. Beware of rich ministries that constantly ask for money.

3 – They Major on the Minors

A further mark of false prophets is that they fixate on the minor topics of the Bible. Whereas the focus of the New Testament is on the person and work of Jesus, on the call to spiritual maturity, on the danger of sin, and the blueprint of gospel community, on the importance of love, and on the mission and plan of God, false prophets constantly call attention to the minor points – usually debatable – found in the alleyways of the Bible. Any ministry that talks more about spiritual gifts than the command to love one’s neighbour, that obsesses more about the end times than about the call to holiness, or that shows more interest in the politics of Israel than in the person of Jesus is building on sand.

4 – They Minor on the Majors

False prophets don’t just fixate on minor points; they overlook and minimise the importance of fundamental doctrines. A good teacher should be like a good trainer – improving health begins by focusing on what’s most important. For physical trainers, this is cardio, core strength, and flexibility. For spiritual trainers, this is the gospel truths of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the heart problem of sin, and the call to renewed life through the Spirit. Any ministry that is abandoning the bread and butter of the gospel in order to lead people to more savoury truths, experiences, and gifts – beware!

5 – They Don’t Look Like Disciples of Jesus

The simplest test to use for false prophets is to examine their lives over time. Jesus says that a good tree cannot bear bad fruit and a bad true cannot bear good fruit. Therefore, there is no mark more important to authenticate or discredit a spiritual leader than the fruit of his life. Does a spiritual leader look like a disciple of Jesus? Does his character reflect the values and practices outlined in the Sermon in the Mount? No leader will be perfect, but there is an indisputable family resemblance between disciples of Jesus and their Master. More than anything else, look out for the traits of the Beatitudes. Poverty of spirit, meekness, a hunger and thirst for righteousness, a willingness to be persecuted, purity of heart: these are the marks of a true man of God.


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