Jesus was nearing the conclusion of the greatest recorded sermon of all time, that we know as the Sermon on the Mount. He had challenged them to enter the narrow gate and walk the narrow road that leads to life and pointed out that the easy way was to simply go with the flow and take the wide gate and travel the broad road that leads to destruction. If anyone looked at the destination and realized that one way ended in horror and the other way ended in eternal life with God, it would seem that we would quickly choose the narrow road and have the greatest blessings possible. But we would be fooling ourselves to think that way. Even in every day life most can’t seem to delay gratification long enough to have a better future, but are willing to sacrifice the future to have what I want right now.
Jesus turned from that challenge to a warning. “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruits you will recognize them.” From the beginning God used prophets to guide the people who followed him in the right way. Jesus even declared that John the Baptist was greatest among the prophets. If you look back through the Old Testament you meet lots of great people that God referred to as “My servants the prophets.” But there were also those people who were false prophets that led people in the wrong direction. One of the classic stories of the Old Testament with regard to prophets was told when Jeroboam led the ten tribes of Israel away and set up the idol gods for the people to worship. God sent a man of God from Judah as recorded in I Kings 13 to go to Bethel and condemn the actions of Jeroboam. Jeroboam was standing on the altar when the prophet cried out, “Altar, altar! This is what the Lord says: A son named Josiah will be born of the house of David. On you he will sacrifice the priests of the high places who made offerings here, and human bones will be burned on you.” He gave the sign that the altar would split apart and the ashes be poured out. Jeroboam was horribly upset and cried out for the people to arrest the man, but his arm wouldn’t pull back after that so he then pleaded with the prophet to pray for his arm to be restored. He did pray and the arm was restored. Then Jeroboam tried to get him to come home with him and eat with him but the prophet said God had told him not to eat there and headed back home.
But there was an old prophet who lived there and his sons came home to tell him what had happened. He went out after the young prophet and caught up with him. He asked him to come back to his house and eat with him but the young prophet explained that God had told him not to eat there and to go straight back to Judah. The old prophet lied to him and said that God had sent an angel to speak to him to tell him to bring the young prophet back to his house to eat with him. He believed the lie and went back. While eating God spoke through that old prophet to say to the young prophet, “This is what the Lord says, You have defied the word of the Lord and have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you.” On his way home a lion came out and attacked and killed the young prophet for his disobedience. So, God actually spoke through the lying old prophet to him. But he suffered because of the deceit of the old prophet and believing a lie.
So, Jesus challenges us to watch out, to test the prophets to see if they are the real thing. Later in I John 4 the apostle John will pick up the same thread when he commanded us to be on guard against false prophets for many false teachers have gone out into the world. He told us to test the prophets to see if they were for real. If a prophet denied that Jesus came in the flesh he wasn’t for real and was really anti-Christ. Compare this with Jesus point that we can determine if the prophet is the real thing by checking their fruits. Good trees don’t bear bad fruit and bad trees don’t bear good fruit.
There are two ways a person can be a false teacher or prophet. One can be false in that they teach the truth but fail to live what they teach. Jesus told the disciples to do what the scribes and Pharisees said to do since they sat in Moses seat, but not to do as they did because they didn’t live by what they taught. If the life of the teacher doesn’t match the message they preach or teach then they are a false teacher and shouldn’t be followed. Now understand that no one lives a perfect life except Jesus. So in talking about not living the life I’m not saying one must live perfectly as their teaching should be. But one must be trying to live by the very standards they would place on others. In Paul’s words we should be able to say, “Follow me as I also follow Christ.”
The second way and the one we tend to hear more about is that one may be a false teacher in that what they teach isn’t really what the word of God teaches. In John’s time many were preaching that Jesus didn’t really come with a physical body like ours but he was a spirit being and only looked like he had a physical body. Thus when he went to the cross he didn’t really suffer and die as a man for us. It was all pretense. John will declare in 2 John 9 that “Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.” Paul’s challenge to his young friend Timothy was to “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction.” He had just pointed out that all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching for rebuke, for correcting and for instruction in righteousness so the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work. Paul referred to some false teachers in Galatians 1:8-9 by saying, “Though we or an angel from heaven preach any other gospel than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.”
There will be false teachers in the world as long as time goes on. Our challenge is to watch out and be able to identify the false teacher and the one who is true and follow the teacher that is really striving to teach the word of God clearly and striving to live by the same message he is preaching to others. But how can we know whether a teacher or prophet is real or false? Jesus said, check their fruit. Check to see how the lives of those who are being taught is affected. Check to see how the person who is teaching is actually living themselves in the world. Only follow anyone who looks like Jesus and helps you follow him more closely all the time.