Beware of False Teachers
by John MacArthur
Near the end of His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus issued this stark warning to His listeners: “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15).
False prophets were not new to Israel. As long as God has had true prophets, Satan has had false ones. They are seen from the earliest times of redemptive history. Moses warned:
If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder comes true, concerning which 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 you shall keep His commandments, listen to His voice, serve Him, and cling to Him. But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has counseled rebellion against the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 13:1–5)
Elsewhere in the Old Testament, God told the prophet Jeremiah:
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. (Jeremiah 14:14)
At times, the Lord would judge His people through false prophets. He warned the prophet Zechariah:
For behold, I am going to raise up a shepherd in the land who will not care for the perishing, seek the scattered, heal the broken, or sustain the one standing, but will devour the flesh of the fat sheep and tear off the hoofs. (Zechariah 11:16)
Paul warned the Roman believers: “Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting” (Romans 16:17–18).
In other parts of the New Testament false prophets are spoken of as “deceitful spirits” who advocate “doctrines of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1) and as those “who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them” (2 Peter 2:1).
They are called false brothers (2 Corinthians 11:26); false apostles (2 Corinthians 11:13); false teachers (2 Peter 2:1); false speakers, that is, liars (1 Timothy 4:2); and false Christs (Matthew 24:24). The apostle John tells us, therefore, “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” (1 John 4:1).
Paul’s last words to the Ephesian elders, when he met with them for a farewell on the beach near Miletus, included a somber warning about inevitable false teachers. “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert” (Acts 20:29–31).
Those warnings are summarized in the word translated beware in Matthew 7:15. It is not a call simply to notice or sense something, but to be on guard against it because it is so harmful. The word conveys the idea of holding the mind away. False prophets are more than wrong; they are dangerous, and we should not expose our minds to them. They pervert thinking and poison the soul. False prophets are spiritual beasts and are immeasurably more deadly than the physical ones. Both Peter and Jude call them “unreasoning animals” (2 Peter 2:12; cf. Jude 10).
In Palestine, wolves were the most common natural enemy of sheep. They roamed the hills and valleys, looking for a sheep that strayed away from the flock or lagged behind. When a wolf found such a sheep it quickly attacked and tore it to pieces. Even a grown, healthy sheep was utterly defenseless against a wolf.
Wolves are known for being merciless and ferocious (cf. Ezekiel 22:27). The Greek word harpax (ravenous) is also translated “swindler” (Luke 18:11; 1 Corinthians 5:10–11; 6:10), referring metaphorically to those who deceitfully and mercilessly ravage a person of his money and possessions. False prophets and wolves are clever and wily, and are always on the lookout for new victims.
Next time, we’ll look at what God’s Word says about identifying them.
(Adapted from The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Matthew 1-7.)
#1 Posted by
John Appling | Monday, February 10, 2014at
Excellent blog. We in the Christian community sometimes get caught up in the "no judging" thought process when in fact, Jesus told us to judge. Of course, we must speak with wisdom and humility. I have always found my safest decision was to run my ideas past my wife and then wait at least one day before I said anything (like in an email).
Sometimes, we have to hold our tongue because we are both in an same denomination and speaking too quickly or too harshly simply means that others no longer pay attention to you.
Do you have any thoughts about how to deal with false teachers / brethren in a situation like that?
John Appling - @cppreacher01 - twitter
#2 Posted by
Russell Aubrey | Monday, February 10, 2014at
I recently finished "Strange Fire" and then started reading Hebrews again, one of my favorites. I read in absolute wonder, Chapter 2: 14, 15. I appreciate John's efforts in "Strange Fire," very much, and nearly weep when I realize that this book will likely never reach the sales of a much inferior book, "Chicken Soup for the Soul," by Jack Canfield - with sales in the multiple millions. Anyway, I think Hebrews 5: 12 -14, and 6:1 are a good summation (among many) for John's blog, today, concerning how faithful Christians should view the study of God's word, and how to avoid being eaten by wolves.
Beyond that: I love how the Lord is able to cut to the chase in only a few words: John 6:63, in my humble opinion, is the entire Gospel in 24 words. Cheers from beautiful Exeter, not far from all of you.
#3 Posted by
George Canady | Monday, February 10, 2014at
Since the apostle Paul ( Saul preaching and living another gospel) was a wolf, should we pray salvation for the modern wolves?
#5 Posted by
Nancy Moore | Monday, February 10, 2014at
Thank you Pastor John - I too recenlty finished "Strange Fire" this weekend and I wept. Then I listended to your teaching on "Islam" and I became so fearful and wept even more. I had a difficult weekend. :-) For all the people out there who are in the clutches of these wolves - could you please wake up and hunger for truth more than money! God will bless you far more if you were to take the money that you give to these thieves and instead give it to the hungry. I'm sure there is a food bank in your area, or perhaps not that far away. And if you are skeptical about a food bank; which would be understandable after being under the influence of evil, go buy some food and bring it to the food bank yourself. Stop giving your money to these liars and thieves - please stop doing that. If you worshipped the true God you wouldn't be so easily drawn into these caves, even to linger around them, pushed in or guilted into entering and/or staying in those God foresaken caves. I believe you stay because you hope to gain more money. I speak from experience - I use to give to the Jim & Tammy Baker show - this goes back 25 years. I was a single mom, all alone on social assistance and if anyone needed money it sure was me. I had recently left a charasmatic church and thought I could teach myself the Bible and found that I fell into the hands of a different breed of wolves. I bought into the lies and gave money to these people that I didn't have. I was absolutely crushed when their ministry was exposed and I was done believing in God. (or so I thought) :-) I know why you give your money away like that, you give your money away in the hopes that God will give you more. GET OUT OF THERE. Seek knowledge, seek wisdom, seek faith in God not in get rich schemes - seek the truth. God is faithful, He will show you. Today, I am not rich in money, but I sure am rich in faith. And often I ask God to not bless me here on this earth with "stuff" or monetary gain, as I just simply want peace, joy and His love. Father, please wake up North America!
#6 Posted by
Russell Aubrey | Monday, February 10, 2014at
Obviously, the issue centers on false teachers within - or lurking around - Christianity, not Judaism. I think the objective is to pray for everyone, Mr. Canady.
#7 Posted by
Anthony Griffin | Monday, February 10, 2014at
I too have escaped the charismatic movement by the Lords mercy. Even though I had a strong foundation in bible college I fell for the lies of the evil one and got myself caught up in the sin and outright ignorance of this very heinous movement. I pray daily for those I know who are still deceived. Thank you Dr. Macarthur for your faithfulness to sound theology and exegesis. It has been 5 years now since I escaped this movement and I would ask for prayer that the Lord would use my wife and I in our church. It seems that even the garbage of this damnable movement has found a foothold in our church. And there is nowhere else for us to go. There is so much ignorance in the church for even the basics of the Christian faith! Your teaching has been a life jacket for us and we are so very thakful for not only Dr. Macarthur and the grace to you resources but also for brothers like Phil Johnson as well. We feel like starving kids getting to eat real and lasting food with reference to your ministry. Please write more books Dr. Macarthur and I would love to read a book written by Phil too. We love you all and pray for you out here in Kentucky.
#8 Posted by
Anthony Griffin | Monday, February 10, 2014at
Mr. Canady I think you know the answer to that question. Im not sure I understand why you felt the need to ask it. Didnt you know we must pray for others? That is very basic to our Christian life. If you like I will furnish some passages concerning prayer that might help you understand the importance of prayer. In fact our Lords prayer He taught his disciples is a good place to start. May the Lord bless you.
#10 Posted by
Sherry Nolte | Monday, February 10, 2014at
Matthew 24:24). The apostle John tells us, therefore, “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” (1 John 4:1)
How should we test these spirits? Are there specific questions we should ask so as to be sure of the falseness of the spirits?
#11 Posted by
Dane Gressett | Tuesday, February 11, 2014at
Sherry asks an important question: How should we test these [false] spirits. She has almost answered her own question through the two Scripture texts she lists in her post.
Here's my take on it, Sherry.
First, as per Matt 24:24, you do NOT discern a false spirit by looking at or for miraculous confirmation. False teachers, Jesus warned, will produce supernatural signs. Some are so deceieved that they will actually argue with Jesus on judgment Day, because they thought that their miracles were legitimate (see Matt 7:21-22). So spiritual power in manifestation is NO indicator of truth or falseness. We must be founded on something far more sure.
Secondly, in each major place we are called to test the spirits in the NT, a very simple example follows. And it is always a DOCTRINAL test. As in 1 John 4:1-3. The test John refers to is NOT some esoteric, strange dialogue or interaction with demons. Rather, it is simply listening to what the people these demons are using are teaching about Christ and His work. Do they preach an unorthodox Christ? (ie "Jesus was God but not truly a man" or "Jesus was truly a man but not fully God...") An orthodox gospel?
I have dealt with literally hundreds of openly demon-possessed people in dark, idol-worshipping areas of the developing world. I have often heard demons say, "Praise Jesus", or even admit, "Jesus is the Lord." But they do so in more or less mocking terms. It is not a humble worshipful confession. So you don't "test the spirits" by getting into a conversation with a demon! John is not inviting us to entertain demons in conversation! You cannot trust anything they say.
Rather, simply listen to what the false teachers are actually teaching. That's how you test the spirit. Again, a false teacher, led along by false spirits, will sooner or later preach a false Jesus and a false gospel.
That's how you test the spirits.
#12 Posted by
Ben Enders | Tuesday, February 11, 2014at
Dane (or anyone)
What is the distinction between false spirits in “false teachers” and teachers who misinterpret scripture and therefore teach error? Someone who has the Holy Spirit in them is not going to have a demon spirit in them also, so what are we calling these people?
I don’t think identification is as simple as some make it out to be.
Example I agree with RC Sproul that our understanding of the doctrine of election is critical to the gospel of Jesus. Since this is the case, what do I do with the free-will guys like Billy Graham or Adrian Rodgers?
#13 Posted by
Dane Gressett | Wednesday, February 12, 2014at
you are certainly right about it not always being that simple.
Every false teacher is not directly under the influence of an actual demon - I'm sure you are right by suggesting this. We know that there are "doctrines of demons," though. But every proponent of a doctrine of demons is not demon-possessed, for sure. I don't think it would be wise to say that every variation of heterodoxy is demonic. I don't want to go that far. You are right: it is not simple.
But the big attacks on the Person of Christ and the substitutionary atonement, for instance, or the reality of a final resurrection and day of judgment... these are issues that the early church councils hammered out. I think that's at least our baseline. What do you?
#14 Posted by
David Smith | Wednesday, February 12, 2014at
Ben & Dane,
I agree, things are not simple.
False teacher is a very serious term, similar to heretic. In my view the Bible suggests it only should be used about someone who is in major error, particularly on essential doctrines. It also seems to apply to leaders who exploit or abuse people (like prosperity preachers). We need to get away from the idea that a false teacher is anyone who interprets scripture in a way we feel is wrong.
I can't agree with the view of election from RC Sproul via Ben. That would also condemn John Wesley, who was an Arminian. It's treating a secondary matter as central. Same goes for baptism, creation, women in leadership, eschatology, and even the charismatic question. These are not necessarily tests of orthodoxy, and there is scope for legitimate differences of opinion.
I have become a convinced cessationist, but I am not going to write off every charismatic pastor as a false teacher. Yes, some are so far off the rails for that term to be appropriate, but by no means all of them.
#15 Posted by
Dane Gressett | Wednesday, February 12, 2014at
I very much agree with you.
I am not willing to denounce the ministry of John Wesley...or Adrian Rogers...or Jack Hayford...for that matter. When we become more dogmatic on secondary issues (like those you mentioned) than the writers of Scripture were themselves, then it seems we have somehow sinned against the sufficiency of Scripture.
I know this might make me an easy target for some.
But the mental gymnastics that are sometimes necessary to explain every text that doesn't easily fit into our dogmatic categories seems to me to be elevating logic above revelation.
Fwiw, I'm not a cessationist or a continuist, at least not by usual definitions. Can't find either category to fit how I read the Scriptures and how I've experienced the Holy Spirit. I find so much that I hold deeply in agreement with cessationists. But I have experienced many miraculous operations of the Spirit.
I have spent much time on the mission field in southeast Asia. I have interviewed a number of people who have been raised from the dead over the years. One man was sent home dead from the Hospital. There was a death certificate. He was a Hindu. One of the pastors I've had the privilege to help train went to the home just after the body was brought home. He went and asked if he could pray for the family. He knew them personally. They were glad he came and gave him permission to pray for them. He didn't pray to raise the dead man. But as he was praying for God's grace to come to this family, he noticed the dead man's finger suddenly twitched. The moment he saw that, supernatural faith suddenly filled his entire mind and heart, and he somehow knew that God was going to raise him. Then the corpse gasped loudly for air and the man sat up. Everyone in the home screamed and ran away from the house they were so frightened. The formerly dead man later was able to call his son who is a doctor in America and say, "Don't worry about coming to India for my memorial service. I am alive from the dead because of Jesus."
I have had a number of these kinds of encounters over the years. I could no more deny them than I could deny Jesus.
I love John MacArthur and many other people who don't believe this stuff happens anymore. I don't even feel compelled to prove it to them anymore. Partly because I don't want to fuel the fire of the shallow charismaniacs in U.S. circles, who would use something like this to beat their drums of signs and wonders idolatry.
#16 Posted by
Ben Enders | Wednesday, February 12, 2014at
I concur with the atonement and resurrection as a minimum baseline. Paul uses that also. I also believe that if a pastor/teacher is teaching something that leads us away from the truth of who Jesus really is or what He teaches, that he/she should be considered a false teacher. Whether they do this innocently or not, that distinction is a question of salvation and I am not the judge of that.
An example would be Richard Foster. I consider him a false teacher since he teaches mysticism (leads us away from the Word) and a distorted view of grace. But when I look at Joel Osteen (who JM strongly considers a false teacher) I am not sure. I know he doesn’t teach sin and repentance which is critical for the gospel, but he really doesn’t teach anything of substance. So I really don’t know how to classify him.
The reality of these examples is that I vigorously challenged two of my Pastor’s on the use of “Celebration of Discipline” in a class teaching about spiritual disciplines and on the other hand I was patient and inquisitive with a good friend who thinks Osteen is great. I think I did the right thing in both situations since I have not been asked to leave the church and the other guy is still my friend
I am so thankful for John MacArthur and all the GTY guy’s who teach us and give us the opportunity to hash it out and grow in Christ.
#18 Posted by
David Smith | Thursday, February 13, 2014at
Interesting - I'm the other way round.
I regard Joel Osteen as a false teacher because he preaches a seriously distorted man-centred gospel which, as you say, omits sin and repentance, which are central issues. An empty message is a false message.
Richard Foster may be wrong in some areas (I'm not that familiar with him) but to my mind he doesn't meet the threshold to be labelled a false teacher - I believe his basic theology is orthodox. It's still OK to object to his materials being used, but he doesn't ring the alarm bells in the way that Osteen does.
#19 Posted by
Dane Gressett | Thursday, February 13, 2014at
Google "John Crowder + new mystics" and you will find what a real heretical mystic is!!! Richard Foster pales in comparison.
It can really depend on how you use/define the word. I meet people every year who have come to the Lord out of idol-worshipping, who have experienced dramatic healings, deliverances, and dreams or visions. They have never watched Christian television or TBN. They have never heard the prosperity preachers or word of faith proponents. It is a true, virgin, first generation gospel fruit. As Joel prophesied, and Peter confirmed, in the last days God would pour out His spirit on all flesh and our sons and daughters would prophesy and there would be dreams and visions by old and young alike.
I know my dear cessationist brothers prefer to see this as already completely fulfilled. But an honest reading demands that I conclude otherwise. Last days...all flesh...both genders...cross generations...rich and poor...before the great and terrible day of the Lord...All terms that indicate world-wide outpouring of the same Spirit and same sorts of manifestations - that endures to the end of the age of grace.
Okay, to my point (sorry for the digression). Some would consider all this Acts 2 stuff as mysticism today. Somehow it apparently wasn't mysticism when it was "fulfilled". But any claim of those type of spiritual experiences happening today get reclassified. And I cannot buy that Joel and Peter "really" meant, "the Spirit poured out until the great and terrible day that the canon is complete..." (-;
George Wishart and the Scots Worthies certainly experienced these sort of things...and many people venerate them...and wouldn't call them mystics. They were high Calvinists...who would scorn some of our leaders today who "despise prophecy".
Fwiw, later reprints of the classic book, "The Scots Worthies", have profoundly edited parts of the book to censor out references to how these men were held to have incredible prophetic gifts. Men as famous as John Know held that men still operated with prophetic gifts. This has been well documented.
#20 Posted by
Ben Enders | Thursday, February 13, 2014at
I guess our different views confirm that caution should be used in labeling someone a false teacher.
I have spent enormous amounts of time investigating the teachings of guys like Foster, Ortberg, Willard, Prince, and Hybels; almost to the point where I’m remiss about that time. I felt that I needed to listen to what was coming out of their mouths and understand their theology. I also needed to know how they run their churches (that says a lot about someone’s view of the bible). I needed this information before I could enter into a constructive discussion with the people who use and support their teachings. I can’t question my pastors based on what John MacArthur or RC Sproul says, but I can question them based on what the bible says.
Dane brings up a great point about defining terms prior to discussions. That is one of the biggest roadblocks in debating the continuationist.
I’m looking forward to Dr. MacArthur’s next post, he never disappoints! David, did you happen to catch his radio broadcast today? It was excellent and gave some great insight to the doctrine of election from the Calvinist perspective.
#22 Posted by
David Smith | Friday, February 14, 2014at
Ben Enders #20:
I didn't catch the radio show. If it's available online, please can you (or someone else) post a link here.