Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. (Matthew 7:15 KJV)
Behold, I am sending you out like sheep in the midst of wolves; be wary and wise as serpents, and be innocent (harmless, guileless, and without falsity) as doves. (Matthew 10:16)
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world. You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are of the world. Therefore they speak as of the world, and the world hears them. We are of God. He who knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. (1 John 4:1-6 NKJV)
(All Bible references, including emphases, via biblegateway.com)
Hucksters, charlatans, con-artists, false prophets– we’ve all seen or heard them. Some are easy to spot; while others seem sincere. They “talk the talk”–they “Praise the Lord,” they pray, they quote scripture. How can we tell if they are “wolves in sheep’s clothing?”
In the Old Testament book of Judges, two tribal groups had a battle. Afterwards, the victors set up a “test” for soldiers trying to cross the Jordan River. The Ephraimites spoke a dialect that did not contain the “sh” sound. When asked to say the word, Shibboleth, they could not pronounce it correctly, and so were unable to hide their identity as enemy soldiers, even though they looked just like the others waiting to cross.
There is an old Irish prayer that says, “May those who love us, love us; and those who don’t love us, may God turn their hearts; and if He doesn’t turn their hearts, may he turn their ankles so we’ll know them by their limping.” God doesn’t always “turn their ankles,” but He will give us the wisdom to discern false prophets– If we ask and listen. Even those who “talk the talk” will speak with a worldly “accent” that gives them away. They will fail the test of “Shibboleth.” Their talk will be filled with spiritual-sounding words and phrases, but it will deflect honor away from the only One truly worthy of our worship. Their teaching is described in 2 Timothy as “having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.” (2 Timothy 3:5 NIV) Beware of teaching that proclaims the power of the Human Spirit over that of God’s Spirit; or speaks of God’s power being demonstrated only in terms of worldly success. They may not “limp,” but they will “lisp.”
When the Gileadites used the “Shibboleth” test, they were looking for a specific mistake in pronunciation to identify their enemies. When we are testing Christian teachers, we should also look for specific “mis-pronouncements.” And just as important, we should look for words that don’t match actions and attitudes. For example, anyone who wants to call themselves a Christian or Christ-follower, but won’t proclaim Jesus Christ– His ministry, life, death, and resurrection– should be suspect. Many people want to proclaim a Jesus who will appeal to the masses– a Jesus who will be your pal, your guru, your cheerleader, or your “life coach,” but NOT your Lord. Others will present Him as a Savior who is distant, whose love is conditional on abject obedience and blind trust. Neither of these are accurate pictures of the biblical Jesus Christ. We must also beware the teachers who present a Jesus whose lifestyle is nothing like the one they practice. None of us is perfect, but we should be living a life that testifies to God’s faithfulness, not our own popularity or power or purse.
The best way to learn to detect imposters and false teachers is to spend time each day with “the real thing.” When I spend time reading scripture each day, it become easier for me to detect a “lisp” when someone misquotes it or takes it out of context. When I spend time asking God to reveal more of his character, I will learn to spot His character (or absence!) in those around me.
Father, may I have ears to discern Your voice and Your power today. May I be wise as I listen to those who speak of You. And may I not say, do, or write anything that doesn’t reflect Your Truth and Your Glory. Thank You for Your wise counsel, Your examples throughout Scripture and in those who desire to follow You faithfully, and for Your Spirit, who reveals Truth.