In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus clearly teaches the sobering reality that there are people who think they are Christians, when they are actually false Christians who do not know the Lord or His ways.
How does this happen? How do people become self-deceived into thinking they are followers of Christ when they are not?
One way this occurs is through false teachers proclaiming a false gospel as though it were true Christianity. Jesus points to this connection in the Sermon on the Mount by warning against false prophets right before speaking of false Christians. Jesus said, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15-16a).
Notice three things that Jesus says about false prophets. First, false prophets are deceptive. Outwardly, they appear as though they are Christians, for they “come to you in sheep’s clothing.” False teachers can be friendly and kind in their public manner and can even use language that seems to be in accord with sound Christian teaching. But it is all a ruse.
The Apostle Paul often warned Christians against such deceptive people in his epistles. For example, he warned the Corinthians of false apostles who were “deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.
And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness” (2 Corinthians 11:13b-15a).
Secondly, Jesus points out that false prophets are dangerous. Underneath their fluffy, white exterior, these false teachers have a destructive nature, for “inwardly” they “are ravenous wolves.”
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A wolf is the number one enemy of sheep, and sheep are defenseless against a wolf. This is why sheep need a shepherd, and why Christians can be thankful that Christ is their Good Shepherd to protect them and that He provides faithful pastors to guard and protect His flock.
False teachers are not concerned for the good of others or for the glory of God, but only for their own gain. Their goal is to use and devour other people for their own selfish purposes. The danger of false teachers is not merely physical harm (as in the case of mass suicide for the followers of Jim Jones), but grave spiritual harm. Through false teaching, they poison your soul by turning you away from the true gospel of Jesus Christ to something else that will lead to your own eternal ruin. Beware of false teachers.
The third thing Jesus says is that false teachers can be detected: “You will recognize them by their fruits.” Jesus shifted from the animal imagery of sheep and wolf to a tree analogy. Just as a tree is known by its fruits, false teachers can be known by the fruit or result of their life and teaching.
What is their character? Are they like Jesus Christ reflecting the fruit of holy love, patience and humility? Or are they arrogant, proud, resentful, egotistical and self-indulgent? What are they really teaching? Is it truth that accords with the scriptures and centers upon Jesus Christ as the only savior of sinners or is it filled with their own manmade ideas? What is the fruit produced in the lives of their followers?
Fruit does not appear overnight but grows and develops over time. So it will take time to recognize the real fruit of a false teacher, but their rotten fruit will eventually come to light.
False teachers have been around since the days of Christ and the apostles, and they are still with us today. As the Apostle John said, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for 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 from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God” (1 John 4:1-3a).
Let us heed the warnings of Jesus and his apostles to beware of false prophets and false teachers and let us be thankful for teachers who proclaim the true gospel of Christ.