“See to it that no one misleads you….. Many false prophets will arise and will mislead many” (24:4,11).
Our Lord knew His people. He knew that there was something about their makeup which would make them susceptible to being misled. By “being misled,” we mean being conned, scammed, hoodwinked, deceived, tricked, lied to, fooled, and abused.
In Old Testament days false prophets came through the land, preaching half-truths and whole lies and filling God’s people with false expectations and pagan ways. The New Testament church, just beginning to find its way and choose its methods, quickly became the target of these scammers and con-artists.
In Matthew 24, our Lord cautions His people to keep their guard up concerning prophecies about end times: His return, signs of the end, fulfilment of certain prophecies, apostasies, portents and omens.
And yet, the false teachers keep arising and God’s people go right on believing them. Anyone reading this website knows I have little confidence in those who build their ministries around interpretations of prophecy. Generations of these teachers have published their books, drawn their charts, taken captive entire segments of the church, and taken no prisoners from those who disagreed with them, only to be shown by time as false teachers (that is, when their interpretations proved wrong). And yet a new generation of prophecy experts steps up to fill the gap left by the departure of the last group.
Why is this? What is it about God’s people that makes us vulnerable to con men?
We believe in realities we cannot see and mostly cannot prove. (“The things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal” –2 Corinthians 4:18). This means we have to be wise and use great discernment in hearing new teachings.
We believe in supernatural beings such as angels and demons. (“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places”–Ephesians 6:12). And sometimes the devil comes disguised as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14). So, these matters are not as simple as “it makes me feel good” or “my spirit tells me he is sincere.” It can be difficult to spot a false teacher.
We believe in miracles. Moses found out in Pharaoh’s court that the dark side is capable of supernatural stuff (Exodus 7). As with the slave girl of Philippi (Acts 16) who, possessed by a demon, was able to foretell the future, once she was delivered of the evil spirit, became completely normal with no extraordinary powers. God’s people must work overtime not to be overly impressed by miracles. (I’m recalling a couple who left one of my earlier pastorates to join a group that was into the occult. “We’re seeing supernatural things happen,” they said. To their undiscerning eyes, that proved the movement was of God.)
We believe in Holy Scripture, and yet parts of it are hard to understand and open to various interpretations. Even Scripture admits this. The Apostle Peter wrote of Paul’s writings, “in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16). Those who believe Christians should get into the occult can twist scriptures to prove it to the unwary. Likewise, those with false spins on the basic doctrines of Holy Scripture such as the Virgin Birth, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, and the Trinity.
We want to believe the best about everyone who claims to love Jesus and believe His word. And yet, an impostor will lie and a liar will use any method to scam his victims.
We are generous and ready to contribute to those in need and godly workers taking the gospel to the world. Unscrupulous preachers devote their lives to separating God’s people from their tithes and offerings. Some buy huge amounts of air time on television and spend fortunes with their come-ons and giveaways to dupe the unwary and unthinking into giving away their fortunes. You’ve heard the names of Jim and Tammy Bakker. Robert Tilton. Garner Ted Armstrong. And the list goes on and on.
Misleading God’s people begins with teaching one’s opinions and one’s own personal convictions as God’s truth.
I hear someone saying, “We shouldn’t preach our convictions?” Answer: Preach the Word! (2 Timothy 4:2). God’s word is far more than the few things you believe and infinitely more reliable and less subject to change!.
Sometimes, we preachers preach our fears…
–In 1991, when the United States sent forces to the Middle East to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, preachers I know started preaching that this might be the end of the world foretold in–choose your scriptures–Daniel, Ezekiel, or Revelation. Then, over 10 years later, when the second President Bush invaded Iraq to deal with Hussein once and for all, we got another spate of these alarmist messages.
Why are God’s preachers doing this, I wondered. It’s like the Y2K panic when otherwise right-thinking people were hoarding supplies in anticipation of a shut-down of computers. And many preached their fears from the pulpit as though they were doing a righteous thing. If any apologized and repented afterwards, I never heard.
There’s something else that often drives these scare tactics. Those with what we will generously call “prophetic ministries” must always be seeing signs of the end and fulfillments of hidden prophecies no one ever heard of in order to keep their contributors on the edge of their seats. And keep the funds coming in. They have big bills to pay, television and print commitments to fulfill, and huge mortgages on their mansions. They need an endless supply of cash coming in. So they keep scaring God’s people.
Shame on them and shame on those who blindly follow them and empty their bank accounts into their coffers. .
It reminds me of the letters we used to get from the Jerry Falwell “Moral Majority” campaign. Every letter was a doomsday missive, highlighting the wrongdoing of a segment of society and saying that was a sign of the end, and of course, only a big contribution to this ministry could stave it off. You wonder how some of these people sleep at night after deceiving God’s people day after day.
–Sometimes we preachers preach as God’s truth our fascination du jour from God’s word. You find a verse that seems to open up a new world of insight and you begin proclaiming it. Believing that interpretation puts a new slant on all the other teachings of the Bible, and you feel like you have made a discovery. You are a prophet, a forerunner. And then…
Then one day, a mentor friend calls you down on it. He sits you down and shows the error of your teaching. Shows how this same error was taught in the history of the church many centuries ago and how the church leaders answered it. And you realize something: As a pastor, you need to know more than you do. You need to know this history of the Christian church so you can avoid these detours in the future. So many godly teachers came before you and they have so much we can learn from. And that sends you back to school, either physically or not, formally or informally. It may mean moving to a campus of a Bible college or seminary, or taking an online course, or inviting a trusted teacher to come to your church for a meeting. (A great ploy here, pastor: Have the teacher teach a book of the Bible to your people at night, while you pick his brain about doctrine in the daytime! I’ve done it and recommend the practice highly.)
What are faithful pastors to do?
–Preach the Word. All of it.
–Bring in godly mature trusted Bible teachers, one or two a year, for a few days and nights of teaching your people. In some cases, let the audience be a smaller group of your best teachers and leaders. Then, as we say above, you spend a few hours with that teacher every day discussing, sharing, questioning, and praying.
–Continue learning and growing. Never stop studying the Bible. As one who was saved in 1951 and went to seminary in the 60s and 70s, I can testify you never will learn it all. This is the very Word of God, and there is no bottom to this well. God’s truth is inexhaustible.
–Never hesitate to tell your people you were wrong in an interpretation if you were. Start with a few leaders in a room, explaining to them, answering their questions, and then decide whether to expand the audience or to stop there.
–Teach your people how to spot a fake (best way: By being the real deal themselves!) and what to do with a false teacher. (Not talking about stoning them, but circumscribing them, answering them as necessary, but giving them no platform for teaching error.) The best teachers and sharpest pastors must be able to answer the scammers and deal with the false teachers.
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, became many false prophets have gone out into the world” (I John 4:1).