It is important for all Christians to always be on guard for false teaching. We need to be Bereans and constantly test all things against the truth of God’s word. And praise God that He gave us a written word that never changes so that we always have a plumb line to measure what people teach against. As Peter warns us in II Peter chapter 2, false teachers are going to come, not from without the church (which could happen), but from within—from among folks who call themselves Christians. How should believers guard themselves against false teachers and false teaching? Jesus, in this verse, gives us some practical guidance as to what our mindset should be as we interact with people who claim to teach God’s word.
First of all, we need an attitude of vigilance. Jesus tells His audience to “Beware of the false prophets”. The word “beware” was used literally to mean “bring near” and was used to describe anchoring a ship in a harbor. In this sense, it figuratively meant to pay close attention to something or constantly call something to mind. Jesus’ point, then, is that we need to always be watching out for those who claim to be speaking for God but are not in fact speaking for God. As opposed to true prophets, who preach the truth of scripture faithfully, these “false prophets” speak out of their own imaginations. Their words are empty and lead to destruction (II Peter 2:17) as opposed to the words that lead to eternal life that a preached by true prophets, apostles, and, today, preachers of the word of God. In fact, though it is not explicitly stated here, there is a contrast between these “false prophets” and true prophets and we can safely assume that everything that Christ says about false prophets is not true about faithful, honorable prophets who preach the word of God faithfully. In any case, our attitude should be one of constant vigilance. We need to perpetually be being aware.
Christ gives further instructions on how to identify these false prophets in the subsequent verses saying that we will know them by their fruits. However, we will also know them by the disparity between what they profess and what they are. You can take a dog, wash him, put a new collar on him, and get him as clean as fresh snow. However, as soon as you’re done, that dog will invariably go “woller” in some pile of something and get all dirty again. They will not stay clean for long. They can’t hide their true nature forever—eventually it will show. In just the same way, these false teachers, if you look long enough will show their true colors. They will come at first playing the part of a true shepherd wearing “sheep’s clothing”. They will present themselves as a man of God who seeks to faithfully teach God’s word. From the outside, they look innocent and harmless, like a sheep. People will notice their humility and laud their faithfulness in teaching the truth of scripture. However, it’s all an act.
Their inward character will eventually shine through and if you’re looking, you’ll see them for what they are—“ravenous wolves”. The word “ravenous” could also be translated “swindlers” (I Corinthians 5:10) and has the idea of someone who snatches what they want without regard for whether they deserve it or not. Or perhaps it’s better to say they believe they deserve it whether they do or not. They have a mindset that says “If I see it and I want it, by golly gum, I’m going to take it so you better not have your hand in my way or you’re going to pull a bloody stump back”. They have a bottomless pit for a stomach and have an endless appetite for stuff—money, possessions, praise, power. When you see someone like that, no matter how well they may have taught or how orthodox their doctrine is, Christ advises us to beware of them. Ultimately, since their “god” is their stomach (desire), they will eventually abandon the truth for convenience sake when it suits them (i.e. when donations are down). Their convictions are only strong when it is expedient for them to have strong convictions and those shift with the wind. These false prophets are dangerous and greedy, seeking only to fleece the sheep and enrich themselves.
False prophets did come to the early church. False prophets are still among us today. I recently had to pull my family out of a church that we attended for 3 years because I discovered the avarice of the senior pastor and his lack of integrity. It was a hard decision to make but it was the right one. It is important for us to examine the doctrine and the character of teachers in the church. They are to be held to a high standard. True, godly, teachers of the bible should be honored. We should beware of false teachers because of the damage they can do.