False teachers can pose a health hazard. Perhaps you remember some from our own time.
On November 19, 1978, 913 followers of Jim Jones committed suicide at the People’s Temple in Jonestown, Guyana, by drinking punch laced with cyanide.
On April 19, 1993, 74 members of an armed, religious group called the Branch Davidians, plus their leader David Koresh, died in Texas after a 51-day standoff with the FBI. Sect members believed Koresh was God incarnate.
In late March 1997, Marshall Applewhite’s 39 followers, called Heaven’s Gate, committed suicide in California by drinking Phenobarbital and vodka. They believed that, after they died, a spacecraft would whisk them away to a “higher plane.” Applewhite was a homosexual who introduced himself as “Jesus, Son of God.”
Today hundreds of young Muslims become human bombs, murdering themselves as well as thousands of innocent people. They believe doing so is the surest way to heaven.
Just as false shepherds lead sheep to the slaughter, false teachers lead their followers to destruction.
False teachers posed a great problem in Old Testament times. Deuteronomy 13:1–5 records the warning God gave the Israelites concerning false prophets:
If there arises among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams, and he gives you a sign or a wonder,…you shall not listen to the words of that prophet…because he has spoken in order to turn you away from the Lᴏʀᴅ your God.
The Old Testament describes false teachers in more than one way. In 1 Kings 22:21–23, they are Ahab’s lying prophets. Ezekiel 13:3 describes them as those “who follow their own spirit and have seen nothing [no vision].” They are “shepherds who destroy and scatter” God’s sheep (Jer. 23:1). Thus the Old Testament pictures them as people who lie, are self-centered, look out for themselves alone, and cause the flock to scatter.
The New Testament provides much the same description of a false prophet, his destructive message, and his denial of biblical truth.
According to Matthew 7:15, false teachers are crafty, like wolves in sheep’s clothing (yes, that’s where the saying originated), sneaking in unnoticed. Initially they just try to blend in. Over time, however, they reveal their ungodliness (Jude 4) by going after the flock (Acts 20:29). Matthew 7:20 says, “Therefore by their fruits you will know them.” In other words, pay attention to the results of their teaching.
Second Peter 2:1 explains that false teachers bring in “destructive heresies,” and they do it secretly. Their messages bring divisiveness and destruction. They do not unite believers but divide them. These people use “deceptive” (meaning, “plastic”) words (v. 3). They tailor the structure of their messages to the people they address. As plastic can be molded to change, so their messages change. Truth is not the goal; self-gain is.
For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ (Jude 4).
They don’t live godly lives; rather, they live outside the authority of God. They “walk according to the flesh,” “despise authority,” and mock celestial beings (2 Pet. 2:10–11). False teachers regard themselves as superior to those who follow them and even to the authority of the Bible itself.
Unfortunately, false teaching is not relegated to unbelievers. It can infiltrate the church through well-meaning believers and do great damage to the body of Christ.
Several years ago a radio preacher who truly loves the Lord tried to prepare the church for Christ’s return, which he said would come September 6, 1994. He was sure Jesus would come then and continually proclaimed it on his program. Obviously, he was wrong. Today he tells his listeners to flee their local churches. He claims all churches are apostate and admonishes his audience to neither support nor attend them. As a result, his followers are leaving their churches.
Christians must be careful not to become followers of other men but to heed Scripture and be ever vigilant to identify false teachers and protect the flock from them.