In school, teachers give tests with fill in the blank, multiple choice, essay questions, and a true or false section. The questions that are “false” usually change a word or phrase taken from definitions in the chapter's vocabulary section. “Fish are mammals.” False! “An equilateral triangle has two sides that are the same and one side that isn't.” False! “Peter wrote Galatians!” False!
So, when we talk about false teachers and false prophets, we need to slow down and define our terms. For example, if someone mistakenly says something silly like Peter wrote Galatians, is that person a false teacher? While what they said is false by our usual definitions, this doesn't necessarily make them a false teacher in the biblical sense. If that were so, then anyone who makes a mistake out of ignorance, forgetfulness, or one of “those” moments (Moses built the ark), would be considered a false teacher and in danger of the fires of Hell and all that.
In other words, if being a false teacher meant simply having a wrong interpretation or understanding of a Bible passage, then there isn't a “true teacher” in existence since humans are by their very nature fallible beings, unless one is willing to say they are as knowledgeable about the Bible as God.
What, then, is a false teacher?
In the New Testament, the word “false prophet” is used eleven times, but only six are relevant to our discussion (the others are redundant or have to do with a specific character in Revelation): Matthew 7:15; Matthew 24:11: Matthew 24:24; Luke 6:26; 2 Peter 2:1; 1 John 4:1. The New Testament also talks about those who are “false teachers” (2 Peter 2:1) and “deceivers” (2 John 7). But these latter two terms are not used very often compared to the eleven times “false prophet” is applied. So, let's examine these passages and see how the Bible defines “false teachers” and “false prophets.”
Who Did Jesus Call False Prophets?
There are three major “false prophets” passages from the teaching of Jesus. These are in the context of two major sermons: the Sermon on the Mount and the Olivet Discourse. We'll attempt to interpret each of these in light of their context.
Matthew 7:15; Luke 6:26
In the first major section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus compares what the Jews had heard in their oral traditions to what He was teaching: “you have heard that the ancients were told… but I say to you…” This section began by Jesus warning, “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). This entire section, then, is an indictment of the scribes, Pharisees, and their traditions.
Jesus continues in chapter 6, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). Who is he talking about here? As Ulrich Luz points out in his commentary on Matthew in the Hermeneia series,
[T]he verse anchors this section in its context. It looks ahead to 23:5 and thus secures the parenetic secondary dimension of the opening section of the great woes discourse against Pharisees and scribes. Above all, however, it looks back to 5:20; it repeats “your righteousness” from that verse. The readers still remember the Pharisees and scribes from 5:20. They would presumably think of the “hypocrites” as the Pharisees and scribes. Thus in the macrotext of the Gospel of Matthew our text is a component of his great controversy with mainstream Judaism dominated by the Pharisees and scribes.Luz, Ulrich. Matthew 1–7: A Commentary on Matthew 1–7. Ed. Helmut Koester. Rev. ed. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007. Print. Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible.
So, when one comes to Matthew 7:15, there is little doubt of whom Jesus is speaking: “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15). Who was clean on the outside but filled with dead man's bones? Who's fruit was making one “twice as much a son of Hell” as themselves? Who focused so much on tithing but neglected mercy? Who appeared righteous but was really lawless? In reference to Luke 6, who was it that descended from those who rejected the true prophets and accepted the false prophets? Matthew 23 makes it clear: the scribes and the Pharisees.
Can one use Matthew 7:15 in a secondary way to apply to people today? Yes, but to be consistent with Jesus's use of the term, it should be used to describe those who are only outwardly religious, neglect the widows and the poor, and bind traditions upon the sheep as if their traditions were the law of God.
Matthew 24:11, 24
Matthew 24 contains Jesus's answer to the apostles question concerning the fall of the Jewish temple which would take place in AD 70 (Matthew 24:1-3). In the first major section of His answer, Jesus warns of several things that would happen before the end would come. One of the signs would be the arrival of false prophets. Matthew 24:11 introduces the topic, but verse 24 offers more context:
Then if anyone says to you, ‘Behold, here is the Christ,' or ‘There He is,' do not believe him. “For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect. “Behold, I have told you in advance. “So if they say to you, ‘Behold, He is in the wilderness,' do not go out, or, ‘Behold, He is in the inner rooms,' do not believe them.Matthew 24:23–26
Since the nature of their false prophecy seems so clearly defined, it seems redundant to explain thoroughly. Nevertheless, these false prophets were intentionally misleading the people through false signs and claiming to be the Messiah. In denying the Messiahship of Jesus, they were rejecting God. One cannot be a faithful prophet of God and reject God at the same time, so it is no wonder He calls them false prophets.
The false prophets in Jesus's teaching were not simply mistaken or ignorant. They were vain, only outwardly righteous, and had rejected Jesus as the Christ. As Jesus Himself said, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, ‘We see,' your sin remains” (John 9:41).
Dallas Burdette in his dissertation dedicated several hundred pages to the subject of False Prophets in the Gospel of Matthew: Who are They?. He pointed out how the gospel of Matthew is a book of conflict in which Jesus is constantly butting heads with the Pharisees and Jewish leaders. The goal of his dissertation was not to condemn those who misuse Matthew 7:15 and similar passages, but it was to bring about unity in the body of Christ by disarming these texts that have relentlessly been used to expel those who do “not subscribe to the orthodoxy of a particular group.” He said in such cases that to not agree with the normal interpretation of a passage within a group is seen as “tantamount to disagreeing with God Himself” (p.3).
False Prophets in the Epistles
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. Many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned; and in their greed they will exploit you with false words; their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.2 Peter 2:1–3
Just two quick points before we begin: these teachers would (1) bring swift destruction upon themselves and (2) their judgement is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. In other words, whoever these false prophets were, they would swiftly come to an end. Personally, I see no reason to separate these false prophets from the one's addressed in Matthew's gospel account, especially Matthew 24 where Jesus talked about the impending destruction of Jerusalem.
That being said, notice that these destructive heresies specifically had to do with denying Jesus. They were greedy, they intentionally spoke falsely, and they would attempt to exploit people. Does this sound like the brother or sister in Christ who loves Jesus, loves their neighbor, and simply understands or interprets the Bible differently? If “swift destruction” has not come upon whatever denomination or religious sect one wishes to apply this passage to, then it must not be talking about them! The Catholic church has been in existence for hundreds and hundreds of years, for example. No one could say that their destruction has been “swift” or “not idle.” In fact, they are still going strong.
To apply this passage to mistaken brothers and sisters in Christ today is to terribly misuse the word of God.
Of course, like in the case of Matthew, does this passage have potential, useful secondary application? Of course, but to whom might one apply it? To those who deny Jesus, are greedy, exploit others, and say things they don't believe to make a quick buck. I think everyone can agree that such people do not really believe in the Jesus you and I know or love their neighbor as themselves, things that John says are indicators that one abides in Jesus.
Finally we come to 1 John 4, but this passage is the most simple because it only requires us to read two more verses.
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from 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 from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.1 John 4:1–3
Well, that was easy! 1 John 4, in its context, only applies to those who reject that Jesus came from God. It's really that simple. Now, I can't help but to point out the connection between this passage, 2 Peter 2, and Matthew 24. To me, this is pretty good proof for an early date for the book of John and, perhaps, Revelation as well. For some of my readers, I know that goes against the grain, but it does seem like John and Peter were feeding off of what Jesus had warned of earlier in their presence.
Regardless, 1 John 4 is not an option if one wishes to use it in condemning anyone and everyone who doesn't agree with their interpretation of the Bible. In fact, it is probably a good idea to stay away from the letters of John when trying to find reasons to condemn our brothers and sisters in different heritages. As I've shown in several articles in the past on 1 John, that can backfire very quickly!
Ignorance and False Teaching
Now that we've spent some time defining what a false prophet is, let me show an example of how people in the New Testament dealt with differences. In Acts 18, Priscilla and Aquila came across an enthusiastic minister named Apollos. “This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he was speaking and teaching accurately the things concerning Jesus, being acquainted only with the baptism of John; and he began to speak out boldly in the synagogue. But when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:25–26). They didn't make a public stand. They didn't “call him down.” They took him aside and explained the way more accurately. He wasn't a false teacher; he was mistaken.
People who are genuinely seeking truth will find it. That's something Jesus said in several different ways. But what is truth? Jesus is. He is the way, the truth, and the life. Just because someone doesn't accept your interpretation of the Bible, even if it is correct, doesn't mean they reject Jesus; they just weren't convinced by your explanation.
The passages that are black and white to us are black and white because we have been trained to see them that way, regardless of the truthfulness of our interpretation. Not using instruments may be “obvious, clear Bible teaching” to us while using instruments can be just as obvious, just as clear, and just as Biblical to someone else. Rejection of your interpretation is not rejection of the word of God.
Often times, we do not give our brothers and sisters enough credit. Take the “new heavens and new earth” view of eschatology that is being highly criticized by those in the more “conservative” Churches of Christ now. I don't agree with that view. I believe it fails to honor the clear time-statement in Revelation and other texts. I believe it doesn't recognize the covenantal framework of Jesus and Paul's eschatology. But guess what: I know that quoting a few passages and having a couple of Bible studies won't completely satisfy their objections to my view. A subject as in depth as eschatology takes months, even years to develop one's views on in any significant way. It's not that this person rejects the word of God when they reject your interpretation; it's that their views aren't based on one or two proof-texts but an extremely detailed web that they've constructed over potentially thousands of hours of Bible study. Regardless of any of this, though, from my perspective, I can and do have fellowship with these individuals because our unity is based on faith in Jesus and love for our neighbor, not our understanding of the various “-ologies.”
Was Apollos a false teacher? No. He wasn't a hypocrite. He didn't deny Jesus (you can't deny someone you have never heard of). He wasn't greedy. He wasn't trying to take advantage of someone. He was simply ignorant. People who are ignorant but who seek truth no matter what will find it, or at the very least they will accept it when it is presented in a way that is convincing and handles their objections. These people aren't false teachers in their ignorance; their ignorance only becomes culpable when it is willful. Let us show others the same grace that God has shown towards each of us in our ignorance. As Jesus said, those who are blind have no sin.
Maybe it's the case I haven't handled all of your objections in this article on false teachers. If there is a passage you want me to address, leave it in the comments or message me, and I'll cover it in another article.