The writer of Hebrews says that solid food belongs to those who are of age (Heb. 5:13). Those who are taking solid food will have moved from a preliminary level of faith to a mature faith. These members will have firmly established themselves in fundamental truths, such as the necessity of baptism for salvation and forgiveness; the True Church being the only church that Jesus has built; commissioned to save fallen humanity, to name but a couple.
With this understanding, by reason of practice, they are given the capacity to know the work of the wicked one. They are able to use the word of God to discern both good and evil. Being fully equipped with the word, they are empowered and given the wisdom to identify false teachers; disclosing their wrongs and defeat them. It has always been the case of false prophets to function in obscurity, shunning recognition. However, the church has the power to expose their pretences. There are clear examples chronicled in the Bible in relation to how the church can spot their trails of deception.
What Are Their Fruits?
In exposing the work of false prophets, Jesus states that their fruits must be carefully observed. The reasoning Jesus gives is that grapes cannot be gathered from thorn bushes or figs from thistles (Mt. 7:15f). The grapes and figs, though they are types of fruits, must not be taken solely to mean charitable deeds or actions of love. False teachers are more than capable of showing feigned charity, pretending submission and faking humility. The words of Jesus here provide another shade of understanding: thornbushes and thistles are used. They represent a state of having been cursed. They are a figure for falsehood and heresies. This example clearly underlines the motive of the false prophets doing good work - it is designed to deceive the ignorant.
For us today, it is not so much about despising teachings, but it is more about learning to be discerning (1 Thess. 5:20f). The words of a person, more often than not, will reflect his character and who he is. Likewise, the teachings of a person provide a good indication of his beliefs. This indication can allow us to discern whether or not he is a true or false teacher, based against the pattern of sound words that we have received in the Bible. For instance, love rejoices in the truth (1 Cor. 13:6b); nothing can be more important than the truth; love cannot precede the truth in the church and the action of love cannot, and must not, exceed the perimeter of the truth.
Paul has elaborated on the various aspects of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22); the fruit is borne with the power of the Spirit. We know that the Spirit is the truth and the truth is the Spirit (cf. Jn. 6:63) because the Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of truth (Jn. 14:17; 16:13). With this premise in mind, it is clear that these divine attributes are of the truth. One is able to exercise self-control by the work of the Spirit, simply because he has known and has been taught in the truth, and will not blatantly go against the commands of the Lord.
In stating the works of the flesh, which defies those of the Spirit (Gal. 5:17, 19), Paul points out that ‘heresies’ (the last element stated in verse 20) is one of them. It is in direct contradiction to the work of the Spirit, which the truth outlines. The conclusion is indisputably clear here: he who preaches falsehood or tampers with the truth does not have the fruit of the Holy Spirit. In combating the infiltration of heresies into the church, Jude unreservedly exposes that those who divide the church do not have the Spirit (Jude 19).
There are three key elements inherent in the teaching of the fruit of the Spirit. ‘The fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness and truth’ (Eph. 5:9). ‘Goodness’ refers to the essence of God, as only God is good (Ps. 34:8; Nah. 1:7; Mt. 19:17). It is a summation of all the virtues that He has shown on the cross. ‘Righteousness’ is used in a contrasting comparison to sin (1 Jn. 3:7f). Every manifestation in life or piece of holy work for God must have nothing to do with the work of the flesh and sins. ‘Truth’ is the standard of Christian practices. Furthermore, it is the foundation of the church.
With this overview of the fruit of the Holy Spirit in mind, we can see that the work of false teachers is contrary to the very essence of that of the Holy Spirit. In evilness they divide, but in God’s goodness, Jesus unites all who believe in Him. In order to achieve their aims, they seek to eliminate and destroy the unity within the church using any perverse means. On the contrary, through righteous means, by dying for all, the Lord fulfils the purpose of saving those who believe in Him from perversion. With falsehood, the false teachers infiltrate the church to lure believers away from the path of God. In contrast, Jesus leads man to God for salvation.
Do They Want Recognition?
Satan’s nature is such that he has always wanted to promote himself to be considered an equal with the Lord God. However, he remains unchanged ever since he fell into the temptation of pride, and since then, he has only worsened as the Day of the Lord approaches (cf. 1 Tim. 3:6). He is extremely good at pulling the strings of unfaithful leaders, especially those who are not stable in their minds and untrained in the words of God. He is always there to work on the weaknesses of human nature, fully exploiting them to his own advantage.
In a similar pattern, the trademark of false prophets is to draw people to themselves (Acts 20:30). The aim of this is to strengthen their positions, as a means of self-defence, and to further their dubious advances. It is true that the more believers they have deceived, the louder their voice will become, and the more influential they may become in the church. It would be much easier for them to push through their ideas and to sideline and quieten those who are not in support of what they preach and do.
Most crucially, they desire to be recognised (2 Cor. 11:12ff), to be deemed as outstanding and different from others. This desire can appear in the form of how much sacrifice has been made for the work of the Lord. It provides one of the strongest appeals for the support and understanding of other believers around them. Moreover, this kind of appeal will always capture the imagination of the weak, enhancing their positions in the hearts of these believers. The underlying reason for this strain of attack is to satisfy their pride, which infests not only their entire personalities but also innocent souls, whom they have trapped with their words.
Another way these false teachers use, in order to draw those to them, is to praise with ill-intent (Jude 16). Flattering words always soften the heart. It proves a powerful tool that melts away defences such as being alert. When one is praised, one feels honoured and important. Furthermore, when one’s self-esteem is particularly hurt or low, one can be easily drawn towards false teachers when praised out of proportion. To gain more advantage, false teachers can make one feel delighted in oneself, for instance, to feel that he is the best amongst all his co-workers and most eligible to undertake a certain task.
In some cases, false teachers are also very capable of exerting influence on the leaders who are on the upper ecclesiastical echelons by honouring them unconditionally. This is the subtlest of moves. Once these leaders have been drawn under the influence of their deception, they can be easily used as pawns providing a far more effective influence than that of the common believers. These leaders will be manipulated into carrying out the work of deception, making the false teachers seem sacrosanct in their position and status, with their twisted teachings seeming divinely ordained.
So far, it is clear that the practices of false teachers are exactly contrary to what a sincere worker would do. In total contrast, a sincere worker will aim to present believers as perfect before the Lord (Col. 1:29). A sincere worker understands that the sheep belong to the Lord (Mic. 7:14). He will not seek glory from men and therefore, whatever he says will be spoken to please God and not men. In this way, his messages aim to help believers and aid the church in being equipped with the word to grow in the Lord, without any pretexts of currying favours to gain advantages for personal reasons (1 Thess. 2:3-6).
Do they Follow the Apostles’ Teachings?
After the establishment of the church, the apostles’ teachings were put in place as part of the biblical truth for the church to follow (Acts 2:42). In the Jerusalem Conference, members of the circumcision party were not considered servants of Christ. They had gone out from the community of faith (Acts 15:24; 1 Jn. 2:19). They were named as deceivers (Tit. 1:10), continuing on with their twisted beliefs, even after many years had passed since the Jerusalem Resolution had been made.
Circumcision-related issues continued to trouble many believers, despite the gospel reaching to various different places. It repressed the growth of many churches, especially those of the gentile converts. Not only did the perpetrators not submit to the church, they also promoted rebellion amongst the believers to go against the teachings and direction of the church (Jude 8). They despised authority (2 Pet. 10) and the truth from the Holy Spirit. They were more than prepared to do anything, in order to make sure their views were accepted.
To prevent believers from being led astray, Elder John came out with a set of guidelines that were designed to help the church to become aware of the devices of the anti-Christ. One of the highlights of his guidelines includes: he who refuses to hear the teachings of the apostles is not of God and does not know the truth. John’s word surfaces another hidden aspect of the work of the false prophets. Their refusal to heed to the admonition of the church points only to one possibility – the spirit of error working and not the spirit of truth.
Do they Exercise Restraint over their Words?
Paul once said that the mouth of those who preached circumcision must be stopped (Tit. 1:11). It goes to show that the deceivers were very daring with their words and wickedly outspoken, in terms of their twisted beliefs. With their eloquence, they subverted many into disobeying God, teaching things which they ought not to have taught. They were opportunistic schemers. Not only had they lied about the truth (1 Jn. 2:22), they were very good at doing so, using powerful and persuasive words to ruffle the immature and cause divisions within believers (Eph. 4:13f).
Peter compares false prophets to brute beasts (2 Pet. 2:12). Their natural instinct is to attack and kill. They are extremely fearsome and their destructive power is second to none. They speak of evil things that they do not understand (Jude 10). They judge a book by its cover without any desire to search deeper things. The scary part is that they do not feel any remorse for their sickening words of profanity. They freely speak ill of things or people in a way that even a believer would not dare think about.
Essentially, false prophets do not believe in bridling their tongues against any one. They utter great swelling words (Jude 16; 2 Pet. 2:18), daring to speak against even dignitaries (Jude 8). They do not spare those who are in governance of the church (cf. Exod. 22:20b). They are presumptuous and self-willed (2 Pet. 2: 10). They are incessantly in violation of God’s principles. In contrast, what a good worker does is not to sin with his words. For example, when in contention over the body of Moses, the archangel did not revile the evil one with an accusation (Jude 9; cf. Zech. 3:2).
Jude also reveals that false prophets are grumblers and complainers (Jude 16a). They are never, and will never, be satisfied with what the church has done. Sometimes, constant grumbling is very off-putting, and it can be tiring on the work force of the church. At the same time, complaining seeks to divide attention, making it hard for the church to do what is necessary and good for the believers. In reality, this is a smart tactic employed to further the false teachers’ ambitions by clouding the focus of the church, which is to defend against their false teachings in the first place.
In John’s vision he saw a beast emerge from the land, which was given a mouth from which to speak ‘great things and blasphemies’ (Rev. 13:5). Revelation explains that the beast is an instrument of the dragon. It represents the false prophets in a collective sense. The mouthing of callous words has an ultimate aim in mind: to speak wickedly against God and His Kingdom (Rev. 13:6). This has long been documented in the book of Daniel, which states that the fourth beast shall devour the whole earth (Dan. 7:23) and speak pompous words against the Most High (Dan. 7:25).
In a Nutshell
Paul comments that the foes the church fights against cannot be perceived by the naked eye. The only way to defeat such enemies is to adopt a measure of prevention; the church has to be built up in the truth and discernment. Believers are to be equipped with a great understanding of God’s word, constantly pursuing after spiritual maturity in cultivation. Being humbly established in knowing what and whom one believes in is the way forward for the church to combat against heresies. Being constantly prayerful and watchful must be of the utmost importance in our Christian lives.
Each believer, especially every worker, must be repeatedly reminded that there is always a real possibility of turning into a ruthless false prophet. Being faithful to the word of God is a basic requirement that one must fulfil, if one is to embark on any form of holy work. Not just that, such a worker must be able to courageously go all out to contend for the faith that has been delivered to humanity once and for all (Jude 3). To tolerate false teachings and to not stand up for this faith will only cause more harm than good. Therefore, unity, based on the foundation of the truth to fight against falsehoods, must be the top priority of the church.