A few weeks ago, we discovered a process of discernment or “distinguishing between spirits” (1 Corinthians 12:8-10) to determine or judge whether something is in line or agreement with the will of God, and a way to recognize false teaching/prophecy. Jesus tells us in Matthew 7:16 that “by their fruit you will recognize them (false prophets)”. Here is the rest of that passage so that you can see it in full context.
“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matthew 7:15-20 NIV)
However, some have taken this passage of scripture and used it as an excuse or a license to aggressively criticize others who have a different view of scripture. They like to call themselves “fruit inspectors”. Instead of a spirit of discernment, it becomes a spirit of criticism, a way to throw their spiritual weight around, and to be “holier than thou”. Just as a reminder, Christians aren’t the only ones who act “holier than thou” or try to claim the moral high ground, but of all people Christians should be the last ones to make demonstrations of superiority. Jesus and the Apostle Paul make that abundantly clear.
While I understand and share the concern over false teaching and the desire to warn others about theological views that are diametrically opposed to Biblical teaching, I have issues with the spirit with which it is done, especially online where people can hide behind a screen. As I stated in part 1 of this series, I’m not a fan of criticizing others in the public arena, especially if those being criticized aren’t afforded an opportunity to defend or explain themselves.
However, Jesus is issuing a warning about false prophets who “teach” falsely, so he does have a problem with people that are doing it. On several occasions Jesus does “call people out” because of false teaching or hypocrisy, but it’s face to face. He is usually addressing a group of people, the Pharisees, religious leaders, or the money changers, not individuals. To my knowledge, He never calls them out by name. Jesus gives us a better alternative in Matthew 18:15-17. (See Part 2 of this series)
Just so we’re clear, I don’t think when Jesus is talking about false prophets that He is concerned about what is being taught in math, science, physical education, or physics at Jerusalem High School. The subject matter that Jesus is referring to is theological, the word of God, or the scriptures. They didn’t have Bibles like we have today. They were written on scrolls. I’ve been to a Jewish synagogue and watched them pull scrolls from an “Ark”. No, it’s not the original “Ark of the Covenant” that God commanded the Israelites to build and store the 10 commandments, the other laws of God, and scriptures. It is a copy or representation of the original, but it is still used to store the Jewish or Hebrew scriptures or Old Testament as it is called today. In the beginning, it only contained the the stone tablets that the 10 commandments were written on, but gradually other writings were added including the Torah or the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
In Luke 2:41-52 we discover that when Jesus was 12, he went to the synagogue and listened to the priests read and teach from these scrolls. He also asked questions. Jesus was actively engaged in the discussion. In verse 47 it says that “Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers.” Well in fairness to those in attendance, they didn’t know who Jesus was yet. They didn’t know that He was God “incarnate” or God “in the flesh”. On another occasion after His official ministry had begun, He returns to Nazareth, His hometown, to teach.
14Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. 16He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Luke 4:14-17 NIV
It says that He is reading from the “scroll of the prophet Isaiah”, so from this we know that other Old Testament writings have been added to their collection of scriptures. These scriptures were considered the very words or laws of God at the time and were relied upon, authentic, and authoritative. They were considered the absolute truth of God. In other words, they weren’t “false” documents. They had been verified and accounted for through the years by the writers, eyewitnesses, scribes, and priests who copied and passed them down from generation to generation.
So, when Jesus is talking about false prophets/teaching, He is referring to those who are teaching the word of God that He is obviously very familiar with falsely. They are misrepresenting or giving a false interpretation or testimony of what is understood as the true word of God. Again, how does Jesus know that these documents are true? Because He has examined the text Himself. We never hear Jesus refer to any scrolls, scripture, or written documents at that time as being false, which is proof of its authenticity. If Jesus doesn’t have a problem with it, then why do we? What Jesus is not thrilled about is when these scriptures that He has read and taught himself are not taught correctly. Therefore, there is a standard of teaching or correct way of teaching that must be adhered to. The Apostle Paul refers to this in 2 Timothy.
15Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. 2 Timothy 2:15 NIV
The King James version says, “rightly dividing the word of truth”. The New American Stand says, “accurately handling the word of truth”. The Interlinear version says, “straightly cutting the word”. It’s this emphasis on precision that gets my attention. What is the opposite of precision or being precise? Inaccurate, wrong, faulty, imperfect, inexact, etc. That is exactly what Jesus warning us about. If God’s word is not taught truthfully, accurately, or correctly then it is false teaching and whoever teaches it falsely is a false prophet.
Okay, I think I’ve made my point that it is extremely important to watch out for false teaching, prophets and why. We do have to be accountable to God for how we teach His word, but we can’t use His word as an excuse or license to beat people up, figurative not literal, or attack them publicly or personally. There is a proper way of confronting sin, inspecting spiritual fruit, and false teaching, but it’s not a personal sneak attack or ambush on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or a podcast.
Unfortunately, “holier than thou” people, those who think they are better than everyone else are like racehorses at the starting gate. They can’t wait, hold themselves back, or contain themselves at the prospect of calling someone else out. They are chomping at the bit. It’s a competition, an adrenaline rush, and a joyous battle for superiority. When this approach is used, we become a stumbling block and often forfeit an opportunity that might actually lead someone into a meaningful encounter with God. Christians are called to be gracious, even when there is disagreement. In our eagerness to correct we should never intentionally hurt others, which is what being “holier than thou” is all about.
1In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: 2Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke, and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. 2 Timothy 4:1-2 NIV
There is a time for correction, rebuke, discernment, distinguishing between spirits (1 Corinthians 12:8-10), but not without encouragement, great patience, and careful instruction. Is it important what we say and teach? ABSOLUTELY! But it is equally important how we say it, teach it, and deal with it.