In Deuteronomy 13:1-4, Moses teaches the children of Israel some practical ways to spot a false prophet.
If there arises among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams, and he gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder comes to pass, of which he spoke to you, saying, ‘Let us go after other gods’—which you have not known—’and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams, for the LORD your God is testing you to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall walk after the LORD your God and fear Him, and keep His commandments and obey His voice; you shall serve Him and hold fast to Him.
From this example, we can glean several important lessons about how to spot false teaching.
We should always compare what we are taught with what has previously been revealed.
The first two commandments issued at Mt. Sinai make it clear that Jehovah expected absolute faithfulness from His people. “You shall have no other gods before me,” and “You shall not make any graven images.” In the example of Moses, the prediction came true. But what the prophet taught clearly contradicted what was previously revealed. Thus, Moses trained the Israelites to return to Scripture in order to verify the truthfulness of the prophet’s message.
This reminds me of those in the synagogue in Berea. When Paul preached Jesus to them, “they received the word with all readiness and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11). The Bereans’ faithfully carried out the command of Moses. They did not accept Paul’s teaching at face value. Instead, they drilled down into the content of his message.
We should all take their example to heart. It’s easy to be distracted by eloquence, charisma, emotion, or intelligence. The Bereans were open-minded to a new interpretation. They were also skeptical enough to evaluate Paul’s teaching in light of what was previously revealed. Always compare what you are taught with what the Scripture says no matter:
- What is said
- Who says it
- How truthful it may appear
False teaching — even when it directly contradicts Scripture — can be very persuasive.
Is there any sign that establishes a prophet’s credibility more than accurately predicting a future event? Moses tells the Israelites that God allowed this prophet’s prediction to come true in order to test them: will they allow a sign that appears to be from God to mislead them into idolatry? And so he warns the Israelites to be cautious and discerning, to not allow good judgment to be overruled by an impressive sign.
Not all signs are from God. 2 Thessalonians 2:9 teaches that Satan is capable of deceiving the world “with all power, signs, and lying wonders..” When warning the Corinthians about false apostles, Paul reminds the brethren in 2 Corinthians 11:14 that “Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light.” What appears to be from God may, in fact, be a “lying wonder.”
False teaching can be very persuasive, it can appear to be from the very lips of God.
The reason why false teaching deceives through appearances is it contains an element of truth.
Rarely, if ever, does false teaching present itself as blatantly false. The “sign that came to pass” in the example of Moses contains the hallmarks of a “message from God,” a revealed truth. To give an appearance of legitimacy, all false teaching must have at least a kernel of truth.
Jesus describes false teachers as “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” and it seems reasonable to conclude that false teaching is the same. On the outside, it looks like a sheep. It appears to be Christian, Biblical, or spiritual. And it appears this way because it contains elements of truth. As a dear brother in Christ often says, 98% of rat poison is unharmful, but it’s the 2% that kills the rat.
False teaching is not the absence of truth. It’s the distortion of the truth. In some cases, the truth is corrupted by just a small kernel of falsehood.
Our best protection against false teaching is to get as familiar as we can with the Bible.
Sometimes I receive a message on social media from a person I know in real life. The message is so out of character that I quickly suspect that their account was either hacked or cloned. I know the message is not from them because I know them.
The best way to spot a counterfeit dollar is to know what an authentic dollar looks like down to its finest detail. In like manner, the best way to identify false teaching is to know the Bible as well as we possibly can — if we know the original, we can spot a fake more easily.
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