"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits."
Our church has been going through the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) for over five months now. Three weeks ago Pastor Voddie preached through this particular passage. After he was done, I had a new definition of false prophets, how to identify them, and what to do about them.
I used to think false prophets were pretty easy to spot (Jim Jones, who I will mention later, Adolph Hitler, and Saddam Hussein come to mind) and any believer pretty much ignored them for the most part. However, Jesus identifies that there are false prophets and they're not always so easy to spot. He told us to look carefully, because they are often disguised, and beware.
Pastor Voddie made two points about why, in our culture today, it's hard to identify and judge false prophets. First, because of Biblical and theological illiteracy. Second, of the prevalence of syncronism ("Why can't we all just get along?"). Our culture has conditioned us to be tolerant, "not judge", "get along", and that truth is not absolute but relative. Jesus, on the contrary, told us to beware and not "just get along". Titus 1:9 states that elders of the church are to know and teach sound doctrine and to rebuke those who contradict it. That's a command!
Recognizing false prophets is fairly simple; they will bear bad fruit: bad teaching and bad living. Jesus tells us to examine the fruit. Our test of examination for anything is, "does this line up with God's word?" (Heb. 1:1-3, 1 John 4:1-3, Acts 17:10-11). We must expose false prophets for who they are (Eph. 5:6-14; Jude 1:3-4).
I watched the end of a PBS special on Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple. As I watched and listened, I was amazed and saddened by what had happened in 1978. I had never previously heard of Jim Jones or People's Temple and so it shocked me to hear how many people committed suicide in the name of Jim Jones. Nine hundred and eighteen people died on the command of one man. One false prophet. He was a known Marxist and communist yet he was pastor of a church. These people heard what he preached and never thought to test what they had heard.
Finally, remember that we are not above being tricked and deceived by false prophets. We need to be aware and careful of that danger. Develop the habit of testing what you hear; trust the Word. Test what you hear by God's truth.