The past few years have witnessed an explosion of scandals in the Christian Church. To begin there has been the whole issue of child sexual abuse in the Catholic church, where far too many priests have taken advantage of their position to molest children. And then to top it off, the Bishops did not root out this evil but covered it up and allowed it to continue. But it is not just limited to the Catholic church; in the last couple of years the Me Too movement has also become the Church Too Movement. Then on top of that we have the spectacle of prosperity gospel preachers asking their flock to send in donations to buy private jets so that they don’t have the inconvenience of travelling with ordinary folks on commercial airlines.
We ought not to be surprised by this for 2000 years ago Jesus himself predicted that the church would be plagued by false prophets and self-serving leaders. He says, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”
So how can we distinguish between false prophets and true preachers? That’s the question I want to ask with you this morning. And I’d like to suggest that there are three questions you ought to ask of every preacher and religious teacher.
1. Is their message centered on Jesus Christ?
A lot of times we judge preachers on how good of a speaker they are. If they look good in the pulpit and have a winning smile, if they can tell funny stories that make us feel good, if they tell us how we can be happier in life, then we think that they are good preachers. But we are not to judge preachers by their presentation but by their proclamation. Does their proclamation exalt Jesus Christ?
The Apostle Paul says of himself in I Corinthians 2:1-2 & 5 “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified… so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.”
James Montgomery Boice says,
“One of the ways you can detect the false prophet is by noticing that although he says many things that seem probable, nevertheless, he does not set forth the Lord Jesus Christ himself as the only solution to human need and the only door to salvation. When you hear preaching and teaching ask yourself, ‘Does this system of thought have the Lord Jesus Christ at its center?’ If it does, well and good. If not be warned against it” (Boice, p. 255)
My greatest desire is not that you think highly of me, but that you come to know Jesus as your Savior. True preachers center their preaching on Christ.
2. Does their message challenge you to change your ways?
Some preachers gloss over the seriousness of sin. They never say anything that will ruffle your feathers or disturb your peace. In chapter 8:14 of his book, Jeremiah has something to say about these kinds of false prophets, “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.’” They are like a doctor who won’t tell you that you have cancer because they don’t want to upset you, which if you think about it is quite absurd. If you have cancer, you don’t need sugar coated words but the cold hard truth so that you can seek a cure. But sometimes what we really need is not hand holding, but a kick in the pants.
Jesus knew how to give us a kick in the pants to wake us up and to invite us to live a different way. If you doubt that, just think back about all the messages we have heard from the Sermon on the Mount. Each week Jesus has ruffled our feathers and invited us to find a new and better way of living.
In the gospel of John, Jesus says, “You shall know the truth and the truth and the truth shall set you free.” In alcoholics anonymous they expand on this saying. They say, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free, BUT first it will make you miserable.”
Another story from AA makes the same point.
Once there was a lazy little bird who waited too long before flying south for the winter. As she was migrating the temperature grew colder and she grew weaker until final she crash landed in a cow pen. Shivering, she thought to herself, “Well, I guess I should have started earlier, because now I am going to die.”
Just then a cow came by and took a big dump right on her head.
The little bird thought to herself, “Can my day get any worse? Now I am not only going to die, but I am going to die in a pile of cow dung.
But then she noticed something. The manure warmed her back up and instead of dying from the cold she began to feel better and better. This made her so happy that she started to sing at the top of her lungs.
Unfortunately, the barn yard cat also heard her singing and snatched her out of the dung only to eat her.
Now there are three morals to this story.
1. Not everyone who shits on you is your enemy
2. Not everyone who pulls you out of your shit is your friend. And,
3. If you are up to your neck in shit, for heaven’s sake don’t sing about it.
True preachers not only will focus on Christ, they will also tell you the truth about your sinful condition so that you can repent and change your ways.
3. Does the messengers’ character match the message.
There are lots of charismatic preachers in our day and age. But unless their character matches their charisma, their message will ring false. Jesus says, “Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Thus you will know them by their fruits.”
Now it may take a while for you to recognize whether a preacher’s life is bearing good fruit. Let me give you an example.
When I go hiking in July and August, I am always on the lookout for wild raspberries. When my daughter Elisabeth was younger, I took her backpacking. On our way out we found a big patch of raspberries and gathered a couple of quarts to take home to our family to share for desert.
But I’ve noticed that where you find raspberries, you can also find another plant the looks like a raspberry, but it really isn’t. It has thorns along its stems and almost the same shape of fruit, but the color is a little brighter red and the leaves are shaped differently. I’ve never eaten them because I don’t know if they are poisonous, but I have tasted them and spit them back out. They are actually rather tasteless, but since I don’t know if their poisonous or not I’ve never swallowed them. The point is that this plant and the raspberries grow side by side in the same bramble patch but only one is sweet and delicious.
The same is true of false preachers. They may look like good fruit, but when you look more closely you will see that they are counterfeit.
So what are the marks of good fruit in a true preacher’s life. John RW Stott says this.
The fruit Jesus is describing is Christlikeness or what Paul later termed ‘the fruit of the Spirit.’ Whenever we see in a teacher the meekness and gentleness of Christ, his love, patience, kindness, goodness and self-control, we have reason to believe him to be true, not false. On the other hand, whenever these qualities are missing, and the ‘the works of the flesh’ are more apparent than the ‘fruit of the Spirit’—especially self-indulgence, we have reason to believe him to be false.” (Stott, p. 201
In our day and age, I think one of the most telling signs of a false preacher is self-indulgence and this is particularly true of those who preach a so-called “prosperity gospel.” The prosperity gospel teaches that Jesus wants his disciples to be successful and wealthy. If you have enough faith and take a positive attitude towards life, then God will reward you with increased riches and good health. Notice that this preaching is not centered on Jesus, nor does it call anyone to repentance. Rather it is all about how you can become prosperous.
One of the most egregious examples of the self-indulgence of prosperity gospel preachers is Creflo Dollar. 25 years ago a couple from my church invited me to attend one of his crusades with them. Creflo flew to the crusade on his private jet and was taken to the stadium but a luxurious limousine. As part of his message Creflo bragged how God had so blessed him that before he came to the crusade he was able to take his children on an expensive shopping trip on Fifth Ave. At the end of the evening he invited anyone who wanted to make a $1000 contribution to go forward and place a check in his offering plate. Sad to say, the man who had invited me went forward. Even sadder, a woman who had advanced cancer went forward to make a contribution in hopes of receiving a cure. As you can imagine I was livid about this exploitive and unholy preaching.
By way of contrast let me tell you about CH Spurgeon a 19th century pastor who because of his clear and persuasive preaching was known as the Prince of Preachers. In his own way, Spurgeon was as much of a celebrity as Creflo Dollar but his attitude was so much different. Spurgeon and his wife had a rather odd practice; they raised chickens and sold the eggs to their family and friends. Many people tried to presume on his generosity and asked for a discount but he never gave in and always sold them at a fair price. People thought him rather peculiar and even parsimonious until after he died. They then learned that the Spurgeons used the proceeds from their eggs to support two elderly widows who had very limited income. The love of Christ compelled them to find a practical and private way to care for these widows.
Can you imagine Creflo Dollar, Trump advisor Paula White, or even Joel Osteen doing such a simple and generous ministry? Each of these people are prosperity gospel preachers who live an opulent lifestyle and preach that you can have the same thing as they have. And the reason they have that lifestyle is because people generously support their “so called” ministry and buy their books.
As your pastor, I warn you not to buy the false promise and the false gospel preached by such people. They look very beautiful and successful but they are really wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Jesus warned us that there would come false prophets. We are charged to beware of them. We will know whether they are true by three things.
- They preach Christ alone.
- They call us to repentance and change
- Their lifestyle is consistent with Biblical values.