- Read your Bible consistently, diligently and frequently. “Study to show yourself approved unto God, a workman who needs not to be ashamed, rightfully dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15) Neither Jesus nor His followers ever deviated from the truth of the Word. If it’s not in there, it’s not from God. (John 17:17) “For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God.” (Acts 20:27) Paul didn’t teach classes on how to speak in tongues or how to prophesy. He taught believers from the scriptures how to follow Jesus and walk with Him. Everything else followed and was always based on scripture.
This is an extraordinarily Biblically illiterate generation, and most Christians can only recite one or two Bible verses. That is a setup for deception. “Thy word have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against you.” (Psalm 119:11) If His Word isn’t hidden in you, then you can easily be led astray by an experience, or a vision, or a prophecy, or a teaching, many of which feel good, sound good and often come from good people, even well-intentioned people. But Paul said “But if I, or an angel from heaven preach any other Gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1:8) Scary words. So if you want to keep from being deceived, know your Word, and reject what is not found in that Word. Otherwise, you have nothing to go on; one person’s experience is as “valid” as the next person’s, and without that measure of what is true and what is a lie that the scriptures give, there is no way to tell which is which.
- Try the spirits. “Beloved, believe not every spirit but try the spirits whether they be of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1)
It was true then, it is true now, and in the light of Paul’s clear word that “…the Spirit speaks expressly, that in the latter time some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of devils” (1 Timothy 4:1), we better quite sure test the person, and the spirit that is working through them, to make sure they are from God. Just because a person talks about Jesus and quotes a few verses, or even does miracles, it doesn’t mean a thing. Paul said, “And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works.” (2 Cor. 11:14-15) If false prophets come, how would you expect them to act? Talk? Demonstrate? They will be just like real servants of the Lord, except they will be false. Try the spirits: make sure what you are seeing and hearing and experiencing is Biblical, consistent with scripture and true to it. If not, walk away.
That doesn’t give you permission, by the way, to call someone a heretic if they don’t share your personal position on the rapture, speaking in tongues, method of baptism etc. As long as they are not blatantly UNBiblical or prophesying nonsense or predicting things that do not come true, give people a little leeway. We are not perfect and we are not judging hearts but examining the words and actions that will either find them approved in Christ, or of another nature, another spirit.
Do not think it cannot, and does not, happen. I have lived as a believer for over 49 years and I have seen dozens of false prophets who sounded just like Biblical preachers, who ended up, for example, like the Children of God’s David Berg who led tens of thousands of people astray, molested his own son who later killed his nanny and then killed himself, and taught some of the most blasphemous teachings ever taught in our lifetime. He started out preaching what sounded Biblical, but in a short time he turned his followers into mindless slaves of a sex cult that ruined thousands of lives and is still doing so after his death. The same with Jim Jones, an “inclusive, diverse” Church of Christ preacher in San Francisco who fed the poor, cared for the lonely and disenfranchised – all good things! But then he started preaching to his large church about not needing the Bible, only him…and then led over 900 people to their suicide in Guyana. Try the spirits. Anyone else claiming the title prophet, apostle, seer, etc. better have the scriptural goods, the backing of others as well as the authority that comes from Jesus, or you need to run. Anyone can call themselves anything in these days and gain a following, that is unfortunately how lacking foundation many in the church are.
- Question anything that seems off to you. I’m not talking about your own personal doctrinal preference like when the church is going to be taken out or whether you have to be immersed or you can be sprinkled, but a teaching or activity or manifestation that just doesn’t seem right or feel right. For example, only people who have lost all sense of discernment believe slithering like a snake on the floor or other animal manifestations are a manifestation of the Spirit of the Holy God. And yet I have seen whole congregations caught up in that obviously unholy activity. We are not senseless sheep, and in the end, Jesus is our Chief Shepherd. We are accountable to know “whether these things are so.” (Acts 17:11) We are, like the Bereans, to hear, but then to “search the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.” And if they are not, you need to confront it and/or walk away. Do it in order, do things decently, but don’t just go along with something that is clearly unbiblical, no matter how much it is presented as true.
There are young people in my Bible study. It is not uncommon for them to question certain things that I say or teach. And they are absolutely right to do so. Beware of those who present a “who are you to question me” response when asked about things. That in itself is a huge red flag. We need to be humbly prepared to answer honest questions. If we’re not willing to do that, we need to go find a job somewhere other than ministry. We are called to be servants, not masters.
- Pray for discernment. 1 Corinthians 12:10 lists discerning of spirits as being one of the gifts or manifestations of the Holy Spirit in us and through us. It is not only the gift to discern demonic presences when they are somewhere or operating in someone, but to discern the nature of a person’s spirit as well, their motives, their actions and even their spiritual state at times.
But it is not just a gift: It is something needing development as well. “But strong meat belongs to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. (Hebrews 5:14) Senses are a “faculty of the mind for perceiving, understanding, judging.” And how do you develop this all-important discernment? By learning the Word of God, by prayer and by using it. Discernment is nearly entirely lacking in the western church today. It requires the maturity to detect a lie or error or deception, or a deceiver, or a wolf, and confront these things, and sometimes people. In an era when the world screams, “The Bible says judge not!” (The only verse they know and like!) Jesus in fact said not to judge according to outward appearance but judge righteous judgment. (John 7:24) Someone has to keep the foxes out of the henhouse and the wolves away from the sheep! Discernment gives you the spiritual eyesight and capacity to confront and chase these things away.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the background, teaching and lifestyle of the messenger. Many people get deceived by overlooking little doctrinal issues, unscriptural practices or ungodly lifestyles out of the public eye and choosing to follow a person regardless. Again, there can be doctrinal disagreements, maybe a quirky ministry style in praying or something, and human quirks we all have. But if someone is, as one well-known evangelist was, kicking people in the stomach to heal them, teaching about unscriptural visions of angels and conversations with dead saints of the Bible and living an adulterous lifestyle offstage, to continue to follow them will cause you to fall into the same deceptions they themselves teach and even worse.
It’s ok to expect more from our leaders and teachers in terms of integrity, biblical truth and moral character than we would people who do not hold that holy place of service. And when you see them doing things that clearly violate these things, you are commanded to flee, or confront, but not to ignore. These things only grow worse with time.
- Talk things out with others. There are many, many teachers, prophets, apostles etc. in our age of superstar Christianity. And many wrongfully assume because a person has a large following, they must be from God. I remind people that Hitler had a large following and Jesus a very small one, so never decide that a thing or person is from God just because they have a large following. Do not assume that because a Christian book is a bestseller like Jesus Calling or The Shack or The Message that it is scriptural or true. All three of those books are full of error, and I know many, many Christians who simply drank the Kool-Aid and ignored the problems because everyone else did. But if something doesn’t seem right, talk to some trusted godly friends who know their sword and discuss your concerns with them.
- Test every spiritual, supernatural experience you see, hear of or experience yourself.
I am not a cessationist, so I need to say that upfront. (For those who are unfamiliar with that term, it is one who believes all the miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit Paul listed in 1 Corinthians are no longer in operation.) I have lived too long and seen too much and had God use me in too many ways to ever believe that those things are not still needed, valid, important. (And you free to disagree without disfellowshipping me!)
Having said that, I think it is absolutely imperative that every experience we have, every “miracle” we witness, every supernatural manifestation, every dream, vision or revelation presented by someone else or experienced personally, is tested. Again, believe not every spirit. Why is this important, doesn’t this make us doubters, skeptics, critics? No, it makes us wise, biblically minded and obedient to the Word of God. Paul made it very clear that in the last days, there would be false miracles and manifestations: “Even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders.” (2 Cor. 2:9) He is speaking about the coming antichrist. Did you read that? He will be accompanied – and no doubt forerun – by power and signs and lying wonders. “For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders, insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.” (Mt. 24:24) In other words, not all “supernatural manifestations” are from God! Keeping this in mind, we are responsible to not just receive something because it’s supernatural, whether it’s angel feathers, angel footprints, gemstones or whatever. We are responsible to not just receive someone’s word, prophecy, message because they hold a self-given title like prophet or apostle or bishop, or even if they have been conferred that title by others. Test everything. “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” (1 Thess. 5:21)
Does the experience/dream/vision or teaching or word or prophecy, whether received by you or taught by another, align perfectly with the Word of God, or does it contradict it? Search it out! Not all that glitters is Gospel. Is there Biblical precedent for it? Or is it extrabiblical, not subject to testing and judging? We are not asked to receive such things without carefully examining it, which is why scriptures ask one to prophesy and others to judge it. (1 Cor. 14:29) If we are not doing that, we are not following Biblical truth and are in danger of deception. Nearly every cult and false teaching I have ever studied came through a man or woman that got some sort of extrabiblical or exotic dream, vision, revelation or “special knowledge” that suddenly gave them “new truth” and “new revelation” – and in the process elevated them to a place of having a following, authority and eventually the ability to deceive others and fall into even more deception. That’s how the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others got started. Again, if you know your Word, you will be able to tell when something is not true. And if you receive a vision, dream, revelation, what do you do? You test it, by the Word, and also by sharing it with others you know are solid. Ask them – do you think this is valid, or did I just eat too much pizza last night? Do you think this is from God? Many a person has been pulled back from error because they allowed themselves to have that safety net of others who would help them discern truth from error. I do believe God gives dreams and visions from time to time, I do believe in prophecy in its context, words of knowledge, etc. I have had them, and seen others be used in them. But whether it is another person or myself, I always test these things, and you are required to, too.
- Will the person teaching be open to respond to honest questions, or will they wall you off with a band of “handlers” that keep them from talking to you? If so, walk away. I remember David Wilkerson once telling of how he was on his way to a large crusade when a little tiny man caught him walking to the venue and asked to talk with him. David told him to hurry up because he was on his way to an important crusade. The man actually spoke a word from God that said that when David was small in his own eyes, God honored him, but he was being warned not to be lifted up in pride. It apparently devastated David and he had the humility to receive it from a tiny man who had a big word from God. If David had allowed his “entourage” to wall him off, he would have never gotten that word. David was and remained a humble man of God to his passing, a man who was not afraid to go down on the bad streets of San Francisco to put his arms around and pray with alcoholics, AIDS patients and prostitutes. (I witnessed it myself.) In my eyes, if you have to have bodyguards to keep you from “little people” you need to be out of ministry and lose your following. The disciples were followers, not bodyguards – and when they tried to be, Jesus nearly always rebuked them!
- Will the teacher/prophet/apostle be willing to admit error if they are shown to be wrong? If not, you need to walk away. None of us are above missing it; the proof of a man or woman of God’s heart is their ability to admit when they have missed, it, failed, gotten something wrong. Those who “justify” their false prophecies when they don’t come true need to be exposed for what they are: false prophets. And they need to be called to repentance. It’s really that simple.
- Avoid person-driven movements and people. Trends, exciting new movements and people, Christian celebrities, and “dynamic” new ways of “doing church”, as well as “exotic” new teachings (i.e. the extremes of some Hebrew roots teachings, i.e. spiritual fathering movement, i.e. serpent seed teaching or “born again Jesus” teaching) have come and gone since the early church. Our times, the times of Christian superstar ministries, are especially vulnerable to people following people because they are HUGE and they are EXCITING and they are “NEW.” But walking with Jesus is a matter of daily discipline, prayer, devotion, commitment, Word life, good fellowship with boring and often annoying normal people (as we can often be to others!) and just steady running of the race. By contrast, Paul talked about people in the last days heaping to themselves teachers, because they have itching ears (2 Tim. 4:3) – they always want to hear some “new thing” as the Greeks and Romans of Paul and Peter’s times did – always learning and never coming to the knowledge of the truth! Don’t be like that. Stop looking for shiny things and baubles. Yes, God does miracles. Yes, He does speak to us and through us and through others. Yes, He is a living God and is at work every day if we listen, follow, obey. But we don’t need new gurus, we don’t need to be a people follower. There are far too many famous Christian celebrities, teachers, self-proclaimed apostles, prophets, etc. and not enough simple Jesus people doing the work of the Kingdom. Want to follow someone? Follow Jesus. And follow those who teach, pastor, care, evangelize, build, speak truth, prophesy in truth and Biblically, but can most often be seen, not on Instagram and Twitter inviting a huge following, but in church cleaning toilets, caring for disadvantaged kids, or just quietly washing the feet of “the least of these.” I appreciate true Bible-based popular ministry folks. But I follow no one but Jesus, even though I might follow them on Facebook or Instagram. For we are all brethren and servants of the only one worthy of our adoration and praise.
If you follow these simple guidelines, it is my sincere hope and prayer that God will preserve you wholly spiritually and keep you from the many traps of deception that have surrounded the western church in these last days.
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