God’s Misguided People

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Lost and Confused SignpostWhy are so many of God’s people misguided in their understanding of God’s will and God’s ways? According to the Bible, it is because religious leaders lead God’s people into error. “For the leaders of this people cause them to err,” Isaiah wrote, “and they that are led by them are destroyed” (Isa. 9:16). “O my people,” Isaiah cried in another place, “they which lead thee cause thee to err, and destroy the way of thy paths” (3:12).

“My people have been lost sheep,” YHWH declares through Jeremiah. “Their shepherds have caused them to go astray, they have turned them away on the mountains. They have gone from mountain to hill, they have forgot ten their resting place” (Jer. 50:6).

Unfortunately, this is an accurate picture of many people in today’s Judeo-Christian religious world. Jews who blindly follow their rabbis are left without the revelation of the Messiah Yeshua, and they wander about seeking rest for their souls. And Christians who blindly follow their religious leaders are left without the moral guidance and instruction of the Torah, and likewise wander about seeking rest for their souls.

The greatest threat to a believer’s faith does not come from atheists and agnostics, but from misguided religious leaders who misguide their followers.

“Let them alone,” Yeshua said of the scribes and Pharisees. “They be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch” (Matt. 15:14).

When Yeshua says, “Let them alone,” He points us back to the words of Hosea concerning Ephraim: “Ephraim is joined to idols: let him alone” (Hos. 4:17). By alluding to Hosea’s words, was Yeshua implying that the Pharisees were, like Ephraim, guilty of idolatry? “Surely not!” some might answer. After all, the Pharisees were the most devout, religious Jews of their day. They may have been guilty of other sins, but idolatry? One thing the Pharisees did not do was bow down to statues!

An idol can be something other than a statue, however. The leaders of the Pharisees did have an idol, and that idol was their religious system. Do not misunderstand, though. The Pharisees’ religious system was good in very many ways. Many wonderful things could be said about the religion of the Pharisees. Even many of the extra-Biblical, man-made traditions were wonderful, and Yeshua Himself practiced many, perhaps most, of these rabbinic traditions.

So how can we say that the Pharisees’ religious system was an idol to them? For the simple reason that it was a religious system where Yeshua of Nazareth was not welcome except on their terms. Certainly Yeshua was welcome to join Himself to the Pharisees as another Jew, perhaps even as a great rabbi and teacher. But the Pharisees’ religious system had no place for Him as Lord and Messiah and Son of God. And when Yeshua is invited to come into a religious organization or a local congregation or an individual’s life, He will only come if He is welcomed as Lord and Master. He will not be just one of the guys. He must be acknowledged and accepted as absolute Sovereign Lord. The rich young ruler found this out the hard way.

The sad thing is that multitudes of God’s people today are being led by blind guides to follow and serve religious systems where Yeshua is not welcomed as Lord and Messiah. He is welcomed into some synagogues as one of the guys, a fellow-Jew, a great rabbi, perhaps even a prophet, but not as Lord and Messiah. He is likewise welcomed into some churches as one of the guys, a fellow-church member whose presence everyone enjoys. Perhaps He is even invited to sit in on the church board meetings, and allowed to offer some suggestions. But He is not welcomed into these churches as absolute Lord and Master. The religious leaders will not allow it. They won’t have Jesus trespassing on their turf.

How can God’s people tell the difference between the false prophets and teachers and the legitimate prophets and teachers? Yeshua gives us some warning signs to help us spot false prophets:

“Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves” (Matt. 7:15). Outwardly, false prophets look legitimate, like one of the flock. They talk, act, and behave religiously; they go to religious services; they pray, sing, and quote the Bible like everyone else. From all outward appearance, there is no reason to suspect them. The evil is not apparent on the outside; it is hidden on the inside. They have the inward nature of a wolf, but they do an excellent job of disguising themselves to look like one of the flock.

Because the false prophets cannot be identified by their outward appearance, we must look at the fruit they bear: “Ye shall know them by their fruits,” Yeshua said. “Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so, every good tree bringeth forth good fruit, but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit” (Matt. 7:16f).

“Knowing them by their fruits” means two things. First, it means the fruit of the Holy Spirit in their lives: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22f). If a spiritual leader is not bearing these fruits in his life, he is suspect. We are not called to judge and condemn, but we are called to be fruit inspectors. Before submitting ourselves to the authority of a spiritual leader, we should inspect his fruit by asking ourselves some questions: Which category of fruits is more evident in his life, “grapes and figs” or “thorns and thistles”? What fruits does he exhibit, not only behind the pulpit, but in his everyday life? Love or hatred? Joy or gloom? Peace of mind or inner turmoil? Longsuffering or impatience? Gentleness or cruelty? Goodness toward others, or lack of concern? Faithfulness (to God, to wife, family, friends, employer, etc.) or unfaithfulness? Meekness or pride? Self-control or lack of self-control?

The second meaning of “knowing them by their fruits” means knowing them by looking at their followers. Some people erroneously think that this verse means that a large following is the mark of a true man of God, and a small following is the mark of a false prophet. This is not the case, however. False prophets may have multitudes of followers, as did the prophets of Baal in the Old Testament. True prophets may have very few followers. Noah had only seven (unless you want to count the animals). Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and other prophets had almost no followers.

Yeshua was not talking about the quantity of fruit a leader bears; He was talking about the quality, or kind, of fruit a leader bears. As D.L. Moody once said, converts should be weighed as well as counted.

Just as we looked for the fruits of the Spirit in the leader, we likewise look for the fruits of the Spirit in his followers. What is the quality of the leader’s disciples, especially his closest disciples? Are they bearing “grapes and figs” or “thorns and thistles”? We can ask the same questions about the followers that we asked about the leader: Do the followers, especially his closest disciples, generally exhibit love or hatred? Joy or gloom? Peace of mind or inner turmoil? Longsuffering or impatience? Gentleness or cruelty? Goodness toward others, or lack of concern? Faithfulness or unfaithfulness? Meekness or pride? Self control or lack of self-control? We might also ask ourselves which of these fruits tend to be manifested in our own life after we have been under the influence of this leader’s teaching.

Finally, we also need to consider what the spiritual leader teaches about obeying the Father. A person may appear to have love, joy, peace, and the other fruits of the Spirit, but in fact be under delusion, and bearing counterfeit fruit which only resembles the fruit of the Spirit. There are many Hindu gurus and swamis, for example, who seem to have love, joy, peace, etc. And it is even possible for counterfeit fruit to be borne by those who call Jesus “Lord”: “Not every one that says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter into the kingdom of heaven,” Yeshua said, “but he that doeth the will of My Father which is in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Thy name? and in Thy name have cast out devils? and in Thy name done many wonderful works?’ And then I will profess unto them, I never knew you. Depart from Me, ye who work iniquity [anomos, Gk. without law; lawlessness]'” (Matt. 7:21-23).

Because counterfeit fruit can be borne by those claiming Jesus as their Lord, we must also ask this question to determine if someone is a legitimate spiritual leader: Does he teach obedience to the Father’s will, or does he teach anomianism, a gospel without law? A true prophet or teacher must pass on both counts, bearing the fruit of the Spirit and teaching obedience to the Father. To pass on only one of these counts is not enough.

To summarize, these are the marks of a false prophet, according to Yeshua’s warning in Matthew 7:

  • Outwardly he looks like one of the flock.
  • He and his followers exhibit “thorns and thistles” (bad fruit) more than “grapes and figs” (the good fruits of the Spirit).
  • He and his followers call Jesus “Lord,” and may even prophesy and cast out devils, but they do not do the will of the Father in heaven. Instead, they “practice lawlessness” (Matt. 7:23 NASB), and for this reason they will be told to depart from the Jesus whom they claim as their Lord.

Let us be sure that we are not among those who follow false leaders who cause their followers to err and go astray from the ancient paths which God established through His prophets and confirmed through His Son.

“Thus saith YHWH: Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls” (Jer. 6:16).

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