Jesus alerts us to “watch out for false prophets” in Matthew 7:15. He compares these false prophets to wolves in sheep’s clothing. Jesus also tells us how to identify these false prophets: we will recognize them by their fruit (Matthew 7:20).
Throughout the Bible, people are warned about false prophets (Ezekiel 13, Matthew 24:23–27, 2 Peter 3:3). False prophets claim to speak for God, but they speak falsehood. To gain a hearing, they come to people “in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Matthew 7:15). No matter how innocent and harmless these teachers appear on the outside, they have the nature of wolves—they are intent on destroying faith, causing spiritual carnage in the church, and enriching themselves. They “secretly introduce destructive heresies,” “bring the way of truth into disrepute,” and “exploit you with fabricated stories” (2 Peter 2:1–3).
The false teachers don “sheep’s clothing” so they can mingle with the sheep without arousing suspicion. They usually are not up front about what they believe; rather, they mix in some truth with their falsehood and carefully choose their words to sound orthodox. In reality, they “follow their own ungodly desires” (Jude 1:17–18), and “they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed” (2 Peter 3:14).
By contrast, a true prophet teaches God’s Word fully (Deuteronomy 18:20). Wolves in sheep’s clothing twist God’s Word to deceive or influence the audience for their own purposes. Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14), and his ministers masquerade as servants of righteousness (2 Corinthians 11:15).
The best way to guard against wolves in sheep’s clothing is to heed the warnings of Scripture and know the truth. A believer who “correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15) and carefully studies the Bible will be able to identify false prophets. Christians must judge all teaching against what Scripture says. Believers will also be able to identify false prophets by their fruit—their words, actions, and lifestyles. Jesus said, “A tree is recognized by its fruit” (Matthew 12:33; cf. Matthew 7:20). Peter described false teachers as having “depraved conduct” and who “carouse” as “slaves of depravity” (2 Peter 2:2, 13, 19). If a teacher in the church does not live according to God’s Word, he is one of those wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Here are three specific questions to identify false prophets, or wolves in sheep’s clothing:
1) What does the teacher say about Jesus? In John 10:30, Jesus says, “I and the Father are one.” The Jews understood Jesus’ statement as a claim to be God and wanted to stone him (John 10:33). Anyone who denies Jesus as Lord (1 John 4:1–3) is a false prophet.
2) Does the teacher preach the biblical gospel? Anyone who teaches an incomplete or unbiblical gospel is to be eternally condemned (Galatians 1:9). Any gospel apart from what the Bible tells us (1 Corinthians 15:1–4) is not the true good news.
3) Does this teacher exhibit godly character qualities? Jesus said to beware of teachers whose moral behavior does not match what the Bible says. He says we will know wolves in sheep’s clothing by their fruits (Matthew 7:15–20)
It doesn’t matter how large a church a preacher has, how many books he has sold, or how many people applaud him. If he “teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness,” then he is a wolf in sheep’s clothing (1 Timothy 6:3).