The Wichita Eagle newspaper recently ran an interesting story. There was a pond in the middle of a housing development that was kept stocked with fish. Evidently, a child had thrown a toy basketball and it rolled into the pond. One of the residents saw the ball bouncing around in a strange manner in the water. When he went to investigate, he saw a large flathead catfish which had obviously tried to swallow the ball, but which had become stuck in his mouth. It must have looked like a yummy piece of something that catfish like, but his eyes were bigger than his mouth. If you are not a fisherman, you may not know that catfish like deep water and usually swim near the bottom, so the poor catfish was trying to get down to where he normally lived after he came to the top for a meal. He was totally exhausted from trying to dive, but was unable to because the ball would always bring him back up to the surface. The man who found the catfish pulled him to the doc with a long handled net and tried numerous times to get the ball out, but was unsuccessful. He finally had his wife cut the ball with a knife, while he held the fish, in order to deflate the ball and release the catfish.
That was one gullible catfish! He would obviously swallow anything. When I read that story I thought of the man we read about in the Scripture today, Sergius Paulus. He was swallowing whole what the false prophet named Bar-Jesus was telling him, like so many people do today. Bar-Jesus, or Elymas the sorcerer as he was also known, used trickery and deceit to draw people to himself. His name literally meant “Son of Jesus,” so you have to wonder if the stories of Jesus had reached that place even before Paul came, and whether Elymas wanted to identify himself with the man who had done miracles. Whether this is the case or not, he certainly tried to build himself up as a man of wisdom and power. But when Paul came and began to teach the truth, Sergius Paulus and others began to be drawn to the truth, and Elymas became envious of the following they were getting. Subsequently, he opposed Paul and his message. He contradicted the message of Paul and was fulfilling the role of false prophet.
False prophets were nothing new. They existed in the Old Testament era, and they are present today. In fact, one man who used to be a bishop in our own denomination, Joseph Sprague, a graduate of the Methodist Theological School in Delaware, Ohio would qualify as a false prophet. He returned to his alma mater not long ago and preached that Jesus Christ did not rise from the dead and was not divine. That is heresy. He wrote a book entitled Affirmations of a Dissenter, in which he denied many of the basic and historic tenets of the Christian faith. He is a false prophet, even though he was a bishop in our denomination. He claims to be talking about Christianity, but his beliefs place him outside the historic Christian faith. He is promoting another religion. I am glad to say he is no longer a bishop. But there are many like Joseph Sprague at large in most denominations. And the problem is that we seem to overlook heresy, accept it and become comfortable with it, priding ourselves in our tolerance and inclusiveness.
Why are false prophets successful? How do they get by with the things they say and do? I think there are three prominent reasons, among others, that make people fall for their distortions and swallow them whole. I think we fall prey to their distortions, first of all, because: We do not take evil seriously. Jesus took evil very seriously, because he knew it had the power to destroy a person’s soul. Evil can draw us in and ultimately send us to hell. That is why Jesus taught us to pray: “Deliver us from evil.” Actually, in the original Greek we find the definite article in that sentence of the Lord’s prayer: tou ponerou — the evil one. So Jesus was saying, “Deliver us from the evil one — the devil.” Evil has a name, and it is a person. We like to say, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life,” and that is true. But there is someone else who has a plan for your life, and the Scriptures say his plan is to “steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10). In other words, there is a serious threat to your eternal soul out there. Evil is to be taken seriously. It is a very dangerous and real threat. We have to understand that and see it for what it is. Paul was not afraid to call evil by its real name. He said to Elymas: “You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord?” (Acts 12:10). So much for tolerance!
Evil is dangerous. This is why the Bible says, “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith” (1 Peter 5:8-9). But we like evil. We are charmed by it and entertained by it. Instead of fleeing temptation, we welcome it. We are fascinated and drawn to it. Instead of praying to be delivered from temptation, we almost hope for it. We find it exhilarating. In other words, we don’t take it seriously and don’t see it as a threat. What is most at threat is the condition of our souls and what evil does to us. It interferes with our relationship with God. But it also interferes with our relationship with others and the world around us.
You may have read the story about Glen Campbell defending himself against another drunk driving charge. Campbell was arrested in November near his Phoenix home after causing a minor traffic accident. He pleaded guilty to extreme drunken driving and leaving the scene of an accident. He was subsequently sentenced to 10 nights in jail. But he made a public statement in which he said: “I wasn’t really that drunk, I was just over-served.” Campbell also said he didn’t remember anything because he was “in a blackout mode.” It gives his hit song, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” a whole new meaning. The 68-year-old singer said, “Everybody says it’s the devil, but it isn’t, it’s God’s way of telling you to slow down.” What? And you haven’t learned that in 68 years? Somehow I don’t think that is taking evil seriously.
When we don’t take evil seriously, we are open to any fool thing the devil tells us. This is how false prophets get into the church and convince people that sin is not really sin, and that God just overlooks all the things we do. This is how Jim Jones and many other cult leaders got their followers to do unspeakable things in the name of God. The Bible says, “Woe to those who draw sin along with cords of deceit, and wickedness as with cart ropes. . . . Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter” (Isaiah 5:18-20). If you don’t recognize how this is happening today, then you may be more influenced by evil than you realize.
Secondly, we fall prey to the distortions of false prophets because: We do not take truth seriously. In one of the Peanuts comic strips it is the first day of the new school year. The teacher told the students to write an essay about returning to class. In her essay, Lucy wrote, “Vacations are nice, but it’s good to get back to school. There is nothing more satisfying or challenging than education, and I look forward to a year of expanding knowledge.” Obviously, the teacher was pleased with Lucy’s response and complimented her in front of the class. In the final frame, Lucy leans over and whispers to Charlie Brown, “After a while, you learn what sells.”
We live in a culture where the truth is defined by what others want to hear. Truth has fallen on hard times, and even academic institutions are questioning whether truth is real. In fact, the number of people in our culture who believe that absolute truth actually exists is decreasing almost daily. Therefore, we do not value truth or seek it. We are losing our ability to recognize it. But there is such a thing as truth and we need to pursue it.
Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). There is real truth, and we need to seek the truth. If you are not actively seeking the truth and committed to the truth, then you are susceptible to the lie and the teaching of false prophets. It is essential to become familiar with the Scriptures and the teachings of Jesus. That is where you will find the truth. You have to put forth the effort it takes to discover and to comprehend the truth. Jesus said, “When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart” (Matthew 13:19).
I have actually seen churches that tolerated heresy being preached from their pulpit without even seeming to notice. They will tolerate someone preaching things that go against the core doctrines of our faith, but cause unholy bedlam if some change in the church’s decor or a change in the order of worship occurs. When the truth is no longer important then values are turned upside down.
If I were the devil, let me tell what I would do. I would not just promote bars and brothels. I would be more subtle to be really effective. I would get some of my people to put on a suit and start to attend a church. I would have them do everything they could to ingratiate themselves — work hard, give a lot, and curry the favor of as many people as they could. I would seek to have them placed on committees, then I would have them begin quietly to sow dissension. I would pit people against each other. I would look for ways to cause conflict. I would get normally good people to get upset and do things unbecoming to a Christian. (I am glad to say that is not the case here at the present time.)
But there is more I would do. I would send my people to seminary to become pastors so they could mislead people spiritually. I would have them lead people away from the Scriptures and get them trust their own opinions on spiritual truth and moral law. I would send some of my people to teach in seminaries and others to become bishops and leaders of the church who would corrupt minds and cause people to question the faith. I would make these spiritual leaders more loyal to the institution than to the truth of the Gospel. In fact, I am convinced that is exactly what our spiritual enemy has done. That is why the Bible says, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). The enemy is not always on the outside of the church. He has invaded God’s territory and is on the inside as well. The strongest opposition that Jesus faced was from the established religion of the day. In fact, it was religious leaders who crucified him. False prophets appear to be true prophets, that is why they are so dangerous. They use partial truth to disguise the lie. In fact, there is no lie so dangerous as the one that contains a part of the truth.
The third point is, we fall prey to the distortions of false prophets because: We do not take doctrine seriously. How easy it is to dismiss this. We say, “There are just so many opinions out there, how can you really know what is true? All of them believe they have the truth.” This is part of the curse of this age of technology. It used to be that we suffered from a lack of information, but today we suffer from having too much information. How can you possibly sift and sort through all the information that is out there. Just enter the word “religion” in an internet search engine and see what comes up. It is absolutely overwhelming — philosophies, cults and Christianity side by side.
You can believe almost anything you want today, except if you start getting specific. But the Christian faith has very specific truths on which it is based. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Jesus was specific about what we were to believe about him. Truths like this are called doctrines. It is true that different churches have different doctrines, but Christian churches share the same core doctrines. These core doctrines are the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, his virgin birth and resurrection, the infallibility of Scripture, the existence of evil and the evil one, the unchanging moral law, the necessity of salvation and God’s provision for our salvation by grace through the atoning death of Christ. We may have a friendly disagreement with the Baptists on how we baptize, or whether to baptize infants, but we agree on the core doctrines. We may differ with the Pentecostals on the place of speaking in tongues, but we love each other and agree on the basic issues of our faith. We may have a difference with our Presbyterian friends on how we view free will, but we are committed to our fellowship with them and agree on the essentials of the faith. In fact, this church has a very wide variety of opinions and backgrounds. I call them the three C’s: Calvanists, Charismatics and Catholics. But we love each other and have a fellowship that transcends these minor differences, because we are united on the core doctrines of the faith.
C. S. Lewis said, “Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and, if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.” If these basic doctrines are true, then they demand the commitment of everything we have and are. If they are not true, then there is no meaning or hope in life. But these scriptural truths have proven to be the thing that has transformed the lives of countless people throughout the ages. The great German theologian Deitrich Bonhoeffer realized the importance of sound doctrine when he wrote: “False doctrine corrupts the life of the church at its source, and that is why doctrinal sin is more serious than moral [sin]. Those who rob the Church of the gospel deserve the ultimate penalty, whereas those who fail in morality have the gospel there to help them.”
There are serious effects of teaching error. The teaching of false doctrine has corrupted and ruined more lives than it is possible to count. Teach that the Bible is unreliable and we have no reliable source of information about God. We have no sure reference to guide our moral conduct. Teach that Jesus was a good man, but a man like everybody else, and you take away the hope of salvation and eternal life. Correct doctrine is important.
If you think that false prophets and false religions are not an issue today, let me tell you about a story that appeared in the New York Times on June 24, 2004. It was entitled “A Crowning at the Capital Creates a Stir,” by Sheryl Gay Stolberg a Times reporter. In a ceremony that took place in Washington’s Dirksen office building on March 23, 2004, Rev. Sun Myung Moon wore a white silk stole and a red velvet robe for the occasion where he was crowned and declared himself to be the Messiah or Christ. Several congressmen were present and looked on while a congressman (Representative Danny K. Davis, of Illinois) wore white gloves and carried a crown for Rev. Moon and his wife. The senators and congressional members present had been invited to attend what was called a “Peace Awards Banquet.” Some lawmakers said they left prior to the ceremony and were unaware it had taken place. Others who stayed were uncertain as to its meaning. But the Capital rooms are reserved only by the signature of a senator. The 83-year-old Moon is the founder and leader of the Unification Church, a cult which tries to pass itself off as a Christian sect. The article stated that in the acceptance speech of Rev. Moon, he stated: “Emperors, kings and presidents had declared to all heaven and earth that Reverend Sun Myung Moon is none other than humanity’s Savior, Messiah, Returning Lord and True Parent.” Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said, “You had what effectively amounted to a religious coronation in a government building of a man who claims literally to be the savior.” Oh, something else you should know: Rev. Moon is a media mogul and owns the Washington Times newspaper and the United Press International wire service.
The New Testament writers felt it important to admonish the believers to be careful to follow the true faith. Jude wrote: “Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3). That would be my admonishment as well.
Rodney J. Buchanan
August 1, 2004
Mulberry St. UMC
Mt. Vernon, OH