Summary: We fall prey to the distorions of false prophets when: 1. We do not take evil seriously. 2. We do not take truth seriously. 3. We do not take doctrine seriously.
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!