Our Responsibility to Discern False Teaching

A prophet of God sat under an oak, taking a rest from his long journey. He had come from Judah to Bethel to deliver to King Jeroboam a harsh but needed message.

God had told this prophet not to eat bread or drink water while on this mission, and to return by a different way than he had come. Perhaps the man of God thought these directives were to protect him from the possible diversion by the king, who offered him refreshment and a reward. Or they were to keep him from appearing to show any sign of compromise, as a meal together would indicate friendship and fellowship. Or he might have felt they were a form of fasting, symbolic of his dedication in doing God’s work.

Maybe he should have interpreted them as, “Don’t linger. Do your business and get back as soon as possible.”

As he rested, an older man rode up to him on a donkey, identifying himself as a prophet of God as well. Prophet 2 (let’s call him Henry to avoid confusing pronouns) invited Prophet 1 (George, let’s say) home for a meal. George repeated what he had told the king: he had been told not to eat bread or drink water in that place.

But Henry assured George it was all right. “I also am a prophet as you are, and an angel spoke to me by the word of the Lord, saying, ‘Bring him back with you into your house that he may eat bread and drink water.’”

George didn’t think he had a reason to distrust Henry: he was a fellow prophet after all. And George was probably tired, hungry, and thirsty. So he accompanied Henry back to his house.

But Henry had been lying.

“As they sat at the table, the word of the Lord came to the prophet who had brought him back. And he cried to the man of God who came from Judah, ‘Thus says the Lord, ‘Because you have disobeyed the word of the Lord and have not kept the command that the Lord your God commanded you, but have come back and have eaten bread and drunk water in the place of which he said to you, ‘Eat no bread and drink no water,’ your body shall not come to the tomb of your fathers.’”

There’s no record of George’s response. But on his way home, a lion killed him. George’s body was thrown from his donkey, but the lion didn’t eat either George or the donkey. The animals just waited with the body until townspeople passed by and brought word back to the city about what had happened. Henry heard the news and rode back to pick up George, then brought him home to bury in his own tomb.

This is one of the oddest stories in the Bible (1 Kings 13). One of the first questions that comes to mind is, “Why did the second prophet lie to the first?” What earthly reason could he have had? The Bible doesn’t tell us. He didn’t hate the first prophet: he mourned him, called him brother, and confirmed his prophecy to Jeroboam. He even asked to be buried next to him when he died.

We have to remember this is not an isolated story just thrown into the narrative of Israel’s kings. This incident took place within the bigger context of Jeroboam’s awful sins of making golden calves for Israel to worship and setting up a whole different system than what God had given Israel. Perhaps this story is an OT illustration of the NT verse in 1 Peter 4:17: “For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” If God would discipline his own prophet who had disobeyed a simple directive, what would He do to the likes of Jeroboam? Perhaps this story was confirmation that God would deal with Jeroboam as the prophet had said.

There are several truths and applications that could be gleaned from this passage. But the one I want to hone in on is this: Know God’s Word. Obey it. Don’t let the surrounding culture turn you away from it. Don’t let even other professing believers distract you from it.

That’s not to say we never ask counsel or receive advice. The Bible tells us to do both. The fellowship of other believers, Bible study books, commentaries, and other aids can open our understanding and point out things we missed.

But we’re to know God’s Word for ourselves so we can discern when someone is telling us something different.

False prophets don’t always look or sound like false prophets at first. They are “deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds” (2 Corinthians 11:13-15). Paul said in Galatians 1:8, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.”

Much of the OT warns against false prophets. In one place, “Thus says the LORD of hosts: Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD'” (Jeremiah 23:16).

The NT warns of false prophets and teachers as well. In her book Another Gospel?: A Lifelong Christian Seeks Truth in Response to Progressive Christianity, Alisa Childers writes: “Much of the New Testament, including the entire book of Jude, is dedicated to helping Christians watch out for, recognize, and avoid these sheep-clothed wolves. In researching some of these passages, I discovered that the topic of false teachers and false teaching is addressed directly in twenty-two of twenty-seven New Testament books. Encouragement to keep the true faith and to practice discernment is mentioned in every single one.”

The Bible warns that false teachers will not only come in from the outside, but they’ll arise from within the congregation. In Paul’s farewell message to the elders at Ephesus, he warned, “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert,” (Acts 20:29-31a). Peter warned about false teachers arising “among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them” (2 Peter 2:1-3). This was what happened to Alisa Childers, whose book I mentioned. Her own trusted pastor began undermining longstanding doctrines of the faith.

The Bible gives us the responsibility to watch out for false doctrine. I’ve already mentioned Paul’s admonition to “be alert” in Acts 20:31. Jesus began warnings about false teachers with the word “Beware.” Paul says elsewhere, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8).

I don’t think this means we need to become unduly suspicious of one another. But we study the Word of God and check whatever we’re taught against it. The Bereans in Acts were called noble because they did this with Paul’s teaching. Alisa followed their example and searched for the truth, nailing down why she believed what she did.

After Paul’s warning to the Ephesian elders, he said, “And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32). When he wrote to the Ephesians later, he said God had given the church gifts in “the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers” in order “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Ephesians 4:12-14).

So while we don’t need to get paranoid, we do need to be alert. And we remember that we don’t come to the Bible just for affirmation or comfort or warm fuzzies. We come to it to find truth about and from God. We study God’s Word for ourselves and with others, and as we grow in spiritual maturity, we won’t be deceived and tossed about.

(I often link up with some of these bloggers.)

13 thoughts on “Our Responsibility to Discern False Teaching

  1. That IS a strange story, and I appreciate the application you have chosen. It’s certainly an ominous challenge to stick close enough to the truth that we’ll be able to recognize a lie when it comes.

  2. I recently finished listing to Another Gospel? on audio, and it was excellent. Thank you for this great post. We do need to be able to discern truth from falsehoods.

  3. This was very good! I think that in our current world it can be VERY hard to discern truth, and yes I remember reading that Bible story and thinking how odd it was/how hard it would seem to know truth there. Our pastor shared a story yesterday about a friend of his who called and told him she was getting divorced. He expressed surprise since he and she had both been raised in the church and she said she had prayed and God had given her peace about the divorce. He told this as an example of how we need to be very careful about following God’s word through the Bible, not a “feeling” etc.

  4. Barbara,
    Excellent post. I’ve been reading a lot about the false doctrines of Progressive Christianity and I think it was well said this way: Progressive Christianity sees the Bible through the lens of modern culture. True Christianity sees modern culture through the lens of the Bible. Big difference. Sad that so many churches have deviated from God’s unchanging Truth. May we be wary, discerning, and in His Word.
    Blessings,
    Bev xx

  5. There are lots of “Henrys” out there. That’s why it’s so important to be in the word so that when a “Henry” shows up you recognize his error right away. I’m learning that.

  6. Yes, this is one of the stranger stories in the Bible, but you’ve done such a good job of gleaning some good application from it. It’s so important that we study God’s Word and test everything else against it. There are different interpretations and applications for some of the teachings in the Bible, but we should stay away from anything that contradicts it and as you said, pray for and practice using wise discernment before following our feelings or a “word” from someone else.

  7. Thank you so much for addressing this critical topic. We definitely need to be in the Word ourselves constantly to stay sharp. Oherwise half truths can start to sound okay after awhile. My mom had cognitive impairment from brain damage at birth and she could tell a false prophet from a mile because she simply read her Bible.

  8. Yes, this passage has always bothered me because the second prophet lied and caused his fellow prophet (who was in a vulnerable place) to stumble which led to disobedience and death. As an older man, he should have encouraged his fellow prophet and traveled with him until he exited the region. I appreciate how you applied it to us knowing God, His Word and walking in discernment.

  9. This is a strange story and it is good that you have included it in your article. Discernment is so important. “Know God’s Word. Obey it. Don’t let the surrounding culture turn you away from it. Don’t let even other professing believers distract you from it.” Amen to this!

  10. Thank you, Barb for your thoughts on this strange story. Every year I read through the Bible I ponder this story over again-always end up with more questions than answers! Your application is a good one; we must know God’s Word for ourselves, no matter how sincere and learned someone else may be!

  11. Barbara, don’t you love it when an odd Bible story plus a book (like “Another Gospel,” in this case) prompt further thinking, which leads to more sharing on your blog? 🙂 It’s so true that “false prophets don’t always look or sound like false prophets at first.” I can think of several authors/influencers right now who seem solid biblically, but here and there they slip in something that makes me wonder. We definitely need discernment when it comes to what we listen to and read … more and more by the day, it seems.

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