“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them."
When I was about fourteen, our family cat begat kittens. I took a shine to one, a lithe tortoiseshell number who seemed exceptionally intelligent. As the kittens grew in wisdom and stature, I volunteered to adopt my favorite, and I named her Bill, because I was a weird kid.
We lived in the San Bernardino mountains, and Bill spent most of her days frolicking in the great outdoors. Or napping, I have no idea. Every day, late in the afternoon, Bill would come to the door and wait to be let in. When the door opened, she would make a fast beeline to her water dish. I guess napping was thirsty work.
One day, I had the delightful idea of playing a prank on my cat, because I was a weird kid. While Bill was out doing cat things, I emptied her water dish and refilled it with white vinegar. Then I waited for her to return home.
Eventually, Bill showed up at the door, meowing as usual. I opened the door, and as always, she sprinted for the water dish. The instant that innocent, unsuspecting little pink tongue touched the foul liquid, that cat leaped two feet straight up in the air. Of course, I thought that was the funniest thing I’d ever seen a cat do, and I was doubled over with laughter. After I recovered my wits, I emptied the dish and refilled from the tap, Bill glowering at me the entire time. She drank the water.
I never tried to prank my cat again, but Bill had learned a lesson: those two-legged gods will trick you. From that day forward, she adopted a policy of “trust but verify.” She would only drink from the water dish if she watched someone fill it from the tap. Smart cat.
People sometimes trust the two-legged gods a bit too much as well. You know the ones I’m talking about: they stand behind pulpits or lecterns, or they write books, or they hold public office. They make promises and utter platitudes, and we gravitate to them because what they say seems right. They say what we want to hear, and we lap it up like thirsty cats.
True prophets of God challenge the accepted truth with new insight. Deborah, Elijah, Moses, Jesus, Luther, and White all opposed and confronted the religious establishment. Instead of drinking the life-giving water brought by the prophets, many people fell victim to the vinegar of Pharaoh, Jezebel, or Caiaphas.
But even those who have a true divine gift of prophecy are not infallible. God chooses flawed people to carry the gospel. Their human failings do not lessen the truth of the gospel. If a trusted teacher challenges what you think is certain, be careful! Perhaps the prophet has new and better insight, or perhaps they have erred. The listener must watch, and guard against false teachings, no matter who does the teaching.
How can you tell if a prophet truly speaks for God? Don't just look for their failures; look for their fruit. Do their words harmonize with Scripture, and do their lives demonstrate a commitment to God? Do they direct you to put your faith in God, or in themselves? Do they provide their listeners with the water of life, or with vinegar?
True prophets do not create their own message, to build themselves up; they carry God’s message and direct their listeners to give glory to God. The true, pure water of life originates only from Jesus Christ, and is carried to the world by true prophets. If you don’t see the water coming from the source, be on alert—it may be vinegar this time. Trust, but verify.