Identifying wolves in sheep’s clothing

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Jesus warns us to watch out for ravenous wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15). But what is a wolf in sheep’s clothing? How do we identify a wolf if we see one? And if we have identified a wolf in sheep’s clothing, what should we do?

What is a wolf in sheep’s clothing?

When Jesus warned us against wolves in sheep’s clothing, He was referring to false prophets.

If you look at what all true prophets in the Old Testament and New Testament have in common it is this: They are people who speak or write God’s words by His command (2 Peter 1:21).

This means that those words, given by the Holy Spirit, are always true. And so they always align with the Word that He gave all of us: the Bible. Sometimes they are accompanied by obvious signs or miracles, but not always.

Prophecy is one of the ways in which God gives us knowledge and understanding to share with each other, so in that sense prophesying is a form of teaching (1 Corinthians 13:2, 1 Corinthians 14:22, 14:31).

Although prophecies are not always what you want to hear, they always build up (Isaiah 30:10, 1 Corinthians 14:3-4). Their purpose is to get people in line with the Word of God. That can be in the form of a call to repentance, but also through consoling, encouraging, and strengthening of other believers (Acts 15:32, Romans 16:26, 1 Corinthians 14:3-4).

And if that is what a true prophet does, then we also know what a false prophet does, namely the opposite. False prophets:

  • Say that they prophesy in God’s name, while God didn’t send them (Jeremiah 27:15, Ezekiel 22:28, Matthew 7:21-23).
  • See false and misleading visions (Lamentations 2:14, Ezekiel 13:9).
  • Don’t prophesy and instruct in accordance to God’s Word (Deuteronomy 13:1-3, 2 Peter 2:1).
  • Might perform miracles and their signs may come to pass, but that doesn’t mean that what they say is true (Deuteronomy 13:1-3, Matthew 24:24).
  • Lead people away from the faith with their prophecies instead of towards it (Acts 13:6-8, Mark 13:22).

In other words: they break down the Church instead of building it up, and they use false prophecies to do so.

Having said that, I do believe that false prophets aren’t the only wolves in sheep’s clothing. The Bible refers to wolves as anybody trying to destroy Christians (Acts 20:28-30, Matthew 10:16, John 10:12).

And we are also warned against false teachers (2 Peter 2:1), false christs (Mark 13:22), false brothers (Galatians 2:4), and false apostles (2 Corinthians 11:13).

So, when you think about it, Christians should be wary of anybody with evil motives claiming to be a fellow believer.

Wolf covered in snow

How to identify wolves in sheep’s clothing

Jesus tells us that we will recognize wolves in sheep’s clothing by their fruits (Matthew 7:15-20).

The fruit of any Christian should come from walking by the Holy Spirit. In Galatians 5:22-23, Paul tells us what kind of fruit that produces:

  • Love
  • Joy
  • Peace
  • Patience
  • Kindness
  • Goodness
  • Faithfulness
  • Gentleness
  • Self-control

So, the words and deeds of true Christians should flow from and be marked by these qualities. In turn, it helps to produce these qualities in the people who consume this fruit.

Good fruit promotes life. The bad fruit of the flesh (or works of the flesh, as Paul calls it fittingly in Galatians 5:19) leads to death.

Paul gives some examples of those works of the flesh too: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, and orgies (Galatians 5:19-21).

Judge the fruit, not the heart

Actions speak louder than words, right? True, but unfortunately, even actions can be deceiving.

Have you ever picked up fruit that looked good from the outside, but when you wanted to take a bite, it was extremely sour, or worse: rotten?

In the same way not every smile is a sign of joy, love, or kindness. And some manipulating wolves can demonstrate behavior that looks like kindness or patience, in order to achieve their evil goals.

Then again, if a Christian temporarily fails to be joyful and feels jealousy after their spouse committed adultery, that doesn’t have to mean that he or she is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

That’s why we cannot simply use these lists as a kind of checklist. Sure, it is obvious when someone shows no fruit of the Spirit and only demonstrates works of the flesh, but in many cases, it is not that black and white.

If a true Christian fails to demonstrate patience, then we try to gently correct them (Galatians 6:1). When we are put to the test by trials in life, then we will know whether or not we really carry fruit by the Spirit. Because who uses self-control without being enticed? And how easy is it to be kind when another person is also kind? Or who isn’t patient when nobody tests their patience?

We all fail and grow in these areas, test after test. That doesn’t make us wolves in sheep’s clothing, so long as we are being transformed in the process. We need to learn to identify our sins, repent, and change our ways to grow.

But if a Christian is unwilling to change their ways after committing, say, sexual immorality, then something more serious is going on.

We are not the final judge of someone’s heart, not even our own (1 Corinthians 4:3-5). Only Jesus really knows the heart. The only thing we can truly judge is the fruit we see. We see what a person does, and hear or read a person’s words, and those things we can and should judge (1 Corinthians 14:29, Revelation 2:2, 1 Timothy 3). We have to, for otherwise, we would not be able to identify wolves in sheep’s clothing and steer clear of them.

How to see through the deception

The reason why wolves in sheep’s clothing are hard to spot is that outwardly they really appear to be sheep. In other words: Some of their words and actions seem to indicate that they are Christians, while their hearts are far from God.

Paul says that this is no surprise since even the devil disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14).

And here is what Jesus says about that:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” (Matthew 7:21-23, ESV)

This tells us that wolves in sheep’s clothing actually think that they are saved. So, first and foremost, they have deluded themselves!

They call Jesus “Lord” without really accepting Him as Lord. Because if they would accept Him as Lord they would do the will of God. Instead, they believe that they deserve a spot in heaven because of their mighty works, which is a flawed and dangerous assumption. Works don’t get you into heaven, no matter how mighty you think they are. Prophesying is not an indication of your salvation, and neither is casting out demons.

So, even if a preacher gives you goosebumps when he preaches, it is not an indication of him being a true Christian. The living Word of God remains true and active, no matter which sinner preaches it. As a matter of fact, I know that there are pastors out there who even admit that they don’t really believe in God, and think that their work is just like any other job that pays the bills. A friend of mine once left a church led by a man like that- a guy who is an amazing storyteller and had many deceived.

Never confuse works with faith. It is an easy trap to walk into so we must really guard our hearts against such false beliefs. Paul says about this: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9, ESV).

Jesus warns us that Christians will be led astray by great signs and wonders of false prophets and false christs (Matthew 24:24), so we must be extremely cautious.

But thankfully Paul gives us the antidote against this deception (2 Thessalonians 2:10):

Love the Truth.

Let’s see how the Truth helps us to be discerning.

Wolf's paw print in the snow

Why wolves are wolves

Because these people mistakenly believe that they are saved, and on top of that, display mighty works, they can fool many people into thinking that they are truly followers of Christ. Including themselves. The unbelieving pastor I referred to earlier, wouldn’t do what he does if he knew it would get him into hell for all eternity. He does not believe in hell, since he does not believe in God. He is just thinking about his own personal gain in the here and now, in this world.

And that is precisely what all wolves have in common. They are of this world. And because they are, they have their own personal goal in mind, instead of God’s. Their motivation is greed (2 Peter 2:3), and they aim for worldly gain (1 Timothy 6:5). Therefore they have misunderstood the entire Gospel.

Paul says that people who teach a doctrine that does not agree with the words of our Lord Jesus Christ have an unhealthy craving for controversy and quarrels about words (1 Timothy 6:4).

I believe that just like the Pharisees in Jesus’ time, wolves don’t want to lose their money, control, status, or personal beliefs. They don’t want to surrender those – and everything else – to God. Instead, they hang on to them. And unfortunately, that means that they will die along with the perishable things they depend on.

Knowing the motivation of wolves can help you identify them. Because whatever you do should be done for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). Wolves have no such motivation. They might say they do, but in their actions, they will glorify either themselves or another idol. And they want you to do the same thing.

So, whatever you do, always keep your eyes on Jesus, and don’t stray from the path of following Him, no matter how forcefully they will try to push you in another direction.

Test before you eat

In most cases, we can simply see if the fruit is edible or not. We can recognize grapes and figs. We know that figs don’t grow on thistles. And we stay away from rotten fruit.

And if you don’t know or can’t see it, you will taste it once you have taken a bite. Then their sourness, bitterness, or rot can’t be hidden by skin-deep beauty anymore. But if you accidentally take a bite out of something poisonous, it might kill you. That is why every time you encounter a new fruit, you need to test it by the Word of God.

True Christians in words and actions, should at least:

  • Adhere to the most important truth: Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, and then He died and rose again to take away our sins (1 John 4:1-3, Romans 10:9, Romans 5:9, 1 Corinthians 15:1-4).
  • Love one another (1 John 4:20).
  • Love the Truth of God’s Word (2 Thessalonians 2:10) and therefore live by it.

These rules apply in an especially strict manner to overseers in church, who should be above reproach. (See 1 Timothy 3 for a list of behaviors that prove their fitness for the task at hand.)

So if you hear, see, or read something you haven’t heard before, including anything on this website, you need to always check if it is in total agreement with the Word of God. If it isn’t, discard it.

In the same way: if someone asks you to do something that doesn’t align with God’s Word, don’t do it.

On top of all that: Pray and listen to the Shepherd’s guidance.

It happened to me multiple times that wolves in sheep’s clothing demanded something of me, while the Holy Spirit had already shown me what to do, which was something else.

When I kept my eyes on Jesus and followed His will instead of theirs, the wolves claimed that was the wrong path. They never said that I should not follow Jesus, but they just claimed that I misunderstood Him and had to go another way, much like the serpent did with Eve. They claimed that they knew what the right path was for me and that God was talking to me through them. Many times, keeping my eyes on Jesus despite their rebuke, enraged them. But each of those times, what came to pass, was what the Holy Spirit said, and not their false prophecy.

I’m saying this not to claim that I never make mistakes, or to claim that you should never listen to other people’s advice, on the contrary. But I am trying to encourage you to discuss your plans with the Lord and to walk by faith, not by fear of any human being.

How to grow your discernment

Before you start testing other people to see if they are truly Christians, it is crucial to test yourself too. Because how can you see the speck in someone’s eye if you are blinded by a log in your own eye (Luke 6:42)?

If you want to be discerning and want to know what acceptable behavior looks like, you need to have a renewed mind yourself (Romans 12:2, 2 Corinthians 13:5).

We’ve seen that Jesus said that wolves in sheep’s clothing don’t do God’s will. God is the One Who equips us with all good things, so that we may do His will and please Him, through Jesus (Hebrews 13:21). So if He did not equip the wolves, who did?

Jesus follows up by saying: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” (Matthew 7:24, ESV).

Notice that it is hearing and doing. We must listen to the Word of God and do It to stand strong and be wise. First of all, that will prevent us from becoming a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Because we are equipped to do His will through His Word.

And secondly, it will also help us recognize and avoid the (fruit of) wolves. Because you will only know which fruit is bad if you know what good fruit tastes, smells, feels, and looks like.

And when you are a true sheep, you will know the voice of the Shepherd (John 10:4) and you will share your language with the other sheep. Wolves don’t speak the same language as sheep, their language is aggressive, destructive, divisive, and manipulative. They won’t listen to your words (1 John 4:1-6), nor will they recognize the voice of the Shepherd when He speaks.

I can attest to this myself since I have failed to recognize wolves before. I only started uncovering their disguise, from the moment that I started putting the Word of God into practice more than I did before.

That gradually opened my eyes to the fact that they listened to the Word of God, but they didn’t do what It says. While I was living out the Word of God, my eyes were opened to a new level of discernment. In a way, I stopped deceiving myself (James 1:22-24) and they stopped deceiving me. Then I deeply realized that we were on different paths.

Interestingly, the more my eyes were opened, the more the wolves were showing (or: I was seeing) the opposite of the fruit of the Spirit: The works of the flesh.

Even though I was teaching others to always watch for the fruit of the Spirit, I somehow missed the lesson of Jesus’ words myself: By their fruit you will recognize them (Matthew 7:15-20).

How to deal with wolves in sheep’s clothing

What do you do when you take a bite of a good-looking piece of fruit and it turns out to be rotten? Right: you spit it out before it makes you ill.

Paul tells us to do precisely that:

In Romans 16:17 (ESV): “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.”

And in 1 Corinthians 5:11 (ESV): “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.”

So, the right cause of action would be, if possible, to stop associating with them.

I believe an important sidenote, is that the Greek word for “reviler” is in some translations translated to “slanderer”, but I think that is too narrow. The more precise translation would indeed be “reviler” because that also includes face-to-face verbal abuse like denigrating and insulting criticism.

If this happens: do not let them transform you to their image, but stay in the light of Christ. That Light will, over time, expose them for who they really are.

In my case, it was no different. After a lot of praying, I realized that moving away from them and toward Jesus was the only right cause of action. That was, of course, a painful experience. Nobody likes it when the people you trusted aren’t what you thought they were.

I thought they loved me and the other sheep, but instead, they hated us. That was upsetting in many ways.

But, there was also joy and peace: I deeply realized that God was setting me free from a kind of slavery that was keeping me from doing God’s will for my life. And for that, I was extremely grateful.

In some cases, depending on many factors, including your position in the church, it is important to call false Christians out and expose them (1 Tim 5:20). Paul did this on various occasions. But to be completely honest with you, I feel that I currently lack the wisdom and experience to tell you when and how you should do that exactly. For advice on this specific topic, I would advise you to listen to this podcast of Desiring God.