Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.
There is more to the discerning of “savage wolves” that goes even beyond doctrine. Yet, as it is, many in the church appear to have great difficulty in judging for themselves as to whether what a man teaches is representative of a pure gospel or “another gospel.” Paul could not have spelled it out any clearer than when he wrote to the Philippians, “For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things” (Phil. 3:18-19).
Paul, addressing this issue from a shepherd’s standpoint, also made it quite clear when he wrote to Timothy, “But, the spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons” (I Tim. 4:1). He elaborates further in his second letter to Timothy, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance with their own desires” (II Tim. 4:3).
However, there is another tell-tale sign, though often overlooked, which Scripture provides to help us in identifying these “savage wolves.” In this context, the key phrase is found at the very end of our opening text, “to draw away the disciples after them.” And, the punch line can be found where it is always found, at the very end of the thought; “after them.” Their ministry constantly revolves around “them.” Get past the spiritual jargon and cosmetics, and it is all about them. Their name and their ministry is virtually synonymous, and typically, one and the same. They are the very foundation and driving force of their ministry. No “them,” no ministry!. Their names are more prevalent and their personalities more preeminent than that of Christ, Himself. Their names and pictures are everywhere. Their significance to the Kingdom is emphasized and their stature elevated beyond measure. Their self-promotion is conducted with unashamed zeal.
Paul wrote, “For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake” (II Cor. 4:5). It may be quite revealing to quote the initial definition of the word, “charisma,” taken from Webster’s Dictionary; “The power or quality of winning the devotion of large numbers of people.” Now, let us compare this definition to the last phrase of our opening text, “to draw away the disciples after them.” A picture begins to emerge, and it is not pretty, being a skewed reflection of Christ, or His Kingdom.
“For when one says, ‘I am of Paul,’ and another, ‘I am of Apollos,’ are you not mere men?” What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth (I Cor. 3:4-7). Now, there is a divine perspective for you!
Furthermore, quite often the most heinous crime committed is that the so-called “servant” in reality is the one who is being served by those he is purported to be serving. Apart from the representation of “another gospel,” this ministerial perversion may be the most insidious deception of all. Paul was compelled to remark, “For they all seek after their own interests, and not those of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:21). God spoke through Ezekiel this sobering rebuke, “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. Prophesy and say to those shepherds, ‘Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flock? ‘You eat the fat and cloth yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat sheep without feeding the flock. Peter forewarned in writing, “and in their greed they will exploit you with false words; their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep” (II Peter 2:3).
Jesus said, “But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ palaces” (Mat.11:8). Take a close look as to how these “savage wolves” live, their lifestyle, how they present themselves. Truly, “you shall know them by their fruits.” Do they live as kings? Do they live in the equivalent of palaces? Do they have an extravagant lifestyle, even by average American standards? Do they use excessive emotional manipulation to generate financial support? Do they constantly promote their wares along with a heavy, nonstop emphasis on donations for their ministry, without which, their ministry is doomed and God’s purposes cannot be fulfilled, or rather, is it the fear that they will no longer be able to maintain their extravagant lifestyle ? Paul did not mince words when he wrote the following, “For we are not like many, peddling the word of God, but as from sincerity, but as from God, we speak in Christ in the sight of God” (II Cor. 2:17).
So, why are these “savage wolves” compelled “ to draw away the disciples after them?” They are rendered useless without a following to feed both their ego and material greed. It is their lifeline. And, the greatest deception lies in the fact that many will even teach a relatively sound doctrine. In many cases, doctrine will not be the obvious indication of a problem. Rather, it will be exposed by what takes preeminence in a person’s ministry. “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” and “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” In “knowing them by their fruits,” the criteria must be more spiritually sophisticated than in mere outward appearances that go beyond external successes and statistics. “The sins of some men are quite evident, going before them to judgment; for others, their sins follow after.” But, if we are to be in keeping with the exhortations of “redeeming the time” and in “having nothing to do with the unfruitful deeds of darkness,” then it is incumbent upon us to discern these things by “examining everything carefully.” We should desire to invest in that, and in whom, that which is conducive to producing an eternal weight of glory as we are conformed to the image of Christ.
It is with respect to whose glory that this issue revolves. God said, “I will not give my glory to another.” Jesus, Himself, “took the form of a bond-servant.” So, what do “savage wolves” and “bond-servants” have in common? Nothing! And, it is this very contrast which may hold the key to discerning these “savage wolves.” After all, “You shall know them by their fruits.”