One of the most confounding characters in the Bible is the false prophet Balaam. His ministry of divination is instructive in understanding the promulgation of false teaching and offers insight into the motivation that drives false teachers. And his story serves as a warning to how easily false prophets can manipulate the truth to advance their own interests.
We first encounter Balaam as he responds to messengers of the Moabite king, Balak, who offers a considerable fee for Balaam to place a curse on Israel. Balaam instructs the envoys to stay overnight as he seeks direction from the Lord.
That night God commands Balaam not to return with the men or speak against Israel. “You are not to curse these people, for they have been blessed.” (Numbers 22:12, NLT). The following morning Balaam tells the king’s officials, “Go on home! The Lord will not let me go with you.” (Numbers 22:13, NLT).
Though Balaam refuses to help the Moabite king, his response reveals his frustration with the outcome. It’s the kind of answer a kid gives his friends when they ask him to come out and play: “I can’t. My mom won’t let me.” The response makes clear he wants to play, but the big bully in charge won’t let him. So it is with Balaam. He grudgingly obeys, but not because he agrees with God’s decision.
When King Balak learns of this, he sends a more prestigious delegation to Balaam and increases his offer. Balaam responds, “Even if Balak were to give me his palace filled with silver and gold, I would be powerless to do anything against the will of the Lord my God.” (Numbers 22:18, NLT). On the surface it appears Balaam has no interest in worldly treasure but only in obeying God and communicating His truth.
But then he adds a caveat to his answer and in doing so reveals his secret motivation. He tells the delegation, “Stay here one more night, and I will see if the Lord has anything else to say to me.” (Numbers 22:20, NLT). Balaam knows God’s will on the matter. He expressly told Balaam not to curse Israel; that they were a blessed nation.
But Balaam is hopeful God will change His mind. That he can convince the Lord to allow him to fulfill King Balak’s request and collect a significant payment in the process. So God consents to Balaam returning with the men to their homeland (a decision which almost costs Balaam his life – see Numbers 22:21-34).
When Balaam finally meets King Balak, however, God commands him to bless Israel not curse it. Balaam reluctantly obeys and blesses Israel not once but four times. His obedience not only earns him the king’s rage but also results in his forfeiture of the large fee the king had promised.
This proves too much for Balaam to bear. So he develops a devious plan to destroy Israel and thereby collect his fee from King Balak. He instructs the Moabite women to have sexual relations with the Israelite men and seduce them into worshipping their pagan gods. [See Numbers 25:1-9, and 31:16].
And it works. Many Israelites gratify themselves sexually with the Moabites and begin worshipping their gods, arousing God’s anger in the process. Twenty-four thousand people die before God finally relents and His anger subsides. Balaam succeeds in placing a wedge between God and His people.
The New Testament mentions Balaam several times and in each instance attributes to him a legacy of greed and deceit. He comes to represent the face of false prophets and false teaching. His story offers us insight into how false teachers operate and how they deceive so many into embracing a false form of the Christian faith.
The first thing to notice about Balaam is how spiritual he sounds. He says all the right things in public. He tells King Balak, “I have no power to say whatever I want. I will speak only the message that God puts in my mouth.” (Numbers 22:38, NLT).
After Balaam pronounces blessings on Israel and the king protests, Balaam reminds him, “Didn’t I tell you that I can do only what the Lord tells me?” [Numbers 23:26, NLT].
And finally, after the king flies into a rage against Balaam for blessing Israel a third time, he says, “Don’t you remember what I told your messengers? I said, ‘Even if Balak were to give me his palace filled with silver and gold, I would be powerless to do anything against the will of the Lord.’ I told you that I could say only what the Lord says!” (Numbers 24:12-13, NLT).
By his words, Balaam appears to be an obedient prophet of the Lord. It is impossible to argue against anything he says. He claims to be God’s messenger and insists he only speaks those words the Lord places on his tongue. In fact, his prophesies contradict what the king demands. Surely only a man of God could stand against a king and his nation, and speak God’s words faithfully.
But beneath his veneer of religious piety, Balaam harbored a heart of greed and deceit. He may have claimed fidelity to God with his mouth, but his heart was devoted to the world and its treasures. He declared himself a faithful messenger of God simply to establish his credibility in the community and burnish his credentials as the Lord’s mouthpiece.
But it was all an act. He had no intention of denying himself the wealth and prestige the king offered. So no sooner had he pronounced a litany of blessings on Israel then he was conspiring to bring destruction on those same people. His actions revealed his words as mere lip service to God.
And so it is with the false prophets who fill our churches today. They claim to speak only those words God gives them. They make a show of standing-up against cultural leaders and speaking out against societal immorality. They eloquently declare their commitment to God and insist that His Spirit guides their Sunday sermons.
But like Balaam they are filled with deceit and motivated by greed. They refuse to preach biblical truth when it prevents them from collecting worldly treasures. They ignore Jesus’ words when those words reveal them as frauds. They dismiss and distort Scripture when it exposes their lifestyle as an expression of spiritual adultery.
Sadly, false prophets now lead a vast number of churches across the country. While they adhere to biblically sound doctrine on many topics, they are grossly negligent on others including Christianity & The American Dream, Idolatry, Spiritual Adultery, Sacrificial Faith, Casual Christianity (click on each link to read more on that topic).
As with Balaam, these false prophets (which are exploding in number) are leading the nation down a path of destruction. They have bargained with the devil and compromised the gospel, exchanging the souls of their congregants for a life of worldly treasure, pleasure, and prominence. And unless you immerse yourself in Scripture regularly, studying its truths and comparing it with what your pastor preaches, you risk falling for a perverted gospel.
The risks are so great that Scripture frequently warns of the dangers of false prophets and the proliferation of false teaching in the last days. In his second epistle Peter exclaims, “But there were also false prophets in Israel, just as there will be false prophets among you. They will cleverly teach destructive heresies and even deny the Master who bought them. In this way, they will bring sudden destruction on themselves. Many will follow their evil teaching and shameful immorality. And because of these teachers, the way of the truth will be slandered. In their greed they will make up clever lies to get hold of your money.” (2 Peter 2:1-3, NLT).
Note that false teaching is rarely obvious. Peter emphasizes the fact that false prophets shrewdly communicate their destructive heresies, wrapping them in language designed to sound good. Unsuspecting churchgoers who innocently assume their pastor preaches truth easily digest these lies. For that reason we must remain diligent to search the Scriptures ourselves to validate everything we hear from the pulpit.
Peter goes on to explain that false prophets even deny God. Not so much verbally but in their hearts, as evidenced by their lifestyle. Peter warns that greed fuels their penchant for mistruths and willingness to distort the gospel. They want your money and will tell you whatever you want to hear to gain it. Too often those in the church are happy to oblige.
Paul tells Timothy, “For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They will reject the truth and chase after myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3-4, NLT).
These days people want more than anything to hear that God desires to bless them materially and financially. That God wants them happy, comfortable, and safe. He wants them to enjoy the good life as they live the American Dream, chasing whatever shiny objects catch their eye.
Paul speaks of this in his second epistle to Timothy. “You should know this, Timothy, that in the last days there will be very difficult times. For people will love only themselves and their money. They will … love pleasure rather than God. They will act religious, but they will reject the power that makes them godly.” (2 Timothy 3:1-2a, 4b-5a, NLT).
Paul emphasizes that many of these people who love themselves, money, and pleasure, also act religious. They are churchgoers who attend services regularly and maintain a veneer of Christian respectability. They include deacons, choir members, Bible-study leaders, Sunday-School teachers, and, of course, pastors. And they constitute large swaths of the congregation in many churches today.
But they are not Christians. They only have the outward appearance of a believer. Inside, they live for themselves and have never surrendered fully to Christ. They act holy and talk holy but refuse to deny themselves and live sacrificial lives for the Lord. They want their churches led by pastors who tickle their ears with half-truths; who mingle the gospel with the American Dream and suggest the two can cohabitate in one’s heart.
Paul says such people “have depraved minds and a counterfeit faith,” and that we should “stay away from people like that.” (2 Timothy 3:5b, 8b, NLT).
Paul also reminds us that those who do not preach the whole gospel and who fail to teach those messages of Jesus with which they disagree are “destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain.” (1 Timothy 6:5b, NKJV). Unfortunately, this describes many pastors and churchgoers today. They have never died to self that Christ might live in them. Instead, they pursue an appearance of godliness in order to advance personal agendas of greed, stature, and influence. “From such withdraw yourself,” Paul advises. (1 Tim. 6:5b).
Jude adds that false teachers “bring about their own destruction. What sorrow awaits them! For they follow in the footsteps of … Balaam (who) deceived people for money.” Jude 1:10b-11, NLT).
False teaching thrives in America today. Sadly, it often goes unnoticed because those in the pews want to hear it as much as those in the pulpit want to preach it. And it isn’t limited to messages that declare the wrong thing. One of the most insidious forms of false teaching today involves the unwillingness to preach against the rampant materialism, pride, and selfishness that often consumes churchgoers as much as it does the unchurched, and their relentless pursuit of comfort, luxury, popularity, and leisure.
The spiritual adultery and idolatry this represents has infested a devastating number of churches in America and threatens to remove the last vestiges of genuine Christianity in this country. Until faithful prophets arise and speak out against this spiritual abomination, the Church will continue its slide into irrelevance in society.
I realize this message is difficult to swallow. Like Jude, I would prefer to share a message of joy regarding our salvation (see Jude 1:3-4). But as long as false teaching flourishes and false prophets inhabit the Church, it is critical to expose their deceit and warn others of their presence.
May the Lord awaken us and strengthen what little remains.