The most conclusive identifier of a wolf is revealed in the very imagery of the term wolf as it is used by Christ and repeated by Paul.
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”
As Christ makes this declaration he is painting a picture of the motivations and actions of wolves. He describes the wolf as being ravenous. The greek word that is translated here is harpax and the word has a multi-layered definition. When you look at Thayer’s greek lexicon it defines this word first as rapacious, ravenous and then the second definition is an extortioner and a robber. When you take the totality of the meaning of the word it is very telling the declaration Christ is making.
Rapacious means aggressively greedy and ravenous means hungry. The second definition extortioner becomes important especially when you consider that the four other times the word harpax appears in the New Testament it is translated as extortioner. So in this one word you get both the motivation and the action of the wolves to which Christ is referring. Jesus is saying that, disguised as sheep, there will be wolves who, motivated by their aggressively greedy hunger, will extort and rob. Now the victim of these greedy extortioners is clearly the sheep. The wolves feed on the sheep to satisfy their own hunger.
This becomes even more identifying when you begin to work your way through all the warnings against false teachers found in the New Testament. What you will discover is that virtually all of them resolve with people who are looking to their own self gratification.
Look at Paul’s warning again in Acts:
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.
What does he say will reveal the wolf? They will “twist things to draw away the disciples after them”. It’s the image that these “pastors” are looking to build a following after themselves. Is it possible that this is what we are seeing with the now too common practice of “territorial protectionism” we see with pastors? Or the new phenomenon of “no-compete clauses” demanded by pastors of new staff hires? Could this be what is reflected in the declarations of pastors who insist “these are my people” as they discourage others from infringing on their claim to portions of God’s flock?
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. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. (Romans 16:17-18)
Notice how through “smooth talk” they deceive the naive to feed their own appetites, and he declares unequivocally that they DO NOT serve Jesus.
Paul’s final warning in I Timothy about false teachers identifies clearly their theology of self indulgence:
Teach and urge these things. If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. (1 Timothy 6:2-5)
Remember this passage is about wolves. Paul is wrapping up this letter to Timothy by revisiting the warning against false teachers with which he opened this letter. He says these frauds “teach a different doctrine” that is not in accordance with the words, the teaching and the godliness of Christ (the Gospel) and they “imagine that godliness is a means of (financial) gain”. This is a direct indictment against the theology that godliness or righteousness will result in financial wealth but, it seems, this passage is indicating that it is the false teacher who is teaching, leading people in all kinds of false ideas and that he sees his “godliness”, or his position of ministry, will be his means of financial gain. Adam Clarke in his commentary on this passage describes these teachers as;
Professing religion only for the sake of secular profit; defending their own cause for the emoluments (profit from employment) it produced;
And the passage culminates in describing these folks as being driven by the destructive desire to be rich.
But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. (1 Timothy 6:9)
Peter in his second book addresses false prophets and says:
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. 2 And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. 3 And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. (2 Peter 2:1-3)
In this passage we see the culmination of the definition of wolf. They are motivated by their greedy hunger and will exploit/extort God’s people by using false teaching. And after making this declaration Peter gets serious:
But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed in their destruction, suffering wrong as the wage for their wrongdoing. They count it pleasure to revel in the daytime. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, while they feast with you. They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children! Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing,
Peter emphasises in this passage the almost animalistic desire for self gratification that controls the wolves in the church. He reveals the deceptive relationship that these wolves have with the flock when he states they sit and eat with them in fellowship all the while seeing the sheep as simply the means of satisfying their sinful greed. And then he brilliantly reveals why it is so difficult to identify the wolf among us. He illustrates beautifully the progressive self deception that forms these wolves and at the same time camouflages them.
Look at the model he uses for the wolf he is identifying. He references Balaam. Now Balaam was a prophet of God. Balaam was a man that God had spoken to and a man that God had called. He had served God and the people of Israel. But he was willing to compromise the message of God for the appeasement of the corrupt in exchange for his own personal gratification. Albert Barnes describes Peter’s reference to Balaam;
(Balaam) was supremely influenced by the love of gain, and was capable of being employed, for a price, in a wicked design; thus prostituting his high office, as a professed prophet of the Most High, to base and ignoble ends. That Balaam, though he professed to be influenced by a supreme regard to the will of God was really influenced by the desire of reward, and was willing to prostitute his great office to secure such a reward...
Balaam starts out as a prophet of God, as a messenger of God. He even, at times, speaks God’s word and God’s truth and as a result he is perceived as a man of God. But over time the allure of personal profit and gain entices him to bend and twist his words, his calling for personal reward. This progression, this evolution, from the calling of God’s service to self gratification is what forms the essence of wolves and it is what makes the identification of wolves so difficult. They seem like good guys but their lives will reveal “that their belly is their god.” I’ve seen it repeatedly first hand in ministry.
There was a pastor I knew well. He was someone with whom I was always impressed. He exhibited great humility and I always felt he was a man of integrity. He came to the Lord in his late teens, early twenties and as such he always seemed very moved by God’s grace and it was reflected in his ministry. He was a church planter and I remember visiting with him shortly after he launched his church. It had been a highly “successful” launch and from the beginning there were lots of people and lots of resources. As he and I were driving to his very modest home on the outskirts of town I noticed a dealer tag on the key chain. I asked him if he had just purchased the van. He replied, almost embarrassingly, that it was a used car that the church had given to him and his family because the car he had been driving was on it’s last legs. He said he argued with the board over it, not wanting to be a burden, but they insisted that he take it. I remember the impression that made on me. I remember thinking how he maintained his humility and servant’s heart even as he experienced such ministry success. Over time his church continued to grow and became a “mega-church”.
I didn’t have much contact with him over the years, a moment here or there, but even in those limited interactions there seemed to be a change. He seemed “bigger” some how. He carried himself as more important with more influence. I lost touch with him years ago and it wasn’t until recently he returned to my radar. Someone told me he had fallen. He had an affair with a young intern at his church. He lost his position, he lost his influence and he lost his ministry. Shortly after I received the news someone sent me a link to the real estate listing for the house he was selling. In a community whose average home price is $137,000 he was selling his $1.1 million mansion. It was a home that was dripping with excess. He had used his position to acquire a home that far exceeded his needs, purchased with the emoluments of ministry and furnished with offerings of his flock. In a community with roughly a quarter of a million people living below the poverty level this “minister of the gospel” believed he honored the name of Christ by living in such excess. I do not mourn the sin that saw him lose his ministry, I pray the same for all wolves because only in that is there hope for their repentance, but I mourn the man he once was, because that transformation fooled many and put his own soul in jeopardy.
I know of another mega-church pastor who in his youth professed a call to India to work on the streets with orphans and lepers. A young man humble in his mission and his calling wanting to work amongst the least of these. Over time and circumstance he turned his back on that calling choosing instead to minister amongst the wealth of suburban America. Now he lives in a mini-mansion furnished with his church’s money, driving expensive luxury cars, wearing designer clothes and being whisked around the globe flying first class, all the while he is teaching the nonsense that to reach the rich people in his community he has to live himself in wealth.
Consider for a moment how that philosophy of ministry is so counter to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It may carry with it the weight of a “fine sounding argument” but does it at all reflect the ministry, the message, the nature of Jesus Christ. This isn’t an idea that needs deep speculation. Jesus ministered to the wealthy. Jesus brought his message to the rich. Did he ever feel the need to assume their status to effectively convey the truth? Was his failure in converting the rich young ruler a result of his not assuming the posture of rich young ruler or was it the result of that man’s deep affection for the offerings of the this world? How is it that this peasant preacher, who couldn’t afford to pay his taxes without divine intervention, was able to enter the extravagant home of Zaccheus in his dusty rags and yet bring salvation and repentance to this rich man’s household? We are admonished in scripture as ministers to follow the example of Paul. When he entered the courts of royalty to bring the truth of Jesus he did not wear the gold chains of wealth but the dull steel chains of a prisoner. To teach that wealth must be embraced in order to effectively reach the wealthy, especially in a culture whose greatest idols are wealth and consumerism, is to teach a gospel that has no resemblance to Christ’s Gospel.
And ultimately this is where the first mark of a wolf finds its convergence with the second mark; wolves propagate false teachings that defy the Gospel as a means of facilitating the satiation of their greed. The bringing together of these two realities is what most clearly reveals a wolf.
You have to understand people do teach wrong things. People make mistakes and these errors do not in and of themselves become marks of a wolf but when those errors in teaching, those ideas counter to the Gospel, reflect and facilitate self gratification I can almost guarantee, you have come upon a wolf. When the feeding of the flock the pure beauty of the Gospel takes a back seat to a gospel message that helps satisfy a “shepherds” rapaciousness you can know with near certainty it’s time to either run or fight.