“Then Jacob summoned his sons and said, “Assemble yourselves that I may tell you what will befall you in the days to come. “Gather together and hear, O sons of Jacob; And listen to Israel your father.” Genesis 49:1–2
“I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. “He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep, sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. “He flees because he is a hired hand and is not concerned about the sheep. “I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me.” .John 10:11-14
“And when they had come to him, he said to them, “You yourselves know, from the first day that I set foot in Asia, how I was with you the whole time, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials which came upon me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you publicly and from house to house, solemnly testifying to both Jews and Greeks of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. “And now, behold, bound by the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions await me. “But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God. “And now, behold, I know that all of you, among whom I went about preaching the kingdom, will no longer see my face. “Therefore, I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. “For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God. “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 men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.” Acts 20:18-30
It is a common and very offensive reality today to call just about anyone a wolf if you disagree with their teaching. Increasing numbers of brethren have adopted the habit of calling all and sundry wolves for doing no more than sneezing. Yet do they really know what a wolf is? Are these brethren who attack other believers at the drop of a hat, actually speaking the truth when they call someone a wolf, because they disagree with their teaching? Of course one would have to know what people teach before one could answer that question. For myself, I find that it is much easier to have at least some basic insight as to what the biblical term wolf means. Then we can simplify our application, and reduce unnecessary offence.
Historically most of the presentations I have either read or heard have drawn upon the characteristics of the wolf, itself. This is an interesting way of thinking, as it does make for a good contrast between the shepherd of the flock and the wolf that seeks to devour the flock. This is not the intention in John 10:11-14 however, where the meaning has to do with false shepherds (hirelings). The correlation between the animate characteristic of a wolf is a limited one, as with all physical metaphors, but just to press the metaphor one could, for example, say that Scripture speaks of certain men as dogs (Philippians 3:2 Revelation 22:15) – and we know that the dog is a breed of the wolf.
Even silly little dogs of no seeming ferocity originally come from the Grey Wolf. Sometimes the physical characteristics of the wild wolf’ demonstrate a reality, but the spiritual meaning of wolf, is considerably more than a few characteristics corresponding to a wild animal.
The positive aspect of John 10:11-14 speaks about the good shepherd, and has to do with His physical courage and determination to remain faithful, and thereby resist the wolf that devours. In short – what is being spoken of, is the authority of Christ Himself (John 17:12). This is one clear meaning to be found in this passage. In this analogous context we could also talk about how the good shepherd abides faithfully knowing that a wolf may spring from the darkness at any moment.
John 10:11-14 tells us that the principal character of the hireling is cowardice. And regardless as to the idea that a hireling is someone who is working for pay, the meaning is cowardice. We can see this clearly in the example of Paul, who said, “For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God. “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 men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.” Paul kept these wolves out of the flock at considerable cost to himself, and by that means, proved himself to be a good shepherd. No doubt it was for this precise reason that he was able to say, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.”
One of the chief difficulties we have when seeking to understand spiritual reality is that we so often miss ordinary reason. By abrogating common sense, we may lose the simplicity of a thing and end up chasing after mystical explanations. We either receive our understanding by a revelation of the Holy Spirit or else we use our reasonable minds to lay hold of the Scriptures properly. If we claim to have received revelation and then share contrary to a simple reading of Scripture; are we not in danger of becoming false ourselves?
In looking at this passage from John 10:11-14 we can see that there are three principle actors. The good Shepherd, the Hireling and the Wolf. Unless we see the detail of this, whilst seeking to understand the biblical wolf, we may find it difficult to comprehend the hireling altogether and lose the meaning of the wolf as well. The hireling, in this passage, is not the wolf. Yet as is undoubtedly the case, when money, or wages, or else gain and profit, motivate those who shepherd the flocks of God – others seeing this reality, then cry wolf of that man. The question we must ask ourselves, therefore, is whether we can draw together in meaning, that which Christ has separated? If the Lord has told us that there is a hireling, and that there is a wolf also, can we say of the hireling, that he is the wolf?
“εγω οιδα οτι εισελευσονται μετα την αφιξιν μου λυκοι βαρεις εις υμας μη φειδομενοι του ποιμνιου ‘I know that after my departing grievous wolves shall enter in among you, not sparing the flock.”
Acts 20:29 is the most common verse that brethren cite when speaking about the meaning of the term wolf. In this instance, the term used by the Apostle Paul is grievous wolf. The Greek says, βαρύς (barus) – of grievous, which means to press a severe burden on a person. It also means vicious and cruel. Without mercy. It is very different from the term used in Matthew 7:15, where we read of ravenous wolves. The Greek says, αρπαγες (harpage) – of ravenous, which means to destroy, rob and steal. In Matthew 7:15 the Lord warned of false prophets as ravenous wolves. These wolves come into the flocks; they are not of the flock. In the same way, the grievous wolf comes into the flock – he is not of the flock.
Paul also identified that there are men who arise from within the flock. Yet Paul does not call these men, wolves. Those whom Paul said would come into the flocks, were grievous wolves, and in saying “Also of your own selves, shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them,” Paul identifies a different class of men. Of this diverse group of men we see the Greek conjunctive καὶ – where the object is λαλοῦντες διεστραμμένα τοῦ – ‘speaking perverse things.’ The principle characteristic of these men is speaking perverse things. Paul does not call the men who speak perverse things, wolves, but he does identify that they will draw disciples after themselves.
The proper understanding of this secondary group of men Paul identifies prophetically, is that they ought to be called heretics, and not wolves. Paul also identified who the grievous wolves would be.
“You yourselves know, from the first day that I set foot in Asia, how I was with you the whole time, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials which came upon me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you publicly and from house to house, solemnly testifying to both Jews and Greeks of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Acts 20:18-21
It was the Jews who were trying to come into the flocks of Christ in the first century in order to reassert a full requirement of the Law of Moses upon believers. These Jews were actually opposing Christ Himself in the very same spirit that the Pharisees opposed Christ face to face in Judea. What characterised those men of Judea was a desire to murder Christ and what characterised these men of whom Paul speaks, is their willingness to murder him. This corresponds with reality, in that Satan was a murderer from the beginning. Just as the Lord told some of the Pharisees that their father was the devil, so Paul recognised that those Jews, whose representatives, were coming into the flocks, were murderers in no less a meaning. In Paul’s case they were literally trying to murder him because he was able to resist them.
Speaking perverse things comes from diastrepho (διαστρέφω) and means, to twist or distort. The effect is schisms within the church, and that is the root meaning of heresy [hairetikos αἱρετικός and αἱρετικὸν from αἵρεσιςc]. It is wilfully causing schisms or divisions by twisting the apostolic teaching. We find it used in Titus 3:10, “A factious man after a first and second admonition refuse αιρετικον ανθρωπον μετα μιαν και δευτεραν νουθεσιαν παραιτου. Heresy is not sufficient to be called a wolf.
You have to be a grievous βαρύς (barus) wolf in the character that Paul identified before you can be called a wolf. Or else you have to be ἁρπαγή (harpage), a destroyer of the flocks. A broader consideration I make, therefore, has to do with those who take the name of Christ and pervert doctrines with the effect of drawing men to themselves.
This would be more fully speaking of those who pioneer fundamental changes in the way in which a particular truth is presented. When this happens, the result is always division in the body of Christ. What is wrongly taught or emphasised, is rightly called heresy. At a basic level, we could say that denominations and cults are the proof of this kind of division. This effect is so great that there are now many denominations and many more cults.
Those who do this are often described as wolves. Those who receive heretical teaching and embrace it fully; becoming its prophets, are also, called wolves. These men are not wolves – rather they are heretics. To understand heretical schisms, one does not need to comprehend the character of the wolf nor have a working definition as to what constitutes a wolf.
The Lord identified false prophets as wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15) as well as identifying that the false prophet is known by their fruit (vv16-19). Like unto the tree that is given in similitude of its meaning, we would ask what fruits? If a good tree, then good fruit. If the tree is bad, it bears bad fruit and an ill effect (v18). The fruit is the word of his mouth, yet it is its reception, that gives the increase, and not the word itself. The emphasis therefore, ought to be on testing, not condemning. Outwardly the false prophet is a true prophet. It is his speech that reveals his condition – if it is tested. When believed, if it is a true word, that word leads a man to Christ. If it is false and believed, it leads a man unto a man, and the Lord of Hosts is blasphemed. If tested, his word can be rejected. In that definition, a ravenous wolf is a false teacher. Yet teaching is not the essential characteristic of the New Testament prophetic, even though the prophet clearly needs to be able to preserve truth when he speaks.
If we take the Lord’s words in the passage we have quoted from Matthew 7:15, then we would have to see that the character of a wolf is not one sent out of the churches in an apostolic mission, but rather one coming into the churches as a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Indeed the Lord told the apostles clearly that He was sending them as lambs amongst wolves. “Go; behold, I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves.” So from that, we can be certain that the ordinary place of wolves is in the world. When they come into the flocks, they are coming as those who are yet in the world, albeit as those who appear as lambs.
We see in the Matthew passage that its meaning is bound by two very clear warnings. The one has to do with entering by the narrow way, and the other has to do with building the house on a proper foundation. Entering by the narrow way is a matter of life, as is the foundation upon which we build the house. The foundation is the apostles and prophets, whereas the house includes all believers. In this passage, it is the foundation and not the house itself that is emphasised. The only proper reason to call any man a wolf is if he is preaching an entirely different gospel, at the heart of which Christ Himself is removed in favour of another man.
Whilst speaking of false prophets, we must not take a simplistic position and make this to mean everything they say. The Prophet is not essentially a teacher. The work of the Prophet is more to do with directing God’s household to God himself in times of falsehood. The best evidence for a false prophet is when he turns men away from Christ Himself, to another christ.
In concluding this warning about false prophets to the disciples, Jesus says “many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ (v22). In reading this, we may overlook the fact that whilst the Lord begins this warning with a small number of false prophets, He concludes it with a warning about the many. Now this either tells us that there are many false prophets or else the many is a broader application of meaning and includes many believers.
“Assemble yourselves that I may tell you what will befall you in the days to come. Gather together and hear, O sons of Jacob; And listen to Israel your father.” Genesis 49:1-2
This is Jacob’s prophecy concerning the future character of his sons. “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; In the morning he devours the prey, And in the evening he divides the spoil.” בִּנְיָמִין֙ זְאֵ֣ב יִטְרָ֔ף בַּבֹּ֖קֶר יֹ֣אכַל עַ֑ד וְלָעֶ֖רֶב יְחַלֵּ֥ק שָׁלָֽל׃ (v27). This is the first time that the term wolf is used in Scripture and could not have been very flattering to the ears of Benjamin. When we look into the Semitic usage of the term, (זְאֵב), we find that there are numerous semantic domains, with just one Hebrew translation.
בִּנְיָמִין֙ זְאֵ֣ב יִטְרָ֔ף בַּבֹּ֖קֶר יֹ֣אכַל עַ֑ד וְלָעֶ֖רֶב יְחַלֵּ֥ק שָׁלָֽל׃
Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia: with Werkgroep Informatica, Vrije Universiteit Morphology; Bible. O.T. Hebrew. Werkgroep Informatica, Vrije Universiteit. (2006). (Ge 49:27)
בִּנְיָמִין֙ זְאֵ֣ב יִטְרָ֔ף בַּבֹּ֖קֶר יֹ֣אכַל עַ֑ד וְלָעֶ֖רֶב יְחַלֵּ֥ק שָׁלָֽל׃
Van der Merwe, C. (2004). The Lexham Hebrew-English Interlinear Bible (Ge 49:27). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
זְאֵב [zâʾeb /zeh·abe/] n m. From an unused root meaning to be yellow; TWOT 522; GK 2269; Seven occurrences; AV translates as “wolf” seven times.
TWOT Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament Goodrick-Kohlenberger Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon.
זְאֵב zeeb (255b); from an unused word; a wolf:—wolf(4), wolves(3).
Thomas, R. L. (1998). New American Standard Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek dictionaries : updated edition. Anaheim: Foundation Publications, Inc.
חבר: MHb. to associate, MHb.2 to charm
Koehler, L., Baumgartner, W., Richardson, M. E. J., & Stamm, J. J. (1994–2000). The Hebrew and Aramaic lexicon of the Old Testament (electronic ed., p. 287). Leiden: E.J. Brill.
This term wolf carries a great deal of meaning. This includes cowardice, deceit, sorcery, harm as well as to be like a brother. In thinking about this, we could easily come to the conclusion that the hireling, who is a man labouring for pay, and who is also a coward, is, after all, a wolf. Whilst the hireling has neither the desire or the courage to protect the flocks, the hireling is not the wolf, else the Lord was mistaken in speaking of the the good shepherd, the hireling and the wolf as three distinct entities. In the case of Paul, when he prophesied of wolves coming into the flocks after his departure, the context of his words were precisely with regard to the Jews, who at that time were inciting violence against Paul as well as seeking to find an entrance into the flocks so as to rob believers of their liberty. In resisting these Jews, or else the party of the circumcision, as he calls them elsewhere, Paul was actually putting his life on the line because they were seeking to remove the meaning of the Cross itself. In doing that, they were showing themselves to be in agreement with the lie that Jesus was not the true Messiah of Israel and that His death was no more than a just punishment for blasphemy, in calling Himself the Son of God. Therefore what these men were labouring in, regardless of their presentation, was the same spirit in which the Pharisees laboured. That spirit is Satan, and its chief characteristic is murder.
In other places I have used this term wolf, quoting Acts 20:29, to describe or else explain the danger represented by the development of systematic theology in the early church, rather than a reliance on the apostles themselves. This was bound to happen once the apostles had departed. No doubt those early bishops and elders were concerned with local heresies in the first instance, but catholic (world) issues very quickly began to drive theological ambitions. Combating localised heresy is always a concern for elders and bishops. Whereas catholic concerns may have eventually facilitated wolves coming into the churches by an ability to recite systematic doctrines, as a cover for their ravenous intentions. It is easy to recite doctrine, yet know nothing of Christ within? One would also have to ask how such men could be accepted as pastors of local churches!
The shift would have been simply a move from anointing, to learning. One has to look no further than Rome itself, to see how great an ill effect this came to be. Who can doubt the grievous effect that Rome has had historically? To ask the same question from a different perspective, that of why the local churches themselves allowed for such a move in the first place, the answer may be the same now, as it was then. The short answer has to do with how the Church conducts itself in any given day.
In the second century, numerous bishops were writing church doctrine into a liturgical orthodoxy for church life. Some, or even many of these men, were no doubt believers, though their teachings may have given ground for an effect which was more harmful than their own teachings today, of themselves, could have been.
This could not be true where there was a clear error in doctrine, but it may have been true in the sense that systematic theology makes way for those who are not believers to appear as though they are. I believe that the deeper effect of their systematic teachings was to facilitate, and position, other individuals – who would be known at that time, but are now lost to history – coming into the flock, and for reasons of personal gain, both ravaged the flock, and caused misery and suffering to many saints.
The character of those who come into the flocks in this way would not be suspect in a circumstance in which established doctrines were presented as credentials to lead the churches, and accepted by individual churches as a rule of life. Such doctrines serve as a cover for these men. The inevitable effect would be clearly understood when it has had its full way with a fellowship of believers. Systematic theology is by nature a dead thing.
For those who have no comprehension of a ravenous wolf, with their energy, ambition and cleverness, there can similarly be no comprehending how systematic truth lends itself to such men. It is the grievous wolf who makes way for the ravenous wolf. The one who takes away the liberty of the flock by compulsions of systematic truth amounting to dead legalism, makes way for the one whose intention is to set men free again – not by preaching the true gospel of liberty, but by overthrowing righteous doctrines for gain and profit. Such is the time we live in when this effect is coming to its full visibility.
If you are of Judah will you recognise Benjamin when he rises early like a wolf so that he can share the spoils in the evening? The relationship between Judah and Benjamin is one of the flesh. So outwardly Benjamin is a source of trust. Inwardly, however, the wolf is ravenous regardless of his outward appearance. Outwardly he provokes trust, but inwardly he intends to do harm.
The ravenous wolf has no compassion, no love, and no mind to serve anyone but himself. In short to call any man a wolf is a serious business indeed. To be such a person would necessitate a wilful and deliberate deception, with a definite end in mind. It could not be carried out ignorantly. It would have to be wilful and deliberate. It amounts to weaving a cover, by charm and sorcery, so as to appear to Judah, as though he were Benjamin. He would almost certainly claim a prophetic spirit as his portion, and in that ability of the flesh, being a natural prophet, he would rise early and go about his business according to the flesh. A genuine believer, on the other hand, may stumble and fall many times, and may even harm the flock, yet he will repent when it is shown him what he has done, and he will turn away from foolishness, learning how to be more faithful and humble in his dealings with his brethren.
No one should be so quick as to call one who takes the name of Christ, a wolf. Moreover, it is not possible for a believer to be a ravenous wolf. Believers can be many things, but no believer can be a ravenous wolf. The relationship of believers to one another is not an outward one, it is an inward one, and has to do with Christ Himself. We should stop quoting such Scriptures as “ye shall know them by their fruit” to describe that which is not intended by such Scriptures. The poor conduct of some men does not of itself amount to being a ravenous wolf. Being deceived with regard to doctrines that are not the doctrines of life, does not make a man a wolf.
The sheep do not dress as sheep, when they are in fact, sheep. Only a wolf can come in sheep’s clothing. The sheep do not need to dress up. They are clothed in Christ, as are all the sheep. This does not mean that a believer cannot be false or deceived, even in profound ways. It is possible for believers to be like a wolf due to pride and deception, but it is not possible for a true believer to be a ravenous wolf. Such brethren can be ‘like a wolf.’ but they cannot ‘be a wolf.’ A prophetic man can become ‘like a wolf’ if he falls away from obedience through besetting sin and rebellion. In the end, he can be a destructive and harmful influence, but he cannot become in spirit, that which is contrary to the Spirit, if he is born again.
The few times I have witnessed such a man in action I have seen destruction and loss outwardly, permitted by God, in order to secure future gain inwardly for men. Nor has such a thing happened except where there was an explanation presented before hand that made for certain knowledge and understanding in the one who heard it. May the Lord have mercy on all of us who take the name of Christ and keep us from deception and inevitable rebellion arising from it.
As a matter of reality Matthew 10:16 and Luke 10:13 identify that the natural position of the wolf is in the world and not in the church. One might say that the world is full of wolves. One might also say that a few of these worldly men come into the church. It would take quite an individual to do such a thing, as to migrate from the world into the church, with all the obvious and visible contradictions that would entail. In contrast, when the Lord sent the disciples into the world they are reminded to be as cunning as serpents and as harmless as doves. The world knows that we are Christ’s disciples when we love one another – when we are brethren. In contrast, the ravenous wolf is known by the way he devours the flock. False prophets and teachers may well be a reality, and they may well be the cause of ill effects, yet their principle effect is to prepare the way for ravenous wolves, who on the back of their false teachings are given a way to hide amongst the sheep until the hour comes for them to be scattered. The grievous wolf makes way for the ravenous wolf, and the end of it is apostasy.
“Wherefore a lion out of the forest shall slay them, a wolf of the evenings shall destroy them, a leopard shall watch against their cities; every one that goeth out thence shall be torn in pieces; because their transgressions are many, and their backsliding’ are increased. How can I pardon thee? thy children have forsaken me, and sworn by them that are no gods: when I had fed them to the full, they committed adultery and assembled themselves in troops at the harlots’ houses. They were as fed horses roaming at large; every one neighed after his neighbour’s wife. Shall I not visit for these things? saith Jehovah; and shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this? Go ye up upon her walls, and destroy; but make not a full end: take away her branches; for they are not Jehovah’s. For the house of Israel and the house of Judah have dealt very treacherously against me, saith Jehovah. They have denied Jehovah, and said, It is not he; neither shall evil come upon us; neither shall we see sword nor famine: and the prophets shall become wind, and the word is not in them: thus shall it be done unto them. Wherefore thus saith Jehovah, the God of hosts, Because ye speak this word, behold, I will make my words in thy mouth fire, and this people wood, and it shall devour them.” Jeremiah 5:6-14