The Importance of Being Wary
St. Matthew 7:15-23
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Matthew 7:15-16a [Jesus said] “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits.
Dear fellow redeemed in Christ our Lord… In 1936 the Olympic games were held in Berlin, Germany. Perhaps some of you may have heard about it. This was the crowning opportunity for Germany to show off its might and power and civilization before the world. And they did. Berlin glowed with technology and power, the power of a nation prepared to go to war. The world looked on in wonder at everything that Germany had accomplished in a few short years. It made many stop and think.
But there were rumors – rumors of Jews being sent to concentration camps; rumors of Christian pastors and people being persecuted for the faith. It was all there, but it could not be seen by the naked eye. The world peeked in on the Germany of the Olympic games, but it would be years later when the world would see the truth of what was really going on. Appearances can be deceiving.
You walk into a church building. There is a nice cross on the wall. The hymnal in the pew rack is kind of like ours, and at first glance it seems a lot like your church. But as you listen to the sermon you hear the pastor say that it doesn’t really matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere, or that God is going to make sure everyone goes to heaven no matter what they believe, or that doctrine isn’t all that important, or, in our case two weeks ago on vacation you hear the pastor say that it is up to you to work harder at your relationship with Christ, and the harder we work on that relationship the closer you will be to Christ (yes, this was an LCMS church and, yes, that was his version of preaching the Gospel). In many cases it looks like the church you grew up in perhaps, but looks can be deceiving.
This is precisely the kind of thing our Lord Jesus is warning His disciples and us about in today’s Gospel. He is warning about what He calls a false prophet. Now, before we can understand what a false prophet is, we must first understand what a prophet does. A prophet is someone who has been sent by God to preach His Word, someone who is to speak not his own words but God’s Word to God’s people. The office of prophet was really an Old Testament office. Some of the more famous prophets were Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, and Malachi, to name a few.
The last of the Old Testament prophets was John the Baptist. He was the one who pointed at Jesus and said in John 1:29, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The word “prophet” can also be used in a general sense of any preacher of the Gospel. So we see in today’s Old Testament reading and in our Gospel reading the warning against false prophets, false preachers who do not proclaim God’s Word rightly.
Now, if there are true prophets, then there must, of necessity, be false prophets. There are some – many, in fact – who preach the truth of the Gospel. And there are some – many, in fact – who seek to trap the unsuspecting Christian with false words. What is most disturbing about our Lord’s words in today’s text is that these prophets will come to us, and they will appear like sheep. The prophets of Israel liked to wear a garment that was rough and hairy like Elijah and John the Baptist. In a sense, this type of garment served to identify them as ambassadors of God. And the false prophets also try to look like an ambassador of God. These false prophets will look, act, and to a certain extent even sound like the real thing. They will appear to be from God.
Think of the many different kinds of “Christian” preachers and writers and speakers that we are exposed to in the world today. Whether it is on television, in a best-selling novel or book series, or even visiting a family member or friend’s church in another town, we are all exposed to a staggering number of different gospels and many different versions of the truth. How is the Christian to make sense of it all?
Well, one answer would be to say that it doesn’t matter. “As long as they are Christian, that’s what is important. All of this other doctrinal stuff is just what theologians argue about. As long as you are sincere, you can go to whatever church you want, and you can believe whatever it is that you want to believe; you make you own choices.” This view is quite tempting because it fits so nicely with the spirit of our age, the prevailing attitude that says, “Don’t offend anyone, everyone has his own version of the truth, we’re all going to heaven anyway, so don’t rock the boat.”
But the problem with this view is that it simply has no support in the Bible. Jesus says, “Beware.” He does not say, “Be tolerant;” He does not say, “Oh, don’t worry about it;” He does not say, “Lighten up.” He says, “Beware.” Words mean things, my friends. We sometimes have a view of Christianity that is basically this: as long as someone says he or she is a Christian, then that person must be a Christian. But this attitude does not fit with Jesus’ words. He warns us – He warns us – against letting down our guard. And if it is important to Jesus, it darn well better be important to us. He warns us against the false prophets who have and will continue to come to us in sheep’s clothing.
What does that mean? It means that the false prophets will not necessarily be those outside the church. Rather, and much more dangerously, the false prophets to which Jesus refers are those who rise up within the church, within the circle of the Lord’s own disciples.
Jesus wanted to remind His disciples that among the many prophets of Israel there were many false prophets. In fact, we have this damaging testimony in today’s Old Testament reading as to who the false prophets are. The Lord speaking through Jeremiah says, “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you. They make you worthless; they speak a vision of their own heart, not from the mouth of the Lord… I have not sent these prophets… I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied… Indeed, they are prophets of the deceit of their own heart, who try to make My people forget My name by their dreams which everyone tells his neighbor, as their fathers forgot My name for Baal… He who has My Word, let him speak My Word faithfully.”
The false prophet, then, is the one who speaks from his own heart instead of from the Word of God. The false prophet is one who speaks without God’s permission or proper sending or proper call. The false prophet is one who seeks admiration and praise from men and says that it is God’s work. The false prophet is one who, seeking not to offend, instead shies away from preaching the Law of God that condemns and kills and offends, so that when and if the Gospel is preached the people perceive no need for it. The false prophet is one who speaks in such a way as to use words to draw attention to the human emotion, human works, the human spirit, and by so doing so draws attention and focus away from Christ and His words and works. The false prophet, by his false prophecies, calls God a liar.
Even the Small Catechism gives us a nice definition of a false prophet as it discusses how God’s name is to be hallowed and kept holy among us. From the meaning of the First Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, we know and confess that “God’s name is kept holy when the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity, and we, as the children of God also lead holy lives according to it. Help us to do this, dear Father in heaven! But anyone who teaches or lives contrary to God’s Word profanes the name of God among us. Protect us from this, heavenly Father.” A false prophet is one who profanes God’s name, one who treats it as profanity by teaching and living contrary to it.
Jesus says, “You will know them by their fruits.” What He is talking about here is not so much how a person lives, but about what a person teaches and says; He is talking about doctrine. We must ask the question, “What do false prophets actually teach?” Remember, the Christian faith is about Christ. So when we are called upon to determine whether something is true or false, we go to the Word of God and the words of our Lord Jesus Christ.
So when we talk about truth and falsehood when it comes to the church, we go to the heart of the matter. Is salvation by Christ alone or does man have a decision to make or some work to do? Is Holy Baptism the work of Christ who, by water and His Word gives salvation and the Holy Spirit, or is it something we do to demonstrate our faith? Are the body and blood of Jesus truly and really given and received in Holy Communion and do they deliver forgiveness, life, and salvation, or is it a mere remembrance of Christ’s work and something that doesn’t matter and so we can use grape juice and Ritz crackers instead of what Christ commanded?
Does Christ actually speak and deliver forgiveness through the mouth of His pastors when Holy Absolution is pronounced, or is the Office of the Holy Ministry something less? Does the hymn or song sung in church seek only to make me feel good and does it point to my works, or does it teach the one true faith and point clearly to Christ? Is the worship service designed to make a clear confession of Christ and His work for us, or does it seek to gratify our emotions and feelings and what we think we want in church?
These questions and ones like them get to the very heart of the matter. No matter how amazing the speaker, no matter how broad his smile, no matter how enthralling the book or movie, no matter how emotionally moving or exciting or showy the service, if it does not hold up Christ alone for salvation, then it is not from God, and it must be avoided at all costs.
But there is One who is from God, for Jesus Himself is the true Prophet. He is the Lamb who was slain for your sins. He is the One who allowed Himself to be slaughtered by the wolves so that you would not be harmed. He is the One who has promised that the gates of hell itself will not prevail against His Church. He has made you sheep of His pasture, for Jesus is your Good Shepherd, the One who guards and protects you from all harm both in body and soul.
Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.” The will of our Father in heaven is that you believe in the One whom He has sent. In other words, the work and will of God is that you trust in Jesus Christ alone for your forgiveness and salvation, for that alone is how you are saved. And you must not let anything or anyone get in the way of that. It is not what you do; it is not even the miracles or how much you may prophecy in His name or cast out demons. These things do not save you. Only Christ does. And He has!
So, the only thing that gets you into heaven to be with Jesus is to do the will of God, and that will of God is to believe and trust by God-given faith in Christ. It is a faith which is both created and sustained by God. It is created by the Word of God as it is given right here, the preaching of Christ crucified, risen, and coming again for you. It is created by Holy Baptism. It is sustained by continually hearing the preaching of the Gospel, receiving the true body and blood of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar, and receiving Holy Absolution, for all these things are deliveries of the Gospel.
So rejoice in the fact that your salvation is in God’s hands and not your own. Rejoice that He loves you in such a way that He willingly gave His own Son into suffering and death on the cross in order to save you from certain and eternal damnation. Rejoice that God in Christ lavishes upon you all the means of His grace in order that your faith may stand the test of time. Rejoice that through faith in Christ you will not hear “depart from Me,” but rather, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant; receive the kingdom prepared for you.”
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.