GRAPES OR THORNS?
Matthew 7:15-23 (7/17/16)
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
St. Matthew 7:15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”
Dear fellow redeemed in Christ our Lord… Jesus warns us today to beware of false prophets. Now, it should probably be obvious to all Christians that we should avoid those who preach false things about God or about the Faith. And yet Jesus warns repeatedly in the Scriptures that we are to watch out for them, to mark them, and to avoid them. The reason for this is that it is not always easy to recognize a false prophet.
Jesus says that they “come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.” In other words they look like and claim to be true Christian preachers. They make use of the Scriptures in their preaching. They often speak about the God of love and mercy. They claim to speak in Jesus’ name and by His authority. And they often speak about His example as the model for Christian life.
And they look like sheep outwardly. Often times they are seemingly pious individuals. They might be scholarly. They might preach their message in a very convincing way. People often come away from one of their sermons feeling very inspired, for false preachers can often move people emotionally, deceiving them into thinking that they have received the true Word of God when what they have really gotten is a subtle, or not so subtle, perversion of the truth.
They appear to be doing what a sheep would do. But really, they are not. It’s only a disguise. They are not sheep; they are wolves. Claiming to serve the sheep, they actually end up devouring them.
So the question we must answer today is how one tells the true sheep from the wolf that is disguised as a sheep. You can’t see inside to see whether the preacher is actually a sheep or a wolf. You can’t get into his heart and examine him at that most intimate and vital level. You can only tell by looking at the outside.
And that is the problem. Outwardly wolves claim to be sheep and they have a similar appearance. Jesus says: “You will know them by their fruits.” So, it is what they actually do that marks the difference between them. A wolf will always do the things a wolf does. And a sheep will always do the things a real sheep would do.
So what fruits do we look for from those who preach and teach in Christ’s name? Many look at this passage and immediately think of the sort of good works that are to mark the lives of all true Christians. Does the person exhibit the marks of having the Holy Spirit in him? Does he seem kind and gentle? Does he treat people with dignity and respect? Does he seem generous and hospitable? In other words is he a nice guy?
While such things could be used to describe Christians – and sometimes are – these are not what to look for when determining whether or not a person is a false prophet. Many false prophets seemed to be nice, kind-hearted, gentle people. For that matter, many Buddhists and Muslims are nice people.
So these outward signs are not all that useful in identifying a Christian, let alone a Christian preacher. The fruit to look for from a true prophet and preacher is the thing that the preacher does as a preacher. The fruit to be examined is the preaching itself.
Many will look only at the outward effects of the man’s work. They will look at whether or not the congregation is growing in numbers. They will gauge whether or not his sermons and teaching feel inspiriting to them. They will ask whether his message is seemingly pious. They will examine whether or not they like the fellow and how successful he is as a pastor, or as a scholar, or as a leader. But all of that is just the clothing. And such things may just be part of the wolf’s disguise. Heretics – false teachers – have often been very successful and have large and devoted followings.
Look at the Mormons, for instance. They preach a blatantly false message, a false Christianity; it is really a different religion altogether. And yet they are growing rapidly. They are outwardly successful. They are outwardly pious and upright. But does this mean that what they proclaim is right and true? Of course not! They are wolves in sheep’s clothing, and have led many, many people right into Hell.
The fact of the matter is that most false prophets will have the appearance of preaching a Christian message of some sort. And most of the heresies, most of the false teachings they proclaim are not as obvious as that of the Mormons. Most heresies, after all, have elements of truth in them, but they are not wholly true. And that is precisely what makes them so very dangerous. The question, then, is not whether or not the message sounds Christian, but is it actually Christian.
Just because someone looks like a sheep doesn’t mean that there isn’t a wolf inside. All Christian preaching and teaching must be faithful to the actual Word of God. It must not simply make use of the Scriptures, but it must use the Scriptures rightly and faithfully and carefully. In other words, the theology that is proclaimed, the message that is given, must be the same message and the same theology that is proclaimed in the Scriptures by Christ, by the Holy Prophets and by the Holy Apostles.
The Scriptures, after all, are not ours to do with as we wish, but are God’s and must be used according to what He says and gives. Ours faith is an Apostolic and catholic faith; it is not detached from the Faith of those saints who have gone before us, but it is one with theirs, rooted in the Apostolic writings and preaching. And so the preaching of our prophets (that is, of all preachers and pastors who claim to speak for God) must be in complete unity and conformity with and to the Prophetic and Apostolic Scriptures. The fruit that is to be judged is what is preached. And this is the fruit that we are to look to find.
Why is this fruit so important? Why must we have preaching that is always and completely faithful? Will a little heresy really hurt all that much? As to that question, the answer is the same as it would be to the question of whether a little bit of poison in a cupcake would hurt all that much. False teaching, like poison, will eventually kill you. And that is precisely why I will never stop being vigilant and speaking out and pointing out any and every false teaching that may come into the hearts, minds, and ears of those entrusted to my spiritual care. I don’t care if something I may say about a particular false teacher or false teaching may offend; that is not my concern. My concern is doing what I can, every time I can, to keep even the littlest bits of poisonous teaching out of your ears. It is simply in the spirit of the Lutheran Confessions where the phrase “we reject and condemn” appears frequently regarding false and dangerous teachings.
In today’s reading Jesus uses the example of thorns verses grapes. He says: “Do men gather grapes from thorn bushes or figs from thistles?” The meaning of the imagery is pretty obvious. Trying to gather grapes from thorn bushes or figs from thistles does no good. On the contrary, it injures the one doing the gathering. Gathering these fruits from their proper plants, however, provides one with fruit that is nourishing and enjoyable. Thorns and thistles bring pain. But figs and grapes bring the pleasures of food and wine. One satisfies; the other clearly does not. And almost no one would be stupid enough to try to get grapes from a thorn bush or figs from a thistle plant.
We all need to be nourished spiritually. Such nourishment can only come by the power of the Holy Spirit through the right preaching and teaching of the Word of God and the correct administration of the Sacraments. Without it, faith withers and dies. And yet people will try to get spiritual nourishment and blessing from the message of heretics and false teachers. Such preaching and teaching can never help a person spiritually, but will always do harm, even eternal, hellish harm.
Jesus compares the false prophet to a thorn bush because the false prophet always injures the one who listens to him. False preaching does real spiritual damage; it weakens and ultimately destroys faith, all the while claiming to be good spiritual food. And many who feed on this garbage actually feel well-fed.
But the feeling of being fed spiritually is a far cry from actually being fed spiritually. Many people think they are getting great spiritual nourishment from their church or pastor or spiritual leader, when in fact they are being starved to death. They think they are being fed because they get pumped up emotionally, get inspiration in some way from the message or even just from the personality of their preacher, or from the music they hear, or from the crowd that excites them. But these things have no nourishment in and of themselves them if they are not filled with the Word of God and with Christ in His purity and truth.
So how can you tell the difference? Many will throw up their hands and say who knows? Who can really tell? But you can. It takes work, but you can. The only way to be able to tell the difference between a true preacher and false prophet is to study the Scriptures and to know them; and for us confession Lutherans, knowing and studying the Lutheran Confessions as well. This is the task of every Christian, for every Christian is warned to stay away from false teachers, to mark and avoid them. In this sense, every Christian must be able to judge the doctrine of their pastors. Listen to the ones who are faithful. Reject the ones who are not, even if they’re nice guys.
Our Lord warns that: “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.” And this applies not only to the preacher, but to every person. You must not only be a Christian in name; you must have the real Christ and trust His Word. False prophets will always claim the authority of Jesus and will claim that they are preaching Jesus to you as He really is. But if they are not in line with what Jesus has said and what is recorded about Him in the Scriptures, then they are not giving you the real Jesus; they are giving you damnation.
And many who honestly think themselves Christian will be surprised when they discover that they never really knew the real Christ, and when the real Christ says to them: “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.”
But this need never be said about you. And our Lord’s holy and loving desire is that He never be forced to say it to you, but rather that you are filled with His grace and life and enter into His heavenly mansion forever.
Jesus, your good and faithful Shepherd, has given His life for you by suffering and dying on the cross. There He took all your sins to Himself, suffered the death penalty for them and in your place, and rose from the dead to give you life in Him.
And so Christ gives you His Word, and He gives you faithful preaching of that Word. For where the Word is faithfully and rightly preached and the Sacraments are rightly administered, there heaven is found. There the Spirit gives to Christ’s people forgiveness and life and salvation. There He leads them into faithfulness and blessing. There He bears witness by what is preached and by what you have received through Baptism, Word and Supper, that you are children of God and co-heirs with Christ. And believing His Word and trusting His grace you have all that He promises.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.