“Beware of false prophets”
Saint Paul Lutheran Church
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. The message of Jesus in the Gospel reading certainly goes against the grain of today's popular thinking. Our culture is one that is supposedly rediscovering the value of religion and spirituality. More and more it's becoming fashionable, even among Hollywood types, to talk about God and prayer and meditation and religious practices. But you'll notice that in all this talk, there is very little mention of truth, that which is true for everyone in all times and places, very little mention of doctrine, consistent and unchanging teaching that transcends us and shows us the way things really are. No, in our culture spirituality is more of a personal and private and practical thing. The focus is not outward to a holy God but inward to your own feelings, to what makes you fulfilled and happy. You find what works for you, I'll find what works for me, and as long as we're both sincere, it doesn't really make too much difference what you believe or what religion you practice or what sort of god you worship.
But then Jesus says, “Beware of false prophets . . .” Now if there is such a thing as a false prophet, then there is also such a thing as false teaching and false worship and false religion. Those who engage in such things may be sincere, but they are sincerely wrong and sincerely in danger. What they are practicing doesn't lead to life but to death. Jesus solemnly warns us, “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it.” To follow the crowd in spiritual things is to be like running off a cliff. The broad, easy road that the world is traveling of do-it-yourself religion, the road paved with good intentions, leads to hell.
”Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.” It is the way of evil to wrap itself up in good and appear as though it is honorable. The Bible says that the devil himself comes not as the wicked destroyer that he is but as an angel of light, appearing to be holy and good. So also his deceiving prophets come looking like they are sheep of the Good Shepherd. That way these wolves can work their way much further into the flock in order to try to rip them away from their true Shepherd and devour them. Falsehood is much more dangerous when it is wrapped up in what appears to be the truth.
As a faithful Christian can you be deceived? Can you be led astray? What about a group like the Mormons, also known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints? With their slick TV ads and their family values and their Mormon tabernacle choir, they have the appearance of goodness and truth which lures many an unsuspecting Christian astray. Their tabernacle is as beautiful as any Cathedral. I've heard their presentation and have seen firsthand how deceptive their message is and how attractive they make it look. But all of the niceness and attractiveness in the world can't undo the fact that they deny the that we are saved by grace alone apart from works through the all-sufficient merit of Christ's sacrifice on the cross. In fact, on an even more basic level, they worship a different god. For they deny the God of the Bible, allowing for the existence of many gods. The Jesus that they speak of is not the Jesus of the Scriptures–the One who is our Lord, true God from all eternity, and also true man born of the Virgin Mary. They do not have Christ, the only Savior–which is the case with the Jehovah's Witnesses and other such groups, as well. “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.”
And this threat is present not only from these other religious bodies, but even within the outward institution of the church itself. St. Paul warned the pastors of the churches in Ephesus that after his departure savage wolves would come in among them, not sparing the flock. In fact, he said, even some from among those very pastors would rise up and set forth perverse teachings, to draw away believers after themselves.
”Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing...” That is, they come to you looking like servants of the Lord. They are preachers and teachers in the church. They're nice people. They may even wear a collar and a robe and a stole and a chasuble. But they don't teach the truth; they are ravenous wolves.
They're people like the pope, who for all his good stands on moral issues, still denies the full sufficiency of Jesus' death on the cross to save us, who adds in our own good works and thus steals away the glory of Christ. They're people like Billy Graham, who adds to the work of Christ our own work of giving our heart to Him and committing our lives to Him and by our own strength following Him. The Rev. Graham has even publicly stated in a recent interview that there is salvation for some apart from Christ. They're people like Charles Stanley and Chuck Swindoll who reject the working of the Holy Spirit in the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper, stealing away the very means by which God seeks to give the benefits of Christ's death and resurrection. They're people like the Lutheran pastor who turns the church from a house of prayer into a house of spiritual entertainment and self-help and man-centered piety. Now don't misunderstand me. I make no judgments about whether or not these people are saved or are true Christians. I don't know that. But I do know what they teach. And it is dangerous, it is wrong, it is false.
”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.” So what exactly does that mean? Jesus repeats those same words again a little later, “By their fruits you will know them.” What are “their fruits?” Some have suggested that this refers to the sort of life that they lead, whether their outward works are loving and Christian. But that can't be correct; for Jesus just got done saying that they come in sheep's clothing. Part of their deception is that outwardly they look holy and good. Works by themselves can deceive. It is written, “False prophets will rise and show great signs and wonder to deceive, if possible, even the elect.”
No, false prophets are not recognized only by their works but especially by their doctrine and teaching. The way you know if a prophet is from the Lord is whether or not he speaks the words of the Lord according to the truth. We are to test the spirits. And John goes on to say that the way that you do that is by assessing what they teach. John tells us in his second epistle, that anyone who rejects that Jesus is true God in the flesh, fully human and fully divine, is not of God. Those who deny Jesus' coming in the flesh, the offering up of His body on the cross to save us, His resurrection in the body, His literal coming to us now in His body and blood in the Sacrament–those who contradict any or all of these things are false prophets. Whoever teaches contrary to the truth of Christ's Word is a wolf. “By their fruits you will know them.”
Remember that a false prophet may not even be aware that he is one. He may very well be deceived by his own deception. Jesus said, “Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness!'“ They are law-less; that is, they are without the law, the teaching of Christ, in which alone there is salvation. They have departed from the truth, sometimes without even knowing it.
But you might say, “I'm no theologian; I'm not a Bible expert. How do I distinguish a false teacher from a genuine teacher, who both appeal to the Scriptures? How can I tell whether or not someone is preaching the truth of Christ's Word?” The simplest answer that I can give to you is this: Know your Catechism by heart; pray and meditate upon it in your devotions day by day and week by week. For there in the Catechism is given to you the fundamental teachings of the Scriptures and all that you need to know and believe to be saved. There is confessed God's holy Law and Gospel by which you are brought to repentance and to faith in Christ. Too often we have seen of the Catechism as a text book, when it is really more of a prayer book, a way of dwelling upon and receiving the life-giving teaching of Christ. And as we receive and hold to that teaching, we are also defended against the false teaching which contradicts it. By meditating upon and clinging to the truth, we also learn how to recognize error and reject it.
That is the purposes of the creeds. Not only do they state what we believe, they also state what we reject. They are like fortress walls guarding and upholding the truth of God's Word. The creeds were put together during times when the faith was being attacked or threatened. For instance, at the time of the Nicene Creed, the true divinity of Jesus was being denied; and so the Christians then confessed, and we confess still today that Jesus is “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” Even though the creeds are ancient, they remain timely and practical. For example, when someone tells me that I need a second baptism in the Holy Spirit, I can respond with the words of the creed, “I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins.” And that, like the entire creed, simply reflects the words of the Scriptures, “One Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5).
So, if you're wondering whether or not someone is a false teacher, just ask yourself, “Is the teaching of this man in keeping with the faith of the church confessed in the creeds? Is it consistent with what I've learned of sin and of Christ and of faith in the Small Catechism? Does it square with the preaching of the Word of God?” If not, then beware of it, flee from it. Remember Jesus' words, “Narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
That gate is narrow because it doesn't let in any of the opinions or the qualifications of men. Rather, it admits only the merits of Christ and His righteousness. Jesus Himself is that gate, for He said, “I am the gate of the sheep.” He alone is the one through whom we gain entrance into heaven. Jesus Himself is also the way which leads to everlasting life, for He said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” That way is difficult because it is the way of the cross. It is the way of death to sin and to self. Jesus accomplished that death for you at Calvary, so that baptized into His death; you might also share in His life. Through the cross you have been entirely forgiven of all your sins. And through Christ's resurrection, you have been raised to new life in Him. It is written, “Christ Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness”–the righteousness of Christ–”By His stripes you are healed.”
Truly, then, the cross is that good tree that bears good fruit. For upon it were not our Lord's arms raised like the limbs of a tree? Did not water and blood come forth from His body as the sacramental fruits of His sacrifice? Indeed, even now you are given to partake of those fruits in the Supper of His body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus is your Prophet and the fulfillment of all true prophecy. By His fruits you will know Him. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.