Text: Matthew 7:15-23
Date: Pentecost IX + 8/29/07
Jesus said, “Beware of false prophets.” The first ever “false prophet” was the devil who appeared to Eve (with Adam standing foolishly silent right behind her!) as a harmless talking snake, of all things, and did two things. First, he caused them to doubt God’s Word. Then he tempted them with his own false promise. Calling into question God’s command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, asking, “Did God really say?” he proceeded to contradict the Divine Word saying, “You will not die,” and then the false promise, “You will be like God.” Ever since then the cosmic battle has raged between the forces of darkness and death, the true axis of evil, and the one and only Creator God Who out of love for His creation did not abandoned it but determined to redeem and save it. And just as all things were created out of nothing in the first place by the power of God’s Word alone, so His triumph over the devil, His gift of salvation and the promise of the new creation has been accomplished by His Mighty Word alone, declaring sinners righteous simply for the sake of faith in Jesus Christ.
The issue was, is and always will be, then, the Word of God, and either faith in or doubt of His Word. It should be no surprise to you that many in our day are doubters, or even as the Apostle Peter said, “scoffers” (2 Peter 3:3), who do not believe the revealed Word of God in the Bible, and, in fact, believe quite the opposite. What is always more surprising, however, are the many times we ourselves doubt God’s Word and believe the lies of the devil, the world and our own sinful flesh.
When our Lord and Savior, then, in his Sermon on the Mount, said, “Beware of false prophets,” he acknowledged the chief deception of the devil, namely, to use (actually abuse) the very Word of God itself to steal people away from God. Now, if the devil would appear before us unveiled in all his anger and murderous madness we could recognize him and flee from him. But the devil is more shrewd. We, of course, think ourselves more sophisticated than poor Eve and Adam who, to be fair, didn’t know in their innocence that snakes don’t talk. So the old evil foe comes claiming to be a prophet or a preacher. That’s what Jesus means when he says false prophets “come to you in sheep’s clothing.” The figure of sheep and shepherds is used throughout the Bible as a picture of God’s people and the prophets sent to them. The idea is so that you will think, “If he looks like a sheep, sounds like a sheep and smells like a sheep, he must be a sheep!” But if false prophets, who are inwardly ravenous wolves, are so well-disguised, how will we know one when we see one? Jesus says, “You will recognize them by their fruits.”
But now, when Jesus says “you will recognize them by their fruits,” he means not just the obviously rotten fruit or foreign fruit, the confusion, anger, anxiety, conflict and death the devil always leaves in his path, but rather the fruit that is missing! For He asks, “Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?” Of course not. Grapes are missing in thorn bushes. Figs are not to be found in thistles. And what are the “fruits” that are missing in the false prophet? What is the essential core of the teaching of the true prophet or preacher?
In Matthew’s Gospel the meaning of “fruits” begins with John the Baptist challenging the Pharisees and Sadducees to produce fruits that show repentance. Repentance begins, of course, with a person acknowledging and confessing the truth of God’s Word when it says, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” True repentance is contrition over sin, and then faith in God’s gift of the forgiveness of sins. The false prophet not only excuses sin or denies sin but actually promotes it, as the true prophet Isaiah wrote: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” [Isaiah 5:20 (ESV)]. Yet what do we see all around us but people “redefining” sin to be merely an alternate choice or lifestyle. It is a fundamental reality so clearly diagnosed by the Apostle Paul when he wrote in the first chapter of his epistle to the Romans, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” [Rom. 1:18]. But then even suppressing the truth of what is sin, covering up, dressing up or ignoring God’s condemnation of sin isn’t enough. For then the Apostle writes, “Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them” [Rom. 1:32]. In other words, the best way to redefine something that used to be considered a sin as not a sin anymore is to just bring it out into the open! How many things can you think of that used to be considered unspeakable sins that now are excused by the philosophy, “everyone else is doing it”?
Furthermore, then, the fruit of true repentance includes not only admitting and agreeing to God’s definition of sin, but then also forgiveness of sin, the love of the neighbor, reconciliation and good works. The mere restraint from evil and sin isn’t yet the fruit of repentance.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus emphasized the central concern of the Christian life, namely, the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God and neighbor. The warning against false prophets therefore is not so much against blatant false doctrine (which is bad enough, and ought to be easily recognized by Christians with their Bible and catechism in hand), but when the “one thing needful,” the central and most important part is missing that we are deceived. It’s sneaky. For, even otherwise qualified pastors can fall into the trap. How many funeral sermons have I heard, for instance, where the preacher talks on and on about the person who has died—many of his words very appropriate and well received—and yet, somehow, he “forgets” to make Jesus the main subject? Last Monday, at the memorial service for the beloved Pastor Eugene Krieger in Grand Rapids, Pastor David Fleming preached a beautiful sermon with many remembrances of Pastor Krieger, both serious and humorous, but it was all in service of proclaiming Jesus Christ as Savior and the hope of the world! On the other hand, how many “4th of July sermons” or “Mother’s Day sermons” have I heard where the preacher speaks all sorts of interesting, beautiful and even moving words, and yet leaves Jesus Christ in the background or realizes this, if at all, only at the end of the sermon? True prophets and preachers do what St. Paul said, “but we preach Christ crucified” [1 Cor. 1:23 (ESV)], and, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” [1 Cor. 2:2 (ESV)]. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” [Romans 1:16 (ESV)]. None of us are exempt from the deceitful temptations of the Liar, the devil, to distract us and steal us away from the pure Word and doctrine of Christ.
Now we could (and maybe even should) spend a few moments identifying false prophets today. Better, however, is that we take Jesus at his word and trust his word that “by their fruits (or lack of them) you will know them.” So, while recognizing, marking, identifying and avoiding false teachers and doctrine is important and necessary, even more so is the goal of being about the work of reconciliation, of becoming a fruitful member of a community dedicated to faith in Christ, distributing and receiving his gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation that shows itself in lives of love toward the neighbor. The only way this happens is by remaining and abiding constantly in the Word of God. Get out your old catechism and review how God has given you to correctly understand the Ten Commandments, the Creed, how to pray, what baptism and the Lord’s Supper are and their benefits, so that when you hear the deceptive and false claims of the devil, you will be able to recognize them, mark and avoid them. More than that, as the Apostle Peter said, “in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” [1 Peter 3:15 (ESV)].
Now, you have, by the Word of God and prayer, extended the Lord’s Call to a new pastor for Zion congregation. While it is important for every Christian to be watchful against false doctrine and prophets, it is especially your pastor’s task to watch and warn on your behalf, or as St. Paul said, to “preach the word…in season and out of season; [to] rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” [2 Tim. 4:2 (ESV)]. We look forward with joy to Pastor Larry Loree’s installation here at 4:00 p.m. on August 26th.
Grapes are gathered from grapevines and figs from fig trees lovingly planted, pruned and tended by the true owner of the vineyard or orchard. Jesus Christ in the true vine into which you have been grafted by Holy Baptism, pruned by daily repentance and faith, tended and nourished by the Word of Truth and in the Body and Blood of Jesus, the only sacrifice for sin that strengthens and preserves you in the one, true faith.
“Beware of false prophets”?
“Lord, keep us steadfast in Thy Word; Curb those who fain by craft and sword Would wrest the kingdom from Thy Son And bring to naught all He hath done” [TLH 261:1].
“Jesus Christ, my Pride and Glory, Jesus, Thou my heart’s Delight, Let me cling to Thee forever, And the devil’s hosts defy” [TLH 408:1, 2].