Beware of False Prophets
The Eighth Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| July 29, 2012| St. Matthew 7:15
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.” St. Matthew 7:15
There can be no such thing as a false prophet unless there is such a thing as falsehood. And there can be no such thing as falsehood unless there is such a thing as truth. Christ’s warning, “Beware of false prophets,” is incomprehensible to those who do not know the truth. You cannot lose what you don’t have. If you don’t know the truth, why should you beware of someone who is trying to take the truth away from you? Clearly, Jesus is talking here to his Church.
He’s not talking to the world. The world is blind. They know nothing of God, truth, life, or what makes for peace. The world knows only its own will. God must conform to their thoughts. So they deny the true God and make idols in their own image. There is no such category of people as “false prophets” since the idea of truth and falsehood is ever changing. What’s true today may not be true tomorrow. What today is false may be true tomorrow. The world flits from truth to truth, enamored with notions of spirituality that change with the regularity of clothing styles. As St. Paul described them, “Always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (2 Timothy 3:7)
No, Jesus is not talking to the world when he says, “Beware of false prophets.” He’s talking to the Church. And he’s not talking just to the leaders of the Church, those we like to call clergy, though the Bible never calls them that. He is talking to all the faithful, that is, to all who have faith. He’s talking to every single Christian when he says, “Beware of false prophets.”
These words of our Lord must be read within their context. They are part of a sermon that he preached to a large crowd of people. He wasn’t giving instructions only to a select few, an elite, a group of men on whom the Church would rely for instruction. He was talking to the whole Church. He was talking to every man, woman, and child who is baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
It is true that God has established an office in the Church for the teaching of his holy word. God instituted the office of preaching the gospel and administering the sacraments. God placed within the Church an office – we usually call it the pastoral office – whose incumbents are to preach the gospel, administer the sacraments, teach the whole counsel of God, and watch over the flock committed to their care.
But a minister can only serve what God has entrusted to him to serve. He cannot believe for you. He cannot think for you. He cannot get inside of your head and turn your thoughts from lies to the truth. The person who is most responsible for your spiritual care – that you receive the truth and are protected from lies that would destroy your faith – is you. It is to you, the individual Christian whoever you may be that Jesus says, “Beware of false prophets.”
Why? They can do you harm. How is that? All prophets do is talk. They say things. We all know the saying, “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.” Yeah. We know the saying. And it’s not true. Words can hurt you. In fact, they can kill you.
If God’s words are the means by which he creates, the falsification of his words are the means by which the devil destroys. This is the history of the world. God’s word of truth brings new life. The devil’s lies bring death. God’s word is the vehicle of the Holy Spirit whom we confess as the Lord and giver of life. Concerning the life we live by the power of the Holy Spirit, St. Paul writes in today’s Epistle Lesson:
For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God. (Romans 8:14-16)
How does the Spirit lead us? How does he bear witness with our spirit? He speaks Jesus’ words to us. Jesus said, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.” (John 6:63)
Christians are sheep of the Good Shepherd. He speaks to them words that bestow life. False prophets are wolves. They speak words that bring death. The truth matters because life matters. Christians are to beware of false prophets for the sake of their own immortal souls.
False prophets don’t advertise themselves as false prophets. They don’t appear as wolves. They appear as sheep. They wear the clothing of sheep. This means that false preachers and teachers whose false teaching will destroy the faith of the faithful do not present themselves as outsiders trying to break their way in. They portray themselves as insiders who are defending the truth against error. Jesus says that false prophets come to you, not as the wolves that they are, but as if they were sheep, just like you.
That’s the secret of their success. Why would a sheep need protection from another sheep? Why would a sheep need to drive away another sheep? So if the wolf convinces most of the sheep that he is one of them then when the discerning sheep warns the other sheep about the wolf in sheep’s clothing it will be he and not the wolf that will be received with suspicion. And so it is in the Church today.
This is why we must turn back to our Lord’s warning again and again. Nothing is more precious than the truth. Respectability, popularity, power, financial success, personal health and wellbeing – none of these things is as precious as the truth because it is the truth that rescues us from our sins. It is the truth that makes us free. It is the truth that leads us to heaven. It is the truth that reveals to us God’s love for us. The truth guides us through life and makes death the gateway to everlasting life. The truth is not the playground of philosophers and professional theologians. It is the daily bread of every single Christian.
Since the pure and wholesome teaching of God’s word belongs to every Christian as his birthright, it is the solemn duty of all Christians to judge the doctrine they hear. Listen to the words of Martin Luther on this subject. He wrote:
To recognize and judge doctrine behooves each and every Christian, so much that he is accursed who infringes upon this right by as little as a hairsbreadth. For Christ Himself has established this right by various and unassailable statements such as Matt. 7:15: “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing.” He is certainly speaking this word to the people in opposition to those who teach, and He commands them to avoid false teachings. But how can they avoid them if they do not recognize them? And how can they recognize them if they do not have the right to judge them? But now He gives them not only the right but also the command to judge, so that this one passage may be considered enough to oppose all the statements of all the popes, all the fathers, all councils, and all schools which have limited the right to judge and to discern to the bishops and ministers and have impiously and sacrilegiously stolen it from the people, that is, the church, the queen. For there stands Christ and says, “Beware of false prophets.” In this all the syllables of the prophets agree. For what else do the prophets do except admonish the people not to believe false prophets? But what is this admonition except declaring and confirming that the people have the right to judge and recognize doctrine? (From Plass, “What Luther Says,” Volume I, page 418)
False prophets attack the faith of the faithful. They falsely portray God. Sometimes they come right out and deny the Holy Trinity. They deny that Jesus is true God. They deny that the Holy Spirit is a distinct person. Christians worship One God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity as the Bible teaches. God is one divine essence and three distinct persons.
False prophets distort God’s law. They deny what he says is right and wrong is right and wrong. They oppose the unchanging standards of right and wrong set down in the Holy Scriptures and insist that we must adapt our standards of morality to fit into the findings of modern so called science. Thus, what used to be sin is now simply an orientation that is not inherently wrong.
False prophets distort God’s gospel. Instead of teaching that we are forgiven of our sins and justified by God freely for Christ’s sake who by his obedience and death has made satisfaction for our sins and that we receive this forgiveness through faith alone, they teach that if you want God to forgive you and be gracious to you and to help you and rescue you from your troubles you must first follow their instructions and do the works they impose on you to do. Thus, they bury Christ and leave Christians suffering under the accusation of the law, bound by their sin. They turn God into a deal maker, rather than a gracious and loving Father.
False prophets teach falsely about the sacraments of Christ. Instead of teaching that they convey and seal to us forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation, they say that they are only signs that symbolize what they don’t actually give. This leads Christians away from the source and strength of their faith.
False prophets teach falsely about our native spiritual abilities, saying that sin makes us weak, but not helpless. They lead sinners to rely on their own free will instead of on God’s grace in Christ.
They appear as angels of light. But Jesus teaches us not to go by appearances. He teaches us to hold to his clear words and to trust in what he says. No power can overthrow the faith of a Christian who stubbornly holds to the words of Christ.
So we cling to his word. We confess the true God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and we lay claim to everything he gives us. We live a life at peace with God, for he has established peace with us by his word of truth. We live a life at war against all false teaching. We judge the doctrine we hear by the standard of the clear Scriptures that is faithfully taught in the Catechism. By God’s grace we lay hold of the eternal life to which we were called when we were baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen