Beware of False Prophets
The Eighth Sunday after Trinity, August 1, 2004| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| Matthew 7:15-23
The words of Jesus to which we direct our attention this morning are a portion of His Sermon on the Mount. Jesus has preached this sermon for nearly two thousand years now to Christians all around the world. He preaches it to us this morning.
This sermon begins with the Beatitudes, or “Blesseds.” Jesus promises blessing to the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Jesus blesses us by talking to us. When Jesus speaks He brings us joy. That’s what blessing is. It is being made happy by God Himself. All blessings come from God and it is Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son, through whom all blessings from God flow.
The word of God is never empty. Through the prophet Isaiah, God said, “My word that goes forth from My mouth shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:11) Only God’s word has this power. God says it and it is so because God says it. Our words are often impotent. Our promises often fail. Parents promise to do things for their children that they never do. Husbands promise faithfulness to their wives and go out and commit adultery. The son or daughter who promised to call forgot or got too busy because that’s how life is. The friend who said he’d be there didn’t show up. Our word is only as strong and faithful as we are. The Bible says, “let God be true but every man a liar.” (Romans 3:4) God’s word never fails. It always accomplishes what He pleases. God’s word always prospers in the thing for which He sent it. It is not possible that God could speak His word to you and it would not give what it promised to give.
This is why we must learn to distinguish between God’s word and man’s word. We must not set forth man’s word as if it is God’s word. We must not set forth God’s word as if it is merely a man’s word. This is what false prophets do. Jesus says, “Beware of false prophets.” False prophets are religious teachers who claim to speak for God when God neither sent them nor commanded them to speak. False prophets send themselves. They have no call from God. They promote their own ideas as if they are God’s word. They appear as harmless as sheep. They invade the flock by appearing to belong to the flock. But they are not sheep. They are hungry wolves who live by mean of killing the sheep and eating them for food.
You can recognize the false prophet by his fruit. A good tree bears good fruit and a bad tree bears bad fruit. The good tree is the tree of the cross upon which the Lord Jesus died for the flock. The sheep are fed and nourished by the fruit from this good tree, that is, the gospel and the sacraments that come from the crucified and risen Lord Jesus. On Good Friday, water and blood flowed from the pierced side of Jesus right after He had borne in His sacred body the sin of the world. This was to signify that Christ would bring forgiveness and salvation to His people by means of Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These sacraments are the good fruit from that good tree. The gospel of the forgiveness of sins is the good fruit of that good tree. As surely as Jesus died for us God forgives us all our sins for Jesus’ sake. No bad fruit can come from the tree of Christ’s crucifixion. There it is that mercy triumphs over justice, war gives way to peace, death is swallowed up by life, and innocence confronts guilt and destroys it. That tree cannot bear bad fruit. This is why we say with St. Paul, “But God forbid that I should glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Galatians 6:14)
Just as the good tree cannot bear bad fruit, so also the bad tree cannot bear good fruit. False prophets practice nothing but lawlessness. They often make a big show of their devotion to an outward appearance of sanctity. In fact, they appear to be quite holy. That’s the sheep’s clothing. You know them by their fruits. They may claim allegiance to the Bible, but they don’t proclaim the message of Christ crucified for sinners. They direct sinners elsewhere than to the vicarious suffering of Jesus. They do not preach the pure gospel of the full and free forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake. They denigrate Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, depriving God’s children of the great comfort the sacraments give. They substitute in the place of God’s saving gospel a message of human potential and human righteousness. This results in lawlessness. This false gospel cannot bear good fruit because it teaches sinners to put their confidence in their own flesh instead of in the blood and righteousness of Jesus.
The pure doctrine gives us pure and holy lives to live. The source of true holiness is the good tree of Calvary. The fruit of that tree is forgiveness, freedom, peace with God, and everlasting life. All this comes from the sacred wounds of Jesus who on the cross takes our sin away. The fruit of the bad tree is a life that is lived outside of fellowship with God that leads only to death. The false teaching of the false prophet changes with the times (although new errors are usually just old errors dressed up in new clothing). God’s word, on the other hand, cannot change because God cannot change. The truth that God reveals does not depend on human will, strength, effort, or virtue. God’s word is truth. It will remain always and everywhere the same.
When Jesus says to beware of false prophets, He’s not just talking to the preachers. He is talking to every individual Christian. He is telling us that wherever there are true preachers there will also be false preachers. The devil casts doubt on whatever God says. Wherever God establishes His church, the devil is right there setting up a chapel. This is what we should expect. This is why the church on earth is always militant. She is at war. When she stops fighting, she dies.
Jesus warns us about false prophets. The New Testament itself is proof that false teachers would arise. The church has had to confess against error from its very infancy. St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:19, “For there must also be heresies among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you.” It isn’t a question of whether or not false teaching will come upon the church. It will. When St. Paul gave Timothy the command to preach, he also gave him clear warning of what was to come, as we read in 2 Timothy 4:2-4:
Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.
St. Peter warned of the same thing, when he directed Christians to the Bible as a defense against false teachers:
Knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed. (2 Peter 1:20—2:2)
St. Paul encouraged the pastors in Ephesus, as recorded in Acts 20:
Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears. (Acts 20:28-31)
The peace of the church and every individual Christian is a spiritual peace that comes from the Holy Spirit. It is not an outward peace in which we slide on through life without facing conflict. We shouldn’t be looking to fight for the sake of fighting. But we must be ready to do spiritual battle and that requires us to contend for God’s truth. We must be aware of the fact that the pure doctrine will always be opposed. Having the truth is not to be taken for granted. Every individual Christian is responsible for what his pastor preaches to him. That means you must judge the teaching of your pastor. A high respect for the pastoral office is a good thing, but it is no disrespect for the pastoral office for a Christian to require of his pastor proof from God’s word for what he is teaching and preaching. This is one reason we catechize our children and continue to remain students of the Catechism throughout our lives. Just as we are responsible for what goes into our bodies, we are responsible for what goes into our souls.
When churches begin to ordain openly unrepentant homosexuals as pastors we are shocked and ask how it could have come to this. But it didn’t happen over night. It took years and years of neglect as the laity refused to hold their pastors to the standards of the Bible and the Confessions. As St. Paul reminds us, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump.” (Galatians 5:9) When the voices of the false prophets are given equal standing with the voice of God, the voice of God is silenced and that is the greatest tragedy that could befall the church on earth.
A couple of weeks ago, my wife left to go to the Lake and took our five youngest with her. I have her voice on the telephone answering machine in my office, and I will play it just because I miss her and I love to hear her voice. But she’s still hundreds of miles away and it’s just a recording. God’s word isn’t like that. Whenever we hear God’s word, God Himself is present and God Himself is speaking and God Himself is giving us what His words say. God’s word is never inert or lifeless. His law always shows us our sins and convicts us. It makes us aware of our need for forgiveness. It attacks our pride and destroys the false faith of our flesh. His gospel always gives to us the forgiveness of our sins, the good fruit that Jesus gained for us on the good tree upon which He bore our condemnation and took away all our sin and death. His gospel never fails to give us comfort when our consciences are afraid and we suffer doubts about God’s faithfulness to us. The pure gospel is the most precious treasure we have in this world. This is why we take to heart Jesus’ warning, “Beware of false prophets.” This is why we stubbornly mark and avoid all false teachers. Christ’s words have brought us into fellowship with the holy God and promised us pardon for the present and joy for all eternity. We need what Christ’s pure gospel alone can provide and we will never settle for anything less.