Text: Matthew 7:15-23
In today’s Epistle, we heard part of St. Paul’s farewell address to the pastors of the Church in Ephesus. Shortly after, he would be leaving them to go to Jerusalem and they would never again see him face-to-face. In his final words to them, Paul said,
I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with His own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert…Acts 20:27-31, English Standard Version
St. Paul patterned his final words to the Ephesians in part after our Lord’s words in the Gospel today.
Our Lord teaches us in Matthew 7, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (7:15) He has in mind those who would come after Him, who would speak in crafty ways to draw the sheep away into the mouths of wolves. Our Lord warns that false teachers and preachers would come, even seeming to preach the Word, who all the while deny that Jesus is God or that we are saved by His grace without our works. Our Lord also teaches how we will recognize such false prophets, “by their fruits,” (v. 16), which is to say, their doctrine. In the Gospel, our Lord teaches us to judge all teachings by His Word so that we are not led astray by teachers who, otherwise, appear right.
This is a difficult topic to discuss. I can sympathize with that, but I do not apologize. These words are Jesus’, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits.” (vv. 15-16) Our Lord models for us here two responsibilities of faithful pastors. They must preach and teach the true and saving Word of Christ – that, by faith in Him, we are forgiven all our sins and welcomed into eternal life. They must also speak and warn against all that is contrary to the one true faith. These are both responsibilities of faithful pastors, that they teach the true Christian doctrine and warn Christ’s flock against false doctrines. This is exactly what our Lord is doing today. Our text comes at the very end of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus just taught the crowd all that they should believe and do. Now, at the conclusion, He warns them against those who would teach contrary to what they just heard.
Our Lord has to do this because, even from the Garden of Eden, where God sends a faithful preacher, the devil sends two false ones. God provided Eve with a faithful preacher in her husband Adam, but then came the devil to twist God’s Word. Adam became a false preacher for a time when he did not warn Eve against eating the fruit. In the days of Noah, he and his family alone were believers while the whole world lived in unrepentant sin. In his days, Elijah stood alone on Mt. Carmel opposite 450 prophets of Baal. After Elijah came another true prophet named Micaiah. He was imprisoned by King Ahab after he prophesied that the king should not go into battle. Ahab instead listened to his 400 false prophets and, soon after, died in battle. False prophets continued in the time of the Apostles, as we read in St. Paul, St. Peter, St. John, St. Jude, St. James, and in the letter to the Hebrews. Where our Lord causes a spring of living water to well up into eternal life, there the devil tries to poison. Satan cannot stand that the Word should be preached purely and the Sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, so he daily rages and tears through calamities, hardships, and, especially, false teaching.
How shall we recognize false teachers and how shall we guard against them? As Jesus said, “You will recognize them by their fruits.” The fruit of a pastor or teacher is his teaching, his doctrine. We should follow the pattern of the Bereans when St. Paul came to them preaching about Christ. The Holy Spirit tells us in Acts 17 that when Paul came to Berea preaching Jesus, “they received the Word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” (Acts 17:11) They tested what St. Paul preached against the Scriptures and found it to be true. A false prophet is anyone who teaches or preaches contrary to the Gospel of Christ and the witness of the Holy Spirit through the Scriptures.
We don’t need to look for false prophets; the world is filled with them. They come to us in our lives to contradict the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Perhaps the mark of a true false teacher is that they will use God’s Word in ways that sound right, but are contrary to how Scripture speaks. For example, we know how the Devil tempted Jesus to throw Himself off the temple. Satan quoted Scripture, but then left part of it out and twisted the rest. The devil continues to use the same tactic. In the Reformation the main false teaching was that we can earn merit before God by our good works. They said that “grace,” is not God’s favor toward us in Christ, but a power that God gives us to make our good works enough to gain heaven. They would use Scripture to try and prove this, but it doesn’t hold up. Our false teachers today also use Scripture, or arguments that sound like Scripture, in false ways to lead us astray. For example, some use St. Peter – when he says that to the Lord a day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as a day – to teach that the universe was not created in six days. Our Lord clearly teaches in the Gospel that the Creation account in Genesis is literal and factual. This is only one example; there are others.
What do we do? It seems that with every passing year the Lord’s precious flock grows fewer and that our own church body is suffering. All the while, Satan is at work seeking to devour us with lies and good-sounding arguments that appeal to our sinful nature. Jesus says to be on guard against false teachers and that happens, first, through knowing the Word. Our God, out of His infinite goodness and mercy, has given us the true, perfect testimony of His loving will. Through His Word, He sets our hearts at ease by pointing us to His eternal Son, Jesus, who made full payment for all our sins. In the Word, He teaches us what is good and right and true, what is beneficial for us, for our neighbor, and for the world. The first step in guarding against false teaching is knowing the true teaching, and measuring everything by it. Should we encounter a new teaching, we test it by the Scriptures. St. Paul encouraged the Ephesians to study the Scriptures so that they would not be tossed about like a ship on the waves by every wind of doctrine. (Eph. 4:14) If you feel ill-equipped to judge whether something is right or not, come to Bible study or ask your pastor. In the meantime, remember what you’ve learned from the Catechism – which is all the basic teachings of Scripture in compact form.
We also guard against the devil and his false teachers when we give them no quarter in our lives. We should always pray to our Lord Jesus, that, as He promised, He would continue to send us the Holy Spirit. We should pray that He would produce ever-increasing fruits of love in our daily lives. The devil hates when we, in thankfulness to God and mindful of His Word, are faithful and loving spouses, children, parents, grandparents, and workers. We also should pray to the Holy Spirit that He would create a hunger in our hearts for the Word and Sacraments. It is through the Word we recognize our sin and realize how shaky the ground is upon which we stand. But it is also through the Word and Sacrament that our sins are forgiven, our joy renewed, our faith increased, and our love for each other caused to abound.
In heaven there will be no false teachers. There will be no diversity of doctrines. We, and all Christians, will be united in the faith in greater number and to a fuller extent than we can even imagine. When we commune together, we confess that we are united now in the faith and we anticipate our joyful unity in the world to come. But, until such time as our Lord returns, the devil will continue to prowl. He and his teachers will seek to lead us astray, and may even use Scripture in their attempts. We heed our Lord’s warning and hold fast to His Word. We know that, as St. John said, “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” “Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” (1 Jn. 4:4) Amen.