Be On Your Guard Against False Prophets
How do you know the difference? When I was a child we used to visit the ranch where my mom grew up. So, if you want to know what this ranch is like, picture rugged hills, sage brush, dry sun and dust. And mom would send us outside to play. But she would say, “Watch out for rattlesnakes.” And then, we’d begin to run out of the house and then she’d say, “Watch out because they can look like the sage brush and dirt.” And we were so happy to get out of the ranch house and play that we didn’t ask the simple but important question: how do you know the difference between the snake and the dirt? We have the same sort of challenge here what Jesus says to us this morning. In Matthew 7, we read: “Be on your guard against false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravaging wolves.” (Matthew 7:15 CSB17)
Jesus lets us know that there are false prophets out there. And the problem is that, you’re supposed to take note of them and avoid them, but they blend in to their surroundings. They look like sheep, but on the inside they are hungry wolves. So how do you tell the difference? Jesus tells us: “16 You’ll recognize them by their fruit. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes or figs from thistles? 17 In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, but a bad tree produces bad fruit. 18 A good tree can’t produce bad fruit; neither can a bad tree produce good fruit. 19 Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 So you’ll recognize them by their fruit.” (Matthew 7:16–20 CSB17)
Be on your guard against false prophets. And how do we know the difference between the wolf and the sheep? Jesus says, look for fruit. So what then is the fruit Jesus is speaking about? Is it figs, dates, cantaloupe, or watermelons? No it’s his relationship to what he is here to share. A prophet’s fruit is his love for God’s word. If you ask a plumber about pipes, his face will glow with joy. If you ask an electrician about lighting fixtures, you’ll hear more than we ever wanted to know about candlepower and wiring problems. If you speak to a pastor and a prophet, what should you expect to find: a love for God’s word.
And that love for God’s word should show itself in two ways. First, does he know God’s word. A prophet’s and a pastor’s life is dedicated to knowing and growing in God’s word. That’s not just his job—that’s his joy. Years ago I heard a sermon where repeatedly in the sermon, the pastor said, “well, I’m no theologian, but…’” That’s like hearing your doctor say, “Well, I’m no physician, but your heart looks too big.’” You would go to a different doctor, wouldn’t you? The same is true of prophets and pastors. The fruit you look for is not just a deep learning, but also a deep love of learning God’s word.
Look for fruit. Does that prophet or pastor love God’s word enough to know it? But also, does that prophet or pastor love God’s word enough to share it? The false prophet is the one who avoids clear questions. Now, here is where I need to give some more background and context. A pastor’s life is a little different than your own. When you get to know people, they ask what you do for a living. But I would guess that when you tell them what you do for a living you then don’t get asked a whole bunch of questions about theology. A pastor and a prophet does. And usually you get asked twelve questions in the span of of 30 seconds. So you cannot answer all the questions. But you do have to pick the one question that person needs an answer to and tackle it. And if the person who asks the question needs correction because they are wrong about a theological topic, you don’t dodge the issue, but instead you address it. And as a pastor and a prophet, you do this for two important reasons. First, you do this to warn them. In bible, the Lord pictures it this way when he is speaking to the prophet, Ezekiel: “17 “Son of man, I have made you a watchman over the house of Israel. When you hear a word from my mouth, give them a warning from me. 18 If I say to the wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ but you do not warn him—you don’t speak out to warn him about his wicked way in order to save his life—that wicked person will die for his iniquity. Yet I will hold you responsible for his blood. 19 But if you warn a wicked person and he does not turn from his wickedness or his wicked way, he will die for his iniquity, but you will have rescued yourself.” (Ezekiel 3:17–19 CSB17)
Notice the point that God makes to us in these words. The prophet’s role is to warn people against their wicked ways. And the Lord tells Ezekiel that if he doesn’t, then the Lord will hold him responsible for their sins. Notice how that changes how we view the pastor. The pastor is not the life-coach. The prophet is your friend, but he is not your buddy. And he is not your motivational speaker. He is the watchman who has to warn you of wickedness. The same is true with doctors, isn’ it? If a doctor knows that you have cancer and then hides the fact, he will get sued, and you might die. Much worse can happen if the prophet and pastor does not love you enough to warn you.
So the faithful prophet shares God’s word by warning. But the faithful prophet also shares God’s word by saving people through it. God’s word tells us: “13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. 14 Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you. 15 Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. 16 Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Timothy 4:13–16 NIV11-GKE)
Notice what the faithful prophet does. With God’s word he warns people. But what does he also do with God’s word? He saves them. And that’s what happens here Sunday after Sunday. Week after week you come here, like me, with so many sins—so many times God’s word said, “do not!”—But you did. And there were so many times God’s word said, “do this!”—but you did the opposite. And what have all of your pastors done? Each of them has said, “as a called servant of Christ, I forgive you of your sins.” Each of them has baptized you and reminded you of your baptism, where in those waters of baptism God saved you from your son. Month after month, your pastor gave the Lord’s supper to you, where along with bread and wine, you received Jesus’ true body and blood. And why was that given to you? It was given to you for the forgiveness of sins.
God has given you one pastor after another to share God’s word with you, so that you would be saved from your sins. But if you reflect on that fact at all, you end up where these next words lead us. What about all the false teachers? What about the snakes that blend into the dust, the wolves in sheep’s clothing? Who will bring them to justice and deal with their destruction? Jesus tells us: “21 Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, drive out demons in your name, and do many miracles in your name?’ 23 Then I will announce to them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you lawbreakers!’” (Matthew 7:21–23 CSB17)
Jesus asks you to look for fruit. What will he look for from every prophet on the last day? He will look for faith. Does he know them and do they know him—that’s what Jesus will look for. These are words of comfort for us when we look out and see that the biggest obstacle in the way of people getting into heaven is false teaching and false teachers. Who will bring them to justice? Who will deal with them—especially if they look so squeaky clean on the outside? God will. And these especially are words of comfort for those who have come out of false-teaching churches into faithful churches. And they are thankful that they are in solid, faithful churches. But they can’t help but look back. Who will guard God’s church against the false prophets in the church they left? Jesus will. For he tells us to be on our guard against false prophets. So we look for fruit. But he watches over his church and protects them. And on the last day, he will look for faith. Amen.