Beware False Prophets
Deuteronomy 11:18 – 32, Psalm 31:1-5,19-24, Romans 3:21-25a,28, Matthew 7:21-27
I do not know many words spoken by Jesus which are more OBVIOUSLY compelling for Christians today that those read in the gospel appointed for today. These words appear at the very end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and they are a warning against false prophets.
Let me say at the very beginning how we should apply these words today, so we keep this subject in focus as we look at Jesus’ warning. In a day when God used men to be his mouthpiece – for example, in the days of the Prophets of the Old Testament – the Prophet would have some of the greatest authority among God’s people. But, in a day when God is not using men as his mouth piece – for example, in our day – then Jesus’ words apply to those who speak in God’s name – not in the sense of giving new revelation, but rather in the sense of teaching, interpreting, and applying God’s word in their capacity as leaders of God’s people. In blunt terms today, Jesus’ words have in view the preachers and teachers in the church – whether they have the name pastor, or elder, teacher, or theologian, or priest, or bishop. Some of these folks are going to be “false,” and Jesus at the end of the Sermon on the Mount gives a warning about these kinds of leaders.
First of all, you will know these people by the fruits of their ministries. Jesus said, “15"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. 16You will know them by their fruits.” It was very much the same words which Paul used many years later when speaking to the elders at Ephesus. In his farewell to them, Paul gave this warning,
“29For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. 30Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves.” [Acts 20]
Peter also gave a similar warning to his readers: “1 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.” [2 Peter 2]
What is important here is the fruit. Is the fruit good? Or is it evil. Please note that it is not the appearance of the fruit that’s important. Grapes are for eating, not for looking at. You don’t pick figs in order to gaze at them. And it doesn’t take a degree in horticulture to know whether the figs taste good, or if the grapes are good for eating, or making wine, or for turning them into raisens. The proof is in the tasting, not the looking. If you’ve got good grapes, it’s because they came from a good vine. If you’re eating tasty and nourishing apples, it’s because they came from a good apple tree.
So it is with those who lead God’s people. What does their ministry produce? Something wholesome? Something nourishing? Or something prickly, or bitter, or sour?
The second part of Jesus’ warning is to avoid making judgments on what the false prophets are saying. “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my father.”
If you want examples in abundance of what Jesus is talking about here, the wonderful world of religious television will show it to you. Men AND women speaking boastful things in the name of the Lord. Prophesying in the name of the Lord. Casting out demons in the name of the Lord, and claiming or doing many wonders in the name of the Lord. Jesus will say to these people, one day, “I never knew you. Depart from me you who work lawlessness.”
That last phrase is the clue to how we can recognize these kinds of people today – it is not their claim to do things in the name of the Lord. It is not even the wonders themselves. Paul warned the Corinthians about those who work wonders in 2 Corinthians 11: “13For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. 14And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. 15Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, ….” No – it is not the appearance which matters, it is the fact that these people – for all their appearances as ministers of righteousness, are actually workers of lawlessness. They despise responsibility to someone or something else. They are a law unto themselves. And, you can detect this by comparing what they do with what God has commanded in his Word. In fact, you do not even have to compare their actions with the Word of God. Compare their actions to the words of men to which they are accountable. You will find that here, too, they easily depart from what is supposed to govern their actions. They are lawless, accountable to nothing and to no one, because their actions do not comply with what is delivered to them to do.
Jesus concludes his warning by laying out a parable that is – 2,000 years later – a staple of Sunday school and vacation Bible school curricula everywhere in Christendom: the man who builds his house on the rock, and the man who builds his house on the sand. I know you have all heard this when you were young, no matter what Church tradition you grew up in.
The parable is often misinterpreted. I’ve frequently heard the idea that “the rock” is the word of God, and “the sand” is something other than the Word of God. As far as it goes, the meaning of such an idea is not false, but it is not the meaning of Jesus parable here. Jesus point is now the foundation of the housebuilding, but rather the compliance of the builder to what he has heard.
The man who hears Jesus teaching and DOES IT, is like the man who builds his house on a rock. The man who hears Jesus’ words AND DOES NOT DO THEM, is like the man who builds his house on the sand. Note that each man HEARS. The difference between them is not hearing, but DOING.
I actually saw this parable played out in real life when I first got out of seminary. I was in a pastoral internship in Southern California, and some of the people in the congregation lived in a place called Laguna Beach. Laguna Beach was a very desirable place to live in those days – perhaps it still is. But, back then the most desirable places to build a house were on the high bluffs that run along the coast at that point. Houses built on the tops of those bluffs have the most fantastic views of the ocean. From your patio you can view stunning sunsets at sea. I’ve seen them, and they are breathtaking. Houses with this kind of ocean view are easily five to ten times more expensive than exactly the same house with no view of the ocean.
There’s only one problem with building a house on those bluffs overlooking the ocean in Laguna Beach – those bluffs are high mounds of clay and sand. There is no bedrock beneath them. And guess what happened one year in the early 80’s? The storms came and the wind blew and the rain fell. And you know what happened to those houses? They slid down the sides of those soft, clay and sand bluffs, and millions and millions and millions of dollars in property value were destroyed. In Jesus’ words, “great was the fall thereof.”
Now, I ask you, were the builders of those homes ignorant of the geology of the coast line along Laguna Beach? Were those who purchased the houses ignorant of what might happen when a storm came along? If I were a wagering man, I’d wager a bundle that plenty of information was around to let them know what would happen. Yes, they knew they were building on clay and sand, and they knew what rain and wind would do to something built on that sort of foundation. It wasn’t what they knew that made all the difference. It wasn’t what they had heard. It was what they did.
As you know, this past week has been a difficult and trying one for me. The difficulties were precipitated by a situation where someone was ostensibly working with our ministry by way of writing a curriculum. What we uncovered, however, was this – the person involved deceived many people along the way, by keeping vital information away from them. The people were kept in the dark, so far as I can learn thus far, in order to exalt and promote the project leader’s private and personal agenda. The result? The project leader was indeed exalted in the eyes of man, but the project itself was threatened.
The whole tawdry scheme was frustrated because of a letter which was written a year ago, a letter which outlined the nature of the project, a letter which specified who would be responsible for doing what and when, and how; a letter which spelled out what the anticipated outcome should be like. What I discovered, just seven days ago, was that the project had proceeded as if that letter had NEVER been written.
But, it was written, and because that letter was written and still existed, it was a simple matter to show that this project was, in key way, far off the tracks. Getting it back on the track is what has occupied me for the bulk of the past week, and it has been difficult work. But, I am so thankful for that letter. Without it, I could have done nothing this past week.
Now, the warning Jesus gives to his disciples, and to us today, relates to false prophets, false teachers, false brethren, who were among the faithful, and who are among the faithful today as well – people for whom the work of ministry is not for the kingdom of Christ, but for their own private and personal kingdoms. And that thing which saved our ministry project this past week is the thing which saves all of us from anything similar to the challenge I have been facing – in other words, we are saved because we have something written down from the beginning which spells out in words of few syllables what we must heed if we are to be safe from the wolves among the flock.
The words of few syllables in this case are Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount. By extension, they include not only what he taught his disciples in that place, but also what he taught his disciples as recorded in the gospels and the epistles of the New Testament.
We are the heirs of those words. By the power and providence of the Holy Spirit, they are still with us, and because of that we can recognize the false prophets, the false teachers, the false brethren among us. Jesus told us how to recognize them. Jesus warned us they are still here, as did Paul, as did Peter, as did John and James. And our defense against them is the same as what Jesus taught in the gospel for today.
God grant that we may hear and heed the words of Christ, so that we may be like those who build on rock and not on sand. May we know the law of Christ and may it dwell richly in our hearts, so we may recognize those who are workers of lawlessness. And, finally, may we be not only hearers of Christ’s words, but doers of them as well, producing an abundance of good fruit to that advances Christ’s kingdom.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.