Summary: There is so much conflicting teaching in the church today. How do we discern the true from the false?
By Their Fruit
We have always had false prophets in the world. So when Jesus tells His followers to be wary of them, He isn't saying anything new. The Old Testament is full of examples. But what is the difference between a false prophet and one who speaks truly for God? Let us examine this morning’s text and see how Jesus says we can tell the difference.
Exposition of the Text
This section of the Sermon of the Mount comes near the end of the sermon. So Jesus is summing up here what he has taught previously. Just like there are two ways, the one which leads to life which does not look promising at first and the way which looks promising but leads to damnation. So here Jesus warns us to beware of the false prophets.
The first characteristic of a false prophet is that they come in the disguise of a true prophet. So from surface appearances, they look genuine. They look like the genuine sheep of God. They clothe themselves in lambskins and enter among the flock. This means the place one should expect to find a false prophet is in church. Jude warns of these false teachers who sneak in unawares. This brings us to a second characteristic. A false prophet is not satisfied to remain quiet among the sheep, but tries to rise to a position of trust and authority in the church from which it becomes easier to pray on the flock.
Another characteristic of a false prophet is that they have an insatiable desire to devour the flock of God. But even here, they are careful not to openly prey upon the believers, but consume them a little at a time. Wolves are known when pursuing their prey to chase the flock to find the weakest animal to separate them from the herd. Then they start by nipping at the legs of their prey to weaken it further. Soon exhaustion and loss of blood drops the prey which the wolves start to devour while the animal is still alive. This is a truly ugly picture that Jesus chooses for the false prophet.
Jesus tells us to examine the prophets in the church. But what is a prophet? Some think that a prophet is a fortune teller or someone who can tell the future. This can be misleading, because even though the prophets of the Scripture did prophesy of future events, they also addressed the current audience to which they were sent. A better definition of a prophet is one who claims to speak a message in God’s name. In other words, we could rightly call preachers and teachers in the churches prophets in a sense, even though in a different sense than Amos or Isaiah. The preacher might not have a vision or have God speak directly to him, but nevertheless, they are in a position in the church to preach the Word of God to people. The same is true of teachers.
The Pharisees and Scribes in Jesus’ day served a function among the Jews which was similar to that of our preachers and teachers today. They were recognized authorities of the Scripture, at least in the eyes of the people. The opinions they rendered were held to be authoritative. So in a sense, they were prophets claiming to be bringing the Word of God to their listeners. The question is whether they were true or false prophets.
We can already surmise from what we have already covered in the Sermon on the Mount that they did not speak truly for God. In their own authority of their human wisdom, they had taken it upon themselves to reinterpret the Scripture to suit what they think the Scripture of old would say if they had spoken in their day. What resulted was a gross distortion of the Scripture itself. Whenever this is done, the written document no longer has any authority of itself. Rather it is given authority by the teachers themselves who then prooftext the Scripture to suit their doctrine. We can see the horrific damage which has been done to the US Constitution following the same line of reasoning. If five people decide that the first amendment means that the moon is made of green cheese, then that is what is says. By this, the Constitution has been taken away from the people and put into the hands of “experts” and “lawyers”. The Constitution was written as a document for the people and supposed to be understood by the people in plain language. If it needed to be updated, it was to be by amendment, not by reinterpretation.
Of course when dealing with the Word of God, it is unchangeable and not subject to human amendment or reinterpretation. Even Jesus Himself was bound to every jot and tittle of the Scripture. As God the Son, He could speak on equal authority to the Scripture because as the Son in the Divine Trinity, He is the ultimate author of both. But Jesus could only speak what was already perfectly compatible with the intent of the Old Testament Scripture.