Summary: Jesus warns of false prophets. What is a prophet? What is a false prophet? How can I tell one apart from the rest of sheep?

Series on the Mount

Profit or Prophet

Matthew 7:15-16

November 4, 2007

As Jesus winds up his teachings, he gives his followers a warning: Watch out. Beware. Be wary of false prophets. Take a close look and examination at the lives of those who speak for God. Not that they have to be perfect (at least not any more than every disciple is expected to be perfect in love). Turn to Matthew 7:15.

Speaking of being loving. I received an email that describes one father’s way of disciplining his son. He said that he doesn’t believe in spanking a child since it really just teaches kids that hitting is acceptable. He has chosen a more loving approach rather than hitting. Whenever these is conflict and disagreement with his son, he takes his son for a ride in the car. Here they have a chance to calm down, think about their actions, and after the ride the child is considerably calmer and doesn’t take that much time. “By removing the child, his son, from the immediate situation and providing a change of scenery, the child is allowed to focus on something different. Once the child has the opportunity to change perspective, things get better quickly and the child has better understanding of his place within the family and begins to understand the families concept of acceptable behavior.”

This amazed his friends who wanted more details and the opportunity to observe this phenomenon. Here is a photo that gives you a clearer picture of how this father lovingly corrects his son.

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?

Ok, there are a lot of ideas about what a prophet is (some of which may not be very biblical or may be more about the sensational than about doing God’s work). So let’s start by quickly understanding what a prophet is not and then what a prophet is.

What a prophet is not?

• A fortune teller

Because the prophet operates on the basis of God’s agenda and God’s timetable, the prophet cannot be called upon to summon a proclamation on one’s future. This is called divination. One needs faith to be a prophet and to hear what the prophet says.

• A future predictor

While prophets in the bible sometimes foretell future events usually to warn or so that people will believe the prophet’s credibility, prophets generally look at what is happening currently and bring God’s word to bear on it. Sometimes this means simply declaring what the obvious consequences of a course of action.

• A disagreeable antagonist

A prophet is not necessarily an angry, frustrated individual proclaiming judgment on everyone and everything. This picture is more of a cultural caricature than an accurate depiction. Really, a prophet speaks the truth in love and it often pains the prophet immensely to see and say things. Paul says that people ought to desire the greater gifts such as prophecy but seeing what others cannot perceive often is an incredible burden.

So what is a prophet?

What is a prophet?

• Speaks on God’s behalf

The Old Testament prophets usually said, “Thus saith the Lord” (in the KJV). These are God’s words not mine. This is what the Spirit is saying through me to you. Preaching can be part proclamation (of the good news of the Kingdom) and partly prophetic as God’s ways are highlighted along with the consequences of not following them.

• Reveals God’s intentions

The prophet attempts to let the light of Christ shine a little brighter revealing more of what God is doing and saying and where God is working and which direction God is intending to move His people. It is kind of like slowly turning the dimmer of a light so that things get a little more clear. Or giving a word to describe what others can’t quite yet see or are having a hard time understanding what it is that they almost see.

• Reads the “signs of the times”

The prophet interacts with the state of affairs around them and reveals what God is doing in the current situations and the culture. Sometimes the prophet makes connections that others hadn’t seen. Sometimes the prophet actually sees so far ahead that the prophet’s peers think that the prophet is a little (or a lot) “off his or her rocker.”

• Seeks to right current wrongs

One of the crucial roles of the prophet is to point out when injustice systems and situations exist especially as they may contradict the ways of God. The prophet tells what is wrong and therefore can be unpopular often revealing truths that are painful and uncomfortable for those with privilege and especially for those with power. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke prophetically calling America to right the wrongs of racial discrimination.

At one point after a defining court victory, Dr. King spoke with the president about enacting legislation to protect the civil rights of people of color. The president sided with Dr. King but explained that the timing was not right and the battle would be uphill and may even prevent the victory ever coming about. The president advised that they wait, savor the victory, and allow their opponents to settle down.

Dr. King said that he could not sideline what he was under conviction to see through. He continued to work and preach and the flame for justice spread like a wildfire so that within six months legislation had been passed despite presidential reluctance.

• Points forward to new horizons

Prophets usually see a little farther ahead than most people. They point the way that God has revealed and encourage the people to keep going “just a little further.” It is kind of like a scout who surveys the terrain around the next curve or over the next hill to guide them until they can see what he or she sees. Of course, the prophet usually is looking even further ahead on the journey.

But Jesus is warning of false prophets. He compares them to ferocious wolves. Wolves were fairly dangerous animals in the wild (read wilderness or narrow path). But Jesus says they are ferocious. This indicates that they are half-starved and are seeking a meal. They are starving and are looking for sheep to devour. They are looking for easy prey but since they are exceptional wolves (ferocious), they are seeking to kill with surroundings (such as plenty of shepherds) that they normally wouldn’t venture. Not only that but they disguise themselves as sheep. On the outside they look like sheep. They look good. They look like a righteous tsadig.

They walk the talk. They know what the ways of Jesus. They know the words just as the devil knew Scripture when he tempted Jesus. They tell others the right words. They use the lingo. They talk the Christianeeze code saying things like “getting saved” and “born again” and “Jesus saves.” It’s hard to tell these false prophets from the rest of sheep. They look like you and me. Take a look in the mirror and you can see what one looks like. Of course if we have diligently applied Jesus’ teachings then we have regularly examined ourselves to dispel those things that we harbor which are false which is something the false prophet does not dare to do.

How do we tell them apart? Jesus tells here.

Identifying false prophets

• By their fruits

Can you pick grapes from thorn bushes? Of course not. Unless you tape them on. Can you get a fig from a Newton? I don’t think I really want a fig anyway. I’m not a big fig person, ya’ dig? Can you pick a fig from a wig? Can you pick a fig from a pig? This is the gospel according to Dr. Seuss.

Anyway, Jesus says that while false prophets and pretenders may look good, they will not have fruit. They will not be applying the teachings of Jesus. They may tell others about them but the won’t do them. They do not pray. They do not spend time in the presence of God. They do not fast. They do not help the poor. Of course there are always good excuses and justifications. But the bottom line is that they are often more concerned with the bottom line: many times with money and clothes and food. Kind of makes me wonder if being overfed from the inside out is actually an indication of our spiritual malnourishment.

• By their love

False prophets do not live out the Shema of Jesus: Loving God and loving others. There many scriptures that talk about the false prophets that love money. They store up treasures on earth. They like the prestige, recognition, power, and privilege. They are basically hypocrites to use the phrase of Jesus. They don’t love people but lord it over them. They want the biggest and best so that everyone will see how wonderful they are and how righteous they are.

Of course that also means that others have to learn their place as well. So they tear down others in order to elevate themselves. The love themselves. They do for themselves as they would have others also do for them. Watch out for these false prophets for they consume everyone and everything using them for their own benefit.

• By their lives

They don’t live out the Shema of Jesus. They pretend to be a good example but often are plagued by character defects and flaws that oftentimes lead to self-destruction or at least the destruction of those around them.

Does the direction that they reveal lead to God or to something else? Perhaps to their own glorification or perhaps to simply making others feel good about themselves. Are they concerned about the things that is on God’s heart? Are they pained by the injustices of the day?

Now here is the difficulty. Jesus is asking to discern and perhaps even judge here. For there is an element of even condemning because Jesus definitely would not want one of these false prophets to have some authority within the community. However, this does not mean that prophets are to be perfect. Sometimes we make mistakes. We are usually are continuously working through the our issues, character defects, and consequences of our sin (even our sins of the past and their consequences). Sometimes a good prophet can even interpret things poorly. Scripture instructs us to judge what a prophet says especially in the foretelling on whether or not something comes to pass. But guess what? Sometimes situations and people change.

Like Jonah. He declared that God was going to destroy Ninevah unless the people changed. They did and God’s judgment did not occur.

I believe the difficulty is overcome by observing and practicing the fruit of God’s Spirit and the love of Jesus. We recognize that we sometimes get things wrong. God is God and we are not. We recognize with humility that God is not finished with us yet. We can look ahead but also realize that sometimes we don’t have all the light there is to be had. More will be revealed. And above we put into practice what Jesus teaches. Respecting each person and giving each person the dignity as a fellow child created in the image of God.

And this means dialogue. This is the practice of love. Trying to understand the other instead of judging and condemning. Seeking to understand. It means seeking God honestly and seeking to learn more about who God is in every person and every situation.

God spoke to me recently through a homeless guy I know. This man is a full-blown practicing alcoholic. Does he live out the Shema of Jesus? No. Not even close. But he is pretty intelligent although not very wise (except he does exhibit occasional profound insight). When he is sober and cleaned up, he is good looking young man. But, he doesn’t care. He would rather drink than pay rent. He would rather spend his money on booze than food. “I’m not hurting anyone except myself.”

You see, God spoke to me through him. I used to say that very phrase. He is where I could have ended up if I would have kept going. Sacrificing intimate relationships and meaningful community for a life selfishness. Fooling himself into believing that those that he hangs out with really, truly care for him. That was me but for God’s grace. Not only did God speak to me in that way, God reminded me that I may not even have ended up as homeless perhaps killing myself by my addictions and maybe somebody else.

And as I thought this guy, I began to think about being created by God to live a life of giving. It seems to me that God is saying that not only am I responsible to my community of faith (koinonia) but doesn’t the community in which I reside and live and work and play and love have a claim upon me. Of course, I want to justify myself and ask how far does my community extend. What are the limits Jesus of this claim upon my life, my resources, my time, my talents, my skills, my money, my love? It seems that there needs to be some limits. I’m wrestling with God on this. Are the limits really set in stone and are they really limits that God wants me to place or that I feel are needed in order to preserve something I believe that I need?

God created us with the gift of life, with blessings, with resources, with time, with talents and God’s intention is that we give more than we receive. God’s intends for us to pour into the lives those around us so that if we are hoarding or selfishly wasting all this on ourselves, we are robbing the community of the gifts that God has made for us to give.

Yeah, God said all this through a selfish, homeless alcoholic. God can work in and through the darkest situations.

I think a false prophet or a false follower of Jesus does not believe we have claim upon each other. They are pretenders. They live behind a facade sometimes even fooling themselves. Watch out for the false prophet dressed in sheep’s clothing! Watch out for the one who seeks only to better his or herself! But we should not only watch for the false prophet out there but watch for the false prophet in us. Are we bearing fruit? Are bearing fruit that lasts?

How we behave determines a lot. It tells who we really follow. It tells of what quality and quantity of the love within us. Jesus says good people (the real tsadiqs) are both pure and moral. These good people do good works. Do we bear grace (amazing grace) that extends to everyone and everything around me?

Most people live the ravenous life. It is a broad way and many easily find the ways to serve themselves. The ferocious wolves devour others and ironically they destroy themselves through living this way. Seeking to receive more than you give means that you make a profit. But Jesus also said (later in Matthew 16:26), “What good will it do for a person to gain the whole world (which is a considerable profit), but lose his soul?”