St. Matthew 7:15-23
July 17, 2016
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, X and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Church Year, as it has been handed down to us, presents wonderful, biblical themes. Our Sunday morning readings are not something thrown together or haphazard—of course you know that. Pius Parsch, a commentator on the Church Year says this: “The Sundays during the [Trinity] Pentecost cycle develop three great themes. 1. [First] Baptism and its graces. 2. [Last] Preparation for the second advent of the Lord. 3. [And in the middle] The struggle between those two” (See Pius Parsch, Treasury of Daily Prayer [CPH], p. 432). The middle portion of the Trinity season, in which we find ourselves these weeks, is that “struggle between baptism and the second advent of our Lord.” And always true to His promise, our Lord does not leave us to struggle alone. He is always with us.
For the last three weeks now, we have had two teachings—both from the Sermon on the Mount—and a miracle. The first teaching from the Sermon on the Mount showed us that we have to despair of our own works for salvation; only Jesus’ righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees. The miracle of the feeding of the 4,000 tells us to despair of our ability to survive unaided by God in this world. And now today in the second teaching from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us to watch out for false teachers—don’t put your trust in men. You will recognize false prophets by their doctrine—their fruit—but you have to notice. You can’t let your guard down in this world. You are called upon to think critically of everything you hear. You are to judge all that you hear by the Word of God alone. Earthly wisdom and your own reason will let you down. Even men placed into the apostolic ministry have the potential of letting you down. So on this side of heaven, you have to listen and think critically.
I find this personally very interesting because in many discussions I’ve been privy to about doctrine or practice, people often quote part of Matthew 7:1 “Don’t judge.” Or I’ve heard people say, “Who am I to judge?” Yet just 15 verses later, Matthew records Jesus telling every Christian to do just that. “Judge!” “Beware!” “Be discerning.” “Watch out!” It’s not just something pastors should do. It’s something every Christian is called upon to do. You are to beware of false prophets. The word “prophet” in the apostolic time was connected with the preaching office. Today we would just say pastor. So you are to be discerning about what you hear. You are to beware of anyone who presumes to speak in the place of Jesus, but whose teaching is not consistent with the Words of Holy Scripture.
Jesus calls those false prophets wolves (a demonic name) and rotten trees with bad fruit, which should be cut down and thrown into the fire (a designation for hell). This sounds harsh to our modern, sensitive ears, but our Lord is trying to impress upon us the seriousness of bad doctrine. People who claim to stand in the stead of Christ and preach or teach false doctrine are demonic and are fit only for the fires of hell. Theology is that serious. It’s not just a playful pastime or something we can “agree to disagree on.”
Theology matters because truth matters. Our God is a God of truth. And if “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4), then every Word that comes from our Lord is precious to us and to be held in the highest regard.
It’s popular today to be “spiritual.” It is even popular today to have spiritual conviction of some kind. Politicians and famous people will even say on camera that we should think about and pray for the families affected by terrorist attacks. On the surface that sounds great. But you’ll also notice that in all this talk, there is very little mention of truth–that which is true for everyone in all times and in all places. There is little to no mention of Biblical truth or doctrine–consistent and unchanging teaching that transcends our generation and shows us how God has always been and always will be. No, the spirit of our day makes faith a personal or private matter, a thing that each individual must find for himself. And the spirit of the day goes so far as to imply that you have to find a god that is right for you. The focus is not outward to a holy God but inward to our own feelings, to what fulfills us and gives us pleasure. And this is what false prophets know, so they tell us what our itching ears want to hear.
We, in the Lutheran Church—we at Redeemer—are not immune to this false spirit. The devil seeks to make us all focused on the moment, changing the truth into what we need it to be for our own pleasure. But Jesus says: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.” It is the way of evil to dress itself up in what looks good and salutary, to appear as though it is honorable. The Bible says that the devil himself comes not as the wicked destroyer that he is, but as an angel of light, appearing to be holy and good. So also false prophets come looking like sheep of the Good Shepherd. They may even firmly believe they are sheep of the Shepherd, not knowing that their fruit is bad, but you can recognize by their teaching and doctrines that they are not. Falsehood is much more dangerous when it is wrapped up in what appears to be the truth.
Jesus says beware, but He does not leave us without a guide, without a measure, without a means to judge false prophets. The apostle Paul teaches clearly of the armor that is for the children of God–the Holy Spirit. To live according to the flesh is death, but we live by another means. We live by the Holy Spirit who was given to us in our Baptism. “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God….you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father.’”
The Holy Spirit guards us from false prophets and false teachings in concrete ways. He caused the Holy Scriptures to be written for our protection. In the Bible, the very Word of God is our shield against spiritual wolves. But you might be tempted to say, “I’m no theologian; I’m not a Bible expert. How do I distinguish a false teacher from a genuine teacher, when both appeal to the Scripture? How can I tell whether or not someone is preaching the truth of Christ’s Word?” The simplest answer is the most profound. Recount the words of your Christian instruction [Small Catechism]. Review the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. You memorized these three portions of Holy Scripture for ongoing protection throughout life. How do you know that living together outside of marriage is a sin? God’s Word instructs us—the sixth commandment. How do you know that the homosexual lifestyle is sinful? God’s Word—Genesis 2 and Matthew 19. How do you know that talking poorly about your neighbor to other people is a sin? The eighth commandment. How do spouses know that they are to love and honor one another, and look after the needs of the other? God’s Word. How do you know that Jesus is the only Lord and Savior alone worthy of our worship? God says you shall have no other gods. How do you know that God wants you in Church to hear His Word and receive His sacrament? He commands us to do so and then promises blessings on account of Jesus.
That way of salvation is narrow because it doesn’t let in any of the opinions or the qualifications of men. Rather, it admits only the merits of Christ and His righteousness. He alone is the one through whom we gain entrance into heaven. Our Lord alone is the way which leads to everlasting life, for He said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” His is a difficult and unpopular way, because it is the way of the cross; but He has blazed that trail by way of Calvary. It is into this way that you have been baptized, and now you share in the life He has won. Through the cross you have been entirely forgiven of all your sins. And through Christ’s resurrection, you have been raised to new life in Him. “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs–heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:16-17).
In Jesus’ X Name. Amen.