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.
Our Sunday morning readings are not something thrown together or haphazard—of course you would guess that. Things done in the church in good order are done on purpose in order to focus better on Christ. “The Sundays during the [Trinity season] 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, ToDP, 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. So our struggles in this world between Baptism and the Second Coming of our Lord are against our own flesh, the world, and false teachers and pastors, wolves in sheep’s clothing.
You will recognize false prophets by their doctrine—their fruit—and you are obligated to notice. You can’t let your guard down in this world. You are called upon to think critically of everything you hear and see. 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. Pastors are not infallible. So on this side of heaven, you have to listen and think critically.
This exhortation to beware of false prophets is interestingly placed in the Sermon on the Mount. People often quote Matthew 7:1 “Don’t judge lest you be judged” as a way to stop theological discussion when they don’t like to be confronted with their sins. I’ve even heard other people say, “Who am I to judge?” when they don’t want to confront people in their sin. It’s a means to look the other way when you have the responsibility to address sin in your vocation. Yet just 15 verses after this oft misused verse, Matthew records Jesus telling every Christian to beware. “Judge!” “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. You are to beware of false teachings. The word “prophet” in the apostolic time was connected with the preaching and teaching office. Today we would just say pastor or seminary professor. So you are to be discerning about what you hear pastors and theologians saying. 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. You are equipped to do this from the Small Catechism.
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 midwestern, 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 hobby, 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. You’ll notice, though, in all this “spiritual” 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–consistent and unchanging doctrine 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 and private matter, a thing that each individual must find for himself and not impose upon others. The focus is not outward to a holy God but inward to your own feelings, to what fulfills you and gives you pleasure. And false prophets know this human condition, so they tell you what your sinful flesh wants to hear, rather than what the Almighty God wants you to know for certain.
We, in the Lutheran Church—even we here at Redeemer—are not immune to this false spirit. The devil seeks to focus us on the moment, changing the truth into what we want it to be for our own gain and 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 you 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 you in your 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 you 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 your 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 from the 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?—the sixth commandment. How do you know that the homosexual lifestyle is sinful?—the sixth commandment (and your Sunday School instruction on Genesis 2 and Matthew 19). How do you know that talking poorly about your neighbor behind his back is a sin?—The eighth commandment. How do you know that Jesus is the only Lord and Savior worthy of our worship? God says you shall have no other gods. The Creed shows you who your Savior is. How do you know that God wants you in Church to hear His Word and receive His sacrament? He commands you 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 flows from His cross and through His cross. 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. Through His suffering and death, He has provided a shield for you against your flesh, the world, and the devil. And through His 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.