“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning is the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the seventh chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, Jesus doesn’t have many good things to say about false prophets. In fact, He gets downright upset when He starts discussing them. His greatest fire and brimstone is reserved for those who teach falsely, who lead others astray. Elsewhere, He talks about millstone necklaces; here, He sounds much like John the Baptist. “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” False prophets are doomed, they are condemned, their fate is destruction. No matter how much they protest, the Last Day will not be a pleasant experience for those who teach falsely. “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” I never knew you. There are no more terrifying words that one could hear on the Day that Christ returns. I never knew you. Though they did signs and wonders, though they claimed to speak for Jesus, their destination is hell.
And they are taking as many as they can with them. False prophets are condemned so harshly because they do not keep their opinions to themselves. The false teachings that leave them condemned they spread to others, a poison that robs the true faith from the hearts of others. Make no mistake, dear friends, false teaching, false doctrine, false theology, condemns, it robs true faith and leads you straight to hell. During the World Wars, posters carried the handy phrase, ‘Loose lips sink ships.’ We should have posters up all over this church, saying ‘False doctrine brings hell.’ Why? Because a wrong Jesus cannot save you, no matter how wise He sounds or how nice He is. In the same way, a wrong path of salvation can bring you only condemnation, no matter how appealing and easy the wide road may look. False doctrine is a poison; maybe a little won’t kill you, depending on what kind it is, but it sure isn’t healthy, and as the doses get stronger and you take them more frequently, you are killing off true faith so that you will hear with the false prophets: “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”
Are you interested in avoiding that fate? Does having the door to heaven shut in your face on Judgment Day sound like something that you would rather not have happen to you? If you’re here this morning than you probably think that avoiding hell is a goal that all people should have, right? If not going to hell sounds like a good thing to you, then Jesus has one word for you: Beware. “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”
Beware, dear friends, beware of false prophets. Keep your eyes open for them, be watchful and alert. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, because false prophets don’t typically put ‘leading people to hell’ on their resume, or print ‘false teacher’ on their business card. In fact, if there is one thing that Jesus stresses about them in our text, it is that false teachers are always in disguise. He calls them ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing,’ and then says that not only do they prophesy, cast out demons, and do mighty works, but these are all done ‘in my Name.’ You see, false teachers will often claim the name ‘Christian.’ These are the most dangerous; we are pretty good at spotting false prophets when they come from outside the visible Christian Church, like Muslim imams or Hindu priests, but things get much more difficult when false prophets call themselves Christian. And in fact, it is very difficult to find any false prophet who has something bad to say about Jesus.
Appearances are deceiving. Not only may false prophets bear the name ‘Christian,’ but they will probably do a lot of good works. Sure, there are many who are sleazy and outwardly wicked; those are much easier to spot. It’s the ones who are outwardly good, who make great neighbors, who serve in the community, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, who are actually the most dangerous. While we praise any good deed done by believer or non-believer, the good deeds of a false prophet can cause us to let our guard down and open our ears to their teaching. Miracles can do the same thing. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that miracles are restricted to those who are true disciples of Jesus. In fact, Jesus explicitly promises in Matthew twenty-four that false prophets will do many signs and wonders “so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.”
How can you “beware of false prophets?” If they are so well-disguised, how can you mark and avoid someone who will poison the faith given to you by the Holy Spirit? Jesus has a very simple answer: “You will recognize them by their fruits.” Now, we may be tempted to think that ‘fruit’ here is the same as ‘fruit’ elsewhere in the Scriptures, referring to good works. But we already said that what makes many false prophets so dangerous is that they do have good works and even miracles. So the fruit of false prophets must be something else, indeed, the very thing that makes them a false prophet in the first place: their teaching. You can only know false prophets by examining their teachings. There a false prophet cannot hide. You see, a bad tree cannot produce good fruit, you don’t gather grapes from thornbushes. They can try to obscure their teaching with flowery, pious-sounding words, they can make the task more difficult for you, but ultimately, as Jesus says, “You will recognize them by their fruits.”
How can you recognize bad fruit? Only by knowing good fruit, knowing the truth. False prophets can only be avoided if you know the truth of God’s Word, if you know the Scriptures. Every minute spent reading your Bible, every Sunday morning or Wednesday evening spent in this place receiving Christ’s gifts in the Divine Service or learning His Word in Bible Class, is arming you to recognize the fruit of false teachers. Bankers are not taught to recognize counterfeit bills by looking at a bunch of fake money, they are instead taught every aspect of the real thing. That is what we do here; we give you the real thing, so that if you encounter false prophets, on your television, in a book or magazine, on your front porch, or in this pulpit, you can recognize the fruit, mark and avoid them.
Appearances will get you nowhere. The truth is often clothed in rags, while falsehood wears a $3,000 suit and drives a Jaguar. The most ardent atheist can do as many outwardly good deeds as the most sincere Christian. You judge your teachers by their fruit, knowing that “every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.” You judge your teachers on the basis of God’s Word, which means you must know God’s Word. That is your task, for the sake of your own soul and the souls of others around you; to listen to any who proport to be teachers and judge their fruit, their teachings. That includes me, Pastor Poppe, and any who stand in this pulpit. Any pastor that is afraid to be judged on the basis of God’s Word, who instead throws around his weight as a teacher of the Church, is afraid that his teaching won’t stand up to the scrutiny of the Word of God. Call him to repentance, for false teaching brings death and hell; true teaching brings life.
The true Jesus does save you; the true Jesus bled for you, He died for you, He rose for you. The true Jesus took all the sin of the world upon Himself, your sin and mine, and died to pay its penalty. The true Jesus has placed His Name upon you in Holy Baptism, He has made you His own dear child and delivered to you all the gifts of His Kingdom. The true Jesus has placed into your mouth His Body and Blood, feeding you with His grace unto life everlasting. The true Jesus is true God in the flesh forever, seated at the right hand of the Father, for you. The true teaching of the Church isn’t just right; it’s good, it’s beautiful, and it’s for you. The true path of salvation isn’t just the right way, it’s the only way, and it’s the best way, because it’s all about grace alone by faith alone, without any merit or worthiness on your part. If you have indulged your itching ears with the slick lies of false prophets, if you have mixed a little poison in the waters of life that you receive from Christ, if you have by neglect of God’s Word left yourself open to the assaults of false teachers, repent; repent and return to the true faith. This is the truth: you are forgiven for the sake of Christ’s shed blood, poured out on Calvary’s cross and applied to you at font, pulpit, and altar. The truth that you in weakness have neglected is the very truth that forgives you for that weakness, the very truth that saves you for eternity. You are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, a child of God forever.
On that great and terrible Day, you too will cry out ‘Lord, Lord,’ but this will not be the insincere cry of those who claimed the Name and refused the teaching; instead ‘Lord, Lord’ is the cry of faith. “Abba, Father,” you cry out, all you who have been adopted as sons, who have been made children of God through Christ, and the door will not be shut against you. No, it will be opened to you forever, for Jesus does know you, He died for you, He rose for you, He made you His own. Your lawless deeds are forgiven; He died for them all. That is the truth, the truth that has set you free, the truth that is not only right, but so much better than anything the false prophets offer. They bring death, Jesus has life, life for you. This is the truth we hear, this is the truth that we study, this is the truth that we read in the pages of the Scriptures. This is the truth that we cling to, because this is the truth that saves, and you who abide in that truth by the work of the Holy Spirit will live forever, world without end. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.