July 21, 2013
It’s a beautiful sunny day and you’re driving along, enjoying the day and the weather. Up ahead on the side of the road is a yellow sign. You know that’s a warning sign so you take note. “Slippery when wet.” Immediately you dismiss it because it doesn’t apply. Beautiful day. Beautiful weather. Dry road. You’re good to go. You can drive right on by that warning sign without taking heed to that warning.
When you get to the office building where you work and before crossing the lobby area you are met with something that normally is not there, you stop to look. It is a sign and it says, “Caution. Wet floor.” You continue on, but slowly. You know you have been warned and you know that the floor you normally stride right across is now dangerous if you’re not careful.
The first warning you rightly dismissed because the warning didn’t apply to you under the conditions. The second warning could only be described as your fault if you ignored it. And so you come to the conclusion that both warnings are good, because they are necessary when the conditions apply to the situation you’re in. Even though heeding the warning inhibits you and limits you and restrains you, it is for your good, as well as for the good of others.
If the road is wet and you continue on at an unsafe speed, you not only put yourself in danger but you put others at risk. If you waltz right across the floor like you normally do, you put the company at risk of an insurance claim. Warnings are good and heeding them is good.
The warning Jesus gives in the Gospel reading is to beware of false prophets. He gives the warning for your good: your safety, your welfare, your benefit. He gives you the warning because without it you may be unaware of the danger posed by false prophets. If you don’t know a portion of the road gets really slippery when it’s wet, you will continue on as you are and it may come to your harm and put others in danger. If you don’t know there was a spill on the floor at work, you might waltz right across and end up breaking your arm. Warnings make you aware of danger. They tell you of something you otherwise might not be aware of. Warnings are good.
How would you know of the threat posed by false teachers if Jesus did not warn you of them? They look nice. They sound nice. They speak well. As Jesus says, “They come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” Outwardly, they look like true shepherds of Christ’s flock. They appear as wonderful, godly, preachers and pastors who care and love the people of God. They seem to have a heart for God and a passion for missions. They look like the very ones you would point to to show that there is a servant of God.
They are not. They are false prophets. They are ravenous wolves. They will tear you to pieces spiritually. But how do you know who the false prophets are? Jesus has warned you, beware of them. How are you to beware of them if they look on the outside like the very ones you should be listening to and taking to heart what they say and preach and teach?
Jesus says, “You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?” You can’t go on appearances. Just because a pastor says he is a faithful pastor doesn’t mean he is. Just because he sounds like a godly pastor or appears to be a faithful leader in God’s Church, doesn’t mean he is. You must look at the fruit that is produced in his ministry. If it is fruit that delivers something other than the Gospel, the man is a false prophet. If he points you to someone or something other than Jesus Christ and your hope and salvation in Christ alone, then you are hearing the words of a wolf who will destroy you, not a shepherd who will guide you and guard you.
Jesus says, “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. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.” Those who know trees can see things that those of us who don’t know cannot see. They can see disease on a tree where we just see a tree. They can see the difference between rich, lush fruit, and diseased or unhealthy fruit, whereas we just see a fruit tree. Without knowing what you’re looking for, you may miss the signs completely between was is bad and what is good.
That’s why the false prophets are so hard to spot. They look like the true shepherd. They look like the good trees. But their real actions are those of ravenous wolves. Their true fruit is bad fruit. You need to know what you’re looking for to spot them. Otherwise they will devour you. They will lead you astray and poison you with spiritual poison.
What you need to look for is doctrine. True doctrine is what delivers to you life-giving gifts of salvation. False doctrine is what destroys you and leaves you without hope and salvation. The Word of God, the Bible, is the only source God has given us for true doctrine. He’s God, so certainly He could reveal to us true doctrine in another way, or even many other ways. And if He wanted to do that, He would be in His rights to do that. He simply hasn’t shown us, though, that He has. What He has done, is reveal Himself to us in a general way through creation and each individual’s conscience. And He has revealed Himself to us in very specific ways through His Son, God in the flesh, and His Holy Word, the Bible, and in the Sacraments Christ instituted for His Holy Christian Church.
In the general ways, creation and conscience, we see evidence that there is a god. But we don’t find out who or what the god is. It is only in the Bible that we find that the true God is the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Only the Bible makes known to us that there is one true God and who exactly He is. It is in the second Person of the Triune God, Jesus, that we see God’s revelation of Himself primarily in God’s action of becoming flesh. God humbling Himself to become a man was His amazing decision to save us from our sin and condemnation. As God, He certainly could have chosen to do it in a different way, but He didn’t. He did it in this way. In His Son; in Jesus, the Word made flesh. True God becoming true man. The second Person of the Trinity taking on human nature and dying in the place of all who have been created by God but sadly who have fallen into sin.
God has given us this doctrine, this teaching of who He is and that we are sinful and that He has accomplished salvation in His Son, to us in the Bible. Any doctrine that is taught that goes beyond the Bible, or takes away from the Bible, or alters the Bible, is false doctrine. Any pastor who teaches such doctrine is a false teacher, a false prophet. We have been warned. We need to be on the lookout. We need to be aware. We need to go forward not with abandon but with caution. When we hear false doctrine we must confront it. When we are taught false doctrine we must resist it.
The purpose of this is the safety of the flock. A true pastor, a shepherd God has called to tend the flock, guides and protects the flock. The teaching and preaching of true doctrine not only delivers salvation to the people of God but also protects them from Satan, who seeks to devour. It is true that it is the responsibility and the duty of a pastor to preach and teach faithfully. It is also true that they are sinners as we all are. It is true that many of them are not faithful and are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Therefore, it is true that all of us need to be on guard. We need to heed the warning our Lord gives us. Beware of the false prophets. Beware of the ones whose fruits do not comport with their appearance. Of the ones whose teaching and preaching points us to someone or something other than Christ alone for salvation.
There’s another reason. And that is for the sake of the false prophet. If you do not make known to the false prophet his error you are aiding and abetting it. That means we all need to vigilant in keeping our pastors accountable on the basis of the Word of God. If a pastor is preaching and teaching false doctrine, he needs to be called on it. He needs to be given the opportunity to repent of his error, for the sake of his soul and for the sake of his hearers.
Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 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.’” These men Jesus is referring to are false prophets; ones who continued on in their error without repenting. Was it because no one had called them to repentance? Was it because people had, but the false prophets refused to listen and refused to repent? Regardless, we must call false prophets to repentance on the basis of the Word of God. They call Him “Lord,” they prophesy in His name, they cast out demons in His name, and they do many mighty works in His name. But He will cast them out into utter darkness and flames of fire. He will say to them, “I never knew you, you are a worker of lawlessness.”
It’s never easy to confront those who stand in the place of God and speak the opposite of what God has called them to speak. That is why God has given us His Word. It points us unwaveringly and manifestly to Christ and salvation in Him alone. The Bible is clear. There is one man who died on the cross for the sin of the world, and that man is Jesus, the one born of Mary and begotten of the Father. He is the Savior of the world. He is your Savior. He sends pastors out to be true prophets. Hear them as though you were hearing your Lord and so you also will be warned of those who point you away from Christ. His warning is to protect you, just as His Gospel is to save you. Amen.