Beware of false prophets: An urgent but unpopular warning

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Sermon for Trinity 8

Jeremiah 15:19-21  +  Romans 8:12-17  +  Matthew 7:15-23

Dear saints of God, baptized into the holy name of Jesus: You were once lost and condemned creatures, children of wrath, disobedient to God’s laws, living in impenitence, and separated from Christ. But you were redeemed by the blood of Christ. You were called by the Gospel to repent of your sins and to trust in Christ for forgiveness. You were baptized and brought from unbelief to faith. You were born again, and now, by faith alone, you stand righteous and innocent before God, because faith embraces Christ and receives all His benefits.

You were born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable—through the living and abiding word of God. Your faith was born of God’s Word. It was the Word of Christ that revealed Him to you as a good and merciful Savior. It’s that same Word that keeps you relying on Him so that you persevere in the faith until the end of your earthly life. So faith, from beginning to end, depends on God’s Word.  Mess with the Word, and you mess with faith.

The devil knows this. The devil knows that he can’t mess with Christ, and he can’t touch your faith directly; he can’t force you away from Christ. No one and nothing in all creation can do that. And he can’t change the word of Christ; it is written and cannot be unwritten from the pages of Holy Scripture. But he can mess with the preaching of the Word. He can set up falsehood and make it look like truth. He can raise up his own false apostles, dress them up to look like godly, sincere Christians—in sheep’s clothing, as it were—to proclaim falsehood, not in the name of the devil, but in the name of God, and so he hopes to lure you away from Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life, into believing in a god who is a lie, who is not the one true God, and yet is still called by the name “God” and “Jesus Christ” and “Holy Spirit.” The devil attacks your faith by attacking the preaching of God’s word.

So you might think Jesus would just tell His disciples, “Don’t listen to anyone. Don’t trust anyone. Don’t worry about preachers and teachers and finding a church and going to church. Just stay home with your Bible, sit in a corner, and you’ll be safe.” But He never once said such a thing. On the contrary, He has sent true prophets and preachers, and commands all people to listen to the preachers whom He has sent, and He commands those who believe to gather together around the Word, where it is rightly preached, and the Sacraments, where they are rightly administered.

At the same time, Jesus commands His disciples most earnestly in our Gospel: Beware of false prophets. Beware of false prophets. Not one of the more popular commands of Jesus, is it?, especially in today’s world where everybody’s notion of “Jesus” is this meek, always-friendly, never-condemning preacher of “love and tolerance” who never wants anybody to judge anybody and who doesn’t really care which church anybody goes to, as long as people feel comfortable there. Friends, I don’t know who that Jesus is, but it’s not the real one. The real Jesus commanded His disciples to beware of false prophets. So, if you would listen to Jesus, if you would be Christians, then you will do what He says.

Now, what are false prophets, who come come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves? A false prophet is anyone who pretends to teach you things about God that are not true, who pretends to proclaim to you words from God that God never spoke, and teachings from God that God never taught. Beware, Jesus says, because they won’t come to you praising the devil or cursing the name of God. They will come in the name of love and sincerity and zeal for God. They will say things that sound so good, and they may even point you to a passage in the Bible to prove their authenticity—just like the devil did when he tempted our Lord in the wilderness.

How is the false prophet recognized? Jesus says, You will know them by their fruits. In other words, you can’t look at the tree. You can’t look at the prophet himself and know if he’s true or false. You can’t go by the sound of his speech or the look on his face. But just as you would pick an apple from an apple tree and turn it around in your hand and check it for rotten spots, so you are to analyze the words that come out of a prophet’s mouth, to see if they agree with God’s holy Word. This is what the Bereans did when the apostle Paul came to them, preaching the Word of God. This is also what the apostle John admonished in his first epistle: Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. You don’t test the spirits by listening to your heart. You test the spirits by comparing the teachings of a prophet with the Holy Scriptures.

Who are the false prophets of our time? They are everywhere. First, they include everyone who does not confess Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, and the world’s only Savior. So every Buddhist monk is a false prophet. Every Muslim Imam and ayatollah is a false prophet. Every Jewish Rabbi is a false prophet. Those are the easiest to identify.

Then there are those who use the name of Jesus but redefine His history, twist His Gospel into a gospel of works-righteousness, and add their own prophecies to His teachings, like the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Every teacher of those religions is a false prophet. Beware of them.

From there it gets harder. Because under the broad umbrella of those who call themselves Christians, most of them preaching and teaching today are false prophets. But we don’t like to think about that. We want to assume the best of others who call themselves Christian preachers, and, in fact, we may analyze their teachings and find many things that are not false, but true. But here is where the apostle’s Paul’s words must ring in our ears: A little leaven leavens the whole lump. A little falsehood mixed in with the truth turns the whole teaching into falsehood.

So when “Christian” preachers mix in a little works-righteousness into the true teaching of righteousness by faith alone, they are false prophets. When preachers teach, contrary to Paul’s words in today’s Epistle, that it’s OK to gratify the desires of your sinful flesh, they are false prophets. When they talk much about the Holy Spirit but deny the Means of Grace by which the Spirit works, they are false prophets. When they reject the Gospel that God only justifies sinners by faith in Christ, they are false prophets.

So we have this command from Jesus to beware of them, and yet our flesh rebels against Christ’s command and sets up its own idols that keep Christians from doing this.

There is the idol of laziness. It takes effort to judge doctrine, probably less effort than most people think, but it still takes effort. It takes regular, ongoing study of the Holy Scriptures, so the Holy Spirit, through His Word, can lead us to the truth and away from error. But our flesh wants to sleep in, to put it off, to not bother with anything beyond a basic knowledge, to bow before the idol of laziness, causing Christians to become lukewarm toward the truth.

There is the idol of tolerance, before which our modern society bows. This idol demands that we not judge anyone, and that we never dare claim to know the truth ourselves. It’s not “nice,” after all. It will offend people and make them squirm.

There is the idol of self, which leads people to choose a church, not based on the truth or error that is proclaimed there, but based on how the place makes them feel. Their feelings become their god. Their comfort becomes their idol. Their personal preference becomes their compass, instead of God’s Word.

Finally, these and whatever other idols people construct in their hearts lead people away from the truth of Jesus into falsehood and unbelief—the most tragic kind of unbelief. Because it’s not that any of these so-called Christians would ever say, “I don’t believe in Jesus.” They all say they do. But the Jesus they have come to know through false teaching is a false Jesus, an imposter, a demon.

And that’s the warning Jesus ends with in our Gospel today. Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!

I’ll admit something to you this morning. I don’t like to preach on this text—that is, my sinful flesh rebels against it. I’d much rather preach every week on a Gospel like we had last week in the feeding of the 4,000. Because today’s Gospel is the kind that preachers tend to hear complaints about when they preach on it, and my flesh would rather just make everyone happy. But that would be to serve man, rather than God. Today’s Gospel is the word of Christ, and He sends it to you for a reason, that you may not ever hear those terrible words from Him, I never knew you; depart from Me. If you have set up an idol in your heart, if you have not taken the doctrine of Christ seriously, if you have not obeyed Christ’s command to beware of false prophets, then now is the time to repent and put your faith in Jesus, who died for you and still gives you His grace right here in His Word and right here in His Sacrament—full forgiveness, and a new beginning, starting (again) today.

And for those who take Jesus’ warning seriously to beware of false prophets and are worried about whether you can actually do it, know that Christ has not abandoned you on this earth to fend for yourself, as if it depended on you to find or to figure out the truth on your own.  For this very thing He has given His Holy Spirit, whom you received from God when you were baptized. God has equipped you with the full armor of God, as Paul says to the Ephesians, if you will only put it on and wear it as you fight against the devil and His evil forces—not with weapons of steel or of human reason, but with the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. And what did Jesus say to His disciples who believed in Him? If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. You have His promise and His Holy Spirit to guide you into all truth and to set you free through it, “If you abide in My word.” Well, here is His Word for you each and every week. You have it to review and study in your homes whenever you wish. And we will be starting a rather intensive Bible study in just a few weeks in order to better equip you to judge between truth and falsehood.  Don’t let the idols keep you away. The better you know Christ and His Word, the more equipped you will be to beware of false prophets. Amen.

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