Beware of false prophets standing at the wide gate

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Sermon for Trinity 8

Romans 8:12-17  +  Matthew 7:15-23

Jesus gives all sorts of commands to His Christians, many of them right here in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7): Let your light so shine… If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out … And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off… Do not get divorced for just any reason… Do not swear… Turn the other cheek (and let your enemy slap you there)… Love your enemies…Bless those who curse you… Do not worry about your life…Seek first the kingdom of God…Do not judge, forgive, give… Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven. Pray! Ask, seek, knock! Do unto others…

Obeying all these commands isn’t what makes anyone a child of God and an heir of eternal life. No, these are the commands given to those who have already been made children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And as Jesus instructs His disciples, He not only shows them what the right path looks like, but warns them lest they stray from it.  Listen to the second-to-last-command Jesus gives His disciples in the Sermon on the Mount in the words just prior to our text this morning: Enter by the narrow gate, for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.

And so, as His final command in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus commands: Beware of false prophets. Why? Because just as the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, so there are many preachers and many prophets who stand at that wide gate, beckoning careless souls to enter there, to leave the narrow and difficult path that leads to life, the path where Jesus is. So Jesus teaches His Christians to be constantly on the lookout, knowing that many of the things people tell us, especially about Him and His kingdom, are going to be false and even dangerous.

Now, it’s easy to recognize some false prophets. They claim to come in the name of God, pretending to teach you about God, but they deny that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and that salvation is by faith alone in Him. All modern-day Jewish Rabbi’s (all who still adhere to Judaism) and all Muslim Imams fall into that category. Beware of them! Watch out for them! They are very obviously ravenous wolves.

But make no mistake. It will require more effort to recognize other false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. In other words, they look and sound innocent. They look and sound harmless. They look and sound like Christians, sincere Christians who are teaching you about God, “in the name of Jesus,” telling you lies, which, if you believe them, can lead you astray from the narrow path that leads to life.

So it’s critical that you be critical whenever you hear anyone trying to teach you anything about God, including me.

Of course, the laziness of your sinful flesh doesn’t like to bother with that, and many Christians call Jesus, “Lord, Lord,” but don’t do what the Lord says here. Because being critical requires effort. And being critical of others’ beliefs and teachings doesn’t seem very nice. It isn’t very popular. The feeble flesh that dwells in us doesn’t like to be unpopular, doesn’t like to be called a hater, after all. It’s so much easier just to listen to everyone and drink it all in, wandering from this church to that, from this preacher’s sermon to the next, from one Christian radio station or TV broadcast to another, one Christian book to another, and don’t forget the so-called Christian music out there, which also ends up trying to teach you something. It’s so much easier just to listen and assume the best about everything you hear. But that’s not the Holy Spirit of God leading you to do that. The Spirit of God leads you with these very words of Jesus to do what Jesus says. To watch out. To beware.

Now, even if you are led by the Spirit—as all the sons of God are, according to Paul’s words to the Romans—to be critical, to watch out, to beware, how do you accomplish it? How do you critique? How do you judge?

By their fruits you will know them, Jesus says.

The fruits of a prophet can include his life, how he behaves, the deeds he does. There are many men—and women—whose lives also betray, or at least eventually manifest, the rottenness on the inside.

But the real evaluation and examination of a preacher’s fruit has to do with evaluating and examining his teaching. And just as a piece of fruit might look fine on one side but turn it over and it’s full of rot on the other side, or it might look fine on the outside but cut into it and it’s moldy or crawling with worms on the inside, so it is with a preacher’s teaching. You have to examine it carefully, on all sides, to see if it’s good or bad. As St. John also wrote in his first Epistle, Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

Again, the laziness and the self-centeredness of the flesh steps in here and says, OK, I’ll judge the teacher’s words by what I think is right. If I agree with what he says, his teaching is good. If I disagree, then his teaching is bad. But don’t forget that you carry around a sinful flesh, which affects your understanding and your judgment, a flesh which still doesn’t like to hear the good law of God applied to your sins, and still doesn’t want to believe the good Gospel of Christ, because the Gospel says that your righteousness doesn’t count before God to earn you His favor; only the righteousness of Christ makes you pleasing in His sight, through faith. So you can’t just rely on “what you think or what you like.” You have to rely on God’s Spirit-inspired Word.

But in order to use God’s Word for the purpose of judging the words of a prophet, you obviously have to know God’s Word and know it well. And again, the lazy sinful flesh fights against that. It’s difficult to find time to read the Bible at home. It’s difficult to get up for Bible class and to treat it as a priority. It’s difficult to pay attention when you get there. But, you know what? difficult is the way which leads to life, and you need to be qualified to critique what you hear from everyone, including me, like the blessed Bereans in the book of Acts were praised for doing long ago when they heard the Apostle Paul teach.

Now, you who have been instructed in the Christian faith know the chief points of God’s Word: That the true and only God is three persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—in one undivided essence. That He created all things in six days by His almighty Word. That man rebelled against God early on and plunged our entire race into sin, passing on a corrupt and sinful nature from generation to generation. That God entrusted His Word to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, proclaiming His holy Law and also foretelling and foreshadowing the great sacrifice that the Christ would make to atone for the sins of the world. That God sent His Son into human flesh so that He might be the perfect Mediator between God and Man, a perfect High Priest, so that He might bear our sins in His body and fulfill God’s holy Law in His perfect life, and then die for our sins and be raised to life for our justification. That God seated Christ Jesus at His right hand in the heavenly places, who now rules over all things for the good of His Church. That He has sent His Holy Spirit into the world to work through the Means of Grace—the preaching of the Gospel, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper—to convict sinners of their sins and to convert them to faith in Christ Jesus, by which alone we are justified and saved. That, through these appointed Means, God the Holy Spirit will gather and preserve His Church and continue to strengthen and preserve her members in the faith, even as they bear the cross in this world. And that, at the Last Day, Jesus will return to this earth visibly, to raise the dead, to give eternal life to all His believers and to punish the wicked and unbelieving with eternal fire.

Those are the chief points, and there are many subpoints in between. All of it matters. All of it is the Word of Christ. So beware of all those who depart even a hair’s breadth from any of it!

As a church, we have been working at this for a long time, this bewaring of false prophets. It’s why we exist as a Lutheran church, because Luther finally couldn’t just sit back and do nothing when he saw the pope and his adherents leading Christians astray with their false teachings, away from the narrow path that leads to life. And for the last five hundred years we’ve continued to practice the words of Jesus. We are Lutherans because we have identified the bad fruit in all the churches around us. In particular, we are ELDoNA Lutherans because we have identified the bad fruit in the Lutheran churches around us. Admittedly, this has meant that we’ve “bewared” ourselves down to a little church in a little diocese that has practically no visible impact on the world. Well, if that’s what faithfulness to Christ’s command in Matthew 7 looks like, then we should be perfectly fine with it, shouldn’t we? Jesus never promised that there was safety in numbers, did He? On the contrary, what did He say? Wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.

But there the sinful flesh rears its ugly head once again, gnawing at us to be envious of the larger crowds and all the earthly advantages they seem to have—envious of the people who are either being tragically deceived by false prophets or who are intentionally refusing to obey the command of Jesus.

How foolish. We have been given God’s Word as an undeserved gift. We have been given the faithful witness of the Lutheran Confessions, which show how the doctrine we confess today has been the doctrine of the true Church ever since the time of the apostles, even as there have always been false prophets around, trying to sneak in their false teachings under the guise of sheep’s clothing. Make it a priority for yourself and your family not to be negligent with the Word of God and with prayer. Take the Scriptures and read them, study them, learn them, memorize them, and attend Bible class as well as the Divine Service. Hold onto what you have been given, with the strength that the Holy Spirit Himself will provide. Treasure it, guard it, preserve it. It is the narrow gate. It is the difficult way. But it leads to life. In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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