The wise man watches out for false prophets

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Sermon for Trinity 8

Matthew 7:15-23  +  Jeremiah 23:16-29  +  Acts 20:27-38

Do you want to be wise?  Only a fool wouldn’t, right?  Jesus once told a parable, as he was wrapping up his famous Sermon on the Mount, a parable of two men – a wise and a foolish builder.  The wise builder built his house on the rock; the foolish builder built his house on sand.  The wind and waves demolished the foolish man’s house, but the wise man’s house was undamaged by wind and waves.  To build on the rock, Jesus says, is to build on his words – to hear them, to heed them, to do them.

We have one of those words before us today in our Gospel, the verses that come right before Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish builders, his final word of wisdom in the Sermon on the Mount.  It’s a word you may not think of very often, but if you would be wise, you would do well to take Jesus’ words to heart and put them into practice.  And what are those words?  Watch out for false prophets!  That’s what the wise man does.

What is a false prophet?  A “prophet” is one who speaks a message from God.  A false prophet is one who claims to speak a message from God, but in reality, his message isn’t from God.  Sometimes false prophets are scam artists who lie on purpose.  But as Jesus reveals in today’s Gospel, most false prophets honestly believe they’re serving the Lord Jesus – while, in reality, they neither know the real Jesus nor are they known by him as his people.

There have always been false prophets, and there always will be.  You heard in the First Lesson today about those false prophets in the days of Jeremiah who proclaimed peace from the Lord God to those who despised the Lord God.  You heard the Apostle Paul warn the Ephesian Christians in the Second Lesson today about the false prophets who were bound to come, savage wolves, men who would arise from their own congregations and who would distort the truth.  Keep watch, Paul said. Be on your guard!

Watch out!, Jesus says in Matthew 24, because in the last days many false prophets will come in his name and deceive many.  Paul warns Pastor Timothy about the same thing: The time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.  They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.

One look at the world today, and you see – Jesus was speaking the truth!  Paul was speaking the truth!  Many false prophets have gone out into the world, and many people will not put up with sound doctrine.  And notice in our Gospel, Jesus is not talking about all the pagan religions and the pseudo-Christian cults of the world.  He’s talking about false prophets in Christian churches, those who call Jesus “Lord”!

There is a pope in Rome who calls Jesus “Lord,” who says many nice things about Jesus, many true things.  But he also says that you are not saved by faith alone in Jesus, but by faith and deeds of love; that Jesus’ merits are not enough to cover you, that his blood did not pay for all your guilt, that the merits of Mary and the saints will help you, too.

There is a whole branch of Pentecostal or Evangelical preachers who call Jesus “Lord,” but who deny the Means by which that Lord has chosen to forgive us our sins – through the preaching of the Word, and through Baptism, which, they, claim, is not the washing of rebirth and renewal in the Holy Spirit. And they deny the forgiveness of sins in the Lord’s Supper, where, they claim, Jesus’ body and blood are really not present.

There are also Lutheran preachers who call Jesus “Lord,” but who have taken his Word and twisted it to mean whatever they want it to mean.  No church is immune to the influence of false teaching; no church is immune to the presence of false teachers.

I say to you what the Apostle John said to his people, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

Watch out for them, Jesus says.  They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.  They come to you in sheep’s clothing – so don’t expect to be able to identify false prophet by how impressive they look or by how inspiring they sound.  Don’t try to identify them by how much outward success they have, or by how good they make you feel, or by the size of the crowd they gather.

How, then, will you identify the false prophets?  By their fruit you will recognize them, Jesus says.  And what is “the fruit” of a prophet?  It’s his doctrine and his practice – the whole of his teaching.  So a false prophet may teach many things that are true, just like the prophets in Jeremiah’s day did.  The pope says lots of true things, so do the TV and radio preachers.  They make plenty of true statements; but where there is error mixed in, it’s like having a lump of unleavened dough and adding a bit of yeast to it. Can you really separate the leavened parts from the unleavened parts anymore?  Or it’s like having a quart of good strawberries, but in the middle, touching them all, is a rotting, stinking, moldy strawberry.  Even the good ones around it get thrown into the trash.

How do you evaluate the fruit – the doctrine and practice – of a prophet, a pastor, a preacher?  People tell me sometimes, “I’m looking for a church that teaches what I believe.”  Do you see how backwards that is?  It turns your beliefs into the benchmark, the touchstone for judging a prophet’s fruit.  No, no, that won’t do.

You evaluate the fruit of a prophet first and foremost by the Word of God itself.  Now, every false prophet in the history of the Church has quoted from the Bible.  Satan himself quoted from the Bible when he tempted Jesus in the wilderness.  Quoting from the Bible isn’t enough to prove a prophet’s fruit to be good.  Getting straight the Bible’s whole message – that’s what you have to look for.  Recognizing throughout the Scriptures that, as Jesus said, “These are they that testify concerning me.” Christ is the goal of the Scriptures. Christ must therefore also be the goal of Christian preaching.  Anything else obscures Christ our Savior, removes the certainty of our salvation and the comfort of the Gospel.

How did Jesus summarize the message he entrusted to his apostles after his resurrection from the dead?  He opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations.  What was the climax and the goal of the Apostle Peter’s preaching on the Day of Pentecost?   Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins.  How did the Apostle Paul summarize the theme of his message to the Corinthians?  For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

So you evaluate a preacher’s preaching by the Word of God:  Is he calling sin what God’s Word calls sin?  Is he preaching repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of sins, or is he preaching something else?  Is he preaching Christ crucified and risen from the dead or is he focusing on something else? Is he preaching the forgiveness of sins by faith alone in Christ, or is he preaching that Christ did his part; now you have to do yours?    Is he preaching the message of the cross or is he preaching a message of miracles, a theology of glory, a how-to-live-a-more-fulfilling-life-on-earth message?  Look at the fruit! Is it good or bad?  Watch out for false prophets!

There is another test that should rightly be applied to evaluate the fruit of a prophet.  Does his message agree with the Confessions of the Church?  You see, the Creeds and the Confessions of the Lutheran Church do not contain any “new” things. They simply proclaim the “old” things, what the Christian Church had always taught about the Scriptures since the days of the apostles.  The Lutheran Confessions are the Scriptures rightly taught and explained and practiced.  Alongside and under the Scriptures, the Confessions are the benchmark by which we, as a Lutheran congregation, are to judge the doctrine and practice of every pastor and every preacher, to see whether it is good or bad.

Judge for yourselves if the Confessions are good fruit or bad:

Human beings have not kept the law of God but have transgressed it. Their corrupted human nature, thoughts, words, and deeds battle against the law. For this reason they are subject to God’s wrath, to death and all temporal afflictions, and to the punishment of the fires of hell. As a result, the Gospel, in its strict sense, teaches what people should believe, namely, that they receive from God the forgiveness of sins; that is, that the Son of God, our Lord Christ, has taken upon Himself the curse of the law and borne it, atoned and paid for all our sins; that through Him alone we are restored to God’s grace, obtain the forgiveness of sins through faith and are delivered from death and all the punishments of our sins and are saved eternally. . . . It is good news, joyous news, that God does not want to punish sin but to forgive it for Christ’s sake.

Aren’t you glad – aren’t you thankful to have a solid, Scriptural, Christ-centered confession like that as the foundation for your church? But we hold it in trembling hands, knowing that we neither deserve to hold the truth like this, nor are we capable of holding onto it.

But Jesus has given us this promise – that he will keep his own from being led astray.  And Jesus has given us the means by which he will keep his promise – his Word that endures forever, and preachers of it who will produce the good fruit of right teaching.

So watch out for false prophets! Jesus speaks to you, his disciples, today and tells you that you have work to do, that following him will not be easy or comfortable or simple, that following him means knowing his voice and turning away from anyone who doesn’t speak with his voice.

Fathers, mothers, grandparents, you have been given this task of being vigilant, not just for yourselves, but also for your children and grandchildren.  Sunday School classes resume next week.  Don’t make excuses for not sending your children to learn their Savior’s voice so that they can watch out for all the imitators out there.  Bible study continues as always, but let it not be as always that only a few come to learn.  Take seriously the charge of the Lord Jesus today to watch out for false prophets.  You can only recognize the false if you know the true.  The only way to know is to know God’s Word and the right confession of it.  There is no substitute for study.

There are many foolish people in this world who build their house on sand, who put their eternal destiny in jeopardy by not being concerned about knowing the truth of God’s Word and seeking the preacher who preaches it.  Don’t be one of them.  Build on the rock of Jesus’ Word, including his word to watch out for false prophets.  Then you will be wise, and no wind and no waves will be able to tear down your house, built as it is on the living and enduring Word of God.  Amen.

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