Today, Jesus warns you not about false messages taught in the world, but about false preaching in His church - not about obvious evils, but about evil masquerading as goodness. “Beware of false prophets – false preachers – who come to you in sheep’s clothing – in clothing like the Lamb of God – but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”
Crabapple trees bloom beautifully early in the season – much more beautiful than many other trees. But their fruit is bitter and sour. And, outdoors, kids always find the reddest round berries to eat. You warn them, “don’t eat those, they might be poisonous.” To the unexperienced they look good.
“Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light”, Scripture says [2 Corinthians 11:14]. Evil comes looking good. And false preaching comes often from whatever kinds of preachers, teachers, or commentators you are most naturally attracted to. Charismatic. Kind. Humble. Maybe morally strict. Or maybe morally tolerant. Ultra-conservative. Or a liberal social justice warrior. Whatever looks like sheep’s wool to you.
Under their sheep’s clothing, these preachers are ravenous wolves – probably not because these men or women are actually out to get you, but instead they themselves have come to believe a message that simply is not true – a message not in accord with God’s Word.
The false preachers, false prophets, of which our Lord Jesus warns us today are not men who speak in evil’s name, but men and women who speak and even do good works in Christ’s name. Our Lord describes them today as those who, on the Last Day, will say, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?”
So, here’s the warning: Beware of a false message which by all appearances is a good message, preached in the name of Jesus by those who by all appearances are perhaps the best. Beware of lamb’s skin and sheep’s white wool, underneath of which are hidden false teachings. On the Last Day, Jesus will say to these wool wearers, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” To teach falsehood in the name of Jesus is the lawlessness of which Jesus speaks.
But “you will recognize them by their fruits.” Just as you recognize the true apple tree and the true raspberry bush by inspecting the fruit that grows on their branches, so you also will recognize false prophets by inspecting the words that come from their mouth. The fruit of a preacher is his words.
In your Old Testament reading today from Jeremiah 23:16-29, our Lord, speaking through the prophet Jeremiah, says that false prophets are those who speak from their own minds and those who listen to false prophets are those who follow their own hearts.
So, who do you listen to, brothers and sisters? On the tv, on the internet, or on the radio – whether preachers, speakers, or perhaps political commentators - do you applaud only those who say it the way you want to hear it? Or do you evaluate their words by THE Word, the fruit of your Lord’s mouth? Do you stop and evaluate what voices you are letting shape you, or do you just let it all pour in?
Whether they are preachers speaking in the name of Christ, or commentators purporting to speak for “Christian America”, or other commentators purporting to speak for social justice, who are you listening to and are they speaking what the Word of God speaks?
Brothers and sisters, be diligent in knowing your own faith. Be diligent in knowing the Scriptures. Be diligent in knowing what God has said so you can more confidently recognize a false message spoken.
If you remember from our Old Testament reading, what false message was preached by the false preachers in Jeremiah’s day? The false prophets in Jeremiah’s days preached the message of “No Disaster.” “No Destruction.” They preached this to a people who, for their sins, were indeed coming under disaster and destruction by the hands of the Babylonian empire.
Yet the message of the false prophets to those who “despise the word of the Lord” was, “It shall be well with you”; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, “No disaster shall come upon you.” [Jeremiah 23:17] A popular message then and today.
God’s true prophet, Jeremiah, preached that their captivity and destruction was in fact proceeding from God’s hand to bring about their repentance, for their sake. God’s true preachers love enough to speak hard truths.
Today it has become popular for preachers, in Christ’s name, to preach that there is no hell, or, more often, that hell will be empty. And the coming Last Day is now often preached in such a way that it contains no judgment, no wrath, no disaster. “No disaster shall come”, “It shall be well with you”, is the drumbeat of their Gospel.
Lutherans have not been unaffected by this false message. The head bishop of another Lutheran Church body, which has strayed in many serious ways, has been quoted recently as saying, “If there is a hell, I believe it’s empty.” And our own Synod, in its own ways, is not immune to this deceptive message of “No Disaster”.
Our Epistle reading today says, “if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” [Romans 8:13]. Another false message preached in Christ’s name today is that the desires of your flesh, in fact, define who you are. And God’s role now is to affirm you in your desires, whatever they are.
Men desiring men. Women desiring women. The New Testament, in Romans 1&2, warns that this is God’s judgment – that God has handed sinful mankind over to man’s own perverse desires. False preachers, in Jesus’ name, preach a god instead who affirms man’s disordered desires as valid.
And this affirmation is tempting. We know and love people who have fallen to such desires. So part of our heart wants a god who will sanction these desires. But this sheep’s clothing is not good. Under it is a wolf of a devil preventing fallen people from turning in repentance to the Savior who would heal them, who in fact has died to heal them. But now they don’t turn for salvation, but for affirmation.
The desires of the flesh. No fault divorce, gender identity confusion, gender role confusion, so called “ethically sourced pornography”, female clergy, now married-homosexual clergy, euthanasia, abortion, open marriages, cohabitation w/out marriage – all things which are now being affirmed and even promoted by preachers preaching in Jesus’ name.
In our current world, these issues are the sheep’s wool. Affirming these activities makes one good and righteous. In truth, these are all the wolf’s old message of “No Disaster, No Destruction” for those in the pews who want to be freed to live according to the desires of their flesh – “it shall be well with you.” “Surely you will not die.”
There is another desire of the flesh – the desire for more of this world’s goods. The desire to succeed, to have the good life, according to worldly standards and not God’s. For this desire of the flesh, false preachers are heaped up to affirm it, to preach and promise it. Instead, we should hear the One who taught us to take up our crosses and to forsake this world and life.
Of course, the preacher with the whitest sheep’s wool is the one who condemns the sins of others but never condemns your sins or his. These preachers are most beloved.
But, in truth, guilty sinners, those who fail often, those who must fall down and say, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner”, don’t go home as false prophets – instead they go home justified and forgiven by their Savior [Luke 18:9-14]. But those who say, “Lord, Lord”, “I’ve done it all well. I’ve done it better than others” - these are called the workers of lawlessness on the Last Day.
The fruit of a true preacher, whether in a pulpit or at home at the dinner table, is to speak God’s Law in all its truth, in accord with God’s Word, leaving nothing out, and altering nothing. And then to speak all of God’s Gospel in all its sweetness and love, according to the bloody truth of a Savior, God’s Son, Jesus, who died, not to save those who have done marvelous deeds, but to save the guilty and sinners and the ungodly for a better life.
Jesus is THE Prophet of all prophets. He spoke of Hell. And then He suffered Hell to deliver me from it. Jesus spoke God’s Law and God’s Gospel, and then He did what He spoke FOR YOU. He bore good fruit.
To end here, the Word of God – the written Word of God, the Scriptures, the Bible, is the Word of this very Lord and Savior and Prophet who loved you and died for you. Because of what He’s done for you, love His Word and never be willing to bend from it. And, because of all He’s done for you, trust His Word. He is trustworthy. He loves you. Therefore, trust His Word to be good and lean not toward what is only good in your own eyes.
False teachers abound. As you go through your week, ask, “Who am I listening to?” Make sure to be hearing those who speak what God’s Word speaks. Amen.