Listen to it:
False Prophets on the Narrow Way
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“For the gate is narrow, and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:14, ESV). My brothers and sisters in Christ, there is life at the end of the tunnel. I am only beginning to get to know you and, for many of you, I don’t know if your life has been hard or easy. I know some of you have faced challenge after challenge, setback after setback, sickness after sickness, death after death. Whether that is the case in your life, most of us have had times in our lives when the way that leads to that life at the end of the tunnel seems to constrict around us, pressing in on us, squeezing the breath from our lungs. Whatever your particular circumstances and experiences, you were each put together with the rest of us because you, like us, were baptized into the new life of Jesus Christ. We walk together on the same baptismal path until Jesus completes our baptism in death and resurrection at the end of time. Nevertheless, the way that leads to the gate of life is hard. The physical, psychological, and emotional challenges certainly add to the difficulty of that way, and the devil is not above using such experiences to pull you off the road. But in our text for today, Jesus tells us of another demonic obstacle on the path to the fullness of life: false prophets.
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15-16, ESV). Watch out for them. Recognize them and keep away. You will know them by their fruits. Our first inclination is to take the fruits of the false prophets as their actions. That’s what people usually mean when they quote this verse. But Jesus is not talking about some evil deed that will mark off the false prophets from the true. If that were the case, we would not have to watch out for them because they would be obvious. St. Paul writes to the Galatians: “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21, ESV). If we don’t recognize these things as evil, poisonous fruit, then we have a bigger problem than false prophets. But when it comes to false prophets, discernment is a little harder. Jesus says that these false prophets won’t look all that much different from me and you. They might look better than us. They might appear to have more faith or more deeds or both. Remember, they come dressed as sheep; that is, they pretend to be followers of the Good Shepherd. With false prophets, as with true, their fruits are found in what they teach. A false prophet is one who declares that God has said this, when He has not said it, and one who teaches that God did not say so, when He has. The fruit is the evidence of the tree. It’s obvious that an apple tree will have apples on it and a peach tree will have peaches on it. But what if no one ever told you the difference between apples and peaches? The only way you could distinguish between them would be to guess, but that’s not very reliable when you want to make apple pie and not peach cobbler. However, apples and peaches are both good for you. How much more important it is to distinguish correctly between good fruit and poisonous fruit! They both appear good; the only difference is that one will give you life and the other will kill you.
How, then, can we learn to distinguish between the false and the true prophets? The one sure way is the one St. John gives to the congregation to which he wrote his first letter. “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. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already” (1 John 4:1-3, ESV). And no one can confess that Jesus Christ is Lord except in the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3). If we are to distinguish between those who confess Jesus Christ and those who do not, we should also understand that such a confession must include all the words inspired by the Spirit of Jesus-all the Scriptures-and the key that opens His holy Word is Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for the salvation of the world. Jesus is the Word of God in human flesh, and His Spirit is the same Spirit who speaks in the written Word. Test the spirits. If you hear something from someone claiming to speak for God, including me, you have the responsibility as the people of God to test those words by Jesus Christ as the Scriptures testify to Him. And the only way to test spirits by the Scriptures is to know the Scriptures, which, I hope it’s obvious, requires diligently reading and hearing them.
It’s not too hard to recognize false prophecy in its most blatant forms. We can easily recognize the false prophets who deny that Jesus is God, or deny that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, or deny that forgiveness of sins and eternal life is an absolutely free gift of God that can be received only by faith. Those false prophets do exist within Christian congregations, and to them the truth must be spoken in love. If they will not repent, they will be treated as a tax collector or a pagan, which is to say, as one who needs to be restored to baptismal grace.
But let us give credit where credit is due: the devil does not always play the same note, and he certainly does not always play at the same volume. There are many more subtle ways of deception. So, can you recognize the false prophecy that infects you? There is the false prophecy that gives up God’s holy ground to the fickle winds of social acceptability. Here, the first and greatest commandment is “Thou shalt not offend.” And the second is like unto it: “Thou shalt not call wrong what the world has called right.” “Did God really say that Jesus is the only way to heaven?” “Did God really say only one man and one woman for life?” “Did God really say, ‘Love your neighbor exactly as yourself,’ instead of looking out for your own interests first?” “Did God really say…?” The evil spirit of false prophecy is as old as the Garden of Eden. And then there is the false prophecy that explains away in your own case what you would never allow in others’. You can always find extenuating circumstances for your “mistakes.” You had to lie to protect your spouse’s feelings. That person has no excuse. Why have her children fallen away from the Faith? Yours are just “finding their own path.” The temptation came on too fast for you to stand strong against it. He must have allowed himself to be tempted. Certainly God knows how much pressure I’m under; He can’t hold that sin against me. That person acts like she doesn’t even know that what she’s doing is a sin. Do not be deceived! God has no double standards. If it’s no tolerance for them, it’s no tolerance for you or for me. You know, that whole speck and plank thing. Do not presume to take the throne of God in final judgment, lest you be judged by your own strict standards. Beware of false prophets, even when they come dressed in your own skin. Beware the fruit of self-righteousness and beware the fruit of complacency in the face of false doctrine. They are both poisonous, and they are both fatal.
As you walk the hard way that leads to life, you need inoculation against the poison of false prophets within and without. They are not always obvious and we are sometimes happy to be deceived. But Jesus, the Great Physician, stands ready with the fail-safe vaccine, and it is the vaccine of the baptized disciple: the cleansing blood of Jesus, who was crucified in the place of all people, even of false prophets and hypocrites like us. Make disciples, Jesus says to the Church, by baptizing them in the Name of the only true God and “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). This “all” can be summed up in the words of the Creeds, and it is the rock-hard confession upon which Christ builds His Church. In the mouth of St. Peter: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16, ESV). If you want to be the wise man of Jesus’ parable, the only foundation that will withstand the storms of life, including the waves and winds of false prophecy, is the one which Christ Himself has built. “For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in which the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (Ephesians 2:18-20, ESV). “And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock” (Matthew 7:25, ESV). And “the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18, ESV). There is life at the end of the tunnel, and it is burning brightly in the house built upon the Rock of Christ, the New Jerusalem. From that eternal dwelling that awaits us in the new creation, the Light of Christ shines here and now on this house. While the way may be hard that leads to life, we do not walk alone, because we have all been baptized into the Lord, who has already gone ahead of us through death and into life. His forgiving and life-giving Word stands forever as a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Psalm 119:105) as we walk the narrow way.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 4:7, ESV).
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 5/27/08