************ Sermon on Matthew 7:15-20 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on December 9, 2001
Topic: False ProphetsJesus tells us this evening that Christians should be able to detect the counterfeit, what Professor Agassiz calls a humbug. Christians should be able to detect false prophets.
A group of students at Harvard once tried to fool Agassiz, the famous professor of zoology. They took parts from a number of different bugs and with great skill attached them together to make a creation they were sure would baffle their teacher. On the chosen day they brought it to him and asked that he identify it. As he inspected it with great care, the students grew more and more sure they had tricked this genius.
Finally, Professor Agassiz straightened up and said, "I have identified it."
Scarcely able to control their amusement, they asked its name. Agassiz replied, "It is a humbug."
I Watch Out
A Jesus tells us this evening to"Watch out for false prophets." Who are these people? Jesus uses the word "prophet" but today we call them pastors or teachers or professors or Church School leaders.
B I want you to notice that Jesus describes the false prophets as "ferocious wolves" in "sheep's clothing." Jesus is telling us they are dangerous. Just like smoking is hazardous for your health, so these false prophets are hazardous for the health of the church.
What happens when wolves get in among a flock of sheep? They start a frenzy of death and destruction and mayhem. The flock is decimated and scattered. Jesus tells us the same thing happens when false prophets get in among the flock of the Lord. When they are unchecked and unstopped they cause death and destruction and mayhem. The sheep of God's pasture are decimated and scattered.
C I want you to also notice how hard it is to detect the false prophets Jesus talks about this evening. He says, "They come to you in sheep's clothing." These people creep into the church without the church being aware of their presence. They look like the right people, they sound like the right people, and no one suspects they are anything but. Neither their teaching nor their conduct is outrageous – for if that were the case everybody would recognize them for what they are and they would no longer be "ferocious wolves" in "sheep's clothing."
That's why Jesus tells us "Watch out for false prophets." "Be on your guard. Be vigilant. Be discerning. Don't fall asleep on the walls of Zion." Don't forget, it is hard to tell the difference between a true and a false prophet. "Watch out" or else you will be taken in by wolves in "sheep's clothing."
II False Doctrine
A The false prophet that Jesus warns us against appears to be thoroughly Christian. He uses all of the right Christian phrases and Biblical words. He talks about God, he talks about Jesus, he talks about the cross, he emphasizes the love of God, he seems to be saying everything that a Christian would say. So you do not suspect there is anything wrong.
B What is wrong with their teaching? The best way of answering this is to look at what Jesus says in verses 13-14:
(Mt 7:13-14) "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. (14) But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it."False prophets have no narrow gate and narrow road. Their road and gate to heaven and everlasting life is broad and wide.
In this light I want you to consider a recent statement by the Pope. He said heaven is open to all as long as they are good. He said at an audience that "all of the just on earth, including those who ignore Christ and His church" are "called upon to build the kingdom of God." In other words, the road and gate to heaven is broad and wide. But we know better, don't we? We know that heaven is not open to all as long as they are good. We know that heaven is only open to all who repent and believe in Jesus Christ. In other words, the road and gate to heaven is narrow and small.
There is nothing offensive about the false prophet. He is in "sheep's clothing" – so attractive, so pleasant, so nice to look at. He has such a nice and comfortable and comforting message. He pleases everybody and everybody speaks well of him. He is never persecuted for his preaching, he is never criticized severely.
A false prophet tries to remove the offense of the Gospel. With his smiling, pleasant face he preaches about the love of God, but neglects to speak about God's holiness, righteousness, anger, and justice. He never makes anyone tremble in the presence of a holy and awesome God and avoids all mention of the Final Judgment.. The false prophet doesn't like to talk about sin and total depravity and man's inability to do good on his own; instead, he says man is basically good. He doesn't talk about the need for repentance and conversion; instead, he talks about moral improvement. He doesn't preach Christ as our substitute Who died on the cross in order to atone for our sins. He talks around the cross. He talks about the people at the cross and becomes sentimental about the arms of Jesus stretched out wide in love. He says nothing about the cross as foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jew. However, he has plenty to say about Christ as our example in life.
To sum up, we would have to say that the false prophet comes to us in sheep's clothing and offers an easy salvation and an easy life.
C All of God's people have to watch out for these ferocious wolves in sheep's clothing. But, it is especially those who are elders who are being called to "watch out for false prophets."
This is not easy. You see, it is not so much what the false prophet says as what he doesn't say that makes him a false prophet. He is guilty of concealing the truth. He reveals and preaches only what people want to hear, what makes them feel good and safe and secure. This means that God's people have to check what is being said against the whole message of the Bible. They have to ask questions like:
-Is there any particular Bible truth that is being neglected or ignored?
-Is the full counsel of God being preached; that is, are people being told about both salvation AND damnation?
-Is something being emphasized over and over again at the expense of other truth.
-Is the prophet or pastor riding his own personal hobby-horse all the time?
III False Conduct
A After warning us about these ferocious wolves in sheep's clothing, our Lord adds, "By their fruit you will recognize them" (vs 16). Here we see the Lord reminding us of the connection between doctrine and life. He is telling us that dogmatics and ethics can never be separated. False prophets, He says, can be recognized by wrong morals. The history of God's Old Testament people tells us that injustice and social evils entered into Israel's life as soon as the people abandoned the service and worship of the one only true God.
So, we need to be on guard that we have the right doctrine and right teaching – because right conduct flows from this as does water from a fountain.
The Puritans spoke at great length about what they called "temporary believers." They were talking about people who came under the influence of the Gospel and gave the appearance of being truly born-again and converted. They appeared to be Christian. Maybe they came forward during a crusade or a revival. Maybe they were so moved by the pastor's sermon that on the spot they gave their life to Jesus. Whatever the case may be, the Puritans called them "temporary believers" because later these people gave clear, unmistakable evidence that they had never become Christian after all.
The Apostle Peter talks about such people in his second letter. He mentions those who had come into the Church and had been accepted as Christians, but then left the church. He describes them in these terms:
(2Pt 2:22) "A dog returns to its vomit," and, "A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud."What he means is that a person's real nature eventually reveals itself. The unregenerate man eventually goes back to the pollution and corruption of the world that he came from (2 Pet 1:4; 2:20). The false prophet – being a temporary believer – eventually gives clear evidence that he or she is false.
B The Lord elaborates on this by drawing upon the picture of a vineyard or orchard. He says,
(Mt 7:16) Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?This question doesn't need an answer. You don't get grapes from thornbushes nor do you get figs from thistles. We all know that grapes come from vines and figs come from fig trees. And, thornbushes produce thorns that hurt and thistles produce weeds that choke out the good seed. In other words, "every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit" (vs17).
Likewise, says Jesus, false prophets – like a bad tree – produce bad fruit. False prophets, like thorns and thistles, produce fruit in keeping with their nature. "A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit" (vs 18).
C "By their fruit you will recognize them" (vs 16). So what kind of fruit can we expect to see in the lives of false prophets and their followers? What does Jesus have in mind?
False prophets come with new theories about the interpretation of the Bible. God's commands are made flexible and worldly permissiveness enters the church. Our "mother" church in the Netherlands is a perfect illustration of this as are countless churches spread across the North American landscape. So what do we see in these churches and sometimes even in our own circles? We see that pre-marital sexual relations, abortion, divorce, homosexuality, and other evils are condoned and sometimes even encouraged. We see open communion with no guarding of the Lord's Table. We see a failure to exercise any form of church discipline. And, too often we see that those who protest against this are condemned as homophobic, narrow-minded, bigoted, kill-joys who are out-of-touch with reality.
We must be on guard not just against false prophets and their teachings but we must also be on guard against their fruit. We must be on guard that we do not lower or abandon the Bible's norms for Christian life. We need to always remember that grapes are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are figs from thistles. We need to always remember that good trees bear good fruit and bad trees bear bad fruit.
D "By their fruit you will recognize them" (vs 16). We should also ask what kind of fruit can we expect to see in the lives of those who do follow Jesus?
I think we all know what Jesus has in mind. Good and faithful Christians are filled with the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Good and faithful Christians tell others about Jesus. Good and faithful Christians worship the Lord. Good and faithful Christians help out the poor and needy, the widow and orphan, the sick and mourning. Good and faithful Christians are involved in the life of the church and Kingdom. Don't forget, good trees bear good fruit.
IV Judgment Warning
Finally, our Lord issues a warning to false prophets and those who follow them. "Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire" (vs 19).
In these words Jesus tells us the ultimate standard by which we will be judged. Before the Final Judgment throne what God will be looking for is "good fruit." Don't forget, a good tree bears good fruit and a bad tree bears bad fruit (vs 17). Those with right and correct and heartfelt doctrine about God and Christ and the cross and conversion and repentance cannot help but bear good fruit. Those with wrong and incorrect and insincere doctrine about God and Christ and the cross and conversion and repentance cannot help but bear bad fruit. By their fruit you will recognize whether someone is of the Lord or against the Lord.
Do you see what happens with bad trees? Do you see what happens to trees that do not bear good fruit? As I bike around the countryside I am able to take a closer look at orchards than those who drive by at 60 MPH. Every once in a while you see a "bad" orange tree or walnut tree that is cut down. The trunk and branches are cut up and thrown into a fire. That's what will happen, says Jesus, to every person that does not produce good fruit.
Jesus is talking, of course, about the Final Judgment and the everlasting fires of hell. False prophets and their followers don't produce good fruit; in fact, they can't produce good fruit. So their end is fire.
"By their fruit you will recognize them." False prophets make for bad trees and bad trees produce bad fruit and bad trees are burned in the fire.
"By their fruit you will recognize them." True prophets make for good trees and good trees produce good fruit and good trees are rewarded by the Father.
"By their fruit you will recognize them." As you look at your life, as others look at your life, will they see a good tree or a bad tree?
"By their fruit you will recognize them." As you look at this church, as others look at this church, will they see a good tree or a bad tree?
"By their fruit you will recognize them." As you look at the Christian Reformed Church, as others look at the Christian Reformed Church, will they see a good tree or a bad tree?
You can e-mail our pastor at: Pastor, Trinity United Reformed Church
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