But if we walk in the light, just as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanses us from all sin. 1 John 1:7

Trinity 8 – 2023

Matthew 7:15-23

Jesus says, “Beware of false prophets.” Those of us who are familiar with the Bible know about this statement. For this reason, it doesn’t sound all that strange to us.

But we need to realize that for most people today, the very concept of a false prophet, or of a true prophet, is difficult to grasp. The categories of “true” and “false” have largely been replaced in our modern society by the notion that everyone has his or her own “truth,” which no one else is allowed to criticize – even when that personal “truth” violates objective facts and common sense.

Another thing that makes it hard for people in our culture to grasp the importance of looking out for false prophets, is the American emphasis on practicality. We don’t usually ask whether or not something is true, but whether or not something works.

Jesus, in the text from St. Matthew’s Gospel that we heard a few minutes ago, is not talking about the kind of false prophets that are such in obvious ways. He’s not talking about the high priest of the Church of Satan, or about the chief Ayatollah of Shi’ite Islam.

Instead, he’s talking about the importance of discerning when someone is a false prophet, in a situation when it is not immediately obvious that this is what he is.

He says, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing…” The false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing are the false prophets who look on the outside like true prophets.

Perhaps they have theological credentials from respected seminaries, or ordination certificates from established church bodies. Perhaps they have winsome personalities and well-honed rhetorical skills.

They may be sincere and likable. They may be highly successful in drawing crowds and in raising money.

Jesus does say, “You will know them by their fruits.” But those things are not the fruits we should be looking for, and measuring, in order to judge the fruits of a prophet, to determine whether or not he is a false prophet. The fruits of a prophet – as a prophet – are his prophecies: that is, his public doctrine, and the content and thrust of his preaching.

The attractive personality traits that may adorn the life of someone whose teaching is false, are to be seen as the kind of “sheep’s clothing” that Jesus warns us about so that we will not be taken in by those things, and thereby open ourselves up to being misinstructed and misled by someone who seems worthy of our trust.

If his doctrine doesn’t match God’s doctrine, as revealed in Scripture, that’s the fruit – the bad and dangerous fruit – that we are to take note of. And that’s the fruit that should lead us to stay away from a false prophet – even an outwardly friendly and kind false prophet.

Beware of false prophets. This is not just our Lord’s advice but is his solemn mandate. And it is a mandate that is not only for the attention of the church’s trained clergy but is for the attention also of the laity – indeed, for the laity in particular.

You cannot, in the final analysis, pass off to others your God-given duty to beware of false prophets. If you have a soul that is in need of the truth of God’s Word, then the truth of God’s Word – hearing it, believing it, and having it – is to be your chief concern.

For the sake of your own soul, and for the sake of the souls of others, you cannot set aside the duty that Christ has given to you to close your ears to preachers who preach falsely, to avoid religious practitioners who practice falsely, and to depart from ministers who minister falsely.

Jesus is deadly serious when he warns you, “Beware of false prophets.” Your obedience to this mandate truly is a matter of spiritual life and spiritual death.

Jesus said elsewhere, in St. John’s Gospel, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” The flip side of that would be this: “If you do not abide in my word, you are not truly my disciples; and you will not know the truth, and will remain in the guilt and bondage of your sins.”

Jesus is also deadly serious in his warnings to the prophets themselves. Those who hold an office of spiritual authority among God’s people are, by virtue of such an office, commissioned by God to proclaim his Word, and to bind consciences to his Word and only to his Word.

Jesus made his will in this respect clear to the apostles and to all his disciples when he said that they are to teach all nations “to observe everything that I have commanded you” – as St. Matthew records that solemn commission.

We, preachers, may not preach as binding doctrine our own opinions, conjectures, and theories in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and under his authority. If we arrogantly presume to do so, then a frightful accounting awaits us. Jesus says:

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’”

Jesus’ warning against false prophets is a mark of his love for us, and of his desire that we would remain always under the ministry of true prophets. He sends his true prophets into the world and into the church, and he wants us to seek them out.

He also tells us how to find them. Again, he says, “You will know them by their fruits.” As I’ve already noted, the fruits of a prophet are his prophecies. When that fruit is bad, the prophet is bad. But when that fruit is good, the prophet is good.

And the good fruit of a good prophet is the Word of God: correctly stated in accordance with the Scriptures; centered on Christ and his saving work; properly applied in the dual message of God’s judgment against sin and of God’s grace and redemption in Christ.

When a true prophet comes to us, we will notice that everything he says is drawn from and based on Scripture. For Lutherans in particular, our church provides us with a very helpful tool for carrying out this biblical discernment process, in the Small Catechism.

The Catechism, which summarizes – in an easy-to-learn format – the chief teachings of Scripture, is, in a sense, the “great equalizer” of the church. A common Christian equipped with a thorough knowledge of the Catechism can feel confident in his ability to judge and evaluate the preaching of even the most learned of theologians.

With the Catechism in hand, we can more easily recognize the biblical teachings of our faith when we hear them. And we can more readily notice when the biblical teachings of our faith are missing.

We will be able to notice whether God’s message to humanity is the message of the preacher to whom we are listening. And we will also be able to notice whether God’s message is being presented by that preacher in God’s way.

We certainly will learn from a faithful preacher what the Lord expects of us regarding how we should fulfill our obligations to God and man, and how we should honor the Lord in all our thoughts, words, and deeds. But even more so, we will learn from a faithful preacher that, on the basis of his Son’s death and resurrection for us, God’s heart toward us – in Christ – is the heart of a compassionate and forgiving Father, and not ultimately of a fearsome and severe judge.

We will learn, in our minds and in our hearts, that as the law has worked in our consciences a conviction of our sinfulness, so too does God then come to us with his pardon and peace, to heal us and to liberate us by the working of his own Divine Spirit.

He comes among us – in Baptism and in the remembrance of Baptism; in sermon and in Supper – to bestow upon us his righteousness, which covers over our sin. He comes among us so that he can dwell within us, in a mystical union that fills us with his own loving presence.

And God does this over and over again, continually and without ceasing, as his true Word is proclaimed and applied through the ministry of his true prophets.

The words of St. Paul, from the Epistle to the Romans, summarize the kind of gracious God we have, and the kind of gracious salvation from death and the devil that he offers in the means of grace: as he makes wonderful promises to us, and as we believe those promises:

“For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”

“For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”

Your loving Lord sends you true prophets, so that in faith you can know how much he cares about you, and what he was willing to do in order to have you as his own dear child.

So, a prophet who proclaims a God of wrath and judgment only, without mercy, is not a true prophet. Beware of such prophets. A prophet who proclaims an indifferent and indulgent God, who doesn’t judge because he doesn’t care, is not a true prophet. Beware of such prophets.

But a prophet who proclaims a God who loved the world so much that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life, is a true prophet. A prophet who proclaims that the wages of sin is death, but that the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord, is a true prophet.

A prophet who proclaims that all of us who have been baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ, is a true prophet. A prophet who proclaims that the cup of blessing that we bless is a communion in the blood of Christ, and that the bread that we break is a communion in the body of Christ, is a true prophet.

The fruits of such prophets – that is, their prophecies, and their teachings – are sound and wholesome fruits. They reveal to you the eternally loving heart of God the Father.

They make known to you the condescending love of your incarnate Savior and brother Jesus Christ. Their preaching is the means lovingly used by the Holy Spirit for the creation and preservation of your faith.

Embrace such prophets. Believe their message. Support their ministry.

And on judgment day, Christ will not say to his true prophets, who believed in and served their Lord: “I never knew you; depart from Me.” That’s because in their faithful preaching of Jesus’ gospel, these believing prophets did indeed prophesy in the Lord’s name.

In their faithful baptizing according to Jesus’ institution, these believing prophets did cast out demons in the Lord’s name. In their faithful administration of the sacrament of Jesus’ body and blood, according to the power and authority of Christ’s consecrating Word, these believing prophets did do wonders in the Lord’s name.

God forgives and will forgive their human failings, even as he forgives and will forgive the human failings of all of us. But by the fruits of their prophetic ministry – the Divine Word purely proclaimed and correctly applied – you will know them. And even now you can and do know them. Amen.