Beware of False Prophets

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Last summer Hayley and I went to a church on my sabbatical where the teacher said this: “the real scandal of Jesus’ death on the cross was that at no point could he get down from it to prove his innocence to the people”. And that set alarm bells going off in my head. Because the real scandal of the cross is the fact that Jesus creator of our world and Lord of everything, did have the power to get down from the cross but, instead he chose to stay on it to die for the sins of the world. That’s the scandal.

And as the sermon went on that comment became one of several that just didn’t seem right. The Bible wasn’t open. In fact, it hadn’t been read at any point in the service. It certainly wasn’t being explained clearly, and perhaps above all, what was being taught seemed to be through the lens of the teacher’s own experiences rather than the word of God.

I don’t know the person that preached that sermon. I don’t know the church we were in well, but it was a clear reminder to me that not everyone who teaches in church (and who therefore claims to be speaking from God) clearly teaches and values his word, the Bible. And when that happens the danger is that what’s being taught is false.

From Matthew 7.13 onwards Jesus begins to wrap up his great Sermon on the Mount with a series of warnings – and they help us today see what it looks like to live for Jesus, and what it looks like to live against him. Last week we saw there are only two ways to live; There’s the path of following Jesus, which is narrow (because it’s through him alone) and it’s hard because it’s a life that won’t always be easy, but it’s the right and the best path. The path that leads to eternal life. But there’s another other path. It’s easier to walk along, but it’s the path of rejecting Jesus and his rule over our lives. That path leads to destruction.

So, in our passage this evening Jesus tells us that there are two kinds of prophets (or, we can say, teachers) of God’s word. Those who live for him, and those who live against him (and we need to watch out for those teachers who are against him). Look at Jesus’ first four words in the beginning of Matthew 7.15:

Beware of false prophets…

So, let’s ask for God for his help with that now:

Father God, please help us this evening to see the danger of false teachers in our church. For Jesus’ sake, Amen.

There’s a house near where I grew up back home with a large handpainted sign outside saying ‘Beware: Dog!’ I always felt sorry for the postman because it’s pretty obvious isn’t it, if you approach that house you’ve got to watch out for presumably whatever beast would come hurtling towards you. I’m picturing a dangerous Alsatian, not a harmless Chihuahua. Beware. You’d be foolish if you read that sign and you weren’t on your guard. So we need to beware of false teachers. That what Jesus warns us. But spotting false teachers won’t always be easy, because – Matthew 7.15 they:

…come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.

‘Sheep’ is Bible picture language for Christians, and you don’t have to be a David Attenborough enthusiast watching his DVDs on repeat to know that wolves are natural enemys of sheep. If a wolf were to appear the flock of sheep would scatter, but it would be a different story if a wolf looked like a sheep. Then it could integrate into the flock without being noticed, and when the sheep are nice and relaxed the wolf would pounce, devour and destroy because that’s what wolves do. So, Jesus is showing us the incredible danger of false teachers; they destroy churches, they lead Christians on the path to destruction and away from God. These false teachers are respected members of the church family, in positions of authority. They have people’s respect. They say helpful, even right, things. In so many ways they look the part, but inwardly they’re hearts are far from God.

Jesus tells us what to do about this danger – he tells us watch out. But how do we watch out for something he also tells us is hard to spot? Again, Jesus tells us. Reading from Matthew 7.16-18:

You will recognise them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thorn bushes? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.

(Sheep and wolves, now fruit and trees, normally it’s generally frowned upon to mix your metaphors, but I’m not going to argue with the creator of them!) Fruit means the product (or result) of the Holy Spirit living inside Christians transforming them to be more like Jesus. So it’s not what we might wrongly view as ‘ministry success’ – lots of people coming to trust in Jesus, lots of growing Christians at church, and so on. That’s God’s work. God decides that. What Jesus has in mind here is the fruitfulness of faithfulness to the gospel. In other words, Jesus is saying “look at what’s produced from a Christian teacher’s life and their ministry to others and eventually you will see what they stand for”. Because a genuine Christian will have the Holy Spirit living within them transforming them to be more like Jesus. And so, the way that they live will match their conviction that Jesus is the one true saviour and Lord.

And a true Christian teacher will teach that wonderful life-giving truth to others, regardless of what the results might be. All of that is good fruit that comes from God and his work in us. But a false teacher won’t have those deep-down convictions about Jesus, or about his word. And Jesus says here, sooner or later, in how they live, or in what they teach, it’ll become clear that their heart is far from God. Notice he repeats this in Matthew 7.20. Initially false teachers are hard to spot, but there’s a certainty that eventually we will be able to see them for who they really are. And the test is this: how does the way that the teacher lives, and the way they teach measure up to God’s standard in the Bible?

1. WE NEED TO LOOK AT OUR TEACHER’S LIVES.

Are they a good example of obeying God’s word? Or, are their lives defined by disobeying it? It’s not right for a preacher to teach love and forgiveness, but to be constantly harsh and angry with their family. We know it’s not that it’s right for a minister to run off and have an affair with another woman. Or that story from a few years ago, we’re appalled by that minister who embezzled £24,000 of church funds. And, despite what our society and some within the church say, the Bible makes clear it’s wrong for a minister to think it’s fine to live as a practising homosexual.

But it won’t always be as clear cut as this – the wolves are wearing sheep’s clothing. And, so we need to ask ourselves: do we see good fruit in the lives of our teachers? To use some examples that Jesus gives us right back at the beginning of Matthew 5, at the beginning of this Sermon on the Mount: Do you see your leaders hungering for God’s righteousness? Do you see them mourning over their own sin? Do you see them recognising spiritual poverty? Jesus says every true Christian will bear good fruit for all to see.

Of course, we’ll see sin and inconsistency in any Christian’s life including Bible teachers. Every Christian is a work in progress. What Jesus means here is a settled, unrepentant, unchanged attitude to God’s word and that should set off alarm bells in our heads. It’s a sign of bad fruit, says Jesus. It’s the sign of a false teacher.

So, we must be careful that we’re not dazzled by things like charm, charisma, clothing, learning, authority. You know, being a Bishop doesn’t make you faithful to the gospel. True Christian character is a life shaped by love of Jesus and obedience to his word. It’s what lies underneath the fleece, in the heart, that really counts.

Here at JPC we try our best to handle God’s word carefully.We try our best to take it seriously but we need you to hold us to it in how we live. As younger leader I need that and so does every one of us who teaches the word of God. In Matthew 7.19 Jesus tells us what the terrible fate for unrepentant false teachers will be:

Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

Good trees flourish and bear good fruit. Bad trees are only good for firewood. There are only two ways to live. You can’t sit on the fence. These verses don’t tell us to be cynical of every Christian teacher that we listen to. They don’t tell us to go searching for false teachers but they urge us to examine the lives of our teachers and ask are they seeking to live out the word of God? You see, God will judge false teachers. So, if we see consistent, settled, sin in the lives of our teachers we must prayerfully, we must gently challenge it. For their sake, for their eternal sake and for the sake of the rest of the flock. And this is a reminder to us as Christians because we all teach the Bible in some way, that we must all be marked by the integrity of trying to obey it ourselves.

2. WE NEED TO LOOK AT OUR TEACHER’S MESSAGE

What do they say? Is the Bible what is taught? Do they communicate the truth of the gospel? (That Jesus is the only saviour, and that to be saved from our rejection of him we need to trust in his forgiveness, to turn from our sin and make him the Lord of our lives). Do they teach that any other way of life leads only down the broad path of destruction?

Because, sadly, there’s false teaching that obscures the narrow gate of following Jesus. Perhaps through human-centred teaching. Any teaching that doesn’t stick to the Bible isn’t teaching about God. It’s teaching about a false made-up god, and more often than not, a false way of following him. So, it’s important to have our Bibles open and to check what’s being taught is from the word of God.
Don’t just believe it because a teacher says it. Whoever they are, whatever their name is. Believe it because you can say “I can see where that comes from. I can see that’s what God’s word is saying”.

There was a terrible report not so long ago found that a quarter of Church of England ministers don’t believe in the Trinity (God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and that almost half don’t believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus and that he is the only way to salvation. To deny these truths is to say that what God reveals about himself in the Bible is wrong. So, who’s wrong? God? Or these teachers?

In some situations, the narrow gate is missing by what isn’t taught; Sin, judgement, things like that that are never mentioned. A minister I know once moved to a new church to quickly find that the minister before him had never taught the Old Testament. That’s brushing three quarters of the Bible under the carpet. Why? Too many tricky bits, too many bits about sin, too many bits about God’s anger. That minister, he just didn’t want to preach that. And it actually turned out he just ignored any bit of the Bible he didn’t like. But that was false teaching. Because it created a make-believe God, and obscured much of what God says about our need for his love and his mercy. Or perhaps difficult parts of the Bible aren’t taught faithfully- in other words, what’s said obscures the simple message of the text. I recently came across a sermon online, a challenging passage on Jesus’ teaching on judgement, but this sermon was treating that passage as somehow being all about Christian social action.

Some parts of the Bible are hard to understand and some parts of it are hard to accept but that doesn’t mean they aren’t true. It doesn’t mean they aren’t necessary and God has given them to us because we need them. If you’re not yet a Christian this evening, then perhaps this explains a little of why the church so often gives so many mixed messages and seemingly believes so many different things. If you want to discover more about God then make sure you learn about the true God, the true Jesus of the Bible. And we’d love to help you do more of that and you might like to visit whyjesus.org.uk for some resources and some help.

There’s also false teaching that claims that the wide gate does not lead to destruction. So, imagine a mountain with lots of different paths up it. Some people claim that every single one of those paths lead to God. That is going along with our culture, which says that there cannot be one, exclusive, truth claim. And that believing that there is one God and one path, is intolerant and offensive. But Jesus says, “you’re either for me, or you’re against me, which is it going to be?”

Some teaching softens what Jesus says by claiming that hell and judgement are only reserved for “really bad” people. And most of don’t place ourselves in that category. So, we’ll be ok. Yet we’ve all rejected Jesus. Unless we turn and follow him we can’t expect to have eternal life with him, and we’ll experience what it’s like to life without him. And it’s not just wrong, it’s actually unloving, to teach people anything else. Because Jesus’ coming judgement is a reality and the wide gate leads to destruction.

And, lastly, there’s teaching that claims that the narrow gate is far broader than Jesus intended it to be.That’s the kind of false teaching that implies that people don’t have to change, or give up much, about the way that they live in order to follow Jesus. It’s the kind of teaching that doesn’t show the radical way of life that Jesus says in this grest Sermon on the Mount should mark his people out. The kind of teaching which doesn’t tell us that our sinful anger is wrong, or that it’s time we got our lust under control. Or that it’s wrong not to keep our word to others, that it’s time we forgave that grudge we held against someone. Or that it’s futile to accumulate more and more and more for ourselves, when one day our money will be worth nothing. It’s the kind of teaching that proclaims that Jesus is our saviour, without also clear that he is our Lord, whose example must be followed and whose word must be obeyed.

A Lord who is worth giving up anything and anyone to follow. A Lord who knows that we will continue to be imperfect, that we will continue to sin, but who helps us through his Spirit, and urges us, to be perfect - just like he is. Because he loves us enough to not leave us as we are. That Lord is worth giving up anything for and that’s the whole point. These teachers think they have a better hope than the wonderful gospel of Jesus. They think they have something better than God himself, so they mess around with his word. How we need to pray for them, for as deceivers they also have been deceived. They have exchanged what they think is better for God’s word which is right and true. And in doing so they preach only what is false.

So, in response we need to do all that we can to stick to the truth of God’s word. And we need to beware of false teachers. Let’s pray:

Lord, we pray that you would keep us faithful to your word, faithful to your truth in all that we say and all that we do. Please protect our church from dangerous false teachers. Help spot them, help us protect others from them, help us challenge them and point them to you and your truth. We pray all this for Jesus’ Sake, Amen.

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