Beware of False Teachers
Eighth Sunday After Trinity
August 10th/11th, 2014
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
The World Health Organization released a statement this week declaring that the Ebola virus is a health concern of international proportions. The last time there was a concern of this magnitude was the H1N1 flu scare in 2009. Countries around the globe are being encouraged to take proper precautions to protect their population from the virus. People are being urged to take proper precautions to guard themselves and their loved ones against possible infection. But many of us already go out of our way to protect ourselves from infection. As a pastor I spend a fair bit of time walking down hospital halls. As I’m sure all the doctors and nurses and other hospital employees here today can tell you, there are hand sanitizers everywhere. There is typically one outside every patient room so that you can sanitize your hands on the way in and on the way out. That way you don’t bring in any germs or take any out. They’re by the elevators and entrance doors too because we take infection seriously and know how to protect ourselves from it.
We make it a point to protect ourselves from all manner of dangers. People with allergies carry epi pens. People with asthma carry inhalers. It is second nature for many of us to buckle up when we get into a car. We have identity theft protection and fraud alert to protect our finances. Fear of second hand smoke has led to the banning of smoking in public places. Certain building materials like asbestos and lead paint have been outlawed because of their potential dangers. The point is, when we identify potential dangers, we tend to act accordingly in protecting ourselves from those dangers.
But do we act the same way toward spiritual dangers? Are we as vigilant when it comes to things that are spiritually harmful? Do we take seriously Jesus’ warning at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, the warning we heard just a few moments ago? “Beware of false prophets,” Jesus says, for although they look harmless enough, like sheep, they are in fact ravenous wolves who are seeking to devour you. And today’s reading is not the only time Jesus issues this warning. In fact, interestingly enough, if you look at the way the word “beware” is used in the New Testament, the warning is almost always against spiritual dangers. Jesus doesn’t go out of his way to tell us to beware the sicknesses or diseases of this life. We learn that for ourselves pretty easily. Neither does he make it a repeated thing to tell us to beware the lust or greed or pride that might creep in and distract us. Again, the danger of sin is one that we know all too well already. No, the vast majority of warnings in the New Testament are warnings against false teachers and the spiritual dangers they present.
Jesus is so concerned with false teachers that he warns us in Matthew 10: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell.” The reason false teaching is so deadly is because it has eternal consequences. Last week we reflected on the fact that the miracle of faith is greater than the miracles of healing that Jesus performed because the miracles of healing were temporary but the miracle of faith is eternal. We are called today to evaluate the threats around us according to the same standard. Do not fear the disease that can ravage your body, for you will receive a new body in paradise. Far more important is to get to paradise, and far more dangerous is the false teacher who can get in the way. That is the one we should fear.
False teachers are so dangerous because they’re difficult to recognize. They are, as Jesus put it, dressed as sheep. The New Testament and Old Testament alike consistently say that God’s children are sheep and Jesus is our Good Shepherd. The false teacher is dangerous because he appears as a sheep even though he is a wolf. The picture on your bulletin cover might be a bit comical, but it gets the point across. By saying that the false prophet appears as a sheep, Jesus is saying that the false teacher will appear as a Christian to the outward eye. That’s what makes him so dangerous, and it’s a point of tremendous importance. It is certainly important to recognize the dangers that the world presents. There are countless places where the philosophy and ideals of the world are not in line with our Lord and his Word. It is so important to be careful what we watch, read, and listen to so that we are not blindly shaped according to the world’s standard instead of our Lord’s. But the teachers of the world are wolves in wolves’ clothing. It ought to come as no surprise that the voice of Hollywood and Washington is not the voice of Christ. When those voices speak things that contradict our Lord’s Word, we must be on guard so that we don’t buy into the deception. But we shouldn’t be surprised when they endorse things condemned in our Lord’s Word. Their influence is dangerous, but not as dangerous as those who would do the same thing in the name of Christ. Jesus warns us to beware of the wolves in sheep’s clothing, for they are far more dangerous and far more deadly.
It is sad how many churches around the world use the name Christian while at the same time rejecting or contradicting what our Lord teaches in his Word. These are the wolves in sheep’s clothing – those who would call themselves Christian yet openly teach that Jesus is not divine, that the ten commandments are not all binding any longer, that our Lord’s Word on marriage and sexuality is no longer true, that abortion on demand is somehow acceptable in God’s eyes, or any other false teaching that is spread under the name Christian. Jesus says that not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” will inherit the kingdom of heaven. That means that not everyone who uses the name Christian and does things in the name of Jesus will inherit the kingdom of heaven, even if those things as marvelous as casting out demons, or in our day, feeding the poor and sending missionaries into the jungle. Many are nothing more than wolves in sheep’s clothing. Their godly appearance is what makes them so dangerous. This is what we are to be on the lookout for – and we recognize it by the fruit it bears. Thistles don’t grow strawberries. You can call an apple tree whatever you want, but it will be shown for what it truly is when the apples start to grow. Similarly, you can call anything an apple tree, but it will be shown false when the oranges or peaches appear on the branches. Simply calling something Christian or picking it off the shelf in the Christian section of the book store does not make it Christian. You will know it by its fruit.
This is why we must not only be aware of the fruit of other teachers, but we must constantly be watching what we ourselves are teaching. In honest repentance, we must acknowledge that left to ourselves we would become wolves. Our sinful flesh is always looking to put itself in the place of God. Our sinful minds cannot understand the truth of the Spirit, for it is Spiritually discerned. In humble confession, we must cling to the clear teaching of our Lord’s Word above all earthly opinions. We must remain firmly rooted and growing in our Lord’s Word of Law and Gospel. The truth of Scripture will drive us to our knees in repentance. The truth of Scripture will show us our sin. It will not allow us to sit in here and think we’re better than anyone else. We are the ones who have sinned in thought, word, and deed. We are the ones who have not acknowledged God for who he is, but instead have worshiped our careers or our social life or our vacation time as if they were the most important thing in our life. We are the ones who have disrespected the authorities God has placed around us, smearing their reputation and calling it politics and patriotism. We are the ones who have murdered others with our hatred, raped them with the click of a mouse, and assaulted their reputation while hidden safely behind a keyboard or smart phone. The true teaching of our Lord’s Word doesn’t promise me my best life now, it shows me for the hell-deserving sinner that I am. It leaves me no room to escape. It is like fire, says Jeremiah, and like a hammer that breaks the rock of my self-righteousness into pieces.
But once I am crushed, the truth of our Lord’s word restores me to newness of life with the sweet healing balm of the Gospel. The fruit that is truth is the whole counsel of God. It not only crushes me in my sin, it crushes me in order that it might raise me up with the good news of salvation. It puts the life of Jesus under the microscope so that when God looks down the barrel and examines my life he sees only the perfection of his Son. It covers my sin in the blood of Jesus given and shed for me, and declares me righteous. And it is all given to me as a gift. All that is left for me is to acknowledge it, to believe it true. My believing doesn’t make it true, it is already an accomplished fact of history. Rather, the gift of faith confesses that what was done in history was done for me.
Any teacher that does not put these two realities before our eyes is but a wolf in sheep’s clothing. They may have wonderful things to say about family life and parenting, but that’s just wool. If the truth of sin and salvation is obscured, the teaching is poison. The teacher may have wonderful things to say about financial management or time management, but that’s just wool. If the truth of sin and salvation is obscured then the message is poison. The teacher may speak a message that I can identify with on a political or social level, but that’s just wool. If the truth of sin and salvation is obscured, the message is poison. If the wolf wasn’t wearing sheep’s clothing, he would be easy to spot. But he’s not easy to spot. He speaks things that soothe our desires and scratch our itching ears. Beware the wolf in sheep’s clothing, and listen instead to the voice of the Good Shepherd.
Students and skeptics often ask in jest, “Why would Eve talk to a snake? Didn’t she know something was up when the snake started talking to her?” It’s a somewhat silly question, but the same question can be asked of the voices we listen to today. The sheep hear the voice of their shepherd. They listen to him. They know him. Don’t listen to the voice of other sheep, for sheep don’t talk. If a sheep is telling you something that the shepherd didn’t, then it’s not a sheep at all. It’sreally a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Instead of listening to the sheep, hear the voice of your shepherd. Come to the services of our Lord’s house and hear his Law and Gospel proclaimed to you, for you won’t get that from the world. Come to study our Lord’s Word with other Christians so that you can learn to better pick out the voice of your Shepherd amid all those shouting for your attention. Be diligent in prayer and private devotion so that you learn to recognize the voice of the Shepherd in your life.
Beware the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Beware the false teachers. Protect yourself not with hand sanitizer or Life Lock. Rather arm yourselves for battle by diving head first into our Lord’s Word. Swim in it. Study it. Pray it. Live it. Confess it. That is your protection against the anger of false teachers, for the Word of our Lord is not mere information on a page, it is the life-giving breath of God that sustains you in your walk with him. It is his voice speaking to you each day to convict you in your sin and let you rejoice in the gift of your forgiveness. It is in that confession and forgiveness, in that time spent at the feet of your Shepherd, that you will learn to recognize his voice, and by that discernment, the Holy Spirit will establish you in the true faith unto life everlasting.
 Matthew 10:28
 Jeremiah 23:29