October 2, 2011
Pastor Joe Wittwer

The Jesus Revolution
Be discerning
Matthew 7:15-20


Opening and greeting:

Today, we are going to read Jesus warning to watch out for false prophets.  Do you think this is something we need to take seriously?  Are there false prophets today?  If so, can you think of some examples?  After you introduce yourself to someone, ask them what they think about it!  Let’s talk!

Introduction and offering:

This is the Jesus Revolution.  All summer, we have been walking our way through Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount.  We’re almost done; just this Sunday and next!  The Big Idea is that Jesus is not just calling us to a new ethic, but to a new relationship.  “Follow me, and I will change you.”  And that change is described here in the Sermon on the Mount.  If you read the Sermon on the Mount, and all you do is try harder, you have missed the point!  The point is that we need Jesus to be this kind of person, that we are being called into a relationship with Jesus that transforms us.  Follow Jesus and He will change you.

I said last week that the ethical part of the sermon ended at Matthew 7:12, with the Golden Rule.  The rest of the sermon is a series of warnings and calls to action.  Last week, Jesus set before us a choice:

  • Two gates: wide and narrow.
  • Two roads: easy and hard.
  • Two destinies: destruction and life.
  • Two crowds: the many and the few.

He calls us to enter the narrow gate and walk the hard road to life—to follow Jesus on the way of the cross.  It’s not easy, but it’s the way to life, both now and forever.  But there will always be people who will try to dissuade us from the hard way.  Jesus warns us about them:

Matthew 7:15–20 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

Let’s look at three things in this passage: the assumptions Jesus makes, the warning, and the tests.

1. The assumptions: truth matters.

There are two underlying assumptions in this passage:

1. Jesus assumed there were false prophets.

2. Jesus assumed that truth matters.

First, Jesus assumed that there were false prophets.  He wouldn’t have warned us about them if they didn’t exist.  You don’t put a sign on your lawn, “Beware of dog” if you all you have is a puddy cat!  This cat doesn’t look particularly concerned, does he?  Jesus is saying, “beware of false prophets” because they exist and they’re dangerous.  This in fact is a recurring warning not only in Jesus’ teaching, but all through the New Testament.

Matthew 24:10–13 At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, 11 and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. 12 Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, 13 but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.

Matthew 24:24 For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.

Jesus is talking about the end times, which we are in.  We live in the end times.  The end times started when Jesus ascended to heaven 2000 years ago and will end when he returns.  When will that be?  No one knows.  So you have to be ready! 

ILL: Did you ever have a teacher that sprung pop quizzes on you unannounced?  Didn’t you hate that?  You couldn’t get prepared at the last minute; you had stay prepared.  You had to be ready all the time.

That’s how it is with Jesus’ return and the end of the world.  No one knows when, so you better stay ready!  It’s in that context (in which we live) that Jesus warns about false prophets who will try to deceive many people and turn them from their faith. 

2 Timothy 4:3–4 For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4 They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.

Paul warns that people will find teachers who “say what their itching ears want to hear,” and they will turn away from the truth.  As we’ll see in a minute, false prophets in the Old Testament told people what they wanted to hear. 

2 Peter 2:1 But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves.

Peter warns us that false teachers will introduce “destructive heresies”, including denying Jesus, the sovereign Lord who bought them. 

1 John 4:1 Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

John adds his warning about false prophets, and in this letter, he gives three tests to apply: love for people, obedience to God, and belief that Jesus came in the flesh (was both fully God and fully man). 

So Jesus assumed that there would be false prophets and warns us about them, and his followers, the apostles, repeated that warning.  The risk is real, and the stakes are high, and we need to take the warning seriously, because as we’ll see, many people are being misled by the false prophets of our day.

But underneath this is another more fundamental assumption: Jesus assumes that truth matters.  If there are false prophets, there are true prophets, and there is an objective standard by which one can tell the difference.  There is truth and there is falsehood, and Jesus had the courage to point out the difference.  This is very different from the prevailing views in our culture. 

Many people have abandoned the notion of truth; they believe that truth is relative.  If you believe something is true, it is true for you, but not necessarily “the truth” in a universal or absolute sense.  Truth is thus reduced to personal preference, and all competing truth claims are equally valid.  Who is to say that your truth is any better than my truth? 

The absurdity of denying the notion of truth is evident in the following story:

ILL: A college professor began his lecture by saying, “We know that it is impossible to prove anything with absolute certainty.  Therefore, there is no absolute truth.”

A student quickly caught the logical inconsistency and asked, “Is that the absolute truth?” 

The professor explained, “I mean that we can’t be certain about anything.”

The student asked, “Are you certain about that?”

The logical inconsistency is apparent: the very statement that there is no truth is a truth claim.  We deny the reality of truth, but can’t escape it in our language or our lives.  Here’s what C. S Lewis said about this in Mere Christianity:

ILL: “Whenever you find a man who says he doesn’t believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later.  He may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to him he will be complaining, ‘It’s not fair’ before you can say Jack Robinson.”  C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Ch. 1.

When truth is reduced to personal preference, when one truth is as valid as any other truth, then what becomes the highest virtue?  Tolerance.  This is the current state of affairs in our culture.  Tolerance is the highest virtue and value.  To claim that you are right, or know the truth, or to claim that someone else is wrong or his beliefs are false is intolerant.  And intolerance will not be tolerated!  (Another incredible contradiction!)

There is such a thing as truth, and truth matters.  We live in a world of competing truth claims (“this is true”), and we must be discerning.  Some claims are true, some are false.  We must learn to examine these competing truth claims carefully—in John’s words, “test the spirits”—and as we’ll see, Jesus gave us a way to do that. 

Those are the assumptions: truth matters, and there are false prophets.  Here is the warning.

2. The warning: false prophets are deceptive and dangerous.

Matthew 7:15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.”

Watch out!  Beware of false prophets!  Then notice the two things he says about them:

  • They are wolves in sheep’s clothing: they are deceptive. 
  • They are ferocious: they are dangerous. 

In Israel in Jesus’ day, wolves were the natural enemy of sheep and were their most dangerous predator.  Twenty centuries later, wolves are still dangerous to domestic animals.

ILL: Did anyone see the article in Tuesday’s Spokesman about the wolf pack in Oregon?  This was the photo in the paper.  They have a kill order out on some of the wolves.  Why?  They are attacking livestock.

Wolves are dangerous to sheep.  Jesus used this metaphor of sheep and wolves in other places.

John 10:11–13 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.

Jesus, the good shepherd, protects his sheep from wolves.  Later, Paul would use the same metaphor to warn the pastors of the church in Ephesus.

Acts 20:29–30 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.

These “savage wolves” will “distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.”  What does that sound like?  False prophets.  They are deceptive and dangerous.

What is it that makes them so dangerous?  Perhaps the best way to answer that question is to look at the false prophets of the Old Testament.  Let’s look at two examples from Jeremiah.  Jeremiah was a true prophet of the Lord; he prophesied in the years before and after Jerusalem fell to Babylon in 586 BC.  He warned them that the Babylonian army was coming and resistance was futile, and called them to repent and trust God.

Jeremiah 8:10–12 From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit. 11 They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. “Peace, peace,” they say, when there is no peace. 12 Are they ashamed of their detestable conduct? No, they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush.

Notice what Jeremiah says about the false prophets:

  • They are greedy for gain and practice deceit.
  • They do not treat Israel’s wounds as serious.  This is like telling someone with terminal cancer, “You’re ok; you don’t need any treatment.”
  • They promise peace when war and captivity are coming.
  • They have no shame.

Let’s look at one more passage from Jeremiah:

Jeremiah 23:16–17 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you; they fill you with false hopes. They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. 17 They keep saying to those who despise me, ‘The Lord says: You will have peace.’ And to all who follow the stubbornness of their hearts they say, ‘No harm will come to you.’

What did Jeremiah say about the false prophets?

  • They fill you with false hopes. 
  • They are not speaking words from God.
  • They promise peace to those who despise God.
  • They promise no harm will befall those who stubbornly go their own way.

So what made these false prophets so dangerous? They deceived people and kept them from turning to God.  “You’re ok.  You will have peace.  No harm will come to you.”

Does this sound familiar?  Have you heard this before?  Let me freshen them up and put them in contemporary language and see if you recognize any of these false prophets.

  • Sin?  That’s an old-fashioned notion made up by people who want to control you.  You don’t need to worry about that; do what you want.  We each make up our own right or wrong.  There is no such thing as sin.
  • Hell?  No one believes in hell anymore.  Besides, if there is a God, he wouldn’t send anyone to hell.  Don’t worry; you’re ok.
  • I’m ok, you’re ok.  We’re all ok.  All people are basically good.  You don’t need to repent or change—that’s just someone putting a guilt trip on you.
  • Jesus?  He was just a good man trying to point people to God, but there are lots of ways to God.  Find your own way.  It doesn’t have to be Jesus.
  • God?  Science has proven God doesn’t exist.  Our ancestors made up the idea of God to explain the world because they didn’t understand science.  But we know better now.  We don’t need God to explain anything.  God is just an antiquated idea that we’re better off without.  Forget God and live your life.

These voices are all around us, and they are dangerous because they keep us from turning to God.  They lull us to sleep with promises that everything will be ok when we’re facing judgment and death. 

This is why Jesus, and every other author in the New Testament, sounds the warning about false prophets.  They tell us what we want to hear: everything is ok, we’re just fine, no need to change or turn to God.  They promise peace when there is no peace.  They keep us from turning to God.

False prophets are deceptive and dangerous.  They give us a false sense of hope and wellbeing.  We must learn to be discerning.  How can you discern truth from error?  Jesus gives us a test.

3. The test: you will recognize them by their fruit.

Twice Jesus says, “by their fruit you will recognize them.”

ILL: Pop quiz!  (This is just what I was talking about earlier!) What kind of tree is this?

  • Apple.  How can you tell?
  • Orange.  How can you tell?
  • Banana.  How can you tell?
  • Lemon.  How can you tell?
  • Papaya.  How can you tell?
  • Avocado.  How can you tell?
  • Car.  How can you tell?

My hunch is that most of us would have a difficult time identifying many trees, unless we saw the fruit.  The fruit is a dead give-away.

         Jesus said the same thing about false prophets.  What fruit is he referring to? Two things.

         First, the fruit of character and behavior.  Don’t believe everything someone says; watch how they live.  Paul wrote:

Galatians 5:22–23 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

The fruit of the Spirit is Christ-like character and behavior.  The Holy Spirit makes us more like Jesus: more loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, and so on.  This is the fruit we look for: Christ-like character and behavior.

ILL: In 1988 Paul Johnson wrote Intellectuals, a book that examines the lives and credentials of some of the most influential thinkers of the last two centuries, people like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, Ernest Hemingway, Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre. Johnson’s premise is that beginning in the 18th century, these secular thinkers took the place of the clerics, the priests and prophets who guided mankind in ages past, and became themselves the teachers of truth and moral mentors of mankind. 

But are they qualified to guide us and give us advice?  He asks, “How did they run their own lives?  Which what degree of rectitude did they behave to family, friends and associates?  Were they just in their sexual and financial dealings?  Did they tell, and write the truth?”  He answers those questions with a shocking expose of the personal lives of these much-admired thinkers.  Rousseau, for example, whose writings profoundly affected all of modern education, hated children, and abandoned at birth all 5 of his (which he had by his mistress whom he admitted he never loved nor cared for). 

Johnson’s conclusion?  “Beware intellectuals!  Not merely should they be kept well away from the levers of power, they should also be objects of particular suspicion when they seek to offer collective advice.” 

What has Paul Johnson done?  Just what Jesus said to do: discerned truth from falsehood, and carefully chosen who he would follow.  How?  He recognized them by their fruits.  Their own moral failings made them unfit to be moral guides for the rest of us.

Let me remind you that authentic leaders, genuine believers who speak for God, can fail.  If they are authentic, they admit it when they fail, they repent and make restitution, and then get going in the right direction again.  Jesus isn’t suggesting here that we reject every leader who is less than perfect, but that we reject any leader who isn’t genuine and true, and leading from a moral center. 

Quote from the Didache.

Don’t believe everything you hear.  Check out the source.  What kind of person is he or she?  Do their lives back up their words?  Do their lives commend them as believable?

The first fruit is character and behavior.  The second fruit is their words, their teaching itself.

Matthew 12:33–37 “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. 35 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. 36 But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”

What fruit does Jesus point to in this passage?  Words.  The good man speaks good words; the evil man speaks evil words.  We must not only look at a person’s life, but listen carefully to what they say and see if it is true.  We’ve got to learn to think critically and carefully, and not be gullible.

I love what Luke wrote about the Bereans in Acts 17.  Paul visited the city of Berea on one of his missionary journeys.  Here was Luke’s comment:

Acts 17:11 Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.

They examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. 

This is one reason why we give you this Bible bookmark and urge you to read the Bible every day.  Soak in God’s word—all of it—then you will know the truth, and when you hear something that is off, you’ll recognize it. 

ILL: Do you how they train people to recognize counterfeit money?  They have them handle and study the real thing until the know it so well, they can spot the counterfeit immediately. 

Read your Bible.  Learn it, love it, live it!  Like the Bereans, examine the Scriptures every day.